FIRE OF LOVE
[Pentecost decor: a "flaming chalice" in the middle of the chancel.] Fire. Human beings have been gathering around fire ever since we learned to harness its power many, many millennia ago. We recounted a number of those ways during the children's time.
The thing we didn't mention with the children is that fire can also signal danger and violence. Fire, out of control, destroys. This community experienced a terrible fire just a few months ago at the Diamondhead Apartments. The recent forest fires in New Mexico bring another example of the tragedy that fire can sometimes represent.
But today I want to talk about one very important representation of fire's destructive power: hell. Hell is that imagined place where evil people will supposedly meet their eternal fate of fire and torture, a place of eternal punishment and suffering. The problem comes for me when we put this staple of Christian belief through the ages side-by-side with the God we meet in Jesus. Even from the cross Jesus refused to condemn those who were torturing and killing him. It would seem a natural thing to promise such folks their turn for a torturous death eternally in hell. Instead, he forgave them, and he promised Paradise, not hell, to the thief next to him. So what gives with the fires of hell and Jesus? Could our risen Lord who gathered the apostles under tongues of fire that first Pentecost also gather an evil remnant some day for the fires of hell? Exactly what kind of fire does Jesus bring? What kind of Pentecost fire is it that we are called to share with others? Have the fires of hell too often been an "evangelism tool" to threaten people into believing in Jesus?
This kind of question about hell is actually the most important question that I bring home with me from my conference in Boston last weekend. The theme of the conference was to squarely face the violence that has existed among religions and the religious through the ages. The presentation on Christianity, for example, had a long list of violence to recite. The low point was probably the Crusades during the middle ages, but there has been plenty since then, too: the inquisitions, burning many people at the stake; witch burnings; colonization that slaughtered native peoples, like our own American Indians; slavery; religious wars, and wars of every kind in the supposedly Christian nations. Tragically, the list goes on and on. But as the speaker at our conference went on with that list, he also raised a very important question in connection to hell: what might this earthly violence, carried out by those who name themselves as Christians, have to do with the supernatural, eternal, ultimate violence we call hell? Is there a connection between our popular belief in hell and the violence we have been so willing to wage on earth? Do the fires of hell make it easier for us to accept the fires of violence that have consumed so many people through the ages? Does our imagining of God's carrying out an ultimate violence give us permission to carry out our penultimate acts of violence? God does it; so can we.
These questions about hell are the most important questions I bring home with me, one it seemed appropriate to raise as we gaze at our representation of Pentecost fire this morning. Is the kind of fire that Jesus sent in the Holy Spirit possibly the same kind of fire that will eternally consume some folks on the Day of Judgment? Let's take a candid look at this important question.
It begins by noticing that Jesus did, in fact, talk about hell. And one of the surprising things is that one of the places where it comes up the most is in the Sermon on the Mount, precisely at those places where Jesus is most famous for his talk of nonviolence. He begins this famous section, for example, by saying (Matthew 5:21-22):
"You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire."Jesus goes on to mention hell a couple more times, even as he is talking about such incredibly anti-violent things such as turning the other cheek and loving one's enemies. So what gives?
This is what gives. First, we must notice that Jesus never mentions God. He never says that God will be sending folks to hell on judgment day. He says simply, "you will be liable to the hell of fire." You will be liable. That sounds more like language of natural consequences, and of human responsibility. In other words, our continuing in acts of violence only make us liable to our own hell fires.
A big clue to this is the actual Greek word behind our English translation of "hell." Actually, it's not a just a Greek word but a Greek name, "Gehenna," the name for the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus, which was continually smoldering in the fires, burning the garbage. (1) In other words, continuing in our own acts of violence makes us liable to end up in the fires of our own trash heaps.
But there is one further aspect to this place Gehenna. It was the Greek translation of the Hebrew for the valley of ben hinnom, which was where this garbage dump near Jerusalem was. But that valley also had an earlier significance. Long before the days of Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah talked about that valley outside Jerusalem as a place of child sacrifice.
Sacrifice. For millennia upon millennia, long before Jesus sent the fire of Pentecost, sacrifice held the primary religious significance of fire. You've heard me talk about sacrifice a lot through the years. Today, I want to lift up one aspect: that with sacrifice human beings performed a sacred violence, in other words, a violence which we attributed to the gods. The gods required this violence of us, we thought. Now, think of our usual idea of hell. Is it simply another version of this idea of sacred violence? That someday God will perform the ultimate violence of sending all the bad people into the fires of hell? And how has this idea continued to be connected to the violence we undertake? The Crusades explicitly made the connection: the aim was to send the infidels to hell while liberating the Holy Sepulcher from their clutches. But has this kind of connection subsided any more with subsequent wars? Hasn't war been supported with a sacred violence that sees us sending our enemies to hell? We do the work of killing them, and God finishes them off with an eternal punishment? Wouldn't we like to imagine that for someone like Hitler?
And I want to raise one other possible form of sacred violence for us this morning, one that perhaps is more resistant to our seeing it as sacred violence: capital punishment. (2) In our courts of law themselves, we thankfully don't bring God much into it anymore. That's left for our imaginations to picture God condemning these brutal murderers to their just desserts of an eternal punishment. But I would like to do something perhaps even a bit riskier: to wonder whether the Law itself has not taken on some of that sacred character. We can continue to not take responsibility for the violence we carry out against some of our murderers because that higher, sacred power of Law commands us to do it. For some of our state governors, for example, who are the last hindrance to this sacred violence: is it not convenient for them to hide behind the power of the Law to carry out this violence so that they can wash their hands of it?
So if there is a hell, what is it? And what kind of fire did Jesus send at Pentecost for us to share with others? I'd like to suggest that hell, first of all, does not begin with fire but with the coldest places in our hearts and persons that allows us to continue to hold onto sacred violence in all its forms. And the fire that Jesus sends us at Pentecost is a fire of love to begin to thaw and drive away those places in each of us.
With this suggestion in mind, I'd like to conclude with both one my favorite stories and then one of my favorite songs. The story is that one I've told several times before from Christian counselor Dennis Linn, about how his mind was changed about God. (3) He tells of Hilda coming into his office one day because her son had tried to commit suicide for the fourth time. She described how her son was involved in prostitution, drug dealing and murder and then ended her list of her son's "big sins" with, "What bothers me most is that my son says he wants nothing to do with God. What will happen to my son if he commits suicide without repenting and wanting nothing to do with God?"
Pastor Linn tells how he himself believed in the popular version of hell, but the counselor in him didn't want to say so. Instead, he began by asking Hilda what she thought. But Hilda herself was still trapped in that same idea of hell. "Well," she replied, "I think that when you die, you appear before the judgment seat of God. If you have lived a good life, God will send you to heaven. If you have lived a bad life, God will send you to hell." Sadly, she concluded, "Since my son has lived such a bad life, if he were to die without repenting, God would certainly send him to hell."
Again, Pastor Linn didn't want to directly agree with her so he tried another indirect tactic. He had Hilda close her eyes and imagine herself sitting next to the judgment seat of God. He also had her imagine her son's arrival at the judgment seat with all his serious sins and without repenting. Then he asked her, "Hilda, how does your son feel?" Hilda answered, "My son feels so lonely and empty." So Pastor Linn asked Hilda what she would do, to which she responded, "I want to throw my arms around my son." She lifted her arms and began to cry as she imagined herself holding her son tightly.
Finally, when she had stopped crying, Pastor Linn asked her to look into God's eyes and watch what God wanted to do. God stepped down from the throne, and just as Hilda did, embraced her son. And the three of them, Hilda, her son, and God, cried together and held one another.
Has hell vanished completely in this picture of Hilda and her son in God's embrace? Not exactly. Because it's still possible to imagine that Hilda's son would refuse to repent. There, in the embrace of God's loving forgiveness, Hilda's son could still refuse to repent of his sins and to open his heart, hardened by the coldness of his own deeds and despair, to God's love.
But let's take this out of the realm of imagination and take a candid look our own hearts. In what ways do we still persist with our own forms of sacred violence? What parts of our lives are still hardened and cold to God's loving forgiveness in Jesus Christ? Do we still hold on to a view of hell as a place where God will someday endlessly torture our enemies? Does such a picture still support our willingness to participate in acts of violence against our enemies?
In a few minutes we will confess in the Apostle's Creed that we believe that Jesus "descended into hell." Notice, that that isn't future tense. No, Jesus descended into the hell of our sacred violence, becoming victim to it himself on the cross, and then ascended to the Father so that he might send his Advocate, his Defense Attorney, the Spirit of Truth -- which is the fire of his love, a fire to begin thawing those still cold places of sacred violence in our hearts and our lives. God's Fire of Love came that first Pentecost into the still cold places of grief and hard-heartedness in the apostles lives and began to warm them in God's loving forgiveness so that they might share with others the Good News in Jesus Christ, not threats of eternal punishment in the fires of hell. This is the same Pentecost fire that we continue to pray for today to thaw out those coldest places in our hearts, a Fire of Love that sends us out to share it with others.
In that vein, I close by singing to you my favorite song, (4) a prayer that God would bless us with this new gathering in his love:
Here in this place new light is streaming,
now is the darkness vanished away;
see in this space our fears and our dreamings
brought here to you in the light of this day.
Gather us in, the lost and forsaken,
gather us in, the blind and the lame;
call to us now, and we shall awaken,
we shall arise at the sound of our name.
Not in the dark of buildings confining
not in some heaven, light years away --
here in this place the new light is shining,
now is the kingdom, and now is the day.
Gather us in and hold us forever,
gather us in and make us your own;
gather us in, all peoples together,
fire of love in our flesh and our bone.
Paul J. Nuechterlein,
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, June 10-11, 2000
1. See Gil Bailie on the New Testament word "hell,"Violence Unveiled, p. 211.
2. This question about capital punishment and sacred violence is another thing I ran across last weekend at our conference. Being passed around was an article by Brian K. Smith entitled "Capital Punishment and Human Sacrifice," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 68/1 (March 2000), pp. 3-25. Smith clearly states his purpose: "It is not the purpose of this paper to argue either for or against capital punishment.... Rather, what I wish to examine is whether, in the practice and ideology surrounding capital punishment, modern executions in the United States are comparable to the ideology and practice of those traditional religious rituals that have been deemed as 'sacrifices.'" (p. 4)
3. Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God, by Dennis, Sheila, & Matthew Linn [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994], pages 8-11.
4. "Gather Us In," Marty Haugen, © 1982 GIA
Publications, Inc., as appears in With One Voice: A Lutheran Resource
for Worship, Augsburg Fortress, 1995, hymn #718.
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