May 05 2011

Jesus Loves the Hell Out of Us

An Eastertide Message

John 20:19-31

It was a big day in heaven, with many folks waiting in line at the pearly gates. Peter stood at the entrance checking credentials, making sure each newcomer’s name was in the Lamb’s Book of Life. But there was some confusion, because the numbers weren’t adding up. Heaven was overcrowded, and a considerable number of the people were not properly accounted for. Amid great distress, some angels were sent on a mission to investigate things. It wasn’t long before two of them came back. “We found the problem”, they said. “Jesus is out back, lifting people over the fence!”

Now that’s an apocryphal story, but one with a wonderful gospel flavor to it! Some of the people we met during Lent – the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well; the beggar on the Jerusalem street blind from birth; the people from Poortown at the edge of Jerusalem who had to spend their milk money for sacrificial animals at the temple – they would surely recognize the Jesus who lifts people over even the most seemingly insurmountable walls, who removes all the barriers set to keep people out!

The love of God through Jesus redefines the parameters of our lives. And the empty tomb announces that this love is set loose for eternity, never to be bound again! In the words of the apostle Paul: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, norrulers, 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.”

The love of God through Jesus’ redefines “heaven”, too! Sin is distance, from the will of
God and from one another. “Hell” is the experience of being forsaken, isolated, abandoned, cut off from love. But Jesus bridges all the distances. He steps into every chasm. He breaches every boundary. For the love of God.

What I want to proclaim in the wake of Easter is this: Through Jesus, God loves us so much that he loves the hell right out of us! In the playful “parable” that I began with, the Jesus of the gospels would lift those people over the fence not only to redeem them, but to redeem the people already inside who would keep the others out; to redeem “heaven”! God’s realm will never be limited to the kinds of “accounting” that we would practice if we were the Lord. The kingdom is not just one more ghetto of the Pharisaic mind. God is always acting to complete the wholeness that God has begun!

John 20:19-31, is an extension of the Easter narrative. It is set on the evening of the day of Jesus’ resurrection, and what remains of the twelve (at this point, ten) are locked in a room. Think about that. On the evening of Easter, when heaven is breaking out all over the place, the companions of Jesus are still locked up in their own hell. They are experiencing their own separation from the Lord. Though Jesus is alive beyond the grave – praise God! – for them the Upper Room has become a prison cell of failure and shame. They are still afraid that what happened to Jesus on Golgotha will happen to them. And they are stewing in the knowledge that they each abandoned him, that in spite of all the love and grace received, with the realm of God opening to them, they had run away. What do they “deserve”? If their names are inscribed in the Book of the Lamb, it’s probably in red ink, on the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” list, right? Wrong.

There he is, penetrating their tomb, coming closer than the next breath, and into their anxiety he offers a gift: “Peace be with you.” He says it a second time; for them I don’t think once is enough. He lets them see the marks of betrayal, the wounds made by love with limits. He doesn’t condemn them, he commissions them! He offers a lesson about forgiveness, telling them that when sins are forgiven people are set free for new life; when sins are hung on to (“retained”), they continue to imprison not only the sinner but the aggrieved. Jesus presence with them once again is the forgiveness of God. He gifts them with his own breath, his own resurrected life!

There they have been, stuck in that awful state, and rather than scaring the hell out of them he loves it out of them! Because he’s sending them out to love other people the same the way, to love the hell out of others. How can any of us truly love the hell out of someone else unless we’ve already had it loved out of us?

Hell isn’t anyplace that God will send anyone. But it is a very real experience nonetheless. Those of us who grew up learning the Apostle’s Creed, one of the original statements of faith in the early church, will remember the words by heart: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only begotten Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” What’s the next line? He descended into hell. Did you ever wonder what that might mean?

Here’s what I think it means: He descended into the depths of the human experience; what people do to each other. In the words of a colleague: Jesus descended into the hell of our own making. He took the place of all our scapegoats, he took the place of all those dispatched, banished, thrown to the outer darkness by their fellow children of God. He came to the place where we are when we have run so far and don’t believe there can be any way back! He faces the power of that hell, and by God’s love, he overcomes it! And on Easter morning he proclaims to us all: Children, welcome to the kingdom of God!

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