The story of Noah’s Ark is dearly beloved, and the inspiration for much artwork, music, storytelling, etc. At least since the writing of 1 Peter, the Church has interpreted the story as being about baptism. The flood is the water, the ark is the church, the eight people symbolize the eight days from Palm Sunday to the Resurrection. This often surprises people, as the story has come to mean other things in the popular imagination. We need to know that it’s about baptism, but that’s not even the weird part of the 1 Peter reading. First Peter mentions the story in conjunction with Jesus going to spirits in prison since the days of Noah. What is he talking about?
He refers to four verses in Genesis 6, famous for their seeming out of place. We are told that sometime after people spread out and populated the earth, the sons of god—evil angels—saw human women, decided they were beautiful, and kidnapped and raped some of them. It is a common near eastern myth—gods use their powers to rape women, and these unions produce superhuman heroes. There were giants in the earth, the Bible tells us, who were the heroes of old. These myths are full of slaughter, greed, and rape. The four verses in Genesis point to this cluster of stories. It is immediately after these verses that God looks at the world, goes to Noah, and says, “You know how you always wanted a boat?”
Not in the Bible, but told in the extrabiblical tradition, is the story of how God imprisoned these “sons of god,” or evil angels, after the flood. These are the spirits to whom Jesus preached. These verses are not about Jesus’ descent into hell, in case you’re wondering. That’s 1 Peter 4:6. (Jesus preaches a lot after he dies.) Here, he is preaching to the evil angels. He proclaims that God has won. The suffering and death of Christ means that those divine beings who abused their power in the days of Noah have been defeated. Maybe redeemed; definitely defeated. This is the meaning Peter attaches to baptism.
Baptism, 1 Peter says, is not a washing of dirt but an appeal to God for a good conscience. (Now, if there are any Lutherans in the room, we are not sure we like this. It sounds like works righteousness. Don’t worry. Our appeal to God does nothing to undercut God’s gracious gift.) We can appeal for a good conscience when Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead, now and at the End of All Things, because God baptizes us. We’ve been sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ. Our appeal is always heard. Notice, Peter doesn’t say: From now on, it’s all good. No. Oh, you’ll suffer. Everyone does. It’s like the Buddha says, “Existence is suffering.” It is going to happen to you. The question for Christians is, “Is my suffering going to be for God? To help bring about Christ’s reign in the universe?” The appeal for a good conscience is our assessment of what we are doing and why. We’re asking ourselves: Is this suffering for God? Our suffering can only be for God if our work is first from God, so we’re also asking, Is this from God? Did God put me here to do this? Is this from God and for God?
The “spirits in prison,” the “sons of god” or “evil angels,” did not act from God. They saw what they wanted and used divinity to take it. Like Adam and Eve. They were made in the image of God, tried to be like God. It is the same sin we carry around all the time. We see it today. We do it today: abusing the power God gives us. Lest we think this talk of someone abusing power is pointing at someone in particular (who isn’t in this room so we can safely complain), Peter’s clear that we are the unrighteous for whom a righteous Jesus suffers.
Jesus’ passion is like an acute episode of a chronic condition. Most people in Jesus’ world don’t wind up seized by a mob that was riled up by their elites, convicted of false charges by a kangaroo court, and then finally executed by the Romans as a terrorist. But most people in Jesus’ world do live where a regular part of life is the parade of the occupying army with shiny weapons and splendid uniforms, with banners proclaiming Tiberius the Son of God, Lord, Savior, and Bringer of Peace on Earth. They live in a world where their leaders and elites collude with this army so they can continue squeezing the peasants, lending at usurious rates. They live in a world where to be ritually pure you had to be healthy, wealthy, and preferably male. They live in a world where food is scarce, where people sell themselves into slavery to pay debts. This is the chronic condition. Jesus’ passion—public, acute suffering—keeps us from ignoring the suffering that goes on all the time.
Jesus’ passion, recalled every time the faithful gather, is a contemporary flare up of chronic sinfulness. Most of us do not find ourselves wrongfully arrested, subject to mob violence, convicted of crimes so high the charges would be laughable were the sentence not death. But we do live in a world in which women make ¾ of what equally qualified men make for the same work; in which quite little things are criminalized and your stay in prison disqualifies you for life; in which the color of your skin correlates to your access to clean air and water; in which your sexual orientation, gender identity, or political affiliation can keep you out of work, cost you your work, cost you your family; in which education costs so much that you’ll never escape the debt load. Some opponents of our President like to respond to his actions by saying, “This is not normal,” as though somehow everything was fine before. It wasn’t. The suffering was there. When the faithful gather to recall Jesus’ passion, Jesus’ passion causes a flare up. It keeps us from ignoring the suffering that goes on all the time.
Jesus’ passion calls us to take note, but more than that to live in the suffering as Christ did, because that is being fully human. Too much of Christianity is escapism. It teaches us to minimize our problems and by extension everyone else’s. This is especially appalling that Christians do this because the world needs Christ! Theologian Dorothee Soelle writes, “By nature suffering hits us in such a way that it makes us ‘the devil’s martyrs.’ Fear, speechlessness, aggression, and blind hate are confirmed and spread through suffering.” We need Christ to break that, not so that we can live in misery, downplaying the evil, but so that we can face it. Christ, Soelle writes, “is humanity’s true possibility, summoning our self-confidence, our boldness, our strength.” We can live as God’s fully human beings when we ask, “Is our work from God, and is our suffering for God?” and with Christ boldly answer, “Yes.”
I wonder if that was Christ’s proclamation to the spirits in prison. You know, they’re in there for using their divinity to try to be God, for abusing their power. Jesus shows up, after his death, and says, “You see how even though I was equal to God I didn’t grasp at power or abuse it? Yeah, see, that’s what we were going for.” Jesus in the New Testament is always able to answer, “Yes,” when asked, “Is this from God and for God?” His actions always come from God, and when the chronic sinfulness of the world flares up and causes him to suffer dreadfully, Jesus makes sure that suffering is for God. Because we share in Christ’s baptism, we participate in the Noah story as Christ does. Our baptism isn’t an escape from reality. It’s placing everything in God’s hand and facing reality. Noah and his family didn’t get removed to hang out while God renovated the Earth. God packed them in a boat with smelly animals during one heck of a storm. Noah trusted God, said, “I’ve got a chance to do something for God.” And Noah understood how bad things were. He lived through the actions of those evil angels and the giants in the earth. Noah wasn’t going to pretend that never happened. Neither do we baptized pretend evil never happens.
Rather, we face it. We face it and live in it, and give an account for our reason for hope: Christ, who always was from God and for God, and who calls us to be the same. Christ, who keeps preaching after his death. How’s he pull that one off? He tells us today in John. “I’m sending another Advocate.” The Holy Spirit comes to us. Luther noticed that in these verses Jesus presents himself as the Father’s Word, spoken before time, and the Holy Spirit as the one who hears that Word (there’s no one else around, and the Father isn’t talking to himself). She hears that Word and repeats it and proclaims it, proclaims Christ, again and again. She keeps at it. Even though Jesus is gone, long gone, goin’ on 2000 years gone, the Holy Spirit preaches him to us today. So, Jesus is present to us today in our suffering, his work still being from God and for God. And he makes our life one of facing down the evil angels in the hope that this is what God calls us to do, and that God is with us in it, now and at the End of All Things.