This article is part of the series, the Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Baptism…now saves you…through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven, and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” (1 Peter 3:22)
Aside from winning awards for the number of clauses in a single sentence (and the Greek sentence actually begins before verse 21), today’s epistle reading makes big claims! God has made all powers subject to Jesus Christ! But “all” is a big term, especially in a world that doesn’t always feel subject to God. And so the question that lingers today is, “What did the author of 1 Peter mean by “angels, authorities, and powers?”
Clearly everything and everyone are not subject to Jesus—or at least no one acts like they are—so what did the author of 1 Peter mean? What are the “angels, authorities, and powers” so that we can know who and what is subject to Jesus? And, of course, how? The traditional way of answering these questions usually moves in one of two directions. We either declare with the author of Hebrews that all things are subject to Jesus and will be at the fullness of time, but that at present we cannot see this reality yet (Hebrews 2:5-9). Lutherans call this line of reasoning a “Now and Not Yet” eschatology. Meaning God has already come in the person of Christ, but the end of times and thus the fullness of God’s reign here on earth is not yet complete. Or, we spiritualize the whole passage and declare that Jesus does have dominion over all the evil powers that try to wrest authority in our lives, and therefore, we simply need to put our trust in Jesus. This line of reasoning is bolstered by a historical account that puts emphasis on the first century understanding of daemons and spirits in control of everything, like cosmic puppet masters of the ancient world.
Such a divide can be seen in any number of religious and political debates going on today. For example, in the recent uproar about health care legislation requiring certain Roman Catholic health care providers to cover birth control, one finds (among a diversity of opinions) two common reactions. In one common response, people decry the government for attempting to get involved in “matters of faith” (Jesus is in control of the spiritual, not the political powers). While, in another, people insist as a matter of conscience that it is necessary to protect the plurarlity and diversity both within the Roman Catholic faith and its employees (Jesus and the morals that he stands for need to respond to the way we approach our political and religiously plural world).
Unfortunately, the spiritualized approach falls apart when we understand that the divine cosmic puppet masters of the first century were also understood to be in control of the politics and governments of the ancient world. There was no divide between the secular and the divine. Therefore, even when one understands the “authorities and powers” that 1 Peter is referring to in a spiritual manner, it does not escape the definitive reference to Jesus’ control over the secular—over the political—and not just the spiritual aspects of our lives. The claim that our epistle makes is a bold one: Jesus is and should be in control of all angels, powers, and authorities!
Of course, the way people work this out varies. Again, for example, in the health care debate, there will be devout Roman Catholics on both sides of the issue who see Jesus at work either preventing or fostering the legislation requiring the coverage of birth control. What it means that Jesus has made or is making all things subject to him is a topic as open for debate as what Jesus means himself; but however one defines it, the author of 1 Peter is clear—Jesus is in CONTROL.
In a world that feels very much as though Jesus is NOT in control, however, the logical question becomes: HOW?! And here, again, 1 Peter has a bold and profound answer:
“And baptism…now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” (1 Peter 3:21)
There it is again—that matter of conscience. Jesus is in control. Jesus has wrested control through the waters of baptism as violently as God retook control of this world in the days of Noah through the waters of the flood. Too often we can take these waters too lightly—whether we experience them as a gentle splash of a baby by a seashell, or a dramatic immersion of an adult in a placid stream. We think of baptism as a bath, as a washing, but 1 Peter gives us another image—one of a flood, of a violent reworking.
Jesus is in control of our lives and our world because Jesus is in control of the violent waters of baptism. The waters that remake us, rework us, and appeal to God on account of our consciences. If we want to see God at work in our world, exercising dominion over the corrupt and oppressive powers that surround us, this is where we need to start—in the waters of baptism. Wet—not just clean, but drenched, brought to ruin—in the waters of baptism, now ready to muck out the corruption of this world and rebuild the kingdom of Christ’s power in its place. Where do we start? With our conscience…
The Rev. Amy Allen is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and a Theology and Practice fellow in New Testament at Vanderbilt University. She and her family reside in Franklin, TN where they attend the Lutheran Church of Saint Andrew.