"Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?" Peter begins.
Well, a lot of people. Last week we read from Acts, the crowds stoning Stephen for proclaiming the gospel. I imagine that slaves on the Underground Railroad would tell you there were many seeking to do them harm. People in Europe hiding Jews from the Nazis. Little children being rolled up the street by the force of fire hoses in Birmingham 50 years ago. I bet they have some folks they can point to. This Memorial Day weekend we are acutely aware of the sacrifices made by people we love who died doing what they thought was right, and good.
But even on the ground with us regular folk we feel some conflict. I bet there some of you stand up for friends being bullied and get harassed yourself, who get to work early and leave later yet get stepped on by colleagues too interested in climbing the ladder. Who tend to your families, to others in need, sometimes at great cost. Who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? Too many people, too often.
I Peter is written to Christians who aren’t quite sure of their relationship with the culture around them. We know Peter, the fishermen who, along with his brother Andrew are the first disciples Jesus calls in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This Peter is in all the big stories of the gospels – at the Transfiguration it is Peter, up on the top of the mountain with Jesus, James and John, Moses and Elijah, who offers to help pitch a tent up there for everyone. It is Peter who is told by Jesus he will deny him, who argues that he NEVER would, then does just that, right after Jesus is arrested. The cock crows and he breaks down and weeps. It is this same Peter who – though it is women who are the first witnesses to the resurrection – leaps out of the boat when Jesus appears to the disciples as they are fishing in John’s gospel, who swims ashore to greet him, who sits down, sputtering and soaked, to meet his risen Lord.
Peter works so hard and, while he can come across as rash and impulsive, no one doubts his heart. This passion is why he becomes a leader in the early church, preaching a powerful sermon at Pentecost. He had an important role bridging the gap between factions in the early church, as Jews and Gentiles argued over how to follow Jesus. Even though later on in Acts the focus stays on Paul, we know that Peter also took missionary journeys, spread the gospel into Asia, went to Rome, and he, too, died a martyr’s death.1 Peter knows how important the life of faith is. But he’s also human – I like that about him, and I take comfort in it when I fly off the handle or am impatient or miss the point. Peter loves Jesus, and is willing to try.
I think it is this kind of commitment, and these wonderful stories, the folks who wrote I Peter are trying to get us to think about. There is some debate about this letter, but many scholars think it wasn’t written by Peter, but by folks who were inspired by his ministry, probably some 25 years after the actual Peter’s death. Letters written in someone famous’ name happened a lot in the ancient world, and we may be more familiar with this idea as it relates to the letters of Paul. There are 6 letters we are pretty sure Paul wrote, then a handful of others written by folks who traveled with Paul, knew Paul, are written in the Pauline tradition, attempting to say some similar things to the church. This isn’t plagiarism, but a most sincere form of flattery. In this case our authors were writing to a handful of churches across 5 Roman provinces, taking up much of present-day Turkey, as listed in the beginning of the book. Best we can tell the folks in these churches aren’t experiencing full out persecution, aren’t being stoned like Stephen. But they are experiencing some conflict with those around them, with folks who used to be their friends before they joined the church, with neighbors who don’t like the people they have become. These Christians feel some pressure – trying to be faithful, but knowing there may be a cost.
That is why I like this letter so much. I have a hard time identifying with folks being stoned, but I’d bet we know a little more about the conflict that comes from making sacrifices. I feel pulled in all directions most of the time, not giving anyone – the church, the community, my family, especially, as much as I want to give them. Maybe you feel pulled like that, too. That is where Peter’s encouragement is pretty good news. His laundry list of instructions can seem a bit haphazard, but also I think organize around the ways we are called to find our center around Jesus. I have already argued with his naiveté about suffering and commitment, but after that first verse Peter becomes more reasonable. [it’s a bit hard to take read, so we printed it on the back of the bulletin, too]. Even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Happy. A recipient of divine favor.2 This is an astounding idea in a world that tells you to take more, grab more, where your personal pleasure, in the moment, seems the highest goal. Peter says that blessing is not in gaining, but in losing. Do not be afraid, Peter writes, for the world has a different set of values entirely. Be ready to make your defense – I don’t think of this as much as making a concrete, logical case for Jesus, but as a way of being open to sharing one’s faith, to saying why you come here, why this matters. Keep your conscience clear.
That is the part that, as far as I am concerned, is the hardest – but also perhaps the most important. Keep your conscience clear. We must know where the center is. My children know that the worst argument they can ever make to me is that someone else is doing something, or that, God forbid, some else’s parents let their kids do something, so why don’t I just go along? I imagine everyone in this room has had a parent say to them: "I don’t care what anyone else is doing. I care what YOU are doing. I care who YOU are." And while it is easy to toss at our kids, it’s pretty hard to follow that advice as adults. Everyone else is spending maybe a little more than they should on a bigger house, we should do it, too. Everyone else goes on business trips and enjoys themselves a bit too much, why shouldn’t I? And it gets harder, though, it digs deeper. Everyone else is letting family ties fall by the wayside in this increasingly mobile age, why should I be any different? Everyone else is watching too much TV and reading about stupid celebrity drama. Everyone else is thinking that young and beautiful is what matters, and forgetting the wisdom that comes with living. Everyone else isn’t worrying about their marriage vows, why should I? That was one of those most moving parts of an amazing service for Chuck Noonan on Tuesday, when Betty quoted those vows, "…in sickness and in health…" Everyone else, we say, everyone else….
But Peter, in the second half of today’s text, gives us the theological foundation. "For Christ also suffered for sins once for all…in order to bring you to God." It is Christ who suffered and was raised again so that we can know that there is NOTHING that can separate us from God’s love. This love began before creation, and that love flowed through the waters that lifted Noah’s boat, to the parting of the Red Sea, to this font at which we baptized Hattie Corey last week and will Holden Hart week after next. It is this God who gifts us with a conscience, with a way of understanding who it is God created us to be, and who helps us make decisions.
I think I have told you before that as a teenager, in the midst of our adolescent arguments, my parents quickly learned that any specific advice would be generally disregarded. So what they started doing, and I hated it and now it makes a little more sense, Mom, was they started calling out, as I was slamming the door and yelling at them and stomping down the stairs, "Remember Your baptism…" It was a bit ridiculous. A little embarrassing. But perhaps that is some of what Peter is saying to us, the church. The world will do what the world will do, and we can’t really do much about that sometimes. We can’t control what other people do or say. But we can listen for God’s call to US, God’s mighty claim upon each of you, in community, that we might be given the wisdom we need.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Most of the background comes from Boring and Craddock, "The People’s New Testament Commentary," (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), intro to I Peter on pages 723-724.
2. Language work courtesy Bibleworks.