The Christian faith is one that is historical; it makes its claims on the basis of a concrete set of particular facts: the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth, whom we understand to be at the same time the Christ, the incarnate Son of God. In some quarters it has been trendy to emphasize what is sometimes called the “cosmic Christ,” the aspect of Christ that is comparatively untethered from historical particulars and has an abstract but universal reality. That the person and work of Jesus Christ has cosmic implications has been clear to the church from the beginning; at the same time, the church has always anchored the cosmic implications of Christ’s person and work in the particular, concrete historical facts of Jesus of Nazareth. The trick is to hold them together, as indeed Jesus Christ himself holds together in his very person perfect humanity and perfect divinity.
Today I will draw attention to the cosmic dimensions of who Jesus Christ was and is. I do so at the prompting of the Gospel of Mark itself, which in today’s passage is very thin on specific historical particulars. As a prelude to Jesus’s ministry, Mark highlights his baptism by John and his temptation by the devil in the wilderness. In both cases we get almost no detail at all.
These events are compressed down to their essentials and are recounted with a sense of urgency that is underscored by two uses of the word “immediately.” The drama of Mark’s Gospel comes from this continual sense that the events he recounts are charged with a cosmic significance; even though not much is explained about what is going on, we feel like everything that takes place does so with a packed potency and in rapid succession. Things happen in Mark with the power and speed of a series of firecrackers going off in sequence.
Jesus comes out of the insignificant town of Nazareth without warning and with no details of his birth or childhood provided. He is baptized by John, and immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him and the voice of the Father proclaiming “Thou art my beloved Son.” Again this potent little vignette packs more of a punch than you might realize at first. When Mark says Jesus saw the heavens opened, he uses the verb schizo, which does not just mean opened but rather torn open or split open: As the New Testament scholar David Garland has argued, Mark may be pointing to the incredibly consequential nature of this moment: Heaven is not just open but torn open, implying that there is no going back. A door that is opened can always be closed again. A cloth that is torn or split open is not so easily mended.
Something has changed in this moment that has cosmic consequences: We will see a variation of this same verb, to tear or split, again in Mark’s Gospel. At the moment Christ dies on the cross Mark tells us that the veil in the temple separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the world is torn or split open. So already Mark is saying that at the baptism of Christ God becomes present in and available to the world He created in a new and powerful way that will be fully realized at Christ’s crucifixion and in his resurrection.
There is another echo of the crucifixion to be discerned in the baptism of Christ. Just as Mark uses the same root word to describe how at his baptism the heavens were torn open and at his death the temple veil was torn open so too does the declaration that Jesus is the Son of God get repeated both here at the beginning and again at the end of Mark’s Gospel. Just as here Jesus himself alone it would seem hears the pronouncement of the Father that he is the beloved Son of God, again at the very moment of his death the Roman centurion declares “Truly this man was the Son of God.” So once more Mark connects the baptism of Christ at the beginning of his ministry to the crucifixion of Christ at the end. Together these events reveal who he is and what he is here to accomplish.
In between these two bookends Peter recognizes Jesus as the Christ, in the middle of Mark’s Gospel. But even then Peter does not seem to realize that the whole reason for the Son of God’s earthly mission is for him to be crucified and rise again. If Peter did not understand that then, by the time he writes his letters he certainly has. In our epistle reading for today from 1 Peter, Peter spells out clearly what Mark strongly implies: There is a tight bond between the baptism of Christ and the crucifixion of Christ, one that again has cosmic consequences and consequences for us.
Peter teaches that the perfectly righteous Christ died for the unrighteous, for us, we who were enemies of God and are implicated in Christ’s own death by our own violence and injustice. Baptism effectuates this salvation, not an outward physical cleansing of the body but as a restoration of the conscience of the inward person.
One of the strangest points of comparison that Peter makes in all his letters is found in this passage. When he speaks here of the power of baptism to effectuate salvation via the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ he likens this deliverance to the deliverance of the family of Noah. Noah and his wife and three sons and their wives, eight people total, were delivered by means of water to safety; in the same way we are delivered from judgment through the power of the cross and by means again of water, the water of baptism.
So why the comparison to Noah, and why does Peter mention this idea of Christ preaching after his rising from the dead to “the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark?”
It’s very mysterious, and we cannot be sure, but here is what I think. I think Peter too, like Mark, grasps the cosmic dimensions and scope of the crucifixion of Christ and the new order of baptism that seals the saving work of the cross. The powerful realities of Christ’s saving work do concern first and foremost himself, and they concern us since we have been baptized into the death and new life of Christ, but they also concern the entire world—all of reality is affected by them.
I think we get another hint of this in Mark’s again very brief but very powerful account of the temptation of Christ in the desert. Once again, we are told that the Holy Spirit, which just descended upon Jesus, now “immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” There’s that word immediately again, and again to be driven into the wilderness is not just to be conducted there but to be propelled as if by force.
The details of the temptation once more do not concern Mark, but he does make mention of two unusual particulars: Jesus in the wilderness “was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.” What if Mark deliberately mentions the wild beasts and the angels to once again highlight the truly cosmic implications of Jesus’s appearance on earth? His being here means something new to all living things, from the animals to the angels.
Peter too I think may have this same cosmic scope in mind when he interprets baptism in light of the crucifixion. His mention of Noah I think implies as much. Because not only is the new human family, Noah’s family, delivered via the ark but so also is the whole of animal life. And once Noah and the animals are safe, God makes a covenant with all living things, that he will never again destroy all living things through water. God is clear that this covenant is not just with humanity but with the animals as well. And Peter refers to the angels also. In his meditation on baptism he reminds us that Christ not only died for our sins, he not only rose from the dead, but he now rules in heaven over all authorities, powers, and angels. So Christ is at the head of nothing less than a new reality, a new order of things that saves us human beings to be sure but also institutes a new rule over the whole of creation, including its angelic members.
So complete is this new rule, and so cosmically far-reaching are the consequences of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, that nothing is outside his loving power. This, I think, is what Peter means when he says the resurrected Christ preached to the spirits in prison, to those who did not obey when God was preparing to judge the world. At the very least it seems to me what Peter is saying is that no one exists entirely outside the reach of Christ. Nothing is untouched by the fact of his crucifixion. Even the dead are witnesses to the risen Lord.
As we undertake our annual Lenten preparation, let us think upon the vastness of the reality we prepare ourselves to celebrate. The reality of our baptism has identified us with Christ himself, and his person and work are realities that tower over literally everything; the cross and resurrection cast a shadow over the entire cosmos; the cross and resurrection redefine reality for all living things. And as we learn from 1 Peter, the cross and resurrection are known even to those who do not live now but all who have ever lived. There can be no more staggering reality for us to contemplate in the coming weeks. There is no event of greater scope than the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. And there can be no greater consolation than to know that no one is untouched by their power. Amen.