Easter 6: 21 May 1 Peter 3:13-22
This passage comes after the author has instructed the hearers to live peaceful and submissive lives, being good citizens, with wives obeying husbands, husbands respecting wives as the weaker sex, and generally behaving in a respectful manner of others in the community. 3:13 begins by suggesting a good life is surely not going to get people into trouble, but then 3:14 faces the reality that this can still be the case. When persecution comes the hearers should be ready to explain themselves (3:15). They are to centre their lives on Christ (3:15). Sometimes the most they can hope for is that their abusers will be ashamed when they recognise the goodness which characterises their victims' lives (3:16). On no account should they be suffering on any other ground (3:17).
The author assumes danger. People who face such dangers today will tune in to his message. The hearers seem forced into a passive kind of goodness; more than that puts them at risk. Even then they face risk. What then can they hold onto? The author brings them back to Christ's story using what appear to be not only some traditional ideas but perhaps also some allusions or citations of material which might have been familiar to the hearers. It is as though he cites a hymn or creedal statement, but it is now embedded in his reflections (3:18-22).
The tradition brings the familiar notion of Christ suffering for sins as one who was just (3:18). It was undeserved suffering. That much connects to what the author had said about potential suffering confronting the hearers, but then he continues with the rest of the tradition to refer to Christ's death and resurrection. That is certainly an assurance of hope for the hearers. When they suffer unjustly, too, they can know it is not ultimately hopeless. But then the author goes further to do something quite unusual, perhaps because it was part of his tradition. He speaks of Christ's preaching after his death to the spirits of the people drowned in the flood of Noah (3:19-20). We might want to know what he proclaimed. Was it judgement or was it hope and forgiveness? Perhaps the latter.
The author, however, is not so much interested in that detail as in the reference to the rescue, itself, of the 8 people including Noah. They were saved through the water by the ark. That reminds the author of Baptism (3:21). Baptism (and we must assume the faith and receiving grace which belongs to it) celebrates the gift of a right relationship with God. This right relationship is through Christ's resurrection (3:21). In other words baptism enacts the dying and rising of Christ and believers participate in it. Thus baptism represents their coming to new life. This then reinforces the hope for them that is there anyway, but especially now when they face the prospect of undeserved suffering like Christ's.
The author returns then in 3:22 to the traditional material to accompany the statement of resurrection by an allusion to Psalm 110:1 and Psalm 8:7. We find the same link in 1 Corinthians 15:22-28, Ephesians 1:20-22 and Hebrews 1:4, 13 and 2:5-8. The tradition sees Christ as enthroned like a heavenly royal Messiah, now to rule with God over all threatening powers. These may seem quaint embellishments, but in a world where powers threatened, political and otherwise, and where life was precarious, such a faith was defiance. It defied the god-claims of political rulers, embodied in Asia Minor in the imperial cult and the oppression of Rome's agents. It defied the random threats of unseen terrors. It asserted that ultimately Christ rules!
This was not a cheap triumphalism but rather an assertion of faith against the odds. On reflection it is the paradoxical claim that the vulnerability and compassion of the Christ, far from being a symbol of meaningless and defeat, is in fact a revelation of the heart of God. The story or myth, then, has this broken life transformed to royalty, the inglorious made glorious, the dead made alive. Hearts of fear can then feed on that brokenness and that life poured out as the nourishment of hope. They can see in the waters of baptism the image of life beyond submerging.
First Reading: Easter 6: 21 May Acts
Gospel: Easter 6: 21 May John 14:15-21