Some of the strongest and most-foreboding warnings about damnation and hell are on the lips of Jesus. This gospel lesson is one of many places where we hear Jesus speak such an ominous prediction: that sinners will be “thrown into a furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus’ words could seem especially threatening if you were ever a sinner. (I’ll add as an aside that, in a few moments there is opportunity for known sinners to make a confession, in the dire case we have any sinners here.)
If we listened only to Jesus’ words about hell, we would likely miss two things:
- What Jesus’ life was all about. Jesus comes to us as our savior. His presumption is that we are prone to get lost – lost in pride, lost in anger, lost in addiction, lost because we’ve tried to be our own god, lost in illness, lost in relationships, lost in hopelessness. We may become lost because we have a taste for immortality – after all, we’ve been created in the very image of God – but we simply cannot pull it off. Diminishment and death are inescapable. Jesus comes as our savior to rescue us. He’s like a shepherd to lost sheep, like a physician to sick souls. Jesus is a crossover: he speaks of the reality of hell based on the tradition in which he was formed. Jesus says, “You have heard it said,” and there’s plenty that he repeats from that tradition about damnation, if you don’t get it right and keep it right with God. But he also brings us very good news: that he’s come to do a new thing, that he’s come to seek and to save the lost. Jesus doesn’t only talk about hell; he also talks about heaven, and he becomes the way out of hell and the way into heaven. Jesus redresses our being doomed.
- If we listen only to Jesus’ words about hell, we might think that hell is a future reality. It’s not. There’s no need to wait. Hell is well within our grasp in the here-and-now. And, of course, so is heaven.
We certainly don’t escape God’s judgment because of Jesus; quite to the contrary, in Jesus we win God’s judgment, it is a judgment of love. It is not a judgment of intimidation, or condemnation, or incarceration, but rather liberation, a judgment of love. Jesus stands by his judgment of us, and he rises to our assistance. Jesus puts a face to God’s judgment, and it is a judgment of love. Jesus says, “if you have seen me, you have seen the Father. Take my word for it.” (1)
Jesus’ judgment of love is not time bound. What is past for us is always present to Jesus. Which is why we say in the Apostles’ Creed (in the traditional language) that Jesus “was crucified, dead, and buried [and] he descended into hell…” (2) Into hell. Why to hell? To rescue lost souls. To save those who are lost in hell. If you were to ask me if I literally believe in a hell, I would say, yes, most certainly. I’ve already been there any number of times. And the reason I’m not in a living hell now is because I have been rescued by Jesus’ healing light and life and love. Some people die, not knowing of God’s love for them. That is why we rehearse in the Apostles’ Creed Jesus’ descending into hell to ultimately rescue, redeem, restore every last, lost human being. There are no recesses in all of creation – past, present, or future – that will escape Jesus’ judgment of love.
There’s a theological term for what Jesus does for us: grace. Grace means God’s favor, God’s assistance, God’s generosity, God’s love, even if unrequited. There’s an old acronym for G-R-A-C-E: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. That’s grace. Grace has a lot more to say about God than it does about us. There is nothing we can do that’s good enough to earn God’s favor; there’s nothing we can do bad enough to lose God’s favor. That’s grace. Charles Péguy, the French poet and spiritual writer, called this the insidiousness of God’s grace. “Grace is insidious. When it doesn’t come straight it comes bent, and when it doesn’t come bent it comes broken. When it doesn’t come from above it comes from below.” (3) Grace is insidious. God will go to the ends of the earth and beyond. If it takes going to hell, God will rescue you, you and everyone else, sooner or later. God has all the time in the world, this world and the next.
Jesus has created a pathway to heaven, a way that begins in our lifetime here on earth. He tells to follow him. That’s not a threat; that’s an invitation. (4) There’s no reason to live like hell, in this life or the next. It’s to be heaven all the way. We either get the picture, and follow Jesus or we don’t. Most of us, certainly I, are a bit of a mix. We may stumble an amount, now and again losing our way. No matter. Jesus has come to seek and to save the lost, and to love us back to life. (5) That’s a judgment call Jesus makes, a judgment of love.
In 1907 an English poet named Francis Thompson died. One of his poems, “The Hound of Heaven,” speaks of the “unperturbéd pace, and deliberate speed, and unhuhurrying chase” in pursuit of the prize – the hound in pursuit of the hare. (6) The poem is a haunting, mesmerizing labyrinth of being lost, then found. The poem is very autobiographical. Francis Thompson had followed in his father’s footsteps, training to be a physician, but he never practiced medicine. At a young age he moved to London to be a writer, was reduced to appalling poverty, and became homeless. He self-medicated his failing health with opium, soon to be an addict. He was rescued on the streets and nursed back to some health by someone whom he called “my saviour.” She was a prostitute. Even though he became a much acclaimed and published poet, he would die at age 47 from tuberculosis, from the residue of so many years of poverty, and from his active drug addiction. But he died a captured man. Captured by the Hound of Heaven. The last lines of this great poem attest to his hope in death, Francis hearing the Hound – hearing Jesus – say to him:
“… All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!”
Many of us here may have been spared this level of tragic drama in our lives; however a life’s course which is complicated and circuitous, where we’ve known the best of times and worst of times, both wheat and weeds, is a scenario familiar to probably most of us. God is well-apprised of the goings on of human beings. In Jesus we are found and found out. No matter what shape we are in life or death, we will ultimately be wooed by his love. Nothing, nothing, nothing will ever separate us form the love of God, in this world or the next. (7)
- John 14:7-9.
- “The Apostles’ Creed” in Morning Prayer – Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 21-22.
- Charles Péguy (1873-1914).
- Marcus Borg in The Heart of Christianity; Re-Discovering a Life of Faith (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003) writes that “unconditional grace is not about the afterlife, but the basis for our relationship with God in this life. Is the basis for our life with God law or grace, requirements and rewards, or relationship and transformation? Grace affirms the latter. …Here’s the path: follow it. Both involve imperatives, but one is a threat, the other an invitation.” pp. 77-78
- Luke 19:10.
- Francis Thompson (1859-1907). For the full text of “The Hound of Heaven”: https://poetry.elcore.net/HoundOfHeavenInRtT.html
- St. Paul writes, “For 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.” (Romans 8:38-39)
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