Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I Peter 4

I Peter 4:1-11: The writer continues to compare the suffering of the readers with the suffering of Christ. These comparisons are remarkable. Can you imagine what could be more encouraging to a beleaguered community than that? Here the line of thought takes a little different direction – those who have suffered in the flesh (here simply meaning in this bodily life) are done with sin. This probably does not mean that these persons will never again sin, but a life mired in sin, trapped in sin, is now behind them. The readers are to intend to live the rest of their earthly lives in accordance with God’s purposes and not by human desires (for a reflection on “desire” please see my note just prior to reflections on James 2). I don’t believe it appropriate to contrast all “human desire” with God’s purposes, otherwise why would the writer encourage us to intend, to desire, to live life in accord with God’s purposes. It is not a matter of the extinguishing of desire, but of controlling desire, of directing it appropriately, of not letting it get the best of us. The writer contrasts God’s way with the kind of human desires that trap life and choke life from a person. In using the term “Gentile” here the reference is not to non-Jews, but is metaphoric. Gentiles are those who live life trapped by desires they have lost control over – and the list provided is rather stereotypical for the time.

The readers, Christians, are living in a new way, and they have been put down by others who continue on in the old way. The writer argues that while they may have their time now to deride the Christians, all lives will eventually be judged by God. In the end, who wants to have their life judged as pure dissipation, a mere blowing in the breeze, contributing little to the lasting work of God in and for the world?

Verse 6 is another puzzle. What does it mean that the gospel was preached to the dead? It may refer to Christian who have died, perhaps their lives judged a failure by the wider world, but not so by God who knows their spirits. Again, the basic point is to keep on in faith, keep on in this new way of life, even when it is difficult, even when it seems that everyone else is doing better in the world. The readers are encouraged to discipline themselves and be serious. A disciplined life is also a life of spiritual disciplines like prayer.

“Above all, maintain constant love for one another.” This is such a persistent theme in the New Testament – Christians are called to love and an important part of that life of love is love within the Christian community. Churches are to be living laboratories of love. If we cannot learn to love in the community of faith, how do we expect to be able to love in the wider world? In love, sin is overcome – forgiven, and let go.

Love means hospitality. It means using our gifts in the service of each other and of God. Being stewards of the grace of God also means using all of God’s gifts wisely, including the gifts of the natural world. This is a vitally important message in our day.

We are to love, to offer hospitality, to use our gifts wisely, to serve, to speak as if speaking God’s words. When we do this, when we live this way, God’s presence shines through.

I Peter 4:12-19
: This writer moves back and forth between reflections on living the Christian life (some beautiful and soaring, others more pedantic) and encouragement to keep on in the face of suffering. Here he returns to the later theme. The sufferings the readers are experiencing are again compared with the sufferings of Christ, but just as in the end, Christ was vindicated, so will those who keep the faith. Of course, not all suffering should be considered suffering for Christ. If you are punished by the law because you have committed murder or been a thief, that is not suffering like Christ. I think the distinction the writer is making here is important and can be carried further. I have seen Christians make claims that they are being persecuted for their faith, when what they may be experiencing is a justifiable reaction to their obnoxiousness about their faith. It is important that Christians be discerning about suffering. Sometimes we do suffer because of our faith – living the faith can be a challenge sometimes. Life is full of other kinds of suffering as well. As I’ve noted before, when suffering can be alleviated, we should seek to do so, but not all of the suffering of life can be ended, and so we can choose to learn what we can through it, or not. The bottom line is that we are all invited to entrust ourselves “to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good.”

I Peter 5

I Peter 5:1-11: The writer refers again, as he often has, to the suffering of Christ, and here takes on the historic personage of Peter. Here he moves to advice for elders in the community, community leaders. Elders are to take their work seriously and lead not for gain, but willingly, in order to further the purposes of God. While the leaders have some authority, both leaders and others in the community are to “clothe themselves with humility.” What a wonderful image and invitation. Humility is not humiliation, but an honest estimation of one’s gifts, strengths, and shortcomings. It is the ability to keep life in perspective. “Be content with who you are, don’t put on airs” (The Message).

In the course of living this life, we (and the readers) are invited to cast all our anxieties on God, for God is a caring God. We are to live with discipline and mindfulness. We do so knowing that there are forces out there, forces of distraction, forces that would derail our live, ready to sweep in. Evil is to be resisted, and one help in doing so is knowing that Christians around the world experience similar trials, sufferings and difficulties. In our day and time, Christians around the world often experience very different levels of suffering. In Western countries, we have the privilege of a free expression of religious faith and life – many others around the world are not so fortunate. The assurance is given that in the end the power of God will accomplish God’s purposes, and in that Christians can be strengthened.

I Peter 5:12-14
: The letter ends in a typical fashion, with mention of a person and with greetings. Silvanus is not known to us, though there is mention of a Silvanus in Paul’s letters. Could the writer be trying to evoke both Peter and Paul in his correspondence? The purpose of the letter is made clear, to provide encouragement so that the readers will stand strong in the “true grace of God.” Babylon is a reference to Rome, the probable place of origin for the letter.

In the end, the readers are wished peace in Christ, as are the readers of this blog.

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