The invitations to enter God’s holy city just keep on coming. (Listen.)
Awhile back, I was talking to someone who has experienced a lot of violence in her life. To add insult to injury, she has been told that unless she gives her life to Jesus, she will suffer further punishment when she dies. ‘I can’t believe in a god who makes me suffer like this,’ she said, ‘and I can’t believe in a god who will send me to hell because I can’t believe in him.’ I looked at her and said, ‘I can’t believe in a god like that, either.’
We don’t often talk about hell here at Sanctuary. But every now and then, I think it’s useful to tackle it, and clear away residual fears and misperceptions.
Too many people, too many preachers in fact, seem to think that hell is God’s last word on sin, and that sin is about following a bunch of rules. And so they set the rules then scare the crap out of people to make them all conform: because who wants to go to hell?
But I don’t think hell is God’s last word on sin; and I don’t think sin is about conforming to the rules. But if they’re not these things, then what are they?
My short answer is this: Sin is about turning away from God and disrupting shalom; hell is living with the consequences. So sin is what we do to our relationship with God, and therefore flows through to our relationships with all things; while hell means living out of sync with God and self and others and land. It means emptiness and fracture; it means living in exile.
And so my conversation partner has known sin and hell already, because of the ways people around her have used violence and fear and shame to disrupt shalom and turn her from away God. Her experience of hell is not what will happen after she dies, but the result of sin here and now: but is this hellish exile God’s last word?
Again, I don’t think so. We all know what it is to live in exile; we all know what it is to live a fractured life. We struggle to align ourselves with God’s Holy Spirit; so we struggle to live in harmony in the fullness of our selves, and with other people and the land.
This rupture or exile is part of the human condition. It’s why some of our earliest stories are about ejection from Eden – the gates slammed shut behind us – and rivalry between siblings. It’s why one of our biggest stories is about exile from Israel; and it’s why the biggest story of all is about the cross: because through his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ reconciled all things. To paraphrase one of our prayers, we could not heal ourselves; we could not save ourselves; we could not align ourselves with God nor make ourselves whole: so God came to us and did it for us—and there’s nothing we can do to earn or change that.
But this means that the last word on sin is not hell, but Christ. For through Christ, God came to us to deal with sin once and for all; through Christ, we are made right with God.
Even so, we can choose whether or not to accept this gift, which brings us back to hell. When Jesus talks about such things, he uses the image of a wedding banquet. All are invited; all are welcome; yet many choose not to come. This refusal is not the fault of the host or the venue or whether the invitations were nicely embossed on deckle edged card. It’s simply that those who are invited say no. They choose to attend to other things; they choose to miss out. So in the language of the church, they live in exile from God; that is, they live in hell.
In Revelation, the last book of the Bible, we have some further last words on sin and hell. These words are addressed to a worshipping community which bears the pain of the world. As we heard last week (here), this community is given a vision of the holy city, coming down like a bride to fill earth with heaven. This vision takes our desire for the perfect communion of the Garden of Eden and marries it with the mess and reality of urban life: and so we see a garden city. We are shown a beautiful, flourishing, tree-lined city filled with life and colour and light. In a reversal of exile from Eden, the gates are wide open; in a reversal of the scattering at Babel, there are people from all nations. There are trees bearing good fruit and healing; and through it all runs the river of the water of life, a crystal fountain pouring from God’s throne.
To this marriage of heaven and earth, all are invited: and the invitations never stop coming. Like the letters from Hogwarts to Harry, the deckle edge cards are flowing through the letterbox, pouring down the chimney, pattering against the window and sliding under the door. We find the invitations tucked into our hunger for a bigger story, our yearning to belong, our thirst for healing; there’s one in the hand of every person who asks for a cup of cold water.
The invitations are issued from the Spirit and the bride, and what do they ultimately say? ‘Come!’ And everyone who hears joins their voices to the chorus: ‘Come!’ And everyone who is thirsty is invited to come and receive the water of life as a gift. (Rev. 22:17)
Yet there are still some who, like Uncle Vernon, choose to seal up the letterbox and block the chimney and close the curtains and barricade the door. They won’t admit their deep hunger, their woundedness, their thirst; they won’t respond to the person in need; they reject, deny or destroy every invitation: and so they live in a self-imposed exile outside the city.
For there, writes John, we find all those who use and abuse and exploit other people: sorcerers and pornographers and murderers and idolaters, and all who love and practise falsehood. But this image comes after the so-called Last Judgement, when John describes the wicked being thrown into the Lake of Fire, a place that many call hell. So it seems that the judgement is not so final but only poetic encouragement to turn the hard-hearted towards God: for the hellish lake is destroyed and here the wicked are again, alive and kicking. The gates are wide open, and they are being invited in, with another invitation and another and another: and this is the final image in Revelation, and therefore of the Bible.
So we learn that the invitations keep on coming; that, in fact, even to the worst of the worst—the haters, the abusers, the false teachers, the school shooters, and those who enable such violence—, even to these people, those who have already accepted God’s gracious invitation are singing with the Holy Spirit: ‘Come in the gates! Come worship the Lamb! Come join us!’
They sing, ‘Come!’ to Jesus, who is well on his way; and ‘Come!’ to everyone who is outside the gate; and ‘Come!’ to all who hesitate at the entrance, which is most of us much of the time. There are no prerequisites, no forms in triplicate, no hurdles to jump: just come. There is nothing you need to do or say or be: simply come. You don’t need to be worthy, you don’t need to be good, and you aren’t and you can’t be: only come. Because as we heard earlier, ‘Let everyone who is thirsty come! Let anyone who wants take the water of life as a gift’: for the water is a free gift for everyone.
In other words, hell is not a place that God sends us. Instead, it’s the arid place we choose to stay when we’ve been invited into the garden city. It’s the loneliness we know when we won’t join the party; it’s the hunger we feel when we reject the banquet; it’s the thirst which racks us when we refuse to drink. It’s the guilt which haunts us when we will not give even a cup of cold water to one of God’s little ones; it’s the emptiness which guts us when we trust in idols, whether wealth or a violent god.
I know some of you have been taught that there’s one big question in life: What do I need to do to go to heaven?
But I reckon a better question is this: Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? Are you rejected or wounded or hurting? Then hear once again the good news: through Christ, God has dealt with sin once and for all, and you are already reconciled with God. There’s nothing you can do about it; you didn’t earn it; you can’t change it. There’s an invitation with your name on it, and another, and another: and all you can do is respond with thanksgiving and a full and wholehearted ‘Yes!’.
So, are you thirsty? Then come dancing through the gates of the holy city, and join with the saints, and drink. Ω
Reflect: How do you feel about a God who ‘a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and quick to relent from punishment’ (Jonah 3:2)? Pray about this. OR Where do you drink from the river of the water of life? Where do you experience its flow?
A reflection by Alison Sampson on Revelation 22:12-17, 20-21 on 29 May 2022 © Sanctuary 2022 (Year C Pascha 7). Image credit: Annie Spratt on Unsplash (edited).
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