A Sermon Based Upon 1 Peter 3: 18-19
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
February 12th, 2017, Series: Apostles Creed 7/15)
Death, like suffering, are not excitable topics. Can you think of any other place where you will hear someone talk about life, death, or suffering other than at church? With subjects as real as these, and a world full of entertainment at most people’s fingertips, most people stay home. However truth goes marching on. The church is not about entertainment, it is about truth. And topics like suffering and death are the most difficult truths we humans must face.
We will certainly all die! But we do try to cover it up. We try to cover it up with sweet smelling flowers, but death still stinks. We embalm and paint up cold, lifeless bodies, trying to make them look asleep, but they are not asleep. Those folks buried in the very expensive caskets and vaults are just as dead as those buried in the cheapest, pine boxes. Death is the great equalizer. Death makes the rich poor, and the living poor, look rich. Death makes big things look small, and small things loom very, very large..
I once sold cemetery plots and funeral plans in Greensboro and tried to tell people that the 800 dollar rubber vault would work about as well as the more expensive 2000 dollar concrete or 7000 dollar bronze ones. Because they are all placed in the ground, I explained, all burial vaults, no matter what kind of liner you put in them, will eventually leak. The body will eventually decay. Even mummies don’t stay mummified without climate control.
When I would go through this, some wanted to buy more expensive mausoleum space. But in those mausoleums the gases build up quickly and the body liquefies in that tighter entombment. I always tried to them the least expensive way was the best deal. I to help them to save their money for living. Pay early. Pay less. Pay later. Pay more. This pitch is what made me the best salesman in our group. Still, after hearing my explanation, most people would still do nothing. Getting people to prepare for death was an impossible way to make a living.
God’s Love Goes Anywhere
Most of us do not like to hear about, think about, or prepare for our own impending decent into death. But the reality of death and dying is exactly where the Apostle’s Creed now takes us, as it moves from Jesus’ suffering to his crucifixion, death, and burial. But It is the next line in the Apostle’s creed, if it recited at all, that is most difficult and strange: “He Descended into Hell”. This line is normally left out of the Creed today, showing up only as a footnote.
Not long ago someone unexpectedly asked me: “Can you find anything about Jesus descended into hell in the Bible”? A quick answer is that there are only a few scant references that grapple with what happened to Jesus between Good Friday and Easter Sunday (See also, Rom. 10:6-7; Eph. 4: 8-10; Heb. 13:20; Acts 2: 24, 31; and Mt. 12:40). Perhaps the one text that has more to do with this phrase comes from Acts 2: 31, where speaking of the resurrection of Jesus, Peter preached in the very first Christian sermon, “…his soul was not left in Hell, and his flesh did not see corruption (KJV).” If you take a text like this as it stands, it sounds like after Jesus died, he went to Hell. Why would Peter claim that Jesus went to Hell? If anybody when to Heaven when they died, it had to be Jesus, right?
Other New Testament texts describe Jesus descending into the ‘deep’ (Rom. 10:7), descending to the ‘lower parts of the earth’ (Eph. 4:9), being in the ‘pains of death’ (Acts 2:24, Heb. 13:20), or being in ‘the heart of the earth’ like ‘Jonah’ was ‘three days and three nights in a whale’s belly’ (Mat. 12:40). But the strangest text of all comes from First Peter, where we are told that Jesus was ‘put to death.., but made alive…and went to preach to the spirits in prison.’(1 Pet 3:18-19).
Such biblical images of an underworld in limbo,full of lingering spirits, sounds surreal and like some low rated zombie movie. The late Fred Craddock once told how as a child, only around 75 or so years ago, being ordered to make sure he put the cover on an open well so that spirits may not come out of it at night and wreak havoc in the neighborhood. Once he accidentally left the cover off, and worried that he might have released those spirits to bring unnecessary catastrophe.
Having to explain ‘descended into Hell’ or ‘preaching to spirits’ has become too far out for popular consumption. Perhaps this is why most creedal churches have decided to drop this phrase. Fortunately, we Baptists don’t have to worry much about all this, unless our folks start actually reading the Bible. But still, didn't such a phrase or text once mean something and was important enough to get into this very concise statement of faith? So, let's consider it.
In Psalm 139, when the Psalmist poetically asked the Lord, “Where Shall I go from your spirit? Where Shall I flee from your presence?” He then goes to say: If I ascend up into Heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Hell (KJV), you are there..., concluding, “Yes, even the darkness can’t hide from you …(139: 7-8). Practically, what the psalmist is saying is that there is no place God’s loving, saving, and caring presence cannot go. Even at the Christ’s cross; descending into that awful, hellish, agony and death, goes Jesus God’s only Son. Here there was no ‘there but for the grace of God, go I.” Here for the grace of God, Jesus went.
When we consider the crucified Christ, we are looking at the Son of Man, a human being, who was also God’s Son and God’s Messiah, dying the worst kind death imaginable. But at the same time we are also looking straight into all the sin, evil, rebellion which is normally hidden deep in the human heart, now being drawn out and openly exposed to be against God and his heart of love. But also, here is precisely how the gospel should be preached to all spiritual prisoners. Then, and now, right in the middle of this most horrible, unholy, and godforsaken place, God is there. This is most ugly place where God’s love and grace is fully revealed. It is On the cross, that God makes his own bed in the Hell of the deep darkness of our sin and death. When Jesus Christ, God’s only Son is crucified, dead and buried, God himself descends from the highest heavenly place in utter humiliation to make it his place to take our place.
The darkness of evil cannot hide from God, and neither can we. Where we are most clearly exposed as sinners, God is most clearly perceived as savior. ‘Reconciliation takes place where God puts himself in our place’ (K. Barth). At the cross of Christ, God descended to come to us in Christ, reaching down in love to reconcile the whole world to himself. Christ’s death on the cross was not God making his Son take our place in judgement, but it was God himself taking the judgement of our sin upon himself and taking our place through his Son to make us an offer of peace. As the letter to the Colossians says, “Having made peace through his the blood of his cross, …to reconcile all things to himself, whether they be in heaven or on earth” (1:20).
I recall an incident in my childhood, when 50 cents rolled out of pocket. My mother asked where I got the money. My cousin and I were playing a trick on his younger brother, but I had forgotten to give him back the money. My mother did not believe me and was about to punish me for stealing it. Then my cousin vouched for me, backing up my story. But she didn't believe him either and still intended to punish me. Then, the unexpected happened, which I've never forgotten. My cousin told my mother he was willing to take my punishment upon himself to prove make things right. At the I could not believe he was willing to do that, but it made a believer out of my mother.. She was then convinced I did not steal the money.
The difference for us, is that before God, we all stand guilty. ‘For all have sinned, and come short of God’s glory ( Rom 3:23). This does not mean we are all bad, but it means we are all trapped, slaves to sin, imprisoned spirits, who can't free ourselves all by ourselves. The punishment or ‘wages’ we all earn, just by being born as sinners ‘is death’ (Rom. 6:23). But the unexpected place we find God is going straight into the ‘wages of sin’ himself. In Jesus, God’s Son descends into the hell of human sin, to die the death he did not deserve. Jesus took up this this cross, because: ‘God so loved the world, he sent his only Son, so that who ever believes in him, shall not perish, but be given the costly, but free gift of eternal life. It is on the cross that we should learn, again what the psalmist knew long before. There is no place God’s love will not go---even into the greatest human darkness of sin, wickedness and hate.
God’s grace saves anyone
Through the crucified, dead, buried, and descended Christ, we must not only know that God himself has entered into our ‘godforsaken’ darkness of sin and death, but we must also know that now, because God has descended to take our sin upon himself, that this place, our place, and sin’s space, is not God-forsaken anymore. For when Jesus cried “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me” he revealed how completely God forsook himself, and in Christ God descended, rescinded, and amended the law’s right demands, to make us right in him.
This ‘descending’ is what is pictured briefly in Peter’s vision of the crucified Christ, after his death on the cross, now descending into the dark, shadowy “prison” of the dead to preach the good news of God’s saving, rescuing grace. to those never forgotten spirits. Although there is still mystery in Peter’s words we can't recover, what we do know, theologically, is no mystery at all. As the early church came to appreciate the knowledge of Christ, some became increasingly concerned with what happened to those who whose life and death preceded the revealing of God’s saving grace in Jesus. This concern was widespread, as it was also echoed in Paul’s preaching when he said ‘the dead in Christ shall rise first.” What Paul was saying, and what Peter was doing here, was simply offering a vision of the hope of God’s saving grace to anyone and everyone. In Jesus, there is no one out of the reach of God’s grace.
The simple, but encompassing message of Peter’s time traveling Christ, was not to suggest that everyone will get a second chance after death, but it is a vision that applies God’s fairness and justice to everyone. It is to affirm that God’s love and grace can save anyone. It gives everyone a chance for redemption through God’s eternal life, especially those who lived before the gospel was fully revealed.
What we must not do is take this image of imprisoned spirits as a cosmological model the spirit world, like some spiritualists do, but we must take this as a theological picture of who God is, and just how much God loves. Above all, we must never, never limit who God can save, or dare limit who God will save. As the late French theologian, Jacques Ellul suggested, You can't use the Bible to believe everyone will be saved, but you'd better use the Bible to believe God’s love is big enough to save everyone, or your faith will go mad.’
Several years ago, I read of an elderly mother who was troubled over the premature death of her son, due to addictions and emotional problems. The woman could hardly bear her grief, constantly living in dread of her son not entering eternal life. He had not been been baptized, had had gotten lost in his troubles, but his heart was good. She, as any mother would, dearly loved her son, but she feared that he would never be with her in the life to come. She took her worries to the pastor, spilling out her concerns and fears. After listening to her pain through her tears, the pastor asked two simple questions: Did you love your son? Hearing this she reacted quickly; “What do you mean, you know I did, and still do? The pastor continued with his second question, “Do you dare believe that your love for you son is greater than God’s love for him?” With this, She paused in thought. Then the pastor gave his word of grace: You need to trust that no matter how much you loved your son, you can rest your troubled heart in knowing that your love, as great as it feels, is only a broken reflection of the perfect, unfailing, and prevailing love and grace of the eternal God.
God’s power can make us free
What Peter’s picture of a descending Christ finally reveals is that this the Gospel of grace goes down deep to the foundation of all things. God’s love is big enough for all Israel, it is bigger than than our own imagination of what love means, and it has proven itself to be the cornerstone of all truth, all faith, all hope, and all love. It is bigger, wider, higher and deeper because it is bigger than any one religion, and greater than all religions, even our own Christian vision of faith. If the cross is true, and Jesus descended into this Hell for all, so that anyone can be saved, then the only thing that can lock anyone out of God’s saving, redeeming love, is the the free human will that refuses or denies the spirit of redeeming love. As CS Lewis wisely suggested, “The door to hell is locked only from the inside. We can lock God’s love out, but true love doesn't lock anyone out. “Everyone who calls on the Lord’s name, will be saved.”
But there is one more part of Peter’s spiritual vision of Christ descending into Hades, which may mean either Hell or Death. For when the book of Ephesians painted faith images from this same picture, it reminds us that this same crucified Christ who descended, also “ascended on high and led captivity captive, giving gifts to people.” (Eph. 4:8). I love the way the writer puts it, echoing Peter’s vision and the great Creed: “He, the very one who descended (below the earth), is also the very one who ascended above all the heavens, in order to fill all things” (Eph 4:10, NET).
This is one of the greatest biblical pictures of Christ’s redeeming work, because it not only serves as the foundation of what the gospel can do through the church, but it also points to the limitless possibilities of the loving, saving redeeming Christ, whose has, in his life, death, and resurrection, stooped lower and been raised high to give hope to all creation. But unfortunately, this redeeming love and saving grace is not celebrated, nor elevated, or authenticated as much as it needs to be. Too much of the church conducts its life, having too little trust or time to test or try God’s loving, saving power.
Today, we are distracted by so many things, as Jesus told Martha, Lazarus’ sister. You know the story, how she was so busy doing stuff, having little time to at Jesus’ feet, being with her Lord. Then, unexpectedly to all, her brother became deathly sick. Now, she suddenly has plenty of time, and sends word for Jesus to come, quick. But Jesus does not return at once. No one gets An On demand god to do whatever we want, whenever we want. Jesus is supposed to be our Lord, we are not his lord.
When Jesus finally does arrive, Martha appears frustrated. She doesn't trust very well. “Lord, if you’d only been here…” she says. It's not that she doesn't trust Jesus, but she can't trust what happens in death. Who can? Mary, who had time for Jesus still had this problem too. We all do. When Mary expressed her own struggle with death, Jesus wept. Maybe Jesus started weeping because he would have to learn trust in dying too. Then, Jesus prayed to thank the Father for hearing him and shouted in full trust, “Lazarus, come out!” Then, the one who had died, came out of the tomb, still all wound up in his ‘burying clothes’. Jesus had to order the shocked, hesitating crowd to “Unwrap him and let him go.” (Jn. 11:44).
As we conclude, I want you trust, to believe, and to get still be amazed by the power and promise of this descending and ascended Christ, whose love goes anywhere, and whose grace can save anyone. Everybody doesn't believe this, or act like it, just like some saw the miracle, but didn't want to believe either. Many still don't live like they believe it.. So, they crucified him, and we still do. But the shock of shocks is that Jesus still hasn't stopped loving, saving, or redeeming us. He broke spiritual prisoners loose in the deepest, darkest, place, and Jesus can break you loose too. He can free you from whatever prison has your own soul locked up: hate, selfish pride, doubt, fear, or all kinds of powers that addict, enslave, or threaten to steal away your life, your love, or your faith. And he calls us to go into the Hell of those who need the freeing power in their lives too.
Of course, don't take my word for it. I'm just a preacher, and people don't seem to value, trust, or listen to preachers these days. That's why I want to end by referring you to see a movie. It's not your normal movie, and it's a movie that will stretch your faith. It's a movie called “The Miracle at Cookeville.” It's the story of how some crazy, fanatical people entered Cookville Elementary School back in 1986, with a homemade bomb.
To make a long story short, the bomb went off, in a classroom full of the school’s children. Everyone of the should have been killed, but not a single one of them died, nor was seriously injured, including a teacher who was shot. The Wyoming historical website, says it was a miracle that no one was killed. Not long afterward, as traumatized children started to tell their story, some of them reported seeng seeing things, no some relatives dressed in white, and more than that, who were present, which one else saw. What you can't dispute is that windows were opened, wires were cut, and children, close enough to die, got away without serious hurt.
You can't document what they saw, but it was clearly documented they should have all died. The bomb should have killed them all; in such a compact space, with all the gasoline, the shrapnel, and the tremendous combustion that should have made “the air burn”, as the evil, sick,minded perpetrator intended. When I got to the end of the movie, I could not help but remember what a British pastor, William Temple once said:“When I pray coincidences happen. When I don't pray, coincidences don't happen.”
The greatest surprise of life, and in even in death, is that is no limit to where God’s love, grace, and power will show up, except the limits we set. This does mean we always get the miracle we want, but we may get more than we want. In fact, this is always what we get when learn to trust the Christ who stooped low, so we can go high and gain the greatest gifts; a love that goes anywhere, a grace that saves anyone, and a power that will even make you free. Amen.