Speaking of Sin: Hell
Since confession is an important part of Lenten practice, I will share with you this morning that I had a hard time finishing up today’s sermon. I just couldn’t concentrate, due to the different interpretations of the hit Disney song Let it Go all over Facebook.
As those video links kept popping up on my Facebook feed I would click over and watch them, mesmerized and increasingly horrified at every one. The thing about that song is, whether you love it or detest it with all your being, it kind of gets stuck in your brain and won’t stop cycling through. Before you know it, you find yourself not finishing the sermon, but instead belting out the lyrics, usually with accompanying dramatic hand gestures.
At one point in my sermon preparation I thought maybe I could just do my own cover of Let it Go this morning, which might illustrate today’s theological word about sin perhaps better than anything else I could say. The word for this morning is, of course, hell.
Today’s gospel lesson is the most famous passage in the whole Bible. Okay, if not the most famous, then at least in the top five of the most well known. Go ahead and take out your black pew Bibles and take a look at page 863, John chapter 3. Even if you’re not so familiar with the Bible, if you’ve ever been to an NFL football game or even watched one on TV, you’ve probably heard of John 3:16, one of the verses in today’s gospel story. Join me, if you like: “‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Today in the gospel text we meet Nicodemus, a religious leader, a man who was highly regarded in society, a scholar and important figure at the temple, who came to Jesus under the cover of darkness because he was curious about all the things Jesus was saying and doing, the ways in which his ministry was making folks stop and notice that something important was going on.
And, as we read his story, we sense resonance with our experience.
There’s of course a wide divide between being a first century religious scholar and community leader in Palestine and being you and me, but there’s something in this story that rings true to our human experience. Nicodemus wants desperately to understand—with his brain and his logic—what it is Jesus is talking about when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, God’s hopes for the world.
As you can see from the passage, Nicodemus’ question leads to a deep theological conversation, where Jesus tries to explain what he’s up to and Nicodemus, who can’t quite get his brain around it, listens in puzzlement.
But we like to ignore all of that when we read this passage, and jump straight to verse 16, where we apply a strict transactional understanding to what Jesus is saying, slap on top our own definitions of what it means to “believe in him,” and proceed to create an attractive poster board signs to take to the football game, doing our part to insure that as many people as possible don’t go to hell.
Because we know this for sure: hell is real.
In addition to citing this verse on posters at football games, we’ve twisted this passage to stand as a commentary on today’s word about sin: hell. And, in doing that, we’ve lost the power of yet another theological word, completely emasculating its ability to speak to our human reality.
But we need the language of sin to understand our failings, our pain. The world around us doesn’t give us enough—enough mystery, or depth, or divinity, to summon the courage to speak with each other about sin. And we have to speak about sin, or, remember, we won’t know how to speak of grace.
I would guess that when you hear the word hell, like me you are probably returned immediately in your mind to your freshman high school English class. Though it’s true (at least in my experience) that that general stage of life could be described as a kind of hell, what I meant was the memory of all those cheery assignments from Dante’s Inferno or Paradise Lost worked on some level to create an image of hell that crossed over into any religious experience you or I might have had.
Our culturally-formed ideas of hell look like panels from The Far Side cartoons, even if we didn’t read Milton in high school. There would definitely be fire (and brimstone, if you’re a Baptist). There might be devils, with horns and pitchforks. You would definitely be thirsty there. And, if you had to geographically locate it, it would be somewhere…down there. In short, hell is a place, areally bad place to be feared and avoided at all costs.
And the church, over its 2000-year career of motivating people to turn to God, has really made use of this concept of hell. Fear, as you know, is a great motivator. And fear of hell has inspired us to do many things, including but not limited to: starting wars, creating societal structures that classify some people as less than others, and building institutions that have hurt and exploited many, many people. You can get things like these accomplished if you make the people scared enough.
I don’t know about you, but I definitely do not want to spend eternity in a place like West Texas in August with no air conditioning.
But the thing is, in our modern society, we’ve caught on to this church institutional advancement strategy, and we’re not having it. Much to the church administrator’s dismay, the church is not going to guilt us into buying indulgences for the forgiveness of sin just because church leaders are threatening us with hell. We’re done with that, thank you very much.
And with that we’ve discarded the only rubric we had for thinking of hell, rendering ourselves unable to speak about its reality.
And that’s a problem, you see, because…hell is real. Hell, an ongoing situation of separation from God and from each other, happens all the time in this life and beyond this life. And if we’ve lost a language to talk about its realities, we cannot name some of the hardest parts of human life.
How can we summon the courage to speak of realities like hell, to name the pain of separation, to be honest about our estrangement and failure and even our destruction? We need to do that. We need desperately to be able to speak of hell, because if we can’t, then, like Nicodemus, we’re going to have a hard time understanding the grace and wonder of Jesus’ invitation to live with courageous abandon into relationship, redemption, healing, hope…love. Love.
If I were to take you to my home state and teach you how to experience all the beauty and mystery of the ocean, I might start by taking you down to the beach. We’d stand there, sand squishing in our toes, squinting through the bright sunshine, looking out at the vast expanse of water.
It would be scary, but I would reassure you.
I’d teach you how to adjust your mask so it fits snugly around your face. I’d tell you that when you sink into the crystal blue of the water you will feel so very tiny, but all you have to do is breathe evenly. And I’d assure you: when you get acclimated to the water, you’ll begin to look around and enjoy the incredibly amazing undersea world you’ve never seen before.
But, I would also tell you that it’s not a great idea to touch the rocks or walk on the reef. The coral is very sharp—razor sharp—and will cut your skin badly, inflicting wounds that will fester because of the microorganisms in the rock.
I would also say that it’s not smart to reach for an eel if you see one sticking his head out of a rock crevice. He won’t come after you, but your finger could be a convenient luncheon item if your hand gets too close.
And I would say that you will see, all around the reef, brightly colored sea anemones. Their tentacles are the most amazing colors—coral and bright pink and sometimes yellow and blue—and they wave with the push and pull of the tide, a gorgeous show of underwater glamour. You’ll be tempted to reach out and run your hands through them like you would a field of wildflowers, but whatever you do, don’t do that. They’re poisonous, and with varying degrees they will sting you, badly. It hurts, and sometimes their poison is so potent it can paralyze you, making you unable to breathe. They are very, very dangerous.
I thought about learning to experience the ocean as a metaphor for how we might begin to speak again about hell. Human life is beautiful. There are so many wonderful things about being human in this world, about learning to live in relationship with each other, about understanding who we are in relationship to God.
And there are many decisions we can make that fracture our relationships with each other and with God, that leave us in pain, that cause us and others to suffer, that might even be the death of us.
And, begging John Milton’s pardon, that sounds a lot like hell to me.
Hell is real. And, Jesus’ invitation is to embrace an alternative kind of life, a different way of engaging each other and the world in which we make choices not because of fear, but because of love.
I imagine in our way of speaking Jesus may have said something like this to Nicodemus that night, whispering under the cover of darkness: “I’m not interested in scaring you into right living. This is not a transactional relationship, where I set some obscure requirement and you spend your whole life trying like crazy to meet it and hoping you did enough to make the cut.
You love requirements and penalties and retribution and damnation, but I’m here to invite you to think of your life in a different way, to invite you into the mystery that is God’s expansive love for you and for the whole world.
God didn’t send me here to condemn the world; I’m here to teach you to think with your heart, to do the risky work of love, to choose over and over again to savor the beauty and gift of life in relationship, to turn away from hurtful and destructive choices, to walk with courage in the way of life.”
Is there a hell? Sure thing.
There’s a way that leads to destruction, for sure.
If I were teaching you how to enjoy the ocean, after I’d sufficiently warned you about coral and eels and sea anemones and maybe even sharks—all of which are actual, painful, and possibly deadly realities, I’d tell you this. I’d tell you not to be afraid—the ocean is vast and it can be dangerous, but if you pay attention and make good choices, the things you’ll see will be more beautiful than you could have even imagined.
Is the ocean a dangerous place?
You bet it is.
There are lots of ways in which you can get really hurt, ways that could be, frankly, the death of you, underneath that water.
But if you listen carefully to where the pitfalls are and jump in with courage you could swim, for example, toward the schools of angelfish. You can get close enough to see the delicate beauty of their fins and the stunning colors of their bodies. Along the reef, go ahead and touch the sea urchins gently—their prickly bodies are beautiful in their composition. You can pick up the sea cucumbers and feel how slimy they are—like nothing you’ve ever touched before. All kinds of shellfish and coral, like you’ve never seen, are spread out there in front of you—so much beauty you wouldn’t ever want to miss.
Everyday you and I get up and wade into the gift that is these amazing lives we live, we get to choose. There’s a way that leads to destruction, for sure. But there’s a way that leads to life, too. Jesus says, come on: let’s go this way, the way of love. Let’s grab each other’s hands and turn away from sin and separation and pain and evil, and remember:
God loves the world. God’s invitation to live—with love for each other and love for God—is an invitation to join in what God is doing here, among us. And that is really where we can begin to even ask the question of eternity—here and now, and not just for me, but for you, too. Us, together.
Jesus came, not to condemn the world or to scare us with poster board signs threatening eternal fire and devils with pitchforks.
Jesus came so that we might live into this invitation of relationship and redemption, so that we might be saved, right here and right now and forever.
There is a way that leads to destruction.
There is a way that leads to life.
Were Jesus here I’d bet he would say something to us like he said to Nicodemus. “Come along, friends, let’s go this way.”