So every phrase in the Creed is a precise and carefully judged statement of orthodox faith. Today I want to focus on one small segment which personally I always found really difficult when I was a boy in our church choir back home. And it is this: “He descended into hell.” The longer Nicene Creed we most often use at Communion doesn’t include this phrase; it simply says, “He suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again”, in the version used in Common Worship.
But the Apostles’ Creed at morning and evening prayer says that Jesus descended into hell. The Biblical basis for this phrase seems in part to lie in a phrase from one of today’s set readings, the one from chapter three of the First Letter of Peter. In verses 18 to 20, Peter writes: “Christ suffered for our sins once and for all, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God; put to death in the body, he was brought to life in the spirit. In the spirit he also went and made his proclamation to the imprisoned spirits, those who had refused to obey in the past.” That last sentence, about making proclamation to the imprisoned spirits, is quite difficult to interpret, but as I read it I find myself asking - where else would spirits be imprisoned but in hell?
The first part of what Peter writes is clear enough: he tells us that Christ, the one who is just, has gained freedom for those who are unjust, in other words, us, fallen and sinful people. By living a righteous life and dying a righteous death, Jesus has bridged the gap between the righteous God and us his unrighteous people. But then Peter goes on to address a question I’ve generally not thought to ask: where was Jesus, what was he doing, on the day between his burial and his resurrection, the day we call Holy Saturday? The Apostle’s Creed tells us Jesus descended into hell. And here, having written in verse 18 that Jesus “though put to death in the flesh, was “made alive in the Spirit” he goes on to say that in the spirit he made proclamation to the spirits in prison.
Through much of the Old Testament, when thinking about the place of the dead, the Bible speaks of Sheol, the pit, a shadowy place between existence and non-existence. But by the time of Jesus some Jews, the Pharisees for example, had a well-developed belief in life after death, although that wasn’t shared by other groups like the Sadducees. The early Church began to contrast heaven, to which the righteous dead would go, with Hades or hell, the place to which the unrighteous and disobedient would be sent. Peter in this reading uses the usual word for prison, rather than openly speaking of hell, but he surely does mean us to think of hell, for here is where those who persist in disobedience are held.
He tells us that Jesus “gave his proclamation” to those who’d refused to obey in the past; and then speaks about the time of Noah, and of the eight people, Noah and his wife, and his sons and their wives, who passed safely through the flood. For Peter this is a sign of the salvation we receive through baptism, by which we’re brought through water to safety. But it seems the dead are not excluded from the salvation offered to us. Reading on into chapter four and verse 6 Peter writes again that “the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like mortals, they might live in the spirit like God.”
To me this means that there are no limits to the reach of God’s love. The creeds of the Church affirm that only in Jesus do we find a power and a love that can conquer death itself. There’s no limit to what Jesus does for us, there’s no place he won’t go, as he seeks to change our hearts and bring us back to God. Peter tells how God’s righteous servant brings the unrighteous, both living and dead, back within the reach of God’s love, back within the bounds of its saving power. God’s boundless love, the triumph of his Son: this is not limited or conquered, not even by the powers of death and hell. Jesus said to Peter that on this rock he would build his church, to stand so sure that not even the gates of hell could prevail against it.
In a way I’ve always sat a little lightly to creeds. I’m happy to recite them and I believe in what they stand for, but I’m poetic rather than precise in the way I understand the words I say. “Now we see through a glass darkly”, Paul wrote. God is beyond our reach and sight, but we rejoice in the mystery of a love we see in Jesus, love that seeks us out and saves us. The centre of my faith is the relationship of love I’m offered: “What a friend we have in Jesus”, as the hymn puts it. Jesus is love divine, acting to change hearts and lives, acting without limit, going even to hell and back for us. There’s nothing he won’t do, and nothing in life or in death, on earth or even under the earth, can separate us from his love.
Methodists call this Sunday Aldersgate Sunday, the one before the 24th May, when John Wesley’s faith was transformed and his heart “strangely warmed” (as he described it) in a meeting room in Aldersgate Street, London. What was it that warmed his heart that day? Love, pure and simple, love that claims us, love that redeems us, love that sparks our love and enables our witness and service and praise, love without limit. It’s not what you believe that counts, nor is it even the list of good things you do. We are saved through grace, brought home by a love we don’t deserve, by the one who is love without limit, love without end.