by Jason Micheli
1 Peter 1.3-5 (click to see Scripture text)
On September 2, 1982, Helen Woodson was arrested for pouring blood— her own blood, carried in her baby boy’s bottle— onto the Presidential flag, the U.S. flag, and the Presidential Seal during a White House tour. It was an odd, offensive, seemingly ineffective act. A self-described “Christian resister-mother,” at her trial, Woodson shared these words to the judge:
For the past 18 years my life has been children— one birth child, 7 adopted children, and 3 foster children. Ten of my kids are mentally handicapped. We also share our home with a paraplegic Cuban refugee and with ex-prisoners and others who need shelter. All of these people are considered of little value by society. They are of no value in a society based on competition, profit, and war, yet it is these useless people who have taught me what I know of the preciousness of human life, the sacredness that transcends damage and imperfection…
Tragic death cannot always be prevented. Accident or disease may kill our children while we stand helpless to do anything. But death in war is preventable. It can happen only if we allow it, and if we allow it, we will come for judgment not before the Superior Court of the District of Columbia but before God and the murdered innocents.
The acts through which I serve life at home are considered exemplary and noble; my nonviolent witness at the White House is considered criminal. After more than two years of prayer which preceded my civil disobedience and after the 76 days I have spent in the DC Jail, I cannot, in all good conscience, see the difference between the two.
Years later, while serving out her twelve-year prison sentence, Helen Woodson told a Washington Post reporter, “I am not surprised that you have not heard of me. For the most part, the American media is not interested in the only true power at work in the world— the non-violent acts of faith that hasten the Kingdom.”
Likely, the story of Helen Woodson will offend some of you.
I suppose, on some level, it disturbs me, too.
But how odd is it that, two thousand years later, Christians like us might find a Christian like Helen Woodson odd when, in fact, for the first few centuries of the Church, a Christian like Helen Woodson would’ve just been considered a Christian?
Friedrich Nietzsche said the fatal problem with Christianity is that there has only been one real Christian in human history and that He had died on the cross.
A former teacher of mine, David Bentley Hart, writes that when he finished translating the New Testament the work left him with a deep sense of melancholy along with the suspicion that most of us who go by the name “Christian” ought to give up the pretense of wanting to be Christian.
Notice the distinction.
He didn’t say we should give up the pretense of being Christian.
He said we should give up the pretense of wanting to be Christian.
“Would we ever truly desire to be the kinds of people that the New Testament describes as fitting the pattern of life in Christ?” he asks.
And before you answer, consider the new way of life Christ gave his community to live.
Christ gave us a new way to deal with offenders.
By loving them.
Christ gave us a new way to deal with violence.
Christ gave us a new way to deal with sinners.
By eating with them.
Christ gave us a new way to deal with money.
By sharing it.
Christ gave us a new way to deal with debt.
By forgiving it.
Christ gave us a new way to deal with enemies.
By dying for them.
Christ gave us a new way to deal with a corrupt society.
By embodying the New Age not smashing the Old.
This is why, as St. Luke reports without embarrassment or hedging, after the resurrection, the price to become a Christian was that you sell all your property and possessions, distribute the proceeds to the poor, and then rely on the mutual support of the community for your needs.
Barnabas, for example, on becoming a Christian, cashed in his 401K and handed over all the money to the body of Christ.
Just imagine, the character a community would need to exemplify in order for a stranger to trust it with all of their needs.
And it wasn’t just money, upon conversion and baptism, Roman soldiers and gladiators put away their swords and uniforms and found new work.
For the earliest generations of Christians, the Church was an alternative community with no Second Generation members, for it grew not through the family but by witness and conversion. Christians were the alternative Christ had made possible in the world through his death and resurrection.
Thus, they took Christ at His word, loving their enemies and turning the other cheek and forgiving 70 x 7 times all the way to crosses of their own.
Thus, Hart notes, the first Christians were “a company of extremists, radical in their rejection of the values and priorities of society not only at its most degenerate, but often at its most reasonable and decent.
They were rabble, a disorderly crowd.
They lightly cast off all their prior loyalties and attachments: religion, empire, nation, tribe, family and safety.”
They did so, Hart argues, because one thing that is in remarkably short supply in the New Testament is common sense.
The Gospels, the Epistles, the Book of Acts, Revelation—all of them are “relentless torrents of exorbitance and extremism” in which “there are no comfortable medians, no areas of shade, for everything is cast in the harsh and clarifying light of Christ’s returning reign.”
Everything is cast in the harsh and clarifying light of Christ’s return.
In other words, the communities of the New Testament exemplify life lived according to the future, life lived as citizens of a Kingdom not yet here but near.
To be the kinds of people the New Testament affirms, David Hart concludes in his preface to the New Testament, we would have to become strangers and exiles— sojourners on the earth.
Except, at least according to the Apostle Peter—
This is exactly who God has already made us in Jesus Christ.
Strangers scattered like seed among the nations.
Sojourners of the Son elected by the Father from before the foundation of the world.
This is how the Apostle Peter addresses the Church at the top of his epistle because, as Peter says in today’s text, this is who God has already made us in Jesus Christ.
We have been begotten again, Peter preaches.
And notice, not only does Peter put it in the passive voice, it’s past tense.
It’s been done to us and for us, and it’s already happened; such that, the very term “born again Christian” is a redundancy.
We have become children of God, Peter writes, not through anything we’ve believed or achieved but only through God’s “great mercy;” that is, God’s mighty act of redemption in Jesus Christ.
Your deliverance from sin and your delivery into newness of life are coincident on the cross.
You have been born again not because of any decision you made, but because of God’s pre-temporal determination to be God for you in Jesus Christ.
You have been begotten again.
It;s God’s act, not your own.
However, this does not mean there is now nothing for us to do, for Peter does not refer to Jesus as our Teacher or Guide.
Peter’s blessing in verse three does not refer to Almighty God as “the Father of our Example Jesus Christ.”
Peter calls Jesus Christ the Lord.
The carpenter from Nazareth is the Maker of Heaven and Earth.
The one who preached the Sermon on the Mount is the Living Word without whom not one thing that is would be. Indeed, he is the Living Word by whom even now, Peter says today, we are being guarded in our faith.
Peter calls Jesus the Lord.
As Calvin says, “Those who conceive of God in naked majesty have an idol, for God the Father wills to be known only in God the Son.”
And because the true God is not some vague, numinous transcendence onto which we can project our own prejudices and desires but is Jesus Christ, not one of us can pretend we don’t know what God wants.
You don’t need Joel Osteen—
In Jesus Christ we have received more of God’s will for our lives than— let’s be honest— any of us want to do.
Peter calls Jesus the Lord.
Christians have no other recourse but to attempt lives that make no sense if God has not raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
For if Jesus is Lord, then we, who have been begotten anew in him, are his subjects.
As Karl Barth said— correcting Martin Luther, “the Lordship of Christ is the article by which the Church stands and falls.”
Obedience to our baptism, therefore, is not what will give us access to His Kingdom one day in the future.
Obedience to our baptism is how we live according to the Kingdom He’s already given us, a Kingdom into which we’ve already been incorporated, a Kingdom that is coming to us one day in the future.
Almighty God elects some for this odd and offensive and seemingly ineffective way of life to serve as a foretaste of the future that God has in store for all.
We follow Jesus not so we can get into the Kingdom of Heaven.
We follow Jesus to hasten towards the Kingdom of God that is coming to us.
Which also means, it should be said—
We follow Jesus not because the way of Jesus is a strategy to make the world come out better.
As Jesus himself said, “we will always have the poor with us.”
Rather, we follow Jesus to herald the better world that Jesus will bring “when He comes back in final victory.”
This future coming of Christ the Lord is what Peter means by the inheritance to which you’ve been begotten anew.
Your inheritance is not a place, but a person.
The word “heaven” just means “the presence of God.”
Your inheritance is Him.
After all, only the Lamb of God who was without blemish is undefiled. Only the Righteous One whom Death could not hold is incorruptible. Only the Alpha and the Omega, who is without beginning or end, is unfading.
This inheritance then— your inheritance— is not a reward in Heaven.
It’s the Reign of God.
It’s the New Creation in which, St. John proclaims, “the home of God will come to earth and be with mortals…and there will be no more mourning,” no more misery or pain, no more brokenness or prejudice, no more lies or lack, no more divisions or inequities or injustice. No more Death.
Because the Reign of God is our inheritance, it’s not something we can possess.
It’s only something in which we can participate.
On Good Friday, Jesus tells Pontius Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this kosmos.”
Jesus means what Paul says in Galatians— that the Reign of God has invaded the realm of the Enemy.
Those of us who have been begotten again by his death and resurrection, wherever we live we are resident aliens who live not according to the kosmos, but according to that invading Kingdom.
And your faith, Peter says, which has been gifted to you by the Holy Spirit, your faith is itself the power of Almighty God to hold you fast in faithfulness.
The Living Word works what it says, and in your faith the Lord gives you everything you need to be odd for God.
Your faith— whether it’s as high as a mountain or as tiny as a mustard seed— it is not only a gift of God it is the power of God to guard you from God’s Enemy, an Enemy (Church History would suggest) who is determined to make God’s believing people bland.
Faith is the power of God in you to work through you.
This is crucial good news, because the believers addressed by Peter were suffering persecution.
When it came to the cruciform way of life to which they had been baptized, surely, they were sorely tempted to throw in the towel.
As Karl Barth says,
“faith is the power of God which gives Christians the perseverance to change the things in our world that can be changed, the courage not to accept those things that cannot be changed, and the endurance to oppose those things we cannot accept with revolutionary patience in Jesus Christ.”
Notice, Barth uses the language of patience.
Because our hope is not inert.
Our hope is in motion.
Hugh Vincent Dyer is a Catholic friar featured a couple of weeks ago in the New York Times.
Ever since the pandemic struck New York City, Dyer has been serving as a priest inside a sealed nursing home in Manhattan, celebrating Mass in an empty chapel and broadcasting homilies over closed-circuit television in the residents’ rooms.
Signs on the doors of the elderly residents indicate the rooms of the patients suffering from COVID-19.
Dressed in the white habit of the Dominican Order and a pale surgical mask, Father Dyer visits these patients.
He prays with them.
He lays hands on them.
He helps them and their nurses maintain hope in the face of rapid and spreading death.
Before the coronavirus began to sweep through the nation, Father Dyer lived on the Upper East Side with eight other Dominican friars at the St. Catherine of Siena Religious House.
Knowing that the contagion meant many of the residents would die alone and that clergy would be kept from entering the nursing home, on the 10th of March, Father Dyer just decided to move into the nursing home full-time.
“Christ always laid his hands on the sick,” he reasoned, even if protocols required he offer last rites with gloves, a gown, and a mask.
The decision for the friar was not an easy one nor without fear. “Walking the halls amid the pumping hiss of mechanical ventilators and shellshocked workers,” he said, “I started to think about, maybe I could get this. Maybe it could kill me.”
Yet the friar said, “For me, what gives me hope, is that death will not have the final word, because there is a supernatural reality at work in the world that we cannot see.”
About his odd and risky decision to move into nursing home and live among those suffering the coronavirus, Father Dyer said, “I hear from people who want to know, Is this the end of the world?”
“And I tell them,” he said, “we are to live as though it’s always the end.”
We are to live as harbingers of the Kingdom that is coming.
Your inheritance— the Reign of Jesus Christ the Risen Savior, the Kingdom of the Living God, the New Creation— it’s “ready to be revealed in the last time,” Peter says today.
The “end of all things,” Peter echoes in Chapter Four, “is drawing near.”
Regime change is coming.
A better world is on the way.
And God has elected you to prepare the way.
May the Holy Spirit make you odd, a peculiar citizen of a Kingdom not yet here, but “nearer now than the day when we first believed.”
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he 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.