Grace and Truth: A word from pastors
As we got to know our neighbors, we decided to invite them over for a weekly Bible study. One evening Michael joined us. I can’t remember which Scripture we were studying, but I do remember the topic that dominated our discussion that week: hell. As the rest of us flipped back and forth through the pages of our Bibles, arguing about the reality of hell and who would be there, Michael sat quietly on the sofa. Finally he leaned forward in his chair and spoke up. “Hey, I’ve been there.” All of us went silent and looked at him, curiously. He saw the questions on our faces and continued: “That’s where I grew up—hell. You don’t know nothin’ about hell. I’ll tell you about this place of weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Michael went on to tell us about what it was like to grow up in a house of prostitution, an urban brothel. We heard the sounds and sights of hell echo through his memories of childhood: the gnashing teeth of an addict’s withdrawals, and the cries of weeping women—“the outer darkness where,” as Jesus said, there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12). He told us about the terror, as a child, of waking up in the middle of the night and seeing a dead man lying on the floor, the victim of a drug overdose. “That’s hell,” Michael told us. That day I learned that the flames of hell burn people in the land of the living. For many, hell is a place on earth. What’s the good news for Michael and all the others who live in hell? I find a strange kind of hope when I get to a line in the middle of the Apostles’ Creed: “he descended to the dead” (see Hymnal: A Worship Book, #712). In his death, Jesus plunges into the hidden recesses of the unholy. Why? Because, as the apostle Paul puts it, “neither death, nor life … nor height, nor depth will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). Jesus’ pilgrimage into the depths of the dead reveals the yearning of God’s love, the gnawing ache within the heart of God when the Lover is separated from the beloved, when the creature is torn away from the Creator. Since Jesus descended to the dead for the sake of the good news (1 Peter 3:19, 4:6), I have hope that he also visits those who find themselves living in hell on earth—people like Michael, who cannot forget being thrown into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. When we confess in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus went to the dead, we proclaim that the agony of hell is not foreign territory for God, that the Holy Spirit does not abandon the abandoned and that Jesus Christ is a companion to the forsaken. As Mennonites, we confess our faith not just with our mouths but also with our lives. Jesus invites us into his way of love, a love that descends to the tormented. When the eternal love of Jesus flows through us, we find ourselves caught up in this same movement. The Holy Spirit invites us to follow in the way of Jesus, the One who went into the abyss to reveal the good news of God’s love for the world. Hell has an address in our neighborhoods and in our cities, at least that’s what I learned from Michael. To walk with Jesus is to find the places on earth where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth and to wait with those in the abyss of hell for the Holy Spirit to bring God’s comfort. Jesus descended to the dead. Will you join him?
This column was adapted from a sermon Villegas preached at Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va., on Feb. 22, 2009.