by Jason Micheli
1 Peter 1.22-25 (click to see Scripture text)
The Apostle Peter’s epistle is an extended exhortation— a summons for the Church to take up, dwell in, and live out its identity as those elected by God in Jesus Christ, chosen to bear witness to the Risen Lord’s cruciform way in the world. Now, keep in mind, the Apostle Peter wrote to his scattered churches during imperial reign of Nero, a Caesar, whose cruelty towards Christians earned him a numeric nickname by St. John.
Note, Peter’s parishioners kept the faith under a president who has since become synonymous with the anti-Christ!
According to the Roman historian Tacitus, Nero not only set the city of Rome on fire so that he could bypass the senate and rebuild the city in his image and then scapegoat Christians for the blame, Nero regularly made Christians the object of sport and grotesque spectacle. You thought Geoffrey in Game of Thrones was awful— Tacitus reports in his book, Annals, that Nero enjoyed having Christians clothed in the fresh hides of wild beasts and then having dogs set upon them. “When the day waned,” Tacitus writes, “the surviving Christians would be hung from trees.” Lynched. Still others, Nero would have dressed them in shirts made stiff with wax. Then, they would be fixed to axletrees and set afire to serve as city lights.
This was in addition to the many crucifixions, ordered by the empire. Nero’s persecution of Christians, Tacitus reports, was not motivated by any pagan piety on the part of the Emperor, but by prejudice. He hated the Christian race, says Tacitus.
Needless to say, those Christians addressed by the Apostle Peter lived during a time when the temptation was ever present to dilute their particular and peculiar calling. Peter would not feel compelled to exhort believers to hold fast to their vocation to embody the New Age inaugurated by cross and resurrection if some believers were not at risk of letting go of it. Let’s face it, it’s always easier for us to demote King Jesus to Secretary of Afterlife Affairs, blend into the empire, salute the flag, conform to the crowd, and live like everyone else— but especially so in the Apostle Peter’s day.
Given the bewildering degree of suffering and persecution his churches endured, it’s remarkable the rhetorical tone that Peter the Preacher strikes in this epistle.
Peter the Preacher never attempts any of the anodyne Hallmark card comfort a United Methodist pastor would be tempted to purvey. For example, Peter never says, “I know you’re suffering terrible sufferings, but in Christ the fullness of God became fully human. Remember, there’s no pain you’re going through, no emotion you are feeling, no question you are despairing that is alien to Almighty God.”
Pastor Peter doesn’t bother to hold their hand and reassure them with some amorphous aphorism like, “God is with you.”
Peter the Preacher refuses to play the part of the cheerleader, “I know times are hard, people. Let’s hunker down. Help each other out and do our best to do no harm.”
Neither does Peter offer them advice for the real stress of real life.
You’d expect Peter’s parishioners all to be on the verge of cursing God and echoing Job’s laments Yet, Peter the Preacher seems shockingly indifferent about indulging questions of theodicy. “Why have such sufferings been visited on us? What have we done to deserve them? How can there be meaning in a cosmos where this is permitted to happen?”
No, Peter’s message to his suffering people— it’s almost all “exhortation.”
Get your head on straight. Fix your mind on the Kingdom drawing near. Be sober. Live as children of obedience. Put away all malice and guile and envy and slander and insincerity. Husbands and wives, submit to one another as Christ. When you’re around unbelievers, don’t let their behavior screw up your message. Pray for the president you loathe.
In every realm of your life, be holy because you have been begotten anew by Jesus Christ who is the living and abiding Word of God.
You have been begotten anew.
The Gospel undergirds the exhortation.
The promise precedes the commands.
In Jesus Christ, God has begotten us anew.
Therefore, love your brothers and sisters.
Therefore, live lives that corroborate your confession.
Therefore, conform the community to the Lord’s commands.
Look people, I know you’re suffering, Peter means to say, but apart from the grace of God in Jesus Christ “PERISHABLE” is the last word stamped on every one of us.
“All flesh is like grass,” Peter writes, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “all its glory like the flower of the grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the Word of the Lord— that is, Jesus Christ— endures forever.”
And you have been born anew into Him.
We all come into this world with an expiration date. Keith Richards notwithstanding, none of us is getting out of life alive, Peter says.
“PERISHABLE” is the last grim word for every one of us.
In Jesus Christ, we have received a Word beyond that last word.
A word far more interesting than the sufferings of this present time.
Earlier this month, the historian Tom Holland wrote an op-ed for the British newspaper, The Telegraph, entitled, “Church leaders should not be talking like middle managers in this time of crisis.”
Though Holland’s most recent book, Dominion, is about how the Christian revolution remade the world, he’s reluctant to describe himself as more than a cultural Christian. While Holland is reticent about what he himself believes, he’s clear about what he thinks the Church should believe and profess— especially during a pandemic.
Holland notes how the Christian confession of God taking on the flesh of a poor, crucified carpenter so transformed the ancient world’s attitude toward the poor and the weak, imbuing with divine image-bearing dignity and worth, it gave rise to hospitals, nursing, and medical care as we know them today.
Prior to the Gospel, Roman hospitals had existed solely to segregate slaves and soldiers in their sickness. In Christendom, however, no longer was the compassion of doctors and nurses a privilege of the affluent. “The National Health Service has its roots sunk deep into Christian soil,” Holland writes in The Telegraph:
“Nevertheless, there is a paradox. Over the course of the millennia, the Church’s teachings on the obligation of the rich and healthy to care for the poor and sick have proven so successful that they no longer depend on the Church itself. Its ancient sense of mission – to care for the vulnerable and the weak – has been largely subsumed within the welfare state.”
Like many aspects of our calling, the unique vocation once performed by ordinary Christians— in this case, caring for the victims of plagues— has been outsourced.
The theologian Stanley Hauerwas often jokes that you need only look at the architecture of Duke Medical School to know that, even for Christians, doctors are now our new priests. After all, hardly any churchgoer any longer believes an inadequately trained pastor could jeopardize their salvation, but they do think an inadequately trained physician could kill them.
Holland echoes the point in his op-ed, “The National Health System is now the object of our reverence.”
But that hospitals are our new cathedrals does not mean the Church is redundant. At least, it shouldn’t be. “The welfare state can provide care for the sick,” Holland writes, “but it cannot provide what Christianity, over the course of the past 2,000 years, has provided to so many countless people, and to such transformational effect.”
Therefore, by rights, the sweep of coronavirus should present Christian leaders with an opportunity. However, this opportunity, Holland argues in his op-ed, is one that “all the mainstream churches seem to be fumbling.”
Preachers and church leaders, in Holland’s judgment, sound more like the Public Health Department. Rather than the promises of providence and resurrection, the Church too often doles out reminders about handwashing and doing no harm and “bending the curve.”
If ever there were a time for the churches to speak to a grieving and anxious people of “how the dead will rise into the blaze of eternal life, a time of global pandemic would surely seem to be it.”
“Parroting the slogans of the Department of Health and Social Care may conceivably help save lives,” Holland writes, “but it seems unlikely to win many souls.”
It is not the “care of souls.”
That is, it is not the peculiar work to which we have been elected.
We uniquely exist to proclaim a particular word— the word beyond the last word, “You have been begotten anew through the living and abiding Word of God, Jesus Christ.”
With verse twenty-three today, the Apostle Peter returns to a theme he already introduced in verse three, “being begotten anew.”
Or, as you know the phrase, thanks to Tim Tebow, “being born again.”
And just so you don’t mistake this for another of Peter’s exhortations, just so you don’t mistakenly think getting born again is something you got to get up and do, Peter puts it in the passive participial form.
Having been begotten anew.
It refers to a prior act of God upon you.
You’ve probably seen the Romans Road Salvation Plan diagramed in the evangelical tracts.
On the left, there’s usually a stick figure representing all of unbelieving humankind. Often beneath the stick figure it will say something like, “Our Problem,” and list Sin and Death along with the relevant verses.
On the right side of the diagram, meanwhile, is typically a triangle for God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And between the two sides stands a steep, unsurpassable chasm. The more enthusiastic versions of this illustration put spitting tongues of hellfire at the bottom of the ditch.
The takeaway is simple, right?
A gulf separates humanity from God, a divide we could never hope to cross on our own. Fortunately, the cross of Christ spans the breach, bridging the distance from the human situation to God. If we wish to cross over, if we want to change our situation from sin and its fatal wages to fellowship and union with God, then we’ve got to walk from one side to the other by means of the cross.
That is, we’ve got to repent and believe. We’ve got to have faith. We’ve got to be born again. Despite its staying power, there’s a number of problems with the image not the least of which is that this is not how Peter, or Paul for that matter, speak of our having been begotten anew.
The good news of the Gospel is impossibly better!
Jesus Christ has done more than provide you the means to cross over to the other side. The glad tidings of the Gospel are that Jesus Christ has taken you into Himself and carried you. No matter who is listening to this, right now— whomever you are, you’re already on the other side.
You’re home free.
You’re safe in Jesus Christ.
All of us, every last one of us, whether we know it or not, whether we believe it or perceive it or not, we are already on the other side.
We have all been conceived anew by the Word, begotten again by the work of the living and abiding Word. As the Apostle Paul puts it to the Corinthians, “One has died for all; therefore, all have died.”
Think about that— “One has died for all; therefore, all have died.”
That’s a non sequitur.
It doesn’t naturally follow that all have died simply because one has died for all.
It’s a non sequitur.
It doesn’t naturally follow because, it’s unnatural.
Because, it’s a revelation.
It’s the Gospel.
All have died to sin.
The chasm has been closed.
I realize this “born again” language carries a tremendous amount of Bible Belt baggage. But the Apostle Paul makes Peter’s point abundantly clear with altogether different language in his letter to the Colossians. “For in Jesus Christ you have died,” the Apostle Paul proclaims, “and your life now is hidden with Christ in God.”
By Cross and Resurrection, your life is hidden with Christ in God.
Your twice begotten life is hidden with Christ in God.
Ready to be revealed, Paul says.
Notice, Paul doesn’t say it’s ready to be realized.
It’s ready to be revealed.
It’s already true.
As Karl Barth says, all of humankind has been begotten anew, objectively so, whether we subjectively realize it or not. All are justified and sanctified in Jesus Christ.
To realize this, to apprehend it is faith, which comes to us by the gifting of the Holy Spirit.
To act upon it, in obedience— this is vocation.
But our faith and our vocation, Barth, says, are always secondary to the objective inclusion of humanity in Jesus Christ.
It is not faith that incorporates you into God. It is Jesus Christ. Faith is simply the acknowledgement of the mysterious incorporation already objectively accomplished on your behalf. Every last one of us, though right now we can know it only by faith and not by sight, we are all in God, because God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
Salvation is not a possibility posed to you.
If you cross that bridge Christ has provided, then you will be united with God.
Salvation is an objective truth proclaimed to you.
In Christ Jesus you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
Your salvation is not in question— it’s an objective accomplished reality.
Your location is not in question— you’re in Christ.
The only question left, really, is to be or not to be— will you become who you already really are?
In Christ Jesus you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
Not only is that good news, that “blaze of eternal life” what Karl Barth called the “logic of wonders,” it’s so much more interesting than asking, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
In his op-ed for the Telegraph, historian Tom Holland gripes that “rather than proclaiming the miracles and mysteries that they uniquely exist to proclaim, preachers and church leaders seem to have opted instead to talk like middle managers.”
In these pandemic times of suffering, Holland says, if churches “are not to seem merely eccentric branch offices of the welfare state, preachers need to recapture their confidence, and take a risk, the risk of seeming odd.”
The risk of sounding strange.
The risk of offering a word not self-evidently relevant, obviously helpful, or immediately verifiable.
Hear the Good News, the Logic of Wonders;
Christ has died for all;
Therefore, all have died.
In Christ Jesus, the Man of Sorrows— whether you believe it or not— you have already died the only death that ultimately matters and your life, right now, no matter what your two eyes tell you, is hidden with Christ in God.
With Christ, in God— never at all apart from Him, never at all independently of Him, never at all at risk of losing Him.
He’s the One in whom you are hunkered down.
Christ is the One with whom we will be quarantined in a World without End..
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. For
‘All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord endures for ever.’
That word is the good news that was announced to you.