I’m puzzled by a couple of passages in this reading.
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, 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, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him. (3:18-22)
6 For 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. (4:6)
Taking these two together, and reading at face value, it’s hard to avoid taking it that Peter is writing about Jesus proclaiming good news to at least some of those who died before the Incarnation, after their death. I know there’s an ancient tradition that on Holy Saturday the dead Christ entered Hell to break the gates and set the dead free. These verses aren’t enough to back that up, but they leaf us in the same direction.
Whatever the detail, it’s clear at least that the saving death of Jesus reaches back into history as well as forward to our time. This passage doesn’t give an excuse for those who hear the good news now to put off a decision – both times it reads like an account of a past proclamation, not a continuing mission programme – but it does remind us of the breadth and depth of God’s mercy.
Perhaps the key thing for me to take on is that I have received that mercy while I’ve still got the chance to make the most of it – in this life rather than only the next.