Harrowing Of Hell
March 28, 2024

It Was All Set in Motion on this Night

Susan Pitchford, Lay Preacher

To watch the sermon click here.


Tonight we begin the Triduum. One play in three acts: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday. The resurrection will come, but in this three act play, Jesus reveals the pattern that we know as the Paschal mystery, namely: there is Nno resurrection without death. 

There is no fast forwarding straight from Palm Sunday to Easter. The only way to resurrection is through the cross. And all of it is set in motion on this night.

It’s hard, it’s emotionally demanding to walk with Jesus as he’s bretrayed and abandoned by his closest friends; then faces a combination of corrupt government authority and a lynch mob calling for his death and getting what they want; and, finally, lying in the grave, going to the place of the dead. The world seems cold, and empty, and desolate without him.

But all of that is still ahead of us. Tonight we remember—we relive—the night when Jesus went into all of this. So much is set in motion on this night. It’s interesting that, while we relive the first Eucharist every time we gather in here, we only relive the washing of the disciples’ feet once a year. 

But it’s not because this part isn’t important. It’s deeply important, and I want to talk about how the importance of this act, on this night, is revealed by a gesture so small we can easily miss it altogether. 

But if we look closely at this seemingly insignificant gesture, we can see the whole big picture of what Jesus is doing. And it’s a picture of reversal: of expectations for the Messiah, of our understanding of how things work in God’s kingdom, and of the brokeness of the human condition and all of creation.

Jesus entered into his passion knowing exactly what he was doing. And not because he was some kind of superhero who didn’t feel it all; no. We know from his agony in the garden that he felt every bit of it, dreaded it down to his very soul. 

And we have to remember, it wasn’t just the physical suffering he dreaded, or even that plus the cowardice of his friends. Jesus suffered the sense of separation from his Father—that is, the feeling of being in hell. Because what is hell but separation from God? 

Of course, there is no true separation from God, but to feel separated from God? That truly is the fate worse than death. And so he cries out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

And Jesus also, in some mysterious way, entered into the suffering of all of humankind: past, present, and future. Whatever theories of Atonement you do or don’t embrace, I truly believe that on a mystical level, Jesus in his Passion would enter into every experience of suffering that humans had ever endured or ever would. 

Because of this, when we enter into those experiences of suffering, we can be sure that the eternal one is already there, waiting for us, and will stay with us through it.

Because of love: “Having loved his own who were in the world,” we hear, “he loved them to the end.” And then an interesting thing happens. Jesus gets up from the table and takes off his outer robe before kneeling down like a servant and washing his disciples’ feet.

Jesus takes off his robe; why? I always assumed it was just because he didn’t want to get it wet. But I think there’s more here. Remember, in John’s Gospel, the details are always significant. 

Think back to the Ssecond Creation Story in Genesis. Once the primal couple had been created, we hear that “they were both Nnaked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” But what happens next? When they ate the forbidden fruit, “their eyes opened, and they knew that they were naked.” 

So they make aprons out of fig leaves, and when God comes looking for them, they hide themselves. Of course there’s no hiding from God, so eventually Adam explains, “I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” 

Adam is caught in the midst of a shame storm. Shame. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Now, if I’d been God in this piece, I would’ve ripped those little leaf skirts off them in a fury and said, “Think you’re not going to die, do you?” 

Fortunately, God doesn’t act like me, most of the time. Instead, God shows them grace, sews them nice leatehr outfits and sends them on their way, to a world in which suffering will always be present.

Why go back to this story? Because it’s the beginning of the sin-shame cycle, which is so basic to human experience, and causes so much suffering. And Jesus is like the parent who says, “I don’t care who started it, I’m ending it now.” 

So what does he do? He takes off his robe. The impulse of shame is always to cover up. But Jesus reverses this, because he intends to reverse the whole sin-shame cycle, so that no one will ever need to be, or even feel, separated from God. 

Where Adam and Eve make a gesture of shame, Jesus makes a .gesture of vulnerable love Where Adam and Eve cover themselves in injured pride, Jesus uncovers himself in humility. It’s a forshadowing of all that’s to come in the next days. And it sets it all in motion.

Now Peter, who in a certain sense speaks for all of us, objects. He can’t see the future king of Israel bending down to wash his feet. Because he hasn’t yet learned the Paschal mystery, which Jesus is about to demonstrate to them all: nothing that has not died can live forever. As Jesus had said earlier, no grain of wheat can turn into a field of wheat unless it goes into the ground. 

This is the cycle with which Jesus intends to reverse and replace the sin-shame cycle. He is going to replace it with the Paschal cycle of death and resurrection. 

And so, on this night as he enters this cosmic battle for the salvation of the world, he takes off his robe. Who prepares for battle by stripping down? I’m no soldier,  but I think people getting ready for a fight tend to put on protective gear. 

And in Matthew’s, as he’s arrested, Jesus says he could summon legions of Angels to protect him if he chose to.

But protection is not what he wants. He is going to enter into the very depths of human experience, with no protection, utterly vulnerable, utterly human, so that he can heal it and reverse the cycle of sin and shame. 

I cannot pretend to know how he does this. There are a lot of theories. But here’s what I do know: because of what Jesus set in motion on this night, there is no plce for shame between us and God. 

And this changes everything. Jesus stripped off his protective covering, got his face right down to the feet of people who’d been traveling constantly by foot for several years. Do you think those feet were pretty? 

But God’s kingdom is all about reversals. The disciples’ Uunlovliest parts were help and tenderly cared for by Jesus, until they could say with Isaiah, “How beautiful on the mountain are the feet of the one who brings good news!” 

He does the same with the unloviliest parts of our hearts and our lives. And in doing so, he ingterrupts, he crushes, the cycle of sin and shame.

Jesus goes to the cross, driven by a love I can’t begin to inmagine, so that he can wipe every tear from our eyes. He is going to defeat the forces that break us, and make us whole, and new.

And it was all set in motion on this night.