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How about this scenario. Stand, turn to your neighbor, grasp hands firmly, look each other in the eye, and say, "In the name of Jesus Christ, go to hell!" WHAT? Wilfred Bailey and William McElvaney have offered this rude sounding remedy for any more mumbled, meaningless "The Peace of Christ be with you's" in their book, Christ's Suburban Body.(1) But Bailey and McElvaney are not just prescribing shock therapy. Their recommendation is carefully considered and theologically based. Where does the Apostle's Creed tell us Christ went during that period of time between the crucifixion and resurrection?
As the continuing presence of Christ's body on earth, where should the church go in order to find the neediest souls, those farthest from God and closest to despair?
Stand, turn to your pew-mate, grasp hands firmly, look each other in the eye, and say, "In the name of Jesus Christ, go to hell!" Wow!
What brings this all to mind this morning is the two-pronged emphasis we find in our worship today. One, this is the first Sunday of Mission Month at First Presbyterian. During March we are looking at the people, the places, the priorities which, in the name of Jesus, define our ministry together. It is important that we take time to remind ourselves periodically what it is we are about here, because without the reminders, we can easily fall into the trap of becoming nothing more than a pious private club. Two, this is the first Sunday in Lent, that period in the church year that calls us to a time of rigorous self-examination and introspection as we prepare ourselves for our encounter with Calvary. The gospel lesson for the first Sunday in Lent each year tells the story of Christ's temptation in the desert. As we read a moment ago, three are highlighted. They are each strong, and everyone of them is based on truth (which is a wonderful reminder about how the truth can be used for evil purposes). And they are each one a metaphor for the temptations that face Christ's church.
Temptation number one: "[Jesus]...If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread." Nothing outrageous there. As the text says, he has had nothing to eat. Jesus, you are incredibly powerful; use that power to meet your own needs. If you do not take care of yourself, you will not be able to take care of anyone else. Who could have blamed Jesus for doing something like that?
The church faces the same temptation. It becomes most evident at budget time. Take care of your own needs, church. If you do not take care of yourself first, there will be no church to take care of anyone else, no one to reach and rescue those in the corners of hell. Makes sense. Good sense. Which makes it a powerful temptation.
The second temptation of Christ was equally enticing: "The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, 'I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours.'" Unchallenged political power to right all the wrongs...all the kingdoms of the world. How incredibly simple, Jesus: you can ORDER folks to listen. You can ORDER justice and an end to all oppression. What a wonderful opportunity! All it will take is a tiny compromise, an ever-so-slight division in your loyalties. Jesus, this is the offer you cannot refuse. Who could have blamed him for accepting?
That is an equally great temptation for the church. Get involved in the political arena. Use government to accomplish your holy ends. If you have to make a compromise here or there, if there are occasional evils that you should ignore so as to not compromise your access to power, your ability to make hell a bit more bearable for everyone, well...that is not such a great price to pay, is it?
The third temptation: "The devil led [Jesus] to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 'If you are the Son of God, [and the Greek in all of these "If" clauses carries the sense of "If you are (and we know that you are)"]...If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here. For it is written: 'He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'" What a spectacular stunt to leap from the Pinnacle of the Temple, drop the 450 feet straight down into the Kidron Valley, and land unharmed. God's angels will protect you. People will SURELY listen to your message when they hear what about this. Showtime! Would anyone legitimately reproach Jesus for deciding to take that course?
The temptation for the church is the same - put on a great show, attract attention in whatever ways you can, and the more spectacular the better. People are always attracted to a powerful performance. And once you get them in the door, then you can enlist them in your mission enterprises...unless you find yourself instead preparing for another show. Hmm.
The temptations for the church are all there, just as they were for Jesus. But instead of falling for them, as a climax of his ministry, after Calvary and before the resurrection, as we repeat in the ancient and historic words of the Creed, "He descended into hell."
There are any number of hells out there awaiting us. The hells of the homeless, the hungry, the hurting, the hells of the addicted, the afflicted, the convicted, the hell of all those who feel abandoned and alone. The list could go on and on. Yes, the church, the body of Christ, despite all the temptations not to, should go to hell.
In a moment, we will be nourished for our journey. Then, next week, as we gather again for worship, when we come to that time in the service where we stand, extend hands to one another, look each other in the eye, and offer an encouraging word, do not be shocked or surprised if you hear something different. After all, it will still be March, Mission Month at First Presbyterian, and the reminder of what we are about will be with us, loud and clear. Remember it. "In the name of Jesus Christ, go to hell."
1. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970, quoted in Homiletics, via internet, http://www.homileticsonline.com/Installments/feb1692.htm