Harrowing Of Hell
May 12, 2013

Holy Land, Holy Fire

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn

Acts 16:16-34

With Paul and Silas, we came to Philippi in Macedonia, a Roman colony, and, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

I am back from the Holy Land as you can see. It is good to be home! The last time you saw me I was standing here with other pilgrims being commissioned by you for this sacred journey. I am happy to report that I have returned with all 18… which means I’m still a 100% on bringing pilgrims back from the Holy Land. That’s pretty good; actually that is sort of the bare minimum. Israel, as any of our pilgrims will tell you, is a safe and fascinating place. The real blessing is that they didn’t ditch me there.

I had many rich experiences there, some of which I am sure you’ll hear about in future sermons. But one in particular ties wonderfully and mysteriously to the story we hear about Paul and Silas from the book of Acts today.

It was an encounter that opened my eyes to what it means to be free; free like Paul and Silas were free, not tied to expectation or anticipation or liberation, but rather alive in the moment in a way that matters. It is what a relationship with Jesus can offer us, vitality in the moment in a way that makes a difference. We see this with Paul and Silas and also with a man I met for a moment on the streets of Jerusalem.

To understand freedom we are helped by taking a look at hope, as it shows up in the scriptures today.

The Greek word for hope is elpis, which means: the place of refuge we seek when fleeing a place we don’t want to be.  It is an interesting definition…’Hope as refuge sought when we are in a place we would rather not be.’

Hope appears as refuge in three different ways in the reading from Acts.

First, there is the hope of the men accruing wealth through the work of a slave girl. That is their refuge, their wealth; it is where they seek their freedom, and it is a hope easily dashed by a few words from Paul. It makes them angry. Hope dashed almost always provokes a response, often anger; in this case an anger that land Paul and Silas in jail.

But that is good, because it moves the story where the Holy Spirit is leading us.

It takes us to the next refuge of hope, that of the Jailer, and how easily it is blotted out by a random earthquake that throws the cell doors open. The Jailer, it seems, sought refuge in the power he exerted over the prison itself. When this power failed, he grabs the sword of suicide as if it was his next best option for freedom. This leads to the third hope, the hope held by Paul and Silas. It was a hope unseen and unanticipated. Paul explains this type of hope in his letter to the Romans.

He starts by saying, “now hope that is seen is not hope.” In other words, a refuge we can see is no true refuge at all. A refuge therefore by Paul’s assertion cannot be a person, place or thing, or a job, or a spouse, or a cocktail, or the great outdoors. “For,” as Paul continues, “who hopes for what is seen? Who hopes for what is seen? We hope for what we do not see,” he continues, “and we wait for it patiently.”  (Rom 8:24-25) He goes onto to say, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”  (Rom 8:28)

Now what does this mean? What does it mean to wait patiently for the unseen, together, according to God’s purpose? As we continue on with the story of the Jailer we may get some insight.

Paul and Silas see the jail door swing open and the chains that bind them fall away, yet they do not run toward what they see, rather they wait patiently for that which is yet to be seen…then it appears! The Jailer draws his sword! They know in that moment that they are seeing what they had been waiting to see. Paul calls out, “We are here. We are with you. We care about you. Do not harm yourself!”

It is the Jailers midnight hour. It is his moment of lost hope. But even when he was lost, God had not lost him, and God’s children, Paul and Silas, well schooled in the ways of God’s divine economy were there to be of service in a way that mattered in the moment.

This clearly confuses the Jailer, and he asks: “Sirs what must I do to be saved?” Paul responds by telling him the story of Jesus. Here is our theology: It is the story of God walking into our lives as a person, like you and me, with history and feelings and freedom. It is the story of God who teaches us how to live without telling us what to do. It is the story of God who loves us no matter what, because we were made with love, for love, to be loving. It is the story of God who knows us uniquely, and has a particular destiny for each one of us, and values us all equally. It is the story of God who keeps promises beyond the horizon of our mortality.

That is the story Paul is telling and as he is telling it, as the Jailer is listening, he bends down and washes Pauls’ wounds. He probably doesn’t even realize he is doing it; it is just what needs to be done in that moment. You see, when our life is subsumed by the story of Christ.

When we start hoping for things unseen, we are free to be alive to the moment, which enables us to be useful, to be helpful, to do what is needed, right then, right there, because we are not anxious about needing to be somewhere else; about needing to do something else; about wanting to be someone else. We are free when we fold our story into the story of Jesus.

I saw this kind of freedom in a man I encountered in the Holy Land. It was on the way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to see the service of Holy Fire.

Let me give you some context, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built over both the rock of Calvary where Jesus was crucified, and the tomb in which he was buried and from which he rose again.  The service of Holy Fire is the most sacred service in the Orthodox Church. The Patriarch from the Greek Orthodox Church goes into the tomb of Christ, kneels down, and prays for the appearance of the light of Christ.

It is reported that a blue light collects on the surface of the stone, hovering like a cloud and then gathers into a flame that the Patriarch uses to light a bundle of candles. He then leaves the tomb, and this light is used to ignite all of the Pascal candles in Orthodox churches around the world.

We pilgrims set out for this service with 100,000 others all in the hope of being one of the 16,000 people squeezed into a church made to hold much less than that, I can assure you. We met Saturday morning at 8AM outside St. James Armenian Cathedral. We had passes that allowed us to walk with the Armenian Orthodox Patriarch into the Holy Sepulcher.  But the Israeli police had other plans.  After the Armenian Patriarch passed through the Israeli checkpoint outside the cathedral, the police quickly closed ranks denying us and many Armenians, permission to walk to the Holy Sepulcher. They cordoned us off with barricades. As we stood there a group of Serbians, behind their Patriarch, marched by us. Then another group, this time Romanians began to come down the road toward us. I started to have this sinking feeling that I was going to miss my once in a life-time opportunity to see the Holy Fire, so I willed myself to look as Romanian as possible, then slipped around the barricades and melted into the Romanian crowd.

Susan Moseley, Garr Larson, Jon Roberts and Diane Carlisle saw what I was doing and slipped in after me, as did some Armenians.  But those poor Armenians must not have looked as Romanian as we did, and the police pulled them forcibly from the procession. We made it through the first check point, and then it turned into a wild dash through the winding, twisting streets of the Old City, up stairs, down stairs, through tight corridors and past barricades. It was like running with the bulls in Pamplona or standing in the Adams river as the salmon ran up stream.

It was in this mad dash that I met a man free to see the unseen.

You see, Diane Carlisle, in the mayhem got knocked over just as the mob slowed at another barricade. A man behind her stooped down and picked her up. And maybe that is what any of us would have done. It was the necessary thing to do. It was the right thing to do.

But then he did what I would have considered impossible to do; He noticed something I would have never seen; in the crunch of humanity he got down on his knees right there, right then, assuming the posture he had just lifted Diane from, and he tied her shoes.

As if he had nowhere else to go. As if it was the most important thing in the world. As if there was no crowd pressing in upon him, or police prodding him. As if the Holy Fire was the last thing on his mind. He had the freedom to see the unseen and the moment made a difference.

It may sound like a small thing and maybe it was… Or maybe it was something extraordinary.