Reading: I Peter 1:1-12
I am glad that we studied James before we study I Peter. I am sure you remember what James was like; reading James is straightforward and easy to understand. When you read James, there is no room for arguing what he means; it is a message without complex metaphor and without abstract arguments. James is simple.
James might be simple, but you also should have noticed that James is well thought out. Everything in James is consistent with itself. We should not mistake simple language for a lack of thought, it is a sign of genius when a person can explain something such as the practical implications that God created humanity in God’s image in language that a child can easily understand.
Now, compare James with the opening of I Peter. Peter writes with long, complex, sentences. The passage we read uses complex theological terms and full of rich and colorful metaphors. James was a book that would have been an excellent sermon read all by itself. I Peter is the kind of book where you can meditate on a single sentence for hours trying to unpack the implications of the teaching. Peter sounds remarkably like Paul.
The Sunday School lesson mentioned in passing that many modern scholars doubt that Peter wrote the epistle because of the complexity of the writing. Basically, they look at Peter’s background as fisherman, and they feel that Peter should express himself more like James, and less like Paul.
Tradition is however unified in naming Peter as the author — and, I find the modern argument unconvincing. I’ve met many people without the benefit of a college degree who are perfectly fluent in metaphor, and perfectly capable of using jargon. I am perfectly aware that in the decades following his call as a disciple, he’d have opportunities to study; I wonder how many times Peter might have listened to Paul teach. Scripture tells us that Peter and Paul were together in Antioch, and tradition tells us that they both ended their lives in Rome, executed under the authority of Nero. In my mind, spending time with Paul would be an education for anybody.
Traditional commentary tells us that I Peter was written from Rome between 64 or 67 AD. Nero would have been emperor for about a decade; the Christian community in Rome would have been almost entirely gentile due to a removal of Jews from Rome before Nero’s time. The persecution of Christians started full force in 64 AD, so the commentators believe Peter wrote soon after Nero starts using Christians as human torches.
I Peter is addressed to the exiles in Asia Minor; the list of places are in modern day Turkey. Whether I Peter is written to those who were exiled from Rome over a decade before, or they had just escaped the fires burning Christians in Rome, it is, like James, addressed to those who left a persecuted church for safety somewhere else. Like James, this is written to a refugee-church from a leader in the community that they fled.
I also think that it is fitting that this passage is what we are reading for father’s day. In I Peter, we have a spiritual father offering pastoral care to a community that has been scattered and traumatized. Nero’s persecution was especially cruel, it is something that was completely new to everybody. Unlike the persecution that removed people from the Jerusalem community, Nero’s power extended to the place were people went to escape; no sense of safety is possible. What does a spiritual father do for his distant children who are far away and likely afraid?
What Peter does is he starts by reminding them of the positive. He reminds them of God’s love for them, and the reality of their salvation. The language might be abstract, but it is a reminder that even in their dangerous and insecure situation, there is some security somewhere. Peter reminds the people who are in fear of their lives that their soul is safe in God’s love.
Now that I told you what I think Peter is doing, lets look at what Peter tells the refugee church:
- God, our Father, gave us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ
- An inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you (in spite of current suffering)
- Protection and salvation
- A revelation of faith
- A place in story of Salvation
I’ve learned the idea that we must be born again is both liberating and offensive. Some resist, insisting they were born right the first time and others embrace this language recognizing that they desperately need a new start.
I know this is silly to say, but there is no room in Christianity for people who don’t need a new life. It might not be my place to judge those who say they don’t need one, but I can say that the Gospel of Christ is only for those who do. The gospel is for those of us who find ways harm ourselves and our relationships, and who need help and a fresh start with even a new identity. Christianity are for those who say Sin destroyed my life, it harmed my relationships, but Jesus offered me a fresh start. I was once defined by my disease, but now I have a new life — I am Christian.
Christians have, as you can see, from the beginning believed that we will be with Christ in heaven. Jesus promises the disciples that He will prepare a place for them. Peter tells the refugee church that no matter what happens, they eventually be safe and secure in heaven.
Protection and salvation
In fact, Peter lets them know that salvation makes Rome powerless. Lets think about the gospel of Jesus Christ, one of the most important messages of the gospel is the one of resurrection, both the resurrection of Christ and the promise that we will be raised up as well. Rome was able to slay the body, but they cannot touch the soul. There is salvation even for this life in the realization that no matter what is done, the people of Christ win; death is powerless to defeat us.
Peter tells the people that through suffering, their faith will be revealed. It is often said that the blood of martyrs was the seed of the church. Nero and rulers who tried to end Christianity by killing and torturing Christians have found that their faith was stronger than anything that could be done to the body. Faith gave countless ordinary people the courage and the strength to face threats, torture and death.
Story of Salvation
Peter reminds everybody that God was working in the world before Jesus, and that Jesus was prophesied. Do you remember the account of when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost in Acts 2? When people started asking if the people were drunk, Peter quoted from the Psalms and from the prophet Joel to show that what was happening was God’s work. In Acts 3, Peter again tells of Jesus, and how Jesus was announced by the prophets, specifically citing Moses.
Peter reminds the community that fled persecution, and is either at risk, or facing it again that they have seen the hope of salvation that Israel had been looking for as long as they had been a people. Jesus was not sudden, or unexpected, but the prophets and the law anticipated Christ and the salvation He brought.
What do you say to a refugee church that is fearful because the place they ran is no longer safe? If you ask me, I’d have to admit that I have no idea. I cannot imagine what it would be like to face a Nero, nor what it would be to face the kind of persecution that is happening in places such as the Sudan or Syria. When I see people who are part of a refugee church here in the United States, I do not know how to do anything but thank God these people are safe now — and pray that our nation continues to be safe.
When Peter decided what to say to the refugee church who faced danger again he did something that that seems counter-intuitive, Peter gives a summary of what Christians believe. What does an abstract summary of Christian beliefs offer? Peter reminded the persecuted church of what they believe. Peter reminded them that there is hope, because Christ is greater than the worst Nero can dish out — Christ brought victory over even death.