When we discussed the words of 1 Peter in Bible Study, the general feeling was one of being a little lost. Someone said that it seemed like the author was suffering from mood swings, ping-ponging from God’s grace to human works and back again. Someone else said that all the “old school” theological language was hard to understand. “It needs to be ‘dumbed down,’” she said.
After reflecting on this letter some more, I don’t think we need to dumb it down, and I don’t think the author is actually suffering from uncontrolled mood swings. I think the problem arises from our not knowing the context that the letter was written in and for. The letter has plenty to say to us in our time and place, but first we need to understand the time and place of Peter and his original readers. We need to understand the realities and the challenges they faced. Then we can see where our paths cross. This will require that we do some time travelling. It would be nice to make this trip in a modified DeLorean like the Michael J. Fox did in the “Back to the Future” movies, but we’ll have to make do with our imaginations.
So, picture yourself in a community of Christians, somewhere in the land of what we now call Turkey. You have a range of time periods to choose from, since we’re not sure when 1 Peter was written. The timing depends on who you think wrote the letter. If you’re among those who think that the apostle Peter wrote it himself, then you need to travel back to around the middle of the 1st century, since we believe that Peter died in the 60s. But, there’s also some pretty strong evidence that this letter wasn’t written by Peter himself, but by someone writing in his name. If you lean toward that theory, then your trip back in time will be about fifty years shorter; you only need to go back to the end of the 1st century. Those are the years we’ll be travelling to today.
Peter and Paul have been dead long enough for Christianity to have spread throughout Asia Minor, but this is long before Christianity was the default, government-approved religion. The emperor hasn’t demanded that he be worshipped as a god (yet), so Christians haven’t been forced to choose between the emperor and God. There’s no deep-seated hatred of the Roman Empire like we find in the book of Revelation. Wide-spread, government-sponsored persecution isn’t yet a problem; it isn’t mentioned in Peter’s letters.
But that doesn’t mean life is easy for these Christians. Their faith has led them to dramatically change the way they live, and their lives are now are different enough from their neighbors’ to cause some local resentment and harassment. They may be slandered. They may be excluded. They may be falsely accused of a variety of infractions, but this happens in pockets among suspicious neighbors and disgruntled former friends, not the government. These Christians may not be officially-designated enemies, but they aren’t popular, either, and being called a Christian is not a compliment.
Our time travelling will take us to a world that enforces rigid social hierarchies. Everyone has a place and is expected to stay in their lane. Slaves and free people, men and women, husbands and wives, parents and children, the poor and the rich—all are expected to know their place and act accordingly. Judging from the letter, it appears that these Christian communities are made up of more slaves than masters, and there are more Christian wives with pagan husbands than believing husbands with pagan wives. Life for these communities is complicated, to say the least, as they try to live according to example of Christ and his teachings. Following Jesus requires them to turn away from much of their old way of life and, as a practical matter, this also means turning away from their closest social connections.
These Christians are living in a world that doesn’t understand them or approve of them because of their faith. Invitations from family and friends are tapering off because they’re just not as much fun as they used to be. Business is drying up because they’re no longer seen as trustworthy, responsible members of their communities. They’re called names from time to time, and a house here and there is vandalized. They’re not under full-scale attack, but adapting to this new life, as wonderful as it may be, is also a challenge. Sometimes they may wonder if they should keep going.
We don’t have to travel back to the 1st century to understand some of these feelings. We don’t need to worry about our garage doors being spray-painted with anti-Christian graffiti. Christianity is still mainstream enough that people claim to be Christians, even when there’s no evidence that they truly are, because they figure it will help them make social or political points.
But, when we opt to live by values that are different from the general social norms, we may get some rolled eyes. When we reject the marketplace standards that tell us what we should have or do or look like, we may feel like we’re living outside our society’s expectations. When we object to efforts to divide us from others, we may be considered disloyal to our own kind, whatever that “kind” is. Even though we’re not facing exactly the same conditions as our 1st-century friends, we can and sometimes do share the experience of feeling like strangers in our own world. And, because we share this experience with them, we, too, can take encouragement and instruction from Peter as we strive to live out our faith in a not-entirely welcoming world.
In a way, our Bible study member was right about the mood swings in this letter. Peter does use a back-and-forth pattern as he alternates between encouragement and instruction. He moves back and forth between reminding his readers of who they are in Christ and how they should live as his followers. He moves back and forth between describing what God has done for them and what believers must do in response. If you take my suggestion to read the entire letter, you’ll be able to pick out this pattern. That makes sense, doesn’t it? When we teach a child to ride a bike or drive a car, we alternate between instruction and encouragement. We give them the tools they need to be safe and successful while also giving them the confidence they need to stick with it as they learn. That’s what Peter does in his letter.
He starts out with encouragement. Christians, then and now, may feel like exiles in their own hometowns, but we are part of a bigger community. We’re not alone! Everything we’re experiencing is also shared by others who are joined with us by our faith, no matter where—or when—we live.
“Look!” Peter says. “You may feel like strangers in your own land, but you are bound together by something so much stronger. You’ve been chosen by God the Father for this new life. You’ve been anointed and cleansed by the blood of Jesus, and you’re being sanctified by the Spirit to do all that Jesus calls you to be and to do. When the going gets rough, remember that this is who you are.” And that’s just in the first couple of verses. Can’t you just feel the spirits of Peter’s 1st-century readers lifting already? Does your spirit lift, knowing that we, too, are part of this community, even though we’re separated by a couple thousand years?
Peter continues with the encouraging words of hope and grace that we read as our Call to Worship. He doesn’t suggest that the trials of the present are easy, whatever they may be. But he does place them within a bigger framework. The trials we endure will demonstrate the authenticity of our faith in our new birth “into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Regardless of what happens in this life, there is more ahead: a pure and enduring inheritance that cannot perish but is presently kept safe in heaven for us. And, through it all, we are not powerless. We are surrounded by God’s power—guarded against those who would try to invade our spirits.
Peter now swings into instructional mode. The grace of God is a gift. Salvation in Christ is a gift. But this grace requires a response. The appropriate response is a life of holiness. In the coming chapters, Peter will give some very specific and practical advice for how the Christian life should look on the outside. We’ll get to that next week. But there’s groundwork to be done first. A life of holiness doesn’t start with works that can be observed on the outside. It starts with work that’s done on the inside.
“Prepare your minds for action,” Peter begins. The mind, for Peter, is a kind of consultant for the heart. For Peter, the mind is what makes sense of the world. It’s where information is processed. It connects the dots into understanding. It taps into feelings and desires, and then it feeds all that to the heart, which is where decisions and choices are made. “So,” Peter says, “Prepare your minds for action. Get your minds set, so that you can make good decisions about how to live as a Christian in your world. Get your minds in order first so that you can choose how best to be holy in your conduct.”
That word, “holy,” can make us a little nervous. We all know people with “holier than thou” attitudes, and we surely don’t want to be like them! But being holy in our conduct doesn’t mean that we go around expecting people to be in awe of our haloes. It means that we will live as though our lives have been set apart as an offering to God. We can’t be holy in the same sense that God is holy, but we can be holy in that our lives can be a testimony to our faith in the God in whom we pace our trust.
“Prepare your minds for the action of living holy lives,” Peter says. What does that preparation entail? It means that we pin our eyes on the hope we have in the grace of Jesus Christ. We commit ourselves to a self-discipline that enables us to turn away from our un-Christlike emotions and prejudices and priorities. We make reverence for God the guiding principle of our lives. We have the attitude of obedient children, who are willing to listen to their parents rather than the enticing voices of their friends.
Having given that advice, Peter swings back to encouragement mode. “You can do it!” he says, “because of what we know: that we’ve been rescued from the futile ways and powerless gods of our past by the precious blood of Jesus.” The 1st-century readers would literally have given up the pagan gods of their ancestors. But we certainly have our fair share of gods today: wealth, popularity, maybe even our race or gender or nationality—all the things that we are tempted to prioritize ahead of our worship of God. But Christians are to put away those gods. Peter reminds us, “Through Jesus you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.”
Now, Peter moves back to instruction: that we are to have genuine mutual love, and love one another deeply from the heart. Minds that have been prepared for action lead to obedience to the truth, as it’s been revealed in Jesus. Obedience leads to purer souls. Purer souls are guided by the love of Christ, and the love of Christ leads us to love other believers with a genuine love that is deeply rooted in the heart. This is a sincere love—not one that’s pretended or acted out for show. Christians are to “love one another deeply,” but that phrase in English is so much tamer than Peter’s Greek. This love is a fervent love—one that is eager to show itself. Peter’s Greek word actually comes from one that means “to stretch out”—to reach out to another, as one would reach out a hand. This isn’t a passive emotion. This love aches to make itself known in concrete ways.
Peter then takes another break for encouragement. He reminds his readers, once again, of the reason for this new mindset of holiness and genuine love. We’ve been born anew through the living and enduring word of God.
The pendulum swings back to instruction, and now Peter gets pretty specific about how the mind should be prepared. “Because you have this good news through the living and enduring word of God,” he says, “rid yourselves of all malice, guile, insincerity, envy, and slander.” Rid yourselves of ill-will towards others, and of the desire to injure another. Rid yourself of deceit and craftiness. Rid yourself of hypocrisy—pretending to be what you’re not. Rid yourself of the jealousy and spite that spring from a desire to have what belongs to someone else. Rid yourself of all backbiting and evil words. Preparing our minds for action means cultivating what makes for a holy life and getting rid of the weeds that prevent it from flourishing.
This is a very tall order, for who among us isn’t vulnerable to the sins that Peter lists, and more, at one time or another, in some form or another? Fortunately, Peter’s Greek gives us a little wiggle room. If we can’t actually rid ourselves of these mindsets, we can at least move them aside, out of our way. Being perfected in love is a process, so preparing our minds for action means committing ourselves to consciously setting aside these ugly attitudes—to reject them when they raise their ugly heads, as we work towards ridding ourselves of them altogether. These desires are like spoiled milk that curdles our souls. “Instead,” Peter says, “feed your selves with the pure spiritual milk that will help you grow into your salvation.”
John Wesley wrote a book of prayers for every day of the week, and one of them may be helpful as we seek to prepare our minds as Peter calls us to. Here it is in updated language: “O thou, who did not please thyself…strengthen my soul so that I may be temperate in all things; that I may never use any of thy creatures except in a way that thou have commanded me to, and only in the measure and manner which is most conducive to following thy will. Let me never gratify any desire which doesn’t have thee as its ultimate object. Let me always abstain from all pleasures which do not prepare me for taking pleasure in thee, for I know that pleasures such as these war against the soul and tend to alienate it from thee. Set a watch, O Lord, over my senses and appetites, my passions and understanding, that I may resolutely deny every one of them which is not consistent with thy glory.”
“Prepare your minds for action.” Peter will offer some examples of the action he has in mind, which we’ll touch on next week. But all outward Christian action begins with inward preparation. Peter instructs us to prepare our minds by clearing away what is un-Christlike in us. And then, Peter encourages us in our preparation. He reminds us that are part of a fellowship—joined with other believers, as living stones that are being built into a spiritual house. He celebrates who we are: members, one with each other, of a royal priesthood, a chosen race, a holy nation, God’s own people. He reminds us of our shared purpose: to offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ and to proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.
And finally, Peter affirms our shared transformation and the grace that makes it possible: we, who once were not a people, are now God’s people, who have received the gift of God’s mercy. These words, which instructed and encouraged believers two thousand years ago, can still instruct and encourage us today, as we prepare ourselves to live as Christians in our world. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young