Sermons

Sun, Feb 21, 2021

Repentance and vindication

Series:Sermons
Duration:12 mins 47 secs

Thursday morning…

as many Australians awoke…

and opened up their FaceBook accounts on their electronic devices…

they found that things were different.

There were no news articles in their feed.

Nor could they share any news articles to their feeds.

Now, that may not mean much to most of you…

but, for many people… 

that’s the main way that they encounter news items of concern.

But, it was a while before the full reality of what had happened set in.

In the dispute between the Australian Government and FaceBook…

over payments for news information…

the Government had called the Tech Giant’s bluff.

But they weren’t bluffing.

They promptly blocked all information from sites that were considered ‘news reporting’.

But, somehow, organisations like the Bureau of Meteorology…

the ACTU…

the various state health departments…

some medical research institutes…

the emergency services…

and a range of charities and community support groups––

including domestic violence and child abuse support groups––

were all affected.

In their haste to take punitive action…

the company had not been careful in how it had constructed its filters.

 

Sadly, doesn’t that happen so often?

When we pull things together quickly or without care…

it can end up being a bit of a mess.

 

Our reading this morning from the so-called ‘First Letter of Peter’…

is a bit of a dog’s breakfast.

According to Martin Luther:

“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”.

Now…

if you have read any Luther you would know that he wasn’t averse to a fair degree of hyperbole.

For example, he famously described the Letter of James as “an epistle of straw”…

and, regarding the Book of Revelation, he wrote:

I “consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic…

Christ is neither taught nor known in it”.

Personally, I think there are stranger texts than this.

But he does have a point.

The author of our reading––

writing in the name of Peter but a generation or so after his death––

speaks, here, of the death and resurrection of Christ…

which is probably why this reading has been set down for Lent.

And most scholars believe that the first couple of verses are largely comprised of traditional material…

probably phrases and lines drawn from traditional liturgical materials…

even an early credal formula…

such as the slightly poetic expression describing  Christ’s suffering as: 

“the righteous for the unrighteous”.

But, in throwing these phrases together…

the author doesn’t offer any real elaboration or explanation of any of it.

And it doesn’t seem to be his point or concern.

But then there’s the really odd bit… 

about Christ––

sometimes thought to be after his death but before his resurrection––

proclaiming “to the spirits in prison”.

This would appear to be the basis for the notion… 

which began to be discussed in Egypt in the second century––

and is found in some of the older translations of the Apostles’ Creed––

that, following his death, Jesus “descended into hell”…

through which he “brought salvation to all of the righteous who had died since the beginning of the world”.

In other words, Christ went and evangelised all of the heroes of the Old Testament…

so that they could, in effect, become Christians;

the idea that people like Abraham…

or Moses…

or the Prophets…

or even John the Baptist…

were destined to spend eternity in hell…

because they hadn’t had the opportunity to ‘accept Jesus as Lord’.

Some, of course…

embrace such an image because…

they claim…

it shows God’s desire for all to be saved;

it bespeaks, in a somewhat backhanded way, of God’s desire for universal salvation.

It doesn’t.

It’s still predicated on a blasphemous misconstrual of the nature of God…

and the work of Christ…

and still advocates what the great Swiss Theologian––

Karl Barth––

aptly described as “the gospel at gun-point”.

Rather than an image of Christ going to save those destined for eternity in hell…

because they didn’t ‘accept Jesus as Lord’…

the author has…

instead… 

drawn on a non-Biblical Hebrew text––

the Book of Enoch––

which speaks of angels who had rebelled against God…

and who were responsible for inciting the evil that led to the Flood…

and who had been imprisoned by God awaiting their final judgment…

but who continued to exert power and influence in the world.

That’s what the author of First Peter is reflecting upon here.

So, rather than ‘descending into hell’…

and ‘evangelising’ the ‘lost’…

he claims that Christ went and proclaimed his vindication and triumph to these ‘imprisoned spirits’.

It was a way of affirming the cosmic victory of God in the Christ-event––

the idea that, now, all powers and authorities…

in heaven and on earth…

are subject to Christ.

Above all else, then… 

the author understands the death and resurrection of Jesus…

as a triumph or victory over the powers-that-be…

and the forces of evil.

 

Of course, that was an important message for the readers of this letter.

Like most of the early Christian groups… 

they didn’t fit in…

they felt weak, powerless, and vulnerable…

and…

because they had renounced the worship of the traditional gods of their communities…

they were experiencing discrimination, abuse, and victimisation… 

from their neighbours and, possibly, the local authorities.

As such, the image of a powerful Christ––

vindicated and victorious––

was a soothing balm for the suffering that they were experiencing.

They had no need to fear the powers-that-be…

or the forces of evil in the world.

Christ had overcome them.

Christ would overcome them in the end.

And they, too, would be vindicated…

as Christ was…

if they held firm.

This passage, then, was meant to be an encouragement and exhortation­­­.

They are called to emulate Christ in enduring unjust suffering for the sake of others…

with the reassurance that… 

as Christ was vindicated…

they will be too.

 

Now, we don’t live in such a world or such a culture.

We don’t experience that sort of suffering.

And… 

while the concept of a vindicated and victorious Christ is one that would have appealed to them…

it’s one that ought to sit a little uncomfortably with us…

culturally…

morally…

metaphysically…

and theologically.

 

So, is there anything, here, that is helpful for us?

 

If the season of Lent is…

first and foremost…

about a call to repentance…

then… 

perhaps… 

the sense of the cosmic victory of the cross is a necessary corrective to our modern self-centredness…

and, perhaps, our anthropo-centredness.

 

And perhaps, too, in the context of our world…

and the self-centredness and self-absorption into which we’re increasingly socialised––

so that, too many, consider any form of suffering for the sake of others…

to be an horrendous imposition and an assault on personal liberty…

as, sadly, many seem to have done through this pandemic period––

then, perhaps, we’re also being invited to repent of that insularity and rampant individualism;

and…

like Christ…

we’re invited to find the power…

and the vindication… 

that comes in putting the needs of the world first.

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