This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news:
1 Peter 3:13-4:6
13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14But even 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; 16yet 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. 17For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18For 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, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 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. 21And 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, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
4Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same intention (for whoever has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin), 2so as to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God. 3You have already spent enough time in doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry. 4They are surprised that you no longer join them in the same excesses of dissipation, and so they blaspheme. 5But they will have to give an account to him who stands ready to judge the living and the dead. 6For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.
The first part of this passage is just a repetition of the author’s call to his readers to “suffer with Christ” when faced with persecution by Roman authorities. They are to maintain their innocence, making sure they do nothing against the law, but defending the “hope that is in them.” (see bible blog 593)
Christ’s death is again characterised as a sacrifice which brings believers to God, who accepts all his disciples as sharing in the “once-for-all” offering he has made.
The fun starts with the bit about the spirits in prison, over which scholars have argued for centuries. This is not the place to go into great detail but readers who are interested might like to access one of the developments of this text under the title the “Harrowing of Hell” a splendid story in which Christ throws down the gates of hell and lets out Adam and Eve and other poor souls who’ve been imprisoned there over the years. Other scholars note that Jewish tradition spoke of the Evil Angels who had deceived human beings into the sin that brought about the flood. The author imagines Christ in his death and resurrection “making a proclamation” to them, that is, announcing his victory over death and evil. At last their continuing influence on humanity is broken.
Ch4:6 fits more easily with some version of the “harrowing” than with this second explanation, but I’ve never read an explanation which made perfect sense of this passage. The main thrust of it is the victory of Christ over evil by the power of his suffering. Those who learn from him how to deny their “flesh” that is, their earth-bound humanity, are sharing in the victory which Christ has won for the living and the dead.
17 While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, 18‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; 19then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.’
20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favour of him. 21And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ 22But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ 23He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’
24 When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. 25But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
The behaviour of the Zebedees is used to as a negative example. Jesus has spoken about his forthcoming rejection and death, yet even the inner group of disciples does not understand: they are still thinking of Jesus as a powerful ruler whose special favour can give privilege to one disciple over another. There is irony in James’ and John’s easy assertion that they will share Jesus’ cup. Soon they will find themselves amongst those who have forsaken Jesus in his time of need. Nevertheless, Jesus hints, a day may come when they will be strong enough to share his suffering.
Jesus proceeds to distinguish his kingship from all conventional power and privilege. He rules by putting himself in the power of those who hold human beings captive (“ransom”). His service must not be sentimentalised as if he spent all his time looking after the bodily or even spiritual needs of his disciples. Rather, he serves them by releasing them from the power of evil and making them fit to do the same for others. The Christian community does not behave as if all its members needed a personal attendant. Its members serve each other by serving their liberation from evil; and together serve the liberation of the world.