Tag: Salvation

The Way of Salvation – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 1B (1 Peter 3)

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.

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                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/.

A Word About Salvation – A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 4B

A Word About Salvation – A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 4B

Acts 4:5-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

5 The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, 6 with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7 When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” 8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, 9 if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, 10 let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. 11 This Jesus is

‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;

it has become the cornerstone.’

12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

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A healing leads to preaching, and preaching leads to arrest, which leads to a trial, and a trial gives an opportunity for preaching. At least that’s the way things seem to work for Peter and John here in chapters three and four of the Book of Acts. Peter had been preaching to a large crowd in Solomon’s Portico, after healing the man who was disabled at the gate to the Temple. In other words, an act of power opens an opportunity to explain the source of power, which of course leads to the message of the cross and the resurrection. While you might think that it would be the cross that stirs the pot here, it is really the message of the resurrection. It appears from the opening verses of chapter four that it was the message of resurrection of the dead that got the attention of the religious leaders, who order them arrested. That is the background story for Peter’s next sermon, this time delivered in front of the religious leaders who have gathered to pronounce judgment on Peter and John.

Unfortunately for the leaders, Peter takes advantage of this appearance to speak once again about the resurrection. Peter begins his defense with an acknowledgment that it seems they had been arrested for doing something good, that is, bringing healing to a man who had suffered for years. The question was—how did they do this? The answer is simple—they acted in the power of the one whom the religious leaders had crucified, but whom God vindicated by raising him from the dead. If you want to know how this happened, well that’s the answer—Jesus! Yes, this Jesus whom God has raised is the source of healing, which means they have been arrested for doing a good deed in the power of the risen one!

This is all boiler-plate apostolic preaching. We hear this message time and again, whether on the lips of Peter or Paul. Central to the message is that of the resurrection, which divides Sadducees and Pharisees. While the two parties aren’t named in this selection, according to Luke, the arresting party included priests and Sadducees. In this scene the Pharisees are absent, so Peter can’t divide and conquer like Paul will do in a later scene. Since the opposition in this scene are Sadducees, for whom the resurrection doesn’t fit into their theology, you can understand their consternation at hearing Peter preach about the resurrection in their presence. For Peter and the early church, as was true of the Pharisees, the resurrection was the key to their theology. It was the revelation of God’s power present in Jesus. Since this is the Easter season, this passage offers the preacher and the church an opportunity to again reflect upon and celebrate the Resurrection.

Where this passage becomes controversial in modern contexts, is the wording of verse 12. This verse is often used as a proof text to defend the premise that one cannot be saved without confessing faith in Jesus, for “there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” In other words, it is a foundational text for an exclusivist vision of salvation. A question that might be asked of Peter concerns what he means by salvation and how Jesus is the name by which one is saved. Is Peter setting up a point of division? Is this a red line, at which Peter is asking his accusers (and anyone else) to dare to cross? That is, one’s eternal destiny hangs on how one responds to the message of Jesus. That is how it has often been read, but is this how Peter means it to be heard? Is it how Jesus would have us hear it? Or, could we read it in a more inclusive way?

We might want to start by remembering Peter’s audience, which is comprised of fellow Jews. It’s important that we remember that Peter was a Jew before he met Jesus, and that he remained a Jew after he met Jesus, and he remained a Jew even as he stands before the Sanhedrin, accusing them of their complicity in the death of the one by whom he has engaged in healing ministry. So, once again this is an intra-family debate, with Peter inviting the religious leaders to affirm God’s work in and through Jesus. Yes, they had participated in his death, but God overturned that deed in the resurrection. Of course, the court here is composed of a group of leaders who deny the resurrection of the dead, and so they would be reticent to accept Peter’s message of vindication. In their minds, Jesus is dead and remains dead, and therefore is unavailable to empower Peter and John. Nonetheless, this is Peter’s testimony, and apparently some 5000 people had stepped forward to follow Jesus through his ministry. In other words, Peter and his partner John were stirring the religious pot, undermining the authority of the religious leaders, who were charged with keeping order by the Roman occupiers. Nonetheless, Peter remains firm: “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.” There is salvation in no other name.

When we hear the word salvation (Greek: soteria), it is good to remember that this word has a variety of nuances and meanings. Context is important if we’re going to understand its meaning. When it comes to Acts 4:12, almost all translations offer up “salvation.” However, we could translate this word as healing, which makes sense in this context. After all, they are under arrest, at least in their own minds, for healing someone in the name of Jesus. There are other ways of rendering the word, including rescue and spiritual wholeness. In other words, Peter might have something in mind other than getting to heaven. In fact, there is nothing in this passage that hints at salvation being the means of gaining heaven. So, he might be speaking in very terrestrial terms.

I find wisdom in the reading of the passage by Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring, who point out that “Luke is not here addressing the theoretical issue of the eternal destiny of people in distant centuries and countries who have not heard the Christian message.” In context, he is expressing his belief that the God of Israel has acted in Jesus, who was crucified, but was raised by God, and it is in Jesus that the power of God is being revealed in the healing of this man who had been disabled, but who is now running around proclaiming his healing. Craddock and Boring also remind us that Luke’s theology of salvation is not reflected either in the view that “the Christian way is only one of ‘many roads to God,’” nor are we being “encouraged to believe that only confessing Christians are finally accepted by God.” As we ponder this passage, we would be wise to heed our commentators and affirm that “on the basis of this text, Christians ought to say neither than only Christians shall ultimately be saved nor that people can be saved through a variety of saviors. Christians should confess their faith that the God revealed in Christ is the only Savior, without claiming that only those who respond in faith will be saved” [The People’s New Testament Commentary, (WJK Press, 2009), p. 378].

As we continue the Easter journey, may we ponder together the power of Jesus name, by which God brings healing and salvation. For Peter, the risen Jesus was the only means by which the God of Israel acted to bring healing, wholeness, and salvation. In him God’s power was let loose.Peter invites us to embrace the Risen One, as we walk in God’s wholeness.

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.