The First Sunday of Lent, Year B, 1 Peter 3:18-22
March 1, 2009
The passage from First Peter, today’s second Lesson, is one of the most baffling, debated texts in all the New Testament. This explains, in part, why I am drawn to preach on it! Additionally, I think that all-too-often in our preaching we find an unhelpful, unhealthy neglect of the Epistles— admittedly challenging more often than not, but also containing much that we really are meant to hear and to ponder.
Karl Barth, the great twentieth century Swiss Reformed theologian wrote: the “most debatable and least assimilable parts” of Scripture are “more important than the best and most necessary things that we ourselves have said or can say.” (Church Dogmatics, I.III.21) One doesn’t have to deny the place of tradition and reason in the church’s life—one by no means has to buy into fundamentalism or literalism—to appreciate how profound that statement is.
Gladly for us, the obscurities of today’s passage have to do, for the most part, with its supporting references. The “big picture” is fairly clear, if we don’t miss the forest for all the unusual trees. Not that the trees aren’t appropriate to notice in context. Not at all. We couldn’t not notice if we tried.
So, I’d ask you to bear with me as we undertake a bit of a trek through some spiritual old-growth timber. Such places are seldom fully comfortable for us—but still worth the journey.
To be sure, our passage from First Peter meanders. It’s filled almost beyond capacity with explicitly metaphoric language—especially that of the Ascension. In spite of the smug dismissiveness of some contemporary writers (“Well, we now know that Jesus couldn’t have blasted off the surface of the earth like a rocket.”), serious Christian theology has always been aware, full well, that the Ascension was not a matter of Jesus simply going “up.”
Engaging with Christ’s Ascension into the “Heavenlies”—indeed all our possible engagement with the interplay of Heaven and Earth—puts us at the very frontier of our present capacities, not only of description, but also of experience. The crude pictures make of Heaven something only “Up, Up, and Away.” Real reflection makes clear, however, that Heaven and Earth, whatever their distinction, are interlocking realities—existing in relationship with one another. That we now usually barely sense this does not make it not so. And our spiritual pilgrimage is often involved, isn’t it?, with the expansion of our sensibilities. Keeping this in mind may help us appreciate why we’re given to hear a Scripture with such a theme on this First Sunday of Lent—instead of waiting until forty days after Easter.
Now, focusing specifically on our text, the First Letter of Peter, the Third Chapter, verse eighteen and following: As a summary of faith—perhaps as a sort of “proto-Creed”—it makes four pithy statements about Christ. It’s a series that almost feels like (and perhaps even was) a set liturgical proclamation. Perhaps something along the lines of the Acclamation, after the Words of Institution, in our Great Thanksgiving:
Christ has died;
Christ is risen;
Christ will come again.
Here it is, as we heard it, around which the text of First Peter expands:
He was put to death in the flesh,
Made alive in the spirit,
Made proclamation, [and]
Has gone into heaven.
The “direction,” so to speak, is indeed one of ascension—Christ’s Ascension. We’re not there yet.
But this Ascension has everything to do with us—and much to say to us. Specifically, what it has to do and what it has to say very much apply to our present sufferings—that adversarial environment in which we find ourselves, which still is for us, always, at least to some extent, an inescapable context.
Now, to address the reading’s most unusual reference: Who are those “spirits in prison” to whom the Risen Christ makes his proclamation—and what is the content of that proclamation? Scholars and interpreters have struggled with these questions for a long time. It’s unlikely that we will settle them once for all today. However, increased awareness of Jewish devotional literature in the times around Jesus does give us, I think, a fairly reliable take. It’s most likely that First Peter is connecting with the imagery of Jewish apocalyptic literature of its time. That Peter engages this imagery to convey his message does not require that we ascribe to that referenced imagery some sort of literal, geographic facticity. That’s not the point here.
The picture from which Peter is likely drawing is rather like this: Above the earth there were a number of heavens in succession; “layers” of heaven, as it were. In one of these lower heavens (but still above us), rebellious spirits were being held in some sort of limited confinement; contained—to some extent—if not yet entirely suppressed. We might think of this as a “house arrest” pending imposition of final sentence. Those so partially contained were the spirits of destruction which set themselves against creation—especially humankind—and against God’s purpose for us and the rest of the world. An example of their activity was found in the degradation and corruption loosed upon the world in the days leading up to Noah and the flood. Yet even in the midst of those floodwaters of judgment, God curtailed corruption’s terrible consequence, making provision in the ark for survival.
Peter references all this imagery to affirm that—really, truly, concretely—what God has done now is so much greater than that past’s limited provision. Christ now has met us in the midst of the very waters of mortality, into which—with us—he was submerged. And in that deathly submersion he is for us the passage to Life! That’s the reality to which Baptism joins us. We’re not speaking, here of magical or mechanical understandings. Not as magic or mechanism, Baptism is the saving instrument God has appointed in his binding us to what he has done in Christ. So we now, as the Baptized People, share in Christ’s being made alive—past the weight of judgment, so justly accrued to us—past the waters of death.
We share in his being made alive;
We are set free in his proclamation;
Our hope is gathered with him in his heavenly glory.
Speaking of Christ’s “proclamation”: What was said to those imprisoned spirits still working injury?
What did the Risen Christ say to them in his Ascension Procession? Using our spiritual imagination, perhaps something like this: “You too, like all others, all else in the universe, must now submit to my Sovereignty! For a time, you still make your trouble; harass, afflict. But know this: The game is up! Your doom is sure—and over my elect and my earth, your false lordship is stripped.”
Our hope “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” (3:22) That hope is as sure as sure gets. And yet; we are also surely now living “in between.” We aren’t all the way “there” yet. A substantial part of our life-reality is still very much “down here,” isn’t it? Here and now—around us, within us—we still know that adversarial, alienating, injurious stuff all-too-well. We are growing into our ascended-with-Christ true identity, so gradually, so incrementally. And we still have yet to cross the frontier of mortality.
Frankly, it can seem like too great a burden; disturbing, frustrating, colossally inefficient. To say the least, it is often hard to see the purpose for having to do things this way. God must have God’s reasons, somehow.
It’s quite a spiritual combination, isn’t it?, this present in-between “deal” in which we live. Lent is one of the best schools I can think of for learning how to navigate the deal. Lent certainly can underscore for us our present complexities—how far we have yet to go in the journey. But more to the point, Lent can help us toward a refreshed awareness of the accomplished, active Lordship of Christ—who has bound himself to us and us to himself; who has prevailed—prevailed decisively, and for good.
For a while yet we’ll deal with the stuff: waste, injury, frailty, failure to love. Sometimes we will find ourselves discouraged, delayed, knocked off balance. If all we were looking for is immediate painrelief—the satisfaction of our short term senses of “fair,” that would be it. But that isn’t “it,” thanks be. In between the “once for all” and the bit by bit, God in Christ is making all things new—including us.
In some troublesome, maybe even heartbreaking encounter with the “stuff” we may now say: “OK; ‘it’ may have carried this round—but Christ has already won the fight. Jesus has already proclaimed—sufficiently, efficaciously proclaimed to all of it—all that corrupt and corrupting stuff: “Your game is up! Your ‘lordship,’ expired!” So we are free. Never again to we have to live as marks for the con. We are set free to live, to love, and to serve—even here; even now.
We would well wonder: Why has all this been done for us? To answer that, as we conclude, I would highlight the first verse of today’s passage—perhaps in our practical spirituality, the most important that we take home with us: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” (3:18) “The righteous for the unrighteous.”
So; Why? Sheer love; utter gift, from first to last! So it pleased, and pleases, our gracious God. If Lent—maybe even this Lent—helps us remember this more fully, appreciate it in some incrementally more perfect measure—that will be enough.