A sermon by Martha “Missy” Shiverick
Sermon – August 1, 2010
Text: Matthew 27:45-54
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This past week I had the opportunity to speak with one of our members about those tough questions we do not like to think about with regard to medical care, medical power of attorney, and at what point should medical procedures be discontinued. No… It’s not what you think. Both the woman and her husband are healthy and not even facing surgeries. Because they are in stable health at this point and I suggested it might be a good time to talk about those topics instead of when they were in a medical emergency or when one of them could no longer communicate his or her wishes. Talking about at what point they would not want medical procedures to continue and would prefer to begin hospice care is a good topic for all couples to have together and for individuals to have with close family members. The topics are so much easier to discuss when everyone is healthy and there is no crisis at hand. Talking about difficult things are best done before the crisis, not during it.

And this is how I feel about this morning’s you asked for it topic. We normally only preach on Jesus’ death on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. At those times, emotions are high. The drama of Holy Week has reached a pivotal high that only Easter can top. It probably is not the time to have a scholarly discussion about the Apostles’ Creed and why it says that Jesus “Descended into Hell”. But here we are on August 1st and we are months away from wrestling with such issues. So. now IS a good time for such a sermon. Now we can look at those painful verses from the Bible which depict Jesus’ death and ask why? Now when we can look at the Good Friday experience and ask questions and develop theology knowing that Holy Week will not occur until the last week of April next year.

All first year seminary students at McCormick Seminary way back when I attended had to take a course called “Jesus”. It was taught by David Reeves and we went through the first three Gospels with Throckmortons’ “Bible Parallels’. We did not discuss the Gospel of John as it was way too theological for our first seminary course. The course was designed to first of all have us read the Gospels. We all also had paper back New Testaments and were encouraged to underline, write notes in margins and to discover and see the angles, the politics, and approaches the writers took when writing their accounts of the Jesus experience. The class was designed to rock our faith. All that we had previously thought to be unquestioned truths were all up for grabs. You see the unspoken purpose for the class was to shatter our naïve earlier faith and then to glue it back together with a stronger and more firm base resting on knowledge. We first year students LOVED the course, talked about it out side of class at the pubs over beer, and held the professor on a very high pedestal. That is until the end of the semester. As the end approached, we were all so excited to hear his lectures on the Easter experience and talked about how we would be blown away by what was going to be said. Would he actually ask us to question Easter? Would he make fun of our church’s highest holiday? And what happened was even more shattering and faith building to us. The class ended with Jesus’ death. The professor would not go further. He said that if we were not able to accept Good Friday as the Good news, we would not ever truly understand Easter. And understanding what he meant by that statement has been a part of my faith development ever since.

So, when a member handed me the “You Asked for It” topic for today as we shook hands on a Sunday morning after worship, I knew I wanted to wrestle with the issue. “Why does it say ‘Jesus descended into hell’ in the Apostles Creed and what does it mean?” Have you ever really wrestled with the question about why Jesus had to die? We have phrases that we recite about the death and how Jesus’ death somehow restored our relationship with God, but to wrestle with why it had to happen almost seem sacrilegious and improper. But perhaps if we do, we will end up with a stronger and more relevant faith.

Listen now to part of the passion narrative that is found in the Gospel of Matthew 27:45-54:

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, eli, le ma sa bach tha ni?” that is , “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it the said, “this man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come and save him.” Then Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 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. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” 

The Word of the Lord.

Jesus was crucified, dead and buried. This story is written in all the Gospels and recited in our Apostles’ Creed. In the Creed in our traditional version it continues that he descended into hell. Theologians write that the word hell is misleading as the intention of the sentence is to say no more than that Jesus actually died. The word hell here refers to the realm of the dead, not the fiery inferno we imagine as we recite the traditional creed. German protestant liturgies indeed use the sentence ‘descended into the realm of the dead and the ecumenical version printed along side our traditional one in the Hymnal says he descended to the dead.

And we know that Jesus didn’t just die, but Jesus had a long agonizing death which is recorded in our gospels. It was terrible. It was humiliating; it is heart wrenching to dwell on it. So, it is hard to read the passion narratives each year during Holy Week and equally hard to read them this summery morning. We know that this death is important to our faith but to wrestle with the how’s and why’s is difficult. In the Study Catechism that our church wrote for confirmation classes it is explained that because Christ was crucified, we know that there is no sorrow he has not known, no grief he has not borne, and no price he was unwilling to pay in order to reconcile us to God. And if I was to read that as a ninth grade confirmation student, it would have no relevance to my life. In fact it is a statement I still wrestle with today.

Jesus died for our sins. That is a statement we have recited since we were very young. The personal meaning of this is something that I continue to wrestle with even now, 29 years after I was ordained. Obviously I am not alone as libraries of books have been written as to why Jesus had to die and theologians for centuries have wrestled with the question of whether Christ’s redemptive action could have been accomplished with out his death on the cross. And somehow this sacrifice of Christ’s death advocates for us and our sinful nature before God and brings us closer to God and offers us eternal life with God. I could try and explain all these beliefs but I would be in this pulpit for hours. Let me just briefly state that to understand this doctrine, one must believe that first and fore most, Christ’s death brought about atonement for us and that atonement here means at-one-ment. Making whole what was not whole before. The purpose of Jesus’ death is for our atonement or the absolution of our sins. Jesus becomes our advocate in his death, not just for our sins but for the sins on the world. If sin is ‘the state of being separated by God’ and death is the consequence of that separation, then Jesus’ death which wipes away the sins of the world is what gives us eternal life. Good Friday is the Good news, Easter is just the obvious consequence of it.

Confusing? It is to me too. I figure I will be wrestling with these Christian doctrines for the rest of my life. And the doubting and questioning side of me always comes back to the question that if God is so powerful, al knowing and loving, why couldn’t he have sparred his son?

Progressive Christians offer other explanations as to the importance of Jesus’ death. Jesus’ sacrifice for others is the ultimate model for us in moral perfection. Christ sacrificed his life for our sins and we are to sacrifice for others as well. Atonement here means moral improvement. As we model Christ’s life and sacrificial love we achieve atonement; we achieve moral improvement. Swedish Archbishop Ekman wrote in 1906 that Jesus’ death here is important as not only did it soften God’s heart toward humanity, but it allows humanity to reach for an ideal of moral perfection in modeling their lives after Jesus.

Although I like the idea of this second doctrine of Jesus being the ethical model for us all in sacrificial love, I have come to believe that there is another reason for Christ’s death; for Christ to descend into hell as we say in the traditional Apostles’ Creed. I believe Christ had to die for pastoral reasons. In death, Christ suffered, Christ was in pain, Christ was in agony. Christ was in hell. If in Christ, God took on human form, God suffered in Christ as well. Our God is not a God who only sits on a throne almighty and victorious, but also is one who was disappointed by those he loved, who bled, who cried out to his daddy, who finally died. Before Jesus’ death God was seen as other. Our God is one who is with us, who listens to our prayers. Our God is not a passive law giving God, but is one filled with compassion towards us. After Jesus’ death, God can not be other again. This is a God who knows our pains as Jesus endured pains as well. And this is really important to us as we pray to God in our times of anguish and agony as well. Could we really turn to a God who did not know pain? Could we cry out to an impassive perfectly inhumane God? Our God in one who is all powerful, but also is all loving and caring as well. Our God walks with us in our trials, feels our pains, and holds us in our times of need. We can cry out to God because we know that God is here with us as we wait for test results from biopsies to return, as we mourn the death of people we love, as our families face crises, as we face personal insecurities in finances, in love, and in health. Ours is not a distant God, but one here with us now.

In all our personal hells, we know Christ walks with us. Throughout our lives we are never alone. In all our times of trial, God cradles and holds us and loves us because God feels and knows our pain. This comforts us in our weakest times and empowers us when we are at our lowest points in life. Perhaps that too is the Good News of Good Friday that my seminary professor wanted us to learn. Amen!