The Resurrection of Our Lord C 16
27 March 2016
On this bright and beautiful Easter morning, I’m here to tell you: I don’t believe in hell. That’s right! I don’t believe in hell. At least not the kind of hell to which certain people get sent so they can suffer in a lake of fire for eternity. No, I think whatever is left of hell is in largest measure right here on earth. We make life hell – for ourselves and for others by what we do and by what we have left undone. Others make our lives hell: terrorists and certain politicians seem bent on making hell come to us. And we’ve seen and heard more than enough of that hell in this political season, and in this past week. And some of us doubtless wish hell did exist so that terrorists and certain politicians might roost and roast there for eternity.
Now, you might think that in denying the existence of hell I’m caving in to some modernist theology, some modernist beliefs. But I’m not. I’m instead listening to an ancient Easter sermon preached over 1600 years ago by St. John Chrysostom – a sermon still recited today in the Easter liturgies of the Orthodox traditions of the Christian faith. In that sermon, Chrysostom proclaims that by descending into hell upon his death, the Savior made “Hell captive.” “Hell,” he writes “tasted of the [Savior’s flesh] and was embittered. Hell was embittered . . . when it encountered [the Savior] in the lower regions. It was embittered for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.” Did you hear that? Jesus’ battle with Hell abolished Hell, took away its power. Hell is no more.
Ah, but that’s all a metaphor you say. You can’t believe that Hell was a place to which Jesus descended, that there was an actual battle there that left Satan impotent and in chains. Perhaps metaphor. But how in ordinary language do we say that there is no such thing as the hell portrayed by so much fundamentalist religion? And if that sort of hell has been abolished, as the ancient preacher asserts, why so much of it still here on earth?
I don’t know the answer to the why question, but I do know that hell starts in the human heart. Hell on earth has its beginnings in our own thoughts and feelings, and in deeds petty and small. Hell has its beginnings whenever I seek to set myself above others, whenever I think of things to bring down another human being. Hell has its beginnings whenever I refuse to forgive as I have been forgiven. Hell has its beginnings whenever I start pointing fingers at other people, presuming that I alone have the answers, my way or the highway, get on board or get out of the way. We all know how it works. Hell needs no larger stage than what it finds in the hearts of every last one of us. The difference between the hell manufactured by the terrorist or demagogue and our own ordinary selves is one of degree, not one of kind. It all has its beginning in the heart – as Jesus was so fond of telling us. You have heard it said that you shall not murder, says Jesus, but I tell you if you have called another person a fool, you have earned yourself a place in the scheme of hell.
But here’s the good news. Jesus has entered and does keep on entering the human heart – Jesus is on a mission to conquer that hell which dwells in the human heart – Jesus is on a mission to overthrow the hell we all manufacture in our hearts and minds. That mission was begun on the cross – from where Jesus overthrew Hell by pronouncing it powerless – “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” And the mission was made perfect in the bright new morning of the Resurrection when Jesus shows forth that the Hell manufactured by those who sought him gone and dead . . . was without power.
Today we celebrate the Easter victory – that Christ has overcome the hell in each of us. In baptism, the old hell-bound self was drowned and a new self arose from the waters – a new resurrected self – an Easter self. The hell that was in our hearts has been overcome, abolished, bound in chains. And a new self that loves the neighbor, that loves and prays for the enemy has arisen. So now hear this: The old in you is dead. And on this bright Easter day your new self shines like the Easter morning sun – your new self, risen from the depths of hell with Christ – now as golden as Christ in the eyes of God. Look around you and behold the risen Christ – in your neighbor and in your selves. And so that you have strength to shine, to shine in the midst of this world’s hell – some bread and wine – Christ’s own resurrected body and blood – for you. Christ the Lord is risen today – and so are you!! And the power of every Hell has been put in chains and hauled away. You are free! All of you, this bright Easter Morning and every new morning to come.