Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
✠ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Heaven or hell, that’s where each of us is headed, right? When we die, two things could happen. We might head up through bright, puffy clouds and arrive at the Pearly Gates to meet St. Peter, who’s surrounded by sweet angels strumming golden harps, or we might head down into dark caverns of fire and torture, demons with tridents poking at us, our ears filled with the shrieks of pain and fear.
In the popular imagination, I regret shared by many Christians, at the end of life we either get rewarded or punished. It’s Santa Claus: presents and candy-canes or coal and switches. And it’s wrong.
Hell is not an eternal reality. God alone is eternal; love, being, existence, creativity, relationship – that’s eternal. Only what’s united to God, in God, connected to God, is eternal. Hell is moving away from God, what’s without God. Christians are not dualists. We don’t believe that existence is an eternal battle between good and evil. There’s struggle now, but not always. Ultimately, there’s only good. Hell is not its own thing, not its own reality. Only God is eternal.
Hell is a here and now reality. It’s separation from God; it’s isolation and alienation from other people; it’s resisting love and feeling unloved. We all know what hell tastes like. Some of us may be tasting it now. All of us will experience it again. It’s normal, a part of human experience.
Heaven is life, and light, and love; it’s union with God. Some of the gospel writers appear to refer to Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven as synonyms, mean virtually the same thing. The Kingdom of God means God rules. We pray, “Thy kingdom come.” It means, “God rule my life; let your love fill me and animate me and enliven me.”
Heaven and hell are not places. They represent conditions of existence. Heaven and hell are realities in the here and now. We experience both of them now. The purpose of Church is to help us free ourselves from hell, to strengthen us to move through hell and move toward God.
Today’s gospel also mentions “devils,” or demons or evil spirits. Jesus’ ministry included exorcizing, casting demons out of human lives. I’m not given to talking about “demon possession,” but I have a working theory about demons so that I can engage the gospels honestly and try to understand more fully passages like today’s gospel.
We might think of demons as voices of deception and destruction. They divert us from God. They are forces outside of human beings but influencing our lives, sometimes assuming an inner voice, often then an unconscious voice, deceiving us, bringing us down, directing us to self-destructive behavior and feelings. Repeatedly in his ministry, Jesus’ liberated human beings from the demonic. The Holy Spirit continues this work of directing us to God.
The pious name for the process whereby we move to God, become united to God, is sanctification. But “sanctification” probably sounds too airy-fairy, too churchy, so I typically use other words, like growing, or learning, or transforming. I hope, and believe, that the general direction of my life is moving toward living under God’s rule. I’m not there, a long way to go; I still experience hell, but I’m on the way, and the Church – people here, in this room – have been essential to help me move closer to God.
Ultimately, each of us will wholly reflect the life of Jesus, lives full of love and forgiveness, dedicated to fairness and justice, freely and happily giving of ourselves, trusting, peaceful, generous. God created us to be this way. The Church is not about providing tickets to get into heaven when we die, but about helping us to experience and embody heaven here and now. We’re all broken, imperfect people, and church should be one of the things in our lives to help us heal, and grow, and be made whole.
Jesus was a friend of sinners, a friend of everyone who needed a friend. He wants his followers, you and me, to embody this, to provide a home where folks will feel like they belong, are accepted, valued, supported. Of course, not everyone feels accepted by the church, that it’s a loving family. The guy casting out demons in the name of Jesus did not feel accepted, welcomed into the group.
The disciples took exception to this guy casting out demons in the name of Jesus. John, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, part of his inner circle, went and complained to Jesus. This person was not part of the disciples, not one of the group, and the disciples wanted to maintain their position, their power, their authority, their exclusivity. Like all of us, they wanted to be special.
Now just before John complained to Jesus, twenty verses earlier in the chapter, the disciples had tried to cast a demon out of a boy, and they had not been successful. Do you wonder if the disciples might have felt some jealousy, some anger at this outsider speaking in the name of Jesus and having success where they have failed?
Jesus hardly seemed worried about this other guy. He told his disciples to leave him alone: “if he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally.” John likely was annoyed, some stranger cutting in on his thing. And yet, here, Jesus is telling him to accept the outsider just as last week he was telling him to welcome a child, a person of low status, as if he were welcoming him or God. Tough standards.
Repeatedly, Jesus pushed his disciples to relate to those outside of the group, to take some risks, to appreciate the positive in others. Today’s gospel warns communities about erecting barriers. Lots of people are trying to find the way to trusting God, and when we fail to love one another or even to welcome another, we may cause others to stumble. It’d be better for us to be tied to a millstone dropped in a lake than to put obstacles between people and God.
Then the warnings get more gruesome: if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; if your foot, chop it off; if your eye, gauge it out. Jesus is not endorsing self-mutilation. He’s using the human body as a metaphor for a community. People in a community assume different roles just as different body parts serve us in different ways. It’s a warning that if the behavior of some members of a community threatens its purpose and integrity, they need to be removed or they need to change roles. One person in the wrong role can damage the whole community. Jesus is saying, “Sometimes if the person giving offense is not cut off, then the whole body, the whole community, will experience hell.” It’s tough.
If I were John, I might take Jesus’ comments as a warning that my own role might need to change if I don’t get in line. John’s suspicion of the outsider was working against the group’s purpose. Instead of reaching out and connecting with the stranger, John and the disciples were feeling threatened and acted defensively. They were putting up obstacles between God and other people. Jesus’ message: Relax, stay calm, open yourselves to others.
While I was away in August, the stewardship team developed a plan for some parishioners to speak briefly to the congregation at mass, to talk about what God is doing in their lives. After we sing the Creed, we’ll have our first speaker, and then a different speaker every Sunday through October. I love the idea.
What is God doing in my life now? What am I learning? How am I transforming? Were I to feel no movement, no growth, no learning, in my own life, that’d be hell for me. Our growth – both as individuals and as a community – often is not flashy or dramatic, but it’s deep and real. Sometimes it’s hard to identify, hard to express; sometimes not.
It’d be helpful for all of us to pray and reflect on this theme as we move into our stewardship season. Let’s think and pray about how this parish family is doing the work God gives it. Let’s appreciate how lives are being transformed here, sanctified if you like. Let’s thank God for that taste of heaven.
✠ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.