God in the Grave:
Easter Saturday Sermon
April 15, 2017
Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN
(Please note: This is the 3rd in a Sermon Series that began with Good Friday, and then Holy Saturday. All were indebted to the work of Alan E. Lewis (Between Cross and Resurrection) and Hans vonBalthasar (Mysterium Pascale). The main theme is that whenever the story mentions “Jesus” we should immediately conclude that this “the story of God”!)
I attended my first Episcopal church when I was 15, in 1957. We used the 1928 Prayer Book back then. I remember the version of the Apostles Creed we used declared that Jesus had “descended into Hell.”
This morning we read the lesson from 1st Peter because one of the early ideas about Jesus is that he went to hell after he died , but 1st Peter 4:6 said he was there as a preacher.
For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.
It was then and still is today all speculation, not fact. But he was dead, that for sure. Thus we were reminded about his burial before sunset on Good Friday. I have come to cherish and understand, and keep this Holy Saturday, as the second day, and as maybe the most significant day in the entire year—albeit a very strange and unsettling day— a day I see to remind myself and you that this day, almost above all others, brings the story of Jesus, and God’s story into very sharp maybe even disturbing clarity.
That old 1928 Prayer Book didn’t have a Holy Saturday service, however. This day, though, had been observed by faithful Christians, [more monks and nuns to be sure, than the rest of us] who knew they had to wait on this day, and that in doing so, they wouldn’t rush from Good Friday to Easter, and forget what the death of Jesus meant to his first disciples. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer gave us this service. It’s one page in the Prayer Book. Page 283. No need for vestments. Anyone can do this service. I’ve read it myself in my home office on a Holy Saturday morning. I also have a covenant with my friend, Jan Dougherty, a deacon. We share this service, every year, this waiting time, together every Holy Saturday no matter where we might or however many miles separate us. This time for which no words can ever be adequate can bind us disciples, even now, together, as we cherish the Jesus story.
So how can we make sense of this day? One attempt at capturing the meaning of Holy Saturday came from the pen of the poet Edwin Muir wrote the Poem “The Good Man in Hell.” He was thinking of that phrase “ he descended into Hell.”
If a good man were ever housed in Hell
By needful error of the qualities,
Perhaps to prove the rule or shame the devil,
Or speak the truth only a stranger sees,
Would he, surrendering quick to obvious hate,
Fill half eternity withy cries and tears,
Or watch beside Hell’s little wicket gate
In patience for the first ten thousand years,
Feeling the curse climb slowly to his throat
That, uttered, dooms him to rescindless ill,
Forcing his praying tongue to run by rote,
Eternity entire before him still?
Would he at last, grown faithful in his station,
Kindle a little hope in hopeless Hell,
And sow among the damned doubts of damnation,
Since here someone could live, and live well?
One doubt of evil would bring such a grace,
Open such a gate, and Eden could enter in,
Hell be a place like any other place,
And love and hate and life and death begin.
Muir could write that poem because of Easter. But what of the disciples on the second day? Those who had seen their world end on Friday?
The call of Holy Saturday is really to stay with the events of that previous day, and not rush forward. Those disciples didn’t have a next day to anticipate. They could only grieve for what they had lost, and what had been abandoned was the future of what they thought had been possible in this Jesus who painted a picture of a Kingdom of God.
That dream was now wrapped up inside a dead body in a sealed tomb. The silence of that Sabbath was such that no words could provide resolution or vindication. Caesar had had the last word. The women had told the disciples about his last breath — a moment captured in the hymn O Sacred Head Sore Wounded, where in the second verse we sing of the one, “Jesus, who has vanished from sight, whose power is now expired.” And thus my stark title God in the Grave.
I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that Luther also believed Jesus had the experience of Hell. Here is Luther’s Latin: vere enim sensit mortem et infernum in copper sou. I asked Glen,my Roman Catholic priest friend, to translate it for me. Luther said, in English:
For he truly felt [experienced] death and hell in his body
All of us have moments when, even in real life, we feel like were in or near hell. This leads me to tell you about this marvelous book of theology by Alan Lewis called Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. Lewis wrote a theology book almost 500 pages in length for a day for which words are not adequate. He can be forgiven f, though, for this was his last will and testament. It had to be finished after his death from cancer which he poignantly attests to toward the end of this book as an illness driving him into his own Holy Saturday chapters of life.
I can only give you a little a little morsel of his wisdom — but it is such that it will connect to many of us who have had times of trial whether from illness, death of a loved one, or some thing traumatic that has happened to us. Writing of his cancer – the disease, the surgery, the radiation, the chemo, and the endless waiting and uncertainty, he said:
“Such losses of appearance and identity, of dignity, control, and almost life itself, brought “Saturday” moments of farewell, grief, and preparations for the end, consequent upon the disappearance of tomorrow. For like the first Easter Saturday, this was a time of unfounded waiting, of hanging on, — sometimes by the hour — without any guarantee of a future to be hung on for, a patiently and otherwise enduring a which might prove no lacunal interruption pending eventual resumption, but cessation pure and simple. This meant in turn my own Paschal descent into forsakenness, where sensations and emotions so overwhelm my powers of description that even the closest loved ones could not understand, and where the comforting assurance of God’s presence could teasingly evade my conscious grasp, locking me in the solitude of divine absence and the spiritual void of prayers unanswered, perhaps because unuttered” Page 404
Did you notice he called this time in his life “Easter Saturday”? And it raises the question what of this day do we bring to the next day?
I think the answer is some truth – some real honesty – about our own finitude — about the borders of life that always frame each day. At one point Lewis in his book pointed out that his birth certificate made no promises with regard to the length of his life, and certainly none about its possibilities, it’s tragedies, or its loves. What we don’t want to admit, except when forced to sometimes by circumstance, is that life is terminal.
For those disciples, Good Friday was the end of the story. There was no tomorrow. Jesus had expired. They had to feel that their lives have come to and end as well.
They had no way to birth any meaning in their grief on that Saturday. It took the next day, and probably weeks afterwards to understand that first day without Jesus, was the day of Sabbath. God accepting life in all of its fragile mortality, moving inexorably toward the dénouement of the next day with its declaration of “God’s victory …over the deadly forces of pride and domination…” (p. 64 Lewis)
To quote Lewis: “God’s tomorrow [would take up] residence in humanity’s today,” [p. 65] but not yet. Not on this Second Day.
On the second day Jesus was no hero, no savior, no Redeemer. The story that might have been written about the wonderful parables he told, the people he had raised from the dead, the blind that had been given sight, the hungry that had been fed, the lame that have been able to walk into a new day, the widow that had her son restored to her, were all stories they couldn’t tell on that Saturday, or probably ever, because of his failure. As Lewis comments, “… Beside him in the grave had been laid to rest the naïve dream that the meek shall inherit the earth.” [p. 50]
We do well to not get ahead of the story —to stay just with this Holy Saturday, though I think, that there’s wisdom in that poem about the good man in hell. The disciples may have been lost on this day – totally useless – totally without a future – but not Jesus. But not Jesus. And even though the story did continue, these friends of Jesus, had no way of peering into the next day. These utterly hopeless and lost disciples on this second day were certainly not expecting what would come. Nor should we as we keep Holy Saturday. Amen.
 Hans vonBalthasar, Mysterium Pauschale, p. 169