Good Friday Sermon and Easter Sermon, 2017 by Randy Klassen
photo above: Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
WN: Randy Klassen is an esteemed member of the CoSA Canada Board, and past National Restorative Justice Coordinator for the Mennonite Central Committee Canada. That position and others were sadly eliminated due to financial restructuring at MCCC in the 2019/2020 fiscal year. The NRJC position was first created (originally binational) in 1976, and held by Edgar Epp.
I had that position with MCCC from 1989 to 1998. It was a period of significant growth of Restorative Justice across Canada and worldwide. For MCCC’s 50th Anniversary, I presented a brief paper about that at the University of Winnipeg. A copy is on this site here. I’m currently publishing a series of books on that theme called Justice That Transforms.
Randy’s loss of position is a great loss to Restorative Justice as well. Many hope and pray his contributions will continue indefinitely in other ways. One example of such are two finely crafted sermons he shared this Easter with his fellow CoSA Canada Board members. Both were written with criminal justice/restorative justice the context.
My addition?: a thunderous AMEN!!!
I have also linked this page with commentary to Easter Song- Keith Green on this site.
The sermons are copied in full below, with Randy’s permission. Each title is as well a hotkey to the PDF version.
Edmonton Inter-Mennonite Gathering – Good Friday 2017
April 14, 2017
Our Lord began his public ministry with the prophetic word:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. (Lk 4.18.19)
Jesus began his work with a promise of release to the captive, a word of hope for the prisoner. Today, I want us to ponder this remarkable fact: that he concluded his earthly ministry by identifying with the prisoner, by entering fully into the experience of the criminal, by becoming himself a convict.
This morning we are gathered in the shadow of the Cross, that dead-end of the convict’s journey, as dealt out by Roman justice. There are many ways to enter into this story, to discern its divine meaning for us on this holy day. I want to explore the story with you through the lens of “restorative justice.” I’ll be saying more about what this is at tomorrow’s session, and we’ll tell some stories old and new; but we might say, for now, that restorative justice is that place that where God’s Kingdom intersects with the justice systems of our world.
I’m still early on in my discoveries of this area of ministry. But the story of Jesus’ death is a story fraught with issues of justice. And so we gather in the shadow of the Cross, to listen to the words of our Saviour, as a victim of imperial Roman justice.
1. “Father, forgive!”
We join the criminal procession in its final stages. Capital punishment is often portrayed as a deterrent to crime. The Romans (like most ancients) knew that that would only have an effect as a public spectacle. Jesus and the other criminals are led out to a very public place, in view of the city limits, for this ultimate humiliation. The gospel writers do not describe the act at all; it was well known to all who lived under the Pax Romana, Rome’s so-called reign of peace—and it was too gruesome for words.
Jesus, tied to the cross, nailed through wrist and ankle, utters the unthinkable, and unforgettable: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” I suspect the Roman soldiers who overheard the pained petition just sneered. What kind of delusion is this guy under? He’s the one who doesn’t know…. I’m just doing my job. No forgiveness needed here! I’m just doing my part to keep the wheels of justice turning, in this great Roman Empire. If anyone needs the mercy of the gods, it’s him, not me!
In truth, Rome did have an amazing legal system. Two thousand years later, it remains the fundamental source of European (and therefore Canadian) justice systems; ask any lawyer how much Latin they use as technical terms in their practice. The Roman justice system was pretty much the best the world had yet seen… and yet, here, in the trial of Christ, it was turned upon itself. It became a system of injustice. It was unmasked.
For Roman law is based on power and coercion. It aimed primarily at public order, at social control, and not at justice for all. In truth, the Pax Romana, the “peace” of Rome, was built on a foundation of military might and the threat of crucifixion. Behind the façade of Rome’s imperial peace lay a huge and blood-stained machinery.
What happens when we discover that our world is similarly tainted? …That our social infrastructure, the things that make for stable communities and orderly society, indeed our own success, our “peace,” is similarly complicit in harm and even violence? What happens when we see that the foundations of our world are skewed to the core, are no less bloodstained than Rome?
These are some things I’m learning…
We have, in this country, what we call the Correctional Service. Therefore its aim is to “correct” people that have committed crimes, and rightly so. It’s main method of correcting is to send people to “penitentiaries” –that is, places whose aim is to make “penitents,” people who repent—who are sorry for what they’ve done and are willing to make amends. This is good, and we should pray every day that the system lives up to its name. Yet despite the good intentions of many good people in the system, the system itself tends to crush people, and to reduce their ability to return successfully to their community.
For example: At the heart of “correction” is the need for people to take responsibility for their harmful actions. Yet, in most prisons, life is so regimented, so fully structured from waking to sleeping, that the inmate has no opportunity for meaningful decision making. How do you learn responsibility under those conditions?
The system works on the staff as much as the on the inmates. I’ve had the opportunity to visit a “Healing Lodge” near Saskatoon several times. These are minimum security prisons that are built around Indigenous cultural principals. These are quite progressive places for the inmates—and also very hard for guards coming in from other institutions. I’ve heard it more than once: the experience of treating an inmate as a fellow human being—first name basis, walking beside, rather than behind—was too much to handle for guards transferring to the Healing Lodge from the big Prince Albert Pen. After a few weeks, they found themselves so wound up that they left—they couldn’t handle the expectation of being in a positive relationship with the inmates. Only after returning to the crushing realities of the larger PA Pen, did they try to make the shift a second time, because they knew how much the work was destroying their own soul. And so they returned to the Healing Lodge as staff. And eventually discovered their own humanity alongside that of the inmates there.
Corrections is only one part of the larger world of our Canadian justice system. I hope you haven’t had to spend time working through the justice system (at least, as a victim or an offender; if you’re a lawyer or other servant in the system, may God bless you daily with wisdom). There’s much to be grateful for—it’s a good system; and yet, there are similar systemic issues that are very troubling. One of these issues is that victim and offender must in principle be kept far apart. There are reasons for this; but there are unintended consequences that often block true justice.
If you’ve been a victim of crime, you know that in important ways, the victim is set aside. Crimes are transformed into an abstract concept—an offense against the Crown. Even where there are “victims services” present (which are available through police or community agencies), there are lots of ways in which victims are left with a less than satisfactory role in the process. They are often denied answers to basic questions after an incident. They find it hard to get what they need to rebuild a sense of security when they’ve been violated.
And the offender: the offender is made to pay an abstract penalty – usually measured in time (months or years in prison), sometimes in money. But this time or money is rarely (if ever) directed towards repairing the actual harm against the original victim.
One of the greatest surprises for me is the paradox of “innocent until proven guilty.” This is challenged and compromised at a basic level by the criminal justice system. This is what happens: when people are arrested, they either released on bail, or kept in prison. Those kept in prison, awaiting trial, are in what’s called remand. This is all common sense, right? But, that also means that while legally innocent they are incarcerated.
Sometimes people in remand are kept together in prisons with convicted criminals; this poses a challenge, since they are excluded from the kind of programming that the convicts can take. Some places have dedicated remand centres—and you probably know that Edmonton has the newest and largest remand centre in Canada (with a capacity of 1950 people). It may only be a coincidence, but Alberta also has the highest remand rates in the country: fully 70% of prisoners are waiting trial—incarcerated before proven guilty. It’s a troubling paradox that bedevils our justice system.
One last troubling area—this extends far beyond the particulars of the justice system, but it has profound implications for how we administer justice as a nation. After 150 years of this beautiful country of Canada, we are slowly waking up to the reality of serious cracks in our national foundations. The very fabric of our amazing country, the freedoms that welcomed my grandparents as immigrants to the wide open west, are built on foundations that are steeped in injustice.
Our prisons have been called “the new residential schools.” I can tell you what that looks like in Saskatchewan: in our province as a whole, 1 out of 6 people is Indigenous. In our jails, 8 out of 10 are Indigenous. I can’t tell you what Alberta’s stat is on that, because it seems Alberta is the only province that doesn’t track these things.
There are cracks in our national foundations—and they have names: Indian Residential Schools; The Indian Act. The reserve pass system. Maybe you know (those of you with long memories), that Canada passed the Human Rights Act in 1977, aimed at ending discrimination. Did you know that the final sentence of that law, made in 1977, said: “nothing in this act affects any provision of the Indian Act.” In other words, Canadian human rights can’t be applied to the Indian Act. And that line was removed only 9 years ago.
Let’s go one level deeper yet: the so-called “Doctrine of Discovery.” This is the legal principle declared by Pope Alexander in 1493 that only Christians were fit to rule in the New World. Any territory inhabited by non-Christian peoples was declared “empty territory”, ready to be occupied and claimed by Christian Europeans. This is still the legal basis, 500 years later, for why those of us who are homeowners have legal title to our land. At its heart, this is a legal and theological statement rooted in racism that should be deeply troubling to any Christian.
* * * * *
These are a few examples of the what lies behind “public safety” and “the public good”– the things that allow us to live the safe, productive, and generally enjoyable lives that we live. From an ethical point of view, how far off are we from the obedient soldiers who pounded the nails into Jesus’ hands? We are soldiers marching to the beat of an empire we abhor; we are captives in a prison of our own making. Ultimately, through our ordinary, polite Canadian lives, we are also the ones hammering nails into the hands of our Creator.
As an old song says:
Behold the Man upon a cross, my sin upon His shoulders;
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers.
And Jesus, wincing in pain, prays out, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Jesus prays for the oppressor. Jesus prays for us.
These words do not undo the injustices. Jesus’ forgiveness is not a word of reconciliation or of rebuilding – but it points to the possibility of such work. The word “forgive” offers release—release of guilt. It removes from our shoulders the paralyzing weight of guilt, so that we can begin the work of reconciliation. The limitless love of God offered in Jesus frees us and gives us new eyes, eyes to see the tragedies of the world from a new and divine perspective. And that takes us to the second and final scene of our text: the conversation of the convicts.
2. “With me in Paradise”
a) a fellowship of criminals
We overhear the conversation between the two other criminals, hanging on either side of Jesus. I don’t know if you have had much opportunity to visit with people in prison. I’ve had the privilege, for the last year and half now. Sometimes it’s quite enjoyable: it feels like a conversation you could have in any coffee shop, talking childhood memories, favourite foods, what your family is up to. At other times, I find it rather disturbing, whether it’s about the abuse the person experienced from others, or things that the person did to others. Vile and violent things can emerge in such conversations.
In Jesus’ final hour, he converses with his fellow criminals. He takes time to acknowledge them, to interact with them, to listen and respond. It’s a powerful moment, and Jesus is fully present and attending.
There is mystery written all over this interaction. First and foremost is the eternal mystery of how people respond to Jesus: some reject him, and some are drawn to him. For those of us who are drawn to Jesus, and yet have loved ones, friends and family who reject him, this mystery is full of pain. How is it that the grace of God reaches some, and is invisible to others? And yet Jesus remains present to both.
Then there’s the mystery in the one convict’s request of Christ. Later tradition names him “Dysmas,” which means “sunset”—that profound time of day (or life) that signals an ending, and yet that can be such an epiphany, a moment of beauty and revelation. This criminal, in his sunset hours, sees through the mockery of the Roman charge against Jesus, “king of the Jews.” He recognizes in Jesus a royal dignity and power. He has eyes of faith, eyes that see what God is doing, despite all appearances. He perceives Jesus proclaiming liberty to the captives, even as Jesus himself is now captive to the point of death.
The pastor and theologian Karl Barth, speaking in a Good Friday service exactly 60 years ago, speaking in a Swiss prison chapel, had this to say:
Here they hang all three, Jesus and the criminals, one at the right and one at the left, all three exposed to the same public abuse, to the same interminable pain, to the same slow and irrevocable death throes. These two companions were evidently and undeniably criminals, evil people, godless people, unjust people. And [Christ], like them, was condemned and sacrificed as a lawbreaker, a criminal. All three were under the same verdict. This was the first Christian fellowship, the first certain, indissoluble and indestructible Christian community. Christian community is manifest wherever there is a group of people close to Jesus who are with him in such a way that they are directly and unambiguously affected by his promise. … We are such people, all of us—you in this house which is called a prison—[and] those of us outside who have different experiences yet are, believe me, in the same predicament. In reality we all are these people, these crucified criminals. And only one thing matters now: are we ready to be told what we are? Are we ready to hear the promise given to the condemned?
b) the New Creation
“Remember me, when you come into your kingdom!” And this is Jesus’ simple promise: “Truly, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Why “paradise,” we might wonder? Why not “in my Kingdom” or even “in heaven”? We might think these are all the same—but “paradise” has a very particular nuance. It means, quite specifically, the Garden of Eden. It speaks to the Jewish hope that our original earthly home will be recreated and become our future home. Eden was—is—a place of complete shalom: wholeness and fullness in every dimension of human life: relationship with God, with our neighbours, with ourselves, with the land. A place of fruitfulness, of peace, of joy. Of freedom—all the things that we were designed and destined for. A place as utterly unlike prison as one can imagine.
And—here’s the point: many Jews imagined that when God came to redeem his people, Paradise would be revealed in Jerusalem itself, the Holy City. The Tree of Life would be planted in the Temple itself. In other words: Paradise would show up in the smelly, noisy, volatile Jerusalem that stood behind the stone walls that frowned over the site of Golgotha. The Jerusalem whose crowds stood jeering, as Jesus and the other two criminals hung dying. Dysmas, Mr Sunset, is starting to see with eyes of faith—starting to recognize that Jesus is a king unlike any other. That Jesus can offer hope even in the most hopeless of places, even from the most hopeless of places. He is the King who identifies not just with the commoners of his realm—he descends to the depths. He becomes one with the criminal. That is what the eyes of faith are starting to see.
In his promise, Jesus offers the thief an even greater vision: the city of injustice, the city that rejects God, is not too far gone to become the Paradise of God, not too far gone to become the New Creation. If even a Roman instrument of execution can become a place of sunset epiphany, is there anything God cannot do? is there any place God cannot work? is there any person God cannot redeem?
And so, Jesus dies for the sins of the world—for my sins, for yours, for our community’s sins, and our nation’s. We are broken people, living in a broken world. Tragedy is everywhere. But Jesus, as he dies, offers us an invitation in the midst of our brokenness. He offers us a vision of a new way of perceiving, and serving. He proclaimed freedom to the captive—and then followed his message to the heart of the prison itself. Dying between the criminals, Jesus is offering us his invitation. Are we ready to receive it, and follow Him?
Lendrum M.B. Church, Edmonton – Easter Sunday 2017
The Resurrection Handshake
April 16, 2017
Christ is risen! We’re gathered to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus: the source of our life, the source of our hope, the source of our joy as believers. It’s why we gather, week after week—to remember and re-encounter this event that reshaped history, and redefines the story of our lives.
The resurrection, I’ll admit, is also a holy puzzle.
Some of you’ve travelled to Jerusalem. You’ve been to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus’ burial and arising. And if you’ve been there, you’ve experienced what a puzzle that place is. It’s an architectural conundrum. A maze of chapels and hallways, domed spaces and hidden balconies. When I visited it, three years ago, I was bewildered by its architectural mishmash.
And then I had an aha! experience: as a building, it beautifully mirrors the bewildering variety of the Bible’s resurrection texts themselves.
It is no mean feat to try to make sense of the four gospel resurrection texts, put side by side. They seem to each go in their own direction. Yet they are all built around the same, unique event. All structured around that same historical singularity that is larger than history itself. The power of Jesus’ resurrection unleashes a new experience of God’s presence and welcome: a door is opened. The puzzle of the resurrection outlines how elusive Jesus can be. He appears, disappears, reappears—mighty as a lion, yet ephemeral as a firefly.
The gospels agree that the risen Jesus is elusive. Even so, his brief, occasional appearances were enough to enough to change the hearts of his followers, and enough to get the stories flowing. The disciples tell different stories – stories of fishing; stories of a gardener; stories of a remote hill-top gathering. Each of these offer a different glimpse into this glorious truth: Christ is risen! Some speak of forgiveness and reconciliation; some speak of trust beyond sight; some speak of Jesus’ continuing Kingdom mission.
This morning, I want to direct our gaze toward another story of the resurrection. Like Jesus himself, this story is elusive. Like Jesus himself, this story only shows up in brief cameos, barely glimpsed as we walk (figuratively speaking) those crooked, crowded, confusing Middle Eastern pathways of words that make up our gospel texts. This story that I want to tell, however, became one of the most important stories of the early church, and I believe it has truth for us today, as we ponder the divine criminal, crucified and risen.
1. Matthew 27: resurrection before the Resurrection?
The first glimpse of this story comes during the crucifixion itself. Matthew, and only Matthew, mentions some remarkable events in his description of Jesus’ death: earthquakes, rocks split, tombs opened, saints raised, and strolling the streets of Jerusalem. What are we to make of this? The text isn’t difficult —but its interpretation sure is. Some say it’s just a naïve legend. (I disagree.) Some may say this is poetic justice, or a prophetic vision. What is remarkable about this description is that it blurs the lines between the death moment and the resurrection moment. Listen again to the central phrase:
“many bodies of the… saints were raised, and after the resurrection they left their tombs and entered into the Holy City” (27.50).
If we want to ask, in our typical Western scientific mindset—“so what exactly happened here, and in what order?” we will be confounded. And I’m good with that. I think we need a bit more confounding. For what we’ve got, in the resurrection of Christ, is a new divine dimension of life exploding in on us. It’s something larger than history, something larger than the cosmos itself, shoe-horned into one specific, focused moment of life in first century Palestine. Of course it should shatter all categories. Of course it will confound our minds. What Matthew is telling us—and this becomes the first clue to the story we’re chasing—is that the lines between Jesus’ death and Jesus’ resurrection are blurred. Something’s going on behind the scenes.
We can be skeptics if we like—but let’s at least acknowledge that we’re being skeptics, that we are being dutiful disciples of rationalism, of empiricism, of the scientific method. So I want to be skeptical of my skepticism, and listen with open ears and open heart to what Matthew is saying to his ancient audience. Something major is going on behind the scenes, while Jesus hangs dead on the cross, and then buried in the tomb. To all appearances, Easter is happening even on Good Friday.
This is the beginning of this other Easter story we’re tracking: Something “Eastery” is happening, behind the scenes. It involves the dead—the “saints,” they’re called, and it’s good news for them as much as the Sunday morning surprise at the tomb is good news for the living. And the message I hear from the Word is this: The resurrection of Jesus is earth-shaking, even world-changing. Even today, it opens doors that seem impossibly barred. It is stronger than our greatest fears—stronger even than death. Life is everywhere.
2. Ephesians 4: journey to “the lower parts”
The next clue that points towards this story is found in Ephesians. Paul is talking about the church, and the way Jesus gives gifts to the church for our mission. And he draws on an ancient biblical song, Psalm 68, about the triumphant warrior king.
“Each one of us has received a special gift in proportion to what Christ has given. As the Scripture says: when he went up on high, he led a host of captives; he gave gifts to people.” Which is a stunning contrast to the image of Jesus as a convicted criminal, a “royal pretender.” Paul portrays Jesus as the true King, victorious and generous, returning to his throne in a scene of ascendant triumph. The message of the text is clear: the resurrection provides God’s people with the gifts they need to fulfill our divine mission. And then Paul throws in a little aside… about as confounding as Matthew’s statement:
“Now, what does “he went up” mean? It must mean that he also descended into the lower parts of the earth. So the one who descended is the One who ascended above and beyond the heavens, to fill the whole universe with his presence.” (Eph 4.9-10)
The confounding phrase is “the lower parts of the earth.” Interpretations vary—but most early church readers understood this as something other than “low elevations” (like the Dead Sea, at 1200 ft below sea level).
No, they took it as the lowest regions of human existence—the realm of the dead. And this is how this phrase was understood early on. In fact, the Greek term from Ephesians was taken into the Apostles’ Creed: “He descended into the lower regions.” This got translated into Latin, and then into the unfortunate English version: “He descended into hell.” This has often been a troubling statement, a theological stumbling block—some churches have wanted to remove that line from the Apostles’ Creed. People hear the word “hell”, and they generally think “incinerator of the damned.”—not what the Apostles’ Creed is meaning to say.
It refers to the “underworld” as the OT regularly describes it: Sheol, a place of gloom, a place of waiting. It’s the darkness of death for its denizens; but “even the darkness is not dark for you, O God, and the night is as bright as the day” (Ps 139). The Apostles’ Creed really means (and is now often translated): “he was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again…”
So what does this say to us? That Jesus entered fully into every nook and cranny of human existence. Not just the beautiful parts, the mountain-top experiences, the spiritual highs, the pristine moments of worship. Jesus entered the depths, the dank basements of our lives. Those places full of secrets, full of stuff we’d rather ignore, full of pain, full of death. Even today, Jesus is ready and willing to clean out the deepest basement, the darkest closet of our lives. And as he comes back up, he brings out gifts, and transforms the world into a place of generosity and treasure. Grace is everywhere.
3. 1 Peter: preaching in prison
To summarize the first two cameo appearances of this story: We discover Jesus doing something “Eastery” even before his own resurrection. And we discover Jesus descending to the world’s basement. A third elusive hint arises in a statement from 1 Peter. In chapter 3, we read:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit, in which he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah… (IPet 3.18-20a)
I will not pretend that this is an easy text for any interpreter. At one level it doesn’t even jive with Mt’s statements: these are “disobedient spirits,” while Matthew talks about the “saints.” But it probably makes more sense to those who think like the Old Testament, than it does for us. And it is certainly part of the Easter story. What this verse said to the early Church builds on the other statements: that Jesus was up to something while he was dead and buried; that Jesus descended to the world’s lowest parts. This verse of Peter’s adds two elements: first, it intensifies the image of the underworld as a prison, and second, it outlines the activity of Jesus in this dungeon.
As we saw on Good Friday: Jesus makes the prison a key venue of his ministry: he starts his ministry with the statement “The Spirit has anointed me…to proclaim liberty to the captive.” Jesus makes the prison a key venue for his ministry, because prison is a hopeless place. From an OT perspective, prison is a fitting image for the underworld, the grave: without hope, without a future, with no ability to open the door from the inside. Jesus speaks good news to the spirits in prison, news of hope, words of new life. Do they “deserve” it? No—of course not; otherwise it’s not grace. It’s good news—unexpected, undeserved, and all the more life-giving because of it. This verse says the Easter message is good news that goes everywhere—even to the dankest hellhole of the cosmos.
4. Telling the story
To recap… these are the gospel truths we are discovering this Easter morning:
From Matthew: Christ is risen with earth-shattering power—nothing that he wants open will remain closed. Life is everywhere.
From Ephesians: Christ is risen with a mission to clean out the darkest basement of our lives. Grace is everywhere.
From 1 Peter: Christ is risen to bring good news to the captives.Rescue is everywhere. These verses, and many others, inspired the first generations of Christians, to ponder the deeper implications of the resurrection. Our elders in Christ, the early Church— they took these truths, and fashioned it into a story. Here’s an example of what it sounded like a few centuries later. We might call it “devotional fiction,” but it spread widely as an integral part of the gospel.
In one 3rd-century version, Joseph of Arimathea is speaking, post resurrection, with the high priests Annas and Caiaphas. Joseph is debating the marvels of Jesus’ rising, including this event of the opening of the tombs of the saints. He calls attention to two tombs in particular, the two sons of old Simeon, that elder saint who had blessed the infant Jesus. Simeon and his two sons have long died. But the two sons were raised from the dead—they are back in Arimathea, “dwelling together in prayer, yet they speak with no man, but are silent as dead men.” And while they don’t speak, they are persuaded to write of their experiences. They write of sitting in darkness, with all their ancestors in the gloomy realm of the dead. “A light began to shine afar off” they said, “and our father Simeon spoke again his prophecy:
‘Now my eyes have seen they salvation… a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of your people Israel.’
And then John the Baptist shows up, the Forerunner of the Messiah, to announce the approach of the victorious King. Meanwhile, Satan and Hades (Death personified) start to talk, and to argue and bicker. Satan is salivating, he’s so excited—he’s about to swallow his enemy whole! Hades is not so sure about this—this is the same Man that stole from him already, raising Lazarus and several others from the power of Hades.
As they are arguing, “suddenly there came a voice as of thunder” from outside the fortress of Hades:
“Open your gates, and be lifted up, you everlasting doors, and the King of Glory will come in!”
The Lord himself breaks down the doors, and enters in to rescue the captives. “Then the King of Glory trampled upon death, bound Satan and delivered him to the power of Hades, and shining gloriously, drew Adam to himself.” He extends his hand, reaching down first to Adam and then to Eve, the parents of our race, and in the brightness of his resurrection glory, Jesus draws them up and leads them out of captivity. After them follows an unnumbered host of the righteous, the prophets and patriarchs, the fathers and mothers of the faith following in triumph. As they parade out through the broken down gates of Hades, David picks up his harp and begins to sing:
Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvellous things!
His right hand, his holy arm, has achieved the victory.
There’s one final scene in the story: triumphant Jesus leads the host of captives out through the gates of Hades and on to Paradise, to the verdant fields of the Garden of Eden, which has been hidden in the spirit-realm, waiting to be revealed in the last days. Jesus leads them past the angel who has barred the way since our parents were first expelled. The host arrives, and discovers two men there, waiting for them: Enoch, and Elijah. And there is a third, standing with them: who looks much rougher, “vile” even, and he has the marks of a cross on his shoulders… It is, of course, the repentant thief, Dysmas, “Mr Sunset,” ready to welcome all
the rest into a new and eternal Day.
* * * * *
This is the Easter story as it took root in the ancient church. In the Middle Ages, it was called “the harrowing of Hell” – the plundering of the underworldly prison, the overturning of the realm of the dead, the rescue of the captives. This is the story of the conquering King who leaves no stone unturned to redeem his Beloved, no hellhole unexplored to rescue his Creation. Every time this Easter story is told, every time this Easter image is painted in sacred art, we see the resurrection handshake—the rescuing hand of Jesus, reaching out to Adam and Eve, pulling them from their tombs, leading them back into Paradise, opening up the way for all. For Christ is risen, and in his hour of triumph he extends to each and every one of us his resurrection handshake.
* * * * *
Charles Wesley, the great hymn writer, took this story and wrote his own version as a personal testimony. It’s among my most favourite of hymn verses. In these lyrics, I hear the words of Lazarus, I hear the words of Matthew’s risen saints, I see the powerful image of the Harrowing of Hell:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
fast bound in sin, and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
>Amazing love! How can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me!
* * * * *
Jesus came, and Jesus comes, to set the prisoners free. In his death, he joins the criminals of the world, to experience the worst our world could throw at him. He bore our sins in his body on the cross—sins of commission, sins of omission. And today, on this holy day of celebration, we see that he indeed opens prison doors and sets the captives free. This is the day of the resurrection handshake.
There’s only one thing left. We’ve been given this gift of welcome so that we can pass it on. That is how we live in the glorious light of resurrection. By extending the same life-giving hope, the same offer of welcome, the same transforming fellowship of Christ to others. This is our mission, this is our spiritual lifeblood: to pass on the resurrection gifts that we have received.
As you do this, here in Edmonton and wherever your path takes you, I would invite you, please don’t forget those who are literally the prisoners of our land. There’s a great need for resurrection handshakes in our courts and youth justice centres, in our prisons and remand centres, in the dark and oppressive basements of our national house.
Jesus came to set the prisoners free. May we always follow close in his footsteps!