A Surprising Gift
A long-time friend gave me a beautiful gift recently. I knew he had been going through a very dark, difficult time in his life. I didn’t know that someone had given him a copy of my Lenten study, Easter Earthquake. I was humbled and grateful when he told me how God had used it in his life. As he told his story, it reminded me of this day’s reading in the book.
To Hell with Jesus
Read: 1 Peter 3:18-22
I’ve never used the title of today’s reflection for a sermon, though I considered it every time I preached on the clause of the Apostle’s Creed that says, “He descended into hell.” A younger, less-restrained pastor used it as the title of his ordination sermon. He told his story of how Christ descended into the hell of his life. Everything had fallen apart around him like poorly constructed buildings collapsing during an earthquake. His addiction to alcohol and drugs had landed him in prison.
But the Risen Christ descended into the hell he had made of his life, brought new light into the darkness and new hope into his despair. He is a living witness to the life-giving power of the Risen Christ who suffered for all our sins, was put to death in the flesh and made alive in the Spirit, and who came down to proclaim good news “to the spirits in prison.”
“He descended into hell” doesn’t appear in some versions the creed because of a debate in the early Church about where Jesus was hanging out from Good Friday night until Easter morning. St. Augustine (354-430 AD) taught that Jesus literally descended into hell to take the gospel to the spirits there. But even he admitted that there was uncertainty about it. The Protestant Reformers left it out because today’s reading is the only biblical reference and because it was linked to the Roman Catholic understanding of Purgatory.
But like my clergy friend, a hospital chaplain said that patients in the psychiatric ward insisted that this clause be included in their worship because it affirmed that Christ had descended into the hell they experienced. One of Charles Wesley’s best-loved hymns expressed it this way:
He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace—
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
(The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 363)
(Reprinted from Easter Earthquake: How Resurrection Shakes Our World by James A. Harnish. Copyright © 2017. Used by permission of Upper Room Books. For more information, visit bookstore.upperroom.org.)
During Lent, we make our way toward the cross in the assurance that the Risen Christ goes with us into the deepest, darkest hell with the hope of resurrection.
Grace and peace,