The Great Descent
Psalm 30, Acts 9:1-20 and 1 Peter 3:18-22
Western Presbyterian Church is indebted to Jim Atwood and the dedicated group of Western
members who for years have been demonstrating against improper and illegal gun sales at Realco Guns in District Heights, advocating for background checks for every single gun sale, and speaking-out for the prevention of gun violence everywhere.
This past Thursday on the Mall, Jim Atwood was one of the participants in the Interfaith Prayer Vigil for the prevention of gun violence that we told you about last Sunday. The vigil was led by members of the clergy from various faith communities around the country, including Jim Wallis of the Sojourners, pastors and a rabbi from Newtown, CT, who led the somber, nationally televised interfaith service in December, and a Sikh priest from Oak Creek, MI. whose temple was targeted by a very violent man last summer. I suspect that nearly all of us saw the front page coverage of this past Thursday’s vigil in the Post. One of the most powerful moments of the hour I spent there was when a Baptist pastor from Hartford, CT, addressed the crowd about the shooting death of his son, Shane. Pastor Sam told us that Shane was a momma’s boy. He was a good, church-going kid who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got gunned down by an assassin’s bullet. According to his father, Shane was crippled so was unable to run fast enough to get away. He didn’t deserve to die. At the end of Pastor Sam’s impassioned speech, he broke down – sobbing inconsolably as he gripped a photograph of his son. There are times when a Baptist preacher can find himself in a terrible descent.
Just last Monday, a gunman shot two 17-year-old boys as they walked down the sidewalk in a south Chicago neighborhood. On Wednesday, we learned that a four year old New Jersey boy shot his 6 year old neighbor with one of the guns from his house. On Friday, as I was preparing our sermon for today, a newsflash about a fatal shooting across from a Philadelphia high school scrolled across my screen. One by one, or two by three, parents, children – whole communities – are being hurled to a horrifying descent.
I pray God that no one here has had a member of your family or circle of friends intentionally or unintentionally gunned down. Yet I doubt that there’s a righteous one around who hasn’t trod through a valley of despair so deep she wasn’t sure she’d make it up the other side alive. It’s hard to imagine a person who’s lived such a protected life that an incident or an addiction or a certain transgression against God and neighbor hasn’t gnawed at her for many a torturous hour in the night. Were it not for the balm of mercy that Jesus slathers over each one of us, we would have to become de-spirited, in a way, by the painful reality of misfortune, or the persistent violence, or the many other acts of sin that come at us every day. Without a taste of the righteousness of Christ, our energy to confront so many crises would slowly drain away until we lack the drive to affect a positive change in our lives – let alone the world. Over time, we might become the disheartened and the disheartening who stop short of accomplishing anything much that’s good. For a few, we become the enervated and the enervating who’ve spent so much time in our personal Sheol we just don’t know how to escape.
Earlier this week, through an experience of one of us gathered here, I was reminded of my brother’s drug addiction when he was a teenager. From a very early age, my brother had terrible feelings of inadequacy that were acted out in inappropriate and illegal activity of every sort until the day when he just didn’t come home. It was Easter morning 40 years ago – he was 16 and I was about 10. My mother, having been up all night waiting and worrying, crying and calling around, eventually got ready for church and off we went without him –not knowing when he might return but having faith that he would. It would’ve been tremendously powerful for my brother to’ve heard the good news that day. I suspect that it would’ve been immediately life changing for him to hear again that Easter morning what Christ wants for him and for all of us: to be raised to new heights from our depths of pain.
Poetically, it took my brother three days to return home. Three days in a pit, with our entire family and circle of friends there beside him. But it took my brother years to know to his core that our Lord seeks us out even from the depths of our sinfulness to save us for all eternity. And just like it took my brother decades of his life to realize that God was waiting patiently by, I suspect that many of us here – and certainly many of those closest to us to know quite personally – that no matter what has happened to us in our lives, or no matter what pain we’ve inflicted upon ourselves or upon others, God is with us still. It’s because we know that Jesus went first not into his glory for all of eternity but into the depths to preach to those in their own spiritual prison that we know that Jesus prioritizes finding each one of us in our darkest pain to instruct each one of us in the truth that we are ones named worthy as children of God who’ve not been forsaken or forgotten in spite of poor judgment, bad decisions, unquestionable sinfulness or matters of circumstance. It’s for this reason if for no other that we all can have the confidence of Christians to affirm that we are a blessed people who’re perpetually offered this great taste of grace that will keep us alive for eternity. Like when God waited patiently in the days of Noah and never stopped believing in the basic goodness of all people, Jesus never stops believing in us today. As far as we descend into the depths of sadness, fear or pain, Christ follows to retrieve us and lift us toward the light.
Now, believe it or not, five times since January, we’ve recited the Apostles’ Creed in worship. (I actually had to go through the bulletins to count, because I sometimes get the sense that we must’ve recited the Apostles’ Creed every single week since the beginning of the year!) As I’ve heard from many of us, the Apostles’ Creed takes us to a place of comfort from our childhood or maybe just a few years ago with a church we formerly attended as the creed has helped us to feel connected again with Christians from another time and place who’ve formed us into the people we’ve become today. From many who’ve told me first hand, this is a very good thing. Yet for as many of us who’ve told me that they’ve appreciated this occasional addition to our worship service, there are just as many – if not more – who’re frustrated, suspicious, or even outraged by the idea not only that we would be asked to recite anything that we may or may not universally believe, but that we would use the words of the Apostles’ Creed to do it. But if you’ll bear with me, I’ll tell you, in spite what I agree are several controversial word choices and at least one definitively inaccurate word translation are represented in it, the Apostles’ Creed is profoundly important to us all.
And the reason I am convinced that the Apostles’ Creed is profoundly important to us all is not simply because of its history and is not simply because it binds Christians of so many denominations today. The reason I know that the Apostles’ Creed is profoundly important to us all is because through it, we are invited to say with gratitude and with joy, “He descended into hell.” Because these four words that we claim before we acknowledge Jesus rose from the dead tell us every single time we are called to bring them to mind that there is no place on earth or above the earth or, yes, even below the earth where God won’t go to meet each one of us and bring us back to a place of new life with Christ. Thanks be to God! No matter whether we have been hurled into the depths of despair or we have thrown ourselves down a pit so deep we can’t begin to see the break of sunlight through the clouds, we can know that our God who is faithful still will seek us out. Jesus has gone and will continue to go anywhere Jesus needs to go to deliver us home.
Yet in spite of the profundity of grace encapsulated in the Apostles’ Creed, it’s churned a great deal of controversy not only at Western Presbyterian Church today but also in the halls of the great councils of the church through the millennia. Much of the debate has been born out these words, “He descended into hell,” and the question of whether Christ’s descent is a literal truth documented in scripture, or a theological claim. Like the doctrine of the trinity, which is not a scriptural verbatim but inferred from tens of verses in the New Testament, the theology of Christ’s great descent has scriptural basis in several of the epistles such as 1 Peter, Hebrews, and Colossians. It might be that Christ’s the last words from the cross that we heard again only a couple of weeks ago, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” referred to this one last mission from God before Christ’s death and resurrection. As is so often the case, scripture remains unclear. But while we don’t actually know the determinant basis for the words, “He descended into hell” in the Traditional version of the Apostles’ Creed, we can embrace this empowering truth of Christ’s intentions for all of humanity. If it’s for this reason alone, that I recite the Apostles’ Creed, it’s because my life depends upon it.
Now, I understand that life is usually not so easy that we can recall a few words and pop out of pain. Pastor Sam, in speaking of his dear son Shane’s murder, said that it was something he and his wife would never be able to forget. – Of course not! There’ve been a few times in my own life when I’ve felt so covered in the darkness that I wasn’t sure that God would ever know where to find me, let alone raise me up. You may’ve had one of those times in your life, too, when a hideous strike of misfortune has targeted someone you loved. Or when one bad decision led to another bad decision that left you with a dull ache that still hasn’t gone away. But if you have a haunting, nagging memory, and it suggests to you that it’s unlikely that Christ will ever deliver you and yours from the depths, let me tell you that just because God hasn’t erased these experiences from our thoughts doesn’t mean that God doesn’t want to bring us up from the pit and erase the sin from our souls or the sin from the one whose act propelled us there. I suppose that it’s like a memory of a long gone friend that God seems to preserve a bit of the pain of our past in order that we can remember with joy that God has loved us out of it and into glory with God forever.
Did Jesus actually descend into “the underworld” and meet all evil head-on? We don’t know. But what we do know is that in times of deep darkness or despair, when we are feeling like dead men walking from here to there because of the weight of life that surrounds and sometimes fills us, we can have faith that Christ does, and we can become revived Apostles, ourselves sent out to proclaim the truth of Christ’s love that reaches out for us wherever we are and calls us into oneness with him forever.
Like Pastor Sam, who stood before the crowd in faith to proclaim that our prayers and our advocacy and our demonstrations and our speaking-out is not in vain, we can live as a people who have hope, helping to deliver promise to a deeply suffering world. In times of deep darkness or despair, we can thank God for Christ’s daily descent into the horrible pain and suffering on the streets of Newtown and Hartford and Oak Creek and Afghanistan, in the orphanages in Romania nd the detainment camps of Burma, amidst the groves of severed olive trees in Palestine and the drug houses of Washington, DC. We can thank God for Christ’s great daily descent into every hospital room and funeral home and family quarrel and accident scene in our neighborhoods. We can thank God for Christ’s great descent into hell, as John Calvin wrote, not because he was to be “engulfed in its abyss;
(rather in order that he might) “lay it low.” Because we know that Jesus’ descent to attend to the depths was not where the story ends; the depths was not Christ’s final destination and it should not be ours. Christ descended to the saints in prison to retrieve them into the light of new life forever. Scripture promises us that pain and crying and suffering and death will be no more so that: Christ also promises us that Newtown and Hartford and Oak Creek and wars and detainment camps and oppression and ill-equipped orphanages and drug addictions will be no more because Jesus’ resurrection signals new life not only for you and me but for all of creation.
On this third Sunday of Easter, we celebrate the truth that Jesus made his great descent so that all of us will know in our most trying times that he has proclaimed victory over all of the pain in the world. This Third Sunday of Easter, when we celebrate the creation and the history of the Christian Church, this third Sunday of Easter, when we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection come again and again, each one of us can thank God that we are not alone in our personal Sheol, in whatever way it’s shaped, and be filled with wonderful consolation for Christ’s spirit come again to harmonize all things throughout the world today and into eternity.