Sunday 3 May 2020
The Fourth Sunday of Easter
I have never much cared for the Book of 1 Peter. I don’t think I’ve preached on it more than 3 times in my career. I’ve certainly never taken a class on it or led a study of it. And yet, this week, as I was picking out texts to preach during the month of May, I kept coming back to 1 Peter again and again. In fact, whenever 1 Peter was one of the available options, I ended up choosing it. And so, without it ever really being my intention, between now and Pentecost Sunday, we’re having a series on the First Epistle of Peter.
1 Peter is one of what we call the Catholic Epistles. The New Testament starts out with four gospels. Then it has the Book of Acts, which is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke and tells the story of the early church. Next we have all of the letters that claim to be written by the Apostle Paul, although scholars are now pretty sure that some of them were written by other people after Paul’s death. After the letters of Paul, but before the Book of Revelation, we have all of the leftover writings of the New Testament. Hebrews, James 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, and Jude. They are all titled as letters, though some of them don’t fit the letter form very well. Rather than being written to a specific church in a specific circumstance, they tend to be written with a wider audience in mind. That’s why they’re called Catholic Epistles. Catholic means universal or general. The Catholic Epistles or General Epistles, are thought to be addressed to a general audience.
First and Second Peter both claim to be written by the Apostle Simon Peter, one of Jesus’s closest disciples. Scholars are pretty much certain that 2 Peter isn’t written by Peter. In fact, even in the ancient world there were serious doubts about its authorship. 1 Peter is a little less clear. It’s possible that it was written by Peter. However, it has a lot more familiarity with Greek literary conventions than one would expect from a Galilean fisherman. Perhaps he had a really good ghostwriter. Or perhaps some of Peter’s disciples wrote a letter in his name after he died.
In any case, the first letter of Peter is a general epistle, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have context. It is addressed to a particular group of people. “To God’s chosen strangers in the world of the diaspora, who live in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” The geographical regions that are mentioned are all in modern day Turkey. You might remember that a lot of Paul’s missionary work was in this same part of the world. But Paul was mostly active in the cities and coastal areas. The areas mentioned in 1 Peter are much more rural and isolated. This letter is addressed to Christians who are not as connected to the mainstream of Roman imperial society. They live more on the margins.
And in addition to coming from marginal areas, they are described as marginal even within their own context. 1 Peter says that they are from the diaspora, from the dispersion. Diaspora is a term that most often refers to Jews who have been forced to leave the Holy Land for one reason or another. Wars, forced migrations, and persecution meant that Jews ended up being scattered all over the known world. By the time of the early church, there were Jewish communities all the way from Spain to India.
Peter also describes his audience as strangers or exiles. We might say immigrants or refugees. These are people who do not feel completely at home where they live. We don’t know exactly what has brought them to the backcountry of Turkey. They may have been part of Jewish communities that then became followers of Jesus. They may have been Jewish or Gentiles Jesus followers who migrated because of persecution against Christians. We’re not sure.
What we do know is that within these many communities, there is a sense of isolation. To some degree, there is a sense of powerlessness. There is a sense that they are trying to live their lives under cover. They are trying to follow Jesus in an empire that does not look kindly on Christians, and they are try to do so from a place that keeps them somewhat isolated from other Christian communities.
I’m taking some extra time with this because it has some unexpected connections to the situation we are in now. In the Pacific Northwest, we already know a bit of what it means to be a minority religious group. The largest and fastest growing religious group in our area is those who claim no religion at all. There are certainly still ways that Protestant Christianity exerts a kind of cultural privilege. Increasingly, though, being a Christian marks us as being peculiar. It is become countercultural to be a follower of Jesus. Which, of course, makes our experience have more in common with the early church.
But the COVID-19 crisis is actually making us even more like the early church. It’s giving us that experience of isolation. Our church activities seem more like they’re a kind of underground operation.
And in fact it’s not just our religious life. Everything we do right now seems like it’s underground. It feels like I’m some kind of jewel thief when I’m just going to the grocery store. I have to put on my mask. I have to be sure not to touch any surfaces that I don’t have to. I’ve got to keep a proper distance from everyone I might come near. I want to get over to that display of bananas, but there’s someone coming around the corner from the apples, so I need to wait until they pass or I’ll get caught. Maybe I can sneak around behind the grapes, and… phew… I made it without anyone breaking my six-foot security perimeter.
In the section of the letter that we read this morning, Peter is talking about enduring suffering because of circumstances that are beyond your control. He makes a distinction between suffering that comes from doing evil and suffering that comes from doing good. It is not commendable, we are told, to suffer because you have done something wrong. And this is something every parent understands. If you ignore the direction to wear a coat to school and then you get rained on, there is nothing noble about your wetness. If you fail to do your chores and then you don’t have time to play later bccause you’re stuck working on the chores that you should have done already, no one is going to praise you as a hero or a martyr. If you get detention because you started a fight on the playground, that is not commendable.
However, if you see someone getting beaten up on the playground and you intervene to protect them, but you end up not only getting a bruising but also being sent to detention, then there might be something noble about that. If you miss the chance to play because you are doing chores for your sibling who is sick, that might be commendable. If you get soaking wet in the rain because you gave your coat to someone who needed it more, there might be something praiseworthy about that.
Enduring suffering for the sake of someone can be commendable. A civil rights activist who is put in jail. A first responding who is injured while responding to a call for help. A parent who catches a cold while tending to their sick child. We would prefer that these people not have to endure that kind of suffering at all, but when they do, we can acknowledge that there is some sort of worthiness to their suffering.
In the translation we read today, it says that kind of suffering is commendable. The NRSV says that it is a credit to the person who endures that kind of suffering.. The old King James says that it is thankworthy.
I was really curious about how this word read in the original Greek, and when I looked it up, I was really surprised. I was expecting to find a word that I didn’t recognize, but what I found was a word that is very familiar. The word is χαρις. It’s the word for grace. It’s used over and over in the New Testament. It is a grace if, through mindfulness of God, someone endures undeserved pain. It’s not that it’s about about scoring points for suffering, it’s that in those moments of undeserved suffering, there is an expression of God’s grace.
Peter says “You were called to this kind of endurance, because Christ suffered on your behalf. He left you an example so that you might follow in his footsteps.” Jesus’s suffering on the cross was underserved. It wasn’t that he did something wrong or sinful. He suffered for the sake of others. And through God’s grace, that suffering was transformed into something beautiful, into something that is commendable.
No one is being crucified as a result of this health crisis. But a lot of us are having to endure some form of undeserved pain. I know that I have things pretty easy. I still have my job. I don’t have to put my health at risk to do it. I can get food and anything else that I need without too much hassle. On the scale of suffering, it’s not very bad. But there still is some pain. I didn’t get to visit my dad for his birthday. I can’t visit parishioners in their houses. I can’t meet with anyone face-to-face. Those are the sorts of things that pretty much all of us have to endure. And the reason that we are enduing those things is sometimes not for our own benefit. We are all enduring social distancing for the sake of the most vulnerable in our communities, for those who are older or medically fragile. And that is an expression of God’s grace. It is the Christian thing to do.
But I am very aware that there are others who are enduring much more than I am right now. I think first of medical personnel who are actively putting their own health at risk in order to care for those who are sick. That is an expression of God’s grace. But it’s not just people in the medical field and first responders. I’m thinking about people like grocery store workers, restaurant workers, postal employees, agricultural workers, all those people who are still out there working, providing the things that the rest of us need to survive. I’m thinking about small business owners who are enduring great strain and risk right now. I’m thinking about those who are unemployed and without their normal means of supporting themselves. I’m thinking about those who don’t have a safe place to stay home. All of these people are having to endure pain that they don’t usually have to deal with. And it’s not because any of us have done something wrong. It’s undeserved suffering.
And in all of this suffering, there is the presence of God’s grace. God’s grace transforms what seems pointless into something that has meaning.
We are called to this kind of endurance, Peter says. Christ has set an example for us. I know that I need God’s grace to be able to endure what is going on right now. And I know that there are many people who are having to endure much more than I am.
But we have a God who sets an example of enduring for the sake of others. We have a God who was willing to take human and suffer even death on the cross for our sake. We have a God who knows our pain and who strengthens us to face whatever it is that we have to face.
And God’s grace is in all of it. There is grace that gives us the strength to endure. There is grace in the ways that one person’s suffering can serve to help and protect others. And there is grace also when we fail to endure, when we slip up, when we fall. There is grace and forgiveness.
That’s what I try to remember. We are all going to need a lot of grace to get through this together. We are all going to need to receive grace, and we’re all going to need to share grace. Thankfully, we follow a God who has no shortage of grace to spare. We follow a God who is defined by loving-kindness, mercy, generosity, self-sacrifice, and yes… grace. We can do this together. With God’s grace, we will endure. Thanks be to God.