As Christians, we side with the underdogs because we most clearly identify with the persecuted margins (this is who Jesus was). Through Jesus’ life and death, we have the capacity to more readily see the systems–the “powers, and principalities”–that damage and destroy life. And by following Jesus’ footsteps, we have the impetus–the mission–the challenge to expose and undermine the forces that harm those outside the “normative pattern of life.”
The Hope of Grace (Saved from Defending God)
This is a complicated passage of scripture. It is, without a doubt, the most complicated part of this whole letter by Peter. But it is complicated because it is the heart of the whole thing—it is in these verses that Peter reveals the most important truths that he has to share. The key to the whole letter is found in v.18. Hear it now again in another translation (VOICE):
The Anointed One suffered for sins once for all time—the righteous suffering for the unrighteous—so that He might bring us to God. Though He died in the flesh, He was made alive again through the Spirit.
This is the reality that undergirds Peter’s faith. This truth is what allows him to proclaim hope in hard times to people who find themselves suffering—especially on account of their faith.
But there’s a lot to unpack in so simple a truth—which is why the surrounding passage seems so complicated.
These verses are loaded with code-words and specialized terms for a purpose. It allows Peter to reference much larger pieces of instruction and story without having to relate the whole thing.
“Suffering once for sins” brings to mind the Passion story of Jesus, reminding us that his death on the cross was a “sacrifice” that need not be repeated—by we ourselves or any surrogate.
“The righteous for the unrighteous” recalls Jesus’ sinless nature, but also his innocence of the trumped-up charges that led to his execution. And even more, this expression looks back at how Jesus’ “righteousness” contrasted with the “unrighteous” politicians and religious leaders in cahoots against him—We saw Jesus’ righteousness most clearly as his own nonviolent response was met with ever-escalating violence by everyone else.
“That He might bring us to God” takes us back—waaaay back—to God’s desire for relationship with us—persistent since our very creation. It reminds us of those days we strolled in Eden with our Maker, of the rift we tore as we hid from our God (then and still), and of the ways God has tried again and again to be reconciled to us:
through personal relationship with Abraham and his descendants,
through prophets like Elijah,
through kings like David,
through a different kind of prophet like Isaiah or Jeremiah,
through pagan leaders such as Cyrus of Persia,
and now (at last) through Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah and Son of God.
When Peter refers to how it is better to suffer for doing good than doing evil, he is saying it is better to suffer undeservedly (like Jesus) instead of because you earned it.
He stresses this point—and he does so this close to his key verse about Jesus’ own suffering—because he himself knows the instincts of our species: when we are threatened, one of our primary instinctual responses is to attack and destroy.
But this is not the way of Jesus. As we read two weeks ago, 1Peter 2:23 tells us that “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (1Peter 2:23 NRSV).
Jesus saw that violence cycles back on itself. He even said as much in Matthew 26:52: “People who live by the sword die by the sword” (VOICE). It was by bathing himself in the stories and teachings of Jesus Christ that led Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to proclaim:
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that
(Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? p. 67).
As revealed in how Jesus lived and taught, we now know that it is impossible to break the cycles of violence through the use of violence. Christ could not have overcome the violent systems of this world through force; he only would have imposed new violent systems.
In order to “overcome the world” (Jn 16:33; 1Jn 5:4), Jesus had to respond nonviolently to the harm being done to him—he had to trust that he would be vindicated by God, that “vengeance is mine…saith the Lord” as the old King James Version put it (Rom 12:19).
By helping his audience see the way that God redeemed Jesus‘ suffering, Peter wants to open their imagination to the ways God might be able to redeem their suffering, should they respond (like Jesus) in ways that break the cycles of sin and violence, instead of reinforce it.
If we (like Jesus) trust God to be a righteous judge, then we recognize that we too have a hope that carries us through our suffering. Our hope is called grace.
It is the hope that things will turn out differently than they do in this world.
It is the hope that God will view us through the lenses of compassion and forgiveness.
And it is the hope that when we face our Judge, we too will hear: “Well done, good and faithful servant… Enter into the joy of your master.” (Matthew 25:21 ESV).
Apologetics: Ancient Misunderstandings
Now maybe this is enough of a sermon for one day, but I want to take it a step farther.
In the early days of the Christian church after the NT era, there was a lot of misunderstanding about Christianity. Since it emerged out of Judaism, some considered Christians to be yet another Jewish group, like the Pharisees, Sadducees, or Essenes. But even within the NT era, Christians started to be pushed out of their Jewish world of synagogues and rabbis. In the Roman Empire, practicing Judaism as a religion was permissible, but Christianity had no such protections. We were seen as a rogue, insurrectionist cult by many.
This led us to be rather particular about who we allowed into our gatherings and rituals. In some places, symbols and codes were used to prove you were a Christian or mark where we were to next gather. Often, we were forced to gather for worship in suspicious places and times, such as catacombs and graveyards in the dead of night. This, combined with ignorance about what Christianity is really about, led to all sorts of gossip and slander that only furthered the persecution we experienced.
As one example, Christians generally did not allow non-Christians to be present when we celebrated communion. But whispering abounded and gossip (as still) filled in the blanks. The dominant theory quickly became how we met in secrecy and under darkness in order to perform human sacrifices that involved drinking human blood and eating human flesh.
In order to counter all these misunderstandings and help to mainstream Christianity, a number of Christian leaders began practicing what historians call “apologetics.” Simply defined, apologetics is the practice of “speaking in defense” of religious belief.
There are places in the NT where Paul does this kind of thing, but it becomes more of a discipline with Origen, Augustine of Hippo, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and many later writers.
And while (as you might expect) there has been a nearly infinite variety to the arguments that have been made by these “apologists,” there is also a remarkable consistency among these early voices. All of them utilize the most solid secular data and logic that was available to them. In other words, they defended Christianity in ways that stood up to peer-review, that were consistent with the scientific knowledge of their world, and that made sense to someone with no knowledge of Christianity. They embraced the conclusions of the world around them, but used those conclusions to argue for the validity of the Christian religion and worldview.
There’s been a resurgence of people calling themselves “apologists” in the last century. In fact, the opening paragraph of Wikipedia’s page on “Christian apologetics” lists over twice as many modern voices as they do for the previous one-thousand-nine-hundred years (as accessed 19 May 2017 at 1:10 pm CST).
But particularly in the last few decades, I’ve noticed these “new apologists” handle themselves in a very different way than their ancient namesakes. These “new apologists” tend to be antagonistic toward the world, supposing they can “prove” Christianity by condemning everything else. They work to undermine the generally accepted scientific data instead of discovering the ways it points to God. And throughout it all, they present themselves as victims of some mass conspiracy.
Now our country identifies as over 70% Christian. Unless you live in an apartheid state, it is not very likely that such an overwhelming majority will find themselves so victimized.
The ancient namesakes of these “new apologists” would hardly recognize them.
What’s my point? Well, there are significant players of American Christianity that are working hard to convince us that we are the marginal victims of an anti-Christian majority. They work to keep us afraid—and many of us are afraid—because when we are afraid we are more easily controlled and manipulated. When we are afraid, we need them more, because we are more willing to trust in the supposedly-Christian power players of our nation than in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.
These “new apologists” may be doing a great job selling fear to the Christian public, but they are in fact undermining the cause of Christ and making the Way of Jesus a laughing-stock among those who need salvation. Their arguments are faulty. Their denial of repeatably demonstrated scientific principles undermines their credibility. And their anti-culture language only serves to distance them—and us—even more from those Jesus loves. They are not defending Christianity to those outside it; they are building walls between Christianity and the world Christ entered to save.
Back to Grace
The grace we receive as Christians—the grace we experience through a transforming relationship with God—it is not given to us to purify us so we can escape this world unscathed. The grace we receive is given to us that the cause of Christ might be expanded as we—like our Savior—give it to others. This grace forces us to tear down walls and overcome divides in order to bring all into the reconciling mission of our God.
But it is also rooted in that core trust of Jesus—the trust that God is Judge and not we. This gives us a clean conscience and frees us from unnecessary battles. These verses of Peter and the teachings on Jesus and God here demonstrate that God does not need us to defend God or God’s actions. How can God save us if God needs saving by us? No! God is fully capable of defending God’s-self. Our job is not to defend God against a vile and evil world, but to reflect Jesus so that the world “God so loves” might be brought back into his tender embrace.
The hope of grace saves us from defending God.
And in the hope of grace, we discover how to move forward as a faithful people loved by our God, even in the midst of hard times.
The Hope of Being Chosen (Saved from Chance)
Now, this might surprise probably none of you, but I was not the most coordinated or athletic of children.
The only sport I ever formally played was basketball… in third grade. I think I played for two minutes in the second game, and I warmed the bench the rest of the season.
PE was forced on me—as it is on many of my kind. And honestly, I didn’t mind it much unless we were playing team sports. Then it was horrible. Because team sports meant real competition—it meant team captains, and team captains meant choosing teams, and choosing teams meant being picked last or nearly so. I can’t tell you how many times I fantasized—in full technicolor, like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story”—of being chosen, of being wanted, of being the one that would save our team. Needless to say, it never happened.
I’m sure these traumas left their mark on my psyche, but in graduate school I learned there was something worse than not being chosen—and that was chance.
My advisor intended to ensure everyone had to participate with some regularity, so he had a system: he would work through the room person by person as we moved line by line through our translation exercises. Like many other students of all ages, we would usually count ahead to see when our turn would come, in order to make sure we were sufficiently prepared to answer his probing questions. But my advisor—by accident or intent—would lose his place after teaching us about some obscure grammatical feature, and then he would guess where in the room to pick up again.
All of a sudden, predictability went out the window. All of a sudden, we were subjected to the cruelty of chance.
We would freeze, careful to not make sudden movements.
We would cast our eyes down to our desks and papers in order to avoid making dangerous eye contact with the apex predator before us.
And then—it seemed more often than not—he would say: “Uh, Michael, why don’t you pick it up here?”
Chance, I learned, could be far crueler than not being chosen.
The scripture text today intends to guide readers from chance to being chosen, from a place of helplessness to one of intention, purpose, and affirmation.
Suckling at Jesus’ Teat
Peter begins (in v.2) by likening his hearers to newborn babies. This is where we begin—all new and fresh and innocent, yet driven only by instincts aimed at self-survival. And there is one instinct Peter wants us to focus on for this analogy—the instinct to nurse. This is a deep longing that is so powerful it overwhelms everything else. That, Peter says, is the kind of longing we will have for “spiritual milk” if we “have tasted that the Lord is good” (v.3).
But the word translated here “spiritual” doesn’t really mean what you think it does. It’s actually the Greek word from which we get the word “logical.” Understood this way, we could say that: Just as a newborn baby longs for the food that is appropriate to its growth and development, so we Christians will long for the “food” that is logical and appropriate for our own growth and development (see Ray Summers, “1 Peter,” in The Broadman Bible Commentary, p.155).
It’s a more helpful reading, for sure; but that is not the way I choose to read it here. You see, the word translated “spiritual” here is built off of the word translated “word” in John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
“The Word” is how John’s gospel introduces Jesus in its telling of God’s redemptive work. I think Peter is building off of this concept (as does Paul in other places), suggesting that the “milk” that we hunger for as desperately as a newborn is the milk of Jesus. At least one ancient writer makes this graphic, speaking of [quote] “the nourishing substance of milk swelling out from the breasts of [Christ’s] love” (see Clement of Alexandria in ANF02, “The Instructor,” Book I, Chapter VI, paragraphs 218-220; available here).
If we have indeed discovered the goodness of God, we will nurse ourselves on the the milk of Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life, the Living Water—desiring and becoming what we eat.
Now if it’s not yet obvious, Peter is a Jedi master of the mixed metaphor, and this mashup of Jesus and a nursing mother is just the beginning. He moves on in v.4 to some mixed metaphors about stones in order to continue his instruction on how to move from being a victim of chance to the joy of being chosen.
We are told to “come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious” (v.4 RSV). The reference here is obviously Jesus, even before we look to the rest of scripture—which make the connection to Christ even more clear.
There are a series of OT quotations in vv.6-8—from Isaiah and the Psalms. Each is chosen by Peter to reveal a different reality about who Jesus is, yet one of them stands out. A quotation of Psalm 118:22 is found in v.7: “The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner” (RSV). This is a verse Jesus has quoted to describe his own rejection by the Jews in an encounter recorded in both Matt 21:42 and Mk 12:10. But it is also picked up by several NT writers, weaving its way into sermons and instructions in Acts 4:11, 1Cor 3:11, and Eph 2:19-22.
In our scriptures, this quotation has become an intrinsic part of how we understand the person and work of Jesus. Jesus did not fit the plans of this world—not even those of the religious leaders. Yet the one who was rejected and oppressed—persecuted to the point of death—became one who is called “chosen and precious” in God’s sight.
What an amazing word of hope to Peter’s audience, to those who are facing persecution and very real suffering! We worship a God who sees and values differently than does our world. The people who are meaningless, useless, barely-human cogs in the wheel of commerce—these may be “chosen and precious” in God’s sight. Amen? Amen.
Four Places of Transformation
So now again we move a bit forward and a bit backward at the same time as we look to draw the whole passage together: How do we experience the hope of being chosen? How are we transformed from victims of chance to “chosen and precious” in God’s sight?
I want to suggest four places of transformation and growth—four experiences or practices that are absolutely necessary, if we are going to be saved from chance and discover the hope of being chosen.
First, as we’ve already mentioned, we’ve got to have an experience of God. We have to have “tasted that the Lord is good.” If we’ve had a genuine experience of God, then that has left a mark on us, and we will be driven to tasting more of God’s goodness—to nourishing ourselves by Jesus Christ, as we grow into salvation.
Second, we present ourselves to God in order to be built into the Body of Christ. As Peter puts it in v.5, “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house” (NIV). As the cornerstone, Christ is the one the rest of us are measured against; his placement orients us all. This is Peter’s version of the Body of Christ metaphor used by Paul, where Christ is the head and we are the eyes, noses, ears, hands, feet, and other unmentionable members.
An important note here is that this “house” is described as “spiritual” because it is where the Spirit of God resides. This is a different word than the one we encountered before. And it is important to realize that spiritual does not mean non-physical.
This means that we cannot be built alongside Christ as living stones if the Spirit does not reside in us. We each have the responsibility to cultivate an awareness of and submission to the Spirit of God that leads and comforts us. But the Spirit is not given to us for our own individual edification. We have a responsibility to submit to the Architect’s design, coming together with other stones to be built according to God’s intent.
Never forget: Stones are useless when left in the quarry—whether they live or not. And the Builder of Creation will reject spirit-less stones from the project being built.
Third, the way we practice submission to the Architect’s blueprint is through the offering of “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (v.5). The word translated “spiritual” here is of the “spiritual house” variety, NOT that used of “spiritual milk” in v.2.
Here, the word distinguishes the kind of sacrifices that are acceptable to God from the sacrifices offered at the Temple in Jerusalem. Christians (by this time) had begun to realize those sacrifices didn’t make sense anymore if Jesus’ own sacrifice had been once-for-all. They were beginning to realize the failings of a faith based solely in external religious rituals. And so Peter uses the term “spiritual sacrifices” to refer to a different kind of faith response—one that offered all of oneself all the time, instead of only outward actions from time to time.
The challenge for us today is moving beyond the rituals and cultural parts of Christianity to a genuine, sacrificial faith. Over the 2000 years of our faith, the powers and principalities of this world have found ways of coopting our faith for their own power and gain. Time and time again, the cause of Christ is undermined through subversive and unholy alliances with king and country. Just as in the early days of our faith, we need to hear these words of Peter and their reminder to hold the rituals of our faith cautiously, knowing that they are easily stolen from us by the powers of darkness.
Instead of rituals, we look to sacrifice and submission of our own desires to those of God.
Instead of the externally observed characteristics of a so-called Christian, we remember that transformation is an internal process brought about between a person and their God.
Fourth and finally, being chosen comes with responsibility. As Baptist historian Walter Shurden has written, since we have a Statue of Liberty on the east coast, we should have a statue of responsibility on the west (in Four Fragile Freedoms).
Being chosen by God means our identity is wrapped up in four realities, each requiring their own expression and action of love. [I wish I had time to flesh these out more, but perhaps thats a sermon for another day.] When we are chosen by God we become:
A. A chosen race, which recalls God’s choice of Israel as a people for his redemptive witness—with the purpose of redeeming all people and all of creation.
B. When we are chosen by God we become: A royal priesthood, suggesting a kingdom in which each citizen serves as a priest both for themselves and for each other. As Jesus reminds us in Matt 18:18: Whatever we bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever we loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. In context there, it’s quite clear that what he suggests is that followers of Jesus have the power to dispense forgiveness to each other—not just in the here and now, but perhaps also for eternity.
C. When we are chosen by God we become: A holy nation. This envisions a nation of people set apart to and bearing the nature of the holy God whom they worship and serve. By demonstrating the nature of the holy God in our lives, we shine as a light to the nations and a city on a hill—the light of Christ shining through us and beckoning others into the glow of God’s forgiveness and love.
D. When we are chosen by God we become: God’s own people—This expression is not a translation but a paraphrase of that last expression. More literally, this reads: “a people for his cherishing.” That’s a beautiful expression—it’s a beautiful reality.
(adapted from: Ray Summers, “1 Peter,” in The Broadman Bible Commentary, p.156).
Being chosen by God stands in contrast to the haphazard appearance of life. But when we follow the path of Jesus, we discover that life is not a series of accidental encounters but rather something purposeful. Only in discovering and living into those purposes does it make sense.
What hope there is in being chosen by our loving God! Amen!
More and more often (it seems) our news reports are filled with tragic deaths.
An inner-city gang shooting leaves an 8 year old dead
The abuse of power by someone in law enforcement results in the death of a teenager
A military strike with poor intelligence results in significant civilian casualties
A distracted, sleep-deprived, or negligent parent forgets their infant in the car
When death is senseless, we tend to have one of two primary responses. It can leave us reeling in shock. Or it can kindle a furious anger within us.
We want meaning. We want purpose. We want order and predictability. We want life to make sense.
But too often—when we look around us and reflect on the circumstances of our lives—we cannot find meaning. We cannot find purpose or order or predictability. In our daily lives, we experience things that we cannot make sense of.
And so we struggle to fit together the pieces of life and faith—of experience and belief.
This was certainly the case for many that Peter was addressing in our scripture lesson this morning.
As I have stressed in the past weeks, there was an increasing amount of persecution taking place against the Christian communities to which Peter writes. But today’s reading also gives us insight into the daily suffering that some experienced—not on account of their faith, but because of their ethnicity and social standing. The verse immediately before our reading addresses these verses to “slaves” who serve not only masters “who are good and considerate, but also…those who are harsh” (1Peter 2:18 NIV).
The word used here refers to slaves or servants who worked within the house. Because of the ambiguity of the Greek terms, we cannot say for sure whether these slaves had much power over their own lives. There have been some convincing arguments made that claim Peter is using this word for “slave” to refer to all Christians, given (in part) the expression “slaves of God” in 1Peter 2:16 (though the word used there is a synonym).
But this generalizing is not the way we have read these texts over the last 200-300 years. One thing we can say for sure is that these verses were used to support slavery for a very long time. Theologian and activist Walter Wink has written: “One hundred and fifty years ago, when the debate over slavery was raging, the Bible seemed to be clearly on the slaveholders‘ side. Abolitionists were hard-pressed to justify their opposition to slavery on biblical grounds” (Homosexuality and Christian Faith, 47). This particular text in 1Peter was a hobby horse text for slaveholders.
The Challenges to Avoid Valorizing
This history of interpretation presents us with some real challenges—both for understanding this text and applying it. And unfortunately, we’ve not done a great job at either over the last century or more.
As I just mentioned, these verses were used to affirm slavery. And even more damaging, that eighteenth verse was used to argue that a slaveowner had a God-given right even to abuse their slaves. As the argument continued, if it was their right to abuse slaves, it must mean those slaves do not bear God’s image, and thus they are not human.
But even among those of us not suffering overt slavery, these verses have led us to develop unhealthy images of God’s sovereignty. When we—or more often others—suffer, we [air quotes] “encourage” each other by saying: “It was God’s will.” As Adam Hamilton argues in his book Half Truths, we often deal with the apparent senselessness of suffering by blaming it on God and whitewashing it with denial.
But yet another challenge that emerges is that verses like these have led some dimensions of Christianity to develop a martyr complex. When this happens, we think we’re supposed to be suffering all the time, so we either create conflict in which we will suffer or we become doormats, never standing up for ourselves or others.
Now, there is a strong tradition within Christian history that celebrates martyrs. But it is important to realize that we celebrate martyrs for their steadfast faith amidst terrible violence; we do not celebrate the violence done to them.
This, I think, is an important distinction in 1Peter as well. Whether or not we are talking about actual slaves without basic human rights, Peter is writing to people who are already and consistently experiencing oppression. They are not seeking the violence being done to them. They are not presenting themselves as the doormats of society, unwilling to even recognize their own humanity. They are people for whom suffering (in various degrees) is a part of life. They are people without the power or authority to remove suffering and oppression from their daily existence. And the persecution they face is not the product of their own actions, but of the cruelty of the “powers and principalities” of this world, as well as a slew of unjust masters.
Senseless suffering is their norm.
What Peter aims to give his original hearers—and we modern readers—is a way to discover meaning amid the senselessness of our lives.
Peter, like Jesus before him, wants to help us see things differently. The way the Kingdom of God works is not the way things seem to work in the world around us. We need a reorientation of our vision and understanding. We need a recalibration of our ethic.
And one of the places most in need of transformation is our dualistic thinking—this refers to the way we categorize everything in terms of opposites:
white or black
yes or no
right or wrong
chaos or order
Republican or Democrat
The list goes on and on.
In this way of thinking, it’s one or the other—with no gray areas in between. One New Testament professor calls this “binary thinking,” using the imagery of computer programming. She says:
We see evidence of binary thinking across the spectrum of life.
On the streets one gang member’s slight becomes another’s death warrant.
In the boardroom, one failed contract becomes the automatic justification for downsizing.
In the schoolroom, one quirky learner quickly becomes labeled as a problem.
In the family, one disappointment in a relationship becomes the foundation for divorce.
In the church, one year of decline means the church is dead.
By and large, we work under the constraint of this mind-set all the time.
(Joy Douglas Strome, in Feasting, p.438)
In his book The Naked Now, Christian author Richard Rohr connects this mindset to ancient heresies such as Gnosticism, but also to many of the current challenges of the church and our world. He says:
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that “us-and-them” seeing, and the dualistic thinking that results, is the foundation of almost all discontent and violence in the world.
Things that appear senseless often appear so because our way of thinking is limited to yes-or-no, us-or-them, sinner-or-saint dualism. Such it is for the “slaves” among Peter’s hearers too. If a master is being “harsh” with you, what can you do? Stand up for yourself and be beaten unjustly, or suffer undeservedly in silence.
What we find “embedded in our 1Peter text, however, is the subtle message that there are always more than two choices. [To contemporize it:]
One can be abused and not become a serial abuser.
One can suffer ridicule or physical harm and not fall into a cycle of never-ending violent behavior.
Jesus’ experience on the cross teaches us that God always has options—life-giving options, options that expand possibilities and trigger in us instincts that only God can touch… As an antidote to all the ways life is frightening and dangerous, God offers a way” (Strome, Feasting, 438).
St. Clare’s Mirror
Hundreds of years ago, St. Clare of Assisi talked about learning to see ourselves in the mirror of Christ. It’s an image that is probably at least a little familiar to you, even if you never knew of the woman who first imagined it in those terms. Considering her image in light of these verses from 1Peter, St. Clare’s “mirror of Christ” helps us see that “we understand our suffering only in the light of Christ’s suffering, and that we grasp the sense of this suffering only as we realize its redemptive purpose” (Stephen Edmondson, in Feasting, p.438).
This is very much the way Peter presents his picture of suffering and Jesus in our scripture lesson, starting in v.22. He draws heavily off of the Servant Song of Isaiah 53, weaving that thread with threads from the life of Jesus and those who will read this letter. In doing so, he gives an example of how looking in the mirror of Christ can help us discover the hope of meaning in the midst of trying circumstances. To accomplish that, Peter points out these reflections of Christ (adapted from Joel Green, in Feasting, p.441):
The audience’s suffering is like that of Jesus Christ.
Christ does not retaliate in the face of suffering, and this is a model for his followers.
Whereas Peter described God as the “Father” who judges impartially back in the first chapter (1:17), he now observes that Jesus entrusted himself to the just Judge, and he will go on to urge his audience to entrust themselves to a faithful Creator—in spite of unjust suffering.
Peter refers to Jesus’ having been executed “on the tree” (v.24), drawing attention to the disgrace of Jesus’ death. Rather than deny the shame of Jesus’ execution, Peter seems actually to embrace it, since the cross is the signature of the God whose purpose is realized through the atoning death of Christ.
Just as Peter directs his audience to “do good” rather than “sin” (v.20), so he notes that Jesus was without sin. Moreover, because he “bore our sins in his body on the tree,” believers, having died to sins, can live to righteousness.
What all this is trying to say is that it is that they need to be shaped by the reality of Jesus Christ. Or perhaps—returning back to St. Clare’s imagery—We make sense of our lives when we find reflections of Christ’s life in our own.
In doing so, we too will find our experiences of bondage and suffering transformed from senseless violence to purposed witness: Here is how to be like Christ.
This is how we are saved from senselessness. This is how we discover the hope of meaning.
Sometimes a sermon comes with a disclaimer; this is one of those times. So here it goes:
This sermon may contain more advanced theological concepts and language that may prove challenging for some hearers.
I know this will be a turn-off for some of you. And I truly am sorry. I hope I will do a good job explaining and defining concepts so they can be easily understood. But the Bible is clear that it is not healthy to consume spiritual breastmilk for our entire lives. There comes a time where we learn the value of substance. We read in Hebrews 5:14 that “solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (ESV).
So if we believe (as we claim) that sermons are intended to help us mature as Christians, I’ve got to give you something to chew on from time to time.
The big theological concept we’re going to be attending to this morning is atonement. At risk of oversimplifying, atonement is being reconciled to God. This english word was itself built for this purpose. Atonement is a compound of three parts—AT-ONE-MENT. It means being “at one” with someone (and “at one” means “in harmony”), so atonement means being in harmony with someone. And in the case of religious conversation, it means “being in harmony with God.”
Or, as a theology professor of mine once put it—Atonement = God + Humanity + Salvation
Atonement is one of those big concepts that our human, finite brains have trouble grasping. So like all big concepts (like the concept of “God” for instance), we understand it through analogies and metaphors. Over the last two millennia, there have been six dominant ways of understanding this work of Jesus, with at least three of them depicted in part in today’s reading. Since they are analogies or metaphors for a deeper, broader, bigger reality than we can comprehend, none of them is perfect. That’s why having a variety of images is helpful.
Yet there are quite a few Christians who claim only one of these is correct—and this despite the biblical presentations of other images. I have even been told a few times I’m not really saved because I refuse to confess that there’s only one image of atonement that is perfect and true.
It’s hogwash. When the thief on the cross asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom, Jesus doesn’t respond: “Today you will be with me in paradise, provided you affirm a penal substitutionary theory of atonement.”
As I said, our reading today contains a few of these images—or “theories” of atonement. So I want to take just a couple minutes to introduce you to these pictures of the work of Jesus. And then we’ll wrap it up by recognizing that the possibility of salvation opens us up to hope in God.
The first of these images is the Ransom Theory. This is one of the oldest images to be articulated by the Church, and the picture is just what you might expect.
The devil has kidnapped humanity, holding us hostage and threatening us with harm.
God chooses Jesus to be the ransom paid to the devil to set us free.
Christ is paid to the devil, yet in the resurrection, God tricks the devil with the old switch-a-roo.
In our scripture reading, we find the Ransom Theory represented in the 18th-19th verses, which read:
it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed [that word means “ransomed” or “liberated”] from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ (NIV11)
As with all these images of atonement, this one finds its power in that the image is rooted in the life situation of Christians at the time. When a theologian named Origin fully articulates this around AD 180, Christians are a powerless and oppressed people. For this reason, the Ransom Theory continues to appeal to Christians living under dictatorships and those struggling with addiction.
The second imagery I want to discuss is called the Satisfaction Theory. This analogy for atonement emerges in Europe almost a thousand years later, when the life of the common Christian there was based on the feudal system of kings and queens, of lords and ladies, of knights, and of peasants.
As a man named Anselm wrote about it, he remarked how the Ransom Theory didn’t make sense:
Why would God have to pay anything to anyone? God is God!
And moreover, God isn’t a cheat.
So in reading his bible, Anselm came up with a different image—one that fit quite well into the world in which he lived. Here’s how he imagined atonement:
In our sin, we have insulted God’s honor.
This “Fall” has sent the whole order of creation into a chaotic spiral down.
God (like the lord of the manor) demands satisfaction.
And this should come from us, but it is too great a price for any of us to pay.
In fact, it is so great a price, only God can pay it (though God is not guilty).
That means only a God-man can do it (someone who is both God and human). Though God doesn’t have to, God provides a way, through Jesus, who was both fully human and fully God.
We can see this image hinted at in v.21:
Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God (NIV11).
In other words, Jesus’ work opens the door for us to trust in God; it “satisfies” the “offense” so we can again be in right relationship with God.
3. Moral Influence
Around the same time, another image of atonement came to be articulated. A man named Abelard described what he called the “Moral Influence Theory.” Like Anslem and the Satisfaction Theory, Abelard wanted to address some of the failings of the earlier Ransom Theory. He argues for a more prominent role of love in the whole conversation, and argues that Jesus showed us how we are to live.
Christ, he argued, died for sinful humanity out of love for us, making the cross a demonstration of the extent of God’s love.
This is then to be our model: If you follow the God of the universe, you will become love; if you follow Christ, you will be an example of love in the world.
One of the many verses supporting this picture is found later in 1Peter, in chapter 2. Starting in v.21, we read that “Christ…[left] you an example, so that you might follow in his steps… [skipping to v.23]… When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten” (ESV).
Abelard argued that we are to follow the model set by Jesus, and that it is by following Jesus’ model that we are reconciled to God—it is by loving as we are loved that we experience atonement.
4. Penal Substitution
Still with me I hope? The next image I want to present is The Big One. No the best one, necessarily—but The Big One. What I mean is: this is the one that is sometimes used to clobber people who realize that analogies and metaphors never tell the whole story. I’m talking about the Penal Substitutionary Theory.
In Penal Substitution, the image is of a courtroom and a trial. It goes like this:
There is divine law, and any lawbreaker must pay for breaking it. The punishment is death.
We have broken the law, and God (who is apparently under the law and bound by it as well) has issued a death sentence.
Jesus takes our place on death row, suffering our punishment in our place.
His death is the payment for our breaking God’s law.
While it may not seem explicit, this theory is represented in v.19 of our scripture reading, as Jesus is compared to “a lamb without blemish or spot” (ESV). This is a shortcut way of referring back to the sin offerings of the Old Testament, prescribed by God as a way of symbolically enduring the punishment for our sins. In the sacrificial system, our sin was symbolically transferred to an animal that then dies and is presented to God.
To help you understand the Penal Substitution Theory, think about these verses from Isaiah 53:
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5 ESV)
The fifth analogy for understanding atonement was introduced in the late 1500’s by a man named Soccinus. This one gets called the Example Theory, and it is somewhat similar to Abelard’s Moral Influence Theory that we discussed earlier. Soccinus argues:
Christ died rather than walk away from what he understood his true duty to God
He would not stop telling the truth about God, even if it got him killed.
In the same way, we are to follow his example in being speakers of the truth too.
A glimpse of the Example Theory can be found alongside the Moral Influence Theory in 1Peter 2. In parts of verses 21 and 22, we read:
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.
6. Christus Victor
Now there is one final image I want to mention this morning. Though I saved it for last, it is really the most ancient. It’s called “Christus Victor,” which means “the victory of Christ.”
The image this is based on is that of a battlefield. It goes like this:
Christ sees us trapped in battle with darkness and joins us, like a front-line general
Satan uses his super-weapon (death) and kills Jesus
We then spread out in fear, thinking we are defeated
But God pulls out God’s own secret weapon (the death of death), signaling the end of the line for the powers of darkness
As this imagery of atonement testifies, it is through both the cross and the resurrection that victory is won for those who believe in Jesus. I could quote any number of verses here, but the most comprehensive presentation of this imagery is found in the book of Revelation, as John visualizes both the past and future defeat of the powers of darkness in this apocalypse. The picture of Jesus presented in chapter 19 starting in v.11 fits particularly well with the Christus Victor understanding of atonement.
Saved from Ourselves
Still awake? We’re through the heavy stuff. Pat yourself on the back.
Now here’s what I want you to take away from all this: Grace.
You see, a central dimension of all these explanations and analogies (and there are far more that you can find with the help of the Google)—a key component of them all is that we cannot make ourselves right with God. We cannot do it ourselves. Our nature…… our striving…… our aspirations are somehow contrary—or insufficient—or unable—to get us to that place we were created to occupy in relationship with God.
Drastic measures had to be taken on our behalf.
Drastic love had to enter our world and lives in order to save us from ourselves.
All of these theories of atonement—all of these images of this particular work of God and Jesus—they all point to the need for grace—the unmerited favor of God. No matter how we explain it, the only way we can comprehend the possibility of salvation is for us to realize that God must save us. We cannot save ourselves.
But they all also testify to the fact that God wants to save us. They tell us that God will go to tremendous lengths to save us.
And because of this hope of salvation that we have—a hope rooted solidly in who God is, rather than the present circumstances and choices of our lives—we can indeed find hope in hard times.
Intro to Series
Did you know that in the church calendar, Easter lasts for 50 days? Christmas lasts just 12 days. Advent lasts anywhere between 22-28 days. Lent lasts 40 days. But Easter—the season dedicated to celebrating hope and grace in light of Christ’s resurrection—is the longest holy season of the year.
And as things would have it, this year the Lectionary prescribes reading the letter of 1Peter during the Easter season.
1Peter is an interesting book. While it is has traditionally been identified with the apostle Peter, this letter addresses themes and situations that grew in urgency around the end of the first century AD. Specifically, this letter is addressed to Christians who are suffering for their faith in Jesus Christ—those whose religious convictions have led to very real social, economic, and perhaps even physical suffering. They are being punished by a culture prejudiced against the Way of Jesus.
In the face of such difficulties—standing before such tremendous obstacles—these Christians are finding their faith tested in ways they could never have imagined. The simple act of following Jesus is costing them in ways we could never imagine.
This letter, then, meets them where they are. It acknowledges the suffering they are experiencing—the hard times they face. Yet it aims to reorient the reader toward joy and hope.
While the trials most of us face pale in comparison to those of this letter’s original readers, the wisdom that is offered is just as valuable to us today, as we too struggle to find hope in hard times.
That will be our theme for the rest of this resurrection season: Finding Hope in Hard Times. In the coming weeks we will reflect on
the hope of salvation (and how we are saved from ourselves)
the hope of meaning (and how we are saved from senselessness)
the hope of being chosen (and how we are saved from chance)
the hope of grace (and how we are saved from defending God)
and the hope of a savior (and how we are saved from saving ourselves)
But first, we begin where the author of 1Peter begins: by identifying the Anchor of Hope. Let us read.
11 Reasons for Praising God
(adapted from New Bible Commentary, s.v. 1Peter 1:3-9)
This treatise on finding hope in hard times begins by identifying the anchor of our hope: the one true God. And then, in the next few verses, it offers us eleven reasons for praising God…… Eleven realities that are indisputable…… Eleven facts that are not conditional upon circumstances. Within these eleven points, we discover how the inalterable reality of God and God’s work gives hope in the midst of trouble.
[And yes, that means this sermon is going to have eleven points. I may have to skip the poem at the end.]
1. Our reading begins: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Peter 1:3) The first reason to praise God is that God is father to Jesus Christ. Jesus himself talks about the closeness between he and the Father, even saying “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Jesus is our example, redeemer, friend……without a God who “so loved the world that He gave His only Son,” we wouldn’t have a Jesus either. So no matter what’s going on in our lives or world, there is something—someONE—to anchor our hopes to.
2. The reading continues: “In his great mercy” (v.3). This is the second point. It is mercy that motivates God—not condemnation, not anger, not jealousy, not pride. Contrary to the faulty images of God that so many of us hold, this verse is quite clear that God’s motivation in engaging us is driven by mercy. Jesus wants us to know this about God—he goes to great lengths to show it to us. And twice he even quotes Hosea 6:6, insisting that God desires “mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt 9:13; 12:7). That our God is a God motivated by mercy is another reason to put our hope in God in all circumstances.
3. “In his great mercy, he has given us new birth” (v.3). this “new birth” is the third point. The new birth……the new beginning……the transformed existence that is given to us is a product of God’s great mercy. It’s that mystery that Nicodemus wrestled with in John 3. It’s that transformational reality proclaimed in Galatians 2 as Paul says: “I have been crucified with Christ—I am no longer alive—but Christ is living in me; and whatever life I have left in this failing body I live by the faithfulness of God’s Son” (Gal 2:20 VOICE). Because of God, there can always be a new beginning, a new day, a new chance.
4. Point four. The author says that this new birth is “into a living hope” (v.3). In other words, the result of that new birth is a life of hope. This hope is qualified with the next two points, as its means and its object are made explicit. Yet it is also remarkable simply to recognize that on account of the inalterable reality of who God is and what God is doing, our lives can be filled with hope.
5. So what is the means of this hope? That’s the fifth point here. It comes about “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (v.3). Christ has been raised from the dead. We celebrate that most fully on Easter, yet this reality undergirds the hope that draws us every week. Without the resurrection, we would have no hope, as Paul points out in 1Thess 4:13. Without the resurrection of Jesus, Jesus’ death would have been “the most tragic waste in all of history” (Gal 2:21 VOICE). As we read in 1Cor 15, “If what we have hoped for in Christ doesn’t take us beyond this life, then we are world-class fools, deserving everyone’s pity. But Christ was raised from death’s slumber and is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep in death… Through Christ all of us can live again” (vv. 19-20, 22 VOICE).
6. This brings us to the sixth point. If the means of our hope is the resurrection of Jesus, the object—the reason—for our hope is surely the inheritance that awaits us as children and heirs of God (v.4). One of the ways we have understood the work of Jesus on the cross is to say he swapped places with us. Later in 1Peter 2 we’re told that Jesus “took on our sins in His body when he died on the cross so that we, being dead to sin, can live for righteousness” (v.24 VOICE). But if we swapped places, it also means that Jesus places us in his own position in God’s eyes, as God’s beloved children and heirs. Once again, as followers of Jesus, this is an inalterable reality in our lives—no matter how the storms of life may bluster and blow.
7. This inheritance, v.4 of 1Peter 1 continues, “can never perish, spoil or fade.” This is the seventh point. No matter what hostile elements may menace…… No matter the pollution that threatens to defile…… No matter our own fears of fading zeal or faith wasting away…… Our inheritance remains secure; it “can never perish, spoil, or fade.”
8. And why is this? That’s the eighth point. It remains secure because it’s keeping is not left with us: Peter tells us that it “is kept in heaven for you” (v.4). This is Peter’s way of saying what Paul means, when he says that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). In the Roman world, if you were a Roman citizen, there would be a record of your citizenship kept in Rome. No matter what happened in the world, that citizenship would be secure. But of course, just because you were a Roman citizen didn’t mean you were supposed to end up in Rome when you retired; quite the opposite: your job was to bring Roman culture wherever you were.
(cf. N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, p.293)
9. That brings us to point #9: We “are shielded by God’s power” (v.5). This word “shielded” might better be translated “guarded.” It literally means “garrisoned.” And the point here is that we are “garrisoned” by the power of God so that we will be able to inherit. Nothing can threaten that. As an analogy, there are quite a few times the apostle Paul relies on his Roman citizenship to get him out of sticky situations. It provides him with certain protections not available to the average Joe. God is so intent on ensuring we inherit the promise that God uses God’s power to shield us and protect us—not preventing any harm from coming our way, but guaranteeing we do not face it alone and that God will see us through. Another reason to trust God as the anchor of hope.
10. Number ten. Peter tells us in v.5 that it is “through faith” that we are “shielded by God’s power.” Faith, then, is the means by which we are guarded by God. It is how we hold onto God’s promises. Our salvation does not depend on our actions, our morality, our righteousness, our knowledge, or our purity. It depends only on faith. It is only “through faith” that we begin the lifelong process of turning toward God. It is only “through faith” that we can submit to God and become like our savior Jesus. It is only “through faith” that we find salvation.
11. That’s the last point. Salvation. Peter says that we are guarded—”garrisoned”—”until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time” (v.5). Salvation—whether we do a good job explaining it or not—has past, present, and future components. Here in 1Peter 1, “salvation is described with reference to the past (Christians have been given new birth by God’s mercy), to the present (Christians are being shielded by God’s power), and to the future (at the last time will come the final deliverance from evil)” (IVP-NB Commentary, s.v. 1Peter 1:3-5). We can confidently anchor our hope in God because with God there is salvation. As the apostle Peter proclaims in a sermon early in Acts, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 NIV11)
Peter, of course, in the remaining verses of our reading, goes straight into acknowledging the troubles his hearers are facing. He speaks of “suffering” and “grief,” of “trials” and the crucible of persecution. But he does it all with the foundation of knowing God as the anchor of hope.
As we’ll see in the coming weeks, Peter never dismisses suffering. He never demeans it by suggesting it is any less devastating than it is. He also, I believe, never glorifies it. Peter isn’t interested in creating martyrs—the people he is writing to are already being martyred.
Instead, he wants to help them come to terms with the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves.
He wants them to know that God is with them.
He wants them to know that as followers of Jesus, they will survive this, even if they die in the process.
He wants them to know that—even in the face of tremendous adversity—it is possible to have hope and joy in your life. All it takes is anchoring your hope to the one and only God, who loves you and wants to see you through.
A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”
A New Boy
Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, a boy was born. The circumstances of that birth were only noteworthy on account of the misfortune that tainted that supposedly joyous day.
The mother—pregnant out of wedlock.
The location—forced to travel 70 dangerous miles on account of a ridiculous political decree.
The parents—so shunned by family members that they were forced to sleep where the animals were kept at night.
There would be visitors later—after the birth of this boy—but their arrival would be more unsettling than joyous. I mean, what do you do with the promises and predictions of vagabond shepherds and Iranian astrologers?
The childhood of this boy also bears no particular mention. It was a typical childhood for one born into a blue-collar family in that time and place. There was one peculiar event when he was about 12 years old. The family was traveling back from a festival, and it appears the boy did not get on the bus home with the rest of the family. When they saw he was missing, they called the police and went searching—but he was at a church (of all places) doing some Bible study. Certainly atypical for a teenager who runs away. But then again, maybe it was just a mix-up, right?
The life of this boy does not gather much attention until he is a man. But even then, one wonders. It was a turbulent time and place—and itinerant preachers were pretty common. I’m sure it was hard for his father and mother when the boy-now-man failed to continue the family business. But I suspect they came around—especially seeing the way people came to seek him out.
The man taught a back-to-basics type of religion. Be kind. Care for each other. Do good. Wash behind your ears……that kind of stuff. But he had some radical notions too.
He said that following God involved self-sacrifice: “take up your cross and follow me.”
He taught an inversion of the social order: “the first will be last and the last will be first.”
And—most radically—he taught that we are to love our enemies.
Like many of us in the exuberant days of our youth, the man had a flair for bucking authority. He didn’t keep the Sabbath the way he was taught—that attracted a lot of negative attention. But what made it worse is that he’d break the Sabbath by doing remarkable and incredibly good things.
Somehow, he’d heal someone’s blindness……but it was on the Sabbath.
Somehow, he’d cure someone’s sickness……but it was on the Sabbath.
Sometimes, it almost seemed like he was giving the middle finger to the religious authorities.
And people in power will usually do anything to keep their power. That’s the way this story goes, too. Our fellow upsets the wrong people. A plan is made. A betrayal is bought. A trap is set.
His life ends as a footnote: just another would-be messiah, crucified by the Romans as a rabble-rouser and insurrectionist. Just as in the beginning, there are those who saw something more as he died, yet they proved unsettling too: a crucified thief, a Roman centurion……
But death was not the end for our Jesus. The morning after the Sabbath, two women go to the grave. They are tasked with the dirty, stinky, tainting job of attending to a decomposing corpse. But instead of a fetid body, they discover an empty tomb. Instead of the corpse of their teacher and friend, they receive word from an angel. And as they run away, afraid, they meet their risen Savior, who proclaims “Do not fear.”
A New World
Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far, away, a new world was born—a Kingdom “not of this world.” It’s birth, too, went largely unnoticed by the world at large. It’s advent, too, appeared more unsettling than joyous in the moment.
Jesus, having “descended to the grave” (as the Apostle’s Creed and 1Peter 3:19 tell us), is raised by God to new life.
His resurrection conquers death and paves the way for abundant life—eternal life.
His resurrection breaks this world open so that a new creation can emerge.
His resurrection is a taste of the resurrection that awaits us all.
For in Jesus’ resurrection, the power that this world has wielded against us—the power of death—has been rendered impotent, for all time.
In Jesus’ resurrection, the very fundamental realities of how life works have been altered. It is as dramatic as though gravity no longer applies, or the earth no longer rotates around the sun.
In Jesus’ resurrection, the Kingdom of God is birthed into this world.
And now we—who were so lost to sin—can find rescue.
Now we—who were so broken by the world—can find healing.
Now we—who were so devastated by grief—can find comfort.
Now we—who were so afraid—we can find love.
In the resurrection of Jesus, what is of this world has been broken open. A new day has dawned. A new beginning has started.
Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, the End was decided. And life, peace, joy, and hope……and love……love wins.
Christ has died!
Christ is risen!
Christ is coming again!