Sunday 17 May 2020
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
We are returning this week to the First Epistle of Peter. Today is the third in a four-part series on the book. In the first week we talked about the divine grace that is expressed when someone suffers for doing the right thing. Last week we saw how God is bringing us together, like living stones, to construct a spiritual temple, the church, that is bigger and more lasting than any human building. Today we consider how God calls us, through baptism, to be a people of hope.
As we have heard before, the Book of 1 Peter is written to a church under pressure, a church that is dispersed, a church that feels under threat. It’s not entirely safe to be a follower of Jesus for these people. While there may not be inquisitors roaming the countryside hunting for Christians, being a member of a Christian community can still get you into trouble. Occasionally it can get you into trouble with the government authorities, even get you killed.
More often it gets you into trouble socially. And in a world in which one’s social connections were absolutely necessary for survival, even a social problem could be very troubling indeed. We are used to thinking of people as independent economic actors. Under normal conditions, I can wander into any store and buy whatever I want, assuming I have the money or the credit to pay for it. I don’t need to have a relationship with the store owner in order to buy something there. In fact, that is somewhat unusual. Especially in a small town, you might know some of the owners of the stores that you shop. You might know some of the salespeople there. But unless you are very rooted it one particular place, it is more likely that most of those people are strangers, or at least little more than acquaintances.
The ancient economy was much more dependent on relationships. Everyone was bound to other people in a series of patron-client relationships, master-slave relationships, trade guild relationships, familial and clan relationships. And those relationships tended to last for multiple generations. Becoming a Christian upset the equilibrium of those relationships. It meant refusing to worship the traditional gods. People would have seen that as sacrilegious, disloyal, unpatriotic, and downright suicidal. The word often used to describe Christians was atheist, because they refused to believe in the gods that everyone else knew were very real. Becoming a Christian meant not taking part in all of the social festivals and holidays, because those were all connected to temples and gods. This meant that Christians were antisocial. They often didn’t participate in what everyone else thought were just normal customs. So you can imagine that even when there wasn’t active persecution going on, it could still be very uncomfortable and alienating. Just imagine that everyone in your town thought that you were an untrustworthy, atheistic, antisocial, unpatriotic, foreign-influenced, family-hating weirdo. That’s going to be disruptive to your life.
At the beginning of the passage we read today, we hear about how these early Christians should react when they suffer for their faith, or when they suffer for doing good. It’s always better to suffer for doing good than to suffer for doing evil, Peter says. Christ suffered in the same way.
And Peter has some advice for how Christians should react when people question them about their faith, about the seemingly strange way that they live. He says that when people question them, they should always have a defense ready. The Greek word is απολογια, from which we get the English word apology. But the meaning of that word has shifted a lot over time. Most of the time, when we talk about an apology, we mean saying you’re sorry, admitting that you were wrong, accepting responsibility for doing something wrong. But of course, that word has an older meaning, even in English, and it’s pretty close to the opposite of its common meaning. It means to make a defense. In the older sense, making an apology for something is trying to defend its worthiness to a hostile audience, to try to make that thing seem better than people generally think it is. If I make an apology for corned beef, I’m trying to convince people that corned beef is better than they think it is. If I make an apology for curling, I’m trying to convince people that it’s better than they think it is. If I make an apology for Christianity, I’m trying to convince people that it’s better than they think it is.
And 1 Peter tells its readers that they should always have an apology ready for their faith. But Peter doesn’t actually use the word faith. It says that you should have a defense ready for anytime someone demands an accounting from you, whenever someone questions you. But Peter doesn’t describe the thing being defended as faith. That’s what we would usually say. We would describe our Christianity as our faith or our religion. But Peter describes it with another word. “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting of the hope that is in you. Be ready to defend your hope.
And I find that very interesting and very powerful. Because we are not just a people of faith; we are a people of hope. We are a people of expectation. According to 1 Peter, it is hope that defines who we are as followers of Jesus. It is hope that drives us. The hope for something better. The hope for reconciliation. The hope for healing. The hope for renewal. And it is our hope that we should defend, not arrogantly and meanly. Peter says that we should defend our hope with respectful humility.
Karthik’s birthday was yesterday, and as part of it, we spent a little time watching the long-running British sci-fi series Doctor Who. I hadn’t watched it in a while, and I was reminded of just how much I enjoy the ethos of the show. The main character, known simply as The Doctor, tackles every situation with a sense of optimism, a strong desire to help others, and a belief in the general goodness of most people. In other words, The Doctor approaches the world with hope. So much of our media is cynical, focused on gritty realism. And there’s a place for that too. But there is certainly a place for hope.
Especially in times like these, there is a place for hope. Hope endures hardship, but it also finds reasons for joy. Hope believes that improvement is possible and works to make it a reality. Hope looks for the good in others rather than the bad. Hope is aware of the struggles in our world and it meets those struggles with deep compassion, dedication, and persistence. Hope plans for the winter because it has faith that the spring will follow.
Peter tells us that we are a people of hope, and that hope is grounded in our baptism in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In baptism, we die with Christ, and we rise again with Christ. Baptism, we are told, is like Noah’s ark, because it carries us over from death to life. It is a vessel of hope. Because we have seen Christ defeat death, we have hope that God’s gracious gift of resurrection will carry us through, as well.
We have a long way to go. We have much more to endure. And during that time, we will have disagreements and frustrations and arguments. There is no easy way through this crisis, and every possible course of action has serious negative consequences.
And in order to endure, we need to live in the hope of Jesus Christ. That hope gives us endurance. That hope helps us to recover from disappointment. That hope allows us to see the best in others, to forgive, and to collaborate. That hope helps us to reject what is destructive and to embrace that which builds up. That hope leads us to make sacrifices for the sake of others, especially for those who are most vulnerable.
That sense of hope is something worth defending. It may seem strange to others. It may seem out of step. And if it does, be ready to explain. You belong to a people of hope. The example of Jesus Christ teaches you to treat others with respect, to consider not only your own needs, but also the needs of others, to endure hardship with the expectation of transformation. You belong to a people of hope. And the hope of God in Jesus Christ will see us through.