As is the case for most sermons on the topic of suffering for what you believe in, I don’t expect that you’re going to like this sermon all that much.
How’s that for a rousing beginning?
Today we begin a three-week sermon series on the tiny epistle of 1 Peter, a letter toward the end of the New Testament that was written to Christians for whom the practice of their faith within the culture they lived had literally become a matter of life and death. The book is short—just five chapters—and if you have a few minutes this afternoon, I invite you to just read right through it.
When you do, you’ll see that the book contains some very beautiful passages of encouragement to early Christians, some of which we heard today. You’ll also notice that 1 Peter contains some troubling passages, used recklessly and dangerously out of context for centuries, passages like: “slaves, obey your masters” and “wives submit to your husbands.”
For that reason and others, it has been the practice of most of the academy and a lot of preachers to completely ignore 1 Peter because it clearly does not address the situation in which we find ourselves. And even we might have an immediate urge to dismiss this little letter as irrelevant to our modern lives. But I know you like a challenge as much as I do, so for the next three weeks we’ll be going off lectionary and taking a deep dive into 1 Peter.
While it is true that quite a lot of 1 Peter is situationally specific, the author writes with some eloquence that reveals deeper and more universal themes around what it means to be a follower of Jesus in a world where the gospel of love is not the order of the day; the letter talks about how to live in a community of Christ-followers, the church; and the letter addresses how our claim of faith in Jesus Christ impacts the relationships in the most intimate circles of our lives. Three weeks: being a Christian in the world; being a Christian in the church; being a Christian in my life. A practical manual.
I often think of reading the letters toward the end of the Bible like sitting outside at a café on a pleasant afternoon. People are walking by, you’re sipping coffee and trying to read a book. But at the table next to you, you can’t help but overhear your neighbor talking on the telephone. You can sort of tell what she’s talking about, but you know, of course, that you can only hear one side of the conversation.
Reading the letters of the first church leaders to early communities of Christians is like overhearing that café conversation. We don’t know exactly who was on the receiving end of the letters, or sometimes even who wrote them. We often don’t know when the letters were written or the specific details the letters were addressing. So we modern readers should always proceed very carefully, aware of our distance from these readings’ original settings, our ignorance of the details surrounding them, and the cultural lenses through which we view the words on the page.
That said, the inclusion of a book like 1 Peter in our holy canon invites us to explore universal themes of the Christian experience—what do we, modern followers of Jesus, have in common with the original readers of 1 Peter? In the case of 1 Peter, scholar Peter Gomes says we’re privy to a conversation in the early church about how our faith invites us to order our lives, the public, corporate, and individual affairs of the community of Christ—perpetual questions for all of us who call ourselves disciples of Christ.
So with that perspective in mind, let’s become biblical scholars for the next few minutes and learn what we can about the background of the book of 1 Peter, a letter that was not written to us but which we hold in our hands now, along with an invitation to think deeply about how we live our faith in the world.
We’ll start with the author of the letter: in short, the author of this letter wasn’t Peter. The early church had a handful of compelling leaders who traveled all over Asia Minor and founded little communities around the ideas Jesus taught. And if you were a community that came into being under the leadership of the Apostle Paul, for example, your community would reflect his style of leadership and teaching. With the work of these traveling leaders, different schools of thought arose in the early church: communities in the tradition of Paul or Peter or Timothy or Priscilla. As these communities grew and became established, other leaders would merge, like pastors, who would teach and write to support their fledgling communities. To give their work legitimacy they would often write in the tradition of a well-known original founder. It’s pretty clear that 1 Peter was not written by the Apostle Peter for two reasons: references the book makes to current events place it later than Peter would have been living; and the book is written with a style, vocabulary, and grammar of Greek that would have been out of the reach of an Aramaic fisherman from Galilee. We presume then that 1 Peter was written by a church leader who saw him or herself as working in the tradition of the Apostle Peter.
We also presume from some hints in the text that the recipients of this little letter were Gentiles, not Jews, new converts to Christianity. While 1 Peter was probably like an encyclical—that is, a letter sent around to several little communities and shared among each other—the letter was addressing a very specific social, cultural, and political climate as it was experienced by Gentile Christians in the first century.
And, from what we can tell, the folks who were on the receiving end of 1 Peter were experiencing some kind of persecution. It probably wasn’t the height of persecution that came a little later, Christians being publicly executed, but these little churches certainly were growing strong and numerous enough that they were beginning to run up against the pagan culture in which they were living, and probably, in fact, against the Roman governors who were not often interested in peoples’ devotion directed toward anyone or anything other…than them.
Now that we know all of these things, our reading this morning starts to make a little more sense. “[You have an inheritance in heaven]…though now for a little while you may have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials,” or “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” A letter, written to a community that was feeling the pain of living in a world where their fundamental beliefs were in opposition to the culture around them. It’s like we’re listening to one half of a conversation about a topic wholly unrelated to our lives. Right?
Or maybe not.
I read an article this week by author Nicole Cliffe called, “How God Messed Up My Happy Atheist Life.” In the article she tells the story of her happy life, professional and personal success, as she describes: “a very pleasant adult life of firm atheism.” The story of her conversion is interesting, but what caught my attention was Nicole’s commentary about how life was different for her after she became a follower of Jesus. She writes: “My Christian conversion has granted me no simplicity. It has complicated all of my relationships, changed how I feel about money, messed up my public persona, and made me wonder if I should be on Twitter at all. Obviously, it has been very beautiful.”
Nicole touches on a reality that many Christians in America have forgotten, or choose to ignore. For too long, those of us who identify as Christians have been in the majority in this country, but that is rapidly changing. There are more people of other faiths living in America than ever before, and the most rapidly increasing category of faith for Americans is “none.” N-o-n-e. Those of us who spend a lot of our time in the life of a Christian community may not have been paying attention to the fact that we’re in the minority outside these walls, and worse: because we’ve been in the majority for too long, we’ve gotten lazy. You might even say that we’ve slid off the rigorous course of Christian faith into a watered-down expression of what is, at its core, a revolutionary gospel.
Living a life of radical, sacrificial love? We don’t even know what that means anymore.
We Americans often live like this: “[we give up a judicious amount of love or patience, or money, or time, or space, or comfort for others (after an appropriate and very necessary vetting process), which is an American middle class stance toward the universe, not a Christian one.]” And we have come to think of the greedy, consumer-oriented, nationalistic way in which we often live our lives in this country as a Christian way of living.
Being an American, in other words, is not the same as being a Christian…just like being a member of the Greco-Roman world was not the same as being a Christian. These identities, in fact, were and are in conflict with each other.
Trying to live as a follower of Jesus in America today should make our reading of 1 Peter seem at least vaguely familiar, and if it doesn’t then we need to take a step back and think hard about the substance of our practiced faith. Our world is very different from the early Christians on the receiving end of 1 Peter, but one thing we definitely share is this: Christian faith puts us in conflict with the culture around us.
We who call ourselves followers of Jesus cannot turn on our televisions or read our Facebook feeds without a growing awareness that the gospel we claim, if we truly live it, increasingly threatens the status quo, offends powers that be, and makes us at the very least, unpopular. We profess a revolutionary kind of love; if folks preaching alternative messages of greed and dominance and hatred don’t feel the threat of that love, we’re not living it right.
We hear: “Part of the beauty of me is that I am very rich.”
Jesus said: “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
We hear: “Don’t tell me it doesn’t work — torture works… Waterboarding is fine, but it’s not nearly tough enough, ok?”
Jesus said: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
We hear: “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families.”
Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”.
We hear: “Laziness is a trait in Blacks.”
Jesus says: “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
We hear: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
Jesus said: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them… . Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”
We hear: “I will build a great wall – and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”
Jesus said: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”
You are not paying attention if you don’t think there is a serious ideological conflict between these words we hear every day in America, and the message of Jesus. We live in a country where someone who says things like this, says them to rousing cheers of the American public and is one popular election away from the office of president of our country. What does that mean? It means that living in comfort and ease, as if being an American is the same as being a Christian, is not an option for real followers of Jesus.
Perhaps we modern readers can hear the words of 1 Peter written to a beleaguered community trying to figure out a way to hold out the gospel message that Jesus came to preach in a world that couldn’t understand what they were talking about, and we can begin to see beyond the cultural Christianity that we have come to accept as a tepid substitute for real discipleship. Because those who called themselves Christians then and we who call ourselves Christians now still have the holy obligation of speaking truth to power, of standing up to evil, of caring for our neighbors, of insisting that love is the only thing that can save us.
The only thing.
You might even say that living out that radical love…is a matter of life and death.
Over the next several months I am going to be preaching on a matters that may be involved in the 2016 elections. I plan to speak prophetically, biblically and in a non-partisan way. I want to make clear that, if my remarks are interpreted as favoring one candidate over others, these are only my opinions not those of The Riverside Church and that RC does not support or oppose candidates for public office.
  Peter J. Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, New York: W. Morrow (1996) p. 70