I Peter 3:18-22
“Through the Water”
March 1, 2009 - First Sunday of Lent
“Let’s wait,” said Beth. “Ahh, it’s O.K.,” I said, “let’s go.” We were ready to walk home after a day of classes at Notre Dame. It was a long walk from the “Touchdown Jesus” library, past St. Joseph Lake, over the railroad tracks, and across a large un-mown field full of milkweed, to our apartment at University Village. As often happens on a summer Midwestern afternoon, the sky was clouding over and threatening a thunderstorm. But I was sure we could make it.
You can guess. I persuaded Beth and we set out. We passed the point of any shelter at the Golden Dome or in the Holy Cross Monastery doorway, and were just starting across that big field, when the clouds opened. Not a soft, gentle, typical Oregon sort of rain, but a gully washer like some showers we experienced here last week. I don’t think my wife has ever quite forgiven me for how wet we got that day. Every stitch of our clothing dripped. Our shoes were like personal, portable puddles. It felt like another total immersion for a couple of renegade Baptists. We came home through the water.
Peter wrote to Christians who felt like they were coming home through the water. They lived in what we call Asia Minor, Turkey today. And just as Christians still do in that part of the world, they suffered for their faith. In the verse right before our text, the apostle positively encouraged them to suffer, for doing good, rather than for doing evil. Then in verse 18, he reminded them that Christ also suffered.
This letter was written from Rome, where Peter himself was about to suffer and die for his faith. Both Peter and his readers were experiencing a deluge of persecution, a flood of unfriendliness, and Peter wanted to remind them that God would bring them safely through it. He brought Jesus safely through His suffering. He will bring us through ours. In fact, Christ suffered in order, he says, to bring us through, to bring us to God.
In the Church, the season of Lent is a time to remember the wet part of our story. Jesus was not always walking on top of the water. As the Gospel lesson reminds us, He went down into it. Jesus’ baptism is a sign that He descended into the raging flood of sin and death in order to raise us out of it.
Lent began in the Church as a time when new believers prepared to be baptized. They spent forty days of study and repentance getting ready to go down into the water so that Jesus could raise them up to new life. So this little passage from Peter was selected to begin this season, because it so dramatically shows how we come through water into salvation.
Verse 19 takes Jesus’ own watery descent in a strange direction. After saying that Jesus was “put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,” we read “in which he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.” This text, along with Psalm 16:10, John 5:25, Ephesians 4:8-10, and Peter again right here in chapter 4, verse 6, is the basis for what we will say this morning in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hades,” or into “hell.”
It’s one of the most neglected, misunderstood and debated parts of the Creed and of our faith. Yet from very early in the Church, Christians believed that, in between His death on the Cross on Friday and His bodily resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday, Christ in spirit descended into the shadowy realm of the dead, and preached good news to those who died before His coming. Thus, they also had an opportunity to believe His Gospel and be released from prison, from hell.
English Christians called Jesus’ preaching tour in hades the “Harrowing of Hell.” “Harrowing” means looting or plundering. Christ robbed hell of its loot, rescuing the kidnapped souls of men and women, bringing them to God just as He had the living. Christ the one-man SWAT team, entering the devil’s hideout and freeing his hostages.
Jesus was not afraid to get His feet wet, to take the plunge into whatever storm and flood overwhelms those He came to save. He dived into death, even into hell, to raise us back up with Him. So Peter connects the thought of Jesus’ rescue plunge into hell with God’s rescue from the Flood of Noah and his family. We read the happy outcome from Genesis 9 this morning. God saved eight people, Noah, his wife, his three sons and their wives, “through water,” says verse 20.
And in that way, the frightening symbol of a cataclysmic flood becomes for Christians a reminder of their own salvation. The safe arrival of Noah’s family through water “prefigures” Peter wrote in verse 21, baptism, which “now saves you.”
Christians then in Asia Minor could identify with Noah, a righteous man surrounded by a wicked world. We may feel the same. We’re wading through a downpour, a flood of sinfulness that both tempts us and tries us. We are hurt by the sins of others and we keep sinking into our own sins. In the next chapter, verse 4, Peter calls it a “flood of dissipation.”
So I really like Peter’s connection between the ark and Christian baptism. Those Christians in Asia Minor, and you and I, may not only identify with Noah’s trials in an evil world, we may identify with his salvation. In baptism, God says that He is saving us, just like Noah, through the torrent, through the flood, through the water.
Peter wrote that baptism saves us, not because water by itself somehow washes away the filth in our lives, “not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience.” Baptism saves us because, as we teach in the Covenant Church, it is a “means of grace.” It’s not merely a sign of what you or I do or even of our own faith, but it’s an appeal to God, an appeal for His grace to work through baptism to give us a good conscience that we can’t produce on our own.
So we begin Lent, most of us, not as preparation for baptism, but as a remembering of baptism, remembering that this is how God saves us, through water. Jesus Christ died and rose again to lift us, by grace, out of the flood of sin in which we find ourselves.
What comes next for Peter, at the end of verse 21 and in 22, is the assurance that Jesus really can do it. When we appeal to God for His help, for His grace to rescue us, we do it in the confidence that He can save us. And that confidence is ours “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” We believe that our Lord waded through all the deep waters of our lives, and came out on top, that He rose above it all. He descended, but then He ascended, ascended even into heaven.
The early church loved the comparison between themselves and Noah. They painted Noah floating in the Ark on the walls of the catacombs where they buried their dead. They painted Christ in a boat with the apostles, representing all Christians, floating safely above a stormy sea. Eventually they even started calling the part of a church building where the people sit the “nave,” from the Greek and Latin words which meant “ship” and from which we get “navy.” We go down in the water in baptism, but we do it in a vessel of grace that will carry us safely through the water.
Lent is a time to remember that we are saved through the water. Part of that is recalling that we are caught in the flood of this world. With Jesus Himself, we suffer all the waves of sin and sickness and trouble that roll over us and threaten to drown us. We are hurt by others and sometimes we hurt back. Sometimes the world and life itself is like an evil flood, whether it’s a literal hurricane or tsunami or just the rising waters of old age. In Lent we pause and recall just how dire our situation is.
Yet by remembering baptism, we also remember that God saves us out of it all. Jesus stepped down into the flood so that He could pick us up, lift us out, just like He lifted even the dead out of their prison in hell.
When I was 10, our family took a winter vacation to see my grandmother in northern Arizona. Our crazy dog Beau, a wire-hair terrier, came with us. One day there we drove up Oak Creek Canyon to look at the snow. We stopped to go down to the creek. There was ice on it. In some places it was thick enough to walk on, but in places where the water moved fast, it was open or very thin. Oak Creek is hardly two feet deep in most places, but my mother told us to stay clear. But Beau did not understand. He ran out on the ice, straight for a clear place where he could drink. Before we could stop him, he had fallen through and was clinging to the edge of the ice. He just clung there whimpering in the cold water. He was going to be swept underneath, where he would likely be caught and drown.
I started to wade in get Beau, but I had a cast on my arm and my mother pulled me back. Then, while my little sister and I stood in the snow and cried and screamed for our pet, my mother waded knee-deep into the icy water to pull out him out. Somehow she managed to lift and carry that wet, frozen, squirming animal back to shore without falling over herself. They were both shivering and we quickly got in the car and started the engine to warm and dry them, but Beau was saved.
Looking back, I can understand how my mother might have regretted saving that poor, stupid dog. He tore down four or five sets of drapes in our family room. It was almost impossible to get him to stop barking if he was outside while we had company. He bit the neighbor boy. Was he really worth that chilly winter wade? Yet I know she didn’t regret it. Right along with us kids, she loved him. I remember her tears years later when Beau died.
You can understand how God might regret Jesus wading into the water for people like you and me. He went to so much pain and suffering, wading deep in sorrow, in pain, in death, even plunging into hell, to rescue lost human beings like us. We cause Him more trouble, more pain, whenever we’ve forget what He did. That’s why we observe Lent, so that we can remember to be grateful, be grateful that “Christ suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”
We can also be grateful, in a strange, mysterious way, that our Lord has given us the privilege of joining Him in His sufferings. Not just the suffering and pain we bring ourselves through sin and failure, but blessed, holy suffering like His own. We get to suffer, as the verse before our text says, “for doing good.” And that’s the best part of Lent. We meet our Savior deep, deep in the water, joining Him in His own mission to save this world.
Our youth suffered a little hunger this weekend in order to feed the hungry and serve those in need. Your Church Council has agreed to give up Friday lunch in order to remember to pray for each other and for our church. Trudy and those of you who join her will make the sacrifice of Wednesday evenings for that same purpose of prayer. Others of you are suffering or giving up something so that you can honor God or help friends or family members or those in need. It’s all part of your baptism, all part of being saved by Jesus through the water. In our own wet times, we remember His deep, deep descent to rescue us and we join him in the troubled waters.
We come to this Table in the same spirit. By eating this bread and drinking from this cup, we proclaim our Lord’s death, we proclaim how He came down to lift us up. Yet we also always remember that there is much, much more to the story than the water, than the suffering, than the death. “We proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” Christ has gone into heaven and sits on the right hand of God, says Peter. From there, He will come again to us. He will rescue us completely, lift us up not just into a boat on the water, but like Noah, to a mountaintop. He is bringing us out through the water into His great City set on a mountain great and high, the New Jerusalem. There the water that flows will be the Water of Life.
Come to this Table through the water, through your struggles and sin, through the saving water of Baptism. Come to this Table as Jesus comes to you, lifting you up out of the water and into His love.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj