Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 22, 2015
1 Peter 3:18-22 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions
As I move through the lectionary year again and again, I often think that someone needs to revise the Revised Common Lectionary because it can be so repetitive. Take this text as case in point. Just 10 months ago, this was the text for the Fifth Sunday of the Easter season. Now it is the text for the first Sunday of Lent. Surely there are enough texts in the Bible related to these magnificent festivals that we don’t need to return to the same ones again and again. That’s what the curmudgeonly preacher in me says.
But then I look at this text not through my bright Easter eyes, but through my tearful Lenten eyes, and I see a very different message. Such in the richness of God’s unchangeable Word and the complexity of a swiftly changing world. It is still a text that speaks to suffering, unjust suffering, suffering that comes upon God’s people not only in spite of their righteousness, but precisely because of their righteousness. Verse 14 says, “even if you should suffer for what is right,” and verse 17 continues, “It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” Some scholars want to apply Peter’s words to any unjust human suffering, but Peter’s words of comfort to those who suffer are so clearly Christian that he must be addressing the problem of the incipient persecution of the church. Perhaps that persecution was a response not to the preaching of the Gospel, as some claim, but rather to the lifestyle of ordinary Christians. They suffered not for their testimony, but for the way they lived, for “doing good,” like taking care of orphans and widows or not participating in idol feasts. Whatever the case, these were Christians who suffered not merely as human beings, but specifically as Christians.
When I wrote on this text 10 months ago, I said that most Christians don’t experience such persecution today, except when they are wounded by the attacks of militant atheists like Richard Dawkins. Looking back on those comments, I can’t imagine where my head was, or where my eyes were looking. Or maybe it’s just that things have gotten that much worse for Christians around the world in the last ten months. How could I have missed the vicious persecution of Middle Eastern Christians by the murderous hordes of ISIS, or the kidnapping and forced conversions of all those girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria? As I began to study this text, the seminary at which I work was holding a service of prayer and lament because of the slaughter of more than 130 children by the Taliban in Pakistan. The service was organized and led by one of our students, a Pakistani pastor who was beaten and threatened and chased from his country by Muslim thugs. According to a recent Pew Forum study, there is persecution of Christians in 131 of the 193 countries in the world. That’s almost 70%.
Much of the persecution mentioned above is inflicted by Islamist extremists. Most Muslims say they abhor such violence, claiming that it doesn’t represent Islam at all. It is, they say, a hateful twisting of a peaceful religion for the sake of political imperialism and personal revenge. I have Christian friends who don’t buy that, who claim that Islam is historically and essentially a religion of violence, and who are convinced that all Muslims hate America. So they hate all Muslims because of the violence done to Christians in the name of Allah.
In our text, Peter counsels a very different response to persecution. Rather than focusing on your persecutors and being overwhelmed by fear and hatred, keep your eyes on Christ. Immediately after saying, “It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil,” Peter gives the reason. “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” Peter isn’t merely offering Jesus as an example of how we should endure unjust suffering, though, of course, Jesus is the perfect example. More than that, Peter is pointing to a greater and higher reality than our suffering, namely, the reality of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. As we work our way through the tangled jungle of this famously difficult text (see my previous comments about that difficulty in the May 19 piece), we need to keep our eyes on those three aspects of the work of Christ.
So, first Peter points to Christ’s death. His words are so familiar that it is easy to glide right over them and not feel the impact they should have on suffering Christians. As I reflected on them, I heard another news report about violence that made the good news about Christ’s death fresh and shocking and comforting again. A self-proclaimed Muslim cleric took 17 hostages in an Australian city on December 16, 2014. A long standoff ensued, as he made demands and police tried to negotiate. But then a shot was fired and the police moved in. They found two hostages and the terrorist dead. Survivors told stories about the heroism of the two slain hostages. One had tried to wrest the gun from the terrorist and was shot in the scuffle, while the other victim had shielded a pregnant friend when the killer started shooting. The newsperson reporting on the story said, “They gave their lives that others might live.”
All Christians heard an echo of the gospel in those words, but there are vast differences between their tragic deaths and Christ’s death. First, they were held hostage unwillingly, while Christ freely chose to be in a situation where he knew he would be killed. Second, their deaths were accidental, random acts of violence, while Christ died on purpose, for sins. Third, while their deaths were heroic acts intended to save others, Christ’s death was “once for all,” meaning that it had a unique value. It was absolutely sufficient for the sins of the human race. Fourth, though they were relatively innocent, at least compared to their murderer, those Australians were still sinners like the rest of humanity. Christ was utterly without sin. He was completely just, and he gave his life for the unjust. Christ didn’t take a bullet for a fellow hostage; he took a bullet for the terrorist. The perfectly innocent one died for the ungodly. And fifth, while those heroic hostages gave their lives so that others could live another day, Jesus gave his life so that we could live forever. Or as Peter put it, he died “to bring you/us to God.”
Those last words are a unique way to summarize the purpose/result of Christ’s death. Peter doesn’t say, Jesus died that “we might live,” or that “our sins might be forgiven,” or that “we might go to heaven,” all of which are biblically true. Rather, he looks back to Eden, where the human race was sent out of the garden and out of the presence of the Lord. He recalls that all humans are “without hope and without God in the world,” as Paul put it in Ephesians 2. But now, because of Christ’s death, sinners can come back to God and live in God’s presence. No matter what happens to us, even unjust suffering, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Because he died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, we have been brought back to God, even if we now live in a world that treats us terribly.
The death of Christ is the heart of Lent, but Peter doesn’t stop with the cross as he comforts suffering Christians. “He was put to death in the body, but made alive by the Spirit.” Clearly, Peter is talking about Christ’s resurrection here, but that’s just about all that’s clear in what follows in verses 19-21. (Again, I refer to my previous piece on May 19 for a fuller treatment of the ferocious difficulty of these verses.) The trouble starts with the phrase “by the Spirit.” That’s how the NIV translates the Greek, but there is good evidence that it really means “in the spirit.” It’s not a reference to the agency of the Holy Spirit in Christ’s resurrection; it’s a reference to his own spirit. Though he was physically dead on that cross and in the grave, he was alive in his spirit. That thought ushers us into the dense forest of the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures in one person, though that probably isn’t what Peter was thinking about.
Peter was pointing to the next words that have produced multiple theological interpretations. He was made alive in the spirit “in which (not “through whom”) he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built….” Though I really like the idea of the “harrowing of hell,” which sees Jesus visiting the realm of the dead, whether it’s called Hades, or Limbo, or hell itself, and freeing the spirits of those who have been held captive there for centuries (he “rifled Satan’s fold,” as a Benjamin Britten carol puts it), I think that the context points us in a different direction—not down, but up.
This interpretation is not mine; it is most clearly stated by J.N.D Kelly in his commentary on I Peter. He points out that “spirits” is never used of human beings in the New Testament; it is always a reference to actual spirits, to angels and demons, or, as Peter puts it in verse 22, “angels, authorities and powers.” The resurrected Christ went to the evil spirits who have been imprisoned in their rebellion for eons and announced to them that their power has finally been broken and their doom is sure. “One little word has felled them.”
What about “the days of Noah?” Kelly points out that just before the story of the flood in Genesis 6 we find the curious account of “the sons of God” marrying the daughters of men and producing a race of giants. Were these angels or evil spirits in the bodies of men? It’s all pretty murky, but it does tie “spirits” to Noah. Those disobedient spirits were at work even in the days of Noah, so that humans were unimaginably wicked and violent. But Christ has now conquered them, and they know it, because he “preached to them.” This is another piece of Good News for suffering Christians. Not only did Christ bring us to God by his death, but also Christ by his resurrection freed us from the violent spirits who work behind the scenes and through the human agents who persecute Christians.
In fact, says Peter in verse 22, all of those spirits are now under Jesus’ feet. After his resurrection, Jesus ascended “into heaven and is at God’s right hand—angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.” Here Peter echoes Paul in Ephesians 1:20-22 and Colossians 2:15. Rather than looking around at the humans who are treating them terribly, these first century Asian Christians and Christians of all times and places should look up at the ascended Christ who rules all things, including the inhuman spirits behind the persecution. Christ has died. Christ had risen. Christ has ascended to the throne at the center of it all. That is Peter’s response to unjust suffering.
So, he says, don’t be afraid (verse 14). And don’t hate. Rather, be confident and assured. You are part of Christ’s victory. You are saved. Your baptism is the visible proof of that. Peter’s words about baptism have caused fierce debate. In what sense does baptism save us? Catholics and Lutherans will disagree with Baptists and with each other. As a Reformed Christian, I think that Peter means that our baptism is a visible sign and seal of our salvation. It doesn’t effect that salvation; it assures us that salvation is only through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, which we appropriate through faith. When you were baptized, says Peter, you pledged to live in this world in a way that would give you a clean conscience. Now, even though you are suffering unjustly, remember your baptism into Christ’s victory and live accordingly.
As Peter wrote these complicated words, I wonder if he was remembering those simple words Jesus spoke to his disciples in that upper room just before they left for the cross. “In the world you will have tribulations, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
How many times have we heard the phrase, “This changes everything?” I recall a commercial for Schlotzsky’s Deli, extolling the virtues of their “hand carved” sandwiches. Having tasted one of those sandwiches, one convinced customer solemnly intones, “This changes everything.” And he begins to hand carve literally everything, from frozen orange juice cans to toothpaste tubes.
The Apple computer company was more serious when it introduced its then revolutionary iPhone 4. Since then, of course, not only Apple, but every smart phone company has produced game changing technology every year. But back in 2010, Apple meant it when it said, “This changes everything.”
Recently, Naomi Klein has received awards for her new book, This Changes Everything, which might be subtitled, “Climate versus Capitalism.” A New York Times review says, “Forget everything you think you know about global warming. The really inconvenient truth is that it’s not about carbon—it’s about capitalism. The convenient truth is that we can seize on this existential crisis to transform our failed economic system and build something radically better.”
Peter’s complicated words in our text today fundamentally make that very claim about the work of Christ. This– the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus– changes everything. Jesus death brings us to God out of our sin-created exile. Jesus resurrection changes the reality of our suffering and mortality. And his ascension is the demonstration of the change in the power structure of our world, since all the “powers” are under his feet.
As we struggle through a difficult world, we must remember the Good News of Jesus. “This changes everything.”
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