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).
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.