— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ 6th Sunday of Easter ~~~
I Peter 3:13-22
This reading was addressed to early Christians living out their faith in the Roman provinces of Asia Minor – probably in the latter part of the first century (70-90 CE). In other words, this letter, which circulated among many churches, sought to give guidance to those Christians living and sometimes suffering for their commitments to Christ within the larger, Roman culture.
Our present day existence as the church is becoming more and more similar to the life of those early followers of Jesus who lived as “resident aliens” in a non-Christian society.
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.
That is the reading for this day.
Let me highlight verses 18 and 19
and add one from the next chapter – 4:6:
(Jesus) 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 (I Peter 3:18b-19).
For 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 (I Peter 4:6).
My suspicion is that this text is rarely preached – particularly the verses upon which we will focus this morning. The first part of the reading talks of suffering for righteousness sake and holds up Christ as our model and our hope before God. The reading may be difficult to practice – especially the part about being gentle and reverent with those causing our suffering – but the basic point is easy to grasp. We are to be like Christ who was willing to suffer for righteousness sake without striking back at those causing our suffering.
The reading becomes controversial and blurry when you get to verse 19, which asserts that Christ, having been 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… This is especially controversial when linked to a verse in the next chapter …the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead.
This assertion – that Christ preached after his death to those who had died has led to all kinds of interpretations:
*Some believe that Christ’s soul went to the nether world and preached to the spirits there to convert them and bring them into salvation (this was probably the strongest belief of the early church);
*Others believe that Christ did go during the three days he was in the grave to preach to the spirits, but only to the faithful;
*Others say he spoke only to Noah’s contemporaries;
*Others say he preached to the fallen angels;
*Others say he preached not during the time in the tomb but in his ascension to heaven;
*and finally, lots have said that these texts refer to a preaching event prior to Jesus’ earthly death, in which he preached to those who were spiritually dead.
This text is a bit bizarre and difficult to understand. Most readers would concur with Martin Luther who observed – This is a strange text and certainly a more obscure passage than any other in the New Testament. I still do not know for sure what the apostle means.
One preacher tried to interpret these passages and it cost him his reputation and his pulpit. His name was Jesse Babcock Ferguson; born in 1819, a strong case could be made that he was the greatest preacher in the history of the Disciples of Christ denomination. ( By the way, in this first part of the sermon – the historical part – I am very much indebted to Dr. Joseph Jeter of Brite Divinity School – a Disciples of Christ school.) Jesse Babcock Ferguson began preaching at the age of 19, and in four short years he had a national reputation. A beautiful man with a golden voice, he came to Nashville Christian Church in 1848, the youngest minister in the city, but already recognized as “the greatest preacher in the South.” The congregation grew and they constructed a larger, more beautiful church building, and Jesse Ferguson became the editor of his own religious journal. All was well.
Then, in 1852, in response to a question on I Peter 3:19, Ferguson suggested in his journal that, while Jesus was in the grave for three days, Jesus had preached to the spirits of the nether world. He went on to say that those who had not received the faith in this lifetime would have a second chance. Alexander Campbell, the founder of the Disciples denomination ( Campbell had been a Presbyterian, by the way), immediately attacked what he called Ferguson’s post mortem gospel. Ferguson defended himself by saying he was only offering an opinion and not seeking to make his belief a test of fellowship.
But the controversy would not go away. Campbell supporters said that Ferguson had a maggot in his brain, and Ferguson’s congregation split. He was forced to resign. He drifted for awhile, then returned to Nashville where he lived as a recluse. He wandered alone through the streets of the city until he died. He was still a young man. History records that only three small carriages rattled through the streets to the cemetery for the brief grave-side services of the greatest preacher in the South.
It is a tragic story. And you may wonder – why all this fuss over a verse of Scripture? Why did Campbell and others have to destroy Ferguson like that? Well, the short answer to that question is “They didn’t!” Truth be told I do not know why they believed they needed to bring Ferguson down, but I can speculate on their motivations. I think that in the fearful hearts of Campbell and the others it was a short step from having Christ preach to dead people to a doctrine of universal salvation which says that eventually everyone is saved. And if universal salvation is true then what you do here on earth doesn’t matter much (or so the faulty logic goes). And if people believe they’d get a second chance they might not come to church! So, they nipped this problem in the bud and broke Ferguson like a dry twig.
It is no wonder we don’t hear many sermons on this passage. I must say I don’t think it matters much in our culture right now what preachers say, and I think it is for the best that we preachers are ignored for the most part in society.
Here’s why I say so…people used to put a lot of stock in preaching because the whole of culture centered around Christianity and going to church. Preachers had lots of authority in the 1800s and first half of the 1900s. We, preachers, do not have that cultural authority now. The culture and the world are so diverse and there are so many other paths people can legitimately follow to find meaning in this world. There are other religions, different meditative philosophies, science, nature religions, humanism, etc, etc… Christianity is no longer the only real way to go and have others journey with you. And I think it is a good thing!
It is a good thing that we are not the only game in town and that everyone is no longer expected to go to church or to be a Christian because what preachers can do now is preach as ones without cultural backing. All we have is Jesus. Those who come and follow Jesus will do so because they see in him, in Jesus, a way of love, peace, compassion, grace, forgiveness.
People no longer come to church in order to make it in the secular world, in order to meet and greet the powers that be because the powers that be are now the powers that were in a bygone era. We’re reduced now as preachers and in the church to the story of Jesus without the trappings of worldly power; so, there a chance to recover, I think, in this time in history when the church and preaching are basically irrelevant, some of the beauty and purity of the good news of the poor man from Galilee who died rejected by those in power in religion and state. All we have now is his story and how we tell it.
Back to Jesse Babcok Ferguson and I Peter 3:19 –
*The response of Campbell and his followers, I think, represented a lack of faith in the power of God’s Spirit to lead the Church to truth. This is not to say that what we believe is not important – it is. And the Church should be about the work of thinking and talking about the faith and all the implications our faith has for our lives. But, we do so without fear and without hate, for we know that ultimately God’s Spirit will lead us into all truth. Theological conversations are good things when they are conducted within the leading of God’s Spirit – which will always lure in the direction of gentleness and kindness in our disputes. If we disagree without fear then we usually will not vilify our opponents.
*I will also posit that the Bible is best read as poetic speech about the human struggle to be in right relationship with the Holy. When I use the word “poetic” I am not referring to meter or rhyme (though some of the Bible is written that way); rather, I am using the word “poetic” to signify daring, open-ended speech that invites listeners into a new reality of grace and hope. I believe this is somewhat the point that Walter Brueggemann was making in his book Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation. His book is about preaching, but I think it applies equally well to reading. Dr. Brueggemann gets the title of his book from a Walt Whitman poem that celebrates the importance of poetry – the lines are these:
After the seas are all cross’d
(as they seem already cross’d,’)
After the great captains and engineers have
accomplished their work,
After the noble inventors, after the scientists,
the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist,
Finally shall come the poet worthy that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.
The Bible is poetry and song and story and it should be read that way. To place overly scientific or objective or rationalistic rules to its meaning is to drain it of power to lead to newness and life and truth.
*Finally, a few thoughts on the notion that the author of I Peter suggests – namely, that Christ preached to the dead. I think this passage is not important in terms of explaining where Jesus was during the three days he was dead and in the tomb; he was, after all, dead. But there is a poetic truth in these words from I Peter – and this truth is poetically captured by Paul in Romans 8 –
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels,
nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come,
nor powers, nor height, nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us from the love of God
in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Maybe the love of God is so tenacious
that Jesus will follow us into the ground.
Maybe the love of God is so relentless
that Jesus will always be in pursuit of each one of us.
Maybe the love of God is so passionately for us
that there is no dark corner of our hearts or of the universe
where Jesus will not go to bring us into the light.
Let us trust the tenacious love of Christ!
The world and its powers will go where they will,
but we are invited to stand on the promises
of the backwater preacher who was crucified, died,
and was buried; who descended to the dead, and on the third day rose again and is seated at the right hand of God!