Text: Luke 16: 19-31
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
The creation of a sermon is a result of a number of things: prayer, reading of both scripture and commentary, of inspirational works and a wider scan of a wide variety of materials to set the text into context and provide, at least one hopes with useful and effective biblical teaching into which the experience of our lives may be matched.
And then there is, of course, the Internet, where sites exist which contain hundreds of sermons from all sorts of churches, and much like the sermons preached from this legillium over the years, they contain some that are gems, perfect insights into the human condition and the Christian faith, and some that are lengthy and dull and some which might as well have been written in the original Greek for all the sense they made.
A majority of these sermons come, not surprisingly from America, and again perhaps not surprisingly from that evangelical tradition with all the money. They were almost all about hell, about damnation and about rejection: such morbid concern with the lost and the torments to avoid that they fundamentally miss what we should be learning from this pericope of scripture. By looking over the precipice into Hell and an obsession with ‘salvation’, they have failed to see the impact that Christ’s teaching should have on our lives now. Although Our Lord and Saviour had the bigger picture, his concern was to teach for the now, for the benefit of those present, which would set aright our lives and ways of living with God, and then, and only then, let God deal with the hereafter: it is not for us to decide who goes to heaven or hell, it is of God and his righteous judgement.
However, as these completely useless (for my purposes at least) sermons passed me by, I was struck by their vivid descriptions of the features of Hell, which led me to conclude that, on the basis of this story, there are some features of Hell which would suit us very nicely in this Church.
We see that the rich man had compassion. The rich man didn’t have a name, for he could have been anyone, he could have been me, he could have been you. Some traditions ascribe him the name Dives, but that is a corruption of the Latin text: homo quidam erat dives – there was a certain rich man. His anonymity lends him the position of everyman.
We learn that he was in torment, and that he didn’t want his brothers to come to where he was; and so he exhibited compassion for them. But, sadly, his compassion was too late
Clearly, a church should be compassionate: compassionate for those suffering and in need. This is a difficult task, and one which asks us to step outside ourselves. It is not always comfortable to deal with the addicted, the homeless, the lonely, the young or those with challenging lifestyles, but the Christian call is to one of compassion. The questions asked by the Kairos process lead us to question how we can be compassionate friends in this locality
What characterised the rich man’s compassion was its selfishness: he only thought of his own, and those he already loved, whereas we are called to compassion for those who are, often, quite unlovely.
The rich man was also benefiting from the perfect hindsight that death must be able to afford us. Christ’s teaching is teaching for life, not for death, the Gospel message relevant to the here and now, not the pie in the sky. The Gospel is to be proclaimed and lived, not preserved in a dusty old museum. We must not wait until it is too late.
Secondly, we encounter FIRE.
The excellent book by the Doctrine Commision described Hell as “the absence of God”, a much more graphic and for me frightening portrayal of hell than all that fire and brimstone. Those images of pain and torment, like so much of biblical teaching, is trying to use human language imperfectly to describe something far beyond our comprehension, and so we need not get too hung up about it. This week’s Desert Island Discs featured a mountaineer whose miraculous escape from almost certain death was made into a recent film: Touching the Void – the void for him, an atheist, was the nothingness of death, whereas the reality, the reality of faith, that void is more likely to be the nothingness of hell – a black hole so impenetrable that even God’s immeasurable love is beyond it: that is far more terrifying.
But we do need some fire in the Church, not the burning kind of Hell, but rather the fire of God in our hearts: the fire of the Gospel. When Cleopas and his friend walked to Emmaus and heard the risen Lord expound the Scriptures to them, they reflected that “did not our hearts not burn within us as he spoke?”. It is this sense of commitment and love which needs to burn within the heart of this Church – a fire to take the Gospel and to convey it to this area, in word and in deed.
Another feature of Hell would appear to be TEARS.
The Rich man had tears of pain, whereas we need tears over our suffering world, and more appropriately, the evil than mankind can do to one another, especially in the name of religion. When people say “Religion causes all wars”, they may be right, but I respond with the point that it is Faith which has ended so many more. We need sometimes to put aside religion and take up faith. It was inspiring to hear yesterday on the radio a Muslim from Liverpool who had travelled to Bagdad to intercede on behalf of the captive Kenneth Bigley, powerful stating that “we believe in prayer, we believe in mercy, we believe in the compassion of God”; and that too, is what we believe, and should persevere to believe.
There are tears to be shed over this world at times, but the God who can turn as the Psalmist says, our mourning into dancing, can take our tears for this world and make them into tears of joy.
So, lastly, we may be surprised to see that even in Hell, there was LOVE.
The rich man had love for his lost brothers, and sought to help them. So often we have love only for ourselves, not others. The Love of God, so passionately demonstrated through the Cross is like all the best love, a love shared. It is only when love is shared that it is revealed as truly the beautiful, sanctified thing that it is. It is easy to love within a small circle, within just the family for example, but our daily challenge is to love the unloved, the unlovely.
If we were to put these four things into practice in our churches, we wouldn’t have half of the problems the Church faces today, and we would be equipped to engage with society at large and each other with true Christian spirit. Perhaps, we do need some of those features of Hell here in this Church.
When you return home, and someone asks you about the sermon this morning, perhaps when you respond “Oh, it was Hell…” perhaps you meant it in a positive way, and not the way you usually mean it! Amen