(The Harrowing of Hell)
Here’s the sermon from this weekend based on the lectionary epistle from Colossians 2.6-15.
If you’re receiving this by email, you can find the audio by clicking here.
Today’s passage begins the heart of the apostle Paul’s argument in his letter to the Colossians, and it’s a passage that begs an obvious and inescapable question.
Not- “Why are there so few praise songs about circumcision?”
That’s not the question.
It’s this one: If you’re already forgiven, then why bother following?
If you’re already forgiven by Christ of every sin you’ve done, every sin you’re sinning this very instant in your little head, every sin you will commit next week or next year- if you’re already and for always forgiven by Christ, then why would you bother following him?
If you’ve no reason to fear fire and brimstone, then what reason do you have to follow?
Because you don’t, you know- have any reason to fear. Fear God or fear for your salvation.
That’s the lie, the empty deceit, the false teaching, Paul admonishes the Colossians against in verse 8 where Paul warns them against any practices or philosophy that lure them into forgetting that Christ is Lord and in Christ God has defeated the power of Sin with a capital S and cancelled out the stain of all your little s sins.
You are forgiven.
You have no reason to fear.
Because the whole reality of God (without remainder), dwells in Christ Jesus and, by your baptism, you’ve been incorporated in to Christ fully and so you are fully restored to God. You have fullness with God through Christ in whom God fully dwells.
Fully is Paul’s key boldfaced word- there is no lack in your relationship with God.
At least, from God’s side there’s not.
And for Paul-
Your incorporation in Christ, your restoration by Christ to God, it’s objective not subjective. It’s fact not foreshadowing. It’s an announcement not an invitation.
Christ’s incorporation of us has happened- literally- over our dead bodies, our sin-dead bodies.
And it’s happened perfectly. As in, once. For all. It’s not conditional. It’s not an if/then proposition. It’s not if you believe/have faith/roll up your sleeves and serve the poor/give more money/stop your stupid sinning THEN and ONLY THEN will God forgive you.
No, it’s not future tense. It’s past perfect tense.
It’s passive even. You have been reconciled by Christ without qualification. It’s a finished deed and no deeds you do can add to it or- or– subtract from it.
From Paul’s perspective, “What must I do to be saved?” is the wrong question to ask this side of the cross because you were saved- already- in 33 AD and Christ’s cross never stops paying it forward into the future for you.
It’s as obvious as an empty tomb: God forever rejects our rejection of him.
What circumcision was to Israel, Christ is to us. He’s made us his Family, and, just as it is with your biological one, as much as you might like to you can’t undo family.
You once were lost, dead (to sin), but he has made you alive in Christ, raised you up right along with him; so that, you can say he’s forgiven all your trespasses. Your debt of sin that you never could’ve paid, it’s like a credit card Christ has cut up and nailed to the cross.
And it’s not just your little s sins he’s obliterated, it’s the Power of Sin with a capital S. He’s defeated it forever. He’s brought down the Principalities and Powers, Paul says.
He’s thrown the dragon down, as St. John puts it. He’s plundered Satan’s lair, as St. Peter puts; he’s descended all the way into Hell to liberate the condemned and on his way up he hung a condemned sign on the devil’s doors. Out of business. God literally does not give a damn anymore.
Your sin. Our alienation and guilt and separation from God. Humanity’s hostility and divisions. God’s wrath and judgment. All of it, every bit of it, the fullness of it-it’s just like he said it was. It is finished.
But, that begs the question:
If you’re already forgiven, once for always and all
If you’re a sinner in the hands of a loving God
If you’ve no fire and brimstone to fear
Then, why bother following?
If you have no reason to fear God, then why would you upend your life, complicate your conscience, career, and keeping-up-with-the-Jones? Why would you invert the values the culture gives you and compromise your American dream by following the God who meets us in Jesus Christ?
If Christ has handed you a “Get Out of Hell Free” card, then what’s the incentive to follow Christ? Why would you bother? Why would you forgive that person in your life, who knows exactly what they do to you, as many as 70 x 7 times? Why would you do that if you know you’ve already been forgiven for not doing it?
Why bother giving water to the stranger (who is Christ) when he’s thirsty or food when he’s hungry, why bother visiting Christ when he’s locked away in prison or clothing Christ when he’s naked or sheltering Christ when he’s homeless?
Why go to all that trouble if Christ is only going to say to you what he says to the woman caught in sin: I do not condemn you?
You know as well as I do-
It feels better to leave the log in your own eye and point out the speck in your neighbor’s eye instead. It feels better.
It feels almost as good as not walking a mile in another’s shoes, nearly as good as not giving them the shirt off your back, as comfortable as not giving up everything and giving it away to the poor.
And none of that feels as right and good as it does to withhold celebration when a prodigal comes creeping back into your life expecting forgiveness they don’t deserve.
So why would you bother doing all of what Jesus commands if you’re already forgiven for not doing it any of it?
Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light.
Easy and light my log-jammed eye.
Not when he says the way to be blessed is to wage peace and to show mercy and swallow every insult that comes your way because you hunger and thirst for justice.
Easy and light- have you been following the news lately? You could starve to death hungering and thirsting for God’s justice.
So why? What’s the point? What’s the benefit to you? If you’ve no reason to fear Christ, if you’re already forgiven by Christ, then why bother following the peculiar path laid out by Christ?
I don’t have cable on my TV. Instead I have this HBO Now app on my iPhone. So anywhere, anytime, whenever I want, on my 6 Plus screen I can watch Rape of Thrones. Or, if I’m in the mood for something less violent, I can watch old episodes of the Sopranos right there on my phone.
Or, if I want to see more of Matthew Mcconaughey than I need to see I can rebinge season one of True Detective. Right there on my iPhone, I can thumb through all of HBO’s titles; it’s like a rolodex of violence and profanity, sex and secularism.
Earlier this week, I opened the HBO Now app on my phone, and I wasn’t in the mood for another brother-sister funeral wake make-out session on Game of Thrones. Because I wasn’t in the mood for my usual purient interests, I happened upon this little documentary film from 2011 about Delores Hart.
Delores Hart was an actress in the 1950’s and 60’s. Her father was a poor man’s Clark Gable and had starred in Forever Amber. She grew up a Hollywood brat until her parents split at which time she went to live with her grandpa, who was a movie theater projectionist in Chicago.
Delores would sit in the dark alcove of her grandpa’s movie house watching film after film and dreaming tinseltown dreams.
After high school and college, Delores Hart landed a role as Elvis Presley’s love interest in the 1956 film Loving You, a role that featured a provocative 15 second kiss with Elvis. She starred with Elvis again in 1958 in King Creole.
She followed that up with an award-winning turn on Broadway in the Pleasure of His Company. In 1960 she starred in the cult-hit, spring break flick Where the Boys Are, which led to the lead in the golden-globe winning film The Inspector in 1961.
Delores Hart was the toast of Hollywood. She was compared to Grace Kelley. She was pursued by Elvis Presley and Paul Newman. Her childhood dreams were coming true. She was engaged to a famous L.A. architect.
In 1963 she was in New York promoting her new movie Come Fly with Me when something compelled her- called her- to take a one-way cab ride to the Benedictine abbey, Regina Laudis, in Bethlehem, Connecticut for a retreat.
After the retreat, she returned to her red carpet Hollywood life and society pages engagement but she was overwhelmed by an ache, a sensation of absence. Emptiness.
So, she quit her acting gigs, got rid of all her baubles, and broke off her engagement- renounced all of her former dreams- and joined that Benedictine convent where she is the head prioress today.
What’s more remarkable than her story is the documentary filmmakers’ reaction to it, their appropriation of it. This is HBO remember, the flagship station for everything postmodern, postChristian, purient and radically secular.
Here’s this odd story of a woman giving up her red carpet dreams and giving her life to God, and the filmmakers aren’t just respectful of her story; they’re drawn to it.
They’re not just interested in her life; they’re captivated by her life.
Even though it’s clear in the film that her motivation is a mystery to them, you can tell from the way they film her story that they think, even though she wears a habit and has no husband or family or ordinary aspirations, she is somehow more human than most of us.
You can tell that they think her life is beautiful, that believing she is God’s beloved and living fully into that belief has made her life beautiful.
Why we follow even though there’s no fire and brimstone to fear, even though we’re already and always forgiven.
Because if Jesus is the image of the invisible God, as Paul says here in Colossians, then what it means for us to be made in God’s image is for us to resemble Jesus, to look and live like Jesus.
If the fullness of God dwells in Jesus Christ, if Jesus is what God looks like when God puts on skin and becomes fully human- totally, completely, authentically human- then we follow Jesus not because we hope to get into heaven but because we hope to become human.
We follow Jesus not because we hope to get into heaven but because we hope to become human too.
The reason Christ’s yoke does not feel easy nor his burden light, the reason we prefer our log-jammed eyes, the reason we’re daunted by forgiving 70 x 7 and intimidated by a love that washes feet is that we’re not yet. Human. Fully human. As human as God.
It’s not that God doesn’t understand what it is to live a human life; it’s that we don’t. We’re the only creatures who don’t know how to be the creatures we were created to be.
We get it backwards: it’s not that Jesus presents to us an impossible human life; it’s that Jesus presents to us the prototype for every human life. For a fully human life.
So we follow not to avoid brimstone in the afterlife but to become beautiful in this one.
That’s the why, so what about the how?
How we become as fully human? How do we become beautiful?
If Jesus is the prototype, then it begins for us the same way it begins for Jesus.
And for Jesus, according to the oldest of the Gospels, Mark- the story of Jesus’ fully human life begins not with his birth but with his baptism:
With Jesus coming up out of the water and God declaring like it was the first week of creation: ‘This is my Beloved in whom I delight.’
Jesus’ baptism is not the first time in scripture that God says to someone: ‘You are my Beloved. In you I delight.’
It’s not the first time in scripture that God says that to someone, but it is the first time in scripture that someone actually believes it and lives his life all the way to a cross believing it.
What sets Jesus apart is not the miracles he performed. It’s not his teaching or his preaching. Or, even, that he died on a cross.
No, what sets Jesus apart is his deep and abiding belief that he was God’s beloved.
Jesus was like us in every way. Tempted like us. Flesh and blood like us. Born and died like us. In every way he was like every one of us who’s ever been since Adam.
Except one way.
Jesus never forgot who he was. He never doubted that he was Beloved, a delight to God.
And knowing, all the way down, that he was beloved, set him free to live a life whose beauty renewed the whole world as a new and different creation.
When Delores Hart took her finals vows as a Benedictine nun, 7 years later, she wore the wedding dress she’d bought for her red carpet Hollywood wedding.
She thought it was the perfect thing to wear because the most profound love in our lives isn’t the one that sends couples down the aisle to altar. It’s the love that God declares to all of us from the altar.
If Jesus is the prototype, then you and I becoming fully, beautifully human, it begins not with believing in Jesus and not with believing certain things about Jesus.
If Jesus is God’s prototype, then you and I becoming fully, beautifully human begins with believing like Jesus.
Believing like Jesus believed. Believing what Jesus believed.
You are God’s Beloved. In you, in you, God delights.