"Christ Descended to Lift Us Up"
The Vigil of Easter
1 Peter 3:18-22
April 15, 2006
IN NOMINE JESU
Earlier this evening we confessed our faith in the words of the Apostles' Creed, also known as the Baptismal Creed, for it is confessed at Baptism. This evening we recalled our Baptism, which now saves us. This creed has served as the confession of faith given at one's Baptism since the earliest days of the Church. A predecessor of the Apostles' Creed is what is referred to now as the Old Roman Creed, which had seen recorded use already in the second century, perhaps as early as 125 A.D. The catechumens were given the Creed and the Lord's Prayer at the beginning of Lent, and by the Vigil of Easter, they recited these back to the bishop. At this point they became baptized into the faith and were then admitted to the Lord's Table. Tonight, in remembrance of our Baptism, we recited the Creed (or read it, if you looked at your worship folder). There have been a few revisions to the Creed since its earliest use in Rome to our use of it this evening. For instance, the Old Roman Creed (nicknamed R) did not include a sentence about Christ's descent into hell, a sentence that was introduced in the so-called Aquilean Creed, named after the Roman port city which is now called Aglar on the Austrian coast of the Adriatic Sea, a town destroyed by Attila in 452. This sentence of Christ's descent into hell gained usage in the middle of the fourth century, perhaps in the year 359, as an ancient church historian from that day tells us. Today, by way of ecumenical church councils that met to combat the heresies of their day, we confess these words in the Apostles' Creed and in the Athanasian Creed.
We confess these words, for they come to us from Scripture; they come from our text. The blessed Apostle St. Peter tells us that Christ was "put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water" (vv. 18b-20). Christ preached to the spirits in prison who were disobedient. They were disobedient to God, for they did not believe in Him, and they paid—and are paying—for their sin of unbelief, which at one's death would condemn him. These spirits, these souls of the damned, have been in eternal torment since the days of Noah and the Flood, when God set to destroy the earth and all its wickedness. These Old Adams drowned and died in the waters of the raging Flood. They committed the sin of unbelief in God up to the moment they perished in the water. Such is the case today; anyone who does not confess Christ crucified at the time of his own death, having lived outside God's grace, is in grave danger of joining them in the prison of hell, where they serve their eternal sentence: life in prison without parole, or rather eternal death in hell with no hope of reprieve. These spirits beheld Christ's preaching to them? Why did this happen?
Christ descended into hell, doing so in His resurrected body. He did not hover as a mere spirit, but the Son of David descended into the very domain of the devil and his den of demons to display His defeat over sin, death, and the devil. Christ did not descend into hell to suffer; He suffered hell on the cross, having been forsaken by His Father in heaven. No, Christ descended into hell to proclaim His victory! One Lutheran commentator puts it this way:
In this spirit, in this new spirit-life, glorified and exalted, Christ, the God-man, according to His soul and body, retaining His flesh and blood in a glorified form, went forth, as our triumphant Champion, into the abode of the damned and of the devils, and there proclaimed His victory to the spirits in prison, that is, in hell…. It was a part of the punishment which came upon the condemned and upon the demons in hell that they saw and heard Christ proclaim Himself as the Victor over death and hell, and were obliged to tell themselves that they might have partaken of this glory of the great Hero of mankind, if they had not deprived themselves of this blessing by their revolt against Him and by their unbelief. [Kretzmann]
Thanks be to God that He has given us the victory through Jesus Christ, our risen Lord and Savior, for He has spared us the indignity and condemnation of hell. Christ suffered hell on the cross so that we would not have to go to the cross and die ourselves. Christ descended into hell proclaiming victory so that we would not have to go there ourselves to suffer. Christ died for you. Christ descended victoriously into hell for you. Christ rose from the dead for you. Christ descended into hell, that He would lift you up and draw you to Himself. And now has Christ washed you, even as He cleansed the earth in the great Flood, even as He has cleansed His bride, the Church, for "Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish" (Eph. 5:25b-27).
Your risen Lord has cleansed you through the life-saving, life-giving, and life-changing waters of Holy Baptism, as He has marked you with the sign of the cross, where He won your forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation, and has given you in Holy Baptism and Holy Absolution, which is the daily living of your Baptism. He cleanses you through the preaching of His Word, which He has given its power by His glorious resurrection from the dead, and through His body and blood that He gives you this Eve of Easter. He has emptied the tomb so that you would be filled on His gifts, thanks be to God!
Christ is risen! CHRIST IS RISEN INDEED! ALLELUIA!
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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