1 Peter 1:3-9
It has never been easy to be a Christian. Would you agree with that statement? In a way it is true and in a way it is not. To become a Christian is pretty simple, it is professing your faith that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. Living like a Christian is not so simple. In fact, it can become pretty challenging, especially, if you desire to follow Christ’s teachings in your daily life. Teachings like: love one another, pray for your enemies, serve the least of these, show compassion to others, be willing to confess when you are wrong, have faith, be sincere, turn the other cheek, stand on the side of justice and mercy and (others). It involves living in this world and being a part of its daily routine, while at the same time recognizing that your citizenship is elsewhere. It is like being a stranger in a strange land.
Peter the apostle, most likely wrote the letters that we find in 1 and 2 Peter as a source of strength and support for the early Christians, who truly found themselves viewed as strangers. The letters were written around 64 AD, so he is writing to some of the very earliest Christians. His letter bears some urgency, as he foresees trouble ahead for the Christian community, but far from being bleak it is full of hope and guidance for how to endure. Over the next few weeks as we look at the letter found in 1 Peter, we will look at how these words might be a compass, a guide, a source of hope for Christians today.
Have you ever had the experience of not fitting in? Perhaps you came to a party overdressed or underdressed and felt out of place? Maybe you visited some place where a different language was spoken and you just didn’t know what was going on – you felt left out? Perhaps you have been in a setting as a minority race or gender and you felt uncomfortable and maybe unwelcomed? Whatever the case, we have all had a moment or occasion when we felt as though we did not fit in – and for some of us this feeling is more than just a one time thing – it is a pervasive sense that we just don’t belong. In some cases it is a vulnerability that can lead to difficulties and mistreatment.
These early Christians that Peter is writing to, faced difficulties as resident aliens and visiting foreigners, they were culturally and religiously different from the majority of the population. Some of the difficulties they faced were not so different from the suffering of immigrants, or others who stand out because of their ethnic background or religious practices. They were seen as a potential endangerment to the community. They were truly strangers in the world by choice. Remember, these early Christians were not born into a Christian tradition, they chose it. They did not enter the faith based on “the way they were raised.” They stepped out of their old secure lives into the insecurity – and blessing of the new. They were new at this. The world was new at this. They chose to follow this Jesus person who wasn’t even around any more, they chose to believe that he had been raised from the dead, and they chose to follow his teachings. They were rejected by the Jewish population, and the Romans came to use them as scapegoats, blaming them for all sorts of political woes. Many who lived at that time, saw Christians as atheists because they insisted on worshiping just one God. They were outsiders; they were aliens, residing in a foreign land. Scattered, as they were around what is modern day Turkey and areas of the Middle East. (Verse 1 identifies them as exiles in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who have been chosen and destined by God.)
Peter writes to these, exiles sending them blessings and reminding them of the hope that is theirs in Christ. It is a living hope that is theirs (and ours) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ lives, and because he lives, hope lives and death cannot overcome it. Hope lives because in the face of trouble it does not back down, but is made stronger. It is a hope that no power can destroy, tarnish, or mar. In fact, this passage seems to say that trouble can reveal, even more powerfully, our faith. We have the promise and assurance that however difficult things may seem, God’s promise is signed sealed and guaranteed. The early Christian’s identity is found in Christ. It is what made them different. Christ at the center of their being.
One of the groups that came along a little later (around the 3rd century AD) that placed Christ at the center was the Desert Fathers. They were a peculiarly Christian community devoted to seeking God. They were kind hearted and had no interest in their own reputations – they were different. Barbara Taylor Brown relays the story of two elders in the community who were living together and decided that they should have a quarrel like ordinary men.
Since they had never had one before, they were not quite sure how to begin. So one of the elders looked around, found a brick and placed it squarely between him and his brother in Christ. “I will say, ‘it is mine,’” he instructed his brother. “Then you say, ‘no it is mins.’ This is the sort of thing that leads to a quarrel.” “Are you ready?” he asked his brother. “I am ready,” his brother said. “Okay,” he said, regarding the brick, “It is mine.” “I beg your pardon,” his brother said, “but I do believe that it is mine.” “No, it’s not; it’s mine,” the first monk said. “Well, if it is yours, then take it,” his brother said. Thus the two elders failed to get into a quarrel at all. (An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor)
Christians have always been meant to be different. Fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit, inspired by the love of Christ, born into a new life, a peculiar people.
Now, a lot has been written about how we find our identity in this modern era. Noted authority, Warren Susman comments that prior to the industrial age we found our identity under the strict social code of the Culture of Character. The ideal person was serious, disciplined, and honorable. Identity was not found in the self, but in how one fit in the confines and values of the culture. In fact, the word personality didn’t even exist in the English language until the eighteenth century. With the rise of industrial America a shift began to take place toward, what Susman calls the Culture of Personality in which emphasis shifted from having a spotless character toward having a dazzling personality. Instead of duty, honor, integrity guiding self-improvement, the emphasis shifted toward being attractive, dominant, dazzling, energetic. Rather than an identity that focused on the good of the whole, it became about individuality, about having my needs met, about doing what is good for me. My identity is now found in myself.
But what about the Christian identity? Shouldn’t it be different? Just as those early Christians didn’t quite fit in with the culture around them; as they were aliens. When we receive Christ, something similar happens (or should happen) to us. Christ becomes the core, the very center of our identify. We, too are given a new birth into the same living hope through Christ.
We had an interesting conversation in our Tuesday Sisters study this week. Angela Nielsen, our other leader said something very profound. She said, you know, we Christians are a little like onions. When you peel an onion, you take off one layer and there is another layer beneath it, and then another, and another. As we grow in our faith it is a bit like taking off that old layer (or old identity) and then we learn something more about Christ and another layer comes off, and we stop trying so hard to always be right, or always have things our way and another layer comes off, and another and another. But no matter how many layers come off, it is always Christ at the center. Peeling the layers away to get closer to our identity in Christ isn’t always easy. The wisdom of the Desert Fathers includes the wisdom that the hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self.
Yes, as the community of Christ in the world today – we are aliens. It isn’t just that we are good people – there are good people everywhere. It isn’t just that we have a food pantry, and have a dinner at Thanksgiving, or that we give out backpacks when school starts, though those are very good and are part of our work as Christians. It is Christ that is different. The resurrected Christ at the center. For in our baptism, we transfer our citizenship from one dominion to another. In the book Resident Aliens, the author writes this (Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon), “Christianity is an invitation to be part of an alien people who make a difference because they see something that cannot otherwise be seen without Christ.” We are the community of the Cross, which stands as God’s visible “no” to the power of death and “yes” to humanity. We are a part of the revolutionary participation in the victory of Christ. Brothers and sisters together, resident aliens, strangers in a strange land. We are born into a living hope. Therefore, let us support one another through acts both small and large which remind us that we are not alone that God is with us and for us. Let us stand beside each other, united in hope, assured of who we are in Christ.
Lets pray: Let us be your peculiar people, Lord. Let us love each other, despite our faults. Let us treat our neighbors with love and respect and kindness. Let us be a light in the world so that others may see the difference, and long find themselves also drawn to your light.