Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: 1 Peter 3:18-22
1Lent, Year B
“A teleporting Jesus”
I once read a science fiction book called “Mission,” by Patrick Tilley. The plot of the book revolved around an alternative theory about where Jesus was in the three days between his crucifixion and resurrection. According to Tilley, Jesus went to an emergency room in New York City in the 1990s, where he was physically healed by a Jewish doctor who was perplexed both by his injuries and his physiology. The real story, though, involved the doctor’s husband, a lawyer, who Jesus eventually convinced to return to first-century Palestine with him and begin writing down the documents that would later be found in Qumran.
The book was a fun read, despite the major flaw in the plotline. I mean, if Jesus could teleport himself roughly 2,000 years through time, and across the Atlantic Ocean, he obviously wouldn’t have needed our 20th-century medical services. But this was a novel theory (I stress “novel”) about where Jesus went and what he was up to while he was dead.
In our epistle lesson for today, we hear another theory about what Jesus was up to in those three “lost” days. The author of First Peter (let’s call him “Peter”) says that Jesus went and “made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey.” In other words, Jesus went to those who were dead who had not lived according to God’s Law. Jews in Jesus’ day thought the souls of such people languished forever, in torment, in Hades. So this verse says that, after his death, Christ Jesus visited Hades. And there, we hear, Jesus “made a proclamation.”
What proclamation? Jesus only had one proclamation: “the Good News is that the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the Good News.” And, apparently God—our God (for there is no other)—is a God of second chances, even after death.
We call this event—Jesus preaching to the damned in Hades—“The Harrowing of Hades,” the EMPTYING of Hades. There are famous paintings of Jesus preaching in Hades, and the rush to repent, for, after all, who in their right mind wouldn’t accept this offer of a second chance when they were dead and in someplace other than Heaven?
So, as our logic goes, Jesus visited Hell (our modern name for Hades) and emptied Hell, then rose victorious from the grave on Easter Sunday. Talk about a teleporting Jesus!
Our ancient Christian thinking is that Christ Jesus visited Hades once for all time because those there had had no chance to hear the Good News of salvation. Ancient Christian thinking is that we all know the Good News, and unless we accept Christ into our hearts and lives and live accordingly, WE will become the newest residents of Hades when we die.
Of course, we modern Christians “know” that our God (the only God there is) is merciful, in ways we can barely understand. We know that our logic is not God’s logic. And we know that God-the-Father has delegated to God-the-Son the function of judging who goes where when they die. I would very much like to believe that, in some way, Christ Jesus is still in Hell proclaiming the Good News of salvation, even while we know he is both in heaven sitting at the right hand of God-the-Father AND that he is with us in our hearts and in our world as God-the-Son.
And, for that matter—bear with me here—for all we know, while Christ Jesus was miraculously proclaiming salvation to the dead, he could have been visiting each and every one of us in our present, harrowing our hearts to receive and believe and to enact the Good News of salvation.
Far-fetched? They certainly didn’t teach this in seminary. But I don’t think I’m too far out on the heresy limb. Our Apostles Creed and Baptismal Covenant say that after Jesus was buried, “He descended to the dead.” The creed doesn’t say where or when those dead were. And after death, time is no more. Curiously, our Nicene Creed is totally silent on the subject, saying merely that Christ “suffered death and buried and on the third day he rose again in accordance with the scriptures.”
So what does “Peter” mean by evoking this image of Jesus harrowing Hades? He used this idea to show that Christ Jesus, who had no sin, died to atone for, overcome, make right, our sins. Christ Jesus provided atonement for those sinners who were dead, just as surely as he provides a way for US to overcome our sins.
“Peter” is claiming that God works through time and space. He cites the example of Noah to support his point, giving us a wonderful image of God waiting in the wings, holding back the floodwaters until Noah finishes building the ark.
“Peter” then likens the waters that destroyed the unjust in Noah’s day to our own water of baptism. This is perplexing at first. How can waters which destroy be like waters that save? You might think that the same water saves the righteous as destroys the unrighteous. But then, you must admit, we are all sinners in God’s sight, all unrighteous.
Your second theory might be that the water of baptism washes us clean of our sin. Even “Peter” says “no”, though, to this theory. He says, in effect, that through baptism we remind God of his promise to never again destroy the earth by flood In other words, through baptism we remind God of his promise, even as we throw ourselves on God’s mercy and join in Christ’s resurrection.
This is the point where we tire of theory and ask “so what?” We ask, “What difference does it make to me HOW and WHY God provided for my salvation. All that matters is that he DID.”
Well, the point that’s not obvious in our lesson is that “Peter” was talking about suffering—Jesus Christ’s suffering—to compare with our suffering. And, let’s face it, our reality is that God allows much suffering here on earth. “Peter” wants us to know that, even in our suffering—even though we die—we have hope. Maybe we have hope even if we die unrighteous and end up in a hot place, we can place our hope in Christ Jesus, who has the power that matters.
I hope you don’t think me too frivolous, talking today about a teleporting Christ Jesus. His teleporting to hell and then to new life and then to heaven is where we all can place our hope.