September 21, 2014
(By the way, I know you aren’t really Peter the disciple, but I’ll play along for the sake of tradition.)
I’ve been reading your first letter this week. You might be surprised that someone almost 2000 years in the future who lives in a part of the world you didn’t even know existed has managed to get her hands on your letter. But it’s in the Bible now, so tons of people have read it.
I’ll admit that what I have actually been reading is an English translation, because I can’t speak a lick of Koine Greek. Scholars say, though, that your use of Greek in this letter is “among the most literary and sophisticated of the entire New Testament.”1 So congratulations on that.
I just wanted to write to you as one church leader to another–to share my appreciation for your words, and also to bring up a few concerns I have.
First, thank you for articulating the “living hope” we have through Christ’s resurrection. I imagine the people you thought you were writing to needed that hope because they were being persecuted; and some Christians around the world need that living hope for exactly the same reason today.
Here where I live, we aren’t persecuted for our faith. (I mean, some people claim they are persecuted, but you would probably just roll your eyes if I told you what counts as “persecution” in certain circles.) But still, we need a living hope–for all kinds of reasons–and it is good to be reminded that we find that hope not in other humans or human institutions, but in the resurrection of Jesus and in our divine inheritance. Because sometimes anything, everything, short of the power of God seems hopeless.
And thanks for the whole “love one another deeply from the heart” thing.
Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.
I like that. Good stuff.
And that “living stones” metaphor.
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:
“See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
It’s a little odd, but clever. Peter means rock. Rock/stone. Stone/cornerstone. I see what you’re doing there. At the church conference center where I went a lot growing up, there was a little windowless room with rocks that would glow in neon colors when you turned on the black-lights. And a recording of your words here. “Living stones.” Nicely done.
But then, Peter, I have to say I have a hard time with your admonishments about obeying authority.
*For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.
Do you really mean every human institution? Because in this day and age, submitting to the authority of institutions sometimes means acting against the way taught by Jesus. There are institutions that would force people to do violence, to discriminate against groups of people, to privilege wealth over care for the earth and the people on it.
A few years ago I rejected the authority of my denominational institution and officiated a wedding I was not “supposed” to officiate. I have a friend who occasionally disregards the authority of corporations and law enforcement by attempting to block construction of oil pipelines. Nuns have been arrested for protesting nuclear weapons manufacturing. Sometimes, I would argue, resisting authority is an act of faith. You should read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
I know you have your reasons for telling fellow Christ-followers to obey authority:
*For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.
Maybe this is the direction you are going–that we should do right. That we should not disregard authority because we think it would be more fun to break the rules. We should only reject authority that pushes us away from faithfully living out the Gospel. I mean, that is what I want you to be saying, but I think I might be putting words into your mouth.
And I have to say that you are simply wrong about “doing right” silencing the ignorance of the foolish. It seems like the more right things people do, the more the foolish have to say about it. (But I suppose you were writing before we had Facebook and Twitter and internet comment boards on which to display the full extent of our ignorance.)
The extrapolation of this “authority” principle to slaves is particularly concerning to me:
*Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.
Let me guess–you were never a slave? You lived in a culture where most slaves were household servants, doing respectable domestic work. Where slavery was primarily an economic, not a racial or ethnic, institution. Where slavery was most likely a period of a person’s life, not their entire existence.
But I wish that you could have looked into the future and seen what slavery would look like in the early days of my country. The horror and brutality. The dehumanization of dark-skinned people. And the horrible legacy of racial injustice that the system of slavery has left in its wake. And I wish you could have seen what slavery would look like in my day. So much of it involving children who are used sexually.
If you had been able to look ahead to the realities of slavery that enter my mind when I read your words, I think–I hope–you would have written different words. I don’t understand how it is a credit for anyone to endure pain while suffering unjustly. I do not understand how:
*If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
Yes, Christ suffered. But was that a good thing? Wouldn’t it have been better if the world had been able to embrace the embodied love of God without enacting violence against it?
I know that you were not writing to those causing the suffering. I imagine that would be a very different letter. You were writing to people being persecuted. People who did not have power over their own situations. Perhaps the options you saw for these people were to lash out against the authorities or meekly accept them. And maybe, in some of these cases, your assessment was right.
I get that it seems safer, better, for your fellow Christians to lay low and not cause any problems.
But I keep thinking about things I have heard and read from African-American parents lately. About the efforts among many parents of color to teach their children to simply comply with authority so that they do not get arrested–or even shot. And how young black men keep getting shot by police anyway.
I think that to follow in Christ’s steps is not to simply accept suffering, but to transform the oppressive structures that cause suffering in the first place. To turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile–not out of some desperate sense of self-preservation, but as a way to claim power within oppressive structures, as a way to subvert the persecutors.
Perhaps there are situations where it is best to simply endure. But not always. Perhaps subversion sometimes involves an acceptance of suffering. But not always.
And then Peter. Dear Peter. We get to the part about women.
*Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.
Believe it or not, a lot of people now don’t think that husbands have authority over wives. Many consider marriage to be an equal partnership of mutual respect and decision-making. I guess that’s hard for you to understand from your context, but think about how things were developing in the early church–with Jesus valuing the partnership and testimony of women; Paul welcoming Priscilla into leadership in the church; and maybe you had a chance to read some of Paul’s letters: “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.”
You are, I presume, primarily talking to women who have come to believe in Jesus while their husbands do not. The idea is that the wives should not be rude or condemning about their new faith, should not, as we say these days, beat anyone over the head with the Bible. So, while I don’t really like this as marriage advice, it’s not bad guidance for evangelism: “that they may be won over without a word . . . when they see the purity and reverence of our lives.”
Of course, you give women a very specific picture of what purity and reverence should look like:
Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair, and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing; rather, let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight.
You might be surprised to see the hairstyles and jewelry and clothing of the women in our church today. But even though we don’t follow your exact words here, we still believe the basis of what you are saying–and believe it is true for women and men. That our inner selves are more important–to us and to God–than external adornments; that beauty of spirit should be cultivated above physical beauty.
Sometimes that beautiful spirit is gentle and quiet. Sometimes the beautiful spirit is a little more energetic and outspoken–like Jesus was. Surely you knew beautiful and faithful women who were not necessarily quiet. Even Sarah, who you mention as an example of a good wife, laughed at God’s promise and then lied to her husband about laughing.
I am glad that you put a little responsibility on the husbands here as well:
*Husbands, in the same way, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honor to the woman as the weaker sex, since they too are also heirs of the gracious gift of life—so that nothing may hinder your prayers.
What I want to focus on here is that phrase “the weaker sex.” I maybe shouldn’t admit this since I am a pacifist pastor, but when I read that I kind of want to punch you in the face. But then I take a deep breath and think about the first century. I know that that “weaker sex” line was just a statement of what everybody understood to be true. That was the given, not the controversy.
The controversy, the part that probably made people in your day want to punch you in the face, was the statement that women “are also heirs of the gracious gift of life.” For the people you thought you were writing this letter to, “heir” and “son” were basically synonyms. How can women–especially married women–be heirs? It was against human law for wives to receive an inheritance from their fathers, but you say that God the Father considers women equal heirs with men of the divine inheritance of life.
I bet that irritated some folks back then. Just like your “weaker sex” line irritates some of us today. Poor Peter, you just can’t make everyone happy.
Well, there is certainly more to say, but this letter is getting kind of long. You should probably know that nobody knows what you are talking about when you say:
*Jesus went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.
Apparently it’s a story your people knew. But we’re at a loss. I imagine you have to field lots of questions about this from people walking into those pearly gates.
And I should also say that even though so many things are different for us today, the church is still made up of flawed and holy human beings who need to be reminded of the basics:
* Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.
So thank you, Peter, for your words. For the ones I love and the ones I don’t love so much. Thank you for tending to Christ’s church in the time that you were called in the best way you knew how. And on behalf of all of us trying to be church today, trying to follow the hard and holy way of Jesus together, thank you for reminding us of God’s promise to all of us–around the world and across the ages:
*The God of all grace, who has called you to eternal glory in Christ, will restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.
1“The First Letter of Peter.” Donald Senior. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, ed. Walter Harrelson. Abingdon Press: Nashville. 2181.
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