Saturday, April 19, 2008

Note: With the United Methodist General Conference just around the corner, I expect that I will get behind on this blog. It is my hope that I will have both the letters of Peter posted prior to General Conference, but then have to catch up afterwards. Here is a reminder of the reading schedule:

April 21-27: I John 1-5
April 28-May 4: II John, III John, Jude, Revelation 1-2
May 5-11: Revelation 3-7
May 12-18: Revelation 8-12
May 19-25: Revelation 13-17
May 26-June 1: Revelation 18-22

The First Letter of Peter

This is the first of two letters which bear the name of Peter, the apostle and disciple of Jesus. It is fairly evident that Peter played an important role in the early Christian/Jesus movement. His name usually appears first in lists of the disciples of Jesus. The Book of Acts recounts significant stories about him and he is a central character in the Gospels. The Roman Catholic Church considers apostolic succession to flow through Peter. He is the first “Bishop of Rome,” “the first Pope,” in Roman Catholic Christianity. Even if the letter was not composed by Peter himself, a brief review of his life might be in order.

Simon or Peter was a contemporary of Jesus, a son of Jonah (or John, Greek) and a brother of Andrew. He was a fisherman, which means he belonged neither to the upper class nor to the lower class of day laborers – “but to the middle class of small businesspeople and crafts-people such as Paul the tentmaker” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Peter, in following the call of Jesus had his life completely reoriented. Among the disciples, as noted, he was a leading member of the group, a part of the inner circle. The gospel’s credit him with making a confession of faith, that in Jesus God was uniquely at work. In spite of his insight and prominent place in the community of Jesus’ followers, during Jesus arrest and trial, Peter denied being a follower of Jesus. “Despite his misunderstanding and failure during Jesus’ earthly ministry, the encounter with the risen Lord enabled Peter to become the principal leader in regathering the disciples and in the formation of what was to become the church” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Simon really becomes “Peter” – the Rock. “Peter was clearly the principal leader of the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem” (People’s New Testament Commentary). The New Testament loses track of Peter after awhile – acknowledging that he went about on some missionary journeys, but not indicating his final destination. Other early Christian tradition has Peter making his way to Rome where he continued his ministry and met death as a martyr.

“The ministry of the apostle Peter continued among disciples influenced by him and in a stream of tradition emanating from him, somewhat analogously to the Pauline school that continued to reinterpret Paul’s message after his death” (People’s New Testament Commentary). There were various streams of early Christian tradition – Pauline, Petrine, Johnanine that all had some differing emphases. It is helpful for us to remember these differing streams in our day and time, for they have continued to the present day. We would do well to see other steams of Christian thinking as complimentary, though some thinking done in the name of Christ may stretch beyond the bounds of appropriateness. The Christian tradition is elastic, and it is always a matter of conversation to determine how elastic it will be.

First Peter represents this Roman combination of Petrine and Pauline tradition focused in a particular letter to churches in Asia Minor to encourage and instruct them to live as Christians in their hostile social situation. Although written in the name of the beloved disciple, it was most likely not written by Peter himself… but by one of his disciples in Rome, about 90 CE. (People’s New Testament Commentary). A number of reasons are given for these conclusions, among which are: the sophisticated Greek of the letter, the incorporation of Pauline elements into the letter indicating a later theological development of Christian tradition, “Bablylon” as a designation for Rome which happened only after 70 CE. The work appears to be a real letter, however, written to be circulated among a group of churches in Asia Minor. These congregations would have been primarily Gentile Christians, and they have been ostracized and marginalized, and perhaps even persecuted, for their faith. The letter is meant as a word of encouragement and instruction in a difficult time. It is unlikely that the difficulties encountered were widespread government persecution of the churches, rather smaller-scale persecution and social marginalization. The First Letter of Peter is one of the New Testament’s most beautiful and compelling books. Its profound Christology, vision of the church, and ardent instruction on Christian life in the world richly express the meaning of the gospel…. The community is to live a life of integrity, risking suffering and alienation if necessary but also willing to give a transparent witness of hope and good works to the world around it. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). As we listen in on these words of instruction and encouragement, what might we learn for our own Christian lives, lives lived in very different circumstances?

I Peter 1

I Peter 1:1-2: The form of this greeting is typical for letters of the time. While probably not written by Peter, the letter invokes his authority, not an uncommon practice of the time. The place names are of Roman provinces in Asia Minor. “Exiles in Dispersion” makes use of an Old Testament image to describe the sense of alienation felt among the Christian communities in these provinces. Though feeling alienated and ostracized, the writer assures the reader that they have been chosen and destined by God. Furthermore, God’ Spirit has been at work in their lives “sanctifying” them, that is, making their lives more loving, caring, holy, Christ-like. Another Old Testament image is invoked (sprinkling by blood) to reaffirm that God has been at work and continues to be at work in their lives. The writer wishes for them grace and peace in abundance.

I Peter 1:3-12: The letter begins with a word of thanks, as was common in Hellenistic letters. However, this is a beautifully woven piece of writing. Verses 3-12 are, in Greek, one long sentence. In translation it is made several for the sake of readability. I am reminded here of jazz or poetry, where breath and expression are so intimately linked. Here we have one, long, poetic line (more Whitman than Dickinson), one long riff. It is helpful to remember to whom this melody goes out – a community that is hurting, a community that is experiencing trouble because they are trying to follow the Jesus way, a beleaguered community.

The thanksgiving in this section is thanksgiving to God for what God has done for those reading this letter. While the thanks are directed toward God, listen to the exalted language used to describe this beleaguered community. God, in mercy, through the resurrection of Jesus has given the readers “a new birth into a living hope.” Hope plays an even more decisive role than faith for this author, and can serve as the one word that sums up the meaning of Christian life as such. Hope in biblical perspective refers to that which is “real,” but “not yet.” (People’s New Testament Commentary). I continue to appreciate Anne Lamott’s definition of hope as “about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is stronger than any grim, bleak [stuff] anyone can throw at us” (Plan B). This is hope that shapes how we live, not just hope as a psychological feeling. It is an inner disposition that moves us to live in certain ways and not in others.

What we hope for, what we have in God’s grace in Christ is an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” Again, the author uses beautiful and powerful language. When you are down, being reminded that you have something wonderful that on one can take away is important and powerful. This inheritance is being kept safe by God, and this same God is keeping the Christian community “protected” by God’s own power. How does this make sense if the community is experiencing trouble? The writer interprets the trouble as having one’s faith tested and purified so that it may become more genuine – a process analogous to having gold refined by fire. They are assured that in the end all will be well, that their faith in God and Christ will shine like gold. Given that, the community knows joy – it rejoices. It is important to note that the author is not saying that God is sending these difficulties to help their faith grow in genuineness. The difficulties are there. Responding in faith, hope and joy allows the readers to use the difficult circumstance to their own advantage. They learn and grow through the process. That possibility is open to us as well.

The readers have faith and hope even though they have never seen Jesus. I am reminded of the hymn in The Faith We Sing – “Without Seeing You.” Living in faith and hope is living in joy.

In the last part of this section, the author makes another audacious claim for the community – the prophets work was done for them! This is not an objective statement about the Old Testament, but a faith statement of the early Christian community and an interpretive statement. The prophets were working for their own time. But just as much great literature can address the time in which it was written as well as future persons and situations, so, too, the words of the prophets. The early Christian community focused on that aspect of the work of the prophets. When reading the Old Testament today, we need to consider both the original context of the words and how the words were used by the early Christian writers. The good news that the community heard is something “into which angels long to look.”

I Peter 1:13-25: Given who the Christians are by the grace of God – people of faith, hope and joy, they are to live in certain ways and not in others. “Prepare your minds for action” - - - “roll up your mental sleeves and get ready for hard thinking” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Exercise self-discipline – most spiritual traditions assert that progress in the spiritual life, spiritual development, spiritual maturity, requires a measure of self-discipline. The fashioning of our souls and spirits takes time, effort and energy. Hope in grace – “authentic hope can only be a response to God’s act” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Instead of giving in to every desire, follow those desires that lead to a holy life, a whole and healthy life, God’s life. “Let yourselves be pulled into a way of life shaped by God’s life, a life energetic and blazing with holiness” (The Message).

The writer next contrasts this new way of life in Christ, a way of holiness with a former, futile way of living. Part of this new life is recognizing the importance of God and God’s dream for the world and respecting that we are called to live for that dream.

What brought the readers out of this old life and into new life was “the precious blood of Christ.” This is ancient Christian language and has been deeply meaningful for centuries. It remains meaningful for many today, but not for all. If we struggle with the sacrificial language in the New Testament, how might we get at the heart of passages such as this in a way that is meaningful and challenging for our own spiritual lives? The image here is not primarily that of an offering for forgiveness of sin, but recalls the Passover. The blood used at Passover, in the Exodus story, marked the Jews as a people moving from slavery to freedom, from the old world into a new one. The author is asserting the basic Christian affirmation in a particular language – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus lead us into new life. The blood imagery is his way of saying that, and our way may be different. Blood terminology, though alien to many modern readers, permeates biblical language and must be understood within its own framework of biblical theology. “Blood” is a shorthand way of saying “life.” It was a maxim of the biblical world that “the life is in the blood,” so that “blood” and “life” are virtual synonyms. To say Jesus gave his blood for us is to say he gave his life, himself, for us. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

The writer also asserts that this death was in the works “before the foundation of the world.” This, too, is a difficult concept for many modern readers, implying that God has all of history laid out ahead of time. This is difficult to combine with any meaningful notion of human freedom. I think the writer is being metaphoric here, and the power of his statement is in the second clause – “revealed at the end of the ages for your sake.” He is again bolstering the confidence and hope of this beleaguered community. The community’s faith and hope are set on God, the God who acted in Jesus as the Christ.

This community of faith and hope, set free by Jesus, is to live in love. “Love one another deeply from the heart.” The life of love is part of a whole new life which comes from God, and is a part of God’s eternal dream for the world. Human life will wither and fade, but within the span of our lives, we can contribute to God’s purposes for the world.

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