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07.26.15 The Refuge of Christ’s Love Matthew 27:50-60 Sermon Summary

by on July 28, 2015

What does it mean that Jesus “descended into hell” as the Apostles’ Creed says? Could it be that God’s presence extends even that far?

Summary Points

  • The descent into hell in the Bible
  • Jewish understandings of resurrection
  • Four things the descent teaches us
  • How Joseph of Arimathea and a passionate lover exemplify real faith

The two most ancient church creeds share many things in common, but the way they refer to the Triduum (the three days from Good Friday to Easter Sunday) is not one of them. The Nicene Creed says Jesus, “was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, and the third day He rose again.” The Apostles’ Creed says Jesus, “suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead.”

The older of these creeds includes what happened to Jesus not only on Friday and Sunday, but also on Holy Saturday—specifically, “he descended into hell.”

When we turn the biblical testimony about this descent, we find only a few shadowy references. In 1 Peter 3 and 4, the author writes:

Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, . . . the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.

A second oblique reference is found in Matthew’s account of the death of Jesus. There, the earth shakes, rocks split, and the tombs are opened. Several bodies of the saints are raised, but they do not depart the tombs until Sunday after Jesus’ resurrection, at which time they appear to many in Jerusalem.

The concept that Jesus descends into hell, or among the dead, is traditionally called the “harrowing of hell.” “Harrowing” is an Old English word for “robbing,” and “hell” here refers not to the fantastic realm of eternal torture (think Dante’s Inferno) but to the venerable Jewish concept of Sheol, the place of the departed where no one can praise God.

The harrowing of hell rests upon a very Jewish understanding of resurrection, which is distinct from our present-day understanding. In Judaism, a personal and individual resurrection was a late development. It arose in part from Greek philosophy introduced to the Jews about 200 years before Christ, and in part from the injustice of martyrdom which they witnessed a short time later. They were trying to reconcile the truths of a just God and the unjust deaths of the faithful. They concluded that justice would prevail in the resurrection of these saints. And eventually this led to the hope of a general resurrection of all people, some to reward, others to punishment.

We find an example of this way of thinking in the earliest writing of the Newer Testament, written by the Jewish Christian Paul. In 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17 he is addressing the anxiety that some in the church had over those who had already died, before the anticipated return of Christ.

We believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.

This concept that God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ extends to the dead proved rather difficult to convey narratively. It appears often in visual depictions and some hymnody, but how should one include it in the Gospels, for example? Matthew’s is the only surviving attempt, and as we’ve seen, even then it is poetic, obscure, and mysterious. What were those raised bodies of the saints doing from the time they were liberated from their tombs to the time they entered Jerusalem? And what happened to them after that? Taken literally, it is more than a little confounding.

The theology behind the harrowing of hell seems to have appeared early in the Christian movement, as evidenced by Matthew’s knowledge of it. But it seems to have been a marginal point, since it only appears in a few places in the Newer Testament. But later, it made a comeback, as we see in the art of the early church. There are several points of merit to this theology.

First, it does offer an assurance of the vindication of the martyrs. The bodies of the saints are raised, and presumably to a blissful reward. Second, it dramatically demonstrates the victory of God over sin and death. And this leads, third, to hope in spite of death in general, whether one is martyred unjustly or not.

But perhaps the most practical implication of this teaching, and certainly the one with which the Newer Testament most aligns, is that Christ’s harrowing of hell gives us reason to live faithfully in this life, for we know how it all ends. Paul teaches that in baptism we participate in Jesus’ death and resurrection, but that from our baptism forward, in this life, we are already new creations.

When we as the church worship, we gather in the hope of Christ’s return and judgment—his promised bringing of justice. We gather hoping for the time when all those who are crucified, burned, stoned, beheaded, sold into slavery, dispossessed of their land, and otherwise robbed of life and hope, will be raised and restored with Christ; when all who have died as the result of sin, will be raised to new life; when those who have lived for goodness’ sake, will be commended; when the deception of fame, fortune, power, and ego will be exposed; when all the captives of sin, death, and hell will be set free.

I sometimes wonder about Joseph of Arimathea. The handful of verses in the Bible about him tell us that he was rich, a respected member of the Jewish ruling council, and a secret follower of Jesus. After Jesus’ death, his admiration for Jesus was no longer a secret.

Joseph probably envisioned his own death. As a respected person of means, he probably had an idea of what the mourning community would do with his body. Matthew tells us he already had a tomb, newly hewn in a rock. John mentions that it was in a garden. In other words, Joseph envisioned his final resting place to be comfortable, just as his privileged life had been.

But after witnessing Jesus’ life and death, Joseph’s vision changed. He gave up his tomb, and from that time forward he surrendered his life as well, just as he heard Jesus teach: “Whoever would be my disciple, must take up his cross . . . Whoever would find his life, must lose it.” Joseph saw something better for his life when he looked toward that newly hewn rock tomb.

It reminds me of the woman who wrote the Song of Songs. She finds herself gazing out the lattice windows, looking also in the clefts of the rock. Finally she sees her lover. These two spend the poem waiting and hoping desperately for each other.

What she saw, what Joseph saw, what the harrowing of hell teaches us, is that it is the Resurrected Christ who greets the dead. He says to them, “Arise, my love, and come away, for now the winter is past, the shadows flee, even the darkest shadow of the valley of death. Arise, for I have come for you.”

This is the Resurrected Jesus who invites us to take refuge in his love now and in this life, to find in him the rock of ages, and to have hope for the resurrection of the dead–both those who have gone before, and those of us who remain.

For a Eucharistic perspective of God’s love for us, see this famous poem by George Herbert.

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