Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity (30 September 2018) by the Revd Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor
The Precentor considers what questions we could usefully ask to enquire about God.
I was asked recently if I believed in hell and I said that I didn’t. This troubled my interrogator so I enlarged my response a little by suggesting that a deliberate rejection of God was perhaps to take an annihilating course of action but that ultimately the whole world would be taken up into God’s presence and shot through with the glory which is God’s very nature.
My interrogator — clearly anxious for the health of my soul — tried to help me by suggesting that what I probably meant was that all religious people would go to heaven and she grudgingly accepted that there might be a case to argue for people of other faiths going to heaven as long as it was only the adherents of those faiths which believe in one God.
Actually, that wasn’t what I meant and I told her so. This was all very difficult because our conversation took place while we were out shopping.
When I have talked about my thoughts on heaven and hell before, I have suggested that the way to answer the question, “If everyone is saved, why bother?” is to ask a different question: “Unless everyone is saved, why bother?”
And yet it’s all pretty clear in today’s gospel lesson, isn’t it? Some people are going to heaven and some people are going to hell. Or is it that simple?
The word “hell” in the translation of the gospel which we’ve just heard is originally the Greek word “Gehenna” which means “Valley of Hinnom”. This was a valley to the south of Jerusalem which was once the setting for the wicked practice of human sacrifice referred to in the Book of Jeremiah, a practice stopped by King Josiah in the Second Book of Kings. One mediaeval historian records that the valley subsequently became a sort of city rubbish tip where the detritus of human living was constantly being incinerated.
Thereafter, the word “Gehenna” became a byword for all that is destructive and decaying; anything which is the reverse of life and joy; and so also a synonym for torment and punishment after this life — annihilation. “Go to hell!” “Go to Gehenna!” “Go to the city rubbish tip!”
Of course, it’s easy to play the language game and conclude that, in fact, Jesus was merely playing with language in order to emphasise the rewards of turning actively to God and to avoid at all costs the possibility of rejecting God, either by word or by action.
Language game or not, it’s what I believe but I nevertheless accept and conclude that to reject God and Christ is to embrace annihilation. I think John Whittier, in his moving hymn, “Immortal love for ever full”, gets it right when he says, “To turn aside from thee is hell, to walk with thee is heaven”.
I say all of this because I hope that this sort of thinking might help us to avoid the danger of judgement. You see: it isn’t actually for me to decide who goes to heaven so there isn’t a great deal I can say about it — especially when I’m out shopping (unless it’s a shopping centre on the last Saturday before Christmas which really is hell).
Today’s gospel lesson gives us a much more imaginative and practical line of enquiry for the Christian (or, indeed, for any person of faith): and that line of enquiry is whether one is for or against God.
And that is a line of enquiry, a subject for debate, a source of questions in which we can and should engage. And there are two aspects of the question that I hope can capture our imagination and occupy our prayer.
One is the question itself: Are you for or against God? It’s a much better question than the one about whether you believe in God or not because that question usually results in all sorts of complicated wrangling about evidence or lack of evidence and usually therefore misses the point.
This question encourages people to talk about who or what God might be, what the point of God is, and whether God is a good thing or not. It can involve passionate conversations about people’s experience of God or it can result in a hard knock or two for us when we hear God rubbished to our face.
But that potential downside to the question leads me to the other aspect of the question which I think we should consider. And that is: what are we doing as Christians, how are we proclaiming Jesus Christ, which encourages other people to answer the question positively. Do our own words or deeds, our own church debates and shibboleths, make it more or less likely that people will say that they are for God when we ask them?
That’s worth thinking about although it probably involves some more tough questions for us: but, as I said before, it’s a good way of avoiding judgement — both making judgements about others and receiving judgement upon ourselves.
The Epistle of St James, which was our first lesson today, provides something of a manual for getting this right. I suppose it’s a bit like putting our own house in order before we dare ask others if they are for or against God.
Perhaps the best way of increasing the number of “fors” and reducing the number of “againsts” is to stop talking about hell — except, of course, when you’re visiting the Gehenna Shopping Centre on the last Saturday before Christmas…!