Why “Hell” isn’t Hell, How We All Die There, and Why We’ll be OK

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

James 5:13-20

We’re all going to Hell, but “Hell” isn’t really Hell, and it is actually a good thing in light of Jesus Christ. Please bear with me as we jump into this odd and multi-layered Gospel reading.

Jesus never actually says “Hell” in this passage. Our translations render it “Hell” but what he says is “Gehenna.” The place he refers to is not the same as the lake of fire described in Revelation where the great beast and the false prophet who had wrought violence, injustice, and tried to rip God’s people away from God are thrown (Rev. 19:20). The place is not Sheol described throughout the Hebrew Scriptures where the dead go when they die. It is a valley outside of the city Jerusalem where the city’s trash was burned. The Hinnom Valley called “Gai Hinnom” in Hebrew and “Gehenna” in Greek was the city’s dump equipped with an ever-burning incinerator.

This is important because the place where Jesus is speaking about is not a place of everlasting torment as popular imagination envisions Hell, but it is a place where trash is consumed completely. It might even be helpful to replace “Hell” or “Gehenna” with “incinerator” when we read the passage to get closer to how the disciples would have been immediately acquainted with Gehenna.

So Jesus tells his disciples, “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 the incinerator… And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into the incinerator. 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 the incinerator…”

Jesus’ message then is that it is a better thing to lose your hand, foot, or eye so that you might not miss out on hearing and living the Good News of Jesus. He is certainly speaking metaphorically and not literally, but it is nonetheless a powerful and disturbing image. Jesus says that it is better to cast off the things that we think are desperately necessary for us to live fulfilling and comfortable lives than to stumble and miss out on living an abundant life that is founded in the experience of God’s unconditional love, and of sharing that same love with the world. To live for ourselves and not the “little ones” be they children, strangers who proclaim the name of Christ even though they aren’t one of us, or the weak and vulnerable, is not a life worth living at all and we might as well be tossed into the incinerator and just stop living.

I’ve known some people who have lived their lives giving up their metaphorical limbs for God’s “little ones.” I know parents whose children struggle with mental illness who give up many a night’s sleep worrying about how best to take care of them. They invest much of their money, their time, and their tears into caring for this little one of God so that he might not stumble- so that he might know the love of God in the care shown toward him. I know adult children who are caring for a mother who is falling deeper and deeper into Alzheimer’s. They give up the hand of relentless care through time, money, and patience. Even after giving up just about every limb they can spare, they only see this little one grow more lost and grow closer to death.

If Jesus’ exhortations to cut off limbs for the sake of preserving our whole selves ended with just those words, we’d be in big trouble. We’d be left with a notion that we must keep trying harder to become more and more perfect, and if we aren’t succeeding, then we aren’t being faithful enough. We’re left constantly wondering about whether or not there was another limb that we could have given up to care for God’s little ones. The parents whose child struggles with mental illness will wonder if they could have cared for their child better if they had understood how to identify schizophrenia earlier. Or if they went with a different doctor their son wouldn’t have been prescribed that awful medication that almost sent him over the edge. The adult child whose mother suffers from Alzheimer’s will wonder if she could have spent more time with her mother while she was lucid. Or if she could have found a little bit more money to put her mother in a better care facility. Or if she could have brought more joy into her mother’s last days.

Jesus says you need to be willing to cut off your own limbs- you need to be able to give up yourself in order to live a life that is worth living. If that is the final word we hear, we will constantly be wondering if we’ve really lived a life worth living. And that’s not living at all.

Thankfully, that is not where this text ends. Jesus’ words take on an entirely different meaning when we hear his next sentence, “For everyone will be salted with fire…” Everyone. Everyone, Jesus reminds us, is toast. No one will live a life that is perfectly acceptable by Christ’s standards if we are trying to measure up to God’s perfection. We cannot do it. We will and God could always find a way in which we did not care for God’s little ones as best as we could. We will always find ourselves in the all-consuming, incinerator fires of our own guilt and sin. Continue reading

Christ the Loser

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 50:4-9a

James 3:1-12

Mark 8:27-38

Trump

How many of you wear a cross? When you wear a cross or see someone wearing a cross, do you ever take a minute and stop to think about why one might wear a cross? For some, one might wear a cross simply because they look nice. They look pretty or cool. When I was about 7 or 8 years old, my father (who is Jewish) asked me what I wanted for Chanukah. I confidently replied, “A cross necklace.” My father was very patient and kindly explained that it is unusual to get a Christian symbol as a gift for a Jewish holiday and that I might want something else. I remember clearly why I wanted a cross and it wasn’t because I wanted a physical reminder of my Christian faith (I was not a Christian at that point). I simply thought they looked cool. I had a bunch of friends who wore them and I thought it would be neat to have one too. If we aren’t wearing across for aesthetic purposes, we might be wearing them so that we have a visual reminder of what group we belong to. It reminds us that we are Christians and part of a body of believers who sometimes also wear this symbol.

But when you stop and think about it, it is a really strange thing that Christians walk around wearing crosses. We Christians often wear a representation of the instrument that killed our Lord and Savior. This torture device and executioner’s tool is the thing that we decide to wear around our necks. In no other context would we find that not weird. Let’s say you met someone who was a great admirer of John F. Kennedy Jr. This person thought the world of our former president and seeks to live his or her life following after the ideals that JFK proclaimed. As a sign of that devotion and a reminder of his worthiness of adoration, the person wears a necklace with a bullet charm on it. The bullet is modeled after the one fired from Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle.

We would probably think that person is quite strange. If he or she admired JFK so much, why would they proudly bear the image of the thing that ended his life and prevented him from continuing his good work?

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus stops off in Caesarea Philippi to take an opinion poll. He asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The answers include John the Baptist, Elijah, or some other prophet. Then, Jesus makes it very personal and asks, “But who do you say that I am.” They really don’t want to get this wrong so the disciples take a minute to mull it over, but before the silence gets too long, Peter blurts out, “The Christ! The Messiah!” Ding! Ding! Ding! Peter’s got it right. But we see shortly that Peter got the right title, but he got the wrong meaning.

silence-of-the-lambsPeter is like someone who went to see Silence of the Lambs for the first time and expected it to be a documentary about shepherding. This person would be very surprised to find the movie to be a very disturbing crime/horror flick. Right title, wrong meaning.

Yes, Jesus is the Messiah, but Peter doesn’t really understand what that means. After Peter gives the correct answer, Jesus goes on to describe what being the Christ looks like: betrayal, suffering, rejection, and death. Peter has something very different in mind from Jesus and pulls the Christ aside to tell him that he’s got it all wrong. We might hear Peter say, “Listen Jesus, you’ve got it all wrong. Let me set you straight on this one.”

Oh, Peter.

Jesus in turn rebukes Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan. For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things!” Jesus completely flips our notions of what divine and human are. We like Peter might think that the divine- including God and God’s anointed Messiah- are immune from those “human things” like want, suffering, change, and death. Jesus, however, has other ideas. The divine is found in exactly those places that we would be so quick to rule out as “too human.”

To steal an infamous expression from presidential candidate, Donald Trump, Jesus looks like a loser. We don’t like to think of God as a loser, but when we consider Jesus Christ betrayed by his own people, abandoned by his closest friends, and slowly dying on a cross you can’t get around it. Jesus looks like a loser and certainly not a winner.

Jesus is a Christ of the cross. He is not a Christ of comfort. He seeks to serve, not to be served.

The good news of Jesus Christ is that we are worth the cost of losing one’s own life- even the life of Christ himself. Jesus willingly became a “loser” so that he might save us from all the things we “lose” to. We lose to selfishness, greed, despair, and fear daily until finally we lose to death. Jesus became a loser too so that he might be right beside us and when we lose or die with our crosses, we might also raised to new life as he was.

When we are neck deep in muck and sinking fast, he is the one who jumps in to save us and in the process is also neck deep in muck. Jesus is the one who is unafraid to become a loser and die for our sake if that’s what it takes to save us (and that is what it takes).

Why do we wear crosses? Why do we voluntarily wear a representation of the instrument that killed Jesus? There are many different things we can remember as we wear a cross or see a cross. We might remember that the cross is a tool of shame, fear, sin, and death; and that Christ chose to confront that terrifying instrument and every instrument that threatens us with shame, fear, sin, and death. We might remember that Jesus won and the cross couldn’t hold him. We might remember that we who have shared in a death like Jesus, will also share in a resurrection like his.

When we wear a cross or see a cross, we might remember that Jesus was a loser. The divine Christ would rather be an abandoned, suffering, dying loser on a cross and be right next to us losers suffering on our own crosses, than be a winner who is too good to get his hands dirty and give his life to a friend in need.