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1st Sunday of Lent

11 February 2021

Genesis 9.8-17; Psalm 25.1-9; 1 Peter 3.18-end; Mark 1.9-15


LOCATION, location, location. The settings of these readings really matter, particularly the exegetical problem of 1 Peter 3.22 (“He went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison”). Various solutions have been proposed: the least convincing is to “correct” the Greek. The text is what it is; our first duty is to make sense, if we can, of what stands written in scripture.

In the third century, Origen saw it as an answer to the puzzle “Where was Christ between Good Friday and Easter Day?” He suggested that Christ was descending to the dead to convert souls — embracing the dead, as well as the living, in the salvation of the cross. If correct, this version of the harrowing of hell points to a universalist view: that salvation will eventually embrace every human being, without exception.

Calvin took a different line, downgrading the “prison” to a “watch-tower”, and having Christ preach only to the righteous dead, to uphold the principle that conversion after death was impossible. Others viewed Christ as descending to pronounce a final (adverse) judgement, not a gospel of salvation, regarding the “prison” as metaphorical — a prison of ignorance. But the word “proclamation” (kerussein) is about a positive message: good news, not bad.

Some scholars observe that “tο make a hermeneutical decision is to take sides.” They encourage us to work out the meaning by asking ourselves how the words of 1 Peter 3 bring comfort to suffering Christians in Asia Minor. If we ask what the text says to us now, we may find ourselves answering, after our experiences of lockdown, that not all prisons are visible. What is more, to be shut in a room, you must first go through a door; and, if the door can be closed on you, then it can be opened again. That is surely a message of hope for those who have lost faith, either in God or in themselves.

Christ was “in the Spirit” when he proclaimed to the spirits in prison. The Spirit was responsible for another journey of his, less extraordinary but still perilous: his forty days in the wilderness. The Greek says “desert” (eremos). In the OT, the wilderness is almost a mythic place (Hebrew midbar). That is not to imply that it did not exist, but that it encompasses more than mere location. It points to an experience and an encounter: the place where, only a few verses earlier, John proclaimed his baptism of repentance.

Mark does not give us any of the specifics found in Luke and Matthew’s temptation narratives. This has been seen as evidence for the existence of a source document, “Q”, from which the other two Evangelists quarried the material that Mark lacks. The fact that the Spirit is the agent who “casts Jesus out” into the wilderness where he is tempted makes clear that this is not a place of punishment, but a place of testing.

During that time, Jesus has two kinds of company: wild beasts and angels. The wild beasts are unique to Mark’s version. This could be meant to represent Jesus as a second Adam in a primal paradise of harmony between man and beast. Much more likely is it that those wild creatures represent the forces of chaos and satanic assault. This would mean that we should identify them with what the Authorised Version (translating the Hebrew literally) calls the “beasts of the field”: wild animals, in other words, not domesticated livestock, and therefore neither open to human control nor respectful of human safety.

Genesis 9 does not use the term “beasts of the field”, but talks instead of “animals of the earth” and “living creatures”. This passage really does make the case for the divine plan as a paradise of creation in harmony; for God’s covenant is not just with human beings, but with all living creatures. No wonder, then, that the rainbow sign of God’s covenant with “all flesh that is on the earth” has been chosen to embrace people once thought to be outside the covenant.

Origen would not be the last Christian teacher to be condemned in his own time, but later be found to have had a genuine insight into the divine will.

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