Sermon: “He Descended to the Dead”

As we meander through this Apostles Creed this summer, a question has arisen in my mind.  Why do we bother with this creed in the first place?  Why pull together the core of our faith in such a way that we can all speak it aloud together?  After all, it can get kind of repetitive, can it not?  It puts us in a box.  It doesn’t allow for our individuality…

We bother with the creed because we need the reminders.  The little piece we heard this morning of a long sermon addressed generally to “the Hebrews” begins with words of encouragement:  let’s  hold on to the confession.  (Hebrews 4:14-5:10)  The preacher (unnamed) and the worshippers clearly have agreed on their belief in Jesus Christ, the Son of God who experienced everything we experience,  even up to death.  Together they proclaim who Jesus is.  But if you read further in chapter 5, the preacher accuses the people of being lazy and unwilling to listen.   We can understand the folks in his church. Maybe life has just gotten in the way.  Maybe other issues and events have piled up in the forefront, burying the confession of faith they once made loud and clear.  Maybe they are just occupying space in the pew without really connecting with Jesus any more.   We all need reminders.

We bother with the creed because as we say the words we are putting ourselves smack in the middle of a map that provides guidance and direction for expressing who we really are.  Our very identity, our self understanding is wrapped up in what we believe.  There are other things we can say about God, Jesus, the Spirit, and our lives as believers, but the creed gives us what could be called the “common core” of our faith, a shared description of who we are as believers.

We bother with the creed because it is a way to be united as people who have committed to follow Christ.  United with those standing around you today, united with those around the world, united with those who have gone before you for centuries, united with those who will follow Jesus in the future.  When we pray in silence, we communicate individually with God.  When we stand and say what we believe, we are a community of believers.

We need reminders.  We look for guidance and direction.  We are united as believers.  So we say the creed together on a regular basis.  That is, except for this part:  he descended into hell OR, as our version on the front of the bulletin says, he descended to the dead.  To long ago Christians, hell was simply the place of the dead, akin to sheol in the Old Testament Hebrew.  Christian churches have long dickered over this phrase.  Some even put a little asterisk by this phrase and at the bottom of the page it says;  “Some churches omit this phrase.”  Others just leave it out entirely.  It actually was not added to the creed until the fifth century, but it was added for a reason.  Any time you have a document that is short and to the point, you don’t waste words.  So what was the reason?  You can check out Question 44 from the Heidelberg Catechism, written in Germany in 1563.  Referring to “he descended into hell”, the catechism, or Christian instruction, asks :   “Why is this added?”  And the answer, memorized by countless believers since 1563:  “That in my severest tribulations I may be assured that Christ my Lord has redeemed me from hellish anxieties and torment by the unspeakable anguish, pains, and terrors which he suffered in his soul both on the cross and before.”

He descended to the place of the dead, a shadowy place where departed spirits go.    Just like anyone else would.  The place of the dead is the place where God is totally and finally absent.  Jesus, the Son of God, experienced the absence of God, the depths of the human condition.  This is why the preacher to the Hebrews describes Jesus as the great high priest:  priests have two primary roles– first to come before God bringing the pain, the agony, the sin of humans; and then to bring the news of God back to the people in pain, in agony, mired in sin.  Any human priest understands the predicament of the people because he is human too.  The preacher’s point is that Jesus is the great high priest, the priest of all priests, if you will, and, unlike human priests, he is a priest forever, and he himself is the source of salvation.

We are unable to escape trials and tribulations in this life.  Some of us might even describe certain periods of life as a living hell, because of the pain and suffering we are going through.  Maybe we are stretched to the breaking point.  Maybe we can not respond to one more request.  Maybe we feel overwhelmed by a particular task, or our current ongoing situation that has no obvious end point.  He descended even into that.  He hit bottom.  That is the kind of high priest we have.  Not one who only knows about the glorious part, the singing praises and dancing with joy.  He is one who knows the dirty, sweaty, rotten part.  The one who knows what it means to feel God is just absent.  Remember his cry as he suffered on the cross?  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Words from the psalmist who railed against God in his torment.

Listen carefully to the words from another psalm, 88.  Ps. 88:1-9, and the very last line of the psalm:  “My only friend is darkness.”    His life is hell.  Full of troubles, he cries to God, feeling abandoned as if already dead.  Darkness is his only friend.  That is a scary place to be.  So what if we can be confident that we have a great high priest who has been this way before?  It helps me.  Because then he really gets it.  He knows what I need, not from afar, but from ground zero.

You might want to skip this phrase when you say the creed.  Many Christians do.  Some don’t want to talk about hell when we are claiming what we believe.  Some simply can not imagine that a sinless Jesus would ever set foot in hell.  Some are saying, enough already.  We know he died and was buried.  Adding “he descended to the dead” is overkill, literally.  The truth has been spoken– he was human and he really died.  Why be repetitive?

I don’t want to leave this phrase out.  For me it is part of the reminder, part of the guiding and directing, part of connecting with Jesus and all of Jesus’ earthly family.  I don’t want to forget that he has been there ahead of me.  Even when I go through a rough patch and feel like my messages are empty or my knowledge has gone down the tubes or my words can not flow or I neglect the woman in the nursing home– all of which, by the way, is hell for a preacher.  In these times in my life, I know he has been there too.  I don’t want to forget that Jesus has been to hell and back.  He has been to the depths, so his judgment of me is informed in a unique and  life-giving way.  I am grateful that he has gone to the depths.  I am grateful that he takes my pains and low points to God on my behalf.  I find hope in claiming these words as we repeat them together:  I believe in Jesus Christ, who descended to the dead.

One of our church members, Dionne Wilson, writes poetry.  She was asked to recite one of her poems at her middle school graduation this week.  You can find it in our summer Forerunner.  I’d like to close with Dionne’s words.  You might connect with her.  She is not afraid to acknowledge her pain, but refuses to let it define her.

Poem by Dionne Wilson:  Flawed

You notice my flaws, but have you noticed the pain that started it all?
Have you ever seen me struggle?
Have you ever seen me cry?
No?… Well that’s a lie.
Everyday when I awake I thank god that it’s a new day.
That I got past the last one with my grace.
Because everyday I begin to think.
I think of the world that I will live in one day.
And every morning I look in the mirror and see my scars.
I see the pain and honestly it makes life hard.
Because I don’t only have scars from the past.
Yet I will have ones in the future.
Obstacles that have mastered my ever being.
I have witnessed things that have  shattered my ever so pure seeing.
But it’s okay that I have my flaws,
I am thankful that I have my scars.
Because with out my flaws, with out my scars, with out the pain that started it all I wouldn’t be me and quite frankly I am as happy as can be.
Because I’ve been through things and seen thing.
I will be able to do things and achieve things.
So yes, call me Ms. Flawed and I will wear it thankful and proud, because since I’m flawed I’m beautiful in a way that is untouchable and indescribable.
So no, you may not call me flawed.
Because when you call me flawed I will snap my fingers, flip my hair because I’m not flawed I’m Ms. Flawed and I will wear that title like a crown because I’m a queen.
I will shout from the roof tops with glee you may even hear me scream, “Ms. Flawed. That’s me!”

I believe in Jesus Christ, who knows the depths of my scars ,my flaws, my hopes.  Amen.

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