If you’ve had a chance before today’s service to have a look around at the various displays in the church you may have seen this one, here by the pulpit, which I have entitled “Open the door”. It struck me that the story of Holy Week is full of thresholds and barriers of one sort or another which somehow are opened by Christ’s death and resurrection.
There is the curtain in the Temple, torn in two from top to bottom. It hung at the entrance to the Holy of Holies, the place where God was believed to dwell, where only the High Priest could go, and then only once a year on the Day of Atonement. Now, says Mark, anyone can meet with God, and it is God’s own decision that it should be so – the curtain is torn from top to bottom, from heaven to earth, not the other way around.
There’s the stone which was rolled across the tomb where Jesus’ body lay. It was an apparently impossible barrier. On Easter Sunday morning this stone was the main worry of the women who went to anoint Jesus. How were they going to get at the body? These stones were huge and heavy, designed to keep wild animals out as well as people. Whatever you put in a tomb like this stayed there. But as they found, what is impossible for humans is no problem for God. Life breaks out anyway.
And there are two sets of gates in the Passion story as well – implied rather than named, but very much part of Christian tradition – the gates of heaven and of hell. The book of Revelation tells us about those heavenly gates. There are twelve of them in the new Jerusalem of his vision, each one made from a single pearl. The gates, he tells us “will never be shut by day”. Oh, and by the way, he adds, “there will be no night!”
The gates of hell appear in a part of the story of Holy Week which we often miss out, the Harrowing of Hell. It is marked tomorrow on Holy Saturday, when our thoughts are often turning very rapidly to Easter Sunday, which is why it so easily gets lost, but to my mind it is one of the most powerful and important parts of the story. It is mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed and in one tiny verse in the first letter of Peter , (1 Peter 3.19). Jesus descended to the dead, we are told, preaching to the spirits in prison, setting free those who, in Jewish thought at the time of the New Testament inhabited the shadowy underworld of Sheol. Despite its neglect today this story has inspired wonderful poetry and art. A medieval poem by William Langland, The vision of Piers Plowman, is one of my favourites. It begins like this:
Truth said: I hear some spirit
Speaking to the guards of hell,
And see him too, telling them
Unbar the gates. 'Lift your heads
And from the heart
A loud voice spoke.
These gates, Lucifer,
Prince of this land: the King of glory,
A crown upon his head
And at the end we hear these triumphant words,
…. along that light all those
Our Lord loved came streaming out.
The gates of hell don’t prevail. Even those imprisoned there are set free.
And freedom is what the Passion story is really all about. It’s no accident that Jesus was killed at the feast of the Passover, the time when the Jewish people told again the story of their exodus from slavery in Egypt. That’s probably one of the reasons why the Romans were so nervous that Jesus was planning to start a revolt, and so open to the suggestion that it would be a good idea to get rid of him. When people are hearing stories of freedom all around them they are far more likely to start feeling that they would like some too.
For the first Christians the death and resurrection of Jesus brought that ancient story of Exodus up to date, showing them what freedom could look like for them as they built new and open communities in which they could learn to live out Christ’s message. As we hear the story in our own age, it can do the same for us too.
This tale, with its gates, its curtains and its stones, invites us to consider the ways in which we might need to open the door, cross the threshold, break through or break out. We too might find ourselves confronted by stones that seem too heavy to move; domestic and economic circumstances which we feel we can do nothing about, feelings of inadequacy, times when we see only what we can’t do rather than what we can. We might need freeing from some crippling sense of guilt or unhealed hurts which keep us locked behind the gates of a personal hell. We might need freeing from the sense that God could not possibly want us to come close to him, that standing in his presence is “not for the likes of us”. Or we might need freeing from the equally imprisoning self-righteous assumption that we are God’s guardians, and have him safely contained in some Holy of Holies that only we have access to, as the High Priests did at the time of Christ. We might need to find, as they did, that actually, God is already out there, going where he pleases and being with whom he pleases in the person of Jesus. His death is the final, dramatic demonstration of his whole life’s message. He had eaten with tax collectors and prostitutes, touched untouchables, treated Gentiles and women as disciples as worthy of attention as the most learned of rabbis. In Jesus we find a God who is not about to be boxed in by us.
There are all sorts of things we might need freeing from, but it is equally important to consider what we might need freeing for. Those ever-open gates of heaven aren’t just, or even mainly, about what happens after we die. Jesus said little about that. Heaven, for Jesus, was something that was coming here and now. It was about justice, dignity and love in politics, economics, families and friendships. The gates stand open into a new world which starts now – growing from tiny seeds, specks of yeast, sometimes almost invisible, but with the power to transform the world. Do you want to be part of that? say those pearly gates. If so – then come on in.
As you come to this Good Friday, I don’t know what sort of freedom you might need to find in your life, but I do know how important it is to take that longing seriously, because unless we open the door, step over the threshold, we will never know that fullness of life to which God calls us.
I’d like to finish with a poem by Miroslav Holub – it is here in the display – which seems to me to sum it up God’s invitation perfectly.. It is simply called “The door”
Go and open the door.
Maybe outside there’s
a tree, or a wood,
a garden, or a magic city.
Go and open the door.
Maybe a dog’s rummaging.
Maybe you’ll see a face,
or an eye, or the picture of a picture.
Go and open the door.
If there’s a fog
it will clear.
Go and open the door.
Even if there’s only
the darkness ticking,
even if there’s only
the hollow wind,
even if nothing is there,
go and open the door.
At least there’ll be a draught. Miroslav Holub 1923-1998
translated from the Czech by Ian Milner