How Can We Share in Christ's Victory Over Sin, Suffering and Death?

Sometimes we call the Sacraments (i.e. Holy Communion, Unction, Penance) “Means of Grace.” This is a peculiar, but very useful way to speak about these great gifts of Christ to his people. What is meant by the word “means” is simply that they are a way or conduit for something, which is of course God’s grace to us in Christ Jesus. “Means of Grace” are the touch stones, or pin point locations where God has promised to be, bestowing his gifts to those who seek him there. This is not to say that they are the only places where he can be found doing this of course, but rather that these are places where all people can find him. The other places we often find him in our day to day lives are unique to us as individuals but in these seven places (the seven Sacraments) he can be found by all, for all. These “Means” are of course not the only place we can and do find grace. God’s grace is poured out upon all people all their whole lives long. Before we even know our need of it grace often is already there as a tool that God uses to lead and guide us to himself. But the Sacraments are places that are definitive places we can flee to when we are lost or cannot see or hear God’s call to us through the every day grace in the lives we live.

Now what has that got to do with the question before us?! Everything! In fact Sacraments (and in particular one Sacrament as we shall see) are the places where Christ is sharing with us his own victory over sin, suffering, and death, that is to say they are where he is bestowing his grace freely and for all. Each and every one of the Sacraments applies God’s grace, and therefore each and everyone of them bestows the forgiveness which Christ won for us in his victory on the Cross. In fact the giving of grace, and the forgiveness of sins is part and parcel of what it means for something to be a Sacrament. The place we see this most clearly is in the first of all Sacraments, that is Holy Baptism.

Much has been made in modern times about Baptism’s ability to incorporate the individual into the whole, that is to say, to make us members of the church. This is a very good thing indeed! In fact this is why the proper place to a baptismal font is near the entrance to the church. It is also why we put stoops of Holy Water near the doors of the church, to remind us that through our own baptisms we gained entrance to Christ’s body. However, there is something much more important that goes on in Baptism without which none of us could ever gain entrance into the church or be one with Christ.

That “something” is called Baptismal regeneration. It means that we are born anew or again in the waters of Baptism (John 3:5,6). In Baptism our old life of sin is brought to an end and a new rises with Christ (Romans 6:4). Just as he won life by losing his own, so we if we are willing to live a new and eternal life in him must be willing to die to self and rise to Christ the Life of the world. We must die to our sinful ways and the only way we are able to do that is through the power of forgiveness. It was forgiveness that Jesus won in his victory over sin, suffering, and death. Not his own of course but ours, and it is through forgiveness (which is nothing more or less than grace applied directly to us) that we can and must die and rise with Christ.

What people don’t like about this concept and why it is so often downplayed today is the knowledge that we must first repent of what we are and have been. Even the sweet baby in the white gown, little bonnet, and tiny shoes who is brought to the font has to repent to get this life. Because all of us are born with a fatal inclination to sin, and indeed are “sinful from birth” (Psalm 51:5) we must renounce through repentance what we have been in order to be what Jesus would have us be. We have to cast the old shackles of slavery to sin, death, and the devil behind us, overthrow their rule in our lives and own Jesus as our one and only King. It isn’t a pleasant thought to think that we are born under that dominion, or indeed that we may return to it if we do not continue to live in the grace of which Baptism is a means. However, there can be no victory unless there is someone to win and someone or something to loose, and who better to loose but Satan, who is himself the author of sin, suffering, and death?! Only through Baptism can we be the victors and Satan be the looser, only through forgiveness in Baptism, through Baptismal regeneration (1 Peter 3:21). 

Jesus has won for us a very great victory indeed by passing himself through sin, suffering, and death though he did not deserve them. We can and will share this victory with him only if we are baptized and daily live in the promises of that Baptism. So just as we return to the font when we enter the door of the church, so we must spiritually always return to the place where God has shared his victory with us, granted us his costly grace by freely forgiving us, raised us to a life that will never end, and made us his own for ever. Beginning with Holy Baptism but not ending there God guides us with the grace that comes through the forgiveness of sins all our days. One Sacrament leads to another guiding us through a life of repentance, forgiveness, and growth in holiness. So guided, governed, and loved God at last calls us to share completely in his Victory, he gives it to us so that it becomes our own, for we are “one with him and he with us” (See the Prayer of Humble Access). So thank God for the means of grace, thank God for the places he has promised to be, thank God “who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Corinthians 15:57).

 

Posted by The Rev. Matthew Frick with

What Do We Mean When We Say He Descended to the Dead?

This arguably most oblique of affirmations in the Apostles’ Creed brings to my mind scenes from two cult classics, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” and “The Princess Bride;” each will be instructive to explore the meaning of the phrase “he descended to the dead.”

First, in the film, “The Princess Bride,” the main love interest, Wesley, is declared by a magician to be “only mostly dead.” This soothsayer continues, “there’s a big difference between ‘mostly dead’ and ‘all dead.’” At least in this, the wizard speaks the truth. To proclaim that Jesus “descended to the dead,” we affirm that Jesus Christ was “all dead,” really and truly, “completely dead.” None of this catatonic state nonsense, or some kind of trance that he then fell out of a few days later when he busted his bandages and walked out of the tomb. Jesus the Christ was not only buried, but got down into the lowest point of humanity -- death itself.

The significance of coming into the state of being completely dead is that Jesus was then able to free those who were imprisoned in death. An early Church Father uses this analogy: it is as if a king descends to the dungeon to unlock the cells and break apart the fetters that hold the prisoners in captivity. He does not descend to the dungeon restrained by crimes that sent him there, but of his free will and for the purpose of using his position to bring those confined out into freedom and light. One might even understand this descent to be the beginning of resurrection, dragging those who would accept his help and healing along with him up to new life.

I’ve promised you not one theological revelation-through-film but two, and so here is the second. In “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” there is a scene ostensibly captured during the great bubonic plague in England; a cart muddles through a crowded village street, gathering dead bodies like modern recycling trucks. A gong is hit, “Bring out yer dead!” shouts the government employee, and a man carries another over his shoulder up to the drop point. The one carried famously protests, “I’m not dead yet!” (https://youtu.be/Jdf5EXo6I68) while gong-hitter soon dispatches his mallet to resolve the situation.

Surely this exposes my perverse sense of morality, but the most offensive part of the scene strikes me as this passing of the buck -- the man brings his mostly-dead offering and punts the landing of the final blow to somebody else. This brings to the fore another significant point implicit in “he descended to the dead:” God did not pass the buck.

Jesus himself descended to the dead. The King took his own self down to the dungeons, the smelly, dank, sin-ridden pit of desolation and brought up those who would follow him. Rather than sending an emissary to muck out the stalls of Sheol and slam the door on the devil, God took the trip himself, and did so in the most extraordinary way.

It seems that the only way to descend “to the dead,” which, it is generally agreed, is not another word for “heaven,” or a desireable eternal resting place, is through death. Those souls who were already descended to this place of the dead had gotten there of their own volition -- for the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23) -- but Jesus descended to the dead despite his innocence. In going to “the dead” in impunity, he used his freedom to free those imprisoned by their own sin-bought deaths.

So, to those of us already dead in our sin (Colossians 2:13; Ephesians 2:1-6), God himself “descended to the dead” to bring us up to new life through his grace. And so, our new life comes not from protesting, “I’m not dead yet!” but through acknowledging that in our disobedience, we are truly, “completely dead” but for Jesus’ descent to the dead and harrowing of hell for the sake of our life and salvation.

 

Posted by The Rev. Emily Hylden with

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