Signpost for Sunday 21 May 2017, 6th of Easter: Acts 17:22-31; Ps 66:8-20; 1 Pet 3:13-22; John 14:15-21.
When I was a theological student in my third year I faced the usual task of preparing two substantial “Exercises” for submission to my sponsoring Presbytery. I chose one on a theological topic, the other on a New Testament text. I also insisted that there was no point on N. T. exegesis unless it was to lead to a sermon. This put the N. T. exercise up around 10,000 words.
The topic I chose was 1 Peter 3. 17 to 4. 6, and the Descent into Hell. I am used to re-cycling my sermons, and this one has survived many changes, and is the last one that I preached – three years ago, on the sixth Sunday in Easter.
The picture on which “Peter” bases his material is part of a myth about Sheol, the abode of lost spirits. It was said that the worst people who ever lived, the ones you could be sure to find still in Sheol, were those who refused to hear Noah’s preaching. So Peter says that when Jesus was experiencing the hiatus between the Cross and the Resurrection, he went in the Spirit to preach to them.
There is a clear connection between this and other elements, especially in the saga of the Crucifixion. There we hear the cry of desolation (see Mark 15. 34 or Matthew 27. 46), and remember that the one who hangs on a tree is under God’s curse (Deut. 21. 23). We should know that being cut off not just from life, but also from the commonwealth of Israel and from God, means that Jesus is really at rock bottom at this point.
So what does the incarnate, self-sacrificing love of God do but preach to the worst spirits, to those who have even less hope.
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I do not believe we need the medieval variant on this theme, the Harrowing of Hell. Much of our later Christian imagery has been tainted by the Constantinian take-over of the church, beginning with Constantine’s vision, “In this sign conquer.” To harrow is to violently disturb the ground in preparation for planting. It may well give an unfortunately accurate picture of the Christianisation of parts of northern Europe during the first millennium, but it must be cast out from our picture of God in Christ.
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I gained more than I will ever know from my teachers at the Theological Hall, but I always treasure two things. One is the emphasis on exegesis in homiletics classes, especially from Jack Somerville. The other is an incident at the end of an ethics lecture from Frank Nichol. In our class was a former Army Warrant Officer, and he asked something like, “Does that mean that the Christian can never kill?” Frank replied that to kill would only be possible if it were the most loving course of action.
So ethics comes down to love, self-sacrificing love. And so does mission, and fellowship, and worship, and (you can carry on here . . .)