3 Weeks in Hell, with Kyle – Part 3

Lighters, Russian Roulette, and 5 Minutes – “Talking about and Inviting”

Okay.  Part 3.  The last Sunday in hell.

In some ways, I’m kind of sad we’re ending our time in hell today.  I feel like we’re just getting started, and that we’re only beginning to scratch the depth of spirituality, worldviews, church, salvation, our understanding of God and our place in this world…. But alas, Ashley’s sister is getting married next weekend, so I will not be here.  And even though I’m officiating at the wedding, I’m thinking a wedding sermon on hell might be a little bit inappropriate. 

The feedback I’ve received this month has been just awesome.  Some of it is funny.  Randy, the pastor at Steinbach Mennonite, told me this week, “I hear it’s been hell at Grace Mennonite for the past 3 weeks!”  Love it.

One of you said, “See you in hell on Sunday!”  Hahaha.  That one even caught me off guard.

This morning, one of you told me that last week’s sermon caused you to not to sleep for an entire night.  I asked if in a good way, and you said yes, because you were deep in thought.  Phew.  If you were having nightmares of fire and damnation, I’d feel a little bad.

Some of it is deep.  I received an email telling me, saying thanks for talking about this.  “The openness at Grace is a big reason why I am here, the other is that it values outreach and being followers of Jesus so highly. I have often felt I would not be accepted for my views in most churches and maybe rightfully so, but I am not out to change anyone else’s beliefs, only to grow in my own journey and share with those who are interested.  I’m thankful for a safe place to worship and serve and continue my journey.” 

And I’ll say thank you to everyone for this place named Grace.  It existed for many years before we got here… None of us walk alone.

One of you said, “You seem to be putting into words what many of us have been thinking for years.”  Thanks.  It’s a joy.  And thanks for a budget to buy good books.  Everything that I have said has been said somewhere else in history, and I’m glad that we give each other the space to explore some of more hard topics in faith. 

One of you had a question about the story I told last week about what might happen to an evil dictator after he dies.  It’s a story, so it can interpreted multiple ways, but it does give the impression that the evil dictator had a second chance at repentance and heaven after death .

In hindsight, I realize that this is quite a break from mainstream theology.  Maybe it’s heretical, maybe it’s not, but for sure it’s unorthodox. 

So I’ll spend a few minutes exploring that idea, because I think it sets us up well for the rest of the sermon.

First of all, questions of the afterlife are all speculation at best, right?  Because none of us really know how it’s going to shake down.  I fiercely believe that when we die, our story isn’t over.  At funerals I can say with great confidence that this isn’t our final goodbye.  But also, none of us can claim to know the exact details.

Second of all, the traditional understanding of sin, confession, forgiveness and salvation can lead to some pretty hard questions.  For example, all of us are okay with letting people into heaven without confessing Jesus as Lord.  All of us would say children and people with cognitive disabilities don’t have to say the name “Jesus” to enter heaven.  So salvation is possible without ever have to say or even know the word “Jesus.”

Thirdly, Jesus tells different things to different people.   He tells some to sell their possessions and give to the poor.  He tells others to sin no more.  He tells others to be look after the least of these.  And others he tells that their sins are forgiven.  There isn’t a really good, tight knit formula here. 

 And finally, here are two images.  One is Malala Yousafzai, the teenager who was shot by the Taliban and is working towards reconciliation with her enemy AND the education of girls in Southwest Asia.  And here is a picture of a bullet used by the US army in Iraq, inscribed with Bible verses.  There were 9 types of bullets with different Bible verses inscribed in them, most of them about how Jesus is the light of the world.   They were put there by the weapons company for over 30 years, as the company’s founder was a devout Christian.  Okay, so now this question of belief vs. deeds gets awfully complicated, doesn’t it?  One goes to heaven and one goes to hell?  Is there punishment for one and not the other? 

So, I like to think that when it comes to questions of the afterlife, that God’s grace is big.  Really big.  Like, bigger than all the world’s sins.  Bigger than what I can comprehend.  And that he’ll make it all right and sort it all out the way it needs to be sorted out.  And if that means a lot of unanswered questions or surprises in heaven or a lot of trust in God, I’m okay with that. 

But that brings up a whole different set of questions, that one of you texted me so perfectly during Q and Eh last week.  “Is there a point in sharing God’s word with others or “evangelizing” here on Earth then?”

Great question.  Story time!

Several years ago, I attended a Franklin Graham festival.  They used to be called crusades, and thankfully they changed that to festival, but imagine your classic tent meeting.

Franklin Graham, who is the son of Billy Graham and is the head of Samaritan’s Purse and all those shoe boxes at Christmas, started his speech off by holding up a lighter to his hand and saying, “If you think this is hot, hell is going to be a lot hotter.  There are murderers in the audience here tonight.  It’s true.  There are liars here.  People who tell lies.  We’re all sinners here.  And sinners go to hell.  But Jesus offers us a way out.” 

Is this how we are supposed to talk about faith with people who aren’t Christians?  We convince them that they are sinners and that God is going to send them to hell, so that we can tell them about Jesus so Jesus can save them from hell? 

What is Jesus saving us from?  This story makes it sound a bit like kind Jesus is saving us from angry God.  Does Jesus save us from God?  I thought they were the same person…

Because the assumption has always been that we are supposed to tell people about Jesus so that they don’t go to hell.  I’ve heard someone describe it like one big game of Russian Roulette:  “If my Christianity is wrong, then we’ll both end up it in the same place.  But if it’s right, then you’re going to be sorry.  I’ll take my chances with Jesus.”  So now following Jesus is like gambling?  Where we play the odds?  With our souls?

Or, if this doesn’t work, you can always throw a bumper sticker on your car.  I saw this one at the doctor’s office a few weeks ago. 

Image

“Try Jesus.  If you don’t like him, the devil will always take you back.”  

Here’s another one of my favourite stories.  Phil Campbell-Enns, the associate pastor before me, started this great tradition of taking our youth and learning about other religions.  We’d study some of their key doctrines, and then we’d wrap it up with a visit to their place of worship.  We visited mosques, synagogues, and a Buddhist temple.  It was awesome.

So when I was a youth pastor in the city, we did this too!  It was great, except for that one kid who converted to Islam… Just kidding.  Much to the relief of some people at church, none of our kids switched religions. 

One time we were at the mosque with the imam, the equivalent of our pastor, and one of my kids asked the question, “What happens in the afterlife to people who aren’t Muslim?”   He responded gently.  “Well, the traditional belief in Islam is that non-Muslims will end up in hell, which is quite similar to the Christian belief that non-Christians will end up in hell too.”

And then, in either a moment of sheer brilliance or sheer stupidity, I said “Well, shoot.  I guess we’re all going to hell then, aren’t we?”  Brilliant or stupid, I do not know.  

But for most of us, the question isn’t even about other faiths.  The questions I think most of us face is something like this:  “But what about my neighbour who cuts my grass when I’m on vacation?  He’s a nice dude.  Not doing a lot of evil.  He may think Christians are silly for believing in an invisible sky god, but he just goes to work at the bank, coaches minor hockey in the evening and goes to the cabin in the summer.  What do we invite him to?” 

Ah.  Yes.  Great question.

What do we invite people to?

I’ve thought about this question a lot this week.  A lot.  And read a lot.   And I’ve come up with this.

Jesus is Lord.

 I know, pretty original, eh?

Jesus is Lord.

 But I think this is it.  

In the Roman Empire, the context of Jesus and the first Christians, the emperors called themselves Caesar and they had popular slogans. 

“there is no other name under heaven by which people can be saved than that of Caesar

 and they demanded that everybody, everywhere acknowledge

 Caesar is Lord. 

 And so they marched all over the known world, conquering lands, demanding that people acknowledge Caesar is Lord, extracting taxes from the people they crushed which they used to build a bigger army to conquer more people to tax them to fund an even bigger army…” (Rob Bell, What is the Bible, part 29).

 And then along came the first disciples.  No. Caesar isn’t Lord.  Jesus is. 

 Our allegiance isn’t to you and your system of violence and oppression.  Our allegiance is to Jesus.

Jesus is Lord.

The beautiful thing about “Jesus is Lord” is that that statement is big.  Really big .  And timeless.  And relevant.   Because many things demand our allegiance.  And our time.  And our money.

Our country.  Our favourite political leaders.  Our retirement plans.  Our security.  Our favourite sports teams.

All o these are our current realities.  But now filter them through the phrase, Jesus is Lord.

The phrase “Jesus is Lord” is great that it can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. 

For some of us, it leads us to be more generous with our time and money.

For others, it means we get help for our deepest, darkest secrets.

For some, it means that we learn to claim our identity as beloved children of God.

For others, it means we look at others in new ways, and offer love and grace that is rooted in Jesus.

For some, it means inviting people over for dinner.

For others, it means inviting them to live with you.

Because Jesus is Lord changes everything.

One of my friends who works for a Mennonite conference, has a supper club with his neighbours, where he is the only Christian.  He shared with me that when people asked where he works, he tells them the church.  And they say, “Church? People still go to church?   Why?”  Now obviously, my friend isn’t in Steinbach.  And he told me that his answer is this, “I serve a master.  His name is Jesus.”

That sounds pretty ludicrous, isn’t it?  And somewhat offensive.  What about political parties or your family or your friends or your job or your country or your retirement plan or your boss or yourself?  Because we all have masters… Jesus is my master, and that changes everything.

So, my answer to what we invite people to consider, is Jesus.  Nice Sunday school answer, eh?  We invite people to see that Jesus is Lord.  And trusting that following Jesus leads to love.

So that, I hope, answers the “What do we invite people to.”

But the how… ah, the how.  Assuming you don’t have a bumper sticker about Jesus, or that you’re little “Hell is Hotter than this” lighter trick ruins Christmas every year, how do we invite people to consider Jesus as Lord? 

I, think, that for me, most of the time my invitation doesn’t sound like this, “You should decide if Jesus is Lord.”

I think, my invitation sounds more like this:  “Do you want to come with me?  My belief that Jesus is Lord leads me to live a certain way.  Come!  Come do life with us!  Let’s walk together.”

Because then, the invitation isn’t some abstract assent to certain beliefs or doctrines.  It’s an invitation to do life together.  A life that we believe leads to love.   A life of love that we believe changes the world.

It’s an invitation to come and try to follow Jesus.  An invitation to live in the Kingdom of God now.  A kingdom of peace, forgiveness, restorative justice, hospitality, weakness, welcoming everyone, and ultimately, love (Baker 170-176). 

It’s a little more subtle and gentle and humble than threatening hell.  It may lead to people making a concrete decision to declare Jesus is Lord.  But it might not.  But the same can be said about the bumper sticker and the lighter trick, with the difference being that inviting people to do life together and love the world will probably make them less mad and angry.

And I also like the invitation to come and follow Jesus together because it keeps a lot of the onus on us.  Because it means we need to live lives that are worthy of invitation.  It means that we are engaged in life giving beliefs and practices and prayers, and we invite people to join us.  It means we invite people on to a float plane every summer, or we invite college students to take a weekend and pray in silence, or we invite people to read really great books with us, or we invite them to pray for us as we work through forgiving someone, or we invite them to understand our identity as beloved children of God, or we invite them to explore faith at a safe little church called Grace.

For some of us, declaring Jesus is Lord is a starting point.  For others of us, it’s something we discover along the way.   

So, for me, talking about faith is Jesus as Lord.  Inviting people to faith is “Let’s walk together.” 

Two more stories, and then we’re done with hell for a bit.

First one.  Jesus rises from the dead, and is hanging out with Peter and John.  He asks Peter 3 times if Peter loves him, and Peter says yes, so Jesus says,

Feed my sheep.  Follow me.             

And then Peter looks at John, and asks, Lord, what about him?

And Jesus answers, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”  (John 21) I can do what I want with him.  Your job is to follow me. 

I can’t speak with confidence about the fate of others.  But what I can speak with confidence on is Jesus being my master.

Second story, Mitch Albom wrote a book, Have A Little Faith, exploring the faith and life of 2 men.  It’s a great little book, and the epilogue has always stood out to me as to why we do what we do.  We pick up a conversation between Mitch and his Rabbi, whom they called Reb.

One last memory.

This was not long before the Reb passed away.  He was talking about heaven and suddenly, for some reason, I had a notion.

What if you only get five minutes with God?

“Five minutes?” he said.

Five minutes, I said.  God is a busy God. Here’s your slice of heaven.  Five minutes alone with the Lord and then, poof, on you go to whatever happens next.

“And in those five minutes?” he asked, intrigued.

In those five minutes, you can ask anything you want.

“Ah.  Okay.”

He pushed back into the chair, as if consulting the air around him.

“First, I would say, ‘Do me a favour, God in heaven, if you can, a member of my family who needs help, please show them the way on earth.  Guide them a little.”

Okay.  That’s a minute.

“The next three minutes, I’d say, ‘Lord, give these to someone who is suffering and requires your  love and counsel.”

You’d give up three minutes?

“If  someone truly needs it, yes.”

Okay, I said.  That still leaves you a minute.

“All right.  In that final minute, I would say, ‘Look, Lord, I’ve done X amount of good stuff on earth.  I have tried to follow your teachings and to pass them on.  I have loved my family.  I’ve been part of a community.  And I have been, I think, fairly good to people.

“ ‘So, Heavenly Father, for all of this, what is my reward?’ “

And what do you think God will say?

He smiled.

“He’ll say, ‘Reward?  What reward?  That’s what you were supposed to do!’ “

Jesus is Lord.  Let’s do life together.  Because I believe that following Jesus leads to a love that changes our hearts and changes the world.

Amen.

** Dear internet reader.  Please read the disclaimers both before and after Part 1.  Thanks! 

3 Weeks in Hell, with Kyle – Part 2

Swans, Jail, and Canoe-bogganing:  What about <insert evil dictator here>?

Imagine this.

You die and get to heaven.  You smile at Saint Peter on the way in, high five St. Francis, and go exploring.  The streets of gold lead to a park, and in the middle of the park there is a duck pond.  You have always loved to feed the ducks, so you head down to the water.  This place is awesome!

When you get close, you notice someone painting the pond.  An easel is set up.  You see the back of a man, painting a swan with his water colours.   He’s really good at it.

As you approach the man, you break the silent moment with the words, “Nice swan.”

“Thanks.”  And then the man turns around, and all you can see is a little moustache under his nose.

How do you feel?

Betrayed?

“How could God let THAT person in?!?”

Anger?

“No!  That guy can’t be here.  He’s evil!”

Frustrated?

“How can both him and I, who lived our lives so differently, both end up here?  It’s not fair.”

Good questions, right?

(Adapted from John Watson’s post, Hitler in Heaven? at http://www.redletterchristians.com)

I’m not saying that Hitler is in heaven, but I think that this illustration is a great test for our understanding of our own theology.

We’ll come back to the topic of evil dictators in a bit.

Since last week’s first sermon on hell, I have had some really great feedback.  One of my favourite texts was that this topic was so refreshing.  Talking about hell is refreshing.  Awesome.

In our Extending the Learning conversation, some of you were sharing stories of things you’ve heard that lead to hell.  Last week I named Harry Potter and working on Sundays as things people have heard lead to hell.  You shared hearing that lipstick, make-up, and motorcycles are also things that lead to hell.  One of you shared that when you were younger, you were told that going to Grace Mennonite church leads to hell.  Wow.

And as we were laughing at all this, one of you shared something along these lines:  We’re able to laugh at the absurdity of all this now, but recently, many people in our community felt the need to tell other people in the community that they were in danger of hell because they didn’t oppose a certain anti-bullying legislation or they don’t hold a correct doctrine about sexual orientation.

Whoa.  This went from absurd to serious, from past to present very, from theoretical to practical very quickly, didn’t it?

Do you see what’s going in all these stories?  It’s Christians telling other Christians that they are going to hell.  And conveniently, the ones going to hell are always “them”.   The ones who disagree with me, the ones who hold different beliefs, the ones who act differently than me, and so thus I am going to heaven and they are at risk of going to hell.

Basically, what’s going on here is that it’s the people who are most sure they are going to heaven are the quickest to tell people not like them that they are going to hell.   It’s the people most sure they are going to heaven who are the quickest to tell people not like them that they are going to hell.

Convenient, isn’t it?

And also, not very humble.

Here’s a question:  If you are heaven, and you are in the presence of God, and all your needs are met and you are fully content, does it matter who else is there with you?

“But, there can’t be evil in heaven!”

Who said anything about evil in heaven?  I said people.  Not evil.

It’s called Scapegoat Theory.  Every community, especially religious ones, develop myths that tell the story of how a community gets rid of evil in its midst.  A scapegoat takes the blame for evil, separating the sheep (us) from the goats (them).  It can be one person (story about someone who said, “The devil must be mad that my politician won.”), or it can be an entire community, such as the Jews under Hitler.  And in an effort to get rid of evil, we are usually allowed to do violence to the scapegoat.  Because they’re guilty of evil, right? (even if they’re not).  (Baker 65)

To whom do we project evil onto?  People who watch Harry Potter?  People who work on Sundays?  People who don’t believe correct doctrines about sexual orientation?  People who don’t believe correct doctrines about hell?

Are we guilty of scapegoat theory, where we project evil onto outsiders, and assume that hell is what they deserve, because they’re evil, and we deserve heaven, because we’re not?

Picture a person who has committed a lot of evil in the world.  Hitler, bin Laden, Stalin, Mugabe, you’re next door neighbour, Assad, Amin, Gaddafi… (On a quick aside, do you notice that they’re all men?  Maybe we should ban men from being leaders for 100 years or so, until they learn that being a leader means servant-hood, but that’s a digress.)

I’d encourage you to take you that image of evil in our world, and the worst perpetrators of it.  Imagine you have this holy God who hates evil and suffering, and they meet.  Holiness meets sin.  What happens?

Justice.

Justice happens.

When we think about justice, most of us think of judges and lawyers and criminals.  Most of us think about retributive justice.  Most of us think about “you do the crime, you do the time.”  It’s an eye for an eye, but thankfully we’ve gone away from violence towards offenders, and replaced it with fines and jail time.  We understand this.  You roll through a stop sign, you get a ticket.  You don’t pay your parking tickets, you risk getting towed.  You assault someone, you go to jail.  You sell drugs to children, you go to jail.  We hear phrases like “tough on crime,” and “mandatory minimum sentences”  all the time.

Most of this isn’t bad.  Public safety is important.  Law abiding citizens are a good thing.  Dangerous people not being given unfettered access to victims is fine by me.

Overall, we live in a system of retributive justice.  Usually, you get what’s coming to you.

This isn’t that dissimilar to some of the language we use about hell.  You had a choice on what to believe, on how to act… you made that choice, and now you live with the consequences, be it heaven or hell.  Hell is God’s punishment for evil.

Well, here’s another question for you.  Is retributive justice biblical?  And from Genesis to Revelation, from beginning to end, is biblical justice static?  Or is it moving in a direction?  Where’s it moving us to? Should we still be living in an “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” kind of world?

Before the Bible was written, it was “a life for an eye.”   There were no limits on revenge.  Then along comes the Old Testament and it says “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” (Exodus 21:23-25).  This was actually placing a limit on revenge, saying the punishment has to match the crime.   And then along comes Jesus, who says:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also (Matthew 5:38-39).

Sharon Baker, in her great book Razing Hell, summarizes that biblical justice isn’t meant to be retributive, but rather restorative.

Restorative justice.  Where the offender and the offended work at reconciling their relationship.

“Our typical image of God as loving on the one hand and retributive on the other puts justice and love in tension as opposites.  We have a God with a split personality.  In one instance, God demands retribution for sin; in the next, we see God showing mercy and forgiving sin.  But when we read and interpret the Bible from the perspective of through our Jesus lens, we see that the standards of justice are driven by a desire for restoration, relationship, and harmony with God and others.  In other words, divine reconciling justice is love in action that seeks to make things right, to reconcile with God and with others.” (Baker 90)

The point of justice no longer becomes punishment, but the point becomes reconciliation.

If we look at sin and evil and through the lens of restorative justice, things change a bit.

Let’s take a look at the idea of the Day of Judgment.  And fire.

Often, the idea of judgement has been connected to fire.

John the Baptist, in Matthew 3:12, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Jesus says in Matthew 7:19, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Fire is connected to God’s wrath.  This connection of fire to judgement has led us to assume that fire will be an integral part of hell, and thus has led us to understand fire as bad.

But, as usual, things may not be always as they seem.   Here’s a question:  What if fire could also be considered good?

God appears to Moses as a burning bush, God leads his people out of Egypt by a pillar of fire,

Ezekiel sees God as a flashing fire that burns with splendour (Ezek. 1:4, 13-14), and for Malachi, God is the fire that refines and purifies (Mal 3:2-3, 4:1).  The writer of Hebrews even says that our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29). (Baker

Let’s use 1 Corinthians 3 as an example of how fire could be good.

11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

“Did you catch that?  We all go through the flames.  Some of our work will be saved, some will be destroyed, but the builder will be saved.  The fire burns away the impurities, not the person.  If God is the devouring fire, then standing in the presence of God is to stand in the fire.  To stand in the flames means to burn away the chaff, the wickedness, and the sinfulness.” (Baker 114-115)

A story.

Adapted from Baker (115-116)

Take the image of your person who has done lots and lots of evil.  Lots of it.  Really bad dude.  Killed thousands of people.  Let’s give him a name.  Let’s call him Dexter.

Dexter passes away.  He prepares to go into the presence of God.  His attitude smacks of rebellion, anger, and hatred because he knows the time for payback has arrived.  He just knows that God is going to judge him harshly and throw him in eternal torture as punishment, and he hates God for it.

Dexter comes into the throne room of God.  Glaring flames of fire, so bright and hot that he cannot see, confront him.  His anger and rebellion turn to sheer terror.  He moves closer to the flames, and as he does so, he realizes that the blazing fire is God.  The closer he gets to God, the more deeply he feels, not  God’s hatred or judgment, but God’s love.  It is a love of such magnitude that, with its abundance, it acts as wrath, judging him for deficiency, and with its purity, it serves as a hell, punishing him for his depravity.  God’s love and mercy, both acting as judgment, are so extravagant, so abundant, so incomprehensible that they completely overwhelm Dexter.  Then he hears a voice from the fire.  He does not hear, “You evil, vile murderer.  I am going to get you now.  Revenge, punishment, and torture forever and ever!”  Instead, he hears God say with sorry forged from love, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.  But look at your life;  what have you done?”

Totally undone by God’s unorthodox approach, Dexter falls to his face, still afraid but with his hatred replaced by remorse.  As his life flashes before his eyes, he sees all the victims, mothers crying for their lost sons, children begging for the return of their murdered fathers, the 18 year old boy dying alone on the battlefield, crying for his mother.  Dexter hears their screams, sees their bloody and battered bodies, listens as they cry out for mercy.  And he knows he gave none.  Yet here he stands in the fire of God, receiving what he never gave.  He looks to his right and sees his victims. Still in the fire, God makes him go to each one and lay his hand upon their hearts.  As he does so, he feels all their pain, all of their disappointments, all of their fear, and knows that he has caused it all.  Within the crowd of victims, the last one he has left to touch, he sees Jesus.

When he places his hand on Jesus’ heart, he not only feels the pain, sorrow, and the disappointment he has caused Jesus; he also feels the unconditional love that Jesus has for him.  All the while the fire of God burns, devouring Dexter’s wickedness and evil deeds.  Lest you think he gets off too easy, this is hell for him.  With gnashing teeth and uncontrollable weeping, his heart breaks, and he cries in utter remorse, in unmitigated repentance, knowing he can never undo the damage he has caused.  Seeing his repentance and the unendurable and seemingly unending pain he feels as the fire burns off the chaff of his evil deeds, the victims are vindicated.  The one thing victims most often wish for is that their offender feel remorse and know the terrible pain he has caused them.  Dexter’s immense remorse and pain at the knowledge of his sin against them satisfy this need.

The paradox of God’s fire is that the farther a person stands from God in that day, the more pain the fire causes as it burns away the impurities.  Dexter doesn’t get away with murder; he doesn’t get to take a walk without suffering any consequences.  He burns in God’s eternal fire.  The more he burns, the closer he gets to God, until finally he stands next to God, purified, free from sin, and ready to hear God’s words.

Then Dexter hears God say, “I forgive you.  Will you be reconciled to me and to those you have wronged?” Barely able to answer, Dexter nods his head in utter disbelief.  Much to his astonishment, God asks Dexter’s victims to draw near to Dexter and put their hands on his heart.  As they touch him, each one feels Dexter’s pain, his fear, his disappointment; they can hear his cries as a child, know his shame as an adult, and understand who he was as an evil ruler.  Themselves forgiven and embraced by the love of God, they extend that same kind of grace to Dexter, forgiving him his sins against them.  At last Jesus stands before him, touches Dexter’s heart, and says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love, and I forgive you.  Will you enter into my kingdom and be restored to God?”  And Dexter accepts.  He has been judged by the fire of love; he has walked through the fire of God’s wrath; he has been purified by the fire of God’s mercy.  He receives forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration, and he enters the kingdom of God, tested by fire, forgiven by grace.

The possibility exists, however, that Dexter does not accept God’s offer of restoration, or that after the testing of the fire, nothing remains of him at all.  Nothing. In order to preserve human freedom, which God gave to us at creation, we must allow for the possibility that some people will still reject God.  The fire does not eliminate the gift of human freedom. 

<pause>

Some of you may be thinking:  That’s an interesting story.

Others may be thinking:  I still think he gets off too easy.  Well, in our traditional understanding of heaven and hell, if Dexter made a death bed confession, he’d be getting off too easy as well, wouldn’t he?

One of the things I like about this story is that God’s integrity is preserved.  If we take the words of Jesus seriously, we are to love our enemies, and do good to those who hate us, and walk the extra mile.

The apostle Paul tells us in Romans 12:19-21  that we’re to leave room for God’s wrath, and instead of us taking revenge, “If you enemy is hungry, feed him;  if she is thirsty, give her something to drink.  In doing this, you will be heap burning coals on their head. Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.”

“Would God command us to love enemies, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and return evil with blessing and then do the opposite?  We’re told to imitate God, right?  I love that Romans passage, because it really contradicts the idea of a vengeful God whose wrath demands retribution.  In this case, the retributive action Is to respond in love.  When we “leave room for the wrath of God,” we deal with enemies the way God does:  We bless them.” (Baker 121)

But that’s still not fair!  In this life, people get to do what they want and still get a chance at heaven!  What’s the point of me being a Christian now!   Why did I wake up on Sunday mornings and give money to church and trying to love my enemies when it’s been hard and give up my evenings to go tobogganing in a canoe with junior high kids?

Sounds a bit like a parable that Jesus told about some workers for a vineyard.  Some were hired at 9 am, some at noon, and some at 5 pm, and they all got paid the same.  When they cried “that’s not fair!”, the boss said:  You agreed to this.  I can pay people whatever I want!  (Matthew 20:13-16).

It also sounds a bit like a parable about 2 sons.  1 son took half his father’s wealth, went and spent it on wild living, came back empty handed with his tail between his legs, and his father had the nerve to throw a party.  When the older son heard about the party, “he came angry and refused to go in.  So his father went out and pleaded with him.

But he answered, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.  Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”

“My son,”, the father said, “you were always with me, and everything I have is yours.  But we have to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:28-31)

If you ask me, when we’re are quick to point out who’s not going to heaven, when we are the workers who scream “That’s not fair!”, when we’re the son who is completely unaware of the good things his father has shared with him his entire life, when we refuse to join the party…. I don’t think we’re not that far from hell after all.

Because really, do any of us deserve grace?

God’s justice isn’t about putting people in hell.  God’s justice is about restoration.  Reconciliation.   Relationships. 

Because the story is about God…

renewing all things – Matthew 19:28

restoring all things – Acts 3:19

reconciling all things – Colossians 1:20

(Poets, Preachers, and Prophets – Rob Bell)

And we get to be a part of it.

** Dear internet reader.  Please read the disclaimers both before and after Part 1.  Thanks!  **

 

3 Weeks in Hell, with Kyle – Part 1.

Harry Potter, Dentures, and Fracking:  The Point of It All.

The following was given as an insert to our church’s bulletin.

Some Introductory Thoughts to Three Weeks in Hell

In my preparation for these sermons, I’ve realized that it’s not just a conversation about hell.  It’s bigger than that.

It’s a conversation about God.  Jesus.  Spirit.  Faith.  Identity. Trust.  Relationship.  Church.  Life… Us.

As we enter the conversation, here are 3 quick notes.

1)    I could be wrong.  And so you could you.  We see through a glass darkly (1 Cor 13:12).  But I do believe that if, as a community, we do our best to follow Jesus in loving God and loving our neighbours, we’re on the right track.

2)    That being said, there are 4 ways to engage the conversation.

i)  During the service, you can text me any questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them during the Q and Eh part (with thanks to the Winnipeg Jets and the Meeting House to stealing “Q & Eh”).

ii) We will continue the conversation over a cup of fair trade coffee as part of the Extending the Learning Conversation.

iii) Follow along at www.kylepenner.wordpress.com.  Feel free to submit a comment or question there, and I’ll do my best to respond to you.   You’ll also find my reading list there.

iv) Hellbound is a great movie exploring different perspectives on hell.  If you’re interested in a movie night at Mel’s house, sign up on the back table in the foyer.

3)    I’m not intending these sermons to be doctrinal statements for our church or academic essays.  Without preaching for many hours (thank goodness we’re not), we can’t cover all there is to say.  Rather, I’m hoping that with some different perspectives (and good questions) on hell, in a small way we’ll be able to better understand who God is and how we live in this world as followers of Jesus.

–          Kyle

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Picture a tiny town with a tight-knit community.  The people share joys and concerns, woes and gossip.  They keep a close and affectionate watch on one another’s business.  They talk and talk and talk.

What an outsider would notice within minutes of listening in on conversations, are constant and slightly self-conscious references to Uncle Ben.  A beautiful sunset prompts someone to say:  “Isn’t Uncle Ben awesome?”  Good news brings out how thankful and overjoyed they feel toward Uncle Ben.  Even in tragedy, a local might say, in slightly nervous fashion, “You know, it just goes to show how much we all need Uncle Ben.  I know – we all know – that Uncle Ben is good.”  Uncle Ben is always on their mind.

At the beginning of each week there’s a meeting in the largest house in town.  Upon arriving, people get caught up in good fellowship and animated discussion of the week’s events, with conversations straining in the direction of Uncle Ben.  When a bell sounds, talk ceases.  Everyone moves to the staircase and descends into the basement.  Each person sits facing an enormous, rumbling furnace.  Seated close to the furnace door, as if he were part of the furnace itself, is a giant man in black overalls.  His back is to them.

They wait in silence.  In time, the man turns around.  His face is angry, contorted.  He fixes a threatening stare of barely contained rage on each person, then roars:  “Am I good?”

To which they reply in unison, “Yes, Uncle Ben, you are good.”

“Am I worthy of praise?”

“You alone are worthy of praise.”

“Do you love me more than anything?  More than anyone?”

“We love you and you alone, Uncle Ben.”

“You better love me, or I’m going to put you… in here” – he opens the furnace door to reveal a gasping darkness, with sounds of anguish and lament coming through.  Uncle Ben finishes, “Forever.” (David Dark, as found in the Love Wins Companion)

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How does that story, courtesy of David Dark, make you feel?  Ugh.  Blah.  Yrch.  Uncle Ben isn’t good.  He’s a monster.  He’s terrible.  Is God, like Uncle Ben?  What kind of God would do that?

Good questions.  Necessary questions.

In preparing to speak about hell, a number of you asked:  “Why?  Why should we talk about hell?”

Well, let’s start with a question.

What’s the point of faith?  What’s the point of God?  What’s God’s character?  What’s the point of this all?  Is it to get to heaven and avoid hell?  One of you shared with me that you were told by a grade 3 classmate that you were going to hell because you were reading Harry Potter.   I don’t blame the 8 year old.   But where does the kid get this from?  But then another one of you shared that your child was told that their dad is going to hell because he works on Sundays.  And this was told not by a child, but by their religion teacher in school.  Ah!  So now we know where the 8 year old got it from.  (Well, if reading  Harry Potter and working on Sundays is a highway to hell, I guess I’m on my way).  For the people telling kids that working on Sundays and reading Harry Potter leads to hell, I’m fairly sure that for them, faith is about avoiding hell.

Let’s just get right into it.

If you think that this whole Christianity thing is about avoiding hell and getting to heaven, I disagree.

I know that’s a fairly, strong, possibly arrogant statement, but I really mean it.   The Christian faith is not a message of “turn or burn.”  The Christian faith is not simply fire insurance.  Go to an insurance broker for that (there’s a good one on Main Street that I know of).  Being a follower of Jesus, I believe, is far better than that.

Let’s take a look at the words the first evangelists used to tell people about Jesus.  Did any of them say this?  “Accept Jesus as your personal saviour or you you’ll go to hell.”  No! They didn’t.  That means that the people who spent the most time with Jesus, the first people to share the news of Jesus outside of their borders, the first ones who said “Because Jesus died and rose again, something happened”, the first Christians who died for their faith… Not one of them made mention of hell as we know it.  Declare Jesus as Lord and Saviour?  Yes.  Repent?  Yes.  Live lives worthy of the gospel?  Yes.  Do it because if you don’t, you’re going to go hell?  No.

Let’s start with looking at what the Bible says about hell.  (I know this is short (really short), but I don’t think you want to hear a 45 minute lecture on the words used for hell).

Whenever we read the word Hell in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word is actually Sheol.

Sheol is translated as “grave”, “pit”, or “abode of the dead.”  It’s a place of darkness to which all the dead go, both the righteous and unrighteous.   If everyone goes there, it’s certainly not a traditional picture of hell.

Sometimes when we read the word hell in the New Tesament, it’s the Greek word Hades.   Hades is actually just the Greek translation of the word Sheol, and also refers to the abode of the dead.  The only passage that describes Hades as a really, really bad place is the story of Lazarus and the rich man, which we’ll get to that in future weeks.

And finally, most of the time that we read Jesus using the word Hell, he’s really using the word Gehenna.  Gehenna is the name of the Valley of Hinnom, the ever-burning garbage dump southwest of Jerusalem.  Its history in the Old Testament involved child sacrifice occurring there, and after King Josiah stopped that practice, it was an accursed garbage dump.  Always on fire, always smoking, full of garbage animals, and often the bodies of the worst criminals were dumped there (Randy Klassen).  When Jesus spoke of Gehenna, his hearers would think of the valley of rotting, worm-infested garbage, where the fire always burned, smoke always lingered, and if the wind blew just right, would sicken the senses of whoever smelt it.  It was a place of total disgust and horror (Sharon Baker).  Kind of like the Steinbach dump <smile>.

That was a lot.  I know.  To recap, the idea of hell being this place opposite of heaven where we are in eternal torment, is, I find, not biblical.

Where did this idea come from?

Well, the concept of hell as a place of torment for sinners was actually a concept more or less borrowed from other religions, especially the Persians, and used more or less as a tool to coerce and enforce behaviour, or, as some would say: Turn or Burn.

But Jesus does use the word Gehenna a lot.  He actually talks more about hell than heaven.  So what’s going on there?

Well, here’s a question for you.  When Jesus did use the word hell, to whom was he speaking?  He wasn’t speaking to the “sinners”, the bad people, the outsiders, the non-Christians… He was speaking to rich people and religious rulers.  He was speaking to the insiders.  To the good ones who didn’t smoke or dance or work on Sundays.  He even told the Pharisees,

15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell (Gehenna) as you are.” Matthew 23:15

Ouch.  He calls them seagulls who live at the dump.

But, what about the coming wrath that John the Baptist refers to?

Well, if you keep living like this, the Romans will crush you.  Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.  And they did.  In the year 66 CE, the Jews took up arms against the Romans, and in the year 70 CE, the Romans crushed them.  Killed everyone.  Lots of weeping and gnashing and teeth.  Ground their city into dust.  Nothing left.  Nothing.  Wrath and darkness.

But… what about the goats?!

Us Mennonites love Matthew 25, and the parable of the sheep and the goats.  The sheep get eternal life and the goats get eternal punishment!

(Thanks to Rob Bell and Shane Hipps for the following).

The Greek work for eternal is Aeon, which doesn’t mean time never ending, as in thousands, and millions and billions of years from now.

Aeon means an intense present experience, that has a beginning and an end, like time slowing down.  Your kid gets up on water skis the first time and is all smiles?  Those 2 minutes last forever.  Your kid is throwing food in a restaurant?  Those 2 minutes last forever.

In the Old Testament, the word Olam is translated Eternal.  Some people think it means forever.  But it’s also the word used to describe how long Jonah was in the fish.  So it could also mean 3 days.

And the Greek word for punishment here is Kolazo, which is rooted in horticulture.  It can mean punishment.  But it can also mean:  A time of pruning, a time of trimming, an intense experience of correction.   It’s not this torment that is going to last forever.  It’s a time-out.  And, if I may borrow an analogy from my 3 year old, when she is in time out, there is a lot of wailing, moaning, pain, weeping and gnashing of teeth.  And then, 3 minutes later, it’s over.  Unless she doesn’t listen again.  Then it’s back into timeout she goes.

Taking Jesus’ words on hell literally also leads us to some funny questions.

How can there be total darkness where there is fire?

Are there places God can’t really be?  Like, really? Pslam 139 speaks of us hiding in the depths, but God finding us there.  1 Peter 3 speaks of Jesus preaching to the dead spirits.  Huh?

If there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, are people without teeth given dentures when they go to hell?

So maybe Jesus is speaking a bit more metaphorically than we sometimes give him credit for.  And, given that none of the first disciples ever used hell as a motivator to consider the Christian faith, I think we need to rethink this whole God as Uncle Ben the monster thing.

There is so much to say.  So much.

But alas, we don’t have time.  Let’s go back to the gospels of Jesus.

(The following is from The Last and the Word After That, by Brian Mclaren)

The gospel of John never uses the word hell.  Mark barely mentions it.  Matthew and Luke mention it, but Luke softens much of Matthew’s statements.  So really, Matthew has the most hellfire and brimstone in it.

If you go through every passage in Matthew that talks about hell or judgment, and take note of the Behaviour, Consequence and Point, what do you end up with it?  What’s the biggest point of Jesus’ teaching, right?

“Many people would think that it looks like this:

Behaviour:  Not accept Jesus Christ as a personal saviour, not being saved or born again, not asking Jesus into our heart so your sins can be forgiven, etc.

Consequence:  Being sent to hell.

Point:  Accept Jesus as your personal Saviour.

But, if we actually did the exercise and comb through the gospels, we’d find that not one of the passages in the gospel of Matthew says anything remotely like this.

If you do this, and please do, you might find this:

Be Fruitful.  Now.  Bear fruit now.  Don’t just talk or say the right things, but live out the teaching of the Kingdom of God, especially in the area of compassion for the weak and needy and vulnerable.

It was clear that Jesus wasn’t saying anything goes, everything’s OK.  He was telling people that they would be held accountable, that how they live now would count forever.  Even his followers will face judgement.   But he emphasizes this so that they’ll not be hypocritical or complacent now.”  (Mclaren).

The point, is living in the Kingdom of God.  The point, is the rule of God in our hearts and in our world.  The point, is fruitful living now.

The point, is the fruits of the Spirit.  Of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control.  And that if we don’t bear fruit, we will be cut down and thrown onto the burn pile.

I think that Jesus uses such strong language because I think the consequences of not living fruitful lives are huge.  The consequences really matter.

Have you talked to a police officer?  Creating hell is a very real choice for all of us.

Have you ever talked to somebody who works for Child and Family Services?  Creating hell is a very real choice in our world.

Have you ever been a victim of violence?  Creating hell is a very real choice.

Have you ever been to a refugee camp?  Or in a conflict zone? Have you lived with someone with a substance abuse problem?  Or lived with someone who has an addiction?  Do you know someone who doesn’t care about others, only themselves?  Do you know an island nation or two that might literally disappear if the polar ice caps melt?  Do you know someone who uses fear and shame to belittle or control others?  Or a landlord who doesn’t fix holes in the windows or call an exterminator?  Do know someone who has been the victim of abuse?  Or someone who doesn’t give a rip about relationships?  Do you know someone who has been disowned by their family?  Or know someone who works two jobs and has trouble feeding their kids?  Do you know a child soldier?  Or someone working in the sex trade?  Have you heard the stories of residential school survivors?  Do you know someone who wants to work but can’t and has trouble feeding their kids?  Or know someone who has to go to the hospital and doesn’t have a ride?  Do you know a community whose water supply has been contaminated because of fracking?  Do you know someone who is alone in this world?

Creating hell is a very, very real choice in our world.   Some of it is personal.  Some it is systemic.  But it’s a very real option.

Rob Bell puts it nicely (Bell, in Love Wins):

“We need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us.  We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.

The choice of living in heaven or living in hell is very real.  It’s just not about the afterlife.  It’s about our lives, now.  Because, if we don’t make the right choices, I think we miss out on something that could be beautiful.”

I think if we hang on to anger, I think it’s poison in our own soul, and we miss out God’s best for us.

I think if we choose to be selfish, we miss out.

I think if we choose violence, if we keep giving into substance abuse, if we don’t get help for our addictions, if we don’t apologize when we make mistakes, if we believe that we are insignificant, if we don’t work towards forgiveness when we’re wronged, if we don’t turn the other cheek, if we don’t walk the extra mile, I think we miss out on the beauty that can be found when we live the life Jesus invites us to.

If we don’t love our neighbours, if we don’t live in solidarity with the marginalized, if we don’t use all of our power and privilege for those who need it the most, if we don’t seek reconciliation and restoration for both the oppressed and the oppressor, if we don’t take care of God’s good earth, if we don’t try to love our enemies, if we don’t exist for the benefit of the other, I think we miss out on the beautiful life Jesus invites us to live.

This is the invitation before us.  The choice.  It’s not “turn or burn.”

It’s, “Do we trust that following Jesus leads to love?”  Love for you, for me, love for the entire world?  It’s a choice we have to make every day of our lives.   It’s a choice to make when life is good and when life is hard and when our faith is strong and when our faith is weak. Do we trust that following Jesus leads to love?   A love that transforms us?   A love that transforms everything?  Do we trust that following Jesus leads to love?

Amen.

*To my internet readers.  These are sermons I preached at a small Mennonite church in Steinbach.  We have people with multiple university degrees, and people who haven’t finished high school yet.  We have 88 year olds in the pews and 13 year olds in the pew.  And I firmly don’t believe that sermons are academic essays.  So I probably missed some stuff, or some scholars may disagree with me, or you think I should have gone deeper in some places, or you may even disagree with me.  I get that.  I ask for your grace. And your best bet would be to make the trip to Steinbach (I hear it’s worth the trip) for the next 2 Sundays and sit in on our life giving conversations about hell (that last little bit is ironic, isn’t it?).

“3 Weeks in Hell with Kyle” – Reading List

The following are books that have helped shape my upcoming sermons.  Some were helpful.  Some were not.  If you can only read one or two, follow the **’s.

**The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis

**Razing Hell:  Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught about God’s Wrath and Judgment, by Sharon L. Baker

**Love Wins, by Rob Bell

**The movie, Hellbound, directed by Kevin Miller

Red Letter Revolution, by Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo

What Does the Bible Really Say About Hell?, by Randy Klassen

The Love Wins Companion, edited by David Vanderveen

The Last Word and the Word After That, by Brian Mclaren

Selling Water by the River, by Shane Hipps

The Devil Wears Nada:  Satan Exposed, by Tripp York

Erasing Hell, by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle

The Case for Faith, by Lee Strobel

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut:  Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem, by Bradley Jersak

Evil and the Justice of God, by N.T. Wright

Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship by N.T. Wright

Plus copious amounts of reading at www.redletterchristians.org