1 Peter 5

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your Holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

BLESSED BE THE GOD AND FATHER of our Lord Jesus Christ!
According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again
to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ
from the dead (1 Peter 1:3).
Amen.

Introduction
One of the notable trends in postmodern culture and even more so in woke culture is the increasing distrust of institutions, hierarchy, and leadership. Some groups advocate defunding the police because they no longer trust the integrity and impartiality of law enforcement agencies. On 6 January 2021 there was a riot at the Capitol because a group of protesters had lost faith in the electoral system and the institutions of government. Many now view news agencies and outlets as instruments of propaganda, manipulated by powerful self-interests to promote a self-serving misinterpretation of facts. History is being reinterpreted to topple our Founding Fathers from their pedestals and to recast them primarily as white, patriarchal oppressors. Challenges to power and authority at all levels abound: homes, schools, businesses, government. There is a real sense of anarchy bubbling up in postmodern Western society.

But, the dismantling of authority is not the solution to whatever problems there may be; chaos is not preferable to order. We see that clearly in Israel’s history. When Joshua died and there was no successor to provide strong, central leadership, the Hebrew tribal coalition fragmented, chaos ensued, the people did evil in the sight of the Lord, and the individual tribes were conquered by the indigenous peoples of the land. It was only when God raised up a strong leader — a judge — that the people were delivered. However suspicious we may be of authority and hierarchy, it remains necessary. That is true not only in the public sphere, but in the church, as well. It is to the nature of church leadership that Peter turns his attention as he draws his first letter to a close.

Shepherd the Flock of God

1 Peter 5:1–5 (ESV): 5 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 5 Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

Notice that Peter simply begins addressing the elders in the church. He doesn’t explain or justify the existence of this “hierarchy;” that is simply assumed/given as the structure of the local church. This harkens back, in part, to the Jewish roots of the church; eldership was a familiar and venerable institution in Israel. Though it likely precedes this event, the eldership was given some formal structure and authority following the Exodus, when Moses’ father-in-law Jethro visited at Sinai.

Exodus 18:12–27 (ESV): 12 And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices to God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law before God.

13 The next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening. 14 When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” 15 And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God; 16 when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.” 17 Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. 19 Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, 20 and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. 21 Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. 22 And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23 If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.”

24 So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said. 25 Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. 26 And they judged the people at all times. Any hard case they brought to Moses, but any small matter they decided themselves. 27 Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went away to his own country.

Notice the characteristics of these elders: able men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe — good criteria for all public leaders! So, elders became a fixture in the culture of Israel: mature, trusted men capable of discernment and impartial judgment. This idea of leadership was retained in the church, so Peter can speak of the elders of the church without the need for extensive explanation. Of course, it was not just Peter who spoke of elders; Paul gave specific instructions to both his protégés Timothy and Titus on nature of eldership:

Titus 1:5–11 (ESV): 5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

10 For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. 11 They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach.

How would you summarize the primary role/function of the elders in this passage from Paul? In their particular context in Crete, the elders are to teach, preserve, and defend sound doctrine.

Peter would, of course, agree with this rather authoritative role that Paul envisions for elders in Crete, but Peter has a different emphasis in his letter. That might be because he is writing to a largely Jewish church that has a tradition of elders. Here is a comparison between Paul and Peter’s vision for elders:

Paul: Teach, Preserve, Defend

Peter: Shepherd, Oversee, Mentor

I suspect there were particular challenges that a largely Gentile church in Crete faced in terms of order, discipline, morality, and doctrinal fidelity that perhaps Peter’s congregations didn’t struggle with. So, Peter’s vision of elders is arguably more pastoral than Paul’s. Let’s think a bit more about the role Peter envisions.

Shepherd: What does a shepherd do for his sheep?

Oversee: What is implied by the word “oversee” or in the task of oversight?

Mentor: Peter actually says “be an example.” I have presented that as mentorship. What is important about an example or a mentor?

How this ministry of eldership is motivated and performed is important. In fact, there are some disqualifying motivations/characteristics: compulsion, greed, abuse of power. These are all antithetical to pastoral ministry in the church, and each has caused untold trouble to the church throughout the ages.

Peter also has a word for the flock the elders shepherd: you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Peter uses chronological terms here — younger and elder — but to insist on that would be to misread Peter. He is thinking more in terms of spiritual maturity than in terms of age. Only those of spiritual maturity should be appointed as elders over the church so that those under their authority might know them to be trustworthy shepherds, overseers, and mentors. It is then proper for people of all ages to be subject to those spiritually mature elders. Though it’s proper, it is not always easy or natural. To be subject to anyone, even to someone who clearly merits our respect and cooperation, is difficult; it goes against our fallen nature. If it hard to be subject to God, how much more so to men and women like ourselves. It demands that virtue which is the source and summit of all other virtues: humility.

The Desert Fathers valued humility above all other virtues. This tale about the monk Macarius shows its importance:

Macarius was once returning to his cell from the marsh carrying palm leaves. The devil met him by the way, with a sickle, and wanted to run him through with it but he could not. The devil said, ‘Macarius, I suffer a lot of violence from you, for I can’t overcome you. For whatever you do, I do also. If you fast, I eat nothing; if you keep watch, I get no sleep. There is only one quality in which you surpass me.’ Macarius said to him, ‘What is that?’ The devil answered, ‘Your humility; that is why I cannot prevail against you.’

As an aside to this story, note how insidious the devil is. By complimenting Macarius on his humility he tempts the monk to pride, to the loss of humility! The devil has no power over the truly humble and will stop at nothing to attack that person’s humility.

Because humility is so important — and so difficult — it is worth spending some time thinking about this virtue. First, let’s note that humility is a uniquely Judeo-Christian virtue. The Greeks and Romans had no concept of humility as a virtue, as a character trait to be cultivated, to aspire to. Inferiors were humbled, were forced to be and expected to be humble. But not free men. There was no greatness in humility. The root of humility was in the Jewish Law and Prophets; the fruit of it ripened in the Gospels.

Let’s think about what Christian humility is by looking at what humility is not.

It is not thinking of yourself as worthless, though this is sometimes how humility is portrayed even in classical Christian literature. I think the biblical refutation of humility as worthlessness is found in Philippians 2, Paul’s discourse of Christ’s example of humility:

Philippians 2:1–11 (ESV): 2 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Let’s start here: Christ was not nothing; he was not worthless. To the contrary, he shared equality with God the Father, the greatest worth of all. The essence of his humility was this: he was willing to relinquish his rightful divine prerogatives for the good of others, to serve others in obedience to the will of God his Father. It think this gets near the heart of humility. It starts with a firm grasp of one’s identity as rooted in and given by God, and then it moves on to relationships: first to God and then to one’s neighbors. In fact, I wonder if Jesus’ Summary of the Law is not also a definition/description of humility:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (BCP 2019, p. 106).

Because I am the beloved image bearer of God my Father, I can love him above all. Because my neighbor is the beloved image bearer of God our Father, I can love my neighbor as myself. There is no competition, no jockeying for position in humility; it is not based on scarcity, but rather on abundance. It can seek the good of the other with no fear that one’s own good will somehow be diminished. A humility like that must be rooted in a firm understanding of one’s own identity in Christ. So, Peter can insist that, in the church, elders are not domineering and those under their authority are not subversive. Each acts in humility toward the other, for the good of the other, for the good of oneself, and for the common good of the church. And what is the outcome of such relationships of mutual humility?

1 Peter 5:6–7 (ESV): 6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.

As God the Father exalted Christ for his humility, so too will God exalt you for yours. So you need have no care, no anxiety, no fear of being overlook or forgotten; God cares for you.

The Roaring Lion
Do you remember the Desert Fathers’ story of Macarius and his great humility that we referred to earlier? The devil praises Macarius for his humility hoping thereby to tempt the saint to pride, to destroy his humility. Start cultivating the virtue of humility and you can be guaranteed the attention of the devil. And that is, I think, why Peter turns his attention to that reality at just this point in his letter.

1 Peter 5:8–11 (ESV): 8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.

We need to be aware — aware, but not afraid — of this stark reality: we have a spiritual adversary who wants nothing more than to destroy us as an act of rebellion against God. Baptism is enlistment in the hosts/army of God and engagement in a lifelong battle. The Rite of Baptism says as much:

N., receive the sign of the Cross as a token of your new life in Christ, in which you shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, to fight bravely under his banner against the world, the flesh, and the devil, and to continue as his faithful soldier and servant to the end of your days. Amen (BCP 2019, p. 169).

Peter tells us to resist the devil. How are we to do that — practically?

We are to be firm in the faith. And what does that entail?

Make certain you are immersed — daily — in the Word of God. Truth is a weapon.

Pray always. Make prayer a habit until is becomes as natural as breathing. Use the Daily Office, personal prayer, contemplative prayer, breath prayer — all kinds of prayer.

Utilize the Sacraments of the Church: first and most important the Eucharist, but also confession which brings temptation into the open and deprives it of its power.

Cultivate the virtues: faith, hope, love, humility, wisdom, courage, patience — all the Christian virtues.

Stay in community; resist the foolhardy temptation to “go it alone” spiritually. Even the desert monks typically lived and worshipped in community. Only the most spiritually mature were judged capable of becoming hermits.

Peter also mentions suffering again in this context. Suffering is a tool of the devil because it makes us doubt the sovereignty and love of God. It also makes us feel alone, isolated. And so Peter reminds his readers that the church throughout the world is experiencing the same type of suffering, a suffering which is temporary and which ultimately redounds to our good. In the proper time God will “restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish” his faithful ones. It is really with that promise that Peter closes his letter, that and the reminder that God is sovereign, that his dominion is for ever and ever.

Final Greetings
All that remains in the letter is the closing, or the final greetings, with some familiar and important names. First there is the amanuensis Silvanus, the one who writes Peter’s dictated letter. Silvanus is another form of the name Silas, who was the traveling companion of Paul. Second, Peter mentions Mark, the one-time traveling companion of Paul who left him on the first journey and caused the rift between Paul and Barnabas. This is John Mark, a relative of Peter, and the one who penned the Gospel bearing his name, a Gospel that is considered Peter’s memoir. Peter notes that he writes from Babylon which is the common New Testament term for Rome.

Peter closes his letter — and I’ll close this class — with a blessing of peace:

Ειρήνη ύμΐν πασιν τοΐς έν χριστω.

Peace to all of you who are in Christ.

BLESSED BE THE GOD AND FATHER of our Lord Jesus Christ!
According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again
to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ
from the dead (1 Peter 1:3).

Amen.

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1 Peter 4

The following link is to a lesson taught by Deacon Bruce Corrigan at Apostles Anglican Church.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1PQmckWxBYagf9-kobbCjBgZ5B_wnd8sf/view?usp=drivesdk

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1 Peter 3

Icon of St. Peter
by the hand of David Clifton

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your Holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

BLESSED BE THE GOD AND FATHER of our Lord Jesus Christ!
According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again
to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ
from the dead (1 Peter 1:3).
Amen.

Introduction
The Sermon on the Mount makes no sense:

Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the sad, the despised, the spurned.

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who despise you.

When struck, do not retaliate, but rather open yourself to further abuse.

Give to anyone who asks something from you, even to your enemies.

And so on. The Sermon on the Mount makes no sense…unless you are a disciple of Christ and are convinced that he was God incarnate and now rules over all. To deny his divinity and yet to say that he was a good, moral/ethical teacher is to me one of the most bizarre things I’ve every heard. No! If he was not and is not God, then he was a fool who died for a delusion or else a liar who died for his blasphemy; there is no justification for living the life he proposed apart from his divinity. We try to live according to the Sermon on the Mount not because is it sensible ethical practice, but in spite of the fact that it is not sensible by any earthly standard. We try to live according to the Sermon on the Mount solely because Jesus is Lord and he said this is the way to live. The Sermon “makes sense” only in that context; it makes sense only for Christians.

But, it did something else important in its first-century Jewish context also. It was offered to the am ha’aretz, the poor of the land, those most likely to be abused by the rich and powerful, those for whom these instructions were matters of life and death. These instructions, I think, were intended in part to give these people agency — the ability to act rightly — and dignity. What do you, a Jewish peasant in an occupied land, do when a rich man or a Roman soldier shames you by slapping you in the face? You do not resort to violence, which might well result in your death. Instead, you turn the other cheek — an act of agency and dignity, a refusal to be shamed. You are, after all, a son of Abraham, equal to the rich Jew and elect beyond the imagining of the Roman. It is heaping coals of fire on the head of the rich and powerful; the shame redounding to them. It is precisely what Gandhi and his followers did to shame the British authorities and to free India from colonial rule. What do you do when a poor man asks you for something? You share what you have in solidarity with his plight — an act of agency which brings dignity to both parties. And so on throughout the Sermon. It elevates the disciples of Jesus by giving them a new identity as the blessed of God, by giving meaning — agency and dignity — to their daily suffering, and by promoting praxis that engenders solidarity with their community. Identity, suffering, and praxis: that brings us back to the themes of 1 Peter, which will play out in chapter 3 first in Christian homes, particularly in the marital relationship.

Wives and Husbands
Let’s begin by reading 1 Peter 3:1-7 with this single question in mind: To whom is Peter giving these instructions? It is important to be thorough in our answers to this question.

1 Peter 3:1–7 (ESV): 3 Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they see your respectful and pure conduct. 3 Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— 4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. 5 For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.

7 Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.

To whom is Peter addressing these instructions?

First, Peter writes to wives, not to women in general, but to wives. More specifically, he writes to Christian wives, some of whom are in mixed marriages: Christian wife, pagan husband. Second, Peter writes to husbands, specifically to Christian husbands with Christians wives.

So, this is not generic marital and family advice; this is directed to Christians. The context of Christian faith and obedience is the context in which these instructions “make sense.” If you don’t have Jesus as Lord, if you are not striving for life in the kingdom, this teaching well well seem like foolishness. Certainly, it is foolishness to modern, Western culture — which has largely abandoned Christian discipleship — and not just foolishness, but profoundly offensive foolishness.

Let’s begin with Peter’s word to wives: “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands.” What associations do we make with the word “subject”? What does it connote to us?

What does Peter have in mind when he uses the word “subject”? Well, we are not left to wonder; Peter specifies what he has in mind. In 1 Peter 3:2 he specifies that to “be subject” means to “be respectful and to behave purely.” He goes further in 1 Peter 3:5-6 by using Sarah as an example of a wife being subject to her husband. Think about the story of Abraham and Sarah. Do you see Sarah as a doormat or a shrinking violet? Or do you see her as fellow worker with Abraham struggling together with him toward fulfilling the covenant? Sarah is not lost in the story; she is an integral part of God’s redemptive work, precisely by being subject to her husband: respectful and pure. Peter is doing something profoundly important here: he is placing Christian wives into the New Covenant — not on the periphery but in the center — just as Sarah was placed in the Old Covenant, making their marital relationships part of God’s redemptive work in the world. This is the greatest possible elevation of the “status” of a Christian wife.

Peter goes even further. I want to come at this in a roundabout way. What is the image of the “ideal woman” in our culture today? To answer that, you have only to look at the women you see in advertisements, on social media as influencers, as box office stars. Who are these people? They are typically young and beautiful, sophisticated and elite, overtly and often aggressively sexual. They are blandly interchangeable: Madonna in one generation, Beyoncé or Jennifer Lopez or Shakira in another. And, when youth and beauty fade, what happens? The cultural worth of these women diminishes, and we search for a new crop of the young and beautiful. In this disposable culture, worth is external and transitory. It is to this perversion that Peter speaks so powerfully writing to Christian wives. He says, in paraphrase:

You are more than external beauty: braiding of hair, expensive jewelry, luxurious clothes. Your worth and real beauty is internal; it is in the recesses of the pure heart, in the presence of a quiet and gentle spirit. That is imperishable beauty, precious to God.

Can you see, yet again, how Peter elevates the status of wives, by recognizing their true worth and value in God’s redemptive story? The idea that the New Testament or Christianity itself is somehow misogynistic is the farthest thing from the truth; no one in the first century — or in any century since — maintains such a high view of marriage or the Christian wife.

We can envision these instructions working well in a Christian marriage. But, what of a mixed marriage: Christian wife to pagan husband? It may be more difficult for a Christian wife to live as Peter instructs in a mixed marriage, but it is no less important, and no less a matter of the wife’s dignity and agency. In that context, she is called to mission; she becomes an evangelist. Look again at 1 Peter 3:1-2; the behavior of the Christian wife is testimony to her pagan husband and may win him to the faith. Being subject is being radically subversive; it is an act that contrasts the beauty and truth of the Kingdom of God with the shallowness and emptiness of the kingdoms of the world. The woman is not merely a wife, but a witness, and evangelist.

And what of Christian husbands? Peter devotes a single verse to Christian husbands, but it has enormous impact.

7 Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.

Do you sense there any hint of a domineering patriarchy that Christianity is so often accused of promoting? That is simply anathema to the Christian concept of marriage. Husbands, be understanding, i.e., be reasonable, empathetic, and compassionate toward your wives. Husbands, honor your wives as weaker vessels, that is, support, protect, strengthen, encourage, lift up your wives. Husbands, respect your wives’ identity in Christ, their identity that is of equal value as yours, joint heirs as they are in this gracious life. Husbands, pray with and for your wives.

I read recently that one of the great predictors of the success and fruitfulness of any society is the stability of families within it. As goes the family, so goes the culture. That is why Peter’s instructions here were — and are — so important, so foundational to the culture of resident alien Christians in the midst of pagan cultures. That is also why our enemy is currently so focused on the destruction of family: the attacks on sexual and gender norms, the demonization of patriarchy and fatherhood, the interference by the secular state in the care and raising of children. It’s an old story that has come back around with a vengeance. We need to be aware. We need to pattern our families differently as witness to the world.

A Word To All
Thus far Peter has spoken to dichotomous pairs: subjects/citizens and governments, slaves and masters, wives and husbands. While his instructions are specific to each context, there are general principles that apply to all. He summarizes those as he begins to transition to another of his themes;

1 Peter 3:8–12 (ESV): 8 Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9 Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. 10 For

“Whoever desires to love life
and see good days,
let him keep his tongue from evil
and his lips from speaking deceit;
11 let him turn away from evil and do good;
let him seek peace and pursue it.
12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”

The way to navigate all these difficult relationships is to exercise a few fundamental Christian dispositions: unity, sympathy, brotherly love, tenderness, humility. As I wrote this, I was reading a book on the origin, dogmas, and indoctrination of the woke culture (Awake, Not Woke). It was a deeply disturbing book, because the philosophy it analyzes is deeply disturbing. It is a movement that stokes division, placing everyone in one of two categories — oppressed or oppressor. The primary mode of interaction is blame. The most common attitude is suspicion, and the dominant emotions are anger and hatred. It hardens peoples’ hearts against one another. And, it encourages an “arrogance of innocence” in those who consider themselves the oppressed. It is a devilish seed that, planted and firmly rooted, will produce poisonous fruit — is, even now, producing poisonous fruit. It is ugly and cold and hard. How different that is from what Peter offers to groups that are, not infrequently, actually oppressed: unity, sympathy, brotherly love, tenderness, humility. I felt a bit “soiled” and depressed when reading that book. Then I turned to Peter and I felt cleansed and lightened. There is a better way to be human than woke philosophy propounds, a way that allows us to love life and see good days, a way to turn from evil and do good, a way to pursue peace in all our relationships. There is a way of life, and there is a way of death. Peter lays out the way of life for us: unity, sympathy, brotherly love, tenderness, humility.

One last comment about this: look at a list of ethical virtues from the classical cultures, Greek and Roman. You will recognize them: prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance. But something is missing from that classical list: humility. That is a uniquely Christian contribution to virtue that was foreign to even the greatest classical Western civilizations. To put the needs of the other above one’s own, to seek out the lowest place of service, to count others better than oneself: all of that is uniquely Christian and images in us the mind and character of Christ. That, alone, puts us out of step with the dominant culture.

Suffering for Righteousness’ Sake
Peter transitions to his next theme — suffering — with a rhetorical question. I can’t help but think it asks it tongue-in-cheek:

1 Peter 3:13 (ESV): 13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?

This from a man who was beaten publicly by Jewish authorities, arrested and imprisoned — pending execution — by Herod, forced to flee Jerusalem, and who will finally be executed by Roman authorities — and all for doing good. So, who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? Well, lots of people and institution actually. And Peter knew this. His question is not naïve; it is rhetorical. That he recognizes the reality of persecution is obvious, because he turns his attention to how to deal with it.

1 Peter 3:14–17 (ESV): 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.

It seems to me that one of the most oft repeated commands in Scripture is “fear not — do not be afraid,” perhaps because fear is such a common human response to threat. If left to your own devices, fear might be the only appropriated response; it prepares you to flee or fight. But, there is a better way precisely because we are not left to our own devices. I don’t know that Peter had Psalm 118 in mind when he wrote this, but he might have done.

PSALM 118
1 Give thanks unto the Lord, for he is gracious;*
his mercy endures for ever.
2 Let Israel now confess that he is gracious,*
that his mercy endures for ever.
3 Let the house of Aaron now confess*
that his mercy endures for ever.
4 Indeed, let those who fear the Lord confess*
that his mercy endures for ever.
5 I called upon the Lord in trouble,*
and the Lord heard me and set me free.
6 The Lord is on my side;*
I will not fear what man can do to me.
7 The Lord takes my side with those who help me;*
therefore shall I look in triumph on my enemies.
8 It is better to trust in the Lord*
than to put any confidence in man.
9 It is better to trust in the Lord*
than to put any confidence in princes.
10 All the nations encompass me,*
but in the Name of the Lord will I cut them off.
11 They hem me in on every side; indeed, they hem me in on every side,*
but in the Name of the Lord will I cut them off.
12 They come about me like bees, and blaze like fire among the thorns,*
but in the Name of the Lord will I cut them off.
13 I was thrust aside so that I almost fell,*
but the Lord was my help.
14 The Lord is my strength and my song,*
and has become my salvation.
15 The voice of joy and deliverance is in the dwellings of the righteous;*
the right hand of the Lord brings mighty things to pass.
16 The right hand of the Lord is exalted;*
the right hand of the Lord brings mighty things to pass.
17 I shall not die, but live,*
and declare the works of the Lord.

The remedy for fear is memory and the trust that comes from it: memory of the Lord’s past faithfulness and trust that he will do likewise in the future. So, Peter says, don’t be afraid or troubled, but rather honor Christ as Lord. For many of us, this will always be a work in progress; worry is a besetting sin. Worry is like weeds in a garden, you don’t just pull them once; you weed over and over again. That is one reason that daily immersion in the Scripture — and particularly in the Psalms — is so important: it is a constant reminder of God’s constant faithfulness.

With persecution there often comes the opportunity for apology, i.e., for providing a defense for one’s actions and beliefs. And, we should be ready to do so. Why do you live the way you do? Why do you believe the things you do? It is important to think through some brief answers to those questions, to have them ready if and when asked. As our thoughts and deeds diverge increasingly from those of the prevailing culture — and that’s clearly happening — having answers ready grows more important. But as important as having answers is the spirit in which we offer them. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend over the past few years. A lot of the people with whom I agree doctrinally alienate me with the manner in which they express themselves. The mind is right, but the heart seems hard and cold. I don’t think it’s the case that defending right doctrine turns you into a jerk, but I see lots of examples of that. That’s not what Peter says: always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. It is that gentleness and respect that I often see lacking and that I struggle to maintain myself. Here, I editorialize a bit. I think our culture has lost its grasp on truth; it really doesn’t know how to think critically any longer, it doesn’t know how to recognize truth, and it’s not sure that truth really exists. Where we might have appealed to reason before, I think we must appeal more to goodness and beauty now, both in what we say and in how we say it. There is a goodness and beauty to the story we have to tell that surpasses that surpasses the character of every other story; it is winsome, attractive — but only if told in a good and beautiful manner, not shouted, not argued, not used as a bludgeon. So, be prepared with a good and beautiful answer offered in a good and beautiful spirit. That is what we are to do in times of persecution.

Even so, even doing all this, there exists the reality of suffering for the faith. Peter embeds our suffering in the suffering of Christ, and thereby gives it meaning:

1 Peter 3:17–22 (ESV): 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, 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 having been subjected to him.

For us, this is a strange passage, and it might be hard to understand just what Peter is getting at. But, Jewish readers were familiar with literature that we are not, cultural stories that we don’t share. They would have followed Peter’s train of thought quite naturally, while we have to work to do so. That’s one of the reasons I think Peter was writing to a Jewish “audience;” Gentiles would have needed much more explanation than he provides.

Let me try to summarize Peter’s logic here.

Christ’s suffering — his passion and death — was actually part of his victory, a victory fully realized in his resurrection. Taken together, these events — passion, death, and resurrection — were the proclamation of his vindication over his enemies and the great announcement of the redemption of the world. And, to whom did he first proclaim vindication and redemption? To the spirits in prison from the days of Noah. And, it is right here that we need to draw on the cultural memory of first century Jews. They heard or read, and certainly knew, the stories in the book of Enoch, stories that are referenced a few time in the New Testament literature.

Genesis 6:1-8 speaks of the sins of the sons of God with the daughters of man, resulting in mighty and wicked offspring that filled the world with evil in the generations immediately preceding the flood. These sons of God were fallen angels dedicated to the defilement and destruction of God’s creation. We are left with many questions by this brief account; the book of Enoch fills in the details. Time won’t allow me to explore it in depth here, but there is a brief passage that explains what Peter says. In it, the Archangel Michael is given instructions about the leader of these fallen angels, Samyaza:

To Michael likewise the Lord said, Go and announce his crime to Samyaza, and to the others who are with him, who have been associated with women, that they might be polluted with all their impurity. And when all their son [the mighty men in Genesis 6] shall be slain, when they shall see the perdition of their beloved, bind them for seventy generations underneath the earth, even to the day of judgment, and of consummation, until the judgment, the effect of which will last for ever, be completed.

Then shall they be taken away into the lowest depths of fire in torments; and in confinement shall they be shut up for ever.

This is the judgment of the fallen angels in the days of Noah: their offspring were destroyed in the flood and they themselves were bound pending judgment. These are the spirits in prison from the days of Noah that Peter alludes to. Through his suffering, death, and resurrection, Christ proclaims to them the vindication of God — that God has always been in the right — and Christ proclaims the redemption of the world that those spirits had attempted to defile and destroy. Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection is the proclamation of the judgment against the fallen power and the proclamation of his victory over them.

Now, we can begin to see what Peter is about. He writes to those who may well face persecution, and he connects their suffering to Christ’s suffering. Here is the point. Their suffering partakes of Christ’s suffering and serves much the same purpose: it proclaims to the powers that be — to the human social and political authorities who are persecutors and to the evil spiritual powers behind them — that Christ was right all along and that he has been vindicated through his suffering and resurrection. Those Christians who suffer are re-presenting in their own bodies the victory of Christ over all the powers; like Christ — through Christ — they, too, are victorious over the powers. And this story implies that, like Samyaza and his companions, the abusive powers are actually bound and awaiting judgment, though they think themselves free and powerful. This gives those who are suffering persecution a broad perspective and a deeper understanding of reality. A flood of judgment is coming, just as in the days of Noah, when the workers of iniquity will be swept away and the earth will be cleansed. But, just as Noah was spared and was saved from the proliferation of evil by the cleansing of the flood waters, so are the followers of Christ saved by the cleansing water of baptism. In baptism we are united with the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ, and also with his ascension to the right hand of God where all authority has been given to him. This is the meaning behind our suffering. It brings us fully into God’s redemptive story from fall — Genesis — to the renewal of all things — Revelation. It gives meaning to every moment in between.

BLESSED BE THE GOD AND FATHER of our Lord Jesus Christ!
According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again
to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ
from the dead (1 Peter 1:3).

Amen.

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And So Dies Christianity

The following post is written from an Anglican, that is, a sacramental, perspective in which the Sacraments play a central role. Much will still be applicable and true for non-sacramental churches.

In the evenings my wife and I watch the occasional British crime drama; currently it is Broadchurch. On the most recent episode there was an interesting — and insightful — give and take between the two primary characters. What follows — though it is in quotes for sake of clarity — is not a verbatim transcript of the dialogue, but it does capture the gist.

“So, you’re not a ‘church person,’ then?”

“No, not really. Oh, you know, midnight mass (on Christmas) and Easter if we remember it.”

“Easter…if you remember it?”

“Well, we’re usually doing Easter egg hunts and that sort of thing — so, yeah, if we remember it.”

“And so dies Christianity.”

The last statement is prophetic — hyperbolic, but prophetic nonetheless. When church becomes something we “do” if we remember it; when church becomes merely a place to have children baptized, weddings blessed, and funerals held; when church becomes merely a sentimental, vestigial remnant of ages past to visit a few times in the year for a few nice pageants (Christmas and Easter), then so dies Christianity, if not throughout the world then certainly in our hearts. When parishioners absent themselves from church during a pandemic and simply do not return because they have “gotten out of the habit,” then so dies Christianity. When travel, work, children’s activities or a nice, relaxing Sunday morning brunch crowd out regular worship in a local church, then so dies Christianity.

Let me say this as gently but forthrightly as I can because Scripture says it forthrightly: church — by which I mean regular attendance and participation in a local worshiping body — is not optional:

Hebrews 10:23–25 (ESV): 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

And why is church important? Why can you not simply worship at home or on the water or in the mountains or in any of a thousand places? In one sense, of course, you can indeed worship at any of those places, and it is appropriate to do so. But — this is important — you cannot worship fully in any of those places and you will weaken and perhaps — God forbid! — die spiritually if that becomes your primary means and venue of worship. So, what is lacking there?

The church is where the Word of God is read and proclaimed in the midst of the Body of Christ. Yes, you can and should read Scripture on your own. But St. Peter insists that no prophecy of Scripture is of private interpretation (ref 2 Peter 1:20). To avoid error and misunderstanding, we must read Scripture with the church: not only with our local parish but with the Fathers and Mothers of the faith; with the one, holy, catholic and Apostolic Church spread out through space and time; with the consensus of the faithful. And reading Scripture requires much more than cognitive engagement with the text. St. Francis, so it is said, considered the Bible less a book to be read than a script to be acted. To read is to live; if one does not live Scripture, then one has not truly read Scripture. And where, but in the church, do we first take our place in the grand drama of redemption using the Scriptures as our script?

The church is where the Sacraments are duly administered. Is this important?

John 6:53–58 (ESV): 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”

Early Christian writers speak of two ways: the way of life and the way of death. To willing absent oneself from Holy Communion is the way of death. Yes, of course, I know that there are exigencies that preclude one from attending church to receive the Sacrament. Most of these are temporary. But, even when they are lengthy or permanent, the church makes provision to administer the Sacrament to those in need. But simply to disregard the Body and Blood of Christ, to deem it as less important than sleeping in or eating out? May it never be.

And, without arguing over the nature and number of Sacraments, confession and absolution are present in a local church or through the ministry of the local church. We need to kneel — or sit or stand — with our brothers and sisters to confess our sins against God “and our neighbors” so that we might receive absolution and the grace and consolation of his Holy Spirit.

I could go on. Church is where we are formed spiritually through prayer and worship, through learning and service. Church is where we are challenged to live like we actually believe the Sermon on the Mount. Church is where we practice forgiveness and patience. Church is where we receive a much needed infusion of hope. Church is where we fulfill an essential part of the human vocation given Adam and Eve in Eden: to be priests of creation — to gather up the praises of all creation and to present them to God along with our own praise and worship.

“So, you’re not a ‘church person,’ then?”

“No, not really. Oh, you know, midnight mass (on Christmas) and Easter if we remember it.”

“Easter…if you remember it?”

“Well, we’re usually doing Easter egg hunts and that sort of thing — so, yeah, if we remember it.”

“And so dies Christianity.”

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1 Peter 2

APOSTLES ANGLICAN CHURCH
Fr. John A. Roop

1 PETER 2

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your Holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

BLESSED BE THE GOD AND FATHER of our Lord Jesus Christ!
According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again
to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ
from the dead (1 Peter 1:3).
Amen.

Introduction
In our first session, I suggested that there are three major themes that frame the letter of 1 Peter: identity, suffering, and praxis — who we are in Christ; the reality of, proper response to, and meaning behind Christian suffering; and the private and public practice of our faith as we live as resident aliens in any given culture. While the letter isn’t limited to just these themes, they are helpful as an organizing structure for our study, and we’ll continue to use them. That means that we won’t do a verse-by-verse exegesis of 1 Peter, but rather a theme-by-theme approach.

Identity
Take a few minutes to read 1 Peter 2:1-12 to notice/mark Peter’s descriptions/characteristics of Christian identity.

I noticed these:

• Living stones

• Spiritual house

• Holy priesthood

• Chosen race

• Royal priesthood

• Holy nation

• God’s people

• Sojourners and exiles

Living stones
Here Peter draws on imagery in the messianic Psalm 118 — which I commend to you in its entirety — and in Isaiah 28:14ff, which identifies the Lord’s anointed, Jesus, as a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious. In 1 Peter 2:4, Peter actually goes beyond the Old Testament texts to characterize this Messianic stone as “living.” And he says that, as Christ is a living cornerstone, we are also living stones being built into a spiritual house. That presents us a strange image: a living stone. What might Peter have had in mind with that image? Why might he have made that addition to the Old Testament text? What sense does “living” stone make?

The age after the fall — after the fall and before Christ — was an age characterized by and dominated by death; with two, possibly three, exceptions everyone from Adam to Christ died. But it is not so in this last age, this age of Christ’s reign. This is the age in which death has been trampled down by Christ’s death and in which life is given the final word. Death is undone; all that is dead will be made alive. Peter seems to go further — at least metaphorically — to suggest that all that was inanimate before, might be animated by the life and Spirit of Christ; an inanimate stone might become, in Christ, a living stone. This is very likely hyperbole, metaphor, but it shows the life giving power of Jesus’ death and resurrection to renew the entire created order. C. S. Lewis expressed a similar notion when he made all the animals in Narnia to be talking animals. For those who finally rejected Aslan, the consequence was to lose the power of speech, to become less than what they were made for. In new creation, I don’t know if rocks will actually be animate beings, but that is not really Peter’s point. He is simply saying that the resurrected life of Christ permeates everything, that it conquers death, and that the life of Christ is in us; if Christ is a living stone — because Christ is a living stone — then we too are living stones. Life reigns in us; life animates us in ways we cannot even begin to imagine.

Spiritual house
The living stones have a purpose: to become a spiritual house. When Peter says “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house,” he is speaking not in the singular, but in the plural — to the whole church; “all y’all” are being built into a spiritual house. Our faith is personal, but never private; it is essentially corporate — not “you” singular, but “you” plural. When Jewish readers heard the words “spiritual house,” what would they likely have thought of? I suspect they thought of the Temple. So, what Peter implies is that his readers are stones imbued with the very life of Christ, being built up into a living temple for the presence of the Lord, with Jesus himself being the cornerstone of that temple. If this is temple imagery, what else do you need to have a functioning temple? You need priests, which brings us to the next mark of our identity.

Holy Priesthood/Royal Priesthood
If Peter was writing primarily to Jews, then they would have been very familiar with the institution of the priesthood. In your reading of the Old Testament, you have frequently encountered priests, as well; you know who they were and what they did. What were the functions of the Aaronic priesthood? What was the priesthood to do, to accomplish?

• To offer sacrifices

• To instruct the people in the Law

• To represent God before the people and the people before God

• To discern the will of God

I want to focus on just two of these roles: the sacrificial and the representative functions of the priesthood. I want to show how these roles form the context of, and how they are fulfilled in and by, the Eucharist.

First, let’s consider sacrifices. There were, broadly speaking, two categories of offerings under the Mosaic Law: sin offerings and peace offerings. The reality is more complicated and nuanced than this and there are subcategories of each, but the two-fold division is a reasonable way to think about offerings. Sin offerings dealt with the guilt of the people; they cleansed the people, the tabernacle/temple, and the land of defilement — the residual taint of sin — so that the Lord would not “break out” against the people or the land and destroy either. The sacrifice of the sin offering was primarily dedicated to God; the blood was applied to the altar and poured out at its base and the fat and kidneys were burned on the altar. In some other cases, the carcass was burned outside the camp. In some cases the priest — but never the people — was given a portion of the holy offering to consume in the tabernacle or temple precincts. In contrast, the peace offering had nothing to do with sin, but rather with worship. The general category of peace offering included two specific forms: the thanksgiving offering and the vow offering. God had preserved you through some great difficulty or had blessed you richly or you are simply overcome with his goodness and beauty and mercy and you want to express your appreciation and devotion; that is the thanksgiving offering. Or, you want to make a special vow of piety and devotion, e.g., a temporary Nazirite vow. Such a vow warranted a vow offering. The essence of these offerings was a fellowship meal; part of the offering was burned on the altar (God’s part), part was given to the priests to eat, and part was given to the person making the offering to eat: God, priests, and people feasting/communing together in a thanksgiving offering meal.

So, this is the context into which Peter writes, telling the people that they are now a holy and royal priesthood. In what sense is that true, particularly in terms of the sacrificial function? I want to suggest just one aspect of Christian sacrificial priesthood: we are priests in and through the Eucharist. First — and this is important — Christ is the fulfillment/end of sacrifice for sin; no other sacrifice for sin is needed, and no other sacrifice for sin is possible. Hear these words from the Eucharistic liturgy:

All praise and glory is yours, O God our Heavenly Father, for in your tender mercy, you gave your only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption, He made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and he instituted, and in his Holy Gospel commanded us to continue, a perpetual memory of his precious death and sacrifice, until his coming again (BCP 2019, p. 116).

This part of the liturgy make clear that Christ’s death is the final sin offering. We do not offer that again on the altar. But, we do re-present that and participate in it by faith and sacrament in the Eucharist. That is part of our priestly function on behalf of the whole world. But now the language of the liturgy changes:

So now, O merciful Father, in your great goodness, we ask you to bless and sanctify, with your Word and Holy Spirit, these gifts of bread and wine, that we, receiving them according to your Son our Savior Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood (BCP 2019, p. 116).

Here we move from sin offering, which the people never ate, to thanksgiving offering which was a meal of fellowship between God and his people. The language that follows in the liturgy is explicit:

And we earnestly desire your fatherly goodness mercifully to accept this, our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving (italics added); asking you to grant that, by the merits and death of your Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his Blood, we and your whole Church may obtain forgiveness our our sins and all other benefits of his passion (BCP 2019, p. 117).

Jesus offers himself for the sin of the whole world and we come to remember, to participate, and to thank God precisely in the fellowship meal; this is the fullness of the priesthood and it is largely what constitutes God’s people as a holy and royal priesthood.

And there is one last offering made in the Eucharist, one made individually but on behalf of the whole body. It has the nature of a vow of fealty.

And here we offer and present to you, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice (BCP 2019, p. 117).

The Eucharist is above all that which constitutes us as a priesthood; it is our participation in both types of offerings: the sin offering made once for all by Christ and re-presented in the Eucharist and the thanksgiving and vow offerings we make each time we participate in the sacrificial meal of bread and wine, Body and Blood.

The second aspect of our priesthood is representation: representing God to the people and the people to God. How do we represent God to the people? The words of the General Thanksgiving summarize this well:

And, we pray, give us such and awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days (BCP 2019, p. 25).

Lips and lives: what we say and what we do — in holiness and righteousness — in the sight of the people; that is the essence of how we represent God to his people. That moves us toward one of Peter’s other major themes: praxis, particularly in terms of our public behavior. More of that in a moment.

How do we represent the people before God? One of the most basic ways is through our prayers, which brings us again to the Eucharist. The Eucharistic liturgy always includes the Prayers of the People which are also truly “Prayers for the People by the People.” Various forms of these prayers are allowed, “provided the following concerns are included:”

The universal Church, the clergy and people

The mission of the Church

The nation and all in authority

The peoples of the world

The local community

Those who suffer and those in any need or trouble

Thankful remembrance of the faithful departed and of all the blessings of our lives (BCP 2019, p. 140).

The lion’s share of our prayers are directed toward representing the people before God. The Eucharist is not the totality of our priesthood, but it is the summit and source of it, bringing together all the major functions of our priesthood. The Eucharist is that which proclaims our Christian identity most fully. And here, we’ll leave the theme of identity and move toward Peter’s other themes of suffering and praxis.

Praxis and Suffering
Christians were often suspect in the communities where they resided as aliens. They were considered as atheists because they did not worship the local gods or the gods of the empire. This was a matter of local and national security; fail to worship the gods and they might visit disaster on the people. In this sense, the Christians’ failure to uphold their civic obligations was tantamount to anarchy. That is probably not the primary reason behind Peter’s instructions on the relationship between Church and state, but it is the context for it. He says as much in 1 Peter 2:15:

1 Peter 2:15 (ESV): 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.

Christians were not atheists and were not then — and should not now be — anarchists. And that should be clear in their relationship with governmental authority. Here is how Peter expresses it:

1 Peter 2:13–17 (ESV): 13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

This is a challenging passage, especially for those who have suffered abuse at the hands of government or who view government as largely incompetent or self-serving. My best friend has moved from thinking the United States government is simply incompetent to thinking it is positively evil. And yet, we are told to be subject to the governmental authorities. We may have to grapple with this a bit. Let’s start here with a question: What is God’s purpose for government?

I might suggest these answers:

• To promote order instead of chaos in the public realm

• To promote justice for all

• To ensure the welfare of all

• To protect the public

I think of these as the minimal standards of godly government. Peter summarizes all this by saying that governors are sent “by [God] to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” That is the context for Peter’s instructions to his readers; he presumes godly government. But, governments that do not do these things are not godly governments. Here is the principle that I think the whole of Scripture endorses: we must be in submission to the authority of the government to the extent that it serves its God-ordained functions. When it fails to do so, we may be forced to disobey the authorities and to speak prophetically to them. Scripture gives multiple examples of this principle.

The Egyptian government — pharaoh — was not a godly government, and God called Moses to oppose it. Elijah opposed the wicked rule of Ahab and Jezebel. When Nebuchadnezzar required all people to bow down to his image, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused. When Daniel was ordered to pray to no one but King Darius, he paid no attention to the injunction, but continued to offer his daily prayers to God. When the Apostles were ordered by the authorities to speak no longer in the name of Jesus they answered that they must obey God rather than the authorities. Scripture’s teaching is consistent: when governments and their authorities exceed their mandate or fail to serve their godly functions, they do not have the blank check of our obedience. Peter’s instructions must be taken as part of that whole ethos. To the greatest extent possible, Christians must be subject to every human, governmental institution and authority, in so far as doing so does not violate godly justice and our supreme devotion and obedience to God. In principle, I think this much is clear. In practice, it is not so clear. We will sometimes reach different conclusions on the limits of submission to government; decisions require prayer, and corporate discernment. But, this much is also clear; even when we disagree with government, Christians must not act as hate-filled agents of anarchy.

I’d like to use two examples of this from within my lifetime — one positive and one negative. You are free to disagree with these examples, but they do point out the distinctions I’m trying to draw.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a prophetic voice against the government sanctioned injustice perpetrated against blacks in our country. He was pointing out precisely where the government was not serving its godly function. He did so through non-violent protest and not through hate-fueled anarchy. That seems to me in keeping with the whole of Scripture and the assumed context of Peter’s instructions.

In contrast, the January 6 insurrectionists at the Capitol — those who violently stormed and occupied the Capitol — were not acting in a Christian manner and were in violation of the whole of Scripture including Peter’s instructions here. They did not silence the false accusations of non-Christians against our faith, but rather brought the faith into disrepute. Theirs was an act of tribalistic, hate-filled, anarchy. No one can rightly claim to act as they did in the name of Christ.

Most of us will not find ourselves caught up in either of those extremes, though increasingly it may be difficult to support and obey our government as it moves farther away from godly justice and embraces iniquity. So, what is the “bottom line?” To the greatest extent possible, obey the government. Also, pay your taxes; that is most likely what the word “honor” in 1 Peter 2:17 refers to.

Now, let’s move from one challenging topic to the next. I’d like to start with a thought experiment. Imagine if Pope Francis were to publish an encyclical calling on all Roman Catholics — in fact, on all Christians — to immediately stop using combustion engine (fossil fuel) cars. What do you suppose would be the response? We do not inhabit a thought world — a way of looking at and imagining the world — in which such a thing is even conceivable. We lack the necessary infrastructure, not to mention the financial resources necessary to make the switch in the near term. But suppose that Pope Francis is truly convinced that this is a moral/theological issue and that, as Christians, we simply must end our use of fossil fuels. What might he do? Well, it seems to me that he would need to begin constructing a new thought world, one in which fossil fuels play no part. He would need to deepen — and more thoroughly explain — the Church’s theology of creational stewardship and our responsibility to tend the earth rather than to exploit it. He would need to call upon experts — particularly those who share the Church’s vision — to begin working out the details of infrastructure and finance. This is a long-term process and would certainly not be complete in his lifetime and probably not in the lifetime of his successor. But it is a reasonable starting place. And he would need to do one more thing; he would need to sketch out a vision of what the meantime looks like, of how to live responsibly in the present — with the use of carbon fuels — even as we envision and plan for a different future.

Now, let’s place ourselves mentally in the first century Roman Empire. Imagine Peter or Paul writing a letter calling upon all Christian slave owners to immediately set their slaves free. What do you suppose would have been the response? I think the Christians would have been incredulous, because they did not inhabit a thought world where that was conceivable. They lacked the infrastructure; the slaves did much of the work. They lacked the financial resources to pay for labor and the slaves lacked the financial resources to set up independent, free lives. But, suppose that Peter and Paul thought that this was an important moral/theological issue, and that slavery — particularly Christian masters owning Christian slaves — had to go. What could they do? Well, they could begin to inculcate a new thought world in which slavery no longer had a place. They could emphasize the spiritual equality in Christ of masters and slaves. They could insist that masters and slaves gather around the same Eucharistic table. They could call on some owners to release some slaves, as a signpost pointing forward to a new reality. And all of this is precisely what Paul did. He planted the seeds for the end of Christian slavery. But, they would need to do one more thing; they would need to sketch out a vision of what the meantime looks like, of how to live responsibly in the present — within the system of slavery — even as the first century Christians began to envision and plan for a different future.

It is this last task that Peter engages in this letter: the meantime task. He doesn’t address slave owners; Paul does, but Peter doesn’t. I wish he had, but we take the text we’re given. But Peter does something equally radical; he gives slaves dignity and agency by embedding their story in the story of Christ. Let’s read the text.

1 Peter 2:18–25 (ESV): 18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

Peter writes into a world where some, perhaps many, of his Cristian brothers and sisters are slaves; many of them would be slaves of non-Christian masters. And that would not change anytime soon. So, what are they to do in the meantime? Actually, let’s focus first on what they are not to do. They are not to rebel. They are not to be disobedient. They are not to be haughty or disrespectful. They are to be subject to their masters and respectful of them: not only of the just and kind masters, but of the unjust and harsh masters.

It is difficult for us to look at those instructions objectively because of our national history with slavery. These words were used against Christian slaves by nominally Christian slave owners to justify cruel mistreatment of their black brothers in Christ. These words were used for domination and control. And that is a blasphemous misreading of the text. Far from subjugating slaves, Peter was giving them agency and dignity in this text. He recognizes the reality of unjust suffering inflicted upon these slaves. He doesn’t minimize it; he transforms it by embedding it in Christ’s story.

The train of thought goes like this. To the slave: be subject to your master and do nothing but good for him. It may be that, even so, he will be harsh to you unjustly and you will suffer. If so, God counts this a gracious thing; it brings favor with God, precisely because it follows the example of Christ. Your suffering bears witness to Christ’s suffering and is a proclamation of the Gospel. As Peter will say later (1 Peter 4:13), such righteous suffering is a share in Christ’s suffering. As Christ’s suffering was redemptive for the world, so too the slaves’ righteous suffering endured in the name of Christ and for his sake is redemptive. And that is agency, dignity, and meaning in the meantime until slavery is a relic of the past.

To do a full survey of slavery in both the Old and New Testaments is beyond the scope of this class in 1, 2 Peter, though it would be a very worthwhile study. If you simply take this instruction out of the context of the whole as many radical race theorists and despisers of Christianity tend to do, you will certainly miss what Peter is trying to do: to create a new identity for slaves in which they are evangelists and partakers of Christ’s redemptive suffering for the redemption of the world. This is elevation and not suppression. This is one of several Old and New Testament seeds that will blossom into freedom as a new thought world is created in which slavery has no part. This understanding derives from Peter’s themes of identity, suffering, and praxis which is to him the core of the Christian experience of being resident aliens in a fallen world.

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, you have chosen and called your people to be living stones, built into a spiritual house in which a holy priesthood might worship you in Spirit and truth, interceding on behalf of the world: Grant us so to live as chosen exiles in this world that all peoples and nations might see your glory and offer themselves to you as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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1 Peter 1

APOSTLES ANGLICAN CHURCH

1 PETER 1
Fr. John A. Roop

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your Holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

BLESSED BE THE GOD AND FATHER of our Lord Jesus Christ!
According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again
to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ
from the dead (1 Peter 1:3).
Amen.

Introduction

In our generation we have seen too many immigration and refugee crises: people forced to leave their homes due to war, persecution, economic hardship, natural disaster, criminal violence, and people displaced internally by similar causes — still in their land, but not in their homes and villages. I suspect that such people experience cultural disorientation, a profound sense of “otherness.” The same is almost certainly true for minority groups within a given society, e.g., African-Americans in the Jim Crow south, Israeli Arabs in Jerusalem, Muslims in post-911 America, Jews in almost every place at almost any time. How do you navigate being “other” in your own home?

There are several options; the two must basic are withdrawal or assimilation.

In withdrawal, the minority seeks to create an enclave of its own culture within the majority culture and to live, as much as possible, within that enclave. You can see this in Manhattan with China Town, Little Italy, Korea Town and in Miami with Little Havana, Little Haiti, and Little Moscow. In Brooklyn, the Hasidic Jews have built a well-defined community among the hipsters of Williamsburg; you see much the same with the Amish in Pennsylvania.

The other most basic option is assimilation, the “tamping down” of differences and the embrace of the prevailing culture. Try to move to the suburbs, try to speak the language, try to blend in. Change your name from José to Joe or from Miryam to Mary. Learn to cook and eat the most common dishes of the majority culture. Go along to get along. This is the American concept of the great melting pot.

Now, suppose your otherness isn’t somehow forced on you; suppose it isn’t a matter of ethnic identity, for example. Suppose it’s chosen. Let’s consider Acts 2, the account of the first Christian Pentecost, as an example.

Acts 2:1–12 (ESV): When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 12 And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

The end of this account is the conversion and baptism of three thousand people — people who will return, after the feast is over, to Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, and many other regions. But, they will not return as they left; they are now Christians. They will return as “other,” as a minority among the prevailing religious cultures. The pressing question for them is how to navigate their chosen “otherness”?

I mentioned the two most basic options a minority culture has vis-à-vis the majority culture: withdrawal or assimilation. For these new “Pentecostal” Christians and for the Christians to whom Peter is writing, neither withdrawal nor assimilation are viable options. Peter — actually Jesus — calls them to something different and, I suspect, something much more difficult: witness. They are called to retain their unique identity while remaining in and participating with the majority culture to the greatest extent possible as a witness to that culture of the availability of a better, truer way of living. Light shining in the darkness, a city on a hill, yeast hidden in a measure of dough, sheep among wolves: pick your biblical metaphor; it all comes down to a matter of witness.

This call to witness presents many challenges and raises many questions.

How is it possible to resist enculturation, to avoid being formed in the image of the predominant culture? This is the issue of IDENTITY.

What is the proper response to the suspicion, the shunning, the opposition of the prevailing culture? This is the issue of SUFFERING.

What is the proper way to navigate the ins-and-outs of daily life — the occupations and relationships — that intersect with those in the majority culture? This is the issue of PRAXIS, of the practical living-out of our faith in our homes, communities, places of work, and in the broader culture.

There are many more challenges, of course, but these few are very significant: identity, suffering, and praxis. Do we experience these same challenges? Well, ask these questions:

Is our culture trying to form us in its own image? What are its tools? This is the issue of identity.

Is it getting more costly to be an orthodox Christian and to espouse publicly the traditional Christian faith? What are some of the costs of doing so? This is the issue of suffering.

Is it difficult to live as a Christian in our families, in our schools, in our places of work, in our communities, in our politics? What are some of challenges we face? This is the issue of praxis.

Peter’s two letters address these particular challenges, and some others. What he says to his readers he says to us, because we face similar difficulties. The remedy is to know (1) who we are and who God is, (2) the inevitability of and the proper response to suffering, and (3) the nature and necessity of proper living: identity, suffering, and praxis.

Greeting (1 Peter 1:1-2)

1 Peter 1:1–2 (ESV): 1 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,

To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, 2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood:

May grace and peace be multiplied to you.

The author identifies himself as Peter, an Apostle of Jesus Christ. Some modern scholars have questioned this for various reasons: the high quality of the Greek text which would seem to be inconsistent with an uneducated fisherman, the historical context of the letter which would seem more in keeping with a date subsequent to Peter’s death, the lack of specific references to and anecdotes about Jesus. None of this casts serious doubts about the authorship of the letter; the consensus of the early Church, including such noted Fathers as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria attests to Petrine authorship. I will take that as given throughout our reading.

To whom was Peter writing? Again, there is some debate here as to whether his primary audience was Jewish or Gentile. I think the weight of the circumstantial evidence points toward a primarily Jewish readership. First, Peter was the apostle to the Jews in contrast to Paul the apostle to the Gentiles. Second there is Peter’s language in the greeting: to those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion. This is typical Jewish language. From the time of the deportations to Assyria and Babylon, the Dispersion was the common term to refer to those Jews living either by compulsion or choice in Gentile territory as contrasted with those Jews living in Israel. Peter uses this language as a double entendre — which we’ll consider in just a minute — but it seems to imply a Jewish readership. Third, I find the overlap between 1 Peter 1 and Acts 2:8-10 interesting. Those gathered in Jerusalem and mentioned in Acts 2 were among the Jewish Diaspora re-gathered at the Temple to celebrate the Feast of Shavuot (Pentecost). That Peter mentions many of the same regions in 1 Peter is suggestive of the same group of people.

So, I take it as given that this letter is (1) from the Apostle Simon Peter, (2) writing to a primarily Jewish Christian audience scattered throughout Asia Minor.

Now, back to the double entendre with “elect exiles of the Dispersion.” Peter “baptizes” this historically Jewish language to make it apply to Christians; in other words, he shows how the Jewish experience is now fulfilled in the Christian experience. It is the Christians who are now the true exiles dispersed throughout the world: spiritual resident aliens, citizens of the Kingdom of God residing temporarily among the kingdoms of the world. This is the thought behind another early Christian writing, an anonymous mid second century letter written to a non-believer Diognetus. It contains this rightly famous description of Christians, which, I think, is the perfect commentary on Peter’s language.

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.

Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world.

This is the “fleshed out” version of Peter’s succinct description of Christians as elect exiles of the Dispersion. And it applies equally to us as to Peter’s audience, as to the Christians in the Letter to Diognetus. As Christians we are elect exiles — or as Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon translated the phrase, “resident aliens” — wherever we live: living there, but not fully at home there. If we do feel fully at home, there is a problem.

Peter wants his readers to know that they are not forgotten by God as they find themselves scattered throughout Asia Minor. He calls them the “elect” and notes that everything is transpiring according to the foreknowledge of God. There are challenges to our understanding of these words and phrases because we are children of the Reformation. Whenever we hear of election and foreknowledge we may be distracted by the Reformation debates over God’s sovereignty and personal predestination. But Peter wasn’t a Calvinist or an Arminian; those were not his debates. At the most basic level Peter is simply saying that as God chose the Jews instrumentally under the Old Covenant so now God has chosen the Christians instrumentally under the New Covenant to bring salvation to the world. And, dispersing them throughout the world was part of God’s plan. God is not surprised nor are his elect at the mercy of the powers. God is sovereign, and God is at work.

Born Again to a Living Hope (1 Peter 1:3-12)
In this section, Peter introduces two of the major themes of the letter: identity and suffering.

1 Peter 1:3–12 (ESV): 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, 11 inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. 12 It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.

I have never been a geographical exile, but I can imagine that the challenges to identity are immense. I was briefly in India and even surrounded by very kind and welcoming Christian brothers and sisters, the sense of “otherness” was palpable. I love Indian food and was delighted to eat it in its natural environment, but I was so happy one morning midway through the trip to have bacon and eggs, a real taste of home.

Peter writes to Kingdom of God people scattered among the kingdoms of the world. It is important that they remember and retain their spiritual “otherness” while also participating in and working for the welfare of the place and people among whom they dwell.

Our identity is given to us in and by birth; we are not naturalized citizens of the Kingdom of God, but rather citizens by birth (v. 3). In our baptism we are born again of water and Spirit. From that time onward, certain marks and privileges of Kingdom identity are ours: living hope, imperishable inheritance kept in heaven, God’s power securing our salvation.

__________________________

EXCURSUS: Kept in Heaven

The language that Peter uses about an inheritance kept in heaven for us can be misleading and merits a closer look. There has been a pervasive trend in Western Christianity toward a certain Platonic Gnosticism that views the soul as trapped within the body simply waiting for the day of its release. After death the soul will make its way to heaven there to dwell eternally with God. In this view, the imperishable inheritance kept in heaven is to be enjoyed there throughout eternity. The trouble with this view should be obvious: it entirely ignores the resurrection of the body!

The true vision of Christian eschatology is the return of Christ, the resurrection of the body, and the joining of heaven and earth — the heavenly New Jerusalem descending to earth. The inheritance that Peter mentions is kept in heaven for us now against that great day when heaven and earth are joined and we, in our resurrection bodies, receive our heaven-kept inheritance in the renewed heaven and earth.

__________________________

Now all of this — identity and inheritance — sounds (and is) wonderful, but the immediate situation on the ground sometimes looks quite different. In the present there is suffering. In the present our earthly inheritance — land, home, money — is certainly perishable and can be taken by the powers-that-be. In the present our physical and emotional welfare are far from secure. Peter feels it necessary to deal with the issue of suffering because it is a present reality to his readers.

I find it instructive that earlier generations of Christians who faced far more suffering than most of us will ever do, agonized far less about it than we do. Theodicy — the problem of why an all good and all powerful God allows suffering — is more a modern philosophical and theological problem than an ancient one. It is based on a few faulty assumptions: that we shouldn’t suffer, that suffering is devoid of meaning and purpose, and that suffering questions the character of God — either his power or his goodness.

Among modern Western analyses of suffering, that of Victor Frankl looms large. Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist imprisoned for three years in German concentration camps for his Jewish heritage. He discover that dealing with the indignities and suffering of the camps was largely a matter of finding meaning within the suffering. He wrote the following in his classic work Man’s Search for Meaning.

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. …in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him — mentally and spiritually. …the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom — which cannot be taken away — that makes life meaningful and purposeful.

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life (Frankl. Man’s Search For Meaning).

This whole passage is worth careful consideration, but two important points present themselves in the context of 1 Peter.

1. One freedom cannot be taken from man: his ability to choose his attitude in any given set of circumstances, Frankl writes. Notice how Peter expresses a similar notion: he praises his readers because in the midst of their suffering they love the Lord, they believe in Him, and they rejoice.

2. If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering, says Frankl. Peter begins to provide a meaning for Christian suffering in vss. 6-9. Suffering is a testing of faith that refines and strengthens it so that its true worth might be revealed at the coming of Christ and might redound to his praise, glory, and honor — and theirs, I think — and might lead finally to their salvation. Suffering, though inflicted by evil men, is an instrument of salvation in the hands of a loving God. It is not without purpose or meaning. In that realization, it is possible even to rejoice.

I want to note two other matters, one from Frankl and one from a bit later in 1 Peter.

First, remember that Frankl was Jewish. It is profoundly moving to me, as a Christian, that when he wants to point to the depths of human suffering he describes it as a man taking up his cross. The novelist Chaim Potok did a similar thing in his book My Name Is Asher Lev. Asher is a Chasidic Jew and a painter. When he brings his art to bear on Jewish suffering, when he wants to plumb the absolute depths of Jewish suffering, he finds that he must paint the crucifixion of Jesus.

Second, I want to connect this to something Peter writes later in chapter 4.

1 Peter 4:12–13 (ESV): 12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.

Note what Peter says: if you are suffering for the faith, you are sharing in Christ’s sufferings. That is why carrying the cross, why the crucifixion is the appropriate image for all Christian suffering. On the cross, Christ plumbed the depths of human suffering for us, so that in the depths of our suffering we might see its redemptive meaning in the cross. This, to me, is central for coming to grips with the meaning of Christian suffering: Christ’s suffering was redemptive; it was for the salvation of the world. If my suffering is a share in his, then my suffering is, in some way that transcends language, also redemptive not only for myself but for the world. Paul speaks of Christians as having a ministry of reconciliation; Peter implies — and I think more than implies — that our suffering is part of that ministry of reconciliation.

Called to Be Holy (1 Peter 1:13-25)
Thus far Peter has introduced two of the major themes of the letter: identity and suffering. Now he touches on the third: praxis, the practical living-out of our faith in our homes, communities, places of work, and in the broader culture.

1 Peter 1:13–25 (ESV): 13 Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” 17 And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, 18 knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. 20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you 21 who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

22 Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, 23 since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; 24 for

“All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls,
25 but the word of the Lord remains forever.”

And this word is the good news that was preached to you.

The theological basis and imperative for all Christian praxis lies in the command, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” This is not new with Peter; he likely is making an allusion to Leviticus 19:1-2:

Leviticus 19:1–2 (ESV): 19 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

That is important because it means that holiness is no free-floating theological concept that we can fill with meaning as we will; rather, holiness is a characteristic of God and he alone can reveal to us what it means. At its most basic, “holy” denotes something that is set apart: something that is elevated above the common and profane, something unique and distinct. Peter writes that formerly his readers were ignorantly conformed to the passions of this world; now they are to be holy, i.e., elevated above the passions, distinct from the world, set apart for God and his use. Holiness is not an abstract concept; Peter — following the lead of God in Leviticus — presents holiness in very concrete, practical terms. What does it mean to be holy as God is holy? Let’s read a bit more of the Leviticus passage.

Leviticus 19:1–18 (ESV): 19 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. 3 Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and you shall keep my Sabbaths: I am the Lord your God. 4 Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves any gods of cast metal: I am the Lord your God.

5 “When you offer a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord, you shall offer it so that you may be accepted. 6 It shall be eaten the same day you offer it or on the day after, and anything left over until the third day shall be burned up with fire. 7 If it is eaten at all on the third day, it is tainted; it will not be accepted, 8 and everyone who eats it shall bear his iniquity, because he has profaned what is holy to the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from his people.

9 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.

11 “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. 12 You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.

13 “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. 14 You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.

15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Honor your father and mother. Remember the Sabbath day. Don’t make or worship idols. Offer proper sacrifices to the Lord. Provide for the poor and the sojourner. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t oppress your neighbor. Pay your hired workers promptly. Don’t take advantage of those weaker than yourself. And so it goes, holiness as a matter of praxis/conduct. Peter sums all this up by saying, “love one another earnestly from a pure heart.” He will expand on this in coming chapters, but this is the essence of how we are to live holy lives. We can do this because we “were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from [our] forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18b-19). And that bring us full circle to identity. Our holiness must be rooted in our new identity which is rooted in the saving work of Christ.

So it is that in this opening chapter Peter presents the three themes that he will develop throughout his letter: the nature of Christian identity, the reality and meaning of Christian suffering, and the necessity of Christian praxis both in the home and in the public realm.

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, Father of a holy people from every family, language, people, and nation now living as elect exiles in this world: establish our identity, we pray, in Christ alone; strengthen us to suffer for him as may be, and always with joy; and grant that, by our obedience and holiness of life we may shine forth his glory in the world; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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Last Things: A Homily on 2 Timothy 3

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I START TODAY BY REMINDING YOU OF, or perhaps introducing you to, a five dollar theological term: not because it is fancy, and certainly not so you can impress people by using it, but because it is important and because you will often hear it in theological discussions or stumble across it in biblical literature and commentaries. The word is eschatological. You might encounter it in other grammatical forms — eschaton or eschatology — but they all denote the same thing: last things or final things.

I mention it today because our epistle text, 2 Timothy 3 — perhaps among the last canonical texts that St. Paul wrote — is an eschatological text. Its theme is last things/final things, two last things in particular: the last days and the last/final word.

St. Paul introduces his eschatological theme with these words:

2 Timothy 3:1 (ESV): 3 But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.

In the last days. I don’t know what you hear when you hear that phrase. For some it may conjure images of Left Behind theology with Rapture and Tribulation and Armageddon. For others it may invoke a distant and hazy future, something always “out there” and beyond us. In Western Christianity, the last days is an ambiguous phrase, ill-defined, subject to private interpretations of Scripture and the daily news. But, Paul was a Jew in the Second Temple period. For Paul and his Jewish compatriots — especially Pharisees like himself — the last days had a well-defined meaning. All of history — by which they meant past, present, and future — all of history could be divided into just two ages: the present age and the age to come, i.e., the last days. The demarcation between the two, the point of boundary and transition, was the appearance of the Messiah. The last days were the Messianic age in which all the trials of the present age would be resolved, all the wrongs of the present age put to rights. In the last days the Kingdom of God would be established: an age of God’s righteous rule mediated through the Messiah; an age in which Israel would be purified, elevated, and delivered from exile; an age in which the knowledge of the glory of God would fill the whole world as the waters cover the sea; an age in which the righteous — including the resurrected righteous dead — would be rewarded and the unrighteous punished or destroyed. The last days would be a golden age, a Jewish utopia. This was Paul’s basic understanding of the last day, but he had re-centered this understanding on Christ. And that required some revision to the standard notions.

Paul agreed that the transition point between the ages was the appearance of the Messiah; for Paul, Jesus of Nazareth was that Messiah. So, perhaps at Jesus’ birth, but certainly from the time of his resurrection and ascension, the last days had dawned. That means that Paul and Timothy were, and that we are, living in the last days: not awaiting it in some dim and distant future, but living in it right now. But that raises an important question: if the last days are to be a utopian era of the righteous rule of God when all things wrong are put to rights, then how can Paul say, “In the last days there will come times of difficulty”? If the Messiah has taken his rule and the Kingdom of God is now on earth as it is in heaven, why is the world in such a sad state? It is precisely at this point that Paul re-envisions the last days in a uniquely Christian manner. Paul makes the theological move from eschatology to inaugurated eschatology. In and through Jesus Christ the last days have been inaugurated — they have begun — but they have not yet been completed. You have likely heard of the New Testament tension between the already and the not yet; this is a perfect case in point. We already live in the last days, but they are not yet complete. A simple way to say it is that we live at the beginning of the end, at the first of the last days. All shall be well because we are in the last days. All is not yet well because we are only in the first of the last days. So, we should expect difficulty in the meantime, in the midst of the last days.

Now, while this goes beyond the scope of the text, I need to address some last days, Kingdom of God issues. We do not build the Kingdom of God by our own efforts throughout these last days; Kingdom building is God’s work. Our calling, our work, is to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdoms of the world and to bear witness to God and his Kingdom. We are to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. We are to love the Lord our God will all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are to proclaim the good news that God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son that whoever believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. We are to be a holy people as God is a holy God. We are to be the prophets, priests, and kings of new creation: proclaiming the Gospel, representing God to the people and the people to God, ruling over — bringing Godly order to — our vocational areas of expertise and influence. God will take all that, bless it, break and multiply it, and give it away for the reconciliation of the world to Him. It will be some of the “raw materials” through which He builds the Kingdom. But, it will not happen as straightforward, unimpeded human progress toward utopia. That was the false hope of the enlightenment and of modernity. No; instead Paul says, “In the last days will come times of difficulty.”

2 Timothy 3:2–5 (ESV): 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.

Paul goes on to say:

2 Timothy 3:12–13 (ESV): 12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.

Does St. Paul’s description of humanity in the last days, humanity apart from Jesus Christ, ring true to your experience: selfish, greedy, proud, violent, heartless, slanderous, reckless, sensual, spiritual-but-not-religious? This is to be expected throughout the last days; this is the fallen world in opposition to Christ. This is the diminished image bearers of God enslaved by the passions. It must not be so among us. But, tragically, it too often is. We have purveyors of the prosperity gospel, a false gospel which is a thinly veiled appeal to greed, pride, and sensuality. Let’s get this straight: all who promise health, wealth, and prosperity as expressions of God’s will and pleasure in these last days are false prophets, having only the appearance of godliness. We have sexual predators, narcissists, and power mongers wearing robes and collars and suits and ties, leading churches while grooming their victims of sexual, emotional, and spiritual abuse. Let’s get this straight: they are wolves and not shepherds, feeding on the flock instead of tending it. We have those who are advocates for the current disorder and delusions of our culture, particularly gender issues, divisive approaches to race, support for abortion. Let’s get this straight: they are blind guides leading the blind, and both will fall into the ditch.

Frankly, it is easy to be lured into following these false gospels. How do we become aware of these problems among us? How to we come to understand them for what they are and know from whom they come? How do we take proper action to reject and oppose them? For all that we need the last word, the final word, the authoritative word. Paul writes:

2 Timothy 3:14–4:5 (ESV): 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

4:1 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

In the beginning was the Word, the logos, the divine Son and second person of the Trinity. Strictly speaking, Jesus — the incarnate logos — is himself the final word, the perfect self-expression of God which no other word needs to clarify or correct. But, Paul insists that Scripture is also a final word — derivative of the divine logos, yes, but a final word nonetheless; Scripture is the written word that mediates to us the living Word, Jesus Christ. It shares the truth and authority of Christ because it is breathed out by God. And that is evocative language. Adam was given life in the Garden through the breath of God which made him a living soul and an image-bearer of God. Jesus breathed on the disciples gathered in the upper room and in doing so bestowed on them the indwelling Holy Spirit. Paul wants us to understand that we find life in the Scriptures, that we are re-formed into the image of God through the Scriptures, that the Scriptures are the work and tool of the Holy Spirit. Strictly speaking, the Scripture is not authoritative in and of itself. Jesus says that all authority in heaven and on earth is given to him. But, he delegates authority: to Scripture, to the Church which is his body, and to his faithful ones. It is this secondary, delegated authority of Scripture to which Paul appeals. It is this delegated authority that makes Scripture profitable/useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, for equipping the saints for service. It is this delegated authority of Scripture which makes one wise for salvation through Jesus Christ.

So, Paul exhorts Timothy to preach the word in season and out of season; to reprove, rebuke, and exhort, and always with complete patience. It falls to some of us to exercise this pastoral ministry; it falls to all of us to receive this pastoral ministry. In these last days, more perhaps than ever, we need the final Word — Jesus Christ — mediated to us through the final word of Scripture.

But Paul’s exhortation doesn’t stand alone, no text of Scripture does. We also need to hear Peter say:

2 Peter 1:19–21 (ESV): 19 And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

The Reformation rightly emphasized the delegated authority of Scripture and rightly insisted that every Christian must have access to Scripture in his/her native tongue. But, too many sons and daughters of the Reformation have wrongly assumed this emphasis to mean that Scripture is a matter of private interpretation, that truth may be reliably discerned by the individual pouring over the Scriptures alone. In dethroning one Pope, the Reformation inadvertently enthroned countless others. Scripture did not originate with the will of man, and no prophecy (no telling forth) of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation. Rather, we read Scripture in company with the Church, with the Great Tradition that spans time and space. We seek in Scripture that truth which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. The final word is the consistent word spoken by the consensus of the faithful.

So, let me give a final word in summary. In these last day in which we find ourselves, difficult times will come. This is simply the beginning of the end which will not be realized until Jesus returns to make all things new. In these last days, we need a final word to re-orient us, to re-make us. That final word is Jesus, the perfect icon of God. But that living final Word is mediated to us in Scripture, the living and active word written, interpreted, and applied by the Holy Spirit. So, as good Anglicans, we pray:

Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your Holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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The Gospel According to Jordan Peterson

A sense of embattlement can make for some strange alliances. Some good and faithful Christians, feeling pressed by “woke” culture, CRT, social justice movements, gender and transgender legislation, are willing to make pacts with nearly anyone who shares their traditional, conservative values. And that concerns me.

Jordan Peterson is a case in point, and the quote presented shows the problem. The first and most obvious concern is that Dr. Peterson is, at best, an agnostic with an affinity for the Christian story; but he is not a Christian. That the Church should take its mandate, its marching orders from him, is prima facie questionable if not disloyal to the true head of the Church. It smacks of hubris for someone outside the Church to declare the nature of the Church’s mission and how that mission is to be accomplished — particularly when he/she does not understand that mission.

“Quit fighting for social justice,” Peterson demands. With what as the Christian alternative, I wonder: being content with social injustice, being unconcerned about and indifferent to social justice, abandoning the body politic to its own baser instincts with no prophetic voice calling it to repentance and pointing toward a better way? The consistent witness of Scripture is that God cares deeply for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the strangers — those most at risk and on the margins of society. God himself is their defender, not least through the Law he gave to Israel, a law that mandated social justice — adequate care — for these and other imperiled groups. The prophets consistently called God’s people in both Israel and Judah to repentance for two major transgressions: idolatry and social injustice. My strong suspicion is that the two sins are inextricably linked one to another. “Quit fighting for social justice?” Hardly, if the Church wants to be faithful to God. What we cannot do, though, is to embrace our culture’s definition of social justice nor its means for giving it birth. It is God’s definition of social justice to which the Church must be committed, and it is by means of the Gospel — God’s people living and proclaiming the Gospel — that justice will spring forth here and there, now and then.

“Quit saving the bloody planet,” Peterson says. Does he mean the planet that God created and called good, the planet over which he gave Adam and Eve stewardship, the planet whose rocks and streams, whose mountains and valleys, whose trees and stones God created to praise Him? That planet? And, what is the Christian alternative: to pollute without concern, to mine and drill and harvest with no care for future generations, to make pristine water undrinkable and air in cities unbreathable? We Anglicans — and others — regularly say or sing one the great canticles of the Church, “Benedicite, Omnia Opera Domini (A Song of Creation).” One of the stanzas makes the point eloquently:

Let the earth glorify the Lord,
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.
Glorify the Lord, O mountains and hills,
and all that grows upon the earth,
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.
Glorify the Lord, O springs of water, seas, and streams,
O whales and all that move in the water.
All birds of the air, glorify the Lord,
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.
Glorify the Lord, O beasts of the wild,
and all you flocks and herds.
O men and women everywhere, glorify the Lord,
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

“Quit saving the bloody planet?” Then what will glorify the Lord with us? The Church must take up once again the human mandate given to Adam and Eve to steward creation, to rule over it — not in a domineering and usurious manner, but as God’s viceroys — so that at least outposts of Eden may be seen.

“Attend to some souls,” Peterson directs our attention. Yes and no. As it stands, the whole of Peterson’s exhortation is a Platonic or neo-Gnostic misunderstanding of the Gospel focused on disembodied souls. But, that is not the Gospel. The Gospel is the proclamation that, in and through the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated on earth as in heaven, the proclamation that all the powers of death and hell have been defeated, that God will finally put to rights all that is wrong with the cosmos, and that all people are invited to become part of new creation — the union of heaven and earth when New Jerusalem descends from heaven to earth. This is not about disembodied souls being fitted for and one day snatched off to heaven, but rather about the bodily resurrection of the righteous to the life of the ages in a redeemed and new creation. “Attend to some souls?” Not quite. Attend to flesh and blood image bearers of God. Proclaim the full Gospel of Jesus Christ who took on flesh and blood to redeem flesh and blood and who even now bears our humanity eternally before the Father.

Peterson seems concerned — whether his concern is real or not I cannot say — that the Church and its mission will be co-opted and compromised by what he deems to be the worst elements of “woke” culture. But his remedy would simply co-opt and compromise the Church in his own image. Better simply to proclaim the full Gospel that certainly includes Godly social justice, Godly stewardship of creation, and the salvation of our souls and bodies through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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Questions and Challenges: Part 5

“And why does it [the Bible] include stoning, torture, murder, burning, slavery, homophobia, bigotry, and chauvinism?”

I don’t remember how old she was, but I distinctly remember telling my daughter that she was now old enough to create problems that I couldn’t solve for her. No more easy daddy-to-the-rescue: she would henceforth have to bear the consequences of her own actions. I hoped it would be a sobering warning — not that my daughter was a hellion! — and one that would forestall potentially careless behavior and ill-considered choices. That is one of the very difficult coming-of-age lessons that many of us learn the hard way.

Something akin to that scenario plays out in the opening chapters of Genesis:

Genesis 2:15–17 (ESV): 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

The Lord God has placed Adam in Paradise with a single proscription and a warning; if you eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you will bear the consequence — and the consequence is death. Of course, you know how the story goes. First Eve and then Adam ate, and God confirmed the consequences:

Genesis 3:16–19 (ESV): 16 To the woman he said,
“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be contrary to your husband,
but he shall rule over you.”

17 And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”

That Adam’s actions not only had consequences for himself but for all his offspring is painfully evident in the following chapters of Genesis and in the whole of human history. None of us is immune to those consequences. The theological term for this is original sin or ancestral sin. We are born oriented away from God and our own actions take us farther in the wrong direction. And we suffer grave consequences as a result. We do terrible things to one another. Stoning, torture, murder, burning, slavery, bigotry, and chauvinism the meme mentions, but there are so many more evils we inflict upon one another: deceit, slander, sexual and emotional abuse, war, genocide — the list is endless. My interlocutor wants to know why the Bible includes these things? Because they are the leitmotif of human history. The Bible is full of sin and misery because it is telling the human story and because humans are full of sin and misery.

The problem is actually far worse than the meme reckons. The Bible is also full of fire and flood, drought and famine, storm and plague — a host of what we call “natural disasters.” But, they are far from natural, far from how God designed nature to function for the benefit and blessing of man. No, these too are consequences of our actions; our sin threw nature out of joint, subjected it to randomness, entropy, chaos, and vanity. Our sins still do. The Bible reflects the brutal reality we created and are still creating.

The singer Michael Card summarized the situation painfully well: “We were intended to wake up in a garden; instead we find ourselves in a sin-impregnated world.”

Is this what the meme had in mind? Probably not. Given its overall tone, I suspect the real question lies more nearly along these lines: Why does God allow — and sometimes even mandate — stoning, torture, murder, burning, slavery, homophobia, bigotry, and chauvinism? If so, the meme attempts unfairly and unreasonable to shift the blame from man to God. None of these evils existed in Paradise; all of them resulted from human sin.

While it is a fool’s errand to attempt to justify the ways of God to man, I would like to address of few of these “charges” against the Bible and ultimately against God.

Our legal system — indeed I suspect every legal system — mandates punishment for crimes against persons and property. The most basic mandates of any social hierarchy are to maintain order and to protect the members of the group, and these punishments are intended to deter infractions. Some cultures employ mediation and reconciliation; others opt for fines, incarceration, and, in extreme cases, capital punishment. In these capital cases, various societies have devised clever means for dispatching the offender: the gallows, the guillotine, the firing squad, the electric chair, the lethal injection. Likewise, the Law of Moses mandated punishment for sin; all crimes were also considered sins against God. The worst of these punishments was stoning. While it may seem particularly brutal to us, it differs only in kind but not in degree from more modern methods: dead is dead. On rare occasions, after an offender was stoned, the body was also burned. This was probably a symbolic cleansing by fire of the residue/taint of sin left behind by the offense committed. As to torture, there simply was no explicit torture mandated in or allowed by the Law unless one considers lex talionis (eye for eye and tooth for tooth) torture. I do not. Lex talionis was given not primarily for retributive purposes but rather for protective purposes. It limited the revenge that one could exact for a wrong done. A man blinded in one eye could not by way of retribution kill his offender. Far from sanctioning torture, lex talionis was a major step toward loving your neighbor as yourself.

It is true that slavery was allowed under the Mosaic Law. But again, the Law regulated the practice in ways unknown in surrounding cultures and limited the power of the slave owner over the slave. This is true certainly because God cared for enslaved peoples, but also certainly because the Hebrews had themselves been enslaved. That memory is a constant drumbeat throughout the Law and the Prophets. Consequently, when, because of poverty, a Hebrew sold himself into servitude to another Hebrew, the slave was never considered as property; he was permitted the option of going free after a maximum of six years of servitude. Nor was he to be freed empty handed. The former master was required to provide sufficient material resources for the slave to establish himself as a free man. So yes, slavery was a historical reality, even in Israel. But, if you were forced into slavery by war or poverty, best to be a slave in Israel where God had mandated protections for slaves. Those interested can read more about the slave code in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. A final word about slavery is in order. Slavery was also part of New Testament culture. Neither Jesus nor his disciples directly condemned it. But, Jesus planted the seeds, and Paul watered them, that led to the abolition of slavery among Christians and largely throughout the Western world. They created a though world in which Christian slavery was no longer tenable.

I have not yet addressed the issue of homophobia for this simple reason: I reject the charge. The word as most frequently used connotes hatred or animosity toward homosexuals, and I do not find that in Scripture. The Bible does proscribe homosexual relationships — both gay and lesbian — in no uncertain terms. But the Bible also proscribes a variety of heterosexual behaviors as well: premarital sexual relationships, adultery, incest. God created and designed man — male and female — for human, sexual intimacy, but intimacy within certain bounds that promote human flourishing — the bounds of life-long, monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Christians have no phobia — what a stupid and ill-suited term! — toward those who violate those bounds and certainly no hatred. But, we cannot approve, accept, or promote the behavior as something that promotes human flourishing. I am not dieselphobic. I do not hate someone who puts diesel fuel in a car with a gasoline engine. But I could not promote the practice as appropriate for the design of the vehicle; it will not promote automotive flourishing, and will, in fact, lead to destruction. This is not, as it may appear to be, a foolish analogy. The Creator alone has the knowledge and right to specify the parameters of human flourishing. He has made explicit that homosexual relations fall outside those parameters. You may choose to put diesel in your Honda Civic, but it will not run well or run long. To tell you that is not an act of hatred, but of concern.

And lastly, chauvinism. This non-specific term is difficult to address because I do not know precisely the charge being leveled against Scripture. My assumption is that the meme is deriding the Bible for male chauvinism — a typical charge — that is, for misogyny. I would ask my interlocutor to read the Bible again carefully to note the prominent role of women in both the Old and New Testaments, not least the fact that when God chose to unite his divinity with our humanity he did so by being born of a woman. It is beyond question that no human — other than our incarnate Lord Jesus — is as central to our faith as is the Blessed Virgin Mary. That is hardly chauvinistic. Further, it is simply a historical fact that Christianity grew so rapidly in the first few centuries of the common era in large part because it appealed to the poor, to slaves, and to women because of the high regard in which these normally disenfranchised groups was held in the Christian community. Far from oppressing women, the New Testament — and, yes, Paul — actually elevated the status of women in the church over their status in the surrounding cultures.

“And why does it [the Bible] include stoning, torture, murder, burning, slavery, homophobia, bigotry, and chauvinism?”

Well, we have made a mess of God’s good creation. God is in the process of redeeming man and restoring creation. But, it is a long game, not least because he desires to use fallen men and women — redeemed humans struggling toward holiness — as his agents of renewal. Our prayers, our work, our love can make and have made a difference in the world.

A final word as I bring the series to a close. I have found that many people reject the Bible and level these meme-like charges against it based upon a child’s level of familiarity and understanding. Perhaps they attended church in their youth, learned a few Bible stories, and then drifted away from the church in their adolescence or young adulthood. Then, without a serious, adult study of Scripture they attack it as something childish and even morally deficient. My challenge to them would be to put the memes away and engage in a serious, reflective, open minded, prolonged study of the Bible. I suspect that, at the end of such study, even if they have not embraced the faith, they would at least have developed a greater appreciation and respect for the Biblical perspective.

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Questions and Challenges: Part 4

“And why is it [the Bible] open to so many interpretations?”

Recently, the United States Supreme Court threw a lighted match on the woodpile of established legal precedent and kindled a wildfire of public outrage on one hand and public celebration on the other. For fifty years the Roe v Wade decision had guaranteed the constitutional right of women to have access to legal abortion. The current Court (2021-2022 term) determined that it predecessor had decided the matter wrongly, that previous Justices had misinterpreted the United States Constitution. In 1973, seven Justices struck down a Texas law banning abortion; two Justices dissented. In 2022, that original ruling was overturned by a 6-3 majority. Not to bore you with math, but that means, taking the two decisions together, eight Justices determined that the Constitution does not guarantee the right to abortion and ten determined that the Constitution does enshrine that right. The Justices are pretty even divided over contradictory interpretations of the Constitution.

My point here is not to debate abortion rights, but rather to raise this question: How can eighteen expert jurists, spread over fifty years, reach such contradictory interpretations of the same relatively brief and straightforward document? Does the explanation lie with the jurists, with the Constitution, or perhaps at the intersection of the two?

The meme to which this series of articles responds poses the question/challenge:

And why is it [the Bible] open to so many different interpretations?

Clearly, that question could be posed to the Constitution, to almost any set of statistical data, to modern song lyrics, to essentially any complex act of human communication. The Bible is far from unique in admitting of multiple and disparate interpretations. I suspect the real intent of the meme’s question is more along these lines: Why couldn’t God communicate more clearly? The simplest answer to that — and I don’t mean this flippantly — is that God is communicating with humans. And not just any humans, but fallen humans with diminished powers of perception, reason, and holiness. Shakespeare wrote, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Something very like that obtains here.

The Supreme Court Justices do not come tabula rasa to their deliberations, but rather as full human beings formed uniquely by life experiences, by education, by philosophical leanings, by faith convictions, and by a host of other known and hidden factors. Try as they might to lay these aside to make objective deliberations, it simply is not possible. They are subjects and not objects; hence their every decision is inherently subjective. That is not wrong; it is simply the reality we must face.

The same is true when we approach Scripture. We have been formed, and that formation becomes the lens through which we read the text. We are no more objective than are the Supreme Court Justices; we, too, interpret the text subjectively in multiple ways and reach split decisions.

So, the real question is not why the Bible is open to so many different interpretations. The more important issue is how better to read the Bible so that our interpretations converge toward a consensus of the faithful. Perhaps I can offer a few suggestions.

If you were to go to a university book store and peruse a graduate text on quantum mechanics, you likely wound not expect to understand it immediately and fully. The author is expert enough to have had a text published, and the author, editor, and reviewers certainly endeavored to make the text as clear as possible, and yet you still likely will not understand it. The problem lies not with the text but with the reader. You simply do not have the prerequisite knowledge to understand this complex topic. To those who do, I apologize; but surely you can image a topic in which this same analogy obtains. If you want to understand quantum mechanics generally and this text specifically, you must devote yourself to study, preferably with mentors, for years. That makes sense, doesn’t it?

And yet, with no prerequisite study, with no training, people pick up a Bible and expect/demand everything to be clear. Let’s get this straight: Scripture is not a simple text; to attempt to understand God and his ways is certainly as challenging as attempting to master quantum mechanics! It requires work and study. That should not come as a surprise, though it seems to scandalize many. The real surprise, the real “scandal” is the extent to which God has condescended to make himself and his word transparent to the simple, which is to say all of us. It actually is possible for the untrained, for unlearned, for the casual reader to garner much truth from the pages of Scripture. The Bible, at least much of it, presents as a story, and we are inherently story-making beings. In the story we see people as we are, people with the same hopes and fears and dreams and desires that we have, engaging with the divine. And we understand much of that deep in our bones. We hear Jesus’ parables and, even if we don’t perceive all the nuance there, we are amazed at the depth of love and forgiveness the father shows the prodigal son and we rightly intuit something of God’s love for us. We hear Jesus, unjustly crucified, say, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing,” and our amazement is a form of understanding. So, as Augustine heard the child singing, I too say, “Take and read.” Much will be clear.

But, if we want to follow the complex structure of say Romans — or most any of St. Paul’s epistles for that matter — we must study diligently both the Old and New Testaments, not just their content but their cultural contexts, as well. Some among us must study the original languages of the texts and bring that knowledge to bear on issues of translation. This does not mean that one must attend seminary to read the Bible. But it does mean that one must take the Bible seriously and devote time and attention to read it well. It means that one must utilize available resources, e.g., commentaries and educational programs at church. We are blessed to live in a period when so many of these resources are readily — and often freely — available.

Now, I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from simply picking up the Bible; God forbid. Nor do I wish to imply that mental acuity and specialized learning are the non-negotiables required for proper Biblical interpretation. I am simply saying that a dilettante is less likely to read the Bible well than is a dedicated life-long student of Scripture. Oftentimes, the problem with interpretation lies not on the pages of Scripture, but on the far side of them with the reader.

But, another contrasting point must be made, as well. The purpose of reading Scripture is not primarily to “know” the Bible, but rather to know the Lord of the Bible: not primarily to understand Scripture, but to stand under the authority of the Lord mediated through Scripture. The expertly trained Biblical scholar in the academy who is not also a faithful disciple, has less understanding of Scripture than the humble, semi-literate saint who devotes himself/herself to faithful obedience. Jesus said that the pure in heart — not the elevated in mind — will be blessed to see the Lord. It is good to be a scholar; it is essential to be a saint. It is said of St. Francis that he viewed the Bible not as a book to be read, but as a script to be acted. In looking for right interpretations of Scripture, look to the saints; better still, dedicate yourself to becoming one.

Now, for a few brief practical guidelines.

Read the Bible with the Church: with your local parish/congregation, certainly, but also with the catholic (universal) Church spread across the world and extending across time. No Scripture is subject to private interpretation, Peter tells us. We must read, study, pray, and worship with the Church. May I be blunt? If your parish/congregation is not devoted to the consistent public reading and teaching of the whole of Scripture in conversation with all the generations of the faithful gone before, you need to find another church. Don’t settle for warmed-over, pseudo-Christian, pop-psychology, self-help lectures, no matter how charismatic the minister. Demand Scripture or leave.

And note that I said the whole of Scripture. The Bible is in conversation with itself, one part expounding another, one part providing essential background for another. Read the whole of Scripture in a regular, disciplined way. There are several lectionaries that make this possible. There are one-year and two year Bibles and chronological Bibles. A friend once told me that it is the verses that you haven’t underlined in your Bible that may be the most important. It may be the books you haven’t read that make all the difference.

Read Scripture through the lens of the Church’s rule of faith, the Nicene Creed. For some seventeen hundred years, this creed has been the non-negotiable summary of the essentials of the Christian faith used by the Church universal. If your private interpretation of Scripture contradicts this rule of faith, then your private interpretation of Scripture in in error, by which I mean it is heterodox and outside the boundaries of the consensus fidelium, the consensus of the faithful. Let the Creed guide your interpretation.

Along this same line, let the Vincentian Canon be a filter for your interpretations. St. Vincent of Lérin, a fifth century monk, was concerned about distinguishing between true and false teaching. He developed a threefold test; the truth is likeliest to be found in that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all: ubiquity, universality, and unanimity. If an interpretation is isolated to a particular geographical or cultural region, if it is novel, if it is greatly disputed, it is not likely to be correct. This is not a perfect tool, but it is a very good one.

There is so much more to be said, but I must stop somewhere. Still, I would be remiss if I failed to mention this: read Scripture on your knees. By that I mean “soak” your reading in prayer. Ask the Holy Spirit — the true Author and Interpreter of Scripture — to purify your heart, enlighten your mind, strengthen your resolve, and glory Christ in you. Also, read the Bible in conjunction with the Sacraments. From its earliest days, the worship of the Church included the reading, preaching, and teaching of Scripture and the celebration of Holy Eucharist (Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Mass). These two necessarily belong together.

Why is the Bible open to so many different interpretations? Because it is a complex word delivered into the hands of fallen human beings. And yet, Scripture always has and always will transcend all our limitations to draw people beyond the written word to Jesus the living Word who is the source of life.

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