May 19, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
It’s relatively easy for us these days to read a passage like John 14 and to read it with a sense of detachment. Jesus packs a lot of theology into these discourses across John 13-17 and it can be a little tough sledding to get through it all. Thus, it is tempting to be a little cut-and-dried, a little analytical, a little academic in our approach to these words. Alas, I don’t doubt that many’a arid sermon has been preached on these words in which preachers were about as passionate as a CPA doing a dreary tax audit.
But sunk right into the middle of the verses in this Year A Lectionary text is something that ought to pump some blood back into the text: “I will not leave you as orphans.”
I will not leave you as orphans.
What do you think prompted Jesus to say that? Again, it’s too easy to treat this whole incident very antiseptically and clinically. We picture Jesus at a lectern almost, delivering prepared remarks even as the disciples sat quietly taking notes, nodding in agreement and just generally behaving like the good little students they were. But I suspect it was otherwise.
This was an evening of significant disorientation for the disciples (as I pointed out in the previous week’s sermon starter from the first section of John 14). Their little world was falling apart. Even Jesus was no doubt one sad figure, tears forming in the corners of his eyes perhaps, chin and lips quivering.
What had started out as a normal Passover meal had become something quite startling. One of their number had slinked out of the room only minutes earlier with dark clouds of betrayal following him out the door. The leader among their little band of followers had just been informed that soon and very soon the main thing he would be the leader of was being the lead rat to jump off Jesus’ sinking ship. And in and through it all Jesus kept lacing his speech with dark intimations of death and a sudden departure.
Thus, I picture the scene as looking less like a lecture hall with attentive students taking notes on what the wise professor was saying from the lectern and more like a Christmas Eve dinner party that had started out fine but that exploded into something quite different when suddenly Dad used the occasion to inform his children that he was having an affair, that he was in love with another woman, and that he and Mom would soon be getting a divorce for the good of all. At that Christmas dinner table there would be tears, there would be glassy-eyed stares, there would be a confusion and disorientation almost too great for many to bear.
The upper room that night must have been like that. And so as Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit and all the other things he talks about, he was staring into moist eyes, he was looking at Peter who could not keep his own chin from quivering with emotion, he was looking at Philip who looked about as befuddled as a human being can look. There was fear in the room. Very nearly panic.
And out of that atmosphere—and also into that taut atmosphere—Jesus was motivated in love and compassion to say, “My friends, I will not abandon you. I will not leave you as orphans. Please stop crying, please stop being so afraid as I know you are. It’s going to be OK. Really! I know this looks and sounds bad—and parts of what is to come will be bad, too, I admit—but in the end I will be with you in a way you cannot imagine right now. This Holy Spirit, he really will help. Through him you really will understand and you really will still be connected in a living way to me. It’s gonna be OK, my friends!”
Sometimes certain Christian traditions are accused of being a little “light” when it comes to having a robust theology of the Holy Spirit. Maybe understanding the real dynamics (and the original acoustics) of John 14 can help to remind us how vital the Holy Spirit is in our lives and precisely why we need that Spirit. Jesus spoke these words into hurting, confused, and disoriented hearts. For us to avoid a similar hurt and confusion, we need the Spirit now as much as ever!
Even all these centuries and, indeed, two whole millennia later, we are not orphans. We are not alone.
Jesus has been as good as his word.
Thanks be to God.
Whenever I use the word “Paraclete” in a sermon or paper that I am writing, the SpellChecker on my computer tries to change it to “Parakeet.” It’s a curious possible substitution! Maybe it’s not even too far a cry from the Spirit as a dove! In truth, of course, the word “Paraclete” is from the Greek “para” and “kletos/kaleo” and so means “the one called alongside” of another. It has been variously translated over time as “Counselor, Comforter, Advocate, Helper.” It crops up 4 times in John in chapters 14-16 and has only one other New Testament occurrence in First John 2:1. It is, in short, a uniquely Johannine term. Since Jesus says the Spirit is “another” helper, this seems to indicate that the Spirit comes in addition to Jesus himself, who would presumably be, therefore, our original Paraclete. The Spirit as Paraclete thus continues the work of Jesus. And according to John, although the Paraclete does have the connotation of the attorney in court who stands alongside the accused, the main jobs of the Paraclete according to Jesus in John 14-16 is to lead the believer into all truth and to convict the world of its sin. The truth-dimension of the Spirit’s work is, therefore, key. Both believers and the world need to know the truth about life. The Paraclete comes alongside us to point the way. (My thanks to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume Three, pp. 659-660, for some of this information.)
Playwright Arthur Miller once wrote that his one-time wife, Marilyn Monroe, knew what it was like to be an orphan, to be abandoned. And her experience with that gave her an uncanny ability: according to Miller, whenever Marilyn entered a room, she was always able to pick out from the crowd those who had been orphans. There was just a certain look in the eyes of orphans that a fellow orphan could always detect at a glance. It was a glint of loneliness, perhaps, of fear, of wariness. Whatever it was, fellow orphans were able to look at one another and share a common bond of knowing and understanding.
I wonder what Jesus saw in the eyes of the disciples that night. Perhaps they had not yet been orphans but spiritually speaking, they sensed they were maybe on the cusp of being orphaned by no less than God. It was something that Jesus quite simply had to address.
And so he did.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Well, you win some and you lose some.
Paul had some experience with the truth of that old adage, and some of the relevant experiences can be seen in Acts 17 and Paul’s famous conversation with the Athenians at the Areopagus.
The day was not without its spiritual victories. The chapter concludes by telling us that Paul’s words—as used by the Holy Spirit that day—did capture not only the attention but finally also the hearts of a few of the folks who had been listening to him. But it was apparently only a few. Most left that day’s spiritual conversation with wry little grins on their faces, shaking their heads at Paul’s kicker line about how God once raised the Savior he was talking about from the dead. To the Greeks, being raised back to life had all the appeal of a root canal without anesthetic. Escape from the body was the goal. So the prospect of getting your body back by-and-by seemed less like a glorious reward and more like a cruel punishment.
And any god worth his salt would surely know that much.
So they left shaking their heads and repressing some giggles.
It was too bad, too, because this Paul person had been doing pretty well. This was no rube or hick from the outback and he was no crazy-eyed street preacher either. He was clearly well educated and well spoken. What’s more, he had done his homework in researching their culture and their religious landscape. He knew something about their various gods and could even quote from their own literature and poetry. This man was worth listening to, worth giving a shot to make his case there in Athens, where the trading of ideas and the thrust-and-parry of intellectual debate was many people’s favorite indoor non-contact sport.
But when this same man–who once wrote to some believers in Corinth that if Christ is not raised, we are of all people the most to be pitied–got to the part about that very resurrection, the game was over. “We’ll talk about this with you later. Much later, Paul!” The core of the Gospel proved to be too much for some folks.
If only Paul had just stopped talking one sentence sooner! If he had just had a good preacher’s sense for knowing when to quit. After all, the day did not have to end the way it did.
Or did it?
Acts 17 bears living testimony to a truth the church has known about for 2,000 years: namely, no matter what you do or say, some people will just not believe the gospel. There is a stumbling block at the heart of the message and it is going to trip some people up every time. But that is why it has perennially been tempting to change the message, too. Out of a mistaken desire to be “successful,” to give no offense, to be all things to all people, not a few preachers over the centuries have managed to do what Paul refused to do: namely, quit one sentence sooner. Leave out the main stumbling block of Christ’s death and resurrection. Or turn the resurrection into something a little more palatable, a little more similar to things we have all experienced at one time or another.
Say that “resurrection” = remembering the departed Jesus. He can live in your memory.
Say Jesus rose again “in their hearts.” He remained an inspiration.
Play with the word “historical” long enough so as to get to the point that whatever “historical” means, it’s not the same thing as JFK’s assassination or Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon. It was “historical” with scare quotes conveying the wink and the nod of not taking this too seriously as an event in time.
Or say that resurrection is natural, an everyday event not so very different from maple trees budding out with new leafs after a winter season in which they looked dead. Easter = Springtime, the sprouting of daffodils and tulips after a bleak season of snow and ice. It happens all the time.
Or say that whether Jesus rose again from the dead or not isn’t so important—it’s being loving that’s the key. Live like Jesus (or Ghandi or Lincoln or whoever).
Or say that yes, it’s OK to believe in the resurrection but it’s just one good religious idea among many valid ideas from many different faith traditions and so let’s not make it the be-all or end-all of the Christian faith.
But whatever you say or preach, just make sure it is going to fly, going to be OK with more folks than not and so will prevent anyone from walking away with an eye-rolling expression.
That’s the temptation. Paul did not give into it, however. True, Acts 17 might have had a happier ending if he had given in, if he had sugarcoated the truth and tailored his message for his audience. Paul did know his audience after all. He had done his homework. And he was intelligent enough to have known what he needed to do to keep as many people as possible with him. Had he done that, the story of Acts 17 might have ended differently.
But then it would be an open question whether 2,000 years later, there would still be any such thing as the Church of Jesus Christ on earth, too.
And that is surely a point worth pondering!
Martin Gardner’s novel, The Flight of Peter Fromm, tells a story that, although it is itself fictional, has altogether too many real-life parallels. In the story we meet Peter Fromm, a young, Midwesterner who feels called to the ministry and so enrolls in the University of Chicago’s Divinity School in the late-1930s. But soon after his arrival at seminary, Peter detects from his professors a systematic dismantling of the very Christian faith Peter had come to seminary to learn more about. The novel’s narrator is one of Peter’s seminary professors, a liberal theologian who took annual delight in pricking the balloon of faith that each of his fresh-faced students brought to the divinity school every September.
In describing Peter Fromm’s own faith, this professor claimed that when he arrived, Peter held to a “primitive Christianity indistinguishable from the childlike, apostolic faith described in the Book of Acts.” It fell to this professor, then, to make Peter grow up. And so he began to expound the teachings of Enlightenment modernism, battering students like Peter with new terminology about redaction and form criticism, demythologization, the hermeneutics of suspicion, and a welter of other scholarly tools that had long been wielded to chop up the Bible into so many disparate chunks and pieces.
When one day the professor casually noted that of course Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was not a physical event in history, Peter objected loudly and wondered how anyone who believed that could be the pastor of a congregation where folks did believe in the raising of Jesus’ body. “Isn’t that dishonest?” Peter asked. The professor assured him that it was a harmless form of dishonesty, something pastors needed to live with even as they slowly on tried to help the congregation to see Easter’s “real” meaning.
Over time, Peter became so confused that he finally had a complete mental and spiritual collapse. A few years after entering seminary, Peter was trying to preach an Easter sermon when he was convulsed with mirthless laughter that quickly disintegrated into an all-out psychological episode that ended only when a burly church usher whacked Peter upside the head with a brass candlestick!
Peter Fromm was honest. He could not proclaim a faith that had been gutted. He could not accept the liberal notion that even if all the creeds are wrong, there is enough good philosophy scattered in the Bible to prop up Christianity after all. So on that Easter Sunday, Peter could not deal with the bleak spectacle of proclaiming a lifeless message to a dying world. What was the sense?
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments and Observations
21st century society has difficulty remembering anything for more than just a few days or weeks. Such amnesia isn’t helped by its fevered dash from one crisis to the next. As I write this article, for example, the world struggles to respond appropriately to unrest in Ukraine. We act as if we’ve already largely forgotten the ongoing unrest in places like Syria and Afghanistan.
Such amnesia has profound societal and moral implications. As one philosopher wrote, “Those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” However, Psalm 66’s hymn of exuberant joy suggests that amnesia also has deep spiritual implications. That joy, after all, grows, at least in part, out of the poet’s memories of specific acts of God’s salvation. Come and listen, all you who fear God, he sings in verse 16, let me tell you what has done for me. Had the psalmist forgotten God’s gracious intervention, the psalm might either be less lively or simply not even exist.
This offers an opportunity for reflection on the place of memory in the Christian life. It offers opportunities to explore how forgetting God’s faithfulness can hamper proper gratitude to God. This psalm also presents opportunities to reflect on how worshipers can keep memories alive of God’s specific acts of kindness. A study of this psalm might even offer worshipers chances to share memories of God’s “awesome deeds” on their behalf, so that others may join them in praising the Lord.
At least some scholars suggest that the poet’s own salvation prompts her to burst out in this psalm of praise. I cried out to him with my mouth, she remembers in verses 17 and following, his praise was on my tongue … God has surely listened and heard my voice in prayer. Praise be to God who has not rejected my prayer or withheld his love from me.
Yet one can hardly read verses 10-12 without also hearing echoes of God’s rescue of Israel from exile. You, O God, tested us, the psalmist remembers there, you refined us like silver. You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs. You let men ride over our heads; we went through the fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance.
Clearly Psalm 66 refers to Israel or a specific Israelite’s experience of God’s gracious rescue. So we might expect the psalmist to invite just God’s Israelite people to join him in praising the Lord. We might expect him to begin by saying something like, “Shout with joy to God, O people of Israel.”
Yet that’s the psalmist begins, instead, by writing, Shout with joy to God, all the earth … All the earth bows down to you [emphasis added]; they sing praise to you, they sing praise to your name. In verse 8 the psalmist continues, Praise our God, O peoples [emphasis added]. So it isn’t just Israel whom the poet invites to join him in praising the Lord. It isn’t even just the world’s people whom the poet invites to join in praising God for God’s acts of grace. It’s, in fact, the whole creation that he beckons to sing praise and bow down to the Lord.
Why would the poet invite the whole creation to celebrate something that God did apparently either for just one tiny corner of it or perhaps one Israelite? Verses 1-3’s invitation suggests that Israel has a place in God’s heart that’s so special that not just Israel, but also the whole creation should celebrate when God rescues her. It may even imply that what God does for Israel is good not just for Israel, but also for the whole creation.
Of course, verse 4’s assertion that “all the earth” bows down to the Lord seems naïve. After all, far too many people don’t yet worship the living God. The whole creation does not yet willingly submit to God’s loving rule. Perhaps, then, the psalmist is reflecting on God’s lordship that is real even though not everything yet recognizes it. The psalmist may also be writing with a hopeful eye to the future.
As preachers and teachers consider how to lead people through Psalm 66, theologian James Limburg invites us to remember that when the Bible speaks about God, it often does so by telling what God has done. Essentially, when the Bible describes God, it generally tells a story. We might even argue the Scriptures are the story of God’s work in God’s world.
So we can see the Scriptures as a story that begins with creation and runs through the story of Abram and Sarai. It continues with Israel’s Exodus to the land of promise that ultimately leads to exile. Yet the New Testament picks up the story by telling what Jesus said and did and what the Holy Spirit does as the Spirit spreads the gospel across the whole world.
Yet these aren’t just stories of God’s work in and through ancient people. God also graciously includes God’s children of every era in God’s story. One of preacher and teachers’ tasks is to find ways to help worshipers locate themselves in those stories so that they too may remember and tell of what God has graciously done.
The Revised Common Lectionary appoints Acts 7:55-60 for this Sunday in addition to Psalm 66. That passage speaks of Stephen’s martyrdom, in part because of his retelling of God’s story that his audience has largely rejected. It’s a sobering reminder that those who tell of what the Lord has done may pay an enormous price for it.
The Lectionary also links Psalm 66 to I Peter 2:2-10. There the Apostle Peter tells an early congregation God has made it God’s own people that it may “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” When God’s children tell of what the Lord has done, we declare those praises.
In her book, In My Father’s House, Corrie ten Boom writes: “Today, I know that memories are the key not to the past but to the future. I know that the experiences of our lives, when we let God use them, become the mysterious and perfect preparation for the work he will give us to do.”
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.
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.