On the subject of Hell

Mark 9:38-50

In Heaven: The cooks are French, The policemen are English, The mechanics are German (until the middle of last week!), The lovers are Italian, The bankers are Swiss.

In Hell: The cooks are English, The policemen are German, The mechanics are French, The lovers are Swiss, The bankers are Italian.

I thought I’d start with a little bit of a joke today. As you may have guessed from the reading, it’s a pretty serious topic in the sermon. Hell is a subject that we don’t often discuss, or preach on. Headlines like ‘Church abolishes hell’ give the impression that perhaps we don’t believe it these days. Although apparently 14% of British men believe that if hell exists, they’re going there – but only 6% of British women feel the same. We might wonder, how can there be a hell if God is a God of love?

So as we look at Jesus’ teaching, please pray for me. As v.42 tells us, it’s a serious responsibility – I don’t want to put a stumbling block in front of anyone! If I err on one side, I might end up painting a picture of God which is harsh and lacking in mercy. Which would be untrue. If I err on the other side, we might miss out on hearing one of the most serious warnings Jesus ever gave. Let us pray:

‘Lord, grant that I may proclaim your word faithfully, that your Spirit will sort the wheat from the chaff, and that we may all respond to your justice, love and mercy. Amen.’

Have you ever really put your foot in? Said something so embarrassing that you wish the earth would swallow you up? How do you get out of it – make a joke? Change the subject? John the apostle thought the best thing to do would be try and drop someone else in it.

We join our reading at v.38, just after last week’s story about Jesus rebuking his disciples for their selfish ambition. Clearly uncomfortable, John decides to divert attention elsewhere: ‘Teacher we saw someone casting out demons in your name and he we tried to stop him because he was not following us.’ In his ministry Jesus set people free from the powers of darkness. A stranger was copying him. Is that a problem?

Jesus looks beyond who’s in and out. He looks to the principle: ‘Do not stop him for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us’. (How wonderful if churches could put this into practice and not compete with each other, instead co-operating and rejoicing in one another’s success).

Jesus wants to encourage this openness, which follows the openness and love of God. He says: ‘whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward’. He paints a picture of a God who seeks excuses to bless us, who wants everyone to know Christ, who rewards even the tiniest gift offered in Jesus’ name. Our heavenly Father is a God of love who calls us his children. There’s a wideness in his mercy which is wider than the sea.

It’s precisely because of that wideness that God takes so seriously the problem of those who cause others to fall. In v.42 ‘If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.’ Tough words. But Jesus says them precisely because God wants everyone to be able to come to him. He doesn’t want any to stumble. If anyone stops someone else, by their harshness, by their lack of love, by their false teaching, then that is a big problem.

I’m a school governor. If I go into a class and I see a teacher who is clear, who has firm but fair discipline, then that tells me she cares about the children. She creates an environment where all can learn and excel. Because the children matter to her she won’t let one or two spoil it for the others. However if I visit a class which is chaotic, I reckon either the teacher lacks ability or doesn’t care for the children. For love knows right and wrong, love sets out boundaries of acceptable behaviour, love has a sense of justice.

So if we look at the awful scenes on our news and long for justice to be done, if we see suffering and long for evil warmongers to be reined in, then how much more does God! God’s Love demands that he condemn wickedness. Love requires that something be done and the evildoer not get away with it forever. Love leads God to promise that he will renew the world, purging from it evil and therefore those who cling to evil. The Bible shows us that a God of love has to be a God of justice. If God does not do justice, then he does not love or he is not God.

Which brings us to the difficult subject of hell… Let’s be clear. Jesus teaches that there is a hell. Yes, he uses dramatic imagery but his warning is serious. Jesus says hell is a risk for all of us. Who is Jesus addressing in v.43 onwards? Is he in a prison speaking to murderers and rapists? No. Is he saying ‘This doesn’t apply to you decent people, but when you meet a dictator you might like to warn him’? No. He’s talking to his followers, his disciples when he says ‘If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.’

He spoke to his disciples. People like us. If it weren’t a real risk, why tell them? Let’s think about that a bit more… Many religions have the idea that you do your best to be good and try and avoid being bad. Many religions have taught that what happens to you after this life depends on whether your good deeds outweigh your bad. The Egyptian god of the dead was even shown carrying little weighing scales.

This idea seems easy to understand, but there are some problems with it. For instance, if when you were a kid you nicked a lollipop from the corner-shop then that weighs down your bad side. But by how much? And how many times do you have to help old ladies cross the road in order to get your good side back up again?

And where do you draw the line? Imagine a great queue of people waiting to get into heaven. An angel comes along with a sign – bit like being at a theme park where you get those white signs at points in the queue which say ‘1/2 an hour to wait’. But the one the angel’s carrying is a barrier that says heaven one side and hell the other.

And he plonks it right next to me. But on the wrong side! And I’m like ‘why here? Why me? What good’s the next bloke done that I haven’t?’ And the angel explains ‘well, there’s an awful lot of people that have ever lived, so the differences between you are really quite small. This just happens to be the cutoff point. He’s going to heaven because in the course of his lifetime he said one more prayer than you.’ ‘Well that’s not fair. Can’t you move it down a bit further?’ Of course, you can imagine what the next guy would say and so on.

It doesn’t work. The idea that if we do enough good we get to heaven, and too much bad we go to hell doesn’t hold together. It’s trite, simplistic. It’s not what the Bible teaches. The Christian faith believes something much more radical, more profound, more challenging and yet more solid hope than simply doing our best could ever be.

The truth taught by the apostles, taught by Jesus himself, is that if God in Christ hadn’t intervened to save us, hell would be the destiny of us all. The Bible teaches that by going our own way we cut ourselves off from God – the source of all life. Bluntly: we all deserve hell. When people in the Old Testament encountered God, they hid their faces, they took off their shoes because they stood on holy ground. They knew they were unworthy to enter the presence of the holy God. It’s not a difference of degree between us and God – as if he is more pure. It’s a difference of kind. God is God, and we are sinners.

I won’t be surprised if someone reacts against this: ‘Yes, I know I’ve done wrong, I don’t dispute that. But this emphasis on sinners is a bit strong – I’m sure I’m not that bad.’ If you’re feeling like that, imagine yourself saying it before God himself. I can’t. God’s spirit convicts me.

It is important not to misunderstand this idea. It’s not saying we’re incapable of doing good – many people, religious and not, do a great deal of good things. It’s not saying we’re utterly depraved. But it is saying we have gone our own way, not God’s. It’s more profound than saying we’ve done the odd wrong thing – it’s saying there’s a spiritual problem at the root of those deeds, a fundamental pride, self-centredness, which means we need God’s forgiveness.

Jesus talks about entering life. In v.45: ‘If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. Entering life happens through Christ – that’s why v.38-41 are all about the name of Christ. He is our Saviour.

He alone is not standing in that queue of the partly good and partly bad. He alone is perfect like God – Christ alone is God as a human being. Yet though he is innocent of any wrongdoing he willingly takes the punishment for our sinfulness. It is as if we were condemned to die, but Jesus offers himself to die on the cross in our place.

This is a great mystery – no-one can fully plumb the depths of it. But what is clear within the New Testament is that God is both the Judge and the one who addresses the need for justice. God’s love demands that there is justice because otherwise love is not love. Yet his love also longs for us to be reconciled with him and enter life. The tension is resolved when God the son becomes man and offers himself on the cross.

So the point of what Jesus is saying about hell is that we shouldn’t need to worry about it! The way to life is open! We just need to accept and travel that path. It’s like a party invitation – only any use if you accept it and go along. Or my expenses cheque, which is useless until I’ve presented it. God invites us to enter life, so let’s take up the invitation!

We do need to do that. Make that choice. God gives us free will, he respects our choices. If someone says no, if they want nothing to do with God and can’t abide the thought of eternity in his company, then God isn’t going to force them – in effect they choose to go to the other place. If you struggle to understand how anyone can choose that, then may I recommend a book called ‘The Great Divorce’ by C.S.Lewis – it’s psychologically believable and a very good read.

In that book, some of the characters choose to walk away from heaven because they won’t let go of things that they know are wrong but still enjoy. Jesus says we need to be ruthless, in v.47 ‘If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out, it is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.’

The early church father Origen supposedly took this rather literally. He had a problem with lust. He took some drastic action to ensure it would never lead to physical sin. But were the temptations still in his mind?

Jesus of course is speaking in an exaggerated fashion about cutting bits off our bodies. The rest of the New Testament seems pretty clear that life with God involves being healed at the resurrection, having a new perfect body, not one with bits still missing. Jesus’ words are strong images, meaning be totally intolerant of anything that hinders your Christian discipleship.

Don’t let those little habits grow into addictions! Act on the promptings of conscience. Let Jesus be Lord of every part of your life, don’t leave corners of your heart unswept. You can’t keep a foot in both camps.

So to sum up, this reading asks three things from us: Firstly, take the doctrine of hell seriously. We don’t have to buy in to Bosch’s mediaeval imagery of devils with toasting forks and wheelbarrows to hear what Jesus says. He shows us that God’s love and God’s justice go together, that there are consequences and God respects the choices we make. He gives us such awesome freedom.

Secondly, let us be inspired to go out in mission. Jesus gives us a message of good news for the world. Not the uncertainty of trying to be good, but the assurance of forgiveness. The invitation to new life. The promise of security in the life to come. Our world needs to hear this message – let us be courageous in sharing it.

Finally let us understand that the way to life is open. If any of us have not responded to Christ’s invitation and committed our lives to him, I urge you to do so. Let’s not let anything get in the way.

I’ll pray now, and if you want to make that response, please say Amen at the end. ‘Father we thank you that your love and justice meet in Jesus. Thank you that he is our Saviour and frees us from hell. Lord I turn to you, I ask for your forgiveness and pray that you will keep me on the path of life. Amen.

Being a servant

Tina works in the NHS at a major hospital. As a consultant she works alongside people from all walks of life – hospital porters, doctors and nurses. One of the most important people is Tina’s overall boss – let’s call her Elizabeth. Elizabeth co-ordinates a large team of regional specialists. She’s capable, organised, perhaps we might say formidable. It is said even some of the consultants are a little scared of her.

One day recently Tina was passing through the hospital foyer when she saw Elizabeth pushing a shopping trolley into the ladies loo. It wasn’t just any shopping trolley either, it was laden with old carrier bags, blankets and bits of junk. When the shopping trolley was safely inside, Elizabeth lent her arm to an old woman who was obviously sleeping rough, and helped her in too. The old lady was desperate for the bathroom, didn’t want to leave her worldly goods outside, but couldn’t get them in on her own, so Elizabeth, the senior executive, lent a hand.

It’s not often someone tells me a story and I think, wow, that’s just right for my sermon next week! But what a wonderful true story of someone who was first, but was willing to be a servant of all!

Jesus did not just ask this from those who followed him. He modelled the principle in his own life. It’s clear in verse 30 of our gospel reading. When it says ‘they went on from there’ it’s referring to the Mount of Transfiguration where Jesus had been revealed in all his glory. There, his disciples saw and heard who he really is: God’s own Son. Now they will find out what that means.

Jesus takes them through the quiet paths of Galilee as he explains to them what lies in wait for him in Jerusalem. It’s an accurate prediction of Holy Week: ‘The Son of Man will be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed he will rise again.’ Despite this foreknowledge, Jesus does turn aside, but in love and courage deliberately goes up to Jerusalem.

He is not some general way behind the lines sending men over the top to their deaths. Jesus is a leader who leads the way. He gives himself for his followers. He alone can do this, because only when God becomes human can the broken relationship between humanity and God be healed. Humanity has turned away from God, and our sin, our tendency to go our own way, creates a barrier between us and God. But God comes to meet us in Christ. He deals with the barrier of sin by taking it away, taking it onto himself on the cross and dying as a result of it.

This is how God forgives us – by bearing the cost of forgiveness. Inspired by love Jesus gives himself for us. He serves us in the greatest way possible. No-one else can do what Jesus did, he alone could do that. But in our own way we can follow his example and serve others. Jesus followers must turn away from pride and selfishness.

So it’s particularly bad timing when Jesus disciples take this opportunity to argue about who is the greatest! In v.33 Jesus challenges them – and notice how he does this. He doesn’t let it pass because it’s important to fix the problem. We know that when the Holy Spirit pricks our conscience it’s for our own good. Don’t ignore the Holy Spirit’s nudgings. It may not be comfortable but it’s much better to face an issue than pretend it isn’t there. And like a good friend Jesus doesn’t go straight in with an accusation. He asks a question.

Which meets with a guilty silence. I wonder: were the disciples quarrelling blatantly? I’m the greatest. I’m better than you. Was it like the mother of James and John who shamelessly asked Jesus if her sons could sit at his right and left in his glory?

Or was it more subtle? ‘While James and I were preaching in the last village, God did amazing things. We were so blessed. Of course I thought no-one would turn up, but there were 100! Maybe more. We baptised 30 of them. Isn’t God wonderful! How was your trip Simon?’

If they had Facebook in those days, would their posts have been real? Honest about difficulties? Or would it all have been gorgeous sunsets in exotic locations and happy children, a presentation of a together life? From certificates in the downstairs loo, to subtle visual signs in the car you drive, even the vexed question of jumper or jacket, there are so many temptations to present ourselves as successful, to be the best.

I love the way Jesus deals with this. He’s so refreshingly honest. In the second part of v.35 ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last and the servant of all’. See what he does? He deals with us as we are. He’s not urging us to be dishonest and pretend particular feelings aren’t there. He’s not pretending people don’t have ambition. He deals with it as it is.

Jesus encourages us to be honest, recognising what’s in our hearts. The first step in a healthy spirituality is self-knowledge. Knowing what we’re really like – the best and the worst of what is in our own soul. When we are honest and acknowledge what are like, then God can do something with us. It’s much harder when we’re in self-denial. Perhaps as we look inwards we find ambition. Is it a godly ambition, seeking to excel, to make a difference? Or is it a selfish ambition desiring power and position? We’re human, so often the two are present together.

And Jesus tells us what to do with it. ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all’. He tells us how to act. What to do. To be last, and a servant of all. Jesus doesn’t tell us to repress our feelings or go into denial. He says if you feel this way, then do that. Change what you can, your actions. If you feel you want to do things your way, perhaps it’s time to serve the tea for a bit. I remember arriving early for a big meeting with the Bishop of Worcester. He was busy setting out the chairs.

It’s particularly vital that we serve those who are seen as unimportant. That’s the reason behind taking a child in his arms.

Little children had low status. Until they could work or be married they were unimportant. So when Jesus talks in v. 37 about ‘Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me’ he’s challenging the preoccupations of an adult world. By welcoming children, we welcome Jesus. (I find it interesting how it’s relatively easy to get helpers for a Sunday service at which there may be two dozen people present. But how many people have been to, let alone volunteer for, Little Lights or Messy Church which are larger and reach out into the comunity?)

Jesus tells us to serve because he himself served. We should lead in a servant way because Jesus led like this. Seeing service as being Jesus-shaped will help us to address some of the questions about this passage. For it could be quite easy to misunderstand what Jesus says. He’s not saying that it is wrong to lead or have responsibility. He’s not saying that Christians should be a walkover – the kind of servant who gets told what to do, who has to defer to others’ opinions, who is weak and not able to take care of themselves.

When we look at Jesus do we see someone like that? Of course not. He took necessary care of himself. He knew what was right and wrong and stood up for it. Jesus had a very clear idea of his priorities and refused to get sidetracked into other tasks. Jesus was a servant in that he came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many – but he was no pushover!

If we put this teaching into practice it might have many applications: it is good to improve your abilities, to do well, not to reach the top of the tree for its own sake, but to be more effective and make a difference for the Kingdom. It is good to do your best and be satisfied that you have done so. By all means assume the lead role when your gifts suit it – but not if others are better? Let others have a go, train them up and rejoice in their success, not being threatened by their abilities. Don’t stand on ceremony or be stuffy about titles, positions and perks.

Perhaps there are some questions too for us to consider: What is a healthy balance between work and the rest of life? Are all of our aspirations healthy? Or necessary? If you get promoted, will you be able to do more good, or more paperwork? When is it right to take on tasks because they will improve your CV? How much time do you spend on updating LinkedIN versus the job in hand?

No doubt you will have thoughts of your own as the Spirit leads you. Each one of us must answer those questions ourselves. Let us allow Jesus to speak with us as he did his disciples. Let us be honest about what is in our hearts. And let’s ask God to guide us in what we do, so that we too may follow Christ and serve as he served us.

Who is this Jesus?

A young girl was playing her first netball match on the school team. After a quiet first half they went out onto the pitch again and very soon she got the ball. Pivoting on her feet, she turned to the hoop and threw a long, curving shot. It was spot on, barely touching the board the ball slipped through the hoop. But what was wrong? The other side were celebrating, her own team furious. It was an outstanding display of skill, but she’d forgotten that at half time you change ends.

In our gospel reading, St Peter is so right and yet so wrong. He correctly identifies Jesus as God’s chosen Messiah, but he has not begun to understand what that title really means. Today, the Bible reading asks us the same questions: who do you think Jesus is? And how does the answer we give affect the way we live our lives?

It’s midway through Jesus’ ministry. His disciples have heard his teaching, witnessed some amazing miracles and begun to ask themselves ‘Who is this doing these wonderful things?’ Jesus knows what they’re thinking. He knows what the crowd are saying about him too. So when he asks, in v.27, ‘who do people say that I am’, it’s not for his own information but as a chance to teach his disciples.

They reply ‘John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets.’ All examples of religious leaders, prophets calling people back to God, men of power leading a renewal movement. Pretty much how many people nowadays would describe Jesus: there are plenty who say Jesus was a religious teacher, a revolutionary or a prophet.

Yet Jesus himself doesn’t seem satisfied with this answer. ‘What about you, who do you say that I am?’ Peter replies ‘You are the Messiah – or Christ’. In other words You are The One – the one we have been waiting for. All others prepared the way, like heralds before the king, but you are the King. John the Baptist, Elijah and prophets told us God’s plan. But you Jesus are the Messiah, you are God’s plan. You are the one in whom God’s plan is fulfilled.

And Jesus does three things with this:

Firstly, he accepts it. If Peter was wrong there was plenty of opportunity to put him right but Jesus didn’t. This shows us that Jesus believed he was the Christ, God’s special one, chosen to bring God’s people back to God. I mentioned earlier those people who say ‘Ah, Jesus was a great teacher. I respect him as one of the religious prophets’ – I don’t think people who say that can have really understood Jesus’ own teaching.

For his actions and what he said show us that Jesus did not see himself merely as a teacher or a prophet. He believed he was the Messiah. And if you or I say ‘I respect Jesus as one of the prophets’, it’s at best a misunderstanding, at worst it’s actually not respect at all for it’s making him out to be liar.  

Either he is the Christ, as he taught, or he isn’t. Jesus taught that if we want to come to God, we come through him. Jesus said he is the fulfilment of God’s plan to reconcile all people to himself. God does this through the unique events of Jesus’ cross and resurrection.

If we want to know what God is like, then we look at Jesus. We see God in his compassion for the outcast, his anger at injustice, his generous self-giving. As John’s gospel puts it: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one comes to the Father except through me.’ I am convinced that Jesus is who he claimed to be, and until we’ve made up our own minds about that question, I don’t think we’ve really done him justice.

The second thing Jesus does is tell his disciples to keep it quiet. It was not yet the right time for the truth to be made public.

However, Jesus is completely open about what lies in wait for him at Jerusalem. Being the Messiah will not be an easy march to a glorious victory, but involve great suffering. Christ will not be universally acclaimed, but instead rejected by his nation’s leaders. Jesus will not do as everyone hoped: kick out the Romans and settle down into a long peaceful rule. He will be killed, yet after three days rise again.

This third response by Jesus was so shocking, so inconceivable, that Peter couldn’t accept it. In v. 32 he clearly decides it’s his job to bring Jesus back to his senses and rebukes him privately. Jesus is publicly uncompromising with him: look at v. 33: ‘Get behind me Satan’.

Why so harsh? Well Jesus doesn’t want to die, if there was any way to avoid the cross he would have taken it. And Peter is unwittingly tempting him to run away from his fate. He’s saying, do it the world’s way. Be the ruler. Don’t do it God’s way, through the cross.

Yet the cross was the only way, because only the cross addresses our deepest need. Humanity tends to look to the surface needs like economics, cost of living, war and peace. Of course these are very important, but if we look at them closely we find they have deeper roots. So many of our problems actually have their origin within the human heart: greed, envy, what we call sin, insecurity, and the longing to be loved.

We need hearts which are changed, and this can only be done by knowing that we are loved and that we are accepted. When we know that God loves us that gives us a security which means we don’t need to find our security in possessions or by striving to be better than others. When we know that God forgives us, it sets us free from guilt and means we can be much more compassionate and loving to others.

The cross is the ultimate proof of God’s love because even in his agony Jesus prayed that those crucifying him would be forgiven. In his own body Jesus bore the cost of forgiveness, giving himself as a sacrifice for sin, experiencing the separation from God that should have been ours. Jesus gave himself to death that we might live forever, and he invites us – even now – to follow him and experience that new life today.

Yet you can only really experience a new life by setting aside the old. Trying to follow Jesus and also live in your old ways is worse than trying to live in two houses at once, or be married to two different people. The new life that has shared in the cross and resurrection of Jesus must be able to take over from the old if we are to experience all of Christ’s blessings.

Appreciating this will help us understand those difficult words of Jesus in verses 34-35 ‘take up your cross and follow me.’ In other words, be ready to give up everything, even life itself, if you want to be a follower of Jesus.

Some Christians end up doing this to the ultimate extent. In Sudan two pastors are under the threat of execution because of their loyalty to Christ. Others are fleeing similar persecution in Iraq and Syria. We are not in that kind of environment, but surely their example can at least fortify us not to be cowed by the mild opposition and disparagement we encounter.

Jesus’ words put a challenge: ‘Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the gospel will save it.’ Of course, losing your life does not have to mean dying as a martyr. We speak of people sacrificing their lives to a cause – they have not literally died but they are giving everything because they have found that one thing which makes it worthwhile. Giving up your life is as much about an attitude, a readiness, a priority.

Maybe some will feel they are not ready for that commitment – they are just looking, have many questions. In which case I would say keep on looking, find out more, come to our Light Bites Lunch Club.

But bear in mind also that there is a wonderful mystery here. The paradox is that giving up yourself, you are able to become more truly yourself in Christ. Like being in love: you are much more centred on that other person yet feel much more alive. I find that if I live for myself, put myself and my needs first, then I become defensive, isolated, narrow and grumpy. If I try to die to self, try and serve others as Christ would have me do, it certainly a real effort but I end up feeling much more fulfilled.

If it sounds hard, it is, it’s an ongoing work which we sometimes get right and sometimes not. We will need the Holy Spirit’s help. It is worth it as Jesus points out in v.36, ‘what will it profit someone to gain the whole world and forfeit their very life’ Or, in the words of Jim Eliot, a missionary in the 1950s who was killed by the Ecuadorian Indians he was trying to reach for Christ: ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.’