Lent I, Year B
1 Pt 3:18-22
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, "As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth." God said, "This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring
clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth." God said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth."
(1 Peter 3:18-22)
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He 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, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, 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 made subject to him.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This is the third time this Year B that we called to hear in Mark the story of the baptism of Jesus. In Advent we focused on Jesus and his relationship to John the Baptist, and in Epiphany on the baptism/testing. You might think that the editors of the Revised Common Lectionary were trying to tell us something about the importance of this opening sequence in Mark’s gospel.
For the final encounter with this text this year, we will consider verses 14 and 15, Jesus’ proclamation of the advent of the reign of God, with our previous discussions in mind.
Mimetic theory (at least as articulated in the gospels) not only concerns itself with negative implications for the human condition, but in spite of the power of these negative implications, it resists and liberates with another message that is good news.
If the gospels and the newspapers are calling the same thing ‘news’ we ought to consider why one is good and the other, well, not so good. Both are replete with social conflict, strife, political ambition, growing violence and unrest in the populace, unjust accusations, lies and violent death. What makes one ‘euangellion,’ good news, and the other ‘dysangellion’ or bad news?
The Markan text clearly points out that whatever it was that Jesus was saying about God and his reign, it was good. The offer to turn around and change our point of view in the light of this good news was just the prelude to the dawn of this reign. The time for God to come and make a statement in the midst of all the other gods and religions and myths of the world was at hand. That is, the Creator had come to bring the change the Creation needed if it was to survive. That change was the lived message of love and forgiveness while the gods of religion dispensed penance and justice. That change was the freeing of humanity from the bonds of mimesis so that we might all, each one of us in our own distinctive manner, live in the Life of the Creator. As a result, we will ‘have the eyes of our heart enlightened’ so that we might know with certainty that we have come to know the Creator’s will and heart through Jesus of Nazareth.
Those who preach peace are aware that there are only two perspectives one can take with a text. The first we have referred to as ‘repentant reading,’ ‘the view from below,’ or ‘a theology of the cross.’ All other views take the perspective of the persecutor. How can we tell if we are reading the good news and hearing bad news, reading from a persecutory perspective? We can tell this when we find ourselves justifying our violence, anger, retribution, retaliatory feelings or hate by believing that God shares these satanic values.
Let us be clear: The God being announced in the ministry of Jesus is known to all, by many names perhaps, but God is known. We call on this God in desperate times, but we wait in vain for deliverance because we wait for a ‘deus ex machina,’ a god from the mythological drama who will step in and save the day by showing mercy, but only to us. Yeah! Go God!
The God of the Gospel, the One whose reign dawns before us, is not like the other gods of our imaginations, even, and perhaps, especially, the “Christian” God. It is difficult to capture just how powerful the gospel message was in the life of the early church. Scholars tend to view early church history as a series of conflicts and resolutions. And there were plenty of conflicts and unfortunately few real resolutions. In spite of all of that, early Christian charity did not go unnoticed by those outside the community. The message of ‘Peace’ coming from the Risen Lord, the love and devotion he elicited from his followers toward each other is unparalleled. This is a difficult category to quantify, but unless we address the posture of the early church with regard to the issues of violence, forgiveness and love, we will not be able to see all of the internal connections that can be made for a positive theory of mimesis. Nor will we be able to articulate them for our congregations.
Every day the sun rises on us, the dawning of the reign of God also occurs. Every day is a new chance, a new opportunity to walk away from the darkness into the light and life of the gospel of the God of Jesus Christ.
There has been plenty of discussion in the twentieth century regarding the potential meaning of the phrase ‘kingdom of God’ in Jesus’ teaching. In the early part of the twentieth century the ‘kingdom of God’ was rediscovered as the central element in Jesus proclamation. Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer set the course for the discussion. They both focused on the ‘apocalyptic’ horizon and consequently interpreted Jesus as an end time preacher of judgment. And so they argue, like every other apocalyptist before him, Jesus was not concerned with living life in the present as much as he was about the presence of the end of history.
During the years just prior to and after World War II, the emphasis shifted. For authors like C.H. Dodd and Joachim Jeremias, Jesus’ eschatology was either ‘realized’ or ‘in the process of being realized.’ That is, the presence of the Kingdom, was not a far off event but one that was now manifesting itself in Jesus’ mission. Combined with the research of the ‘salvation-historical’ school, Jesus’ message began to take a form that seemed to articulate a more credible view of time and history. We were also permitted to conceive that for Jesus the ‘kingdom of God ‘ had something to do with this earthly life we lead.
For an awful lot of folks however, this great discussion is completely tangential to their lives. Unfortunately, many Christian churches subscribe to a theory that while popular, remains nothing more than Christian fantasy. This view is termed dispensationalism and is wildly popular in the Left Behind series. There is very little difference between this view and that of Schweitzer and Weiss. In both views the Gospel is miscarried.
We refer clergy to the work of George Eldon Ladd for critically dismantling this understanding, particularly The Presence of the Kingdom. The poverty of much contemporary eschatology stems from the refusal or inability to see that for Jesus, the reign of God in his ministry is the same as the reign of God in the future. God is not now this, then that, now merciful, then dispensing justice. (Shades of Sabellius?)
Jesus’ God is not like that. It is beautifully expressed by P.T. Forsyth. He asks “Is Jesus able to keep what I trust to him?” He says, “I have no means of being sure about this, nor can I live as if I were, unless I know and experience Christ; unless I know Him not simply as the Lover of my soul, but as Victor for it forever, nay the very constituent of it; unless his love is the Holy One’s love, love absolute. The Christian revelation is not just God is love, but God’s love is omnipotent.” (quoted in G.R. Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Kingdom of God)
Finally, a much more solid exegetical footing is given in the work of Bruce Chilton. He has been able to demonstrate the coherence of Jesus teaching on the kingdom (God in Strength), and also to demonstrate the value and influence of the Isaiah Targum and its use of the phrase ‘kingdom of God’ for Jesus. (A Galilean Rabbi and His Bible).
Our eschatology can either be aligned fundamentally with that of Jesus or with that of the other gods and their apocalyptic scenarios. The one is good news, the other, is, to put it mildly, very, very bad news except for a select few. And like those who heard his message as he preached in Galilee, we are given a chance to repent of our views of God, others, and ourselves.
In our situation today we are frequently tempted to turn Jesus into an end time apocalyptic Judge with an attitude. Our own fears and anxieties seek deliverance from those foes that would deprive us of the security and peace that we feel are so necessary to our existence. We turn to cheap copies of Jesus delivered in facile sermons and sold in bible book stores. This Jesus, it turns out, is nothing other than all of the old gods in Christian guise. And we think, “we won’t get fooled again.”
The god of the ‘bad news’ has been and will always be a dark and awe-full presence before whom we must bow down in contrition and pray that we have earned favor. The god of the bad news is a terrorist in the sky smiting his enemies. The god of the bad news is a dysfunctional parent in the sky before whom we tremble and pray he hasn’t been on a binge. In short, for much of Christianity God is not accessible because we have made it impossible to hear the liberating message that Jesus brings: God’s GOOD reign, a reign of peace and love, can be seen in the activity of Jesus of Nazareth and as preachers we do our congregations an injustice as long as the god of our devotion is no different than all of the other so-called gods.
More so, in frequent highly charged political rhetoric, God is invoked to justify our penchant and need for retributive justice. It is assumed that God will take our side and that he will bless our cause or our country. Nothing could be further from the truth. Have we forgotten that God is impartial, that God forgives all of His children? Have we lost our way? If the “American” way of life is to be seen as a prelude to the kingdom, as former President Reagan put it, then we must either give up on Jesus or profoundly question our understanding of just how the Creator abba rules the creation. There really is no middle ground. We are, in short, invited to repent.
Where is the Kingdom of God? Wherever Jesus is King. This may seem a simple solution but the metaphor is important. The question to be asked of the subjects of this King is: are we obedient to His Lordship or have we also allegiances to other lords and masters?
The call to allegiance is more pronounced now than when we first wrote these pages back in 2003. Loyalty to nation, to church, to religious tradition, to culture have all entered the pulpits of America and have morphed the average churchgoer. National flags in our sanctuaries demand greater loyalty in some locales than the crosses we display. Patriotic hymns are sung with more fervor than hymns of praise to Jesus. The ‘bully pulpit’ of many have more to do with loyalty to Presidents and political candidates than they do with Jesus.
And the admixture of God and Country, that nefarious marriage that should never have happened, is seen almost weekly in many churches as the solution rather than the problem.
Jesus, and Jesus alone is our King to whom we owe complete and total allegiance and obedience, and this includes Jesus’ call to reconciliation and peacemaking. If Jesus was not about the business of violence, how can we, his subjects, be about it?
I must confess up front some trepidation about the commentary I am about to offer. It comes with a price. Our text speaks today of many things, some extremely difficult to understand and has been the source of much conjecture throughout the history of the church. Text-critical decisions have to be made as well as significant interpretive moves.
First, our text today (3:18-22) is part of a larger context that begins at 2:11 and continues down through 4:19. That context is what suffering means in the Christian life.
Second, there are the tandem themes of preaching the gospel of salvation and that of eschatological judgment. The latter is what causes so many problems for rightly understood, this judgment cannot be some sort of divine retribution or an “eschatological deferral of violence” (so Volf in Exclusion and Embrace); for a major assertion of the mimetic theoretical reading of Scripture is that Jesus announced the nonviolent reign of God and that Jesus, who rejected violence and retribution, imitates the God of Israel. Judgment must be something other than some sort of eternal punishment in hellfire and brimstone.
Third, is the much vexed question of what is occurring in verses 18-22. Ernest Best (I Peter, 140) points out that there are six inter-related questions that must be answered and the answer given to any one of these six will influence the answer given the others (see the historical/cultural section):
- What is the antecedent of ‘in which?’
- When did Christ go to preach to the spirits?
- Who are the spirits in prison?
- Where is their prison?
- What did Christ preach to them?
- Do 3:19 and 4:6 refer to the same event?
Fourth, I Peter has, in the eyes of many, a liturgical context, most often assumed to be a baptismal rite. If such is the case then something crucial is being said about baptism here.
I have been thinking about this business of judgment for some time. Working with the text this week has crystallized some thoughts I have had for a while. I offer these as a thought experiment, not as a final conclusion.
According to the mimetic theory we are caught up in the matrix of mediated desire and its consequences rivalry, violence and death (sacrifice & scapegoating). This is the opposite of the Enlightenment view that we humans are all autonomous beings. In the term coined by Rene Girard we are interdividual (not individual). On this side of the cross we are just a mob of angry, violent, mimetically constructed ‘persons.’ That is, we are not yet ‘selves.’ It is only in an encounter with the Risen Jesus and in following him (discipleship) that we become ‘persons’ for the first time. I sense this is what Paul is arguing in Galatians 2:20 and in an obverse manner in Romans 7.
The eschatological judgment scene is then the recognition, as we stand before Jesus the Righteous Judge, that we have either become true or authentic selves or we are just broken reflections of our fellow humans. Those who have broken with negative mimesis (the non-conscious copying of other humans) are those who are ‘saved.’ Those who remain within the bondage of negative mimesis will have to reckon with the reality of judgment, i.e., they did not develop into ‘selves.’ In this sense they are truly the massa damnata. Their human existence has been wasted (this is the import of the Gehenna sayings of Jesus. Gehenna is the waste dump outside the Temple in the Valley of Hinnom).
Now this is not to say that there is no possibility for repentance on the other side of death; in fact I would contend that the ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’ at this judgment might, for many, issue in such a response, and would hope that this is the case. I would hope that, at the judgment, an authentic encounter with the Risen Jesus would create in ‘the many’ the possibility of the ‘new self’ promised in the Resurrection and the Gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. I Cor 3:11-15, where judgment does not preclude or rule out salvation). That there might be those who continue to refuse such a gift is also possible, so I am left with a version of hell like that found in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, a place of self-imposed exile and loneliness.
Back to our reading for today.
The context of I Peter 3:18-22 is precisely what we would expect to find in the light of the mimetic theory. Salvation, those who are saved, are precisely those who have embraced nonviolence (non-retaliation) and love. The former is the negative way of expressing how one behaves in the face of persecution, the latter the positive way one responds to persecutors. This is the point of the extensive citation of Psalm 34:12-16.
There is perhaps, underlying our text, the issue faced in the book of Wisdom (of Solomon, particularly chapter 2), namely the suffering and persecution of the innocent righteous figure (see William Dalton Christ’s Proclamation to the Spirits). If this is so, then I Peter 3 is how the innocent scapegoat responds to unjust persecution; not as a victim who seeks retribution (like Abel whose blood cried out from the ground for vengeance), but like Jesus who is quite clearly set forth as our example. Note also that those who follow Jesus do not engage in the more common manifestations of mimetic crisis (4:3).
This leads me to my final observation. I am intrigued by the way I Peter rehabilitates the ‘myth’ of eschatological retribution found in I Enoch (if indeed Enoch’s Book of the Watchers is somehow behind this passage). The emphasis of baptism as an ‘antitype’ of the flood waters of the story of Noah emphasizes, not the judgment of God, but the salvific acts of God to the victims of mimetic crises. Baptism’s ‘salvation’ is grounded in the vindication of the innocent victim, which is why our author is at pains to say that we, like Christ, must so live our lives that if we become scapegoats it is not because we deserve the punishment of humans, but so that we might display the loving kindness of our gracious and ever living God. We ‘pledge’ (eperotema) a ‘good conscience’ or as Dalton suggests ‘a right attitude.’ That is, baptism is where we make a commitment to ‘do the right thing’ which is manifested as blessing when we are cursed or insulted, loving when we are hated and being compassionate and humble. The salvation promised in baptism is thus the promise to live in positive mimesis, in the imitation of Christ.
There are excellent observations in many of the commentaries but it is important to note how the various exegetes answer the six questions posed by Best (see above). For myself, I am still troubles by the possibility of textual corruption (the “ho” of verse 21 possibly being a dative rather than an accusative; the vexing question of whether the ‘ev ho kai’ of verse 19 should be read as Henoch(kai), that is Enoch).
There is also the question as to whether this reflects a Christus Victor theory of atonement, it was certainly so understood by many of the church fathers.
Of all the directions I would go when preaching this, I think I would focus on the importance of the good news to those who it was assumed had perished (the so-called ‘spirits in prison’). Many Christians rather blithely consign so many to hell, but never themselves, forgetting that “it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God..” (4:17). If we, who call our selves by the name of Christian justify our retaliation, retribution and violence all under the banner of God’s justice, can it really be said that we have followed Jesus? I don’t think so.
And when we suffer unjustly do we like Jesus, forgive as we ‘speak truth to power’ or do we just want (mimetically) what power has?
In some parts of the world, readers of this site are undergoing persecution and already are living out the implications of this passage. Here in America, a nation founded upon Judeo-Christian values (sic), we are the consumptive persecutors. Our task then is to call our congregations to live into their baptismal vows to follow Jesus in the Way of Love.