I once taught a lesson at College Church titled, “Why I Believe in Purgatory” (this was in my early years of pastoral ministry, before learning that provocation and attempts at cleverness are usually counter-productive). If you ever want to draw large numbers of people to hear you speak and don’t mind a lot of emails in your inbox beforehand, you might try it. The facial expression of those sitting in the class before I started to speak was priceless. It was like the boy who looked up at Joe Jackson after the famous White Sox player was found guilty of fixing the 1919 World Series and exclaimed, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” Many evidently thought that it would be my theological coming out party—true confessions of a closet Catholic. It probably didn’t help that I started the lesson stating, “I believe in purgatory.”
Toward the middle of the lesson my wife glared at me as if to say, please, stop keeping these people in suspense. To avoid having to sleep on the couch that night I decided that it was time to explain myself. My comments went something like the following:
“Some of you are wondering how it is I can believe in purgatory. Let me tell you. The word purgatory describes purification or purging from sin. In the Roman Catholic tradition this is believed to happen after people die in order for them to enter heaven spotless and pure. I also believe in purgatory; however, I believe that it happened once and for all on the cross of Jesus Christ. When the Lord hung between heaven and earth and shed his blood, he did so as a substitute for humanity. He paid the penalty for our guilt once and for all, even as it says in 1 Peter 3:18:
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit.
In his death Jesus perfectly satisfied the righteous requirement of God’s law, which is why he says in John 19:30:
When he had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
In Christ, the work of purging is finished. We are fully accepted by God on account of what Jesus has done for us.
On this Maundy Thursday (Latin for “mandate” or “command”—from Jesus’ words in John 13:34, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another”) we anticipate Jesus’ cross and shed blood and find in it the most inspiring example of love.