Monday, April 21, 2008

I Peter 2

I Peter 2:1-10: People of new birth, of new life love deeply from the heart (I Peter 1:22). The first part of this chapter continues that theme. Love entails not only doing certain kinds of things, but also getting rid of certain behaviors and attitudes – malice, guile, insincerity, envy, slander. Notice the emphasis on community life. Christian love is to be lived out in community. The church is expected to be the community which lives out this love and then embraces the world in transforming love.

In I Corinthians, Paul used the image of infants longing for milk in a negative way. He wanted Christians to grow up. This writer uses new birth and longing for milk as a positive image. I once preached a sermon in which I said that I thought the Christian life involved being born again again and again and again. I think that’s true. We are always supposed to be open to God’s transforming love and power in our lives. It is not that we don’t grow up, but growing involves new birth. We are to long for “pure, spiritual milk” just as a new born baby longs for milk. So Christians must seek the spiritual nourishment that makes them strong: the word of God that comes in Scripture, preaching, teaching, and Christian testimony in word and deed to the might acts of God. Christians never outgrow this. (People’s New Testament Commentary) Our list of what nourishes us spiritually may be longer, but it should not be shorter, I think. We feed ourselves spiritually so we can grow into salvation. The writer believes that Christians are among those who have “tasted that the Lord is good.” What a nice image connecting God’s goodness with the idea of spiritual nourishment.

Not staying with one image long, the writer invites the readers to deepen their relationship with Christ who is a living stone – certainly not an image of nourishment! Yet there is a connection with what has gone before. We take nourishment to grow. We are to seek out Christ as a living stone, so that we can be built into a spiritual house. Growth in faith is growth in Christian community as well as individual growth.

The rejected stone as important cornerstone had become a traditional image for the early church. Paul had used it in Romans. The writer is not only saying something about how Jesus was rejected but vindicated by God, he is also saying something about the experience of the readers. They, too, have felt rejection. But like Jesus as the Christ, they remain important and special. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” These are words to pick up a community of people that is discouraged. They are words of encouragement and should be used as such. I don’t think they should be used as an argument that “we are it and you are not.” And these special people have a significant task – “to proclaim the mighty acts of the one who called you out of darkness into marvelous light.” Again, these are remarkable words of care and encouragement and the task to which we are called as Christians is an awesome task.

I Peter 2:11-17: This letter weaves together statements about who the readers are as God’s people, words meant to bolster them in a difficult time, and statements about how they are to live because they are God’s people. As God’s people, they are aliens and exiles – no wonder they are feeling a little out of place in their society. This image reminds us of the image Paul uses in Romans 12, encouraging that community not to be conformed to the world. The larger societies in which we live often contain elements that are not in keeping with who we want to be as Christians. Christians disagree about what it is in the culture that seems most anti-Christian, and those debates are often fierce. What is generally undebated is that some elements in the larger society pull one away from Christian life. There is a sense, then, that we are never completely at home. One way to talk about the forces that lead us away from Christian love is to talk about “desires of the flesh.”

The writer has some particular ideas of how Christians are to live in the wider society. Some of these ideas are very time-bound and difficult for us to grab hold of. They were written for a particular community in a particular time and place. We may learn from them, but that may require some deep thinking on our part.

In general, the writer tells the readers to conduct themselves “honorably among the Gentiles.” Most of the readers were Gentiles – the word here is used metaphorically to mean those not among God’s people in the church. Interestingly, it may be “the Gentiles” who consider the Christians “evildoers.” Certain Roman authorities made that accusation as Christians were refusing to participate in some of the imperial religious rituals. “Religious rituals were interwoven into every aspect of pagan life. All social, community, political, and educational occasions involved rites that Christians could only regard as ‘lawless idolatry.’” (People’s New Testament Commentary) When Christians held back from participating in such rituals and rites, they were thought of as “evil doers” by some. By conducting themselves honorably the writer argues that the minds of those who think the Christians are evil doers might be changed. That desire to help others change their mind about the Christian faith lies behind much of what the author writes in these verses. If that is the case, then some of the very ideas the writer suggests might today be stumbling blocks rather than aids to this mission. Let’s move on to see what the writer suggests as ways to live honorably so that the message of Christian faith might gain a hearing in the world.

The writer suggests that Christians accept the authority of human governing institutions. While the message of Christianity had considerable anti-imperial tenor, a full frontal confrontation with the empire would have been foolhardy. The young Christian community was not going to take down the empire and could use the order it brought to the world to spread its message. This writer certainly does not underestimate the importance of the ordering function of a government, nor should any Christians. Some sense of stability is crucial for human life in community and a degree of respect is due to governments for providing this. Do these verses preclude the possibility that Christians ever participate in the overthrow of a deeply corrupt and harmful government? While they may seem to do that, these verses are not the only verses in the Bible to address this issue. Given the prophets and New Testament themes about a different way of life, there may be instances when Christians would seek a complete change in government. Of course, these verses were not written to people living in a democracy. In a democracy, citizens are to be active participants in the shaping of public life, and may, through their votes, change a government. That, to my mind, is consistent with “accepting the authority” of government.

Part of the ordering function of government can be rewarding good action and punishing harmful action.

The writer encourages the readers to live as free people, but to use their freedom wisely and well. They do this by honoring others, by loving the Christian family, by fearing God (offering God the respect God is due), and then by offering appropriate honor to the emperor.

I Peter 2:18-25: The meditation on conducting life honorably continues. Slaves are to accept the authority of their masters, to be deferent even to those who are harsh. These are difficult verses. They accept the institution of slavery, and seem to open slaves to being treated harshly, even in a demeaning manner. They almost invite a certain masochistic stance. Is there anything to redeem these verses? Perhaps a little. What we have in these verses the typical pattern for Hellenistic household codes, one distinct difference is that such codes outside the New Testament do not address slaves directly. “All New Testament household codes directly address slaves as responsible members of the inclusive Christian community” (People’s New Testament Commentary). So slaves are given a certain dignity in these verses. Furthermore, their unjust suffering is likened to the suffering of Christ himself. That is the ultimate comparison. Christ’s suffering was a way in which the Christians were freed to live a new life. The writer seems to think that somehow the suffering of the slave continues their freedom.

Ultimately, the dignity of the slave argued for in these verses is inconsistent with their status as slaves. Indirectly, then, there is an argument against the continuation of the institution of slavery here, even though the writer does not offer that conclusion. Our perspectives are often limited by our social location. That is one positive interpretation of these verses. The other is that for all of us, in various ways and at various times, there will be difficult circumstances in our lives that cannot be changed. It may be a difficult job situation that cannot be changed right then, it might be a physical condition, it might be the behavior of another person whom we cannot avoid. When confronted with difficult circumstances in our lives, sometimes the only thing we can change is our inner attitude. Where can we learn and grow in difficult circumstances, and in that way “redeem” them? We are to trust that God is with us through it all. Suffering that can be ended should be. Suffering that cannot be ended might be an opportunity for new growth.

I Peter 3

I Peter 3:1-7: In the same way that slaves are to accept the authority of their masters, wives are to accept the authority of their husbands. Again, context is everything here. The writer wants wives to “fit into the existing social order as part of the Christian mission” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Part of his rationale is that the honorable behavior of these women will help win over their husbands to the Christian faith. Today such docility is likely to repel people from Christian faith, and thus this time-bound advice seems just that, time bound. The deeper point for the author is in verse three, an encouragement to women to cultivate an inner self “with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” There have been times in Western history when women were not even thought capable of cultivating a rich inner life. In that way, these verses are not as awful as they may first appear. At the same time, the potential for abuse make these verses a challenge. Husbands are to show consideration for their wives, paying them honor. This is the basic point, though the author almost ruins it by the reference to women as “the weaker sex.” What that author seems to take away, however, he gives back by noting that women are “also heirs of the gracious gift of life.” This is a statement of radical equality. I think one can argue from the New Testament that statements of equality are the more basic Christian affirmation and that statements that seem to move away from that are more culture-bound. Christian faith is always lived in the context of a culture and we need to think deeply and prayerfully about what may be time-bound, culture-bound in the Bible, and what seems more fundamental. It is interesting that at the end of this section, the writer argues that for men to forget that women are also heirs of the gracious gift of life gets in the way of their prayers. Prayer and a life lived with integrity, with compassion, with love, belong together.

I Peter 3:8-12: To this point, the writer has given instructions to all and then to slaves and wives and husbands. The author now turns attention to all the readers. All are to have “unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” Verse 10 refers to Psalm 34, encouraging doing good and seeking peace. These verses strike at the heart of the matter of conducting oneself honorably, of loving deeply from the heart.

I Peter 3:13-22: The writer seems to think that those who do good will be less likely to suffer. At the same time he is realistic about unjust suffering. While someone doing good may suffer, including suffering at the hands of others through persecution and ostracism, the writer also believes that such suffering can redound to the good of those who suffer in this way. He encourages an attitude of hope rather than fear – and invites the readers to always be prepared to share with others about the hope that is within them. They are to do so with gentleness and reverence. How often Christians have forgotten about sharing their faith with gentleness and reverence? Have you ever been jumped with the question “Are you saved?” That seems inconsistent with the spirit of these verses. The writer is consistently concerned that Christians conduct themselves well. He reminds them that Christ suffered unjustly – that is the main point in verses 18-22, though it is couched in difficult and mysterious language. What are we to make of Jesus becoming spirit and preaching to spirits in prison? We are not sure, but the basic point is that Jesus serves as an example of innocent suffering that leads to tremendous good. The readers, and we through them, are invited to let our suffering work good as it can.

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