1 Peter 1:3-9
I’m not sure if you share my tendency
to think of an epistle text as being (a) more boring,
and (b) more abstract, intellectual or theological than a gospel story,
but, in fact, the epistles were almost invariably written
out of particular pastoral concerns.
I sometimes have to remind myself of that.
That being said, I am now going to explore several ideas—
intellectual—abstract, and not necessarily all connected
(and as Susie helpfully reminded me, all potentially excruciatingly boring!),
but only because I think they get us somewhere important—
get us to some particular pastoral concerns of which we’re intimately aware—
concerns with which we live and within which we minister to each other.
And our text offers us good words—
relevant and important words for us to hear today.
Now aren’t you just thrilled and right there on the edge of your pew?
First though, a couple of fun observations about words and language
that don’t really have much of anything to do with anything else we’re going to consider,
but are just too good—too much fun not to mention!
First, blessing God as father, right at the beginning, reminds us of the Lord’s prayer.
Our Father which art in heaven ….
So when we get to the affirmation that we’re suffering various trials in verse 6,
isn’t it interesting that that’s actually the same word
translated in the Lord’s prayer as “temptation”?
Lead us not into temptation. That’s the second observation.
Third, and finally, when we read that God has given us a new birth,
also right there in our first verse today,
it’s, literally, God has re-begotten us.
We are not the only begotten, but the re-begotten—
which while it might not be so important sure is interesting, don’t you think?
But on to the important.
And the context of an epistle is important:
who wrote to whom, when, about what?
Not so important that we wade into all the arguments
about why the writer was or wasn’t the disciple Peter.
I’m pretty comfortable with the reasons as to why Peter wouldn’t be the author,
and if you’re interested, you can ask me later—
actually I’ll go ahead and tell you now,
in case there is someone who’s interested.
Because I probably won’t remember if you ask me later!
But the Greek of this letter is of a quite sophisticated style—
on par with Paul’s Greek—
more sophisticated than any of the gospels—
too fancy for a Galilean fisherman—
not to profile Galilean fishermen unfairly or anything.
And the Old Testament quotes are from the Greek version of the Old Testament,
the Septuagint, not the Hebrew or Aramaic with which Peter would have grown up—
that Peter would have learned—memorized in Vacation Torah School.
And there is little concern about the Torah
and the controversies between Jews and Gentiles so important to Peter elsewhere.
And finally, he identifies himself with the Greek form of his name,
not his native Aramaic. None of which is conclusive, to be sure—
But whether Peter wrote the letter or not,
what’s important about the letter being attributed to Peter?
Well, it means that while it was (and is) received
as a word on discipleship with the authority of one of Jesus’ own disciples,
it’s also received, as a letter of encouragement,
(and the tone of the entire letter is very much one of encouragement),
but it’s encouragement received from one who failed Jesus—
not just once, but several times,
and yet learned from each failure.
So it’s authority and encouragement
from one we respect as other than us,
but also one so much like us.
As another aside, just interesting to consider (oh look at that rabbit!),
later in the letter, when marital advice is offered,
while it does come from a disciple we know was married
(Peter’s mother-in-law is mentioned in all three synoptic gospels),
it might be worth considering,
when we read about wives being told to submit to the authority of their husbands,
that this is advice from someone who never seems to be with his wife—
which, from my own humble experience,
would be the safest place from which to suggest a wife should submit!
Some have suggested Peter was perhaps a widower,
but if he failed Jesus, maybe he failed her as well.
Maybe he’s someone married who’s marital advice is suspect!
Just a thought!
Or maybe Peter had a great marriage, and because this wasn’t written by Peter
whoever wrote it didn’t have a clue.
I’m sorry, but I read in Associated Baptist Press this past week,
about a conference at which someone who’s evidently rather well known
and said to be rather influential, John Piper?
said that “egalitarianism—the view that roles
described for men and women in the Bible are not God’s design
but reflect the culture of that era—makes senseless [parts of the Bible].
He also said that churches not led by ‘strong male proclaimers and leaders’
sooner or later will ‘malfunction along the way.’”
I read that this past week and I’m still more than a wee bit irritated!
But back to where we’re actually going,
more interesting than who wrote the letter—
or to whom the letter is attributed,
well, not necessarily more interesting, but maybe more relevant to us—
are corresponding arguments about when to date the letter.
Because if Peter were the author,
this letter would have to be one of the very early New Testament writings,
but if you go along with Peter not being the author,
as does most modern scholarship … for what that’s worth,
the letter tends to be dated late first century/early second century.
What makes that interesting is that suffering is one of the themes of this letter—
mentioned in our text, but recurring throughout the epistle.
But there’s some ambiguity as to whether God intends suffering
or just makes use of it when it happens.
There’s some ambiguity as to the extent of suffering—
the inevitability of suffering.
So scholars suggest that late first century/early second century date,
when Christianity was not yet the focal point of the emperors’ violence and anger,
but when Christians did live in some danger.
And someone “vocal enough about his/her faith,
who was unpopular enough with his/her neighbors,
and who refused to recant when given the opportunity could be killed”
(Richard B. Vinson, 1 & 2 Peter, Jude
in Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2010] 20),
but before emperor worship was prescribed.
“Persecution does not appear to have happened regularly or systematically;
Revelation [… the book of Revelation …] is evidence
for how Christians could live comfortably in their environment ….
A Christian who was willing to sacrifice to the gods when asked
would not have needed to worry.
And if a Christian house-church was willing to tolerate their members
attending public festivals honoring the gods or the ancestors
or participating in annual banquets of trade or burial societies held in pagan temples—
then they could probably go about their lives unmolested,
or suffering nothing worse than some name calling”
So this abstract, intellectual thought (not even theological)
we’ve been pursuing about the context of our letter
brings us to Christians amidst a society
from which they may or may not distinguish themselves—
Christians amidst the gods and priorities of that culture and that time
that they may or may not reject—
to which they may or may not accommodate themselves and their living.
Do they stand out? Or do they fit in?
Surely we’re not supposed to live in such a way
that we stand out in ways that people would notice we’re different—
perhaps mock us?
Surely we’re not supposed to live in ways that might lead to any suffering?
But are trials sometimes circumstances we’re tempted to avoid?
Lead me not into temptation.
Let’s move on, shall we?
That’s not actually feeling very pastoral or encouraging.
That’s feeling pretty much like intrusive meddling albeit in a nice, polite way.
The author of this epistle must have been from the south.
Bless his or her heart!
So. Another abstract, intellectual thought. Ready?
Characteristic of many New Testament epistles,
the opening greeting is followed by a thanksgiving or a blessing
that contains much of the language, the imagery,
the phrases, allusions, themes and topics covered in the letter.
“The author overwhelms our capacity to consider so much swiftly stated,
but all these themes will be revisited in the letter”
(Fred B. Craddock, First and Second Peter and Jude
in Westminster Bible Companion
[Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995] 23).
One of the ways, in addition to the language, imagery, phrases,
allusions, themes and topics
that we’re overwhelmed here at the beginning
has to do with the absolutely fascinating grammatical matter of verb tenses.
Try and follow them through our passage:
we have received our new birth (we’re rebegotten).
So that’s happened. Past tense.
But it was into a living hope (present oriented to the future, right? hope?)
into an inheritance (future)
kept in heaven for us (present oriented to the future)
for us who are being protected (present)
through faith by the power of God for a salvation to be revealed (future)
in this we rejoice (present)
even if we have suffered (past)
so that the genuineness of our faith is tested (present)
and can result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus is revealed (future).
and we love and believe and rejoice (all present)
for we are receiving (present) the outcome of our faith,
the salvation of our souls.
So is salvation what we are already receiving,
or is it to be revealed in the last time?
It’s a confusing verb tense thing.
New Testament scholars N.T. Wright and Marcus Borg are perhaps popularly
best known for their conversations about the Jesus Seminar—
one coming from a more conservative, traditional perspective,
one from a more liberal equally passionate, evangelical perspective.
Perhaps the greatest value of their ongoing conversation
is precisely that it is ongoing—
in a time and culture in which those who disagree profoundly
seem to give up on conversation—
often don’t even seem to remember what conversation is.
As much as Borg and Wright disagree on most things, however,
they both agree on their view of salvation—
(compare Borg’s chapter on Salvation in The Heart of Christianity
with Wright’s book Surprised by Hope),
that it’s not, as most popularly held—salvation’s not about going to heaven.
It’s not about what happens after we die—
or, it’s not primarily about what happens after we die.
It is focused, rather, on the here and now.
It is focused on this world, not the next.
And I’ve asked you before, you may remember, to consider the question
as to whether or not you would still be Christian
if there were no threat of hell and no promise of heaven.
Your answer, about why you’re Christian, I believe,
should have more to do with now than then.
So there’s another question I want to address—pastorally.
What does that make of what we say at funerals?
Some of you know what I do at funerals.
I take images from important and beloved stories of the deceased
and then transpose them into the sky.
So we might image someone who loved music as singing
and being appreciated in and by the heavenly choir.
We might image someone who loved flowers as tending the heavenly gardens,
someone who enjoyed hiking as climbing Alpine cloud peaks.
As many images as there are good stories.
Then I say, “These are the images we claim—playful, fun, beautiful—
as the greater truth by far—
so much better than any images we can come up with for it,
is the truth of this person now embraced in the love of God.”
Last week, we made good on a birthday present we gave Audra—
when we gave her tickets to a Troutfishing in America concert
that happened last Saturday at the Black Rock Center for the Arts
over in Germantown—wonderful venue, by the way.
Troutfishing in America have a song I’ve quoted before,
but I’m going to make you listen to it today!
Turns out I may be a better Troutfishing evangelist than any other kind!
This song’s called, “It’s Better Than That.” Enjoy!
“I’ve got news for you kids, who think adults are lucky,
own their own cars and everything’s just ducky,
going to bed whenever they want to.
If that’s what you think I got a flash for you.
It’s better than that. Take Saturday and multiply it.
Times 54, add 30 more. It’s better than that.
We have a chocolate éclair about as big as your head,
just before noon before we get out of bed.
We do the things you’re not allowed to do,
and then we do things you haven’t thought of too.
Hang on to your hat, hang on to your baloney sandwich.
Take 50 grand to Disneyland. It’s better than that.
And if you think that our days are extra warm and sunny,
a big pile of toys, a pocketful of money,
with nothing to fear because we’re big and tall.
We’re never in school because we know it all
(and you can believe that!).
It’s better than that, more comfy than a secret hideout.
By quite a bit, just think of it, it’s better than that.
By quite a bit, just think of it, it’s better than that”
(Keith Grimwood and Ezra Idlet, “It’s Better Than That,”
inFINity, Trout Records, 2001).
The song is full of playful anticipation about imagining what it means to grow up,
and though none of it’s true, it is true! Or it’s supposed to be.
It’s better than what a child can imagine to anticipate.
Deeper, richer, more wonderful, right? Scarier, harder too. But better.
So, I reworked the song a little bit!
Didn’t finish in time to let Jack give it a whirl!
And I’m not going to subject you to my singing it,
but here we go:
Got good news for you folks, who think that heaven is grand—
get through the pearly gates and never need a hand.
Every tear will just be wiped away.
If that’s what you think, listen to what I say:
it’s better than that. Take Sabbath day and multiply it,
times 54, add 30 more. It’s better than that.
You’ll have your own wingspan that is so impressive,
a halo and robes, and if that seems excessive,
you’ll sing in the choir and have your own harp—
even if you’ve habitually sung flat or sung sharp.
Hang on to your hat, pick your jaw up off of the floor.
Walk streets of gold, the appeal’s manifold. It’s better than that.
You’ll live in a mansion on the avenue of the alleluias,
have stars in your crown, now don’t you misconstrue this.
With nothing to fear because we’ve walked the aisle,
professed our faith and been baptized
(and you can believe that!).
It’s better than that, more comfy than an eternal home.
By quite a bit, just think of it, it’s better than that.
(John Ballenger, Keith Grimwood and Ezra Idlet—
unbeknownst to Keith and Ezra!)
Playful anticipation about imagining what heaven means,
and though none of it may be true, it is true!
Or it’s supposed to be—better than anything we can imagine.
And we enjoy a truth we don’t know,
all the while called to live into that truth already—
And the best of what we know is always yet, somehow,
ours to anticipate.
It’s a confusing verb tense thing.
Writing about this epistle, Fred Craddock asks,
“How else express the surpassing glory of God,
the inclusiveness of God’s grace,
and the appropriate acts of adoration
if not by exaggerated language?”
Finally, our third exploration into an idea in search of a pastoral concern.
I read an article from The Atlantic this past week
that elicited one of those WOW responses.
“John Cacioppo, the director of the Center for Cognitive and Social
Neuroscience at the University of Chicago,
is the world’s leading expert on loneliness.
In his landmark book, Loneliness, released in 2008,
he revealed just how profoundly the epidemic of loneliness
is affecting the basic functions of human physiology.
He found higher levels of epinephrine,
the stress hormone, in the morning urine of lonely people.
Loneliness burrows deep: ‘When we drew blood from our older adults
and analyzed their white cells,’ he writes,
‘we found that loneliness somehow penetrated
the deepest recesses of the cell
to alter the way genes were being expressed.’
Loneliness affects not only the brain, then,
but the basic process of DNA transcription.
When you are lonely, your whole body is lonely.
I don’t know that the author of 1 Peter had loneliness in mind when writing.
My guess is not.
But it is a letter addressed to communities of faith—
communities of faith in which there is some suffering.
And we really can’t overestimate the importance of community
to (a) the reality of the Christian faith lived out (you cannot be a Christian alone)
and (b) to the individual in today’s culture.
These days, community is one of our greatest, most profound needs,
and one that largely goes unmet.
Now, our faith sets us apart from our culture (or is supposed to)—
lead us not into temptation.
While it means we are called sojourners, resident aliens, strangers,
(as we are in this letter),
we are set apart in a community of shared commitments and priorities.
We are in some ways called to be lonely in our world,
but to be lonely together in joy and hope.
Sarah van Tiem and I were talking yesterday during the workday
about how hard it is to find time to just enjoy a relaxed evening together with friends.
An evening opened up for her and she somewhat spontaneously called some folks,
but only a few could make it.
It’s hard to schedule, but it’s so important.
Part of our salvation I believe!
What if we embraced that as a ministry?
Regularly scheduled relaxed gatherings in member’s homes:
dessert and coffee, wine and cheese, milk and cookies,
and had some attending invite someone (not a member)
they thought would enjoy the evening—enjoy these people of ours.
Not just fellowship. Not just outreach.
Certainly not explicitly or programatically focused
on theology or on being Christian,
but simply being Christian in honest conversation.
Part of our salvation!
Martin Luther was not one to simply assume the authority of the epistles.
He didn’t like James, for example—
didn’t think it should be included in the New Testament,
but Martin Luther said of 1 Peter: “This epistle of St. Peter
is also one of the noblest books in the New Testament;
it is the genuine and pure Gospel”
(quoted in Vinson, 1).
And it has to do with priorities
markedly different from those of culture,
and the temptation to simply fit in with culture—
not to stand out.
Lead us not into temptation,
but into whatever trials await us for the incarnating of our faith.
That’s a word for our day, is it not?
And 1 Peter has to do with a joyful, encouraging perspective on salvation
that is precisely about incarnating faith in the here and now—
not waiting to be rewarded for faith in the there and then—living it now.
And it has to do with the profound need for community
in such efforts.
And it has to do with God
whose will for us includes a future that’s better than anything we can imagine,
but a future already being worked out in our very midst.
And it’s better than that.
And that my friends is the genuine and pure gospel!