24 September 2020
Descent into Hell
This story which Jesus told of Lazurus was one which made a great impression on me as a child.
I wasn't worried about the rich man, it was Lazarus that worried me.
If Lazarus or someone like him had been deposited at our front gate, in suburban Mt Eden, my mother would have had him in a hot bath, dressed his wounds, called the doctor [they came to the house in those days] and given him a good feed. My Dad would have made sure he was looked after.
Whatever happened it, would have been unimaginable to just walk on by in early 1960's New Zealand
Years later, in the Paris underground at night, I passed yet another Algerian family, with small children the mother begging for scraps and passed by, it was unsafe to pause and get out a purse.
I thought of Lazarus.
In the depths of the Hiroshima memorial I saw the scenes of devastation after the nuclear explosion , people were wanting one thing, water, and there was not way to quench their thirst. I thought about the rich man.
The scenes at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the stories of the Burma railroad, the stories of the Buddhist hell, portrayed on the base of Borobudur in Indonesia, the images of Dantes Inferno, the terrorists with the children in a school at Bezer, all have a lack of water, a thirst for water the source of life, and there is no water.
Jesus uses an old folk tale to give a picture of living hell.
There is no life in hell only death, and this death is a living death.
Who creates such a living hell? Is it God?
Who caused Nagasaki I'll use the words of Dr Nagai,
"It is not the atomic bomb that gouged this huge hole in the Urakami Basin. We dug it ourselves to the rhythm of military marches"
Who engineered the concentration camps at Dachau and Auschitz? Who is creating famine in the Sudan?
Not God, Not what is called the devil, but human beings
In Jesus' parable, Abraham in heaven did not create this hell.
Lazarus did not ask God to construct it to take his revenge on the rich man. That hell was created by the rich man himself.
Abraham cannot do anything about it. Even God has turned away. The Word God cannot be found in the dictionary of this hell . Whether we call it Sheol, Hades or Hell - it is Godless, and the word humanity does not make sense either in this place. [C.S.Song]
To be less than human, to do what is inhuman to others, this is hell.
The society Jesus pictures in his story of the rich man and Lazurus is hell. The gap between extreme wealth and extreme poverty is an inhuman society. Riches in themselves are not wrong or right but we need to remember that in Jesus' time those who were rich were thought to be blessed by God. Some today, think that also. However, when a community is at the disposal of a rich powerful man and treats poor men and women as Lazarus was treated, it is a community that has lost its soul.
The rich man may be following all the religious rules and regulations, observe the Sabbath strictly, and pay his dues to the Temple, even be in a faithful marriage, but he is, in reality, an affront to God.. .The society he has helped to create and which benefits him, is no better than hell. The community in which he is powerful is hell for the poor and powerless like Lazarus. Even in torment Lazarus is still the servant.
The chasm could be crossed from the rich man's side on earth but now it is uncrossable. Scary stuff.
Jesus in telling this story must have pointed this out in anger and sadness. [Jesus is redefining sin. Not loving ones neighbour, is not loving God.]
The apostles creed says Jesus "descended into hell". We can't point out hell on the map - it is not "down there". Hell is the dark side of humanity, the frightening depths in human community and the world.
Hell is we human beings who created the atomic bomb and dropped it over Hiroshima. It is we human beings who torment one another with racism, sexism, who infringe on the rights of others. We human beings who driven by greed and power create hunger, conflict and oppression.
And it is in hell that Jesus meets us. God with us.
For the cross of Jesus is living hell. The cross was not invented by God as a means to save human beings from their sin against God. The cross was human violence. The violence of human beings assaulting one another, dehumanizing one another, murdering one another. and God transformed that hell into the reality of God's saving presence, the resurrection life.. It is God's witness that human violence does not have the last word.
Those who enter hell do not have to abandon hope. In the cross is a symbol of life and the gateway to life.
What is this life? Traditional theology has talked about a powerful God to counteract the powerful of the world.
Jesus' power cannot be confused with the power that thrives on the unhappiness of its opponents and the dehumanisation of those who come under it. Jesus descended to the places where there were powerless men and women. and children. He told stories about his God who loves like a father, not an omnipotent father who will not have his son back until he is proved worthy but a vulnerable father who welcomes the son back into his arms . Like a woman searching for the lost coins not giving up on humanity and rejoicing when we come out of hell.
Not a sentimental God, who is swayed by emotions, but a God of powerful grace who gives us the power of grace. The strength to change the way things are. The grace of The Spirit of God which is the power of turning hell into heaven, whose work takes many different forms , social political and religious. We need as Christians to learn to be open to it whenever and where ever God's grace is at work. inside and outside the Christian church, and maybe more outside the church.
As we gather today with all those others round the world let us be met by the host of the table, Jesus himself, God with us, sharing the feast of heaven . Where you will not be thirsty and the bread of life is for all who come.
Reference and direct quotes C.S.Song Jesus In the Power of the Spirit
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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