1 Peter 3:8-22
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
There is a lot to digest in this morning’s reading from 1 Peter, isn’t there? There’s the bit at the end about baptism forging a connection between us and the resurrected Christ. There’s the cryptic but enduring image of Christ preaching “to the spirits in prison” – known in some circles as “the harrowing of hell” – which has fascinated the Church for centuries. And there’s the bulk of today’s text, the series of exhortations to God’s people that is summarized pretty well by the heading at the top of our reading inserts: do what is good and right. At first glance, this might seem like a straightforward list of ethical demands, a description of the kind of life to which Christians should aspire that shouldn’t surprise us too much. Take a step back, however, and consider what these words communicated to the people who first heard them, and suddenly they sound a whole lot different (and a whole lot more difficult to comprehend).
If you had been one of the first recipients of this letter, you wouldn’t have had a whole lot of company. First Peter was probably written sometime between the years 75 and 95, a period of time in which the entire Christian population of the known world was probably somewhere between 7,500 and 50,000.* By contrast, the population of the Roman Empire has traditionally been estimated at around 60,000,000 during the same time period, meaning that, at best around one in twelve hundred people might have identified as a Christian.† Put another way, if a group of, say, 4,325 people was chosen at random from the whole population of the Roman Empire – a group equal to the population of Falls City – you would expect to find at most four Christians in the group. In that context, the other 4,321 people would know little or nothing about you except that you were different: that you didn’t worship the same gods; that you didn’t participate in the same ceremonies; that, at best, you refused to go with the flow, and, at worst, your crazy religion threatened the whole social order. Now, picture yourself as one of those few Christians and hearing this list of commands:
Now finally, all of you should be like-minded, sympathetic, loving toward your brothers and sisters, compassionate, and self-deprecating, 9not paying back evil for evil or insult for insult, but – on the contrary – paying back blessings. (1 Peter 3:8-9a)
Can you imagine how difficult living that way would be in that context? It’s hard enough for us to do now, when we live in a totally different world. For all the talk about there being a war on Christianity in this country, the fact is that just under 71% of Americans identified themselves as Christian in a nationwide survey taken last year.§ We can debate what that means in practice, but from a purely numerical perspective, there’s no doubt that the social environment is vastly more sympathetic to Christianity today than it was around the year 100 when these words were first penned.
I don’t make this comparison to heap more guilt on us as modern Christians, but to illustrate a larger truth about the Christian life, and that’s this: that doing what is good and right isn’t a matter of doing what comes naturally to us. In the first century, the twenty-first century and all the centuries in-between, the call to do what is good and right has always been a call to live a radically different kind of life, a life characterized by peace-making, spreading blessing, pursuing righteousness, and striving for faithfulness to the one whose name we bear: Jesus Christ. In the end, as much as we might “desire life”, as hard as we try to “keep [our] tongues from evil and [our] lips from speaking deceit”, we are fighting a losing battle if we try to do so by our own strength or by the sheer force of our own will. This, in part, is why the church throughout the centuries has continued to declare its trust in God, particularly in God the Holy Spirit. The words of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed summarize that belief:
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
What seems like a series of disconnected statements is, in fact, a powerful testimony to the work of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is that Holy Spirit who was unleashed on the world to call us and our brothers and sisters in Christ to faith in God. It is that Holy Spirit who gathers us into the one universal church that exists throughout the world. It is that Holy Spirit who makes us holy and inspires us to live the kind of life that God desires for us and for the world. It is that Holy Spirit who grants us grace when we fall short, and restores us to fellowship so that we might continue to live in God. It is that Holy Spirit who reminds us of the hope of resurrection and the promise of unending life with God.
In his explanation of the Third Article of the Creed, Martin Luther expresses this same conviction:
I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith. Daily in this Christian church the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sins—mine and those of all believers. On the Last Day the Holy Spirit will raise me and all the dead and will give to me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.
The truth, brothers and sisters, is that doing what is good and right is not, first and foremost, something that we choose to do, but something that God invites us to do in response to the gift of salvation that we have received in Christ. Because God has already claimed us and called us to this life, we are freed from the fear that failing to live this way will keep us from enjoying God’s favor. Instead, we, like the first Christians to hear these words, are promised the gifts of grace and strength that are needed to strive for unity, sympathy, love, tenderness, and humility. God knows it won’t be easy; after all, the only one to live in perfect unity, sympathy, love, tenderness, and humility would eventually be killed because the powers of this world could not abide his presence. Yet Christ lives because those powers were incapable of holding him down, and in his rising he makes a way for us to overcome the forces of sin and death that prevent us from living the life that God desires for us and for this broken and beautiful world.
Brothers and sisters, as we strive to do what is good and right, let us trust that the Lord’s ears are open to our prayers for strength and guidance. Let us seek always to repay others with blessing, so that they might know the love and grace of God. Finally, let us live today and always in the power and presence of God’s Holy Spirit, who makes our life in Christ possible. Thanks be to God! Amen.
* Ralph Martin Novak, Christianity and the Roman Empire: Background Texts, Trinity Press International (Harrisburg, PA: 2001), 12-13.
† Christopher Kelly, The Roman Empire: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press (Oxford: 2006), 1.