Turning onto 3rd Avenue, the big Mercedes screeched to a violent halt inches from my knees as I crossed the street. Instantly the driver stuck his head out of the car window and screamed, “Go to hell!!” I was so stunned by this sudden and dramatic interruption on my way to church that I stood in the road in the middle of his grill like a deer in headlights. He yelled some more choice phrases as his window floated up and the car roared on its way.
Evidently the driver thought he owned the intersection. I won’t report what I thought to say to him five minutes after the shock of the near-miss began to dissipate. I remembered he had been holding a phone in his right hand. The windows were smoked glass. He wore glasses, had dark hair (was it a toupee?) and a trim mustache. Interesting how clearly my memory picked up so many details. Adrenalin will do that—the fight or flight response, I guess.
Has anyone ever told you to go to hell with great anger and seriousness? What did it mean to you? What it feels like to me is that the person issuing the invitation wants me in the worst possible place, under the meanest of circumstances, where I would be at my greatest disadvantage; where I am the most isolated and unsupported; where I have the least chance of surviving. This is one way of looking at what hell means.
I’m thinking this is exactly what was happening to Jesus on the day that started the last week of his life. If ever a person rode through the gates of hell it was Jesus, as he rode into the gates of Jerusalem on the first day of the last week of his life, a day we commemorate as Palm/Passion Sunday.
And the interesting and insidious thing about it was that it was all so beautifully disguised – as hell usually is. Jerusalem, the beautiful, cosmopolitan city of David, the site of the great temple. The people initially shouted words of praise as Jesus made his way through the portal. But that didn’t last. In just a few days even his supposed friends fled from his side as the Romans administered their justice, so-called, the people having largely found their inner nasty. (Something we see reprised in our own generation, time after time after time.) Hanging from a cross beam to which he had been nailed he was overheard to exclaim: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Here was the heart of my own conversion: one day in my early adulthood accompanying Jesus on his journey through the gates of hell smack into the stunning paradox of the utter humiliation and failure of God’s chosen vessel; the consummate vulnerability at the heart of the definition of divine love captured in Paul’s poetry:
…though he was in the form of God,
[he] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
We’ll take that journey again this Sunday walking straight through the yawning gates into the greatest of all mysteries, a fantastic voyage into the core of what it means to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves.
The Rev. Stephen Bauman