Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
16 February 2020
1 Corinthians 3.1-9
Love and do what you will ©Suzanne Grimmett
Often when I am confronted with someone who is insistent that God is a judge who one day will condemn some people (often certain groups of people) to eternal conscious torment, I wonder how they can ever sustain a belief that their God is a God of love, whose Word is ‘good news’.
And yet in today’s Gospel, we find quite a lot that seems like bad news- on Jesus’ lips we have three references to hell, repeated emphasis on judgement, some uncompromising condemnation of lust and adultery and some pretty harsh words about divorce.
It may seem that the good news is in short supply today.
I am always fascinated that we seem to expect less of God than we expect of ourselves. I would guess we all know couples (and some of us are those couples) who have remarried after difficult or downright abusive first marriages, and who have now found a love that is something enduring, real and beautiful, giving life to others as well as themselves. If we can look at that and recognize its goodness, why would we think of God as a judgmental being who would not be open to life beginning again?
Marriage was made for human flourishing and we completely miss the point if we think this is some kind of rule that is meant to trap people in situations of harm and ongoing distress. We also should not be blind to the cultural context of the Gospels where a man could divorce his wife for any reason and she would be destitute, obliged to find another man quickly in order to survive. Scripture is ever alive to the structures of injustice.
In another example, who among us parents would cast off any child of our own because of lying or other destructive behaviour? Would we not keep loving and welcoming them back, hoping and assisting them to find a more life-giving path? If we think God will condemn transgressors to eternal torment, then we are imagining God as a far less loving parent than we are ourselves.
So let us have a closer look. I think we need to realize that when we hear hell we hear something different to Jesus’ meaning. While it is a place for the condemned, there wasn’t even a word for hell as we understand it until the eighth century CE – Jesus actually refers to a place called Gehenna, which was a valley near Jerusalem.
In Jesus’ time it was where people threw their rubbish, to be burned in fires, but also a place which was referenced in scripture as a place of violence, and as far back in the book of Joshua, as a place of child sacrifice. It was also the place where in 70 CE the Romans threw the bodies of the Jewish people to be burned after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple- a very graphic image of hell for the first gospel communities writing and reading these early Gospel accounts.
While scholars may disagree on why Jesus chose this image, it is clear that when his 1st century audience heard about Gehenna, they thought of a physical place where there were associations with horror and violence- particularly the kind of human violence that was abhorrent to the God of Israel.
The images of the torments of hell that we have in our heads are a medieval construct which owes a lot to the medieval art that was produced to illustrate such fearsome horrors.
Perhaps we would be wiser to look at the hell human beings create for themselves through fractured relationships and patterns of retributive violence if we are to understand what Jesus was referring to when he said that if we follow the violent impulses of our hearts we are liable to finish in the fires of Gehenna.
Why then has the Christian church been so hung up on these visions of eternal torture and punishment? I would say one reason was to maintain control and power- having the ability after all to threaten people with a lake of eternal fire is effective, but it has also been a way of instilling certainty and confidence. See, if you do these things, say the right prayers, attend church, follow the right rules then you can earn the harp and the clouds of heaven. But disobey and you will get eternal conscious torment. It simplified things. You knew where you stood and you could get on with life- if you slipped up and disobeyed any of the rules, you could always confess, or contribute more to the roof restoration fund.
It is wrong, though, to suggest that Jesus is in any way doing away with the Law or to think that we can do whatever we like because God will love us anyway. In case we were in any doubt, Jesus himself says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it.” In this passage it seems rather that Jesus extends and strengthens the law. Not just don’t murder, but don’t be angry or ridicule others. Not just don’t commit adultery, but don’t look upon another human being with lust. This is a higher righteousness- and one, that if we are honest- we will recognize is impossible to achieve by ourselves.
We can no longer sit comfortably in the certainty of our righteousness in the eyes of the law because Jesus points to the condition of our heart where evil actions originate. When we nurse anger against another or when we degrade another by making them an object of lust, we kill the divine love that seeks to transform our relationships. While we remain within our comfortable certainties that we are fulfilling the requirements of moral living, we remain in an ego-centred, outer-directed focus that keeps us from attending to the Divine movement of the Spirit to transform our hearts.
And Jesus knew that it was only the transformation of hearts that creates true justice and compassion. For you see, the ultimate fulfilment of the law is found in relationships transformed by love. In marriage, Jesus calls us to relationships characterised by the same love and justice found in God’s relationship to us. Gospel ethics were summed up by St Augustine’s liberating dictum of “Love and do what you will”. If we actually try living this out in all of our relationships we realise that this raises the bar far higher than any moral rulebook.
Jesus’ condemnation is reserved for those who rely on outward conformity to rules while acting with cruel injustice; those who judge others whilst harbouring violence in their own hearts. This is exactly why the reading from Deuteronomy talks about a circumcision of the heart- not just an outward physical circumcision in accordance with the law, but an entire life surrendered to the love of God and love of our neighbour.
Christianity then, invites us to embrace the complexity of living out the relationships of our lives with love and integrity. To conform to outward forms and rely on a checklist of ‘do’s and don’ts’ is the seduction of certainty.
The good news, however, is not about having all the answers. Rather, we are called to open our hearts to the Spirit’s work, bringing our darkness to light and the motivations we would prefer to keep hidden even from ourselves. This makes us unsure and vulnerable, but Jesus is telling us that this is the way. Keeping up appearances can lead us down the road to the hells we are so good at creating for ourselves. The good news is that we can let go of our need to keep up appearances and give ourselves to the one who only desires what is good and life-giving for us. What makes us good is also, it turns out, what makes us happy.
In this way our desires begin to align with the will of the one who created us. As this happens, we also begin to see that we are not alone, and that our own good is caught up with the good of one another. Life as God dreams it is not a project of individual salvation. Ultimately all of Jesus’ words about anger, contempt, murder, adultery, divorce and oathtaking are aimed at helping us to understand a higher better way of being together. All of our relationships matter and, as the collect for today tells us, the law can ultimately only be fulfilled in perfect love.
So yes, the Bible does talk about judgement and there is a final judge, but it is Christ meaning that the one who judges us most finally is also the one who loves us most fully. This is the truth that sets us free. There is nothing we need to fear.
God desires our goodness but with that, also our happiness. Love…truly love… and do what you will.