Sunday 17 May 2020
During this season of Easter – the period between Easter Day and Pentecost Sunday, the second reading from the Lectionary each week comes from the First Letter of Peter.
The letter, we are told at its beginning, is addressed to Christians spread right across the territory that we would refer to today as the country of Turkey. It is apparent from the content of the letter that it is written to groups of Christians experiencing some degree of suffering on account of their discipleship of Jesus.
It would appear that it is not an out and out persecution by the powers of the day. In chapter 2, the readers are instructed: “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.” This is hardly the sort of advice that would resonate with a people experiencing government-sponsored persecution.
No, it seems that the suffering that they are enduring is brought about by the fact that their Christian way of living makes them stand out within the pagan culture as a group that the ordinary populace sees fit to ostracise and marginalize and ridicule and even to vent violence upon.
In our world, there are many instances of this same sort of persecution that is not government-sponsored, but often government-condoned, and certainly sometimes very deadly. And the outcome for Christians living in these circumstances is suffering indeed.
We possibly look at these Christians with something of a guilty conscience. We certainly don’t experience life-threatening situations in our country on account of our Christian faith. It is probably also true to say that we don’t even experience any milder forms of discomfort from others on account of our Christian faith.
It is worth our while asking ourselves whether this is the case because our lives do not witness enough to our counter-cultural Christian values to make us look any different from our fellow non-Christian citizens.
How would we have to live if the encouragement of the First Letter of Peter was to be relevant to us?
The extract that we read today starts with the somewhat naïve question: “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?” If the writer expects the answer no one, we and the first century reader know that it just isn’t the case. In fact, the writer goes on to show that he does realize that people suffer for doing good. “But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.” It’s a curious little piece of logic really. The writer seems to be acknowledging that the very act of doing what is right, living out the Christian life, will bring about suffering. The consolation is the being blessed. If you do the right and you suffer for it, you will be blessed.
So if you were going to live in a way that such a consolation would be relevant to you, you would need to be living exactly as Christ calls you to live so that you bring the approbation of others upon yourself. Put another way, if you are not living the good in such a way that non-Christians would cause you harm, then maybe you are not living as Christ would have you live at all.
The text then moves from doing to proclaiming. This is one of the best known sentences from this letter: “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”
There is a clear inference in this text that we be proactive in proclaiming what it is that we believe in – or more correctly, who it is that we believe in. We don’t have to accept the societal expectation that we will hold our peace in relation to our faith. And there is also a reminder that the way in which we do it should not involve a negative attack on our discussion partner.
This particular text reminds me that we really are supposed to speak about our faith with others. Perhaps we need to start by asking ourselves if we speak about our faith with each other. We can tend to feel uncomfortable about that. Many of us have been told that we should not speak about religion or politics in public.
I think that it is a fairly safe bet that if we don’t speak to other Christians about our faith, we are very unlikely to speak about it to those who don’t believe. And yet, this Letter of Peter is encouraging us to be ready at all times to “make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you.” It almost assumes that we would do it.
So how can we bring all these thoughts together?
Perhaps we could start by saying that we are meant to be sharing our personal faith in the hope of the risen Jesus with others – firstly with our fellow Christians, but also with those who do not believe. The encouragement of this text seems to be that even if we experience “suffering” by taking this course of action, you will nonetheless be blessed. As it is written: “But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.”
We should not let fear get in the way of our obligation to preach the gospel to others. If we do so “with gentleness and reverence”, then any discomfort that may come our way is blessing. That is what the First letter of Peter seems to be saying.
It seems fairly clear that the Holy Spirit is calling the Church in this country forward from its previous position of comfort – I go to Church on Sunday so I’m OK. There is a great sense of mission unfolding amongst Christians in this country to bring the hope of the gospel to a society that is dominated by the pursuit of wealth and material goods. We, the baptized disciples of Jesus are called to be a part of this mission.
We are called to endure the discomfort, and suffering if necessary, of being seen to be different within this society, just as the Christians to which the First letter of Peter was directed were seen to be different within their middle eastern culture of the first century. We each one of us need to find the way for us to engage with this mission. This requires us to pray, to read the gospels and to be open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit within our hearts and within our Church community.
“Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen