Harrowing Of Hell
November 12, 2017

23 Pentecost 11:00

Preacher: The Right Reverend and Right Honourable Lord Williams of Oystermouth

Let me just say, first of all, thank you for the invitation to be with you this morning. Thank you to Father Doyt and to the community here. And thank you for the chance to share in your Sunday morning celebration. It’s a joy and a privilege to be with you. I hope I’ll have a chance to talk to some of you later on.

Just about half an hour ago, we were talking over coffee about experiences in the Holy Land and the experience of sharing the ceremony of the Holy Fire on Easter Eve in Jerusalem.  We agreed that church life in Jerusalem, as shown by the ceremony of the Holy Fire, is a little bit unlike life here.  Although it’s nice to see a crowded church this morning, it’s not really a great health and safety risk in the way that ceremonies are in some churches in the Holy Land. And it’s a reminder that the world as Jesus’ parables describe is not really all that much like the world we are familiar with. Worshiping in the Middle East is very different than worshiping in Seattle, and by the sound of it, wedding receptions in the Middle East are a bit different from wedding receptions in Seattle, as well.

The picture that we have in today’s Gospel is one of those great celebrations in the Middle East which you still see in the ravaged war-torn Middle East today, a celebration that obviously involves a whole community.  It’s going to last for a few days. Everybody is involved. There is an enormous amount to eat and drink, and people will settle down to dinner in steady rhythm for 48 hours or more.  You don’t quite know when things are going to start or stop. The bridegroom is due, but the hours pass because he and his friends have clearly found other things to do; they probably stumbled upon a pub on the way. The bridesmaids are sitting around, some of them more sensible at keeping an eye on their batteries, as it were.  The others are dozing and not paying attention. But, at last, in one of those dramatic moments that Jesus’ parables sometimes contain, at midnight, there was a shout, “He’s coming!” And you can imagine the whole village galvanized in that moment with the villagers pouring out into the streets to shout in delight as the bridegroom and his friends—probably not very sober by this point—roll into town, and the wedding reception unfolds.

Jesus returns, again and again, in his storytelling to weddings and wedding feasts. More than once, he and others talk about himself—about him– as a bridegroom. He’s come to marry his people, just as God in Hebrew scripture is the bridegroom of his people.  And behind that lies one of the great insights of Biblical religion. An insight still inspiring, still motivating and energizing, for us today. And it’s this: God’s commitment to God’s people is a lifelong matter and, since God lives forever, God’s commitment to God’s people is a forever matter.  When you hear, in the language of worship, words like covenant, and in Holy Communion of course we speak of the covenant marked by Jesus’s shedding his blood on the cross. The covenant is that deep promise that God makes to us even before we make it to God.  We often talk about covenant in church life, talking about how we are committed to serve and love and be alert to God’s will. But behind it, first, last, and always, is the everlasting commitment of God to us.  The bridegroom seals a lifelong pact with the people who are going to be married to the bridegroom.  So, when we celebrate Communion, we are indeed celebrating a wedding, a wedding of Heaven and Earth; the marriage, the covenant, the coming together, of two orders of reality that seem to be a long way apart, but in fact are now bound together forever because God wants to be in our company.  God wants us in God’s company, forever.

Now this morning, we are welcoming twelve people to take their First Informed Holy Communion.  And, I want to say first to them, Congratulations. Congratulations on making this decision to step forward in faith and trust to become more fully, more intelligently, more energetically—I hope—part of the church family.  I want to say to everybody else who has come here to pray with them, bear in mind, they need your encouragement, your example, your legion. It’s not easy for young people to be faithful in covenant to God these days. There are plenty of other things for them to think about, plenty of things in society around that say, church, how could you possibly interested in that?; how seriously uncool is that?  So, for those who have come with their families, be there for them. Be there for these young people in their walk in faith and in interest. Remind them as best you can that church is no just a dull couple of hours on a Sunday morning, though I’m sure it never is dull here; that church is about the wedding reception. Think back to the picture in this parable. Think of all the villages streaming out into the street. Think of the food and the drink and the songs, two days of celebration. And, think when we come to church, we’re getting just a little glimpse of that kind of rejoicing that Heaven and Earth have come together; that God’s decided to be committed to use forever.  So that, however much of a mess we make, however many things we get wrong, however much we feel that we’ve gone astray in our lives, God simply looks at us and says, “You know what, I don’t care.  I am still here for you and with you. And if you want to remake your life, I’m in there with you.” That’s the nature of God’s promise, God’s covenant.  It’s a forever thing.

Now, Holy Communion is a feast, a celebration of that covenant, of that foreverness, because in Holy Communion, we look back to one particular moment in the world’s history that changed the way we thought about God and about ourselves. And that moment was the life and the death and the rising from death of Jesus.  Jesus brings the whole life and energy of God alive in his own body to the world. Jesus expresses God’s will, God’s longing to be here with us.  And so we see Jesus leading a human life with other human beings. We see him expressing God’s commitment to the world by forgiving people, by welcoming people, by healing people. Jesus, in his words and his actions, shows that God will stop at nothing to forgive us and to bring us hope. God will never be put off from that longing to be with us. So passionate is God to be in our company, that he’ll do whatever it takes to keep us in his friendship.  So, through his life, Jesus says to people who are outcasts, forgotten and despised, you know, “God is there for you. Never mind what other people say. God is for you.” And Jesus looks at those who are suffering from disease, mental torment, exclusion, prejudice, and he says, “You know, God is there for you. I will take the risk of stepping out line , stepping out of my comfort zone to come to be with you.” And Jesus says to those who are imprisoned by guilt or sin, “Whatever you’ve done, God can start again with you.” But it goes even deeper, because when people find they can’t cope with that, and it’s pretty frightening, it is. When people find they can’t cope, they turn on Jesus and they say, “We don’t want to know about the mercy and the love of God. This is confusing. We like to know where we are. We like to know who’s in and who’s out. We like to know who’s right and who’s wrong, and you’re just confusing us. So go away.” And it gets worse and worse. For people who don’t want to be confused turn on Jesus with more and more violence and viciousness until at last, they kill him. And, frustratingly, from their point of view, God says, “ I’m sorry, that still doesn’t make any difference.” God says, “I’m sorry. I’m God. I can’t help it. It’s what I do.” And so, when the world has done all it can to push the love of God away, the love of God keeps coming back. And Jesus returns from death to say to those who abandoned him, those who hated him, those who killed him, “Sorry. It’s what I do. It’s who I am.”

And that’s what we are about here in the Church. That’s what we’re about here today at Holy Communion. And, that’s the life to which our twelve young friends are taking a step torward today.  The life in which you can always trust God to give you new beginnings; the life in which there’s always joy over the horizon, even when you feel most lost and most alone; And a life, too, where God is constantly pouring into you the energy to bring that joy and hope to other people. In Holy Communion, we take bread and wine in the belief that, through them, the life and energy of Jesus comes into your lives. And that means that you’re equipped with the gift of God’s own spirit to live like Jesus in the world. To say to all those around you, “God is God and isn’t going ot be put off by who you are. God is God so he doesn’t care what other people think.  God is God so God can start again afresh day after day. God is God for you.”  You say that to people. You show it in what you do. Like Jesus, you’re asked to take some risks, to step outside your comfort zone a bit, to stand alongside the people that others want to despise and forget.  To be a sign of hope for people who haven’t got a lot of hope in their lives.  To take Holy Communion is a step to that kind of life.

Well, that’s why we’re here. That’s why this sacrament is celebrated. That’s why it matters that generation after generation we invite new people to join in this great celebration, in this great acknowledgement of the God who isn’t ever going to go away, a God whose promise to be there is a forever matter. We try to be faithful in response to this. We try to live as consistently as we can, replying to this great invitation, to this great miraculous promise, and, quite a bit of the time, we fail and we step backwards. We don’t get it right, we are still, most of us, except on the other side of the pulpit, we are still selfish and lazy people who were to easily wake up, like those bridesmaids, dozing as the bridegroom arrives, and sort of blink, rub our eyes, and  think, “Oh no, do I have to?” But, God doesn’t just ask us to do things, God gives us what we need to do them. In Holy Communion, that’s what we’re receiving; food for the journey, nourishment and strength for the life ahead of us, which is yes tough and demanding, but also full of promise and full of joy. That story Jesus tells ends rather sadly; Jesus is no sentimentalist, he doesn’t do happy endings. And so, Jesus depicts the plight of people who haven’t stayed awake, haven’t been faithful, haven’t watched. And so, they find themselves on the wrong side of the door. I don’t think this at all about people being sent to Hell for getting things wrong. I think it’s just a recognition of the bare fact that, if your eyes aren’t opened, you won’t see the sunrise. That’s the world. So, keep your eyes opened. And, remember, if you have slumbered and dozed like the bridesmaids who are at the wrong end of this story, nonetheless, God will still whisper in your ear, “Get up. I’ll be with you. I’ll be there for you. Remaking, restarting, reimaging your life with you.” So, God, be thanked for those who are this morning taking this morning. God, be thanked for giving us this great wedding feast, great wedding reception, that we celebrate and share at every Holy Eucharist. God, be thanked that he has given us a promise and a job to do; the promise of being there for us, the task for saying to the whole world, “No, God isn’t going away. God isn’t bored, angry, God is there for you.”  We show it. We show it as well as say it. And for that task, the very life of Jesus is poured into our lives in this great gift we are receiving together this morning. Thanks to be to God. Amen.