This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Bryant Manning about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 9.1-6, Psalm 30, Revelation 5.11-14, John 21.1-19). Bryant is the director of the Wesley Foundation at FSU. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the Greek exegesis of Mark, chapel shadows, resurrection reminders, a hopeful ecclesiology, little deaths, goodness and mercy, church camp, resolution, the great ordeal, unbelief, and prayerful discernment. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Grace Like Rain
Grace and peace to each of you in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit,
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Taylor Mertins and, like Jon and Randy, I am a pastor and I serve Raleigh Court United Methodist Church in Roanoke, VA.
But I grew up in this church, and Tyler was one of my oldest friends.
I am someone who works in the world of words, and I must confess that preparing these words was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
I have 1,001 stories I could tell about Tyler, many of which would not be appropriate to tell in church, and that’s saying something coming from a pastor.
I met Tyler for the first time at my 6th birthday party. My mother had received word that a new family had moved in around the block and she informed me that a boy I never met would be coming to my party because what better way could a child be introduced to a neighborhood.
Let me tell you, that’s an incredible way to parent.
Anyway, I vividly remember this dark haired boy with a cast from his shoulder to his wrist jumping on the bounce house and using his cast to push all the other kids around.
We were fast friends.
There’s a ten year period of my life where I can’t really remember doing anything without Tyler being involved somehow. Our families went on vacation together every year, our first sleepovers were at each others houses, we were together all the time.
Our mothers will tell this story that, one time, they brought all us kids over to Collingwood park and while they stood by the playground with our younger siblings, Tyler and I were running around in the field. And all seemed well, until they really looked at us and they realized we were beating the hell out of each other. So they rushed out into the field and pulled us apart, and the next day were were playing together again.
That is to say: I always felt like Tyler was more of a brother than a friend.
Another confession – during that same ten year period, if I ever got in trouble and some concerned adult asked for my name and my parents name, I never hesitated to say “My name is Tyler Gray, and my parents are Larry and Janet Gray.”
Tyler got in plenty of enough trouble on his own, but Larry and Janet, you probably received at least a few phone calls that were about me and not Tyler.
There are things we did in life that I know we did only because the other one did it. Tyler and I were in cub scouts together and we came to this church for a time on Sunday afternoons to earn our God and Me badge, we went through confirmation together and knelt at this altar in order to respond to God’s grace and mercy, both of which I am sure Tyler did because I did it.
Similarly, Tyler enrolled in German when we were in high school just as I did, and I know for a fact that Tyler never learned a single word. I know he learned nothing because I helped him cheat on every single test and even when he was called upon to stand and respond to our teacher’s questions Auf Deutsch, I would whisper the answer to him and he always answered with a smile on his face.
And it went both ways; I am sure that I signed up to play Ft. Hunt baseball, basketball, and lacrosse because Tyler did. I listened to a lot of punk music in middle school only because Tyler talked about it all the time. I even used to wake up early every morning before school so that I could ride my bike to the Gray’s house and then walk up the hill to ride the bus with Ty.
I wanted to spend as much time with him as I possibly could.
Because I loved him, and he loved me.
The latter part of high school was rough for Tyler and he went through a lot. So much so that there was a time that we didn’t speak to one another. But when we finally reconnected, one of the first things he told me was that he met a girl on the ski trip.
Sure you did, I thought.
But then he kept talking about Laura, and spent time with Laura, and Tyler started to change, for the better. He became a version of himself that I think he always wanted. In you he found himself. You were the light in his darkness. Your marriage and your girls are a testament to who Tyler became.
He loved you, and you loved him. What a gift.
Larry, Janet, Corey, B, Lauren – you loved Tyler too. You loved the hell out of him. You were patient with him, you were forgiving, you were present.
And he loved you.
No family is perfect, just as no marriage is perfect and no friendship is perfect. But you were all for Tyler in a way that he needed.
There’s this bit right smack dab in the middle of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome that, for me, I can’t read without thinking about Tyler. Paul has been riffing on the wonders of God’s love and it crescendos up to this remarkable declaration: I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
What makes such a statement so profound is the fact that all those things are constantly trying to separate us from one another and from God. Life, at times, is a seemingly endless battle between where we are and where we should be or want to be and, no matter what we do, we can’t get there. And then Paul shouts through the centuries, rattling our souls, with the reminder that there’s nothing we can do to make God love us any more, or any less. Nothing can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go.
And yet, the pain of life can sting like nothing else.
None of us will ever know or understand what happened on Sunday. But today is Good Friday, and if you’ve ever spent time in church you’ll know there really isn’t anything good about today. Churches across the world will gather to worship the King of kings who rules from the arms of the cross. Today is the day we remember Christ’s death.
And, notably, in two of the Gospel accounts Jesus’ final words are, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The incarnate One cries out with his final breaths feeling completely alone, isolated, and abandoned. The Messiah meets his end feeling like he has nothing left.
We will never know what Tyler felt, but Christ does.
And even in death, Jesus isn’t forsaken.
In three days God gives him back to us.
The promise of Easter is that, one day, we will all feast at the supper of the Lamb with Tyler. We will gather at the table anew when there will be no mourning and no crying.
But that day is not today. Today we weep and we mourn because Tyler is gone.
Sometimes, I fear, we’re too noisy around people who are suffering, trying to make things okay with our words. Nothing will make this okay. What we do need is presence, we need one another.
So it is my prayer that, in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead that we hold tight to each other. That we give thanks to the Lord who gave Tyler to us. Amen.
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
Fleming Rutledge, patron saint of the Crackers & Grape Juice podcast, has often waxed lyrical about the need for preachers to proclaim the Word rather than explain the Word. Explanation often leads to exhortation; the Bible says this so we have to do that. But the Good News is an announcement that God has come into the world and we now live in the light of that in-breaking.
In other words, the gospel is a story – it is the story of God’s people Israel which culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The gospel is not a program, or a set of beliefs, or a collection of rules, or an explanation of how to wind up in the right place when you die.
The gospel is a story, in fact it is the story.
And preachers do well to tell the story, rather than explain it.
Therefore, here just a few days before Palm Sunday and Holy Week, here is one preacher’s attempt to tell the story of Jesus’ last days before the cross and resurrection…
It was early in the morning when Jesus sent two of his disciples to a village to find a suitable farm animal: a donkey. The time had come to enter the holy city of Jerusalem for Passover, a time when the city’s population would balloon up to 200,000 for the celebration. On a Sunday morning, the crowds gathered with palm branch and shouts of “Hosanna!” they placed their cloaks on the road as a sign of their devotion to the arriving king, and Jesus entered Jerusalem.
At the same time, on the other side of the city, Pontius Pilate (the Roman Governor of Judea) entered with at least 1,000 soldiers demonstrating the power of the empire.
One arrived on a donkey, the other arrived on a battle horse.
With the city coming into focus, Jesus began to cry. He looked over the temple and the people of God and he wept.
And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
On Monday Jesus made his way to the Temple with countless other Jews. With the triumphant and parodic entry the day before, all eyes were on this so-called Messiah. As his feet walked over holy ground, Jesus encountered the moneylenders and changers who set up shop in the temple courtyard. They were profiting off those who traveled great distances to make their ritual sacrifices and boosted their prices in anticipation of economic gain.
Jesus, who spent the better part of three years berating the elite for taking advantage of the last, least, lost, little, and dead, became incensed when he saw the poor being ripped off in the name of God. He therefore walked straight over to the tables, lifted them off the ground, and went into a full blown temple tantrum. He declared for all to hear: “This is my Father’s house and you’ve made it into a den of robbers!”
The elite and the powerful now had their eyes set on Jesus. It was one thing to have a crowd with palm branches welcoming a poor rabbi into the city, but it was another thing entirely when he disrupted the status quo particularly when it came to the economic practices of the Temple. The leaders started looking for a way to discredit him, or remove him completely.
And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
On Tuesday, Jesus once again entered the Temple and he began to teach. If people were excited to see him enter the city, they were now even more eager for a chance to hear and see the One who had been making waves in Galilee, the One who flipped the tables the day before.
While he was teaching the Pharisees and the religious leaders began interrupting and demanded to know from whom Jesus received such authority.
And Jesus, who used parables to teach his disciples and followers, responded to their accusations with head scratching stories about mustard seeds and prodigal sons and kingly banquets. Over and over he used examples to show how those in the places of authority had lost sight of their responsibility and he labeled them hypocrites, snakes, and broods of vines.
They tried to trap him in his words, but he continued to point to the in-breaking kingdom of God.
And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
On Wednesday Jesus left the arena of the Temple and continued his teaching on the Mount of Olives. Some of his disciples made comments about the glory of the Temple and Jesus responded with talk of destruction. He revealed images of God’s cosmic plan for the world made manifest in himself, and he called for his disciples to stay vigilant.
He continued to speak his parabolic utterances and even offered a sermon describing the great inversion of all things.
His presence and proclamations continued to threaten those in power and they grew afraid.
And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
On Thursday Jesus continued his preaching and teaching until he retreated away with the twelve for their observance of Passover. While sitting at the table they remembered God’s mighty acts for the people Israel as they were delivered from slavery to sin and death into the Promised Land. But before the supper was finished, Jesus did something rather radical. He took a loaf of bread, gave thanks to God, broke it, and gave it to his friends while saying, “This is my body, I’m giving it for you.” Later, he took the cup, gave thanks to God, and gave it to his friends while saying, “This is my blood, and I’m pouring it out for you and the world.”
He knew one of his disciples at the table would shortly betray him to the authorities, and he offered him his body and blood anyway.
Later in the evening they went to the garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus urged his disciples to stay awake while he prayed. He knelt on the ground and ended his prayer by saying, “Lord, with you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want. Let your will be done.”
At the conclusion of the prayer, Judas arrived with soldiers. They grabbed and arrested Jesus while the disciples fled into the distance.
And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
On Friday Jesus was brought to the Roman leader Pontius Pilate. The religious authorities demanded Jesus’ execution by crucifixion, but Pilate could find no fault with Jesus. Pilate then gave the gathered crowds a choice: they could free a rabble rouser named Barabbas or the messianic Jesus of Nazareth.
They chose Barabbas.
Soldiers whipped and beat Jesus nearly to the point of death and then, to mock him, they placed a robe on his shoulder and a crown of thorns on his head. They forced Jesus to carry a cross, his own instrument of death, up to a place called The Skull.
The crowds berated him from either side of the road, “If you really are the Messiah, save yourself!” “Where are all your disciples now!” “Some King of the Jews you are!”
When he made it to the top of Golgotha, the soldiers nailed his hands and feet to the cross and they hung him high to die. With some of his final breaths Jesus offered a prayer that has haunted the world ever since, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
With two thieves on either side hanging from their own cross, while some of his disciples watched from a distance, Jesus died.
And there was evening and there was morning, the final week.
And then, three days later, God gave him back to us. But that’s another story for another day.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge my with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
In the strange new world of the Bible the greatest triumph, the pinnacle of all moments, is Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Easter. But Easter is not the “happy ending” of a fairytale. It’s not, “despite all the effort of the powers and the principalities, everyone lives happily ever after.”
There’s no resurrection without crucifixion.
But that’s also why there are far more people in church on Easter than on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Easter, for all of its wonder and all of its joy, is only the beginning of a new reality in which the entry point is, in fact, suffering.
Contrary to the cliche aphorisms of the so-called property gospel – if you pray hard enough, God will make you healthy and wealth – struggle is deeply embedded in the faith. It’s why Jesus warns about the cost of discipleship, constantly. It’s why Paul writes about suffering, constantly.
Struggles are present in the life of faith because, when push comes to shove, we usually look out for ourselves at the expense of our neighbors. Paul puts it this way: None of us is righteous. No, not one.
We simply can’t keep the promises we make, let alone the promises that God commanded us to keep. It doesn’t take much of a glance on social media or on the news to see, example after examples, of our wanton disregard for ourselves and even for ourselves.
The old prayer book refers to us, even the do gooders who come to an Ash Wednesday service, as miserable offenders.
And yet (!), God remains steadfast with us in the midst of our inability to be good.
That’s one of the most profound miracles of the strange new world of the Bible, and it is a miracle. That ragtag group of would be followers we call the apostles, who betray, abandon, and deny Jesus, they fail miserably and it is to them that the risen Jesus returns in the resurrection.
They were transfigured by the Transfigured One, and their journey of faith began in failure.
And so it is with us, even today. It is through our brokenness, our shattered souls, that God picks up the pieces to make something new – something even more beautiful than who were were prior to the recognition of our brokenness.
There is an ancient Japanese art form that will be shaping our Lenten observance this year at the church – Kintsugi. The story goes that, centuries ago, a disagreement broke out among an emperor and one of his servants which led to a tea pot being smashed into pieces. The emperor threatened to punish the servant but an artisan intervened and promised to make something of the nothing.
A gold binding agent was used by the artist to restore the broken vessel, and in so doing the artist brought to a new newness.
On the front of your bulletins you can see an example of this art form that was made with a broken cross – the gold ribbon brings the cross back together and it becomes more than it was prior to its cracks and fissures.
Like the Kintsugi master, Jesus renders us into a new newness. Jesus comes not to fix us, but to admire us in our potential and to help us recognize beauty even in, and precisely because of, our brokenness.
In church speak we call it redemption.
Psalm 51 had marked the season of Lent for as long as Christians have observed this particular season. It is a penitential psalm – a psalm that expresses sorrow for sin.
And yet, the psalm does not begin with a confession of sin – it begins with a request for forgiveness: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.”
That might not seem like much of a distinction, but it implies that the psalmist knows they have something worth confessing and that if the psalmist is to be helped at all then the sins must be taken away completely but someone else.
It means the psalmist really knows the condition of their, and our, condition. We all do things we know we shouldn’t do, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do.
Some us are are pretty good at pushing that all aside and rationalizing the things we do or leave undone. But at some point or another the guilt begins to trickle in and we lay awake at night unable to do much of anything under the knowledge of who we really are.
But the psalmist sees it all quite differently.
Somehow, the psalmist knows that forgiveness has come even before the sin occurred.
The psalmist knows that God is the God of mercy.
For us, people entering the season of Lent, we are compelled to proclaim the truth that we are justified not after we confess our sins, but right smack dab in the middle of them. At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, God proves God’s love toward us that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, which includes everyone since Jesus has taken all upon himself in and on the cross.
The challenge then, for us, isn’t about whether or not God will forgive us.
The challenge is whether or not we can confess the condition of our condition.
That’s why Ash Wednesday is so important and so difficult. It is a time set apart to begin turning back to God who first turned toward us. It is a remarkable opportunity to reflect on what we’re doing with our lives right now and how those lives resonate with the One who makes something beautiful out of something broken.
Therefore, Ash Wednesday inaugurates the season of honesty:
We are dust and to dust we shall return.
We are broken and are in need of the divine potter to do for us that which we cannot do for ourselves.
Judgment comes first to the household of God, so wrote Peter in an epistle to the early church. We, then, don’t exist to show how wrong the world is in all its trespassed, but instead we exist to confess that we know the truth of who we are all while knowing what the Truth incarnate was, and is, willing to do for us.
We can’t fix ourselves. In any other place and in an other institution and around any other people that is unmitigated bad news. But here, in the church, it’s nothing but Good News. It’s good news because nobody, not the devil, not the world, not even ourselves can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go.
Even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died.
Even the most broken piece of pottery can be made into something new by the divine potter.
I wonder, this Lent, what kind of church we would become if we simply allowed broken people to gather, and did not try to fix them, but simply to love them and behold them, contemplating the shapes that broken pieces can inspire?
I wonder, this Lent, what might happen if we truly confessed who we are all while knowing whose we are?
I wonder, this Lent, what kind of new newness we might discover through the One who comes to make all things new?
You and me, we’re all dust, and to dust we shall return. But dust is not the end. Amen.
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And wended have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The first church I served after seminary had a preschool and I made it a point to be at the doors every morning welcoming the children, and their parents, to the building. I would teach a “chapel time” lessons once a week in the sanctuary, helping to convey stories from the Bible to a group of kids, many of whom had never heard of the Bible in the first place.
It was awesome.
It’s awesome teaching kids about scripture because they enter into the strange new world of the Bible with wonder and delight. They ask all the questions that adults are too afraid to ask, and they rest in the bewildering rather than dismissing it away.
Over the years I served that church I got to know a lot of those preschool families and would run into people all over the community. There’s nothing quite like walking down the aisle in a grocery store and hearing a 4 year old scream, “Pastor Taylor! What are you doing here?”
As if I wasn’t allowed out of the church or something.
Anyway. One morning, while I stood by the doors to the preschool, one of the moms approached me with mascara streaming down her face and her daughter completely oblivious.
The mom ushered the girl into the school and then asked if we had a moment to talk. We retreated into the reading room outside of earshot from everyone else and she said, “My husband died yesterday, and I don’t know how to tell our daughter. Will you tell her for me?”
Death is the one thing that guaranteed for each of us, and it also happens to be the one thing most of us deny all the time. It’s why all the ads we come across online, or the commercials we watch on tv, are all designed at selling us the idea that we get to stick around forever.
Take this pill and you’ll lose the weight you never really meant to gain.
Wear these clothes and you’ll appear like you did in high school.
Go to this vacation destination and you can look like the models in these images enjoying their time on the beach.
But the heart of the matter is this: The bell will toll for us all. We know not when, only that it will happen.
Some of us get to live good long lives. Some of us don’t. Some of us make it to the end of our days with no regrets. Some of us won’t.
When we’re dead, we’re dead.
Which is why the language of death and dying is so important, whether you’re talking to a preschooler or not.
We say things like, “so and so passed away.”
What does that mean? Where did they pass to? What does that mean about their body?
We say things like, “God just wanted another angel in heaven.”
Which makes God into a monster and the author of all suffering in the world.
After the mother retreated to her car, I walked into the sanctuary and prayed for a good long while before I went back into the preschool. I waited until they went out onto the playground and I called the little girl over to talk.
I said, “Your mom and I talked this morning and,”
“My daddy died” she interrupted.
“Yeah… but she told me you didn’t know…”
“He was sick, and he told me he was going to die. And now he’s dead.”
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“I’m sad, I think. But it’s okay. Daddy told me that when he died he was going to be with Jesus, the guy you talk about all the time. So, it’s okay. But I am sad.”
Christian truths are delivered in Scripture through images and stories. Most of us, however, are literalists. We want clarity above all else. But that doesn’t stop us from consuming all sorts of media designed to keep us guessing. Because for as much as we might we addicted to certainty, the world, and the kingdom of heaven for that matter, run on mystery.
What happens in the end? The strange new world of the Bible has all sorts of answers about life after death, some of which we will explore shortly, but let me tell you this: that little preschool girl proclaimed the one thing we can say with certainty about death. When we die, we are with Jesus.
Everything else is a mystery.
And yet, if we’re asked to imagine what heaven is like, we will conjure in our minds all sorts of ideas and images that, frankly, come from Hallmark more than they come from scripture.
St. Peter hanging by the pearly gates discerning who makes it in or not is the center point of a good many jokes, but it’s not in the scriptural witness.
Gobs of folks clothed in robes relaxing on puffy clouds might show up in movies and television shows, but it’s not in the scriptural witness.
Among the many images for the kingdom of heaven in scripture, one of the most predominant is that heaven will be like a never ending worship service. Which, to some people, probably sounds more like hell than it does heaven.
So other than being with Jesus at the end, what else can we say about it?
What’s at stake in our two scriptures today is that the resurrection of the dead is precisely that, the bodily resurrection, the reconstitution of our bodies after our deaths. And that our experience of it will be immediate – hence Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross: today you will be with me in Paradise.
Our bodies are good gifts given to us by God and they aren’t just vessels for our souls during earthly life. This proclamation is important for the ways we experience our bodies here and now and how we treat others.
Christianity isn’t a spiritual faith, it’s an embodied one.
It’s why we baptize with water and we break bread and share from the cup.
When scripture talks about the new heaven and the new earth, they are not replacements for the old ones. We are not beamed away from here to go somewhere else. The strange new world of the Bible says that, in the eschaton, God transfigures what we have and what we are. The redeemed order is not the created order forsaken. God doesn’t look at us and all we’ve done and say, “meh, it wasn’t good enough.” Instead God will take the created order, all of it, and raise it in glory.
And for us, in our deaths, we go to be with the Lord. Our dead bodies will be cremated or buried in the ground, but our experience of it is such that, when the bell tolls, we arise.
There’s no waiting room for the kingdom of heaven with an endless supply of People magazines from the 1990’s. We don’t pull off a tab and wait for our turn like we do at the DMV.
Today, Jesus says, today you will be with me in paradise.
Robert Farrar Capon used to tell this story about how, for years, his local fire house would run the siren at exactly five minutes to 5 pm every Friday afternoon. For a while he thought it must be part of the weekly test of the system, but it was a rather odd time to do so. And then, one day, it dawned on him – rather than run the risk that the festivity of the weekend be delayed even one minute beyond the drudgery of the work week, some gracious soul had decided to proclaim the party of the weekend from the top of the fire house, five minutes ahead of schedule.
That, Capon says, is heaven.
Heaven is the party of the streaming sunlight of the world’s final afternoon. Heaven is when all the dead beats and all the success stories, all the losers who never got anything right and all the winners who finally give up on winning, simply waltz over to the judgment seat called the Kingdom of God, with nothing to show for their lives except an eternal invitation from the host of the party that goes on forever.
Heaven is a bash that has happened, that insists on happening, and will happen forever and ever.
And the celebration is so good and so loud and so fun that it drowns out all the party poopers in the world.
Which is why we should take seriously the words we say week after week in the Lord’s Prayer – thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
It’s also why the sharing of the Good News is really the most important thing we can ever do. Being a part of the community called church means living into the reality that we have a role to play in making people experience heaven on earth rather than hell. It’s why we sing the songs we sing and pray the prayers we pray. We received the witness and the testimony of the end, which frees us to live fully now in anticipation of the Supper of the Lamb.
We can do all sorts of wild and wonderful things right here and right now because the end has no end.
Heaven, in short, is fun.
What is, of course, the question at hand today, but the question of who is just as important. Lots of people, even Christians, think that only good people make it to heaven, whatever heaven may be. But, as I’ve noted on numerous occasions, it’s important for us to remember that the only people in heaven are forgiven sinners. You don’t go to hell for being bad, or not being good enough. You go to heaven by being bad and accepting forgiveness.
Now, does that mean that we have permission here and now to be bad? If you want to stick you hand in a meat grinder you are free to do so, but the only thing it accomplishes is making your life into one heck of a mess.
God doesn’t run the universe as a system of punishment or reward.
God has consigned all to disobedience that God might be merciful to all.
In the end, our ends aren’t up to us. That’s reason enough to rejoice because it frees us to freely live here and now. Jesus came not to reform the reformable, or teach the teachable, or fix the fixable. Jesus came to raise the dead.
That’s not just great news, its Good News. Amen.
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).” When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
“Consequently” is a rather interesting way to start a passage of scripture. It’s like beginning with “therefore.” Whenever we encounter a therefore we need to discern what the “therefore” is there for.
So, if we flip back one verse we will find these words: For it it impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “sacrifices and offerings are not desired, but only the body of the One who comes to do the will of the Lord.”
Contrary to how we might feel on Good Friday, with Easter looming on the horizon, today is actually the most expectant worship service of the year. Sure, Jesus predicted his passion and resurrection no less than three times, but no one seemed to believe him. They abandoned him, betrayed him, and denied him.
But today, we are firmly rooted between the already and the not yet. This is the final Sunday of Advent – everything about our worship (songs, scripture, sermon) is saturated with a sense that something uniquely impossible is about to happen.
You see, for centuries the people of God waited for something. That something took on different shapes and sizes and expectations. And the something had a name: Messiah, the Holy One of Israel, from the righteous branch of David, the one born to set us free.
Freedom is good and all. But freedom from what?
Freedom from tyranny? Freedom from fear and judgment?
What about freedom from sin and death?
There have been plenty of figures throughout history who have come to bring freedom, but freedom from the great enemies of sin and death is only possible if the One born to Mary also happens to be God in the flesh.
It is not yet Christmas, but here on the final Sunday of Advent, we straddle two worlds and two times. And it is from this vantage point that we can’t help but ask ourselves, “What child is this?”
All Christian worship is an attempt to answer that question.
Was Jesus like God? Was Jesus a prophet of God? Was Jesus merely a good ethical teacher?
The fundamental Christian proclamation is that Jesus is not like God, Jesus is God, light from light eternal.
Everything depends on this being true; otherwise the nativity story is just another tale of no real importance.
And here is the challenge set before us today: the child we come to worship on Christmas is, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, the very body that is sacrificed for us.
We don’t talk much about sacrifice in the church these days even though we’ve got plenty of the “bloody hymns” in our hymnal. If we do sing those songs at all we usually save them for the season of Lent during which we’re supposed to feel bad about our badness.
But it’s almost Christmas Eve! Nows not the time to talk about blood and sacrifice!
We are surely ready for that cute little baby to be born for us in the manger – it’s another thing entirely to be prepared for that baby to be the One born to die on the Cross.
Let alone to prepare our hearts for his return to judge both the living and the dead.
And yet, to ignore the language of sacrifice, the shadow of the cross in the manger, is to deny the truth of the strange new world of the Bible.
In the ancient world sacrifice was at the heart of all religious practice. Israel might stand apart in how the God of Abraham did not require human sacrifices (save for that incident with Isaac, but that’s for another sermon). But there are plenty of sacrifices expected by and through the Law for the people of God. For, to sacrifice is to admit there is a need for it. The only way to be holy is to remove sin altogether, and no one can do that.
Sacrifice, therefore, was offered on behalf of God’s people in order to be made right.
However, over time, the sacrifices themselves became empty signs of an empty faith. Again and again the prophets of God rejected the blood spilled by the people when injustice continued to reign. What good is it to sacrifice a bull or a goat when widows, orphans, and the outcasts were ignored?
Therefore, as Hebrews puts it, Jesus’ death is a single offering for all time for those who are sanctified.
There is no holiness without sacrifice. In fact, the very meaning of sacrifice is “making holy.”
Of course, there are some of us who would like to believe that we are beyond the need and the time of sacrifice. That, because of the Cross, we have left sacrifice behind.
But that only betrays how essential sacrifice is to our daily lives.
We sacrifice the land and the lives of animals that we might live.
We make sacrifices in the name of love that we feel for others.
We sacrifice those who serve in the military that we might feel safe.
Sacrificing is part of who we are, and we do so because we often think it is the only way we can make up for the wrongs we have done.
And yet, that feeling of guilt, the knowledge of what we have done and left undone, important as it may be, is in contradiction to the work of Christ who was offered as a single sacrifice for all time.
There’s an unbelievable story that happened on Christmas a little more than 100 years ago, and perhaps some of you have heard about it. It took place in and among the trenches of World War I in 1914. All across the western front there were unofficial ceasefires to observe the holiday that were also due to limited ammunitions along the front. Halting fire for a period of time was nothing special, and has been part of warfare for a long time. But it’s what happened during the cease fire that boggles the mind.
In certain areas along the trench lines, soldiers left the safety of their barricades and met in the middle of No Man’s Land to celebrate Christmas.
There was one area where the ringing of church bells gave certain soldiers the courage to bravely enter the disputed space between the trenches.
In other places the soldiers saw Christmas trees being hastily decorated on either side and ventured out for a closer look.
But my favorite miracle took place when a group of German soldiers started singing Stille Nacht, and when they came to the end of one of the verse, the English soldiers on the other side took it up and started singing it on their own.
It sounds too good to be true, but all the best stories are like that. We have letters from soldiers who expressed total surprise by what they experienced on that Christmas Eve. How, they exchanged gifts and food in the middle of No Man’s Land with the very people they had been trying to kill.
There were even football (soccer) matches that occurred in various locations that Christmas Eve.
One soldier later recalled that, at the end of the celebration, they returned to their respective sides and woke up on Christmas morning to a dead silence. He said both sides shouted merry Christmas back and forth, but that no one felt particularly merry anymore. And then, the silence ended in the early afternoon of Christmas Day and the killing started again.
He said, “It was a short peace in a terrible war.”
Sacrifices were made in the name of peace, just hours after they were singing together about the dawn of redeeming grace.
Throughout the great collection of scripture we are told again and again what we can, and what we can’t do. Thou shall not and all that. And, if thou hast done something, this is how thou shall atone for what thou has done.
But, the primary function of the Law, as Jesus says in John 5 and Paul says in Romans 3, is to accuse us. That is, the Law exists to show us who we are in relation to it – we’re sinners. The Law reveals the complete and total righteousness we require to acquire the Kingdom of Heaven, and how we might meet the Holy One of Israel blameless and justified.
The only problem is, none of us can do it.
We’re all on the naughty list.
We delude ourselves, we self-rationalize all sorts of behaviors, we feel as if we can justify all sorts of things, so long as we feel like we’re growing closer to God.
But the truth is that God is the one hellbent on coming to us.
Contrary to how we so often talk about it, the Law doesn’t bring us to the mountaintop of God’s domain.
The Law, instead, bring us down to our knees.
Or, to put it another way, the Law gets us to see ourselves with enough clarity that we can ask the question, “How could God love someone like me?”
Ask that question and you are not far from the kingdom of God.
In theological and ecclesial circles, there is a lot of talk about the atonement – what is accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross?
There are an array of ideas about the work of cross – we owed a debt to God via our sins and Jesus paid it all, or the death of Jesus satisfied God’s wrathful anger against us.
That have all the makings of seminary basement debates.
But the theologian Gerhard Forde dispenses with all of those theories in favor of seeing the cross simply as our being caught up in a murder. He argues that any theory that tidily explains the death of God’s Son pales next to the great Good News that the One we tried to do away with on the cross speaks a surprising word of reconciliation int he resurrection.
When the incarnate God in Jesus Christ comes to us, we nail him to the cross. And then, three days later, God gives him back to us.
Which is just another way of saying: Hear the Good News, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that prove’s God’s love toward us.
And perhaps that’s why we read these words from Hebrews just shy of Christmas Eve; they forever and always declare the very same thing declared in the incarnation: God is for us. There is therefore literally nothing on earth or in heaven that can ever separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ.
In the full knowledge of our sins, past/present/future, our propensity toward violence, even against those who worship the same baby in the manger – God joined our lives to be life for us, becoming one of us, to free us from the attempt to be more than we were created to be.
Jesus arrives, fully God and fully human, down in our miserable estate and is obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, to end forever any sacrifice not determined by his cross.
Consequently, Christmas comes with a cost – the baby born for us is the God who dies for us. God is the dawn of redeeming grace. God is our peace. God is the one who sanctifies us.
Come, thou long expected Jesus!
Born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee!
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the Reign of Christ [B] (2 Samuel 23.1-7, Psalm 132.1-18, Revelation 1.4b-8, John 18.33-37). Josh serves Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including liturgical history, DUNE, soundtracks, last words, running with the sun, the undoing of death, clean hearts, righteous clothing, atonement, the already but not yet, contrasting kingdoms, the son of the father, and lives of reflection. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The King of the Kingdom
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
What frightens you more – the hospital or the cemetery?
We have an aversion to death in our culture. We take pills that promise to make us look, or feel, younger even though they don’t. We listen to doctors tell us about our need to reduce sodium or sugar but then we find ourselves coming out of the Drive Thru lane with a super sized soda and a mountain of French fries. We read the numbers and the statistics of those who die, but we assume that the same fate can’t, or won’t, befall us.
When death rears its ugly head, we do everything we can to run in the opposite direction.
I meet with families to prepare a service of death and resurrection and I am told that they don’t children present for fear of frightening them about the finality of death. In the days before COVID, I would visit people in the hospital who told me how bad they wished others would come and sit with them, but they understood the reluctance – no one wants to get too close to the truth.
When I was in seminary, we were required to tour a funeral home in order to learn everything that happens to dead bodies from arrival until burial or cremation. We were escorted through the embalming process, shown the vast array of color coordinated coffins, and we were even shown the inner workings of the crematory which had to get hot enough to turn bones into ash.
And then, shortly before it was all over, we were shown the viewing room in which a recently dead woman lay in her coffin, ready to receive her friends and family that evening. We paid our respects, but more than a few of my peers stood frozen in their tracks – it was the first dead body many of them had ever seen, and it shocked them so much they couldn’t move.
Death has an ugly color. I have seen it more times than I can count. Rare are the calls to a pastor when something has gone well. I’m the one they call when death shows up.
Why are we talking about such things today in church? Why are we talking about death?
Well, for one thing, today is Halloween. What better day could there be to talk of death? Tonight, scores of children will dress as super heroes from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, defenders of peace and justice from the Galactic Empire, and even extinct creatures that used to roam the earth. And, of course, there will be some who dress as more frightening figures, those who straddle the thin line between life and death.
Halloween forces us to confront death in an odd way – through children. I’ve come to rejoice in this strangest of holidays not only because I already get to dress up in somewhat of a costume every week in church, and not only because I have an unhealthy appetite for KitKats, but because it is a necessary opportunity for all of us to come close to an inconvenient truth – no one makes it out of this life alive.
And yet, this year, I’m not sure how badly we need the reminder… Every day we are bombarded with the statistics about COVID19 and its disregard for our pretensions, we are met with masks on the young and old alike making it impossible to deny the gravity of our situation. Even with the vaccine on the imminent horizon for 5-12 year olds, death keeps rearing it ugly head.
Church, oddly enough, is one of the few places where, even though the rest of the world actively engages in the denial of death, we stare into it week after week.
We put up crosses, we sing songs about those who from their labors rest, we even occasionally feast on the Lord. We are compelled to face the truth that we would rather avoid.
Death is ugly.
And it is here, squarely staring death in the face, do we dare to proclaim the Gospel of God:
There is a new heaven, and a new earth! A loud voice shouts from the throne, “See, the home of God is among the people! God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more! Mourning and crying and pain will be gone!” And the one seated on the throne said, “See I am making all things new!”
Do you have goosebumps?
Did you hear the Good News?
In the end, death is no contest for the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Death is defeated by the King of kings who comes to die in our place. The death of death is made possible by the One who broke forth from the tomb in resurrection.
Revelation is a wild ride, one worthy of Halloween worship. The whole book contains these fantastical images and scenes that go beyond our ability to comprehend. They point to God’s cosmic victory over the cosmos. The vision granted to John boldly proclaims that no amount of pain, no number of graveyards, no heap of hospital hallways have the final word.
Sure, they will sting like nothing else on earth – they might even derail everything we think we know to be true – but they are not the truth.
There’s a reason that this text, this vision, has been associated with Christian burials since the very beginning. There’s a reason that we read these words when we bury our friends, our families, and even our children.
They are words of hope for a people who feel no hope in the world. Whether it was the earliest Christians suffering under the weight of the Roman Empire, or someone who just said their final goodbye, these words mean something.
These are the words that guide, shape, and nurture the saints.
Today, in addition to Halloween, is when we celebrate All Saints. We read and remember the names of those who have died in the last year. It is a somber and holy moment in which we pause to reflect on how God worked in and through those now dead. It is an opportunity to imagine what God might even be up to with us.
And the “all” in “All Saints” is important. Lest we fall prey to the temptation of believing that saints are only those perfect Christians – Saints are just sinners in the hands of a loving God. In fact, if there’s any real requirement for being a saint, it is merely the admission that we are not yet what we can be. It’s about coming to grips with the condition of our condition all while holding fast to the wonderful Good News that Jesus does his best work with people like us – Jesus deals in the realm of impossible possibility – Jesus is in the resurrection business.
John sees the New Heaven and the New Earth and notice, they are not replacements for the old ones. In our deaths we are not beamed away to some distant realm of existence. God does not reject the created order. The New Heaven and the New Earth are transfigurations of what we have right now – they are the created order raised and glorified.
Which means that wherever we find brokenness today – in our lives, in our families, in our institutions, God is actively working to rectify those wrongs right now. God calls us, even us, to live into the reality of all things being made new.
Do you see? What John sees has already happened, it is happening, and it will happen.
God made all things new in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God makes all things new whenever one of us is in Christ (there is a new creation), and God will make all things new in the Eschaton.
All Saints, what we do today, allows us to be re-communed with every saint that has come before us, with the saints in our midst now, and strangely enough with the saints who will arrive long after we’re gone.
We belong to and believe in the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses, past, present, and future.
The church is a peculiar thing – we move forward by looking back and we live now because of death. We are what we are because of what we’ve inherited, but we are also who we are because, in baptism, we’ve died with Christ in order that we might live, truly live.
There is, of course, a lingering question – How can we know this to be true?
None of us know the writers of the scriptures, we don’t know the authors of the hymns and songs we’re singing today, we don’t even know the names of the people who adorn our windows in this sanctuary.
We, I, can’t prove any of this. The resurrection of the dead, the communion of the saints, the great cloud of witnesses, is not that kind of knowledge. It is a gift of faith, of trust.
I know it to be true because my grandmother told me its true. I know it to be true because I’ve had countless individuals, saints, who lived lives according to that truth, people who showed me the way. I trust the witnesses, because that’s what we all are, in the end. We testify and listen to those who testify to the truth.
On this spookiest of holidays, as we prepare to look death squarely in its face, as we take time to give thanks for the saints, we do so in the light of this news, this truth:
Descending from the realm of light and life, invading the horrid darkness of the kingdom of Death and destroying it forever, comes One who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. To us he speaks the enduring words of the Gospel: “I am the resurrection and I am life, whoever trusts in me shall live.” He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.
It was a few Christmases ago when a daughter asked her father what the holiday really meant. He explained that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus and the more they talked the more she wanted to know so the father purchased a children’s Bible and began reading it to her every night.
She loved it.
They read the stories of Jesus’ birth and teachings, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of Jesus’ sayings like, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And the father said, “Jesus teaches that we are supposed to treat people the way we want to be treated. And with each passing story, the daughter became more and more enamored with Jesus.
They were driving around town a few weeks later when they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix on the front lawn. The giant cross and it’s dying figure were impossible to miss and the daughter quickly pointed out the window and said, “Dad… Who’s that?”
The father realized in that moment that he never told her the end of the story. So he began explaining how the person on the cross was Jesus, how he ran afoul of the Roman government because his message was so radical and they thought the only way to stop his message was to kill him, so they did.
The daughter was silent for the rest of the drive.
A few weeks went by and when his daughter had the day off from school in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr the father decided to take the day off as well and treat his girl to lunch. And while they were sitting at a table waiting for their food, his daughter reached for the local newspaper, pointed at the figure on the front-page and said, “Dad… Who’s that?”
It was Dr. King.
“Well,” the father began, “That’s Martin Luther King Jr and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher”
And she said, “For Jesus?!”
“Yes,” he said, “But there was another thing that he was famous for; he had his own message and said that people should treat one another the same no matter what they look like.”
She thought about that for a minute and said, “Well Dad, that sounds a lot like do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The father said, “Yeah, I never thought about it like that, but it is just like what Jesus said.”
The daughter was silent for a moment or two, and then she looked up at her father with tears in her eyes and she said, “Did they kill him too?”
There’s a reason Jesus said that unless we receive the kingdom like a child we will never enter it. Kids get it. If only the same could be said about us adults.
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
What happened to the nice, Sunday school, version of Jesus that all of us love?
Love God and love your neighbors as yourselves, treat others as you wish to be treated, make the world a better place. Those are the slogans of our faith!
So what are we to make of this Jesus who tells us it’s better to show up for the kingdom of God with one eye, one leg, and one hand than to have our whole selves and be thrown into hell where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched?
Just last week we were reading about how Jesus said you have to be like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven, and now Jesus is talking about hellfire and damnation.
We don’t talk much about hell. It’s not an appropriate topic for conversation among well meaning Methodists. Hell isn’t a very uplifting subject.
And yet here, in Mark 9, Jesus talks about hell.
The disciples bring to the Lord a complaint: “Excuse us, JC, but we just met someone who was doing work in your name, and we tried to stop him, honestly we tried, because he wasn’t following us.”
We are concerned, Lord. Who knows what kind of crazy stuff some people will do in your name? There has to be some kind of standard when it comes to the work we call church. Otherwise we might wind up with televangelists who fly around the world in airplanes. We might wind up with grocery store front churches that promise wealth and health to those who just have enough faith. We might wind up with churches with big columns and a pipe organ with over 1,400 pipes. So… what should we do Lord?
Jesus says, “Let them be; for if someone performs deeds of power in my name, pretty soon they’ll be on our side, if they aren’t already. The kingdom is bigger than your little minds can even imagine – there are spots at the heavenly banquet for people who wouldn’t never dare to invite. But remember – this party doesn’t belong to you. God is the host.”
And, it would have been nice if Mark, the gospel writer, could’ve left the story right there – this would be a great place for “and immediately they headed toward the next stop on the journey.”
But no. Jesus keeps going. “Listen,” says the Lord, “whenever you try to prevent others from serving in my name, you are putting stumbling blocks in the way of other disciples. And, to be fair, you can stop people all you want, but it would be better for you to put a millstone around you neck and jump into the deep end of the pool.”
But wait, there’s more – “While you’re at it – if there is anything that causes you to sin, be it your eye, your hand, your foot, whatever it is, go ahead and cut it off. It is far better to be part of the kingdom maimed than it is to burn in hell.”
This is not the meek and mild and smiling Jesus that we usually have displayed on paintings around the church – this is not the kind of story we would want to teach during vacation Bible school.
Jesus cranks it up to eleven. He paints a picture for the disciples of frightening and terrifying images – people downed by concrete, followers removing body parts as they enter the kingdom.
A little hyperbole never hurt anyone.
Perhaps Jesus is troubled knowing that his followers will mistakenly lead others astray. Maybe, with the cross growing clearer on the horizon, Jesus is tired of his disciples moving to and fro with every gust of wind and wants to stop them in their tracks. Perhaps Jesus believes that some will think his Gospel is just one of many things we can pick up whenever we want rather than a matter of life or death, heaven or hell.
To be fair – Jesus doesn’t actually call it “hell.” He uses the Aramaic name of a place called Gehenna. This was an actual place, just outside the walls of Jerusalem. We, of course, hear the word hell and we immediately conjure in our minds some version of Dante’s Inferno or some bad low budget b-movie with a tall red figure with a bifurcated tail holding a trident.
Jesus, however, is talking about Gehenna. Long before our Lord arrived on the scene it was the place of pagan idolatry and that’s how it became a place of ill repute. So much so that when Jesus addressed the disciples about the entering the kingdom, Gehenna had become the town dump. It was where rubbish and refuse was deposited, it was a fiery place because people kept throwing their garbage into it.
Therefore, Jesus says it would be better to pluck out our eyes and go into the kingdom missing some part of us than to have our whole bodies thrown into the dump called Gehenna.
Its rather odd how some things haven’t really changed over the last few millennia – we are still a throw-away society whether it’s our literal garbage, or the people we treat like garbage. If something doesn’t fit into our worldview, we are happy to cast it away without ever having to really think about it again.
That’s why we still remove unsightly elements from our lives and relegate them to the place we would call dumps.
We are content to lay our trash on the curb for someone else to come and take away (who knows where?) and we are all too comfortable with allowing prisoners to be locked up in jail without us ever having to think about their conditions, we perpetuate systems in which the poor keep getting poorer and are forced to resort to terrible actions in order to survive. On and on and on.
It’s Gehenna. It’s hellish what people are forced to go through here and now.
And Jesus says that no child of God’s good creation and love is meant for Gehenna.
It would be better for us to sacrifice what we hold so dear in order to help others, than to continue along as if the universe revolves around us.
One of the great challenges of the church today is to rid ourselves of the fallacy that we are somehow better than other people. That’s what the disciples were struggling with when they complained to the Lord about the one doing deeds in the name of Jesus. They saw themselves as right and everyone else as wrong.
Or, to put it another way – they saw themselves as saints and everyone else as sinners. But here’s the kicker: the kingdom of God is populated only and entirely by forgiven sinners.
That doesn’t mean that we can just go around doing whatever we want whenever we want. Sin has consequences here and now, but all of our sins are no match for the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.
Jesus speak harsh words to us today because the world is a harsh place. It can even be a hellish place.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote that hell is the suffering of being unable to love. Think about that for a moment – when we are unable to love, even our enemies, we create hell on earth for other and for ourselves.
Did you know that more Americans have died from COVID19 than Americans died from the 1918 flu pandemic? Despite all the medical advancements over the last 100 years we’ve buried more people this time than last time. 1 in 500 Americans have died in this crisis!
Why? We can blame the spread of misinformation, and selfishness, and failures in leadership locally and globally. But it’s also because we’ve failed to love one another.
Hell is the suffering of being unable to love.
The Apostles’ Creed is a an ancient text around which the church has centered its identity.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.
And toward the end of the Creed there is a very, very, important line. We say that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, and on the third day he rose again. But originally, for centuries, Christians used to say Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried, and he descended into hell.
Jesus was constantly descending into hell. Not just when he died, in those three days before the resurrection, but throughout his earthly ministry. Jesus entered those places we avoid, he encountered those we turn away from, Jesus went to the margins.
Jesus ministered among and in the dumps of the world – Gehenna.
Again and again and again in the Gospel, we discover the oddity of God made flesh who comes to dwell among the people who feel like they’re living in hell on earth.
Because Jesus goes to hell and back for people just like us.
We live in a time in which we are told to never stop trying – there’s always more to be done, more effort we can put it. We’re fed a narrative in which if we really commit ourselves to something, we can do it. And to some degree, that’s true. There are people who are living in hell on earth right now and we can do something about it.
The church has always been called to be the kind of place that willingly goes to Gehenna, to do whatever it can to salvage lives, to literally rescue people, to remind them that they are precious lambs of Jesus Christ, that they have worth and value no matter what the world tells them, and they are not meant for the hells of life.
But when it comes to ourselves, there’s no amount of work (perfect morality, ethical observance, or even self-mutiliation) that can really fix what’s broken in us. We can’t save ourselves. At least, not on our own. We regularly do things we know we shouldn’t, and we regularly avoid doing things we know we should do.
But that’s why the work of Christ, what we in the church often call grace, is so amazing. Grace is not something we earn or deserve, it is something done to us.
All of us, no matter how we might appear to have it all together, all of us are sinners in need of grace. That’s why Jesus’ words today are so good and so terrifying – they convicts us and reminds us that only God is good alone. This passage functions as a mirror to show us the condition of our condition.
Grace, God’s grace, is what happens when, no matter how hard we’ve tried, we see ourselves for who we really are AND we discover that God does not abandon us.
In fact, God comes straight down into the muck and the mire of our lives, right smack dab in our sins, and refuses to let us go.
Later, after all who heard these words straight from the lips of the Lord abandoned him to his fate, he was nailed to a cross and lifted high upon Calvary. If he looked hard enough, Jesus would’ve been able to see Gehenna, the hell of Jerusalem, with its never-ending fire.
Jesus’ deepest experience of hell was right up on that cross.
That’s why we put crosses in our sanctuaries. Not because they are some impotent symbol of the distant past, but because the cross is death.
Jesus died, the incarnate Lord made flesh went to hell and back for us and the world.
Let us therefore never forget: if we want to meet Jesus, the first place to look for him is in hell. Amen.