I preached this sermon several years ago in a small and mostly conservative Episcopal Church. This is the only time I've ever directly addressed the reality/possibility of hell from the pulpit.
Sermon for Proper 26, Year C
BCP Lectionary: Isaiah 1:10-20; Psalm 32; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12; Luke 19:1-10
Every Christian denomination tends to focus on certain things in scripture and tradition to the exclusion of others. In the Episcopal Church, for example, we don’t hear much about sin, judgment, and hell. One reason to not hammer home “fire and damnation” from the pulpit is not just the fact that many Episcopalians want to distance themselves from other Christian denominations. There’s a deeper theological conviction. And that is that the core of Christian preaching is not bad news but good news. We affirm that Christ came into the world, not to destroy, but to save sinners (cf. Luke 9:56). And so we don’t give equal time to sin, judgment, and hell because that makes the problem just as or even more important than Christ’s solution.
Having said that, I also think that one reason the Episcopal Church shies away from talk of sin, judgment, and hell is that, on the whole, we consider ourselves a bit too genteel for such crude theology. Perhaps we like to think that only “fundamentalists” believe in that kind of stuff.
But that’s simply not the case. The Anglican tradition affirms that second only to Holy Scripture, the historic creeds of the undivided Church provide the litmus test for orthodox doctrine. So it’s significant that both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds refer to Christ coming again to judge the living and the dead. And in the traditional wording of the Apostles’ Creed we affirm that Christ “descended into hell” (BCP, p. 53).
The Anglican tradition also upholds the authority of the Bible as "the rule and ultimate standard of faith" ["The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral," BCP, p. 877]. So it’s a striking fact that you can hardly read a page of the Bible without confronting references to sin and judgment. And if we were to strike all references to hell from the Gospels, we’d have to jettison most of our Lord’s parables and teachings. If we take the authority of scripture as "the rule and ultimate standard of faith" and the authority of tradition seriously, then we cannot simply dismiss what they say about sin, judgment, and hell.
Just look at today’s lessons. Speaking the word of the Lord, Isaiah blasts the people of Judah. Sure, they do and say all the right stuff in their Sabbath worship. But then they turn around for the next 6 days and engage in practices that violate God’s laws. Things like oppressing the weak and taking advantage of the vulnerable. Whether its Sabbath-only Jews or Sunday-only Christians, Isaiah makes it clear that God judges the sin of using worship as a veneer to mask and justify seeking our own wills instead of God’s will.
Notice that God offers the people a chance to repent. “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes … ” (Isaiah 1:16). But according to Isaiah, real repentance is more than mouthing the words of a general confession. And it’s more than renouncing former behaviors. Real repentance is about taking up a new way of life. It’s about turning away from self-centered behaviors and turning towards the things of God. For Isaiah, that means taking up things like seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphans, and pleading for widows (cf. Isaiah 1:17). Isaiah tells us that if the people fail to do these things, if they refuse God’s gracious offer and they rebel against the call to change, they will “be devoured by the sword” (Isaiah 1:20).
The Old Testament agrees with the New: the wages of sin is death (cf. Romans 6:23). And so we find a strong theology of judgment for sin in Paul’s 2nd letter to the Thessalonians. Paul warns of the day “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven” (2 Thessalonians 1:7). He says it will be a day when those “who do not obey the gospel … will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 1:8, 9). Paul is speaking of the final judgment and the possible punishment of hell. It sounds harsh, but the language Paul uses to describe hell as separation from God squares with what our Catechism says: “ … by hell, we mean eternal death in our rejection of God” (BCP, p. 862).
Holy Scripture and Christian tradition affirm that hell is a real possibility. After all, God created us with free will. We are not automatons or computers who’ve been pre-programmed to obey God’s will. We can and often do misuse our freedom. We can and often do seek our own wills instead of God’s will. We can and often do reap the consequences. And as scripture teaches, the most extreme consequence of our sins is the eternal death of hell.
It’s been said that hell is a prison cell whose door locks from the inside. That’s an important image because it conveys a fundamental truth. God doesn’t want anybody thrown into that cell. And God doesn’t put anybody in that cell. We do it to ourselves. And we hold the key to the door.
Hell is a real possibility, but thanks be to God, it’s not a foregone conclusion. Jesus Christ crucified for our sins and risen triumphant over the grave has seen to that. So it’s absolutely vital that we hear Isaiah and Paul in the context of the fullness of the gospel.
When we proclaim the mystery of faith in today’s Eucharistic prayer that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again, we’re not proclaiming reasons to be afraid. We’re proclaiming the reasons why we are confident that nothing in all of creation – including, sin, death, and hell – can separate us from God’s love in Christ. No matter how far gone someone may be, redemption is always possible.
It even happened for Zacchaeus. And if it can happen for Zacchaeus, it can happen for anybody. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. You’ll recall that tax collectors were traitors to their country, desecrators of the commandments, and apostates to Israel’s God. And why? Because Jewish tax collectors in 1st Century Palestine were collaborators with the Roman occupation. Tax collectors were just the sort of people you’d expect to reap “the punishment of eternal destruction” so vividly described by Paul (2 Thessalonians 1:9). So as a chief tax collector, you’d expect there to be a special place in the bowels of hell reserved just for Zacchaeus. Besides the fact that he’s the very incarnation of moral depravity and apostasy, Zacchaeus has gotten obscenely rich off of other people’s suffering. The people hate his guts!
And yet, this moral scum bag named Zacchaeus finds salvation. How did it happen?
The same way it happens for us.
Zacchaeus heard about Jesus. He sought out Jesus. And in seeking Jesus, he discovered that Jesus was seeking him. Zacchaeus accepted Jesus’ invitation. He opened his door and welcomed Jesus into his home. And Zacchaeus was willing to make reparations for the wrongs he had done. “Lord, I’m going to give to the poor. And anyone I’ve defrauded I’ll pay back four times over” (Luke 19:8). This guy is serious about repentance! In response, Jesus exclaims: “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9).
Zacchaeus opened the door to the hell of his life and he let Jesus come in. And letting Jesus in meant the transformation of Zacchaeus' life.
My friends, there’s no point in whitewashing the truth. Sin and God’s judgment of sin are real. Hell is a possible outcome of misused freedom. But God’s mercy and grace trump sin, judgment, and hell. “The wages of sin is death,” the apostle Paul writes, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
Jesus descends to the dead and even into hell itself to save us. And nothing we do can ever possibly change the truth of Jesus’ love or the reality that he stands at the door of our lives, knocking. Like Zacchaeus, it’s up to us to unlock and open that door and let him in. “For behold,: our Lord says, “I stand at the door, and knock. And if anyone hears my voice and opens the door – anyone! – I will come in, sit at the table, and share a feast beyond your wildest dreams” (cf. Revelation 3:20).