|Coventry Cathedral Baptistry|
1 Peter 3:13-22 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
As we begin the Lenten journey, the Second Reading, which generally takes us to one of the Epistles, invites us to consider the words found in 1 Peter 3. Although this letter is attributed to the Apostle Peter, we don’t know the identity of the author. However, in the course of this reflection, I will simply speak of the author as Peter.
I’ve titled the reflection “The Way of Salvation” because that seems to be the focus here. Peter is concerned that his audience, which is experiencing suffering, could fall away. He acknowledges their suffering in the verses that are excluded from the passage designated by the Revised Common Lectionary (verses 13-17) but reminds them that they are not alone in their suffering. Remember that Jesus himself suffered, the righteous for the unrighteous (vs. 18). So, stay the course and emulate Jesus. This is the way of salvation. However, know that you do not walk the path alone. Jesus has already been there!
I decided to include the excluded opening verses of the paragraph (13-17) because they provide the reason for Peter’s words about Jesus. Peter reminds them that though they suffer, they have a reward waiting for them. Before we get to Jesus, we need to address the suffering incurred by his followers. A passage like this could do some harm if it leads to the conclusion that suffering is either a divine punishment or the promise of a heavenly reward leads deadens us to suffering. That is, it becomes the opiate of the people that is used to oppress people in the name of heaven.
While suffering is part of life, and we may grow through our experiences of suffering, not all suffering is the same. This was brought home to me by James Henry Harris, whose book Black Suffering: Silent Pain, Hidden Hope, is a reminder that “all Black suffering relates back to evil—an evil grounded in American chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws and practices, and the residuals of perpetual hate” [Harris, p.20]. As one who is white and male, I need to acknowledge that I have not experienced systemic suffering as described by Rev. Harris and that at times I’ve benefited from it. Such suffering we must do what we can to rectify such situations.
In the context of this letter, the suffering experienced is related to one’s participation in the community gathered around the name of Jesus. The message has a strong eschatological dimension to it, as it speaks of a heavenly reward. In other words, if you persevere through this time of suffering you will experience heaven’s joys. So, don’t be afraid as the pagans are afraid. Whatever fear you may have, let it be reverence for God. When your faith is challenged, as appears to be the case, don’t be intimidated. Instead, be confident as you graciously answer that challenge. Be confident in your profession of faith and sanctify Christ in your hearts.
Even as Peter encourages the people to stand fast in their faith in the midst of their suffering (and the nature of that suffering isn’t fully revealed), Peter tells the people to be prepared to make a defense of their faith. What Peter has in mind here isn’t the same thing as what we find in modern apologetics. Nor is it Schleiermacher’s speeches to the cultured despisers. This seems to be more of a life and death situation. He encourages them to give an account of their faith by sharing that hope that is within them. Reveal why one follows Jesus when suffering is a possibility, and do so with gentleness and reverence, keeping a clear conscience. Then when you are maligned, those who seek to abuse you will be put to shame.
Having addressed this situation, we turn to the suffering experienced by Jesus. His suffering is a result of human sin, so he has suffered as one who is righteous for those who are unrighteous, so as to bring them to God. While he was put to death in the flesh, he was made alive in the Spirit. There is in this passage an atonement theory. The theory that seems to fit best here is Christus Victor. That is, Christ saves us in that through his death and resurrection, Jesus triumphed over evil—once and for all. It’s not that he is a substitute sacrifice. Instead, Jesus overcomes the power of sin and death through his own death and resurrection. Another way of looking at this word is offered by Wendy Farley in her book Beguiled by Beauty. Though she doesn’t address this passage, I think she speaks to something similar when she writes that “Jesus entered history to witness to its turmoil, poverty, and
imperial violence. In Jesus, we see the story of humanity itself. The Beloved enters history and suffers with us so that we will not be deserted or alone in whatever befalls us. In the passion of Christ, we are promised an ever-faithful companion in suffering and shown a glimpse of something beyond the seeming victories of suffering” [Beguiled by Beauty, pp. 124-125].
Peter isn’t finished, however, he has something to say about Jesus preaching to the “spirits in prison.” The question is, what does Peter mean? While Peter isn’t clear here, the spirits spoken of here could have been the angels who rebelled—the watchers of 1 Enoch. It could also be read in connection with the message about those who didn’t believe Noah who was saved through the water of judgment. By the early second century, this idea had developed into the doctrine of the “harrowing of hell.”
That is, on Holy Saturday, Jesus descended into hell, preached to the spirits there, and converted them thereby releasing them from death’s control. There is even reference to this in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where C.S. Lewis speaks of Aslan “ransacking the witch’s fortress,” seeking out all whom she had turned to stone after the Stone Table is broken with his resurrection.
Peter connects this reference to Jesus’ preaching to spirits in prison with those for whom God waited patiently in the time of Noah. He notes that in the building of the Ark, eight persons were saved through water. He makes this reference to Noah analogous to baptism, which he says now saves us. How does baptism save us? To Peter, this is not a removal of dirt from the body, but an appeal to God for a good conscience. The appeal for a good conscience takes place in the context of the resurrection of Jesus, who is now in heaven, seated at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him. This imagery of Noah and the ark as a symbol of baptism, reminds us, as Ron Allen suggests that “the power of God is so awesome that God transforms the flood water into the means of salvation. From this perspective, 1 Peter’s attitude toward baptism is similar to that of the Reformers: Baptism is a sign from God to assure the congregation of God’s continuing providence, even amid the suffering that comes from faithfulness” [Feasting on the Word, p. 42]. Thus, we move from a reminder that though we suffer Jesus
suffers with us, to a word about baptism, so that we will know that through it all, God is with us in Christ. That is a good way to start the Lenten journey.
Coventry Cathedral – Baptistery, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54899 [retrieved February 14, 2021]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevecadman/2652744641/.