The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Monday, May 22, 2017

Spirits in Prison: A Sermon on 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

A Sermon on 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
April 23, 2017
St. Bartholomew’s Church

In Robertson Davies’s novel The Manticore, David Staunton, a Canadian criminal defense attorney, has reached a turning point in his life, after his father’s mysterious death. His father, a business tycoon and former Governor-General of Canada, drove his car off of a pier, with a round stone in his mouth, and drowned in his car.
David’s father had spent the earlier part of that day with an old friend, a schoolmaster, and a new friend, a world-famous magician. The stone had been given to him by his old friend, who identified the stone as one that back when he was a small boy, David’s father had thrown at his old friend, who dodged it, and a woman walking by was struck by it. She went into labor, and the child she gave birth to grew up to be the magician.

After his father’s death, David interrupted the closing act of the magician’s last show of his Canadian tour, a brazen head that would answer audience questions, by asking out loud who had killed his father. As the brazen head answered, David fled the theater, and accused himself of being mad, and needing therapy. He finds himself guilty, and describes all this to the Jungian therapist he sees as his punishment for causing a scene. His analyst suggests that the best way for them to proceed is for him to lay out his life like a legal brief—to plead his case. She explains to him that he should “let it be a brief for the defense; you will inevitably prepare a case for the prosecution as you do so, for that is the kind of court you are to appear in—the court of self-judgment. And Mr. Justice Staunton, will hear all and render judgment.”

David doesn’t want to be his own judge, and asks his analyst if she can be the judge. She refuses, saying “I will be an interested spectator, and…a figure that appears only in military courts, called Prisoner’s Friend. And I shall be an authority on precedents, and germane judgments, and I shall keep both the prosecutor and the defence counsel in check. I shall be custodian of that constant and perpetual wish to render to everyone his due.”

We all of us have to appear in our own courts. We all have to reach conclusions about our own conduct, and to come to grips with those times in our lives when we feel that we have failed, or, worse, done the wrong thing knowing it was wrong. And if, like me, you’ve been raised in a tradition where God is held out to us as our judge, and as the only righteous judge, you may be, like David Staunton, assuming that righteous judge will be very severe.

Your own inner judge may be like David’s “Mr. Justice Staunton,” severe, harsh, all in the name of righteousness. But as David’s doctor reminds him, “a judge is not supposed to be an enemy of the prisoner.”

In today's Gospel, Jesus doesn’t promise us a judge who will be strict and severe with us. He promises us an advocate. In fact, the Advocate, with a capital “A.” And that Advocate, we are explicitly told, is the Holy Spirit itself. Likewise, in the the Epistle, taken form the First letter of Peter, we are told that Jesus “was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which he also went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah.”

Now these two passages have provided grist for an uncountable number of theological mills. The Advocate or the Paraclete has been the subject of whole books, and today’s passage from First Peter has tied up in knots some of the best theologians in the Western tradition; Both St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas westled with it, and in each case it’s frankly like watching a kitten with a ball of yarn. Lots of logic chopping, and sudden movement, but a bit of a mess at the end of the day. Martin Luther just gave up, admitting “a wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage than any other in the New testament, so I do not know for certain just what Peter means.”

So obviously, I can’t give you a simple, authoritative interpretation of either of these texts. But that doesn’t mean these passages have nothing to say to us. Various books of the Bible resound again and again with rhetoric of judgment. But these readings give us good news, when we’re up against our own courts of judgment, and an insight into what God’s judgment is like.
In First Peter, we are confronted with not just an obscure scriptural text but with an uncomfortable one. For one thing, it presupposes the existence and reality of hell. You know, where, as Jesus himself said, "where the worm diet not, and the flame is not quenched. Hell.

Wait a second, we think, hell? Our living God, our teacher Jesus, is threatening us with what the Anglican novelist Susan Howatch once called “the eternal wienie roast?” How can God love all His children, and condemn some unknown number of us to everlasting suffering?

But in fact our reading from Peter today does mention hell, depicting Jesus, between the crucifixion and the resurrection, going to hell, where he “made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah.” This is what’s known as the Harrowing of Hell, the release of souls from hell.

Augustine and Aquinas get tangled up in the questions of how the release of prisoners in hell could mesh with God’s justice, or how the dead can be saved, but ultimately they agree on one thing: Jesus didn’t go to hell to crow over those who were condemned. And he wasn’t taking a victory lap. Jesus went down in some manner to break the chains of hell.

Now just stop for one minute. Never mind whether you believe in hell, or in God sending the wicked to it. Remember hell got its start as the land of the dead, a mythological depiction of the state of death itself, all the way back to The Epic of Gilgamesh, where the dead are depicted as dirty, bedraggled birds chained in place with nothing but dust to drink, and earth to eat.

The point is, in Peter’s telling, the sacrificial love of God, as represented by Jesus does not give up on us, not even after our death. Not even after, under all the theological constructs Peter would have known, there could be no hope. Even then, God wills to save us, to redeem us.

Which brings me to Susan Howatch’s story of the sheepdog trials, in her novel The High Flyer. Howatch recounts a sermon in about judgment, and what it means. She writes that “You can’t talk about judgment without talking about justice—and justice is the other side of love. If we love someone, we want justice for them. We don’t want them to be treated unfairly, we want them to be treated with love and understanding.” Echoing Davies, himself an Anglican, Howatch reminds us that “people so often think of judgment as something severe, but a great judge will weigh up the good points as well as the bad; a great judge will see that real justice is done.”

And so the sheepdog trials. As she tells the story, a man and his little son on vacation in the Lake District see a sign directing them to sheepdog trials. You know, an open-air exhibition of the skills the dogs need to herd sheep, and the best dog receives a medal. The little boy wants to see them, so the father takes him. When it’s all over, the little boy is confused: Where’s the jury, where’s the prosecutor? Shouldn’t the judge have a big bench?

Of course, it’s not that kind of trial. Not at all.

Howatch suggests that God is like the judge of the sheepdog trials, not like an old school hanging judge. And, she concludes that judgment is the process of being loved and healed by our maker after the tempests and traumas of life, “because nothing in the end can separate us from the love God, nothing, of that I’m quite sure.”

Before we accuse her of sentimentality, let’s remember that her last line is a paraphrase of St. Paul, in Romans chapter 8, where he avows that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Let’s also remember that Peter believed that, God doesn’t give up on us on either side of the grave.

And finally, let’s remember that Jesus himself tells us that you are precious enough to God, we are precious enough to God, that God will be your Advocate, our Advocate, as well as our judge.

In our own court, and in God’s we are not undefended. In fact, the judge is the defense counsel, the Prisoner’s Friend—the authority on precedents, and germane judgments, who keeps both sides in check, and strives for both justice and mercy. The judge who remembers that justice is the other side of love. And who loves us far too much to give up on us.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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