(Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31)
Since Pope Francis became pope, there have been things reported in the media that have been attributed to him that he hasn’t said. Recently, I read an article that was correcting one of these incorrect attributions. It was written by the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, who is a Senior Analyst at Religion News Service. The title of the article is, “Pope Francis and Hell.” Rev. Reese began his article by stating, “Social media has been going crazy with reports that Pope Francis has denied the existence of hell. Even some mainstream media have picked up the story supposedly based on an interview by an Italian journalist.” Then, he went on to state, “Anyone who has followed the pope’s talks and sermons would immediately know that something does not smell right here. The pope has in fact spoken of hell in the past in a way that clearly indicates that he believes in it.”
The interesting part of the article to me was Pope Francis’ description of hell, because it resonated with my understanding of it. According to the article, Pope Francis has said, “This is hell . . . It is telling God, ‘You take care of yourself because I’ll take care of myself.’ They don’t send you to hell, you go there because you choose to be there. Hell is wanting to be distant from God because I do not want God’s love. This is hell.” Rev. Reese elaborates on this by stating, “When we close our hearts and tell the world to go to hell, we are in fact choosing hell for ourselves. Hell is the absence of love, companionship, communion. We are not sent there; we choose it. God did not create hell; we did.”
The phrase from the article I want to focus on is, “Hell is the absence of love, companionship, communion.” We were made in the image of God. God is love. In the Christian religion, the phrase, “God is love,” is understood as God is three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – who are in perpetual, loving relationship with one another, which we define as “communion.” The three persons of the Trinity cannot NOT be in relationship with one another, because they are inextricably bound to one another in love. They are caught in a web of love; caught, not in a negative way, but in a positive way. They cannot NOT be in relationship with one another, and they cannot NOT love one another because, well, God is love!
When we refuse to accept that we have been made in the image of God to be in perpetual, loving relationship with God and with one another, then we refuse to live as if we have been made in the image of God to be in perpetual, loving relationship with God and with one another, and we choose hell, by default.
When Jesus was crucified, the disciples scattered. After he was buried, they gathered together in fear and trembling behind locked doors. They were together, but they were together not in love, but in fear. They were a community, but they were a community of fear. A community of fear is not a community made in the image of God because it is not a community of love. As the First Letter of John states, “There is no fear in love” for “perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18).
As they were gathered together in fear, the resurrected Christ appeared to them. The first thing he said to them was, “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:19). The second thing he said to them was, “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:21). When we have peace, we don’t have fear. Jesus wanted the disciples to be at peace. He did not want them to be afraid. When we are at peace, we are able to love one another more completely. Jesus wanted the disciples to be at peace so that they could love one another more completely. The third thing he said to them was, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (Jn 20:21). Not only were the disciples to be at peace so that they could love one another more completely, they were to be at peace so that they could love the world more completely. And the fourth thing he said to them, as he breathed on them, was, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (Jn 20:22). As the disciples went out into the world to love the world, they would be enlivened and sustained by the Holy Spirit.
Peace, love, and the Holy Spirit are all the things we see in the first Christian community described in the Acts of the Apostles (4:32-35):
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
No fear, no separation, no selfishness, no need were present. Peace, love, and community were present. The disciples had gone from fear and trembling to love and generosity after the resurrected Christ had appeared to them and gifted them with peace, love, and the Holy Spirit. This is the image of the resurrection community. We see this image echoed, poetically, in Psalm 133:
"How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore."
John, in his first letter, states, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death” (3:14).
What Pope Francis and Rev. Reese did not say about hell is that it can exist on earth, during our physical lives, as well as after death. “Whoever does not love abides in death.” We can be alive, but if we are unloving or unloved, we are abiding in death. We are dead while alive – the “walking dead,” so to speak. Why are Zombie movies and television shows so popular? Because they reflect the reality of so many: dead while alive and feeding off of each other. Isn’t that what sin does to us? It separates us from God and each other, it isolates us in our own bubbles, it makes us feed off of one another. The world without redemption is not a resurrection community. It is a death community. We see, hear, and experience this daily as we listen to the news and go about our lives. Blame, fear, greed, lust, and so on wreak havoc and we call this “reality.” But this is the fallen world’s reality; this is not God’s reality. The reality of God is resurrection reality, and when we have faith in God, we create resurrection communities. We know we have passed from death to life in Christ Jesus, and so we love one another and the world, thereby creating resurrection communities.
This is, of course, easier said than done! It is hard to claim resurrection reality in the midst of the fallen world’s reality! The fallen world says, “Fear the stranger, curse the enemy, hoard your possessions, fortify your strongholds, pull in and turn your back on the world. Live in fear. Be like the disciples gathered together behind locked doors. It is necessary, because you are in danger!
But those of us who know the risen Christ cannot fall prey to this propaganda! Jesus will not let us! He will pass through the locked doors in our lives and appear to us as we tremble in fear and say, “Peace be with you.” We may be hiding in fear behind locked doors, but locked doors cannot keep God out. Jesus knows our names, for he is our shepherd, and he will seek and find his lost sheep. He will find us, pass through the locked door, show us his wounded hands and side, invite us to put our hands into his wounds, and request that we do not doubt but believe (Jn 20:27). Jesus allowed Thomas to doubt, but he did not allow him to remain doubting. He will do the same to us. Why will he pursue us and ask us to believe? He wants us to have life in his name – not the living death that the world offers us, but the resurrected life that he offers us! Do not doubt, but believe! Have the faith and the courage to be a resurrection community, loving one another and the world in Jesus’ name.
“Hell is the absence of love, companionship, communion. We are not sent there; we choose it.” What will we choose: A zombie community of hell on earth or a resurrection community of heaven on earth? The choice is up to us. We can swallow the propaganda of the fallen world or trust in the blessings of our risen Lord. For disciples of Jesus, the choice should be easy even though the way is hard. “Do not doubt but believe!” Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, April 8, 2018, the Second Sunday of Easter.