Rev. Dr. David Breeden
Focusing Scriptures: 1 Peter 3:13-22 (NRSV)
Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. 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. 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. 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.
This passage begins with what sounds like a rather naïve observation, especially given that the date of composition for 1 Peter is somewhere between 75 and 115 CE—not a particularly good era to be Christian. Looked at twice, however, given what follows, this statement reveals itself as gallows humor at its finest. Those listening to this text are to go beyond the usual understanding of reward and punishment: “Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated.” Say what? Yes, this is a different sort of action: when we inevitably find ourselves on the defensive, we are to use “gentleness and reverence.”? In this spiritual program the half-way point is a simple declaration: “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God's will, than to suffer for doing evil.” Fair enough, if suffer we must. It is the rest of the program that gets tough: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.”
Scholars have long noted that the Christology of 1 Peter closely resembles that of the Pauline school, yet contains features of a more human Jesus as well, the Petrine school that supplies the book’s name. (Note how odd the mention of Noah sounds—connecting the flood to baptism? Furthermore, the idea of baptism in general here is odd: “not as a removal of dirt . . . but as an appeal to God for a good conscience.” Baptism as appeal rather than a symbol.)
In this passage, the author accepts the full weight and contradiction of the crucifixion: according to any earthly measure, Jesus lost the battle. Yet, “he was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.” This reflects an older, pre-Pauline, view of the crucifixion—one in which suffering—of Jesus and his followers—is not symbolic of a larger cosmic drama but the inevitable consequence of contradicting the “principalities and powers.”
Suffering comes; our task is to embrace it and transform it. Not because we are above and beyond the flesh but because flesh can be committed to higher purpose.