A Sermon for Easter 6 on 1 Peter 3:13-22
One of the things I find really intriguing about reading from a New Testament epistle is the way it can let you watch as the writer’s thinking unfolds. These are letters, after all, written into particular community contexts. In the case of 1st Peter, it is to “the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia”; to Gentile Christians living in settlements and towns in Asia Minor.
To listen to the message, click play:
I wrote this sermon on my laptop, which meant that as I went I deleted things, moved sentences around, reconsidered the usefulness of whole sections, edited, shifted… well, you know how it goes. That was all on Friday morning, and then this morning I opened the Word doc and went through it all again, editing and correcting as I went. It is the way most of us now write. By the time we have a text we want to preach or email or post or whatever, it has undergone any number of edits.
Now consider the way the various authors of the New Testament would have done their writing. They would have been working with some sort of a quill pen, writing on papyrus; not so easy to reconsider a sentence or correct your grammar. You’d really want to consider each word, each sentence, each thought, and if you did look at something you’d just written and realize it needed clarification or qualification, the only way to do it was to continue writing.
So watch as Peter’s thinking unfolds. “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?” That’s a good thought, even a noble thought, and who wouldn’t wish it were true? Yet before that ink has begun to dry, he realizes he needs to qualify that thought. “But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.” But. There’s the qualifying word, because he knows that these Christians are suffering. As Kalyn pointed out in her sermon last Sunday, many of these Christians were people of marginal status—women, slaves, poor people—yet within the body of Christ they have found this remarkable new status as the adopted sons and daughters of God, and therefore brothers and sisters to one another. This is revolutionary, particularly in the context of an Empire that placed a high premium on social status and birthright. What’s more, though, they are now finding that their identity as Christian is further marginalizing them in that Empire. They are considered “atheists” because they do not believe in the Roman gods. They are suspect, because they don’t adhere to the accepted social norms. Slaves sharing meals with free people? Whether through being socially ostracized by their neighbors or through the persecutions of emperors such as Nero or Domitian, they do suffer. They’re exiles, resident aliens, outsiders seeking to hold a deeper vision in an unsympathetic and sometimes hostile society. “[W]ho will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?” Well actually, we can think of a good number of people who quite readily harm us…
And so he keeps scratching his pen across that papyrus. “Do not fear what they fear,” he writes to them, “and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.” “Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated.” Don’t let the pressure of being looked down upon or pushed aside or scorned cause you to waver. That’s what drives so many of your hostile neighbours, this business of desperately needing the acceptance and approval of the culture of Empire. Not your way, people. Not our way. Not the Way. And so he continues, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” Stand steady in your new status as adopted children of God, in other words. They may not yet be able to see it, but the hope you carry is far more powerful than anything the imperial culture can even begin to offer. He writes of doing this with “gentleness and reverence,” yet there is a little bit of bite to this as well when he adds, “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.” How are they put to shame? And when? He doesn’t actually go there, but instead returns to the reality of suffering.
For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.
Question. That phrase “if suffering should be God’s will”; is that suggesting that suffering can be of God’s will or God’s making? I mean seriously, that could be a rather crushing theology, if by it Peter means that cancer or clinical depression or an untimely death or a deep personal crisis are engineered by God to make us better or stronger or to teach us some hard lesson. Maybe, though, we can get closer to the mark if we think in terms of what has been called the “permissive will of God.” Human choices are real, and they are bound up in the choices others make and in the very fabric of the culture in which they are made. Here Peter is saying that the kind of suffering these Christians are experiencing is precisely because they are attempting to do what they believe is right and good—they are attempting to follow what they perceive is God’s will—and it is costing them. The choice to live like they did and to hope like they did put them in a place of real vulnerability, and just because they’ve made those choices doesn’t mean God will pull a rabbit out of a hat and make everything nice and smooth and even. No, that’s the way the world works.
And yet even that suffering does not have the last word, because at the heart of this vision they’re trying to follow is this defining story of how Christ suffered “for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” So don’t let this suffering cripple you or break you or turn you away from the good path you’ve been limping down. Suffering doesn’t have the last word, and in fact death itself doesn’t have the last word. And here he briefly diverts down a path that has puzzled bible readers, interpreters and scholars for the better part of 2000 years.
Christ was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah…
What is that about? Going to offer proclamation to the “spirits in prison” who had so long ago failed to obey? It is a text that informed an ancient belief in what is called the “harrowing of hell,” in which it was held that when he died on the cross the spirit of Jesus went to the place of the dead—sheol in Hebrew—to offer the hope of the gospel to those already dead. It is frankly impossible to know precisely what Peter was writing about, much as preachers and interpreters have tried. At the very least, though, we can say this much. As Peter kept scratching his pen across that papyrus, he wanted them to know—us to know—that even as the Empire uttered threats of death, it did not hold the trump card. Even at the height of his madness, when Nero would have Christians tied to stakes in his garden where they were soaked in oil and set them ablaze to provide a spectacle of fire to light his festal parties, he didn’t hold the trump card.
A.K.M. Adam summarizes the force of this evening’s passage, pointing to how it
emphasizes with fourfold repetition God’s determination to bring people to safety: by preserving humanity through the ark, by Jesus’ self-giving on the cross, by the effects of baptism, and by Jesus’ ministry to the dead. No people have been excluded from God’s saving grace—not even the dead. All through time, God has sought to make salvation available.
By the effects of baptism, Adam, notes, which is because that is where Peter eventually lands. “And baptism,” he writes, “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.” It is so important to see the nuance of what Peter is trying to communicate when he says baptism is not “a removal of dirt from the body”—it is not a quasi-magical required ritual, in other words—but is about “a good conscience… through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” A good conscience, which means a transformed or transforming way of seeing and thinking and being in the world. Yes, it might feel like you’re an exile or a resident alien, and it is probable that such vulnerability is going to lead to suffering. But, he’s saying, this transformed way of being in the world that you have taken on as adopted children of God is actually about being rightly relocated… whether your hostile neighbours understand it or not.
It is still all true for us, even if we don’t often face hostile neighbours, and if we do it probably has little to do with our faith. We live under a brutal emperor, though there are Christians in other places in the world who do. Yet it is still true. So be transformed—be “eager to do what is good”—and don’t be afraid.