One of the purist distillations of Jesus’ message of forgiveness and love even when suffering in bad conditions is Peter’s first letter to the dispersed mostly Gentile church in Asia. We don’t know who wrote the two letters attributed to Peter. There are some references which would post date Peter’s life, at least as best as we know it. But they are certainly written by Peter, Silvanus, or Mark, or one their students. 1 Peter 1: 1-12, from the opening salutation, is relentless in its focus to bring us back to what we are all about. It is so easy to get caught up in the business of the institutional church, and even the social action which express our obedience to Jesus’ call for justice. But at the end it is about our sanctification, our being chosen to belong to Jesus. Peter is speaking to the new Christians of the diaspora. The Jewish people knew about diaspora. About this time they, too, were scattered throughout the Roman Empire with its many pagan religions. As they had been once before in Babylon. And there are Jewish people who still cry, “Next year in Jerusalem.” But that Jerusalem is a place in the world. The diaspora which Peter addresses has no desire or need to be brought back together to the lands of Israel and Judah, to build a third temple in Jerusalem. This is a diaspora that takes the promise of a new Zion with them wherever they are. And the people addressed were converted Gentiles, people who were once part of the normal society. And now these people are members of a cult despised and mocked by the people around them. So this letter is not a theological assurance, and it is not a pep talk, although it has elements of both. It is a deep reflection to touch the souls of those who will hear it, to give them courage to persist, to open their hearts to the Spirit received at baptism. And to renew their commitment to be outliers in society in order to be faithful to Jesus, a reminder that in their faith, even if they may suffer for it, they are themselves an example of the mercy and love that Jesus taught us. And that their suffering will be the crown of their salvation.
In the Greek they are called παρεπιδήμοις Διασπορᾶς (parepidemois Diasporus) or sojourners of the diaspora or dispersion. That is aliens in a land not their own. And they are described as chosen by God the Father, sanctified (made holy) by the Spirit, obedient to Jesus Christ, and sprinkled with his blood. In the old Temple the people were cleansed of sin through the sprinkling the blood from the sacrifice on the altar. As are we sanctified, cleansed, and forgiven by the blood of the Cross. We, too, are living in a world which is not our own. Coming into Advent we will be seduced by the commercialism of the Secular Christmas. But Jesus can be there, too. We see it in the ads which show feeding and clothing the poor, caring for the homeless, taking in the stranger, ads which are just as strong as any sermon. Like those who received Peter’s pastoral letter, one, unlike Paul’s, not addressed to a particular community with its particular problems, but to the wider church, a church like ours which is embedded in a world in which we, too, are in some way strangers, those Asian pagans were good and generous, and some of them faithful to their gods and to each other. Just as all those secular celebrants of the season are, through the frenzy of the Saturnalia celebration of the season. But we are called to a particular world event, the Incarnation of a God in a man who brought a new way of seeing God and of living with each other. Jesus was the one who shed blood to give us freedom of our broken selves through the love and mercy of our God. A God who made stars and planets, lions and tigers and bears, and us, and called us his children. So Peter is addressing us, too. We, too, are the sanctified, sojourners in a secular and glitzy world, chosen and sanctified by the blood of the Cross. We are the examples which drive that Christmas Spirit, our Holy Spirit sneaking in without being named. Of course, to live a sanctified life would it not be better if we all were living under the rule and in obedience to the Christ. I think it would, but until the End Time when all is revealed that just might be a goal too far. And the letter of Peter taken as a whole spends a lot of time exhorting Christians imbedded in non-Christian communities to suffer if need be in bad marriages, with cruel masters, and civil abuse. So what is it that sustains us?
Pretty much each other. Our Christian communities. The Sacrament of the Holy Table, not just a nicety, but the real nourishment of the one who gave his body and his blood for us. And Scripture, those messy parables, written in a style that would have been more comprehensible to my Jewish grandfather in his store in the lower East Side of Manhattan, with their deflections and subtexts and pushbacks, than to the polite middle-class Christians who try to live by them. It all comes down to, “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Pet 1:8b-9)
In a time of crisis and persecution Peter recommends a whole host of behaviors that both demonstrate Christian forgiveness and patience, but also accept the victimization of the persecuted. That is not the ethical call today, with our demonstrations calling for gender, race, and ethnic equality, and saving our environment and all of God’s creatures. We are in a time of testing. New communities are being formed as we humans seek for new identities. Some based on isolation and hate for others. Some based on Gospel principles. Some kindly, some harsh. We are so much like the Early Church, and we are struggling and making the same mistakes. But we are exhorted to be humble, be like those little children whom Jesus cherished and used as an example. Love one another and avoid malice and envy and pride and all those other very human things. Be holy. And how to do that I leave up to you, your elders, and your God.
Yesterday was the last Sunday in the season of Pentecost, the end of the liturgical year. It was the Sunday we call Christ the King. And the Gospel was about another kind of king, one on a cross, dying, and still saving as he drew one of the crucified with him to his Father, chosen for his confession of the guilt which put him on the cross, and leaving the one who wanted a sign, cheap grace, saving but not salvation of his soul. And as we read Peter’s letter all this week we are reminded of who we are, truly are, a people struggling to be faithful in a world that is not yet the Kingdom of God.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.