(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way. From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.”
Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away.
Well, we joke in the church sometimes that what it means to be Methodist is muddy enough that it seems like a fair middle ground between Catholic and Baptist, so we have a lot of mixed marriages in this church, one person grew up Catholic and the other Baptist or some similar tradition, and I am imagining that when we say the Apostle’s Creed, as we have been doing for the last several weeks, that the former Baptists among us have been saying to themselves, what on earth is this? It’s not in the Bible, and we didn’t grow up saying it, so why do it now? And the Catholics among us are saying, what about the part where Jesus descends into Hell? In many traditions, including the Roman Catholic tradition, it is common to say that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, and descended into Hell.
And the answer to the first question is that this stuff is in the Bible. The ancient writers of the Creed took this list of things that we affirm together from different parts of scripture, including the bit about Jesus descending into Hell. That comes from the book of Ephesians, where the author says that after he died, Jesus descended to the lower parts of the earth, which in old English language, is translated as Hell. And the author of 1 Peter says that Jesus was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, which is almost as good a description of what hell is as trying to get a live human on the phone with the Dekalb County Water Department or turning left on North Decatur Road out of our church parking lot.
The reason, just so you know, that we don’t say this part in the United Methodist Church, is that it is actually not original to the Creed. It’s Biblical, the descent to Hell, but I was not included in the Creed until somewhere between the fourth and the eighth centuries, so John Wesley, the founder of our tradition, decided not to include it, but I would submit to you today that the descent into Hell is an idea worth exploring, and so I want to do that this morning.
You know, with all that has been going on in the world lately, I have been very intrigued by this idea that even Jesus died, that he was crucified, that he died, that he was buried where he lay for three days. I will acknowledge that in the midst of such great societal change in such a little time, the ground feels a little unsteady these days, my knees feel a little weak, and it’s enough to wear you out if you let it. I was talking to somebody this week about this passage and I finally looked at him and said, “Good grief, three days with nothing to do! That doesn’t sound like Hell—that sounds like Heaven!”
And yet in our understanding, during those three days, Jesus was quite busy, walking through hell, and for as much as the church doesn’t like talking about hell, doesn’t do such a great job of nuance so we usually leave it alone, for all of that, there are days that I wish we hadn’t decided, as a church, to take out the bit about Jesus descending into Hell from the Apostle’s Creed, because my Lord, when I’m walking through Hell, it does my heart good to know Jesus did it, too.
Do you know what I mean? With all the change we’ve seen in the world, with all the unsteadiness we’ve felt, don’t you take solace in the fact that Jesus walked through Hell, that nothing that happens to us is worse than what happened to God, that through his descent, Jesus went to the one place we all assume God doesn’t go, so that when the writer of the Psalm says that even when I make my bed in Hell, O God, you are there, what he means is that God is with us even when we’re walking through hell, too? I don’t know about you, but I have spent more hours, more time, walking through hell than I would like to admit. It is not easy, and yet, we are promised, that when we walk through Hell, God is with us.
And I find myself moved, moved, by this connection between experiencing death and walking through Hell, because as those of us who have experienced great loss know, you can’t take the journey through grief without walking straight through hell. You can’t go around it. You can’t go over it. You’ve got to go through it.
I think about this passage in the apostle’s creed whenever I am with someone who is preparing for death, or whenever I am with a family who has experienced a loss. We have a tendency, when we’re talking about death in the church, to skip right over it, to say, sure, death, oh, but Heaven! How wonderful! And it is, it will be! But death, well, we don’t like to talk about death. We skip straight past it. We don’t do such a great job talking about what it means to have a good death.
And this isn’t a new dilemma. Death is not an easy thing to think about, let alone to talk about. In fact, the reason that the business about Jesus dying is included in the creed at all is that in the days and years after his death, there was great controversy about this point, about the idea that Jesus died, because people just couldn’t bear the thought that their precious savior died, that the little Lord Jesus, the savior of the world, would die, let alone be killed as an enemy of the state. So there was this idea, this heresy, called Docetism, that started to become popular in the centuries after Jesus, and the idea was this: If Jesus really was divine, if he really was God, then he couldn’t have been human. And in some ways, intellectually, it does makes sense, because when you start to think about what we actually believe, which is that Jesus was fully human and divine, and you do the math there, you end up with one plus one equals one, and this is what we believe, but you can understand how the Docetists struggled with this.
And so, they said, if Jesus was divine, he couldn’t have been human, and if he wasn’t human, then he couldn’t have had a human body, and if he couldn’t have had a human body, then he couldn’t have suffered, and if he couldn’t have suffered, then he couldn’t have died.
This wasn’t the majority view in those first Centuries after Christ, not by any means, but the further you get from an event, the more people take liberties with it. I wonder sometimes how the Virgin Mary herself would have described the birth of Jesus, in light of the songs we sing about that night, silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright, little Lord Jesus no crying he makes. It’s silly. I wonder what she would think about all that, and I don’t want to be too sacrilegious here, but part of me thinks that rather than this sweet, sacred scene, the birth of Jesus was more about Mary laying in a pile of hay, screaming at Joseph to find the nurse and get her an epidural!
The further you get, the more liberties people take, and this is what happened with the Docetists. In fact, it is why the Creed came together in the first place, to preserve, not to lock out, but to preserve, to say, here is what we know about who God is and how God works and so let us crystalize that understanding into a Creed, to remind us, to remind the coming centuries of the being and work of God in the world. And one of the big reasons they felt it necessary to do so was that people started to say, oh, God couldn’t have died. There’s no way God could have died.
You get why it’s hard to talk about, particularly when you’re talking about God, but when you’re talking about anybody really. Nobody wants to talk about death, let alone face it. You’d think that in the Christian church, we’d do this better than most, but that’s not true. I was reading something just the other day that mycolleague, Mark LaRocca-Pitts, wrote about dying as a Christian. Mark’s a hospice chaplain, to which I say more power to you, because that’s just not an environment I could thrive in. It’s not that I am scared of death. It’s just that it’s not something I like to think about all the time: you know, dying.
And Mark says that the thing about Christians is that you’d think we’d all face death with the same steely resolve, that we’d be good at dying, but you’d be wrong. In fact, in his experience, as someone who has seen many, many people die, you really can’t tell what a person’s religion is as he or she experiences death, not in the moment of death, not in the time before it. We believe in Heaven, as Christians, and so you’d think we’d all be ready to go when the time comes. And, he says, that’s not the case.
The problem, he says, is that the Christian church doesn’t do a good enough job talking about death. We talk about Heaven plenty, but we don’t do a good job talking about death, what happens at death, why it is part of life, and then finding ways to live that understanding out.
Here’s what that means. As Christians, of course, we are called to sacrifice for the sake of others, to lay down our lives for others. That doesn’t mean you belong on a cross. It means that you serve others, put the needs of others above yourself, work for the betterment of the world even when that work involves your own walk through Hell. This is what it means to be a Christian. Self-sacrifice, laying your life down for others can come in many forms, but each time we do one of these things, each time we lay our lives down for someone else, in a very real way, we are practicing for death.
Heaven is for real, and it is important, but if we really want to make peace with death, we’ve got to follow the example of Jesus, for as Mark says, “a faith that believes in a good afterlife can certainly help someone die well, but it must be a faith based on a life lived for the sake of others, of a life that has died to itself repeatedly and then seen new life spring from that sacrifice repeatedly. Having seen this in life, one can have faith they will see it again in death.”
In other words, believing in Heaven is important. But believing it in your head isn’t enough. You’ve got to believe it in your heart, and you’ve got to believe it with the actions of your life.
Friends, this is powerful stuff. It means that death isn’t to be feared, not when we’ve spent our whole loves preparing for it, spent our lives following the example of Jesus who laid down his own life that we may have it, and more abundantly.
And so it seems to me that by being scared of death, by not being willing to talk about it at all, we are doing the very opposite of the thing we purport to do by talking so much about Heaven. But that kind of focus often leads to refusing to talk about death at all, and when we do talk about it, talking as if it is something bad, something not of God, and that’s just not true.
In fact, death is of God because God has done it; God has died! And through death, God has redeemed death, made it just as much a part of life as breathing and being born. God has made it holy.
In fact, we learn in scripture and through the words of the Apostle’s Creed, that Christ walked through Hell—walked through hell—after death, so that there’s absolutely nowhere you can go that God is not, walked through hell so that this great idea we have of separation from God doesn’t make sense anymore, because God has bridged that gap, God has busted straight through the gates of hell, and so you should know this: when you are walking through hell, and you will, if you aren’t already in the middle of that journey today—when you are walking through hell, Jesus is walking with you. When it seems as if you are in the very worst moment of your life, God is with you.
I’m not talking about a cute poem about footprints on the sand, and it was then that I carried you. I’m talking Winston Churchill, who said, “when you are walking through hell, keep walking,” only, in this case, you don’t have to do it alone, for God is with you. When you are on that road, you are never alone. There are always two sets of feet—no, many, many sets of feet—because the path you are walking is one that Christ has led many people through, and if it feels like it’s a path that doesn’t end, let me encourage you to come back next week, because while it is true that we worship a savior who was conceived by the holy spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried and, my God, who descended into Hell, just wait til you find out what happened on the third day. It will blow your mind. Amen.