Today’s scripture is a little complex and there are various interpretations of it. This kind of writing is actually one of the things that I love about the bible because it makes me think and reminds me of just how much I will never understand about the fullness of God. In pointing us to God and his greatness we will always be confronted with things we cannot always understand, and that is actually a good thing. The most dangerous times for us are those times in which we think we have God all figured out. It is then that we stray from the truth and make for ourselves a false God of our own device. When we encounter texts like todays they force us to recognize the limits of our comprehension and return to the simple place of saying “God, you are Lord of all and that is what I know. I don’t understand, but wait on you.” Needless to say I had a lot of waiting to do with this text and still have a bit left to do. While my thoughts are not finished on this text I will share what I felt led to, but in this case must say that especially verse 19 and 20 are hard for this 21st century guy to wrap his head around.
18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.[e] It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him. 1 Peter 3:18-22
When we talk about the suffering of Jesus, we tend to limit our focus to the events surrounding his crucifixion. I would like us to pull back for a moment and look at the big picture. Jesus suffered for over 30 years in his life as a human. I can’t imagine what kind of pain it must have been to have access to the power, wisdom and knowledge of being in very nature God and denying that every day. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to feel pain and accept it rather than willing it away. So when we speak of Jesus suffering, let us remember the enormity of all he suffered on our behalf, not just the events of one day. He suffered the injustice of being falsely accused and being put to death and he suffered skinned knees, hitting his thumb with a hammer and puberty. All this he did so that we could come to God.
Since there is no non-controversial interpretation of this next bit I am going to pick what I think is the most challenging to share with you. There is a simple underlying message here that through Jesus God’s love is for every person who has ever lived and will ever live, no matter what. God’s love is extended to every human being, even those who have rejected him, even the darkest of evildoers. There are plenty of other passages that talk about how God loved us before we came to love him to back this interpretation up, but I want to read to the description of the people killed in the flood from the book of Genesis:
5 The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. 6 The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. 7 So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” 11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. 12 God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. 13 So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. Genesis 6:5-7, 11-13
These people that Genesis tells us God regretted making are the very people Peter tells us Jesus went to in order to offer redemption. This makes me squirm a bit since I have to ask myself who I am not welcoming into my life that God has offered his redemption to. Who is it that I might be denying the chance at entering the kingdom? If Jesus could go to those violent offenders who caused God to regret making them who can be off limits to us? This is what I mean by a tough application because it forces me to look inside myself and see who I really don’t want to be saved. When I look at myself in that light I see that I am not yet fully clean, that the scrubbing I try to do to clean my soul is not enough.
Our efforts at making ourselves right never seem to be enough, and I’ll be honest here they aren’t. No matter how hard we try to get everything right we still fail, but we are not without hope. Even when the water doesn’t get us clean and we come to the point at which we wonder what can be done the Spirit comes. When we turn to the Spirit and ask Him to make us clean He descends with holy fire and in his baptism of fire we are purified. I don’t know about you, but as I reflect on my day as I prepare for sleep I ask the Spirit to help me see where in that day I have failed to listen for his voice, what I have done that was wrong and I ask that he descend on me with fresh fire to purify me more. The beautiful thing is that when we ask to be cleaned God is faithful to purify our hearts. I am not the man I was a year ago because the Holy Spirit is purifying me. Without the aid of the Holy Spirit I would not have lost as much weight as I have and I would still be a glutton. I am not done, but by God’s help I have taken another step forward in my journey towards him.
In two weeks, we will celebrate together the thing that makes this all possible. Peter knew that the Crucifixion wasn’t enough on its own, and in truth the new covenant was made and validated not by the cross, but by the empty tomb. It is the resurrection, not the death that is the source of our hope. In the cross everything that kept us separated from god was put to death, not only the sin, but the systems for sin management and categorization as well, this is why the curtain into the holy of holies was torn. God was no longer operating in the comfortable box of the religious system that kept people at a distance from him. Jesus then became the first fruits of the everlasting life to come, the sign of the promise. Just as the rainbow was the sign of God’s promise to not destroy the earth again, Jesus’ resurrection is the sign of God’s salvation. The sacrifice of violence was overthrown, the way of death was defeated, and because Jesus submitted to suffering we now have direct access to God through the continuing baptism of the Holy Spirit. Every human being has the opportunity to have that same access to God now, all because Jesus rose from the dead.
Since Jesus accomplished all these things through rising from the dead, he now sits at the right hand of God with all submitted to his loving, peaceful rule. Jesus now speaks into every heart through the Holy Spirit if we take the time to listen, surrender and let ourselves be saved. I don’t always do this well. Sometimes I don’t listen, or listen but don’t obey, or I allow my mind to filter what I hear through my prejudices and preconceived notions. Even my disobedience doesn’t keep him away from me. This was a hard lesson for me to learn. I always thought that when I sinned God rejected me again until I confessed and came to him. You would think I wasn’t paying attention when we read and reread Romans 8. But those old images of an angry God who had it in for us just waiting to smack us down when we stepped out of line were hard to overcome because they made so much more sense than the God who loved so much that he chose to lose his power, suffer and die in order to bring us into new life with him. That is the God who I have met in Jesus. I desperately desire to live up to a fraction of the love and forgiveness I have been shown, but I can’t do it alone. You can’t do it alone either. This is why we are called together as Jesus’ body the church: that we can help get each other’s eyes back on Jesus when we get distracted by the “sense” of the world around us. There is a lot to chew on in this passage, and I encourage you to reread it while we are in open worship and listen for that still small voice. The Spirit is faithful to fill us with his presence if we open our hearts to his cleansing love. If, as the Spirit moves within you, a message is brought to your mind, take some time to discern what parts of the message may be filtered through your preconceived ideas and ask the Spirit to give you clarity that you might speak what comes from God and nothing else. That is the hope I carry, that someday every word that passes my lips finds its source in the Holy Spirit within me. Until that glad and distant day let us bring our hearts, minds, and bodies to Jesus and ask the Father to send his Holy Spirit to descend on us with the fresh fire of God’s presence.