Harrowing Of Hell
June 2, 2019

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures

Preacher: The Rt. Rev. Grogory H. Rickel

To listen to the sermon click here.

Some of you are aware, that I ask for letters from all those to be confirmed, because so often I don’t get much if any time with them before we set out to do what we will do this morning with confirmations, receptions, reaffirmation.  It is a great way to get to know them a bit, to know what brings excitement to them, about all of this, and also what may still trouble them.  

Most all of those taking such steps today have done just that, sent me a letter, and all of them I read, and really enjoy.  One of those for this day, and because I don’t have permission to say who I won’t, but I loved the way the letter started.   It began this way,

My spiritual journey started a couple of months ago when I stopped taking a nap during our priest’s sermon, and started listening to what he was saying.    I love that because its honest, and its clear.   And I believe it is exactly what is most important about this feast of Ascension.  Listening, Paying attention.  Now that may sound a bit strange to you, so let me explain. 

These days, every Ascension Sunday I cannot help but think about an unofficialguide, who hangs out at the supposed sight of the Ascension in the Holy Land.  He usually runs over to an English speaking crowd and looks at you with big eyes, and says,  JESUS…..HERE>>>>>zipppppppppp

Usually, we see the miracle of the Ascension in that, Jesus bodily ascending to heaven to finally be with God, after this interaction we hear of today, the final interaction with his disciples on earth.   He leaves them here to do the work and that is one reason Easter is so important for us, because he leaves us here to do the work too, passed down from those first eye witness disciples, now it is left to us.   In a sense, all of Easter season in our tradition is about what we are going to do now that Jesus is not with us bodily, as a human walking the earth with us.

Today I would ask you to suspend the focus on that miracle celebrated today, the Ascension into heaven in its literal sense, and focus on another miracle that is often missed in this passage and this interaction between the disciples and Jesus.   It is that little line there that reads

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,

That is a miracle.  Often the Gospels have been filled with parables and stories that more or less make the disciples look like dopes, or worse.  They have rarely understood what Jesus was referring to, but here, as a final gift, it says, he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. 

And that is the miracle I would want to focus on today.  Opening our minds, opening our hearts, like that person said in their letter today, stop taking a nap and start paying attention, listening, learning.  

There was another one of these persons who wrote a letter to me today that eloquently shared their concern about how little we Episcopalians know of Scripture, but even more how little we sometimes seem to care about it.   And I would have to agree.  Understandably in some ways we, the mainline, progressive, denominations have ceded over the Bible to the more fundamental factions.   Not really knowing what to do with some of the difficult stuff we read in it, and realizing, digging in,  could be a bit of work, we choose to just let it go.   The person’s point, that we appear to be a very biblically illiterate lot on the whole, seems born out more often than not.   ‘

So I want to focus on that miracle in this story, not Jesus’s miracle of Ascension, but instead the miracle he granted in that act, to those left behind, opening their minds to understand the Scripture.  Like so many of the Gospel miracles, it is not so much now about how or why it happened like that, but instead what it means for us now. 

Because I think what that person said in that letter is profound.   My spiritual journey started when I stopped taking a nap during the sermons, and started listening to what my priest was saying. 

Now, you won’t get it all from sermons.   There are certainly good ones, and bad ones, some that do invoke slumber, and some who rivet, but all of that really does depend on how we show up.   It depends on whether our hearts and minds are open to hearing, learning, wrestling with, and then staying with it. 

We don’t have to agree with everything, but to be a Christian, we do, I believe have to engage it, be attentive to it, stop zoning out and taking naps during it.  

Another profound thing about that person’s statement is that our spiritual journey, our spiritual growth, our growing in this faith, takes some work and attention on our part.  We can’t just sit back and let God do it all.  

This is part of the miracle of Ascension.  Jesus was raised, he lived, he was alive again, so why didn’t he stay?  Well, on reason could be because he knew the only way the vision he had for the world would take hold, would be if we owned it, took it on, quit passively watching him do all things, teach all things, explain all things, and instead step into all of that ourselves.   Human salvation requires human engagement, cooperation, being awake!

So, I would say, to all of those stepping forward today to go deeper into this faith, this Jesus Movement, through this particular Episcopal branch of it, what you (they) are saying today, and reminding the rest of us in as well, is just that, the truth that we must put something into this.   This is not a passive faith, it is not a spectator endeavor, it requires engagement, study, mindfulness, attention.  

In this final interaction with his disciples Jesus tells them it is now up to them to tell the story, to spread the Good News.   And that is the message, still, today, to all of us. 

So how shall we tell the story? How shall YOU tell the story?  What is important for  you in the gospel, how does it shape you, how does it shape the world? To answer those questions, we have to know the Gospel, we have to know the story.  

When we can answer those questions and express them in word and action, we are telling the story of Christ, and we are living the story of Christ, who blesses us along the way.

To tell the story, we have to know the story, we have to know it not just from Jesus’ time, but also the story that led to and pointed to Jesus.   Learning that completely and knowing it completely is probably more than a life’s task, but it is the work we are called to, in this faith, in this Way, by this Jesus.   

Those stepping forward will make vows this day, and you (they)  will remind us of ours, and hopefully inspire us again to them.   In all of them you are asking that your heart and mind be open to the revelation of Jesus Christ to this world, but more than that, that it spark in you a journey, deep, abiding, and eternal, to know the story, to tell the story, and to live the story.  

Sisters and brothers, may it be so.  I have said these words to you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.