Easter 6A

May 19, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 14:15-21

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Acts 17:22-31

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 66:8-20

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    1 Peter 3:13-22

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    This text is so difficult to understand that I might be tempted to skip it on my preaching schedule, except that it addresses such a tough problem in such a powerful way that wrestling with the text may prove worth the effort.

    While we may struggle with the exact meaning of verses 18-22 particularly, the overall meaning of this passage is clear. Here Peter takes his Easter people to the cross, their own cross. He helps God’s born-again children deal with unjust suffering, suffering that comes to us even though we have done nothing wrong or, even worse, precisely because we have done everything right.

    To be more specific, these Asian Christians were living in a cultural climate that was increasingly hostile to the Christian faith. It wasn’t so much that there was official governmental persecution, though there are hints of the beginning of that. It was more that their fellow citizens, their pagan friends and neighbors and perhaps even family members, verbally and sometimes physically abused them for their faith. Even when the abuse wasn’t actually happening, the potential was always there. They lived in a threatening environment that was suspicious of the faith and hostile to its adherents.

    Is a text like this relevant to us? We live in a religiously tolerant society in which we have constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion. We aren’t taken to any cross for our faith. Where is the threat of suffering for our faith in this cultural setting? Where is the hostility toward our faith? Well, actually, it is everywhere. And it seems to be growing. In a tolerant society there is increasing intolerance for the ethical standards and the truth claims of the Christian faith. Just because we claim that Jesus is Lord of everything and that his word is the absolute truth, we are viewed with suspicion and hostility by a secular society dominated by philosophical and ethical relativism.

    Think, for example, of how popular writers like Richard Dawkins and others have taken to sneering in derision at anyone so stupid to still think faith has a role to play. Or just suggest to someone that you think the Bible may have something to say about homosexuality and the eye-rolling will begin: how could such an old book tell us anything relevant about what is right or wrong sexually in this day and age? In varying ways and to varying degrees of critique, our culture is increasingly hostile to the claims of the Christian faith that are rooted in the ancient confession that Jesus is Lord of everything.

    This business of suffering for your faith has been in the background of our other readings for the Easter season, but here Peter addresses it directly and at length, spending the rest of this first letter on it. He has been urging these Asian Christians to live good lives, and he now leans into his subject with a rhetorical question about being good. “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” The answer is, usually, no one. But these aren’t usual times, because we Christians have introduced a new and controversial claim into the world. We say, “Jesus is Lord,” and that irritates the powers that be. So, although doing good shouldn’t result in harm, it is possible for that to happen in this day and age.

    If that remote possibility (Peter uses the rare optative mood in verse 14) should happen, if you should suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. This strange idea has its roots in the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:10-12). When bad things happen to good people precisely because they are good, God will bless them in a special way. Actually Peter says that we are blessed, in the present. Is Peter is suggesting that suffering for righteousness sake is itself a blessing? That’s certainly how he and the other apostles reacted to the first hint of persecution. They left the Sanhedrin “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” (Acts 5:41)

    Because you are so blessed, you should face such suffering without fear. “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” Don’t get caught up in the climate of fear that grips the world. That’s good and necessary advice in this time when the 24 hour news cycle sows the seeds of fear by broadcasting all the things that are wrong with the world. And, says Peter, don’t be afraid of them, of those who might abuse. Don’t let fear rule your heart.

    Rather, let Jesus rule your heart. This is the heart of Peter’s counsel to Christians living in a hostile environment. Many things will vie for the throne in your heart, and the more you let those other things rule you, the more afraid you will be. So you must make work of putting Christ on the throne again and again. “In your hearts set apart, sanctify, reverence, acknowledge Christ as Lord.” The Greek here could read “reverence Christ the Lord,” but the context seems to call for the NIV reading. We must deliberately place Christ back on the throne again and again, because there are so many other claimants to the throne. The fundamental Christian confession is “Jesus Christ is Lord.” And the key to dealing with an environment hostile to that confession is to not only keep saying it with our mouths (Romans 10:9), but to also keep enthroning him in our own hearts.

    With him on the throne, Peter says we should address the hostile environment with three R’s. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” In other words, we must respond to threats and abuse with reasoned speech. It is easy to lash back in retaliation, to cry out in pain, or otherwise respond emotionally. Peter says it is better to give a reasonable response. Explain to people why you live this way. Tell them that it’s all about the hope you have in Jesus Christ and rationally explain that hope.

    Do that gently and respectfully. Here is an important word for our contentious age, where Christians all too readily take up the cudgels and trade blows in the culture wars. When Christians engage in the incivility that characterizes public discourse, the world will not listen to our carefully reasoned explanations of the hope we have in Christ. We must be gentle with even our fiercest opponents. We must treat even the most disrespectful with respect. The word there is fear (phobos), which seems to conflict with verse 14. But the idea is that we are able to treat our abusers with respect precisely because Jesus is our Lord. When we fear people, we can’t treat them with respect. If we fear the Lord Jesus, we don’t have to fear them, and we can treat them with respect.

    Further, says Peter, be sure that you have a clear conscience when you confront the hostility of your culture. In the midst of abuse, we must be genuinely righteous, so that we can speak with a clear conscience and the accusers will be ashamed of their slander against us. If you know that you are not being a hypocrite, that you are actually practicing what you preach, that they have no genuine grounds to criticize you, you can speak of your faith in a convincing way. Justifiable accusations against the church greatly harm the church’s witness. I’m thinking here of the kind of accusations leveled against the church in a book like Un-Christian. It is based on surveys of young adults who find the church’s message of faith, hope and love unbelievable because they see us as judgmental, narrow-minded, right-winged and homophobic.

    After closing this section with a proverbial saying about suffering for doing good, Peter offers these suffering Christians the deep hope that comes with belonging to Christ. Here’s where this text gets truly difficult. The first part of verse 18 is clear enough. Echoing his previous words in 2:21, it sounds as though Peter is pointing to Christ’s suffering as an example for us to follow. But his intention is much deeper than that. Clearly, he wants his readers to remember that the death of Christ for sin has brought them to God. In their suffering, they have access to God (cf. Romans 5:1, 2). Knowing that you have direct access to the throne of grace is very helpful when you are suffering unjustly.

    But Peter wants to say more than that. This is where things get murky, as Peter brings up two extremely controversial subjects: the harrowing of hell and baptismal salvation. At least, that’s how some in the church have understood verses 18b-22a. The difficulty begins with this statement: “He was put to death in the body, but made alive by the Spirit….” This has spawned questions about body/spirit dualism, about the two natures of Christ and how they were affected by his death, about the role of the Holy Spirit in Christ’s resurrection.

    Then things get really tangled with Peter’s assertion that Christ “went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah when the ark was being built.” Each of the nine Greek words at the beginning of this quote has been interpreted in multiple ways. Is this about the pre-incarnate Christ preaching to Noah’s contemporaries through the mouth of Noah? Or is it about a time between the death and resurrection of Christ during which he preached to angels who had mated with women in the early chapters of Genesis? Or is it about Christ announcing his victory to the spirits of wickedness that have always ruined the world, but especially during the time of Noah?

    Where in the world would outlandish ideas like that originate? Many scholars think they can see outlines of a creedal statement or a primitive hymn in the careful cadences of the beginning of verse 18 and the end of verse 22. But these words about Noah and the ark and baptism seem a bit garbled, as though Peter is thinking on his feet and stumbling around a bit. Many scholars think that he has borrowed ideas from late Judaism, particularly from the inter-testamental books of Enoch.

    I won’t attempt to reproduce all the exegetical arguments that have raged around these verses. I’ll say only this. If we remember that the purpose of this “tangent filled with trouble” was to help Christians in trouble, we can hear the gospel in it. To help them face the hostile forces arrayed against them, Peter assures these Christians that Christ has won the victory over all those forces. In his death and resurrection, Christ confronted those forces and proclaimed his victory over them. Now that Christ has ascended into heaven (verse 22) and sits at God’s right hand, all of those forces—“angels, authorities and powers–” are in submission to him. The powers behind the abuse suffered by these Christians have been conquered by the risen Christ. Thus, says one scholar, “His readers can reflect that their neighbors who badger them and bully them are merely reproducing the rebellious character of the demonic powers whose agents they are, and will surely share their destruction.”

    By their baptism, these Christians have entered into the victory of Christ’s salvation. It is fascinating to watch Peter move from a reference to the spirits who disobeyed in the days of Noah to a profoundly mysterious teaching on baptism. The connection, of course, is the flood and the ark. As Noah was saved by the ark through the flood, so we are saved by the waters of baptism. The idea here is that, through baptism, we Christians share in Christ’s victory.

    Exactly how we understand the relationship between baptism and salvation will depend on the rest of our theology. Sacramentalists will take these words literally and claim that baptism itself has salvific effects. Non-sacramentalists will focus on the word “symbolizes” (antitupon) and claim that baptism only symbolizes salvation. Baptists will focus on the word “pledge” and claim that this proves infants can’t be baptized. Only believers may be baptized because only they can in good conscience pledge their intention to live out their death and resurrection with Christ. Reformed Christians will try to find a middle ground here. R.N.D. Kelly says something I can agree with as a Reformed Christian. When Peter says that baptism saves you, what he means is this: “in reality believers are saved by what baptism symbolizes—the death and resurrection of Christ (cf. verse 21b, ‘it saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ’). But the symbol and the reality are so closely related that the symbol is sometimes used to refer to that reality.”

    Peter’s general point is clear, even if the details of his argument are highly debatable. Christians who are going through a time of unjust suffering have already entered into the victory won by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Your baptism is the symbol, the evidence, the proof, the means, the occasion of your entrance into that salvation. You were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now Jesus is Lord, not only in your hearts, but also in the world, where all things are in submission to him. So, do not be afraid.

    Illustration Idea

    One way to open up Peter’s mysterious language about Jesus and the spirits in prison would be to focus on the way today’s young people are fascinated with superheroes.  That started back in my youth with comic books about Superman and Batman.  But the onset of video games and computer animation has taken that fascination to the level of addiction.  The imaginative lives of millions of teens and young adults are richly populated with all sorts of villains and heroes whose powers make them nearly invincible.  This text gives a game-savvy preacher the opportunity to preach Christ as the ultimate hero who has plunged or soared (depending on how you interpret “went” in verse 19) into the realms where powers and authorities formerly ruled.  He is the truly invincible hero in a world filled with threats of all kinds.  He’s the One with whom we should be so fascinated that we will set him apart as Lord.