Friday, March 13, 2015

Harrowing of Hell (Sermon)

This sermon had many off-the-cuff remarks, but the notes are enough to get a general idea. 

Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15


The basis of “he descended to the dead” in the Apostle’s Creed finds its roots in the 1 Peter reading. Along with a verse from Ephesians and one from Hebrews, a whole doctrine has been constructed around what Jesus did, as the Christ, in the interim between being laid bodily in the tomb and being resurrected, of the same body, on Easter morning.

Late Christian writings, circa 325 ce, refer to this time as the “harrowing of hell”, wherein Christ descended to the place of the dead, spoke the words of triumph to Satan, and offered the good news of the gospel to all those who would hear it. Eastern Orthodox traditions have a profound iconographic tradition around the harrowing of hell- showing the gates shattered, demons bound, and Jesus lifting Adam and Eve up from the pit by their wrists. (By the wrist is important, since by the hand would imply that people could grasp the grace by their own works.)

            Of course, the idea becomes more academic than theological very quickly. What was the understanding of the place of the dead at this time? A “hell” of damnation, torment, and punishment in the way we might think of it? A place where souls rested after death- Sheol or Hades? Was there a separation of those who lived righteously from those who were evil? Did Jesus descend bodily and soul or was his body in the tomb, but his soul in Hades? Was this necessary for him to experience the human reality of death or was it part of his work as the second person of the Trinity?

            So. Many. Questions.

            Frankly, the questions themselves are interesting, but they are not helpful. They’re the kind of thing we bring up for good conversation or to avoid the harder realities of what a life with God means. Trust me, I recognize this habit- in myself and in some of you.

            Why do you think we care so much about the specifics of this?

Christ suffered once for all.

Suffering is not an inherent part of what God desires for us.

Lenten disciplines are not about suffering, but about a deeper understanding of what it means to be a child of God with other children of God.

We have the ability to do our own harrowing of hell, by reducing the suffering of others around us. By taking seriously the realities of the world, the compelling of our baptisms, and the power we have through Christ to bring even small glimpses of peace. 

Christ did descend to the dead. He came into a world where people refused to recognize the light of the God of life in one another and he taught, ate, walked, healed, listened, lived, and died so that all people would be able to know that God knows what it is to struggle and to suffer.

We don’t make that story any more than it is with our sufferings or set-asides in Lent. The harrowing of hell happens when we take seriously the work of prayer, fasting, and showing love to all people. The harrowing of hell happens when we speak even small words of truth against injustice or oppression. The harrowing of hell happens when we set aside our fears of getting it wrong or not being perfect and just try. The harrowing of hell happens when we realize our fears, our idols, the false structures of society are not God and they cannot win. In fact, they are already as dust.

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.

There is a hell in knowing how many people do not trust the truth of that. There is a hell in believing that we save them. We don’t.

However it happened, whenever it happened, Christ has already done the harrowing of the hell of eternity.

We are co-workers in God’s kingdom with Christ in the effort to harrow the hells of this life.

You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively, but let us say you are in dissent. You are in no position to issue commands, but you can speak words of hope. Shall this be the substance of your message? Be human in this most in human of ages; guard the image of man for it is the image of God. – Thomas Merton


We do not do that work alone. Amen.

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