Knowing why and how to do what we do
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behaviour in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, 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, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. (1 Peter 3:13-22 ESV)
Last Sunday – before the cricket match in Beck Row – we gathered here in this intersection of earth and heaven – we were called into God’s presence and were reminded that Jesus who left the empty tomb nearly 2,000 years enters our time and space at the font, at his table, and he is still calling his people around him to speak and listen to them. We don’t need a TARDIS or have to go to Galilee for that to happen. Christianity isn’t a remote religion with God far away but a personal, dare I say, intimate religion with God very close. And we’ve been listening to Peter’s first letter – written to scattered Christians in modern day Turkey, many of whom were suffering various degrees of troubles, hassles and persecutions – think of it in terms of bad weather blowing in and out – rather than a sustained personalised constant state authorised attack. But it still stings and hurts and worries and anxieties are not things the followers of Jesus are immune from. However Peter wants the resurrection reality of Jesus needs to be understood for what it is rather than what we want it to be.
Jesus isn’t our genie. We don’t rub the bible, grab our baptismal certificate and say the magic word, give offerings, spit out Holy Communion and use it in some sort of supernatural ritual – and command Jesus to do as we say. Jesus is our Lord – a person truly human and truly God – who has committed himself to us – he died and was raised for us – and he helps us live in this foreign world as people chosen and loved by God – who is a mysterious Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When things are tough, we sometimes have to be reminded of the big picture and for Christians it is that out life with Jesus is secure – our eternal future is assured – the power of fear, shame, remorse, and sin can and do wrap their tentacles around us but (a) when they pull us down into the darkness we discover that Jesus is still with us – always ‘lower’, holding us up; and (b) they don’t control us though they can be tempting to follow and stay with.
Last week Peter began midway in Chapter 2 of his first letter to turn to the practical things about being a disciple of Jesus. Struggling with our own selfishness and desire to either control others or revenge ourselves when others wrong us, Peter calls us to ‘do good’ – not be ‘do-gooders’ as such but be God’s people who critically see what is happening around them and seek to ‘do good’ – do what will serve and help people – even as the world simply doesn’t understand and attacks. This being the lackey of the world almost doesn’t sit well with our ego – and Peter specifically speaks to the servants about how to do good whether their masters are good or bad.
Today we heard from chapter 3. In between Peter has spoken to Christian wives and then to husbands about what the resurrection reality looks like for them. He then addresses everyone again:
Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. For
“Whoever desires to love life and see good days,
let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit;
let him turn away from evil and do good;
let him seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (1 Peter 3:8-12 ESV)
And then we come to the second reading we heard a little earlier. And Peter returns to what is troubling his readers, his listeners – life is tough following Jesus. When the world, society and people around regard you as different (and how people can hate being different); when they know that there are no real consequences for bad behaviour against you (sadly the Lord of the Flies can so quickly emerge when there are no curbs or fences or expectations or laws to govern behaviour) – both of which are not a strong part of our lives here in the UK but this is very real in other parts of the world – then Peter’s goal surely is to be clear about what to do in response and why.
The doing part is pretty straightforward – we get it. Times of troubles will come and we’re not to hate the people who make our lives miserable but be ready when you can to make a defence of your faith; to explain why you’re so hopeful – ie. full of hope – confident that Jesus is with his people; with you – but do so with gentleness and respect – with a good conscience no matter what they say about you. So that’s the task – to know the faith – learn and know the Bible and the accounts of sin and grace therein, and also the creeds and the catechism which are the teachings that come from the Bible; the summaries of what we believe about God and us and how to behave and what is the church and Baptism and Holy Communion and any other topic we may be asked about. This learning is the Holy Spirit’s work to be sure but we can be diligent or slack students (remember, the word ‘disciple’ basically means ‘student’), keen or lazy students.
Since we always spend time on what is important to us – that’s part of living – so Peter is simply helping us to remember – encouraging us perhaps, challenging us also – to know the Christian faith – to know what we believe – and to know it accurately rather than our imaginary or wishful versions of it. This is clear and makes sense. It’s pretty obvious.
But he also gives us the why. Now why should we do anything the Bible says? Well, the world assumes that we’re beaten into obedience. We’re scared of hell or something so we try and be good. But then the world hasn’t heard – and I mean heard and understood – the gospel – the Good News of Jesus Christ which begins with three little words: I love you. That is God’s starting position – his middle position – and his end position with you – with us – with humanity. When this truth is part of us then the why question falls into place.
Why bear the persecutions of the world? Why struggle with sin? Why seek to serve those around us? Why structure our day – each day – so that we spend time with God? Because God loves us! Look to the cross!
Now I can say that right here and now and you nod – you know what I mean because you’ve heard it before and you know that the two words ‘the cross’ mean or include Jesus’ birth at Christmas, his life on earth, his teachings, his miracles, his squabbles with the religious leaders, his taking on the demonic and winning every time, his praying, his patience with the disciples, his suffering, his temptations, his humiliation, his coronation as he wore the crown of thorns and his victory for us by his sacrifice. All that – and more – can be found in two little words – ‘the cross’.
Peter does the same thing with his audience – and they knew what he meant – but for us today, it produces some of – if not the hardest part of the Bible to understand.
Why should we endure persecution or hassles or the battle and suffering that comes with being a Christian? Why does God allow his people to get it in the neck? And Peter does what pastors always do – point to Jesus. Jesus suffered says Peter. Once – this refers to the specific actions that culminate in the cross. Righteous for the unrighteous – yep, that’s what Jesus did – died for sinners so that we might be with God now and always.
And Peter uses the phrasing ‘put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit’ not as a description that separates body and soul or minimises this world over against the heavenly world but this is his way of saying ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and buried. He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and
sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty, from thence he will come to judge the living and the dead.’
And this is how we are to understand ‘the spirits in prison’ and his Noah and the number 8 references as pictures or types to explain the ‘big picture’ which is that those people who persecute you now are not the enemy but they are the manifestation perhaps or they are being used by the unseen powers – the ‘spirits in prison’ – who have rebelled against God and who still seek to ruin us. In Genesis we wonder how evil could begin in a perfect world and we rightly point the blame at Adam for through him sin entered the world and it is by the second Adam that new life has come back into this world. But there is also, on the fringes almost, others – the serpent in Genesis 3 – the ‘sons of God’ in Genesis 6 who fooled around with the ‘daughters of man’ and what we have is a shimmer, a sense, it’s in a fog, there’s nothing clear that in the spiritual realm there is spiritual disobedience and revolt against God. As the light of the New Testament brightens things, we come to see that there are creatures called demons, and Satan, and Legion, and the prince of power of the air (Eph 2) and other terms are used. Why tell us that there’s an unseen enemy lurking to get us? Because the constant message remains that these spirits are not in control! They are imprisoned – leashed – and sure the dragon can swing its tail and do damage but it is all limited.
The Christians who heard Peter are getting it in the neck and also at times from the Empire – the Roman Empire – who can beat them?! – and Peter gives a picture that they are like Noah and his family who will survive the storm – just as they will. And whereas the Jewish picture of hope is the Exodus – walking through water safe while it destroys the enemy (Paul uses it in his first letter to the Corinthians) – Peter uses the story, the image, and the comfort of Noah – and that makes sense since most of his readers are probably non Jews who haven’t grown up with the Passover and Exodus story but all of them have been baptised!
8 is the number for the resurrected new life – for life with God – for the new creation after this old one of 7 days passes away – and it makes connections with these small congregations – small in number – feeling picked on (because they were!), Davids up against Goliaths and Peter wants them to know that God is with them because of Jesus’ resurrection and their baptism. Jesus is the one who has final control and authority and power and these spirits and all the evil in the world will not win out even as they appear to win skirmishes, the battle has gone against them because they can’t use their biggest gun. Death has been spiked, neutered, broken, all the teeth are smashed so it can’t pierce you – it might gum you! – and the victor is the risen Jesus.
So live despite what is thrown at you – and rejoice even in your suffering – for nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. There is no better way to live!
- 1 Peter 3:13 - 22