Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

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"Long Reach Theology"

1 Peter 3: 13-22

Psalm 139: 7-12

      The 1st Letter of Peter can be a very difficult read because it challenges the reader on so many

different levels.  It calls us, for example, to clean house; to deep and uncomfortable self-examination;

to “rid” ourselves “of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.”  Such spiritual

house cleaning is something most of us are apt to avoid.  In the same chapter, Peter advises that slaves

should accept the authority of their masters, even giving their masters homage and honor.  During pre-Civil

War times,and even after, many preachers in the south used this passage as a justification for owning slaves. 

Later in the letter, Peter urges wives to accept their husband’s authority; a teaching which has not set well

with some of today’s Christian feminists.  Then he seems to discourage women from dressing up, wearing jewelry;

even fixing their hair.

  In what sounds like a rehash of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (which Peter heard with his own ears), he teaches

that when we’re abused or evil is perpetrated against us, our response should be to repay our abuser with a blessing. 

Then we come to the last part of the third chapter, and it doesn’t get any less challenging. 

          (Read 1 Peter 3:13-22)

      For better or for worse, we’re not permitted to cut verses out of the Bible.  But frankly, many

scholars and preachers would like to do just that; to snip away bits and pieces of 1st Peter which

offend our sensibilities, challenge our theology, rub against our mores, or just don’t seem to 

make a whole lot of sense.  A case in point is a section of this morning’s passage we’re going to

hone in on sharp, which tells us that “he (Jesus) 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….” 

Adding to the confusion is another similar statement found just verses later in the 4th chapter

where Peter writes:  “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.” 

      What’s this talk of “spirits in prison” and “proclaimed (the gospel) even to the dead?”  Sounds

a little more Roman Catholic than Presbyterian.  Is Peter suggesting that after the crucifixion,

Christ went into the realm of the dead – Sheol in Hebrew -- and preached to those who had lived

and died in the days of Noah?  If we understand these verses literally, it suggests that Jesus

stormed the gates of Hades in the days between His death and resurrection, and preached the

good news of God’s grace to those who had never had a chance to hear that message, or had

heard it and disobeyed.  This is perhaps in part the origin of those words we wonder about in the

Apostle’s Creed, something both Catholics and Presbyterians recite:  “He descended into Hell.”   

      It is possible that Peter may have been speaking figuratively in this passage.  We know from

ancient documents that all sorts of legends grew up around Jesus about His childhood and about

His death.  Peter may be referring to one of those circulating legends when he writes of the crucified

Jesus preaching in the abode of the dead. 

      Now if you’re waiting for me to tell you whether to read Peter’s words literally or figuratively ,

as far as I’m concerned, that’s an open question.  I’m much more interested in making sure we

get Peter’s point rather than quibbling over how he goes about making his point.  And the point is

clearly this:  God’s love through Jesus Christ has a very long reach.  And it prompts the question:

where is that place in all of creation which is beyond the reach of God’s strong and inviting hand? 

In language coined by contemporary Christian writer Max Lucado, where could we possibly

escape the “grip of God’s grace?”  In Lucado’s estimation, there is nowhere.  The words of David in 

the 139th Psalm support this:  “Where can I go from your Spirit?  Or where can I flee from your

presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol [ie. in the place of the

dead] , you are there.  If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the

sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” Many centuries

later, the Apostle Paul builds on what we’ll call a long reach theology when he writes to the

church in Rome: “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.” 

      There’s a story about a home for the destitute [they used to call  them “poor houses”] which

caught fire many years ago in New York City borough.  As the story goes, the fire raced through

the ramshackle structure trapping the tenants of the upper floors.  A ladder was brought, but it

didn’t reach quite high enough.  Suddenly, a tall man darted out of the crowd and scurried to the

top of the ladder.  He balanced himself on the top rung and with his long arms, reached up, and

took hold of the windowsill on the top floor.  The man clung there while each of the family inside

the apartment climbed over his body in order to reach the ladder.  This brave rescuer was the last

to descend.  His hands were blistered and his hair was singed, but no one perished in that fire.

      How far will God’s love reach out in order to snatch us from the flames?  When that hand gets

blistered, even nailed to a cross, God’s reach is not shortened.  Even in a place of desolation, God’s

grace dares come to our rescue.  God’s love – which is at once unconditional and self-sacrificial –

simply refuses to give up on us; will never write us off as a lost cause.  I believe that’s the point

Peter intends to make when he says that the Spirit of Christ preached good news, even to the

generation of Noah in the place of the dead.

      This was a most astonishing statement, especially to Peter’s Jewish readers in whose tradition

the people of Noah’s day were the most wicked generation that ever inhabited the earth, just a

nose ahead of the legendary Sodom and Gomorrah.  As that story from the Book of Genesis goes,

when the rain fell for forty days and forty nights, those who had slapped back the hand of God

were swept away.  But according to Peter, they were not swept beyond the long reach of God’s

grace.

      For all of us, that is good news indeed!  No matter how many times we may have slapped at

the outstretched hand of God, turned our backs and walked or run away – and all of us have at

one time or another – God has not and will not give up on us.  No matter what flood of suffering

and hardship has swept us away, we can know that the deepest waters cannot drown God’s

incomparable love for us.  No matter what kind of hell we have descended into, be it a hell of pain

and grief, or an emotional hell, or even a hell we’ve made for ourselves, God has not and will not

abandon us.  If we think that no ladder of redemption or salvation can reach where we are, then

we’ve underestimated the reach of our rescuer. 

      This is Peter’s great point, whether his words are taken literally or figuratively.  This is also the

great point of King David, and of Apostle Paul, and of author Max Lucado.  There’s nowhere or

way we can ever become lost that God cannot find us.  There’s no place we can stray from which

God cannot lead us to safety, and ultimately home.  There’s no death we can die from which

Christ cannot raise us up.  We may not understand everything Peter is trying to get at.  But let us

understand enough to get us through these days when our spirits may sometimes feel like we’re

imprisoned, or even when we’re feeling spiritually lifeless.  We are never beyond the long reach

 and the grip of God’s love and grace.  Who would ever want to cut that verse out?   Amen.

 

 

Central Presbyterian Church

47 Second Street NE
Massillon, Ohio 44646

Telephone: 330-832-7455
Fax: 330-832-7102