Preached at Good Shepherd Church, Berkeley
Third Sunday After Pentecost, June 25, 2017
Proper 7A: Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Matt. 10:28
Some Sundays our readings are (shall I say?) overstocked with things crying out to be preached on. This is definitely one of those days. But since none of us can probably manage to be here all day, I had to choose just one. And the verse that kept blinking at me in neon was the one I just repeated for you: Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. As if to say: Don’t be too afraid of dying. There are worse things.
But who do you think this person is “who can destroy both soul and body in hell? Is it God? Is it the devil? Both, over the centuries, have been candidates for the position, each with some reason. God is seen as the judge, the devil as the executioner.
And what is all this about hell, anyway? Didn’t that image of the fiery torture chamber down below disappear along with the rest of the three-decker universe after Copernicus upset the whole cosmic applecart five hundred years ago? I’m pretty sure that a good many Episcopalians would say that they don’t believe in hell. I don’t believe in it, either, if you mean the underground place of torment. But I always think, “I do believe in hell.” Or, rather, I don’t exactly believe in hell because I don’t need to. I’ve seen it and I know that it exists. You can read about it in Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq and a whole big handful of other countries pretty much every day in the newspaper. You get glimpses of it all around the world and here at home, too. And, for that matter, I suspect that there are very few people who have survived adolescence who haven’t been there themselves—even if just briefly. Yes, hell exists—in the world around us and in the lives of individuals, too. The place with devils and pitchforks is just an icon of it in case you need help finding it on your computer.
But back to my original question: Who is the one “who can destroy both soul and body in hell”? For a long time, from the time of the Black Death onward, Christians have mostly thought of this person as Jesus himself. That’s when depictions of the Last Judgement became popular in Western Christianity. You know the image—perhaps best from Michelangelo’s enormous fresco in the Sistine Chapel, right behind the altar where the worshipper can’t avoid looking at it. And that focus on judgement is one aspect of Medieval religion that the Reformers kept, too. In fact, for some, it became even more central. Christianity, once a religion focused on redemption and hope, became more and more a religion dominated by judgement and fear.
But it doesn’t really work. Jesus does speak here and there about returning in judgement. But you have to do a serious makeover on the Jesus we meet in the Gospels if you want to turn him into that angry figure in Michelangelo’s fresco. It doesn’t really answer the question.
Now, hell is indeed something to be afraid of. We know that already. It’s exactly what disturbs us so in the news nowadays: the anger, the polemics that divide our country—and many others as well; the indifference toward truth; the increasing divide between poor and rich; the ever-increasing numbers of refugees, fleeing from war or from climate change or from tyranny at home. We are living in a world where hell is aggressively active. But it can get worse. Living in it is one thing. But losing our souls to it is another. And that’s what happens when we find ourselves constantly unmoored by it, uncertain, afraid, depressed. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t care. I’m not saying we shouldn’t get angry and be active in our resistance. I’m just saying that we are in danger when we lose our sense of rootedness in the love of God and the hope that comes from that.
It’s providential that this text has come up for us on this particular Sunday. This is Pride Month for GLBTQ folk and today is the big celebratory parade across the Bay in San Francisco. Gay Liberation, to use the shorthand term, has deep roots in the past, but the catalytic moment that we commemorate today was an uprising at the Stonewall Bar in New York when some GLBTQ people refused to submit quietly to oppression any more. And the movement was kept going by thousands of other GLBTQ people in all walks of life who decided that they weren’t going to live frightened, divided existences any more.
They were facing up against people who were ready to do them real bodily harm. Some didn’t survive those confrontations. But it was worth doing, because it meant they were reclaiming their souls. Some things, they recognized, are worse than getting killed. Living a life that was, in a way, a constantly improvised fiction meant that they were in danger of losing themselves. Their souls had been hanging in the balance for a long time. They knew how to distinguish those who could kill the body from the one who could destroy both body and soul in hell. And it meant that they weren’t afraid in the way they had been before.
That process still goes on for GLBTQ people. And it’s still not without danger, as events in Orlando reminded us a year or so ago. But people are still recognizing that it is better to keep one’s soul than to give into fear and play it safe and put on a disguise and hide maybe even from yourself.
That same kind of understanding is what kept the early Christian martyrs steady in the face of death. I think of the words of the aged St. Polycarp at his trial in the second century. When the proconsul ordered him to insult Christ, he answered, “For eighty six years I have been his servant and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” His relationship to Christ was part of who he was. The love of Christ had restored his soul. And he would rather keep his soul than rescue his bodily life by sacrificing the relationship that made him who he was.
Martyrdom is an extreme case. But the value of extreme cases is that they help us see what is at stake in our more everyday circumstances. To have a soul means to have a center, a sense of coherence and continuity that tells me who I am. To some extent, each of us is born with that—or at least the beginnings of it. But it has to grow over time, and it grows especially in the context of our relationships with others—family, friends, neighbors, associates at work, people at church, God. We spend our lives forming our souls in dialogue with God and with the people around us. It takes some attention, even if a lot of it happens quite unconsciously. And sometimes it calls for hard decisions. But above all, it calls for keeping faith with all the good that has created and enriched your life and made you who you are.
We trust God, the source of all good, to go on being God, to go on loving us, even when we don’t particularly deserve it, to sustain us in difficult times, to rejoice with us in times of fulfillment and joy—that’s what gives our souls their center. And that in turn, creates hope because, even when the world is going to hell in a hand basket, God is still God and still loving us and standing with us. And this love itself, of course, is the central thing in all of true Christianity. Christianity isn’t primarily about duty. It isn’t primarily about judgement. Its whole message, in fact, can be summed up in a single short sentence: God is love (1 John 4:8, 14). So don’t get distracted. We have to keep our eye on this above all. The whole universe, ourselves included, exists only because God made it in love. And God does us the astonishing, improbable favor of asking for our love in return.
It’s important to re-emphasize all this just now. It’s easy for us to stay in a state of constant alarm, confusion, fright, and anxiety this year. Our president is a genius at keeping us all off balance. The government as a whole exhibits a willingness to oppress the poor and the marginalized such as we have not seen in my lifetime. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. And that means it’s time to return to what gives life to our souls: the love of God and the answering love God awakens in us.
And don’t think that this is some sort of self-serving retreat. It’s not a matter of turning our backs on the world around us—though I do think we could usefully learn to be less easily taken prisoner by each day’s presidential tweets. No, the centered soul doesn’t retreat, but it does need to bat distractions away. And in hard times like these, we can learn the truth of what St. John wrote: “Perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) Our fear.
People have learned this in hard circumstances over and over again: martyrs standing before Roman judges, people marching against racial oppression, women breaking the boundaries imposed by misogyny, GLBTQ people coming out of the closet, people today standing up for peace in the face of religious fanaticism and for justice and generosity in the face of a government that’s increasingly a tool of the super-rich. In doing all this, people over the ages have learned the saving of their souls.
And if you can keep your soul, you will find that you can stand up to a great deal of trouble. You can stand up and do your part in hope, not because you’re sure things will turn out the way you would like, but because you know your life will not go to waste, that God is not through working wonders even if they sometimes take longer than we wish.
But what about my original question? Who is “the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell”? I think a part of the answer must be “I am. You are.” We will all die, of course, whether sooner or later. But we have the power to decide whether we shall die with our souls still living. We can kill them—and we are also the ones who, relying on the power of God’s love, can save them.