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The Ultimate Victory

Sermon - 6/05/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Peter 3:13-22

I have been focused on the Apostle Paul for several years now, and rethinking the way that we understand and read Paul. I want to turn this morning to Peter. You may want to follow along, the first letter of Peter, found towards the end of the New Testament. A very short letter, and I'm going to read from verses 13 to 22 of the third chapter of 1 Peter:

Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; 16yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18For 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, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. 21And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

Most scholars consider this letter to be written long after the death of Peter, because of its style of Greek, You wouldn't even expect a fisherman from Galilee to know how to read and write, but very high style of Greek, the circumstances that the letter suggests, and many other reasons, but nevertheless it contains several passages that have been deeply cherished by the church over the years, regardless of who wrote it.

Chapter 2, verse 9, a very familiar verse: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people". And one of my favorite verses in chapter 3, also verse 9: "Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse, but on the contrary repay with a blessing".

But this short letter also has a number of passages that are a little "challenging". There is at the end of chapter 2 a long section where slaves are told to accept the authority of their masters, even those masters who are very harsh to them. That's a troubling passage. Then there is the famous text about husbands honoring their wives as the weaker sex. Which is about as politically correct as tweeting a picture of your lower torso in shorts to your would-be female fans. You know, that may work for Calvin Klein, but it didn't turn out so well for Representative Anthony Wiener (if you're following that little controversy -- I love his non-denial denial: "I don't know if that's really a picture of me or not").

The text I find most problematic, however, given all that we learned on that pilgrimage to the world of Paul about Caesar being honored as the Son of God, the Lord & Savior of the world, is here this author, telling us in chapter 2 verses 13 to 17, that we are to accept the authority of every human institution, including the Emperor as supreme, and the readers are told to honor the Emperor.

Now, I take that as clear evidence that this letter was written before the end of the first century when Emperor Domitian would repel any notion of honoring the Emperor, with his reign of terror to eradicate the Christian 'menace' from the Empire. Indeed, it was likely that subsequent period of persecution which made the primary message of this letter -- suffering for doing good rather than evil -- so powerful. By emphasizing Christ as the model for us (the innocent victim who suffered for the sins of others), the author of first Peter makes it quite clear that the path of redemption not only for us but for the whole world lies not in perpetuating and escalating evil (and the violence that causes suffering), but in the willingness to follow the way of Christ, the way of the cross. To endure the suffering without retaliating. To stand up to it. To non-violently resist. As the elder of the church says in this letter: "With gentleness and reverence, thereby in your good conduct in Christ, putting to shame those doers of evil".

The very heart of non-violent resistance to injustice, which Martin Luther King Jr. taught to the world, is right here in this text for this morning. Where we read: "Do not fear what they feared, do not be intimidated. Keep your conscience clear so that when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct may be put to shame, for it is better to suffer for doing good than to suffer for doing evil".

And then to illustrate the completeness of the redemption that comes through this way of Christ, the text takes what appears to be for us a rather bizarre turn, but in fact is a great illustration of the ultimate victory over evil. And it's a piece of our tradition we've largely ignored. I refer to what is known as the harrowing of Hell. How many have any notion, when I'm saying the harrowing of Hell, what the heck I'm talking about? One :). Don't be ashamed, I didn't either. But if you go home and 'Google' it, you will find images like this:



This is taken from the famous Chora Church in Istanbul, a fresco from about the 12th or early 13th century. The church itself is now a museum, and is a wonderful window into that ancient church in that community. It just so happens when I was there in 2003 that I was standing next to Dominic Crossan, on that tour I took, as he described for me what this was all about. Up to that point, I had no awareness of this ancient tradition.

"Harrowing" is an old-English word. "To harrow" means to plunder, or to rob. This is the portrayal of Christ plundering hell, or the abode of the dead, by taking them out of it (I'm going to explain that in more detail in a moment). Like most Christians in the West, I was only aware of the vague assertion that is made in the Apostle's Creed (that we don't use, only occasionally), which says that Christ was crucified under Pontius Pilate," descended into Hell", and then rose on the third day.

Like most Protestants, I had never given much thought as to what that belief means, mostly because I don't believe in Hell as an actual metaphysical reality in the first place. So to talk about Christ descending into something that I don't believe exists, just is a non-starter. And in that, I follow the reasoning of John Calvin, the great Protestant reformer, who saw Christ's descent into Hell as what he experienced on the cross. So, 'hell on earth', so to speak. And this story of the plundering of Hell, Calvin considered to be a children's fable. And hence, in the West, that story, that tradition, has fallen out of favor.

But even children's fables have a point, have a lesson about life, don't they?

So I want to reflect with you on just what I think that we have to learn from this ancient tradition.

Now, we all know Jesus was crucified on Friday, right? And he arose on Sunday. So the question is: what the heck was he doing in the meantime? Playing solitaire there in the tomb? Working on a crossword puzzle? Maybe he and Gabriel were off on a magical mystery tour of the universe. Was he in a no-man's land? Or a no-God's land? Waiting for Sunday morning?

Well, 1 Peter gives us a clue in this text, this is that bizarre turn I was talking about. When it says "he was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he also went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times. . . " and then it refers to the people who died in the flood during the days of Noah.

The Gospel of Peter (I'm sure you read it daily), an ancient text, one of the lost gospels from the mid-second century, that was rediscovered in the 20th century (we only have a single copy of it), tells the story of the resurrection, the moment that Jesus comes out of the tomb. It's the only written account we have of the actual resurrection, of Jesus coming out of the tomb. And it describes Jesus being assisted by two (presumably) angels, and a voice that comes out of the heavens and asks "Have you preached to those who have fallen asleep?" (meaning the dead). And a voice from the cross answers: "Yes".

So in other words, we have, then, from the tradition of Peter (taken as a whole), this tradition of the story of Jesus preaching to the dead while he awaits his resurrection. Well, then what happens?

Well, everyone knows that Jesus rose alone, right? By himself. Maybe with a little help from the angels, who rolled away the stone, etc. But still, he's the only one who arose out of the tomb. Right?

You should know better by now, than to trust me when I ask rhetorical questions like that :).

Read your gospel, in this case Matthew 27 (you may want to follow along in case you don't believe me), verse 51, "At that moment [the moment Jesus dies], the curtain of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom, the earth shook, the rocks were split". Sound familiar? Verse 52: "The tombs were also 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".

Huh. That's not a story we tell too often on Easter morning. Probably because it sounds like a children's fable, a fantastic story, who could believe things like this?

Well, you put that story together with 1 Peter, and you throw in Paul's assertion that Christ is the "first fruit" of the general resurrection, and you get a picture that looks pretty much like this:



So here's the way these ancient artists (maybe better described as theologians, they just happened to use a paintbrush and mosaics, instead of words), imagined this plundering of Hell. Now, the first thing you need to know, Jesus goes to Hell, but it's not the same concept of Hell that we have, as the place of eternal punishment. In the Old Testament, it's a place called Sheol, typically, and it's a place of the dead, the abode of the dead. It's simply where the dead are in a non-existence.

Jesus goes to this place and the first people he brings out are Adam (on the right) and Eve (on the left). And when you see pictures of these kinds of images of the harrowing of Hell, it is always Adam and Even. He's holding them (it's hard to see in this picture, but it shows a little better in some others I'll show in a moment) by the wrists. It's a way of showing that this is solely the action of Christ, not the will of the people of the dead. It's solely through the action of the risen Christ, bringing them out. Notice they're coming out of sarcophagi -- on our pilgrimage a few weeks ago, we saw many examples of these ancient tombs (coffins, really).

On the right, you see the gentlemen with the shepherd's staff? Who would that be? Abel. Remember the story of Cain and Abel? Abel is the shepherd, Cain is the farmer, and Cain gets jealous of Abel and kills him, because his offering is more pleasing to God. That's Abel, the first martyr, and next to him is John the Baptist, the last martyr in the Biblical story before the death and resurrection of Jesus. And behind them are all the other martyrs. So it's a way of saying that Jesus is leading the martyrs.

On the left, on the other side, are a couple of Kings, they have crowns on their heads (probably David and Solomon), and then more folks behind them. Jesus is standing on the broken down gates (not quite so evident here, but again, wait for some of the other pictures), and there's a body underneath that, presumably the image of Satan. Jesus now treading, you know, on Satan. And above, in Greek, is "Anastasis", which is the Greek word for resurrection.

So, you see these same themes in all the other images of the harrowing of Hell. This from a Greek monastery, a mosaic made in the 11th century:



Adam and Eve, the gates of Hell down below. A King and Queen, not David and Solomon this time, probably the King and Queen of the current era. Why? Well, who paid for this? A little privilege thrown in there. And typically, Jesus often shown with a cross, here an older style cross.


This is another mosaic from the 12th-century in a cathedral in Venice, again Adam and Eve, now you can see clearly the body of Satan underneath the feet of Jesus:

A fresco in Florence from the 14th century:


A host of saints there, Adam is the first, Eve right behind, demons over there, and demons underneath the broken down gates.

A 15th-century icon by the leader of the school of icons in Moscow in the 15 century (Donisuis was his name):



Same images. One of my favorites, the great German wood carver Albert Durer (you see his initials in the bottom right, AD):



And here you see Adam and Even clearly, because they're nude, protecting themselves, and Jesus is leading John the Baptist here by the wrist, once again. Notice the demons underneath the gates, and the way that's portrayed.

A 16th-century icon, Russian icon:



And so forth. Now, lest you think this is a long-lost tradition of the ancient church, there are modern stained-glass windows from a Coptic church in San Diego, with the same image, Jesus leading Adam and Eve out of the sarcophagi, the broken-down gates that he's standing on, and so forth.



Now, keep those images in mind as I quickly show you a few examples of how Western artists portray this. Part of the point I'm making here is that this tradition has been kept alive in the East, in the Orthodox tradition. And now let's look at the West. Bellini -- 15th century Italian artist:



Notice Jesus is semi-nude, denotes divinity. And instead of the people being led out of the the abode of the dead, we have the other people familiar from the story of the Resurrection -- the guards and disciples, etc.

Grunewald, a famous German artist:



Jesus here is so bright he's whited-out in the resolution of this picture, but that is the risen Christ behind the blazing sun, and the cowering guards underneath. This is an alter piece in the church in Izenheim.

Rembrandt (17th century):


Portrays Jesus as the Gardener, there's Mary Magdalene, the angels of the tomb, a little hard to make out there.

Ruebens (17th century):



A very muscular Jesus, coming out of the tomb.

Caravaggio:


Note how these images are getting more realistic.

And here is the story of doubting Thomas, a little gruesome there, inspecting the wounds of Jesus.

Stained-glass windows, of course, another way Jesus is often portrayed. Here with Mary Magdalene:



The risen Christ, out-stretched arms. Here the risen Christ with the cowering guards beneath:

 

And so we imagine Jesus. So think about that image that we have of Jesus being raised from the dead. How do we picture Jesus?

This one kind of looks like a California surfer dude:



Buff, ready to take on the world, surf's up.

Now, contrast that with the way the resurrection is portrayed in the Orthodox tradition:



I want you to particularly note you see the exact same things, this is a very modern icon, note the words above the head of Jesus, not now in Greek, but in English: "The resurrection of Christ".

In the West, the harrowing of Hell became separated from the resurrection, and it was a story told on holy Saturday, and it became easy to just skip over it and leave it out. In the East, this image of the harrowing of Hell was COMBINED with the Resurrection and is very much still a part of the resurrection story.

Keep in mind that icons are not objects which are worshiped. Think of them as worship aids. Nor are they considered to represent historical or physical reality, and hence they don't even try to make the pictures look like photographs, but rather they are windows into the spiritual world. Thus, no orthodox believe -- then or now -- would see this and say "Well, that's the way the Resurrection really was, if you had a video camera, this is what you would have captured". No, this is a figurative representation of a spiritual reality.

So whether one considers this place of the abode of dead, be it Hell or Sheol, to be a real place or an imagined one, or perhaps a condition experienced in this world (as Jesus did on the cross), there are spiritual truths for all of us to learn from this ancient tradition of the harrowing (or plundering) of Hell.

And here are some of the ones that I see when I see these images, you may see your own:

First, resurrection is not a solo act. Rather, it's a communal one. A closer examination of the biblical record reveals it never was about only Jesus. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, if the dead are not raised, then Christ is not raised. Resurrection is, to quote the motto of the Three Musketeers, "all for one and one for all".

Second, resurrection is intended for all humanity, represented by Adam and Eve. Now, is this a portrayal of the doctrine of 'universal salvation', that all are saved? Probably not -- if it were, we would also see Cain next to Abel, and Herod next to John the Baptist. But it comes pretty darn close, doesn't it? Because if Adam and Eve are included. . . .they're not just the first to sin, they're the ones that introduced sin into the world. If they are included, who can be excluded?

And in the story, here in 1 Peter, it's all those who drowned in the flood that are included, that Jesus goes to preach to. And by the way, when we think of Jesus preaching, we should think not in terms of leading to conversion, but think in terms of his sermon in Nazareth (told in Luke 4), when he says "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, I have come to proclaim good news to the poor, and to set the captives free". That's what this image is -- setting the captives free from this abode of the dead.

Third, resurrection is not just about eternal life, it is about divine justice, that extends to (and especially to) the martyrs of the past. Crossan calls this the "truth and reconciliation commission" of the past, where all the past deeds are brought to light and the martyrs are vindicated. Abel and John the Baptist, then, represent all those who wrongly suffered. Not only then is Christ vindicated by the resurrection, but anyone and everyone who suffers for doing what is right is vindicated. God's justice is so complete, so great, it extends even to the dead. And even to us.

Fourth, resurrection, then, is not about the goodness of our lives, but about the character of God. Justice for those who wrongly suffer and forgiveness for all the rest.

So if this is a true picture of that spiritual reality, a true picture of what the resurrection means, of what the character of God is, then the question which remains is this: how do we reflect that character of God?

How do we participate in the resurrection?

 


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