First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Lent 1

William Loader

Lent 1: 21 February  1 Peter 3:18-22

The passage begins with a statement about Christ which may well be a quotation of a familiar tradition. Its context is the exhortation that people not be ashamed of needing to face suffering - except if they are deserving it! The reference is to suffering inflicted by authorities. The theme of the righteous suffering has reminded the author of this statement about Christ. He, too, faced suffering, although he was just. Instead of just saying that, the author goes on to cite the rest of the tradition.

This tradition probably runs through 3:18 and into 3:19 and probably returns again in 3:22. It is the kind of statement we sometimes find in Paul. Christ died for us - here: 'for our sins'. This became an interpretation of the meaning of Jesus' sufferings (and death). It may have been developing a notion already present in Judaism at the time that the suffering of an undeserving person creates a surplus of good, which can then benefit others. When people reflected on the impact of Jesus death (and life), some used this key. A surplus flowed out - to us, to all. The same thinking then became combined with many other complex ideas, including notions of sacrifice. Christ was seen as a sacrifice for sins: the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. This is part of the imagery of faith's attempt to interpret Jesus' life and death. For some people, even today, it has become the only way - regrettably so, given that for many today the imagery no longer works.

Here the imagery is not developed. Its focus is that through this act Christ brought us to God. This was a way of interpreting the benefit of Jesus' death (and life). It brought us to God. This is the language of introduction. It is relationship language. It is possible to turn these statements into a description of mechanisms, as though Jesus needed to complete an achievement before God would be interested in receiving us and as though no one ever had access to God before Christ. That is surely not the case. And God should not be brought into our systems of thinking where he needs to be bought off or paid or manipulated before generosity is possible.

In some ways all this is incidental to the statement on suffering and then to the statement that having been killed Christ was made alive, an allusion to the resurrection. This is a theme in 1 Peter: though we suffer, even die, we have hope: God will raise us up. Part of the tradition appears to have speculated about Christ the risen one addressing those who died in Noah's flood - perhaps seen as belonging in the lower heavens through which Christ passed. The author quickly passes to an element that is incidental: that some were in fact saved right through the experience of the flood because they were in the ark.

The author then jumps over to the flood as an analogy for baptism. In other words the allusion in the tradition which he is citing to those who died in the flood and those who were rescued provides the author with a (rather artificial) bridge to baptism. Baptism represents not an isolated rite, but a rite which belongs to a total event which will have included much else, including faith, but is being used here, as often in the New Testament, as shorthand for the whole process of coming to faith. What baptism represents, namely cleansing of the person (conscience or conscious being), is a resurrection.

Elsewhere we find Paul talking of baptism as a way of being linked to Christ's death and resurrection. The same pattern of thinking is also present here. Christ's death and resurrection becomes the framework of thought for understanding the change brought about when people come to faith. The result is a confidence about being able to approach God (coming back to what 3:18 had been saying). The author thinks all of this in the context of who Christ is. Christ suffered, was raised, and, in language which will later find its echo in the creed: is at God's right hand. Here we have an allusion to Psalm 110:1 which originally celebrates the enthronement of Israel's king. It became a text for describing the enthronement of the king to come, the Messiah. People interpreted Jesus' resurrection as his enthronement as Messiah (Acts 2:33-36). In 3:22 we also find an allusion to Psalm 8:6 which the author uses to describe the significance of this event. Paul does the same in 1 Cor 15:22-28. The same combination is also in Hebrews 1 and 2. The emphasis is on Christ's superiority over all other powers (threatening and otherwise).

The point of this rather dense passage seems to be that the hearers need not fear suffering nor fear the powers that be. They can pin their hope on Christ ultimately having the power that matters. Their faith (and baptism) has joined them to Christ in a way that they can be confident that where he is they also will be. It is a rather complicated way of trying to engender trust and confidence. Christ's story becomes the model for their story. They find meaning in their lives by seeing the meaning of his. We can see in the verses which immediately follow that suffering and persecution is a major concern. There is an attempt here to boost confidence amid what is probably despondency. But all the way through, the author is not praising suffering in itself - either suffering because of one's own sin or, even suffering because of one's own arrogance (such as embarking on war when peace is a possibility). Lent is about facing our own (and others') harsh realities and reading them in the context of Christ's story.

Gospel: Lent 1: 21 February Mark 1:9-15

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