by Jason Micheli
1 Peter 4.6-11 (click to see Scripture text)
Lieutenant Alaric Piette grew up in Texas and Wisconsin and enlisted in the Navy right after he graduated from high school in 1997. He had been inspired by his grandfather, a decorated commando in World War II. Even though he wasn’t a good swimmer and arrived at basic training with no prior experience with weapons, he graduated from a SEAL selection course in a year when all but ten percent of the class dropped out. He was assigned to a cold-weather warfare team and deployed to Kosovo. Frustrated over not seeing combat, Piette resigned his commission in 2003 and enrolled at Georgetown’s School of Law. In February 2018, the New York Times described Lieutenant Alaric Piette as “the least qualified lawyer ever to lead a Guantanamo terrorism case.”
Lieutenant Alaric Piette did not dispute the characterization.
The article details how Piette had been assigned to the defense team representing the Saudi Arabian terrorist accused of orchestrating the bombing of the US Navy destroyer Cole in October, 2000. Piette came to the case with only six years of legal experience and having never tried a capital case. Shortly after he joined the accused’s defense team, all the other lawyers quit the military tribunal, in protest, when they discovered that the prosecution had been illegally listening to their attorney-client conversations. The case is further complicated, because much of the evidence against al-Nashiri was obtained by torture at CIA black sites. Though military tribunal policy requires “learned counsel” to represent any defendant in a capital case, Piette remained on the case, concluding it would be a grave injustice to leave the accused without any representation. “There is no way I qualify as learned counsel,” he told the Times, but leaving the client without a lawyer to defend his rights could be even worse. I don’t know if I’ve done the right thing, but I don’t think I really had a choice.”
Piette had entered law school with the expectation of becoming a prosecutor, not a defense attorney. During his last year at Georgetown, he says, he shifted to the criminal defense clinic. Raised Christian, he told the Times that representing destitute, often mentally ill clients as the moment he understood the teachings of Jesus. “It was the first time since I left the SEALS,” he said, “that I found something really meaningful. Everyone needs an advocate. I was standing between the accused person and the legal system.”
Everyone needs an advocate
to stand between the guilty and the legal accusation against them.
Here we are in the homestretch of summer, weeks into the season of Kingdomtide, and we’re finally forced to reckon with the scope of what we sang on Christmas Eve: “No more let sins and sorrows grow/Nor thorns infest the ground/He comes to make His blessings flow/Far as the curse is found.”
In Jesus Christ God took flesh to eradicate the Power of Sin and to sow the gift of His righteousness as far as the curse of Adam’s fall is found.
As Karl Barth says,
“God Himself in Jesus Christ His Son, at once true God and true man, takes the place of condemned man. God’s judgment is executed, God’s law takes its course, but in such a way that what man should suffer is suffered by this One, who as God’s Son stands for others— all others. Such is the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who stands in front of us before the Judge, by taking upon Himself what belongs to us.
In Him, God makes himself liable, at the point at which we are accursed and guilty and lost. He it is in His Son, who in the person of this crucified man bears on Golgotha all that ought to be laid on us. And in this way He makes an end of the curse. Forever.”
Just how far does Christ Jesus go to make His blessings known? “The Gospel was preached,” the Apostle Peter writes, “even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God.” Today’s text connects back to the preceding chapter and has a specific context: the death of the Righteous Son of God for the unrighteous.
Peter takes the substitution of Jesus Christ for the ungodly to its logical if inconceivable conclusion. Christ’s substitutionary death— for us— extends all the way to the long dead unrighteous, harrowing, even hell, itself.
That the death of Jesus Christ extends even to the unrighteous dead is but a way of proclaiming that the atonement applies to all who have ever lived. “Christ also died for sins, once for all,” Peter proclaims, “the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us [all] to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit; in which Christ went and preached to the spirits shut up in prison, who formerly did not obey.”
Here we see how, for the Apostle Peter, the substitutionary death of Christ, the righteous in the place of the unrighteous, is inseparable from Christ’s decisive victory over the Power of Sin, Death, and the Devil. The meaning of Christ’s death is multi-layered, yet the emphasis overall is clear: Christ is the Righteous One who brings us to God by standing in front of the legal train in motion against us, and dies for sins, once for all, on behalf of and in place of all the unrighteous. “He descended to the dead,” we profess in the Apostles’ Creed— at least we’re supposed to be professing it in the Creed— that is, the saving act of Jesus Christ upon the cross starts with the two miserable bastards on crosses to his left and to his right, yet its reach is without remainder.
The Good Shepherd has crossed the farthest field to find each and every last sheep of his flock— he descended into hell.
Over the centuries, artists have depicted Christ’s harrowing of hell with the crucified Jesus kicking down the prison doors and emerging triumphant with the faithful— the Old Testament all stars— in tow.
The most common icon shows Christ lifting from the grave Adam and Eve who look every bit as surprised as Lazarus being summoned from the tomb. But, as common as those ancient images are, they are not what the Apostle Peter proclaims today. Peter tells us that Christ descended to the death not for the Old Testament faithful, but for the sake of the unfaithful, “to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey.” And Peter depicts this saving work being accomplished not by Christ kicking down the prison doors, but simply by Jesus Christ preaching to the dead.
Martin Luther interpreted today’s text as a parable of Christ’s preaching, a parable of the Word of God. “Christ is so intent that the Gospel for all be heard by all,” Luther wrote, “that Christ Jesus goes so far as to preach to those that lie captive in the prison house of the devil.”
Christ sets free even the ungodly who have long since died by means of his preached Word. Peter doesn’t mean that Jesus went down to the realm of the dead in order to impart information to them. Jesus didn’t give them 3 steps to climb their way to blessedness. This preaching to the dead isn’t persuasion. It isn’t exhortation or even an invitation.
If all our Lord had done was descend to extend an invitation, Fleming Rutledge says, “you can be sure the disobedient dead would remain impotent in the bonds of Death.”
When Peter tells us Christ preached to the unrighteous dead, he doesn’t mean that Jesus offered them a sermon or that Jesus delivered a speech. On the contrary, Peter points here to the same Word of God that created ex nihilo, out of nothing, the Word of God which has the power to give life even to the dead. With the same instantaneous efficacy of “And God said, Let there be light!” (and there was light), the Word of God freed all the unrighteous who were shut up in prison.
Talk about liberation theology— this is the Word of God that is able to make a way out of no way.
The Word of God that is powerful, the Apostle Paul says, “to raise the dead to life and to call forth into existence the things that do not exist.”
As with Lazarus, so it is with all the ungodly who have ever lived, “Lazarus, come out!” Jesus says to the tomb of the friend already four days dead and stinking.
“Lazarus, come out!” the Word of God commands.
And the next thing Jesus does is say to Martha and Mary, “Take off his grave clothes. Unbind him and set him free.”
The Word of God is able to work what it says.
The Word of God is able to accomplish what it wills.
And if what the Word of God wills is the redemption of the world, the salvation of all, the justification even of the ungodly, then there is a voice that even the dead can hear, a summons even they must finally obey.
Some years ago, I co-officiated a burial at Arlington National Cemetery for a family in my community. A megachurch pastor, famous for his pithy radio spots in the metro area, joined me.
A fundamentalist member of the immediate family had insisted on the participation of a pastor “from a Bible-believing church.” In trying to dole out parts of the brief burial liturgy to him, the pastor put up his hands and said to me, “I’ll just say a few words.”
The deceased had died too early and far too slowly of cancer. After I prayed and read the Apostle Peter’s promise of an imperishable inheritance, my co-officiant stepped to the head of the casket and, after acknowledging the deceased’s bravery and accomplishments, informed us that he had nonetheless “failed his most important mission.”
“He’s lost forever to us now— and to God— because he never accepted Jesus Christ as his personal lord and savior,” the pastor said, and then he invited all of us gathered by the grave to “treat this tragedy as God’s way of giving you an opportunity. The clock is ticking. Make your decision for him before you run out of time.”
I wondered whether the horror on the widow’s face was directed at him or at the god of whom he spoke.
Only later did it occur to me that nothing this pastor had said to us about God and eternity had been biblical.
If you didn’t know any better, it had sounded Christian-like, sure, but none of it came from the Bible he’d waved in the air. By contrast, the ancient liturgy I’d celebrated was really nothing more than a pastiche of promises straight out of scripture, beginning with the very last of Christ’s words of grace, “I died and behold I am alive forever more, and I hold the keys of hell and death.”
As we walked back to our cars in the rain, the megachurch pastor said to me, “You didn’t much like what I had to say there at the grave did you, pastor?”
“You just got me to wondering,” I replied.
“Do you really think Lazarus could’ve refused Christ’s command to come out of the tomb?
He just stared at me.
“Because if not— if Lazarus could never have resisted Christ’s command to come out of the tomb— then everything you just told that family was a damn lie.”
I could tell from his face he wasn’t used to being clapped back.
“It’s not a sermon,” I said, “it’s just a thought.”
In discussing his seemingly hopeless, overmatched defense of a client who is almost certainly guilty, one of Lt. Alaric Piette’s professors at Georgetown put a photo of Piette up in her ethics class for her students to remember. “Here’s an example of courageous and ethical representation” she told her class, “He’s pretty gutsy.”
And listen to how she interpreted his work to the New York Times: “This legal train is in motion and he steps out in front of it to protect the accused. I don’t know that all advocates would do that, especially for the guilty.”
This legal train is in motion and he steps out in front of it to protect the accused. I don’t know that all advocates would do that, especially for the guilty.
Well, I can think of one Advocate.
That’s what the Apostle Peter means for you to see in this Gospel picture.
Before the Law of God (which demands perfection), you and I are guilty as hell.
In Jesus Christ, our Advocate, God steps in front of all us who are guilty, so determined is he not to be God without you. And nothing— certainly not your sin or your unbelief— can stand in the way of Jesus Christ your Advocate standing in front of you and the Law’s accusation against you. As the Apostle Paul writes to the Galatians, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us.”
In God the Son, God the Father has made an end of the curse.
“It is not God’s Will that man should perish,” Karl Barth says in his lecture on that clause in the Creed about Christ’s descent to the dead, “It is not God’s Will that man should pay what he was bound to pay. God has already judged in our favor. For the sake of Jesus Christ, God no longer addresses or regards any of us as sinners.”
For the sake of Jesus Christ, God no longer addresses or regards you as a sinner.
No matter what you’ve done or left undone.
It is not God’s Will that any of the guilty be lost.
And if the Bible is clear about anything, it’s that in the End God’s gonna get what God wants. The Word of God, Peter makes clear today, is irresistible. And God said, Peter puts it today, and, by the sheer saying of it, hell itself was emptied.
Hear the Good News!
In Jesus Christ there is no place for you there.
Hell has been harrowed.
6For 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.
7 The end of all things is near;* therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. 8Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. 9Be hospitable to one another without complaining. 10Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. 11Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.