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Readings: 6th Sunday of Easter

16 May 2014

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[Genesis 8.20-9.17]; Acts 17.22-31; 1 Peter 3.13-end; John 14.15-21 

God our redeemer, you have delivered us from the power of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of your Son: grant that, as by his death he has recalled us to life, so by his continual presence in us he may raise us to eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

THE readings fill out the collect's bold claim that God has delivered us from the powers of darkness. Paul entered the philosophical framework of his pagan hearers to proclaim their unknown God as known. His message of God - who made the world, giving life to mortals, enabling them to search for and find God - was a quite extraordinary thought for Greeks, who were used to gods too caught up in their own affairs to be interested in humans.

Noah's watery deliverance is described in the epistle as prefiguring baptism. The epistle's reference to God's patient waiting while Noah built the ark suggests God's passion to save people from the consequences of sin. Genesis describes the bow in the clouds as a reminder to God rather than to Noah of the covenant at times when human sin would again tempt God towards destruction (for example, Exodus 32.7-10).

Then the epistle alludes to the concept - better understood by the Orthodox Church than the Western Church, despite its inclusion in our creeds and hymns - that, on his death, Jesus Christ entered the underworld. This was considered the place of the dead rather than punishment, and Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom to the spirits in prison, before rising with all powers subjected to him.

St John of Damascus wrote: "When he had freed those who were bound from the beginning of time, Christ returned from among the dead, having opened for us the way of resurrection." Icons of the harrowing of hell show Jesus's bursting its gates, hauling Adam and Eve out, followed by others, while we sing:

He whose path no records tell,
Who descended into hell;
Who the strong man armed hath bound,
Now in highest heaven is crowned.

(German, 15th century,  translated by Catherine Winkworth)

A. C. Cawley, in an introduction (Everyman, 1993) to the Chester Mystery play in which - using verses from Psalm 24 - Christ bursts the gates of hell and frees those held captive, commented:

The cooks and innkeepers of Chester who acted this pageant no doubt enjoyed themselves, rushing in and out of the monstrous jaws of hell-mouth and clashing their pots and kettles. But it should be remembered that medieval men and women took the devil and his works more seriously than we do today, and that the merriment of the spectators probably had an uncomfortable edge to it.

We are not so different from our forebears, although we may express things slightly differently. Our society is full of fear and a sense of being powerless, whether we are facing international terrorism or the difficulty of getting good care for our elderly relatives. In Praying with Icons (Orbis, 1997), Jim Forest comments:

The icon of Christ's descent into hell can be linked with an ongoing prayer not to live a fear-centred life. We live in what is often a terrifying world. Being fearful seems to be a reasonable state to be in - fear of violent crime, fear of job loss, fear of failure, fear of illness, fear for the well-being of people we love, fear of war, and finally fear of death. . . We can easily get ourselves into a paralysing state of fear that is truly hellish. The icon reminds us that Christ can enter not just some other hell but the hell we happen to be in, grab us by the hands, and lift us out of our tombs.

What about us today? It is fine to talk about all this in theological terms, but where is the good news in this for us? On Easter Day, we proclaimed triumphantly: "Christ is risen!" That victory does not simply set us an example, but has a creative effect on us and on all creation. Our hearts and wills are transformed. We are released from bondage, made whole, and brought into the Kingdom of God's Son.

"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us," proclaimed John at the beginning of his Gospel, and last Sunday we heard that the Father dwells in Jesus. On the cusp of Ascensiontide, with Jesus's promise of another Advocate to dwell with us for ever ringing in our ears - like Paul's pagan audience, Jesus's disciples, and 1 Peter's persecuted readers - Christ's continual presence dwelling with us raises us to eternal joy. I am left pondering what difference this glorious truth makes in my life day by day.

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