I suspect that if we were to spend some time talking about it honestly as a community this morning, we would discover that our imaginations are limited, or perhaps conditioned by things that we were taught a great many years ago. Some of us when we hear the word ‘hell’ will imagine fire, some of us will imagine pain, some of us will imagine the terror of nothingness.
What would be true about our mind’s ability to create a picture story about hell, would of course also be true, in a more pleasant way about how we conceive of heaven, and a great many other religious ideas as well. We might not be able to pinpoint where the images that we connect with heaven and hell have come from, but for the majority of us they will have been with us for many years.
Whilst there are a number of references in the New Testament to hell as a place where people go, or a state that people are in after they have died, which have been multiplied and expanded in many and various ways by Christian thinkers ever since, the allusion to hell in our Gospel reading this morning is not quite what it seems.
Over the last several Sundays we have been gathering together at the Eucharist around portions of the Sermon on the Mount, that great and famous collection of Jesus’ teachings, as it has been compiled for us by the writers of the Gospel of Matthew. At the heart of these teachings we have been confronted by Jesus’ call to his first disciples, and to us who are his disciples today, to not settle for any other way of life, than the fullness of humanity which God has intended and purposed for us.
At the beginning of this collection of teachings (which we heard two Sundays ago) Jesus urged us not to see the world in any other way than the way that God himself sees it; not to be sucked into the illusion that those who are the most powerful, and the most wealthy are at the centre of God’s plan, but instead to live out in all that we do the understanding that God’s see the world very differently. Jesus says no matter how things might appear now, we must live in the vision that it is the poor, and the hungry, and those who are meek and who mourn who are at the centre and not the margins of God’s plan.
To live life to the full, as God intended it, is to live in such a way that those who are the least and the lost and the left out are at the centre of everything.
Then last week we were confronted by Jesus’ astonishing and transforming teaching that just as he is the light of the world, so we who are his disciples share in the task of being his light as well. Each one of us, because of baptism into his death and resurrection and ascension are called to shine now with his glory.
To live life to the full, as God intended it, is to be people who shine as children of his light, not just when we are doing religious things, but in the whole of our lives as well.
Now, today, in the third part of this teaching, Jesus begins to help us to work out what all of this will mean for us. We cannot seek to be in a right relationship with God, he says, if we do not do all that we can to live well with our neighbours.
To live life to the full, as God intended it, is to live life constantly striving for reconciliation and harmony with those who live around us.
The Sermon on the Mount challenges any misunderstanding that we might have, that following in the way of Jesus is a past-time that can be limited to membership of a religious club for a couple of hours each week. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was killed under the Nazi regime famously put it, “salvation is free, but discipleship will cost us our lives.”
It is not enough, Jesus says in our Gospel reading this morning, for us simply to be faithful in our worship, if we are not also living in the light, growing into what it means for us to be truly human in the way that God intended us to be. “When you are offering your gift at the altar,” Jesus says, “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or your sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
Elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus teaches, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” On the night that he was betrayed, before he began his final journey to the cross, he said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
It is not surprising that we hear Saint Paul, in his letter to the Christians in Corinth, bemoaning their inability to live lives that embody this vision. A reminder to us, that even the earliest Christian communities were made of people just like us.
Of course, those who were listening to him in Galilee would have hoped that Jesus was deliberately exaggerating. It would have been difficult for them to imagine someone travelling three days from Galilee to Jerusalem, entering the Temple precincts, buying an animal to be sacrificed as was the religious custom of the day, and then just before the offering was delivered up to the altar suddenly becoming aware of a fault between themselves and their neighbour, and leaving everything to travel the three days back to Galilee to resolve it all, before finally turning around again and returning to the Temple once more for their worship to be completed. Yet this is the priority which Jesus gives to follow in his way, the way of the Cross.
Sometimes for us as Anglicans it is difficult to conceive of any other priority than worship. We are a community that is defined by the beauty and the tradition and the ritual of our Eucharist. We rightly know that we are called to worship the God who has created us, and who loves us, and to do it to the best of our ability. We are so accustomed to gathering here, and in the other churches of the Diocese, Sunday by Sunday to begin our week in prayer and worship, that we can mistakenly assume that that is the only priority that fashions and defines us.
Jesus says in the Gospel reading this morning, that the importance of worship is secondary to the imperative to live lives that truly reflect the love of God. So much so, that even if we were in the midst of our worship, and realised that we had failed our neighbour, the priority – according to Jesus – would be for us to leave our worship and to do something about it.
The alternative to this life in God’s love, shaped by the way of Christ, is rather unhelpfully translated in this morning’s Gospel reading as ‘hell’. Whilst there are a series of allusions to what hell might be like in the New Testament, the Greek word that the writers of Matthew’s Gospel use – Gehenna – related to a place which is altogether more immediate and this worldly for the first hearers of Jesus’ teaching.
In the time of Jesus Gehenna was a rubbish dump, on the edge of the city of Jerusalem. It was the place where things that were judged to be ritually unclean were sent to be burnt, and because their uncleanness was permanent, so was the smouldering fire that was kept alight day and night by all of the other rubbish that was disposed of in that place. So the image which Jesus uses, as the alternative to living life in the way that God intends, (in what we call the ‘Kingdom of God’), is like being in a rubbish dump that is perpetually smouldering.
We know the effect that smouldering anger and bitterness can have upon us and others around us. Think of the man or the woman who is constantly facing criticism in his job, ends up taking it out on his or her work mates, who in turn bring it home to their partners, who pass it on to their children, who take it out on the cat. Remember the people who have been homeless because they have been made jobless, and who live in the smouldering debilitation of hopelessness. Imagine the lonely, who are desperate for friendship but who are too scared to risk the vulnerability of seeking new companionship. This is what Gehenna looks like for many of the people who live around us. But Jesus points us to another way, and he calls us to shine a spotlight on it for others.
We are on a journey together, as we grow more deeply, along with other congregations around the Diocese, into what it means for us to be a ministering community in mission, in which every one of us knows that we are gifted by God to serve him in our Church and in the name of Jesus in the world around us. Father Ian is leading us and helping us to understand what it means to be a Church in which everyone has both the joy and the responsibility to share in God’s mission of love for the world.
After the Eucharist this morning the members of the Parish Council and the Parish Ministry Team will be meeting to focus their attention together on seeking to discern what God is calling us to do and to be in the coming year. As we look back over the last year there is much that we will want to celebrate together, that has been achieved in God’s strength, and because of the hard work and dedication of Father Ian, and the Ministry Team and all who minister with them. The challenge for us will be to imagine a future which is conditioned not by what we have done in the past, but which is fashioned by God’s call for us to be signs of his Kingdom in the future.
What image did you have in your mind when you heard the word hell this morning? Jesus calls us to confront hellishness in our neighbourhoods with the power of his love.
We pray that we might be so strengthened by this Eucharist and the fellowship that we share together, that in obedience to Christ, we may shine as a light in the world, for his glory; that we might be an alternative to all those places that, in the words of the Gospel, are smouldering; by being a place that bubbles and overflows with the love of God.