04/26/20 “Be What You Are”

1 Peter 1:13-25  (Watch on YouTube)

There’s a public radio show I like to listen to on the weekends. It’s called “Radio Lab.” It’s kind of an unpredictable mix of personal stories and reporting about odd things that catch the attention of the producers and hosts.  Last week’s show was about butterflies. I thought that was pretty appropriate for this season of Easter. Butterflies have a long history as symbols of resurrection and new life. Actually, that symbolism goes back even before Christians began using it. The ancient Greeks and Egyptians put golden butterflies in their tombs to represent immortality and new life.

For Christians, the idea is that a caterpillar is entombed in a shell called its chrysalis, just as Jesus was buried in a tomb. While it’s in there, the caterpillar is transformed and emerges in all its butterfly beauty.

But what I learned from the “Radio Lab” story surprised me as much as it surprised the program’s producer, Molly Webster. First, Webster described what she thought was happening inside that chrysalis, which is pretty much what I had envisioned, and maybe what you do, too: that inside that dark shell, the caterpillar was changing into a butterfly, sprouting legs and eyes and colorful wings out of its caterpillar body.

But here’s what Webster learned and reported. What actually is happening inside that chrysalis is that the caterpillar is dissolving into a pale, yellowish, liquid-y goo. Basically, the caterpillar creates its shell and then it just kind of melts in there.

But there’s more to the story—something that offers hope to us as we consider our own transformation in light of the good news of Jesus Christ and as we think about Peter’s challenge to be holy, as Jesus—the one who called us—is holy.

There’s a good bit of debate about who the author of 1 Peter was, and it’s probable that it wasn’t even the same author as 2 Peter. For a long time, the author of 1 Peter was assumed to be the apostle Peter, but questions about style and subject matter suggest that it was written after the apostle’s lifetime. It may have been written by a scribe or a follower.  As I’ve mentioned before, in ancient times it was an acceptable practice to write in someone else’s name—basically to write what that person would have written or to add a stamp of authority. It generally wasn’t intended to deceive.

But, ultimately, the identity of the author isn’t all that important to us now. The theological ideas in it are ones that the apostle Peter would have agreed with, and the power of its words remain, regardless of who wrote it. It sums up, in often glorious language, what God has done, from the beginning of creation to its consummation in Christ. It remains a source of encouragement for Christians during difficult times and guidance for all times.

Peter addressed his letter to the “exiles,” and he writes at length about both suffering and how to live in a culture unlike their own. It’s not likely that his readers were literally exiles. Rather, as they lived their lives according to what Jesus taught, their values put them more and more at odds with the values of the society they lived in. Although systematic persecution of Christians hadn’t begun yet, they were feeling the rejection and disdain of their unbelieving neighbors—and maybe even their unbelieving family members. In his letter, Peter offers both assurance and instruction for these challenging times.

The assurance comes in his reminders of what God has done for us in Christ. In our passage today, he reminds his readers that they were rescued from their former lives at a high price—the precious blood of Christ, who was destined from the beginning of creation to save it, but had remained unrevealed until Jesus came and made God’s saving plan visible in the world.

In the verses before our passage, Peter describes what God has done and is doing with these soaring words: “By God’s great mercy God has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time . . . . 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.”

What a promise! What assurance that by grace, God has made it possible for us to be saved from what used to control and frighten us as we await the completion of God’s kingdom!

Having accepted this gift, Christians have both the responsibility and the power to live in ways that honor it in the world. Throughout the letter, Peter gives some practical guidelines about how to do this. Some are bound by the time and culture he lived in, like his advice about accepting the authority of the emperor as supreme, women accepting the authority of their husbands and not braiding their hair or wearing jewelry, and slaves accepting the authority of even the harshest masters.

We have to read these lines with the eyes of 1st and 2nd c. Christians—people who had to live in ways that didn’t draw negative attention to their faith. Their households were to be peaceful, orderly places. Women were advised to dress in ways that revealed a gentle spirit rather than ostentatious wealth. Men were to be considerate of their wives. In the face of suffering inflicted by others, all were to take the high road and not return evil for evil. When we look behind the specifics, we can find values that hold true for us today.

These specific guidelines grow out of the broader ones that we find in our passage. Christians are to lead disciplined lives. This grows out of submitting our lives to the truth of God’s love and saving plan for us.  As we do, our lives and our souls become purer. The whole of our lives are centered on the hope and faith that we have in Jesus, who bought our freedom from our former ways with his own blood. We can trust the One who gave everything for us, and we can trust the God who sent him.

We are to live in fear of the God we call Father—not the cowering fear of victim or prey or prisoner, but reverent fear, awe and wonder and love of the One who is with us in every time and place, even those that make us feel like exiles in our own homes or neighborhoods.

We are to live according to the law of love—genuine love that is heart-deep, not just a love that’s “put on” for the sake of appearances. We love each other as the brothers and sisters we are. We love with a selfless love—love that is welcoming and hospitable, love that is like the love that’s showered on us. In short, Peter says, we are to be holy in all our conduct, because the one who called us is holy.

That last one brings me up short. I can try to live a disciplined life according to what Jesus taught. I can strive for that mutual, genuine love. I can worship God in reverent awe. But “be holy”? That’s a tall order, along the lines of what Jesus said during the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

It’s hard to imagine being holy like Jesus is holy. It’s hard to imagine being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. And yet, as Christians in the Methodist tradition, we do believe that we can be that holy and that perfect. The expectation that we can be—that we will be—perfected in love by the power of the Holy Spirit is a basic aspect of our Wesleyan way of living out our faith.  But how can that be, when we are all too aware of the sinfulness that’s in us? Is Peter, echoing the instruction Jesus had already given, setting the bar too high?

This is where Molly Webster’s second discovery about butterflies comes in.  After that disturbing revelation about caterpillars turning to goo, she learned about a 17th-century Dutch scientist named Jan Swammerdam. He discovered that when you open up a chrysalis, you do find that nasty goo.  But, tightly rolled up and hidden against the edges of the chrysalis, you’ll also find some extremely thin, transparent parts of the future butterfly—antennae, legs, wings. They are there, just waiting for the right time to become a butterfly.

Hidden in each of us are the makings of holy butterflies. They’ve been in each human being from the moment human beings were created. Because, in each of us, tightly rolled up and hidden against our rough human edges, is the image of God. In spite of the fall, in spite of our own mistakes and failures, that image remains untouched by the goo of our messy, sinful lives. It’s there, waiting to be called forth by the word of God—the living and enduring word of God, the Word made flesh, the good news of abundant, eternal life in Christ Jesus.

When Peter tells us to be holy, he is simply telling us to be what we already are. He’s telling us to live as the beings we were created to be. When Jesus calls us, he calls the image of God in us to break out of its shell and to show itself in our lives.

Sometimes we need to be reminded of what we are. When Peyton was little, she had a guinea pig named Hershey. We were going to take our elderly friend Grace to see her friend Helen in the Alzheimer’s Care home where Helen lived, and Peyton wanted to take Hershey along to show Helen and Grace. When we picked up Grace, another woman was waiting with her. Grace asked if that woman could go, too. So, we crammed Grace and her friend and Peyton and Hershey in his cage into the car and headed out to see Helen.

Helen was every bit as delighted with Hershey as Peyton expected, and Peyton loved telling Helen all the guinea pig facts she had learned. When Peyton stopped to take a breath, the other woman asked Peyton what she was going to be when she grew up. Peyton excitedly told her about how she was going to be a veterinarian and learn all about animals and how to care for them and how to make them well. The woman looked at Peyton with a rather steely eye and said, “Well, you think that now, but you probably won’t actually be a vet.”

It was like someone had let the air out of a balloon. Peyton’s smile left her face, the sparkle left her eyes, and her shoulders drooped. And then Helen said, “I think Peyton has it in her to be anything she wants to be.” And just like that, Peyton was transformed back into what Helen knew her to be all along.

This is what Peter is reminding us of. We have it in us to be what we are called to be—disciplined, reverent, trusting, hopeful, loving, holy, and—yes—holy. Through the good news that has been announced to us, we are born anew of imperishable seed. Through the living and enduring word of God, the image of God that is in each of us is called forth. Through the power of the Christ’s Holy Spirit, we can be what we already are. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young