Harrowing Of Hell
April 22, 2012

From Tragedy

Preacher: The Reverend Kate Wesch

Acts 3:12-19, Luke 24:26b-48

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Seven years ago, I was on the way to the funeral of someone
who had served as a mentor and spiritual guide for me over the years.
His death was sudden, tragic, and inexplicable.
In my close community of friends, we were in total shock.
For several days, we had been sitting in stunned silence,
tears rolling down our cheeks, and wondering why.

A number of us had gathered from across the United States
in the new home Joel and I shared.
It was a pilgrimage of sorts, a journey home to say goodbye.
I don’t remember eating. I don’t remember talking.
I do remember my mother bringing homemade soup and
gently placing a bowl in each of our hands, urging us to eat.

On the morning of the funeral, we silently filed into several cars
and headed north towards the church.
My car was running low on gas and I stopped near campus to fill up. Most of those weeks are a blur,
but this moment at the gas station is clear as a bell.

The cool air of Oklahoma in the fall mixed with the smell of gasoline
and the busy hum of activity as students flocked to their classes,
talking excitedly about the weekend’s football game or the next big party. It felt so wrong – so disturbing,
that the world should continue uninterrupted.

My life had been turned upside down in an instant, just days before.
I wanted to step into the middle of the street and scream.
I wanted to tell the hordes of students to STOP.
I wanted the world to acknowledge my pain
and realize that everything was now different.

Have you ever-experienced this – news so shocking and devastating
that the world seemed to stop spinning?
I know some of you know exactly what I’m talking about.

And, I imagine Jesus’ friends felt similarly in the immediate days
and weeks following the crucifixion – stunned, profoundly sad, disbelieving…

In the gospel reading this week, we have jumped suddenly into Luke’s narrative.
This reading takes place directly after Jesus’ death and disappearance
and immediately following the road to Emmaus story.
If you don’t remember the part about walking to Emmaus
then the next part doesn’t make sense.

Simon Peter and Cleopas were walking to Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking about everything that had happened in the past week,
trying to make sense of Jesus’ death and disappearance
when a man joined them and began walking with them.
He acted as if he didn’t know what they were talking about and they told him all about it.

When they reached Emmaus, the man walked on ahead,
but they called him and asked him to stay with them.
They sat down together around a table and the man
“took bread, blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them.
Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him: and he vanished from their sight.”

They were swept up in the consuming waves of their grief
only to be brought to the surface by Jesus breaking bread with them.
Where we jump into the story is when the two of them are back
with their friends trying to explain what has happened.

At this point, the resurrected Jesus walks up to his friends and says, “Peace be with you,” thus scaring them to death. They thought it was a ghost.
It seems so clear to us today and almost comical that they didn’t get it.

We know that Jesus died, was resurrected, and ascended,
but we have the gift of hindsight, scripture, and centuries of theological discourse.
They had grief, sadness, and a few days of mourning.

Even though Jesus died, his ministry isn’t over and it must continue
through the faith of his followers.
One problem is, in the immediate aftermath of the resurrection,
he was just dead – at least in the minds of his followers.
How would they even know that his death was any different?
Somehow, they had to realize that the Lord was risen

“The risen Lord is no ghost or apparition,
but neither is the one who stands before them merely a resuscitated corpse. Resurrected life is embodied existence.”

In the Roman world of Jesus’ time,
people believed that corpses could be brought back to life
and that souls could end up “free-floating” in the world.

By showing them his hands and feet and eating fish with them, Jesus refutes common Roman beliefs about the afterlife
and embraces the Jewish notion of fully embodied existence
in this life and the life to come.

While I know that my friend and mentor will never come back to this world,
the resurrected Jesus gives me hope and understanding
of Michael’s fully embodied existence in the life to come.

Many of you, I’m sure, are familiar with TV personality, Stephen Colbert
and his show, The Colbert Report on Comedy Central.
While his show is highly sarcastic political satire,
Colbert is actually a pretty thoughtful guy.
As a child, he lost his father and a brother in a plane crash
and has this explanation for dealing with his grief:

“I’m not bitter about what happened to me as a child,
and my mother was instrumental in keeping me from being so.
She taught me to be grateful for my life regardless of what that entailed, and that’s directly related to the image of Christ on the cross
and the example of sacrifice that he gave us.
What she taught me is that the deliverance God offers you from pain is not no pain—
it’s that the pain is actually a gift.”

Out of personal tragedy comes growth and perspective.
The same mentor of mine who died suddenly once preached about suffering
and I have never forgotten what he said.

Instead of praying for God to stop his suffering or bring it to an end,
he said he would always pray for the strength to withstand the suffering.
In that way, he didn’t pin his suffering on God,
but rather sought from God the tools and inner strength to transform the suffering.
I think Colbert is saying something similar when he calls his pain a gift.

The friends and followers of Jesus encountered his embodied existence
in his resurrected life and evolved their grief into a movement that
continues to build and increase momentum
with each passing generation.
We are here because they saw his hands and his feet, ate some broiled fish,
and opened their minds to understand scripture.

“You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus said to them.

How might we transform the pain and grief in our own lives?
How do we move beyond the immediate feelings of loss
and evolve into an embodied existence in this world and the next?

We are witnesses of all these things.

Sunday Program: Rite I
Sunday Program: Rite II