Don't Go to Hell

Here is the bad news from this morning’s Gospel: resurrection doesn’t fix everything, at least not the way it appears to on Easter cards or in movies about the life of Jesus. You know the image: a blinding light, maybe with the form of a blonde, blue-eyed man seeming to emerge from its center, hands outstretched. There may be a cave, angels, clouds from behind which the sun begins to break through. It looks really good. It looks like once that happens everything is taken care of. It looks like it answers every argument and opens every heart. The image may be a little short on detail but it really packs a wallop.

And yet here we are two thousand years later and we know that not every heart is open. And we know that not every argument has been won. And we mostly feel sure that we can’t make an entrance like that blonde Jesus does, with sunlight flashing from behind us and angels standing witness. That’s too bad, isn’t it? Oh for that power. Oh to be so decisive and cataclysmic and gleaming. It just feels like that’s what resurrection is supposed to mean, and I think many of us carry around a secret sense of disappointment when that doesn’t work for us.

While we are on the subject of disappointment: this morning’s Gospel from Luke contains what may be the only joke about the resurrection in all of scripture. It’s quite disturbing. At the end of the parable, when the rich man asks that Lazarus be sent from the dead to warn his rich brothers that they ought to change their ways, Father Abraham refuses. No, he says, even if someone were sent from beyond the grave to warn that basket of deplorables, they would refuse to believe. Their hearts aren’t going to open.

The joke, if we can call it that, is that Luke’s readers know that Jesus has come from beyond the grave, and that that fact has made all the difference in the world to them. If they are paying attention, though, they will be struggling with the fact that Jesus has not made a big difference to many of their friends and neighbors. They must hear this remark from Father Abraham as a nod to their own reality. Maybe they hear it as an ironic way of lessening the immense psychic strangeness of the post-resurrection world. How mysterious it must be to them to know that Jesus is with them in great power and glory, but that the kingdom hasn’t come in any straightforward way that solves all their problems.

Luke’s first readers must have known as we do that even in the world for which Jesus has died and in which he has been reborn, there are still vast chasms that separate us from one another. Let me put it more strongly: in this world that God so loved that he gave his only son, this world for whom Jesus lived and died and rose again, this world that God can’t resist—in this world, the vast chasms that separate us from one another are the absolute hallmark of our separation from God. And Luke’s parable is written with a kind of brutal realism that makes us feel the results of that separation.

Let’s be clear: the rich man in this parable wasn’t just rich. He wasn’t a person who tried to follow his conscience but got cold feet at the prospect of giving everything to the poor. He wasn’t a person who tried, even tried ineffectually, to do something positive in the world. He wasn’t much concerned about the notion of “giving back” in thanksgiving for his blessings. This was a man who dressed to the nines and feasted richly every day with no thought at all for the poor man at his gate. The gate is an eloquent expression of his rigid focus on wealth. “Keep the poor away from me,” he seems to be saying, “because my life has nothing to do with theirs. My wellbeing is not only not dependent upon the wellbeing of others, it is directly opposed to the wellbeing of others. The only answer is to lock the gate.” We know him for his clothes, his food, and his desire to lock out the poor. Nothing else. Build a wall, he seems to want to suggest, and make Lazarus pay for it.

And when he dies, the vision of the afterlife we’re given for him is nothing but a grimmer image of his earthly existence. That same sense of separation and limitation become overpowering. That same sense that life is limited to material pleasure and fear of material suffering is still with him. There he is, face to face with ultimate reality, and he has learned nothing. We don’t hear anything about his personal regrets, just that he is now in physical agony. His desire is not to know God or repent of his sins, but to have some cool water, and of course he wants Lazarus to deliver it. He seems to think that the isolation could be bearable if only it were just a little more comfortable. If only there were servants and power. That worked for him on earth, so why not try it in the afterlife?

And that gate he used to keep out anyone who challenged his self-indulgent worldview has now become some kind of great, existential gap. It doesn’t open and close anymore. Its hinges are rusted shut. It stretches before him for eternity, and it seems to stretch back behind him, to his life on earth, with that same sense of eternal inevitability. No, there is absolutely no hope for this rich man or for his family or for his cronies. Suddenly it’s not just that he won’t change, it’s that he can’t change, and nobody like him can change, and there is nothing at all that can be done except to suffer in this world of his own making, a suffocating, hot, claustrophobic world in which all the doors are closed. Suddenly he is in a world in which even the resurrection is just a joke, even to Father Abraham.

Is this what the afterlife looks like? No. That’s not really what this story is trying to map out for us. Is the resurrection a joke? No, never, not in any way. This story is written by someone who is shot through with resurrection hope, for people who are shot through with resurrection hope, and it records in some way the truth of Jesus’s earthly ministry, which was founded on and steeped in and ultimately the cause of profound, glorious, resurrection hope.

And here’s what it does for us: it teaches us how to know heaven on earth by knowing what the road to hell looks like. It teaches us the power of the smallest act of charity, by showing us what a life without charity looks like. It teaches us what openness and humility can do, by showing us how arrogance and self-will can spiral out of control. This story, for all its grim inevitability, is a lesson in how to change. And how to change is pretty simple. Can’t commit right now to a life of evangelical poverty? Try giving something small away. Can’t love your neighbor? Try not ignoring your neighbor. Try admitting that your neighbor exists. Don’t shoot your neighbor or put your neighbor in jail on some slim pretext. Can’t drum up an abundant feeling of hope and charity? Try not embracing cynicism with your whole heart and soul, just for a few minutes.

It’s really simple. Just don’t go to hell. I mean it. What we do here on earth creates a reality for us. What we practice here on earth starts to shape the world that we live in for ourselves and for others. Our daily defensiveness and rigidity really are the building blocks of a vast chasm that separates us from all that is holy and all that is true. So don’t go to hell, just for today. Don’t give up on the world. Don’t turn your back on this aching, hungry, world.

Can’t make an entrance like that Easter Card Resurrection Jesus, with the light shining and the arms outstretched and the clouds parting? Don’t worry about it. Just come back a little from the ways you used to be dead. Look up from your anxiety about where we are headed and focus on where we are right now, where love and kindness are abundantly possible, and you are here because you want to hope, and you are surrounded by people who have all returned from graves of one kind or another. This is real. This is the kingdom of God in action. Whatever resurrection really looks like, it has your face and your energy level and your limitations, just for today, while you take small steps away from the grave, to open the gate that keeps you locked up in fear and arrogance. Resurrection looks like this community, this church full of open hearts and open hands and open faces. This moment.

Don’t go to hell. Don’t go to hell today. By the grace of God, stay here with us. Just nudge that gate open and stay with us. Don’t go to hell.


Preached by Mother Nora Johnson

25 September 2016

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on September 26, 2016 .