1 Peter 3:8‑22
8All of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9Do not repay evil for evil, or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called — that you might inherit a blessing. 10For
‘Those who desire life
and desire to see good days,
let them keep their tongues from evil
and their lips from speaking deceit;
11 let them turn away from evil and do good;
let them seek peace and pursue it,
12for 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.’
13Who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14Even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; 16but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame, 17for it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order to bring us to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also He went and made a proclamation to the imprisoned spirits, 20who 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 people, were saved through water. 21Baptism, 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, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to Him.
Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English version), alt, used with permission.
As with many other passages on which I have reflected, here we have evidence of how the members of the fledgling Christian community to which the author of this letter writes have been behaving in ways which suggest a lack of commitment to their faith. Though the heading says ‘1 Peter’, and the book opens with a Pauline style greeting, there is no certainty that Peter was the author. It could have been written as much as seventy years after the first Easter, with Christians doubting their faith more and more, and struggling to keep the vital link in the face of what they thought was a lack of evidence in support. The people to whom this was directed were clearly struggling with a lack of unity in their approach to God, a concern for their own well-being, and a willingness to claim that they were better than some of their fellow Christians. When I look around at groups which profess the Christian faith today what do I see but a lack of unity, concern for selves, and an “I’m better than you” attitude.
Because the timing of the passage is not clear it is also not clear whether the people originally targeted by the author were being ridiculed by unbelievers or were suffering greater persecution at the hands of the authorities who deemed that this Christian movement should be shut down as quickly as possible. Either way, those amongst whom these people were living were hostile to the message being portrayed. We think that, in an Australian society which is still predominantly Christian, we do not face the same problems, but we are ridiculed on a regular basis, and many of the laws which have kept our society civilised are challenged by those who do not understand the message. Is that because we show the world a divided and argumentative face, and display the same behavioural patterns as those outside the church? “They will know we are Christians by our love” – or will they? If we Christians are not persecuted in our own way in the 21st century then why are we so reluctant to stand up for our faith and proclaim the Good News? Jesus said “You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ but I say ‘love your enemy’. We are called to repay evil with good – and I know that’s difficult in many circumstances – but if we desire life and good days then we must steer away from evil, injustice, and unkind words. God sees our every action and hears all our thoughts, but He doesn’t use a big stick to punish us when we stray. That’s a human way, and it deals evil for evil. Mahatma Ghandi once said that if we apply the biblical rule of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ literally then we will quickly descend into a blind and toothless society.
By way of contrast, this reading is about hope: hope for a future in the presence of God without the persecutions of the day. We know that there are people around us who are opposed to our message, some of them by turning their backs on it, others, like Saul before his conversion and the so-called Islamic State today, engaging in violence to intimidate us into submission. In between are those who do all they can to tear down our thinking by the use of words, deliberately scheduling sport at the same time as church services, or demanding that shops are open all day every day. Whatever the approach of those who would have us silenced we mustn’t return the ill-will, and, and here’s the biggest challenge, we shouldn’t be afraid to speak up and profess our faith. Leaving to God any future treatment of those who oppose us isn’t always easy, but we can be strengthened by Christ’s own words on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” When we look to the future, what happens to those who stood in our way in the past will pale into insignificance.
If Christ suffered, even though He did no evil and said nothing other than to start the movement which spread the Good News, then we should not be surprised to suffer at the hands of those around us. When we connect with the Easter messages of hope and the help of the Holy Spirit, rather than consider what happened 2000 years ago as historical events, then we can be empowered to spread the News with confidence and effectiveness. After just one sermon from Peter, 3000 were added to the Christian community in a society which was more hostile to the Christian message than ours is today. How we respond to suffering among good people might not benefit us in the immediate future, or even in our current life, but if it benefits the Christian message then we should celebrate.
As children of God we can expect to move from our earthly existence to a spiritual one, along with Christ, but who are the ‘imprisoned’ spirits mentioned in this letter? It’s an unusual description, an intriguing one, and one for which scholars have yet to find a single possible explanation. Since Christ has dominion over the dead, as well as those who live, was He freeing the spirits of those who had died before Him so they, too, could be resurrected? Were those spirits among the angels who fell short of the glory of God and were banished from heaven, along with Satan? Were they the resistence movement of the time of Noah, since he was mentioned by the author? Does that also mean that those who die today without any knowledge or experience of Christ in their lives are saved by Christ’s action in ministering to the dead? Paul told us not to take advantage of God’s grace when we sin and ask for forgiveness but to do the right thing to start, so are we going to show them that we are Christians by our love?