Tuesday, 19 July 2022

The Harrowing of Hell

A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
24 July 2022 11.00am

1 Peter 3.13-22

I don’t know about you, but I love a good story.
If it’s well told, and the moment is right,
            I can so enter into the world of a good book
                        that the real world disappears for a while,
            and I find myself living the lives of the characters on the page in front of me.
One of my favourite series of recent years
            has been Bernard Cornwell’s epic version of the life of Alfred the Great
                        which takes me back to the world of the 9th century,
            and depicts Alfred’s battles to establish a kingdom for his descendants
                        of all the English-speaking peoples,
                        in the face of wave after wave of Danish invasion.
I would certainly recommend these books if you like historical fiction,
            and I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler if I let on
                        that Alfred is, in fact, ultimately successful in building his dream
                                    of a Christian Saxon kingdom for all the lands
                                    south of Scotland and east of Wales.
            We are, after all, living today in England and not Dane-land.
However, I also think it’s fair to say that
            whilst on the one hand Alfred is entirely successful,
            on the other hand he fails completely.
After all, many of the kings who succeeded him were not his direct descendants,
            and many had decidedly Danish names,
            from Cnut, to Harold, to the Norman (or Norse-men) conquest.
But while Alfred may not have secured his kingdom
            for his direct Saxon descendants,
he did still secure his kingdom,
            because he told the story of the idea of a nation of England
            so compellingly that in time, even those who originally opposed it,
                        came to be its strongest defenders.
And this is the thing about stories:
            they have the power to give shape to the world.
So I can tell you a story of ‘one nation’ called England,
            and of how it came into being.
I can tell you a story of Christian kings for a Christian country,
            and of how that story took hold not just in England but across Europe,
            giving shape to the political landscape that echoes down
            to our own contemporary context of sovereign nation states,
                        two great wars, political and economic union, and Brexit.
Arguably, all these came into being
            because Alfred the Great was consumed by a story
            that he spoke into being.
One of the interesting areas of Alfred’s story
            that Bernard Cornwell explores at some length
is the difference between the God of the Christians
            and the gods of the Danes.
The Danish Gods ask nothing of their followers
            other than that they keep them amused:
            there is nothing Thor wants more than to see a fine warrior fighting for glory,
                        and taking his reward in women and silver.
Whereas Alfred’s God, the Christian God, demands duty, and laws,
            and sacrifice to the higher ideals of the emergent holy nation.
And the stories that are told about these gods,
            from the Norse pantheon to the Holy Trinity,
            give shape to the lives of those who follow them,
                        and the communities that they then construct.
And it is this world of competing stories,
                        divergent ideologies, and conflicting dogmas
            that gives us our way into our reading this morning from 1 Peter,
                        and specifically to the two verses
                        which have been described ‘by almost unanimous consent
                        [as] one of the most difficult texts in the entire New Testament’,
                                    as one of the commentaries puts it. [1]

I am referring, of course, to 1 Peter 3.19-20.
            Let’s hear them again now:

He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who 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 persons, were saved through water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you

Did you spot them when they were read for us in our reading a few minutes ago?
            Did they jump out at you with a large question mark,
                        or perhaps exclamation mark, hanging over them?

Maybe, if you have an Anglican background,
            you found yourself reflecting on the Apostles Creed…

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
            creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
            who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
            and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
            was crucified, died, and was buried;
            he descended to hell.

Or maybe you found yourself thinking of the medieval artwork
            depicting the ancient doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell,
the belief that in the time between his crucifixion on Good Friday,
            and the resurrection of Easter Sunday,
Christ descended into the underworld of the dead
            to release from Hell’s fires the righteous women and men of the Old Testament.

I remember a few years ago going to the Globe Theatre to see the Globe Mysteries,
            an updated take on the medieval mystery plays
            that were still so popular at the time of Shakespeare.

Three hours of biblically-inspired drama,
            took the audience on a journey from creation and fall,
                        to the nativity and the massacre of the innocents,
            to the crucifixion, and then, of course, to the Harrowing of Hell
                        where Jesus faced down a variety of comedically evil demons
                        to rescue Noah, Adam, and Eve from their fiery fate.

But the thing about the harrowing of Hell
            is that it isn’t really a biblical story at all.
It has a strong tradition within Christianity,
            but if you look closely at the text itself,
            it’s not obvious that this is what it’s saying.

The grammar of our verses from 1 Peter
            would seem to imply that it is the resurrected Christ
            who makes a proclamation to the spirits who are in prison.,

He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,
19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison,

And it’s only when these verses are forced alongside a few other texts
            from elsewhere in the New Testament [2]
            that have their own meaning in their own contexts,
that the doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell starts to emerge.

One of the problems with this belief that Jesus made a journey
            to the depths of hell on Easter Saturday
is that it seems to deny the truth of the crucifixion,
            which is that Jesus really died!

It implies that instead of dying, he just temporarily vacated his earthly body,
            to pop down below on some kind of celestial rescue mission,
            only to make it back just in time to re-inhabit his body at the resurrection.

I’m afraid, according to the early church fathers, this is a heresy.

Rather, and I think rather more helpfully,
            the point that the author of 1 Peter is making here,
is that the crucified and resurrected Jesus
            announces God’s judgment on all those spiritual powers
                        which are in rebellion against God,
                        and which cause evil in the world,
            by working to release all those who are currently held captive
                        in the hell of their own minds or circumstances.

This becomes a bit clearer as the author
            moves on to speak about the story of Noah,
which he offers up as an allegory of the way Christ, through the church,
            rescues people from the waters of destruction
            that would otherwise overwhelm their lives.

For the author of 1 Peter, Noah’s ark becomes a symbol for the church,
            a symbol of the community of God’s people
            through whom salvation comes to the earth.
And thus the story of Noah and his ark becomes a foundational story
            for those Christians who are called to be a faithful minority
            in a world that all too often seems hell-bent on its own destruction.

And so we’re back to the power of stories to transform the world.

The stories we tell about our gods
            will give shape to the communities we construct in their service,
and this is true whether that community is a church or a nation state.

Thinking again about my Bernard Cornwell novels for a moment:
            for Alfred the Great, as for much of Christendom,
            the church and the state were synonymous;
                        and the stories of God and country became fused.

In the Jewish foundational mythology of the Hebrew Scriptures,
            their God became synonymous with their king,
                        and they believed that their God and King were higher 
                        than all the other gods 
                        of the competing nations around them.

So they told their stories to deconstruct the competing stories
            told by their neighbours and enemies.

It's well known that many cultures have their flood narrative,
            and certainly the Babylonians who conquered Israel
                        in the seventh century before Christ,
                        carrying off the scribes and the priests into exile,
            had a flood story.

You can read it if you go to the British Museum,
            just round the corner from where we are this morning.

It tells a story called the Gilgamesh epic,
            which itself is a retelling of an earlier flood narrative
                        called the Epic of Atrahasis.

In the Babylonian story,
            the great gods became angry and decide to flood the earth
            to kill all the people living there,
but one of the gods rebels, 
            and tells a human called Utnapishtim to build a boat,
            to keep living things alive on the earth.

The boat is built, and the rains and floods come
            to destroy all the living things.
The flood is so severe that even the gods are afraid,
            and they retreat to the heavens 
            regretting their decision to unleash such violence.

Meanwhile Utnapishtim's boat floats above the flood,
            and eventually lodges on a mountain.
So he sends out a dove, and then a swallow to see if there is any dry land,
            but they come back to him,
and then he sends a raven which finds land to live on and doesn’t come back,
            so he knows the flood is receding.

Utnapishtim then lets out the animals and the livestock and sacrifices a sheep.
            And the gods smell the smoke of the sacrifice
                        and realising that people still live on the earth
                        they come down to have a look.

The chief god Ea is furious,
            because he still wants all living things destroyed.

The gods then have a discussion about the proportionality of the flood
            as a punishment for human depravity,
and in the end Utnapishtim and his wife are made into gods themselves.

You can see how this story lies behind the Noah story of the book of Genesis,
            which was written in Babylon during the time of the Jewish exile.
But I’m sure you can also see that there are some significant differences,
            mostly to do with the nature of the gods.

And what is significant about the Noah version of the flood story
            is not whether or not it actually happened,
but why it is told the way it is,
            and what it tells us about the God that the ancient Jews believed in.

Was the Jewish God, like the gods of Babylon,
            to be regarded a violent and capricious God,
                        hell-bent on punishment
                        and capable of overkill?

Does humankind only survive
            because someone betrays the will of the supreme God
            to rescue a fortunate human being?

No, of course not, says the Jewish story.

The flood, according to Genesis,
            is presented as an entirely proportionate and appropriate response
            to the sinfulness of the humans on the earth,
and Noah survives with his family
            because he is righteous and deserving of God's mercy.

We have to hear the Noah story against the background of the Babylonian flood story,
            and we have to realise that it is told to undermine, to deconstruct,
            the view that the gods are capricious and given random acts of violence.

The God of the Jews may not (yet) be an all-loving non-violent deity,
            but, says the Noah story, he is at least just and proportionate.

And the twist at the end
            hints at further theological development still to come
            in the ongoing Jewish quest to fathom the nature of God;
as God's shining warrior's bow
            is placed across the heavens after the rain
as a symbol of God's commitment
            to never again destroy all life on the surface of the earth.

By this way of understanding it,
            the Noah story is a story a bit like that of Alfred's story of England;
it is a story told to define a culture,
            a story that explores the nature of what it is
                        to be a people chosen and saved by God
                        from the waters of chaos that otherwise overwhelm the world.

It’s a story that far transcends its original historical context,
            such that people living thousands of years after it was written,
                        in lands never heard of by its author,
            can still hear the story
                        and proclaim that it speaks to them of the God they worship.

And part of this appropriation of the Noah story into the Christian tradition
            happens through its use
            in our confusing verses from 1 Peter this morning.

In a nutshell, what I am suggesting is going on here
            is that in 1 Peter we find a repeat of what happened in Babylon
                        when the Jews heard, and then deconstructed,
                        the Babylonian story of the flood.

In 1 Peter, we have a Christian deconstruction of the Noah story.

You see, for the author of 1 Peter,
            the Jews in Babylon hadn't gone far enough,
            in their re-working of the Babylonian flood narrative.
And this was because they hadn't known
            the story of God revealed in Christ Jesus.

They hadn't known the story of salvation enacted in baptism,
            they hadn't known the story
                        of God-made-flesh in the person of Jesus,
            they hadn't known the story
                        of the God who died on the cross
                        and defeated death to lead his people through death to eternal life.

And so 1 Peter re-tells the story of Noah,
            casting it as an allegory of the story of Jesus,
and in doing so it takes the deconstruction of the pagan gods of war and violence
            to the next level.

1 Peter tells its readers that in Jesus,
            the forces of evil that would overwhelm all life
                        are robbed of their power,
            as life continues to reassert itself
                        through the faithful people of God,
            who survive the waters of the flood
                        by passing through them.

The theological point here
            is that those who die with Christ in the waters of baptism
            are also raised with Christ to new life.

The waters do not overwhelm them,
            and they rise from the depths to bear living witness
            to the Christ-story of life from death.

In essence, we, the people of God, become the ark,
            rising above the waters that threaten to drown us,
to keep alive the story of a God of love
            who is not like the gods of vengeance, violence, and over-kill.

We each of us live by defining narratives
            that we inherit from our culture and context,
and we construct our lives around foundational myths
            told to us from our earliest years.

We are the only species that creates legal fictions,
            stories that carry force in the real world.

We are the only species to have a concept of sin,
            we are the only species to believe in God,
the only species to take the transcendent and clothe it in words
            until it takes form in our midst
            as words, perhaps the Word, becomes flesh.

So we spin our stories, and we live by them, and we live them into being.
            The only question we have to address, really,
            is which stories we will live by?

Well, 1 Peter invites us to live by the story of Christ,
            to live by the story of one who goes into the grave to redeem death,
            and who offers us life in the face of the deluge of pain and suffering
                        that would otherwise overwhelm all hope on the face of the earth.

1 Peter offers us a comprehensive deconstruction
            of the mythological view of a wrathful God who punishes,
and it challenges all those who would still construct faith and life
            on the basis of violence and vengeance.

There is no place in this view of the world
            for the violent gods of the Gilgamesh epic,
There is no place in this view of the world
            for the crusades of Christendom.

Rather, 1 Peter’s re-working
            of the Noah story’s re-working
            of the Babylonian flood story,
directly challenges all forms of religious extremism
            which would seek violence as the answer.

The notion of a wrathful God
            is transformed into the concept of a suffering God,
who deals with human sin not by wiping out the sinful,
            but by forgiving them.

So, how do we live this story into being?
            How do we incarnate the story of Jesus in our own lives?

Well, which stories, I wonder, still define our existence in this world,
            but which desperately need deconstructing
            through a faithful retelling of the redeeming story of Jesus.

For some of us these will be intensely personal stories,
            where we find ourselves swamped by the floods of guilt,
            overwhelmed by worthlessness, or drowning in depression.

Do you ever find yourself repeating to yourself the mantra,
            ‘I’m not worthy’; ‘I’m not good enough’; 
            ‘I’m an idiot’; ‘everybody hates me’.

These defining stories are not the story
            that we are invited to inhabit in Christ;
                        who has overcome the darkness that would overwhelm us,
                        who helps us to rise above the floods that would drown us.

For some of us the stories we live by 
            are stories of anger and retribution,
as we seek meaning and justice 
            for the wrongs that have been done to us.

I’m thinking of the teenager who cannot control their temper,
            and punches out at people and things at any opportunity,
because they have taken deep within
            a narrative of hatred,
seeking meaning and justice for the wrongs that have been done to them.

I get it, I really do,

            but this is not the story we are invited to inhabit either.

For some of us our stories get written in the wider world
            of politics and policies,
as we seek to work out which vision of our common life
            we want to seek and see spoken into being in our midst.

Do we want a national narrative built on violence and retribution?
            Is this the God that we want to worship?

Would you press the nuclear button, if someone entrusted it to you?

Which story we live by will affect every area of our lives,
            from how we see ourselves, to how we see others,
            to who we vote for.

And the invitation of 1 Peter is to make our story
            the story of Jesus Christ,
who deconstructs all other stories of violence and retribution,
            and who rescues all those who are imprisoned in their spirits,
            in the living hells that humans are so good at making for themselves.

1 Peter invites us to inhabit a story 
            which brings life where there is death,
and which tells of one 
            who has ultimate authority over all principalities and powers.

And the good news is that we do not do this alone.

We are invited to find our place in the community of faith,
            the ark of safety 
                        that can carry those of us who would otherwise be overwhelmed.

Because we are called to watch over one other,
            and in the name of Christ,
            we are called to offer salvation to those who are drowning.

[1] Harinck, p.99
[2] 1 Peter 4:6  For this is the reason 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.
Acts 2:31  Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, 'He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.'
Romans 10:6-7  But the righteousness that comes from faith says, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'" (that is, to bring Christ down)  7 "or 'Who will descend into the abyss?'" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).
Ephesians 4:9-10  When it says, "He ascended," what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?  10 He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)

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