Scripture Passage: 1 Peter 3: 18-22 (Lent 1B)
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 persons, 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.
The faith communities to which this was written did not have it easy. They were the outsiders–shunned, unaccepted, separated from the only society that they knew. To put it bluntly, they were living in hell. So this comes as a reminder that what they are experiencing now is not permanent. It is not the final word. New life is just over the horizon. For the writer of this epistle, this is a sure promise, made real through our baptism. Baptism here is depicted a re-creation, as resurrection. The whole point is that believers do not need to fear the difficulties and sufferings that are present now. God has indeed promised something new.
In all honesty, I don’t think this writer necessarily saw baptism as merely a cleansing. Rather, baptism is a claiming. We are claimed by God. We are empowered by the Spirit of Christ. We are made new. So no matter what hell we might find ourselves in, there is more up ahead. God has claimed us. Each of us is a beloved child of God. Our baptism acknowledges that and, like the waters that flooded the earth, sweeps us into new life.
In fact, even the powers of hell cannot impede the recreation that is happening all around us. Now most of our churches choose to recite the more sanitized version of the Apostles’ Creed but there is an older version that dates back to the 5th century that goes like this: “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell.” That last sentence is believed to have been loosely taken from this passage. We read that Jesus proclaimed even to the “spirits in prison”. In other words, Jesus descended into hell, into the bowels and depths of life, into the deepest of despair. And, there, he blew the gates open and the eternally forsaken escaped, crossing the threshold to new life. In the Middles Ages, it was referred to as the “Harrowing of Hell”. Now, admittedly, there is little basis for this theology but if death hath no sting, why would hell win? (And to be honest, there’s really little basis for the notion of “hell” as we 21st century folks think of it anyway. I think Dante did us no favors.) If God’s promise extends to all of Creation, then perhaps hell really hath no fury.
Now this is in no way a lessening of the impact or importance of sin. We all know that. We sin. We try not to. But we sin. In fact, most of us are pretty good at creating our own hell. We plunge ourselves into darkness, into separation from God, through fear, or guilt, or shame, and we struggle to claw our way out. But even the powers of sin are no match for the promise before us. That is the whole point of our faith. So, if we believe that, why is it such a stretch to believe that the God of all, the God who loves us, and who has claimed us, could vanquish all the powers that afflict us, that God has vanquished all the powers of hell?
Perhaps this Lenten season of penitence is not so much a call to grovel at the feet of a forgiving God but rather to faithfully follow this God who beckons us home to begin again. Maybe it truly is the harrowing of whatever hell we find ourselves in. But in order to do that, we have to name our sin and release its power. It’s part of our story. It’s part of what we must tell. And with that, the waters subside and the green earth rises again.
Now, I don’t profess to know the whole truth about this hell thing. It’s not an issue for me. But I struggle to reconcile the notion of a place called hell with this God who offers eternal mercy and grace and forgiveness, with this God that wants the Creation to return so badly to where they belong, to enter into a relationship with the Godself–so badly, in fact, that this God would come and walk this earth just to show us the way home. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Hell definitely exists. But perhaps it is our creation, rather than God’s. Perhaps our faith will show us that the gates of hell have already been removed and that all we have to do is walk the way toward life. What if we were to let our Lenten journey be our journey toward life?
See, I think that if we somehow brand Lent as the “penitential season”, a dark and foreboding journey through darkness to get to the Easter lilies, we’ve missed the point. Yes, it sort of plunges us into darkness, makes us think about our dark nights and our dark parts of our lives. But the reason is not just for us to feel guilt and shame but to see, finally, that in the darkness, you can see the Light up ahead.
You’re probably familiar with this, but writing this made me remember the words found on the wall of a cellar in the Cologne concentration camp after World War II:
I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining
And I believe in love,
even when there’s no one there.
And I believe in God,
even when he is silent.
I believe through any trial,
there is always a way
But sometimes in this suffering
and hopeless despair
My heart cries for shelter,
to know someone’s there
But a voice rises within me, saying hold on
my child, I’ll give you strength,
I’ll give you hope. Just stay a little while.
I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining
And I believe in love
even when there’s no one there
But I believe in God
even when he is silent
I believe through any trial
there is always a way.
May there someday be sunshine
May there someday be happiness
May there someday be love
May there someday be peace….
On prisoners of darkness, the sun begins to rise, the dawning of forgiveness upon the sinner’s eyes. He guides the feet of pilgrims along the paths of peace. O bless our God and Savior, with songs that never cease. (Michael Perry, from the hymn “Blessed Be the God of Israel”)
Grace and Peace,