Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 23, 2017
1 Peter 1:3-9 Commentary
For all its lyric beauty, at the end of it all these verses from 1 Peter 1 represent a central paradox of the faith, one that Peter seems to be working his own way through even as he writes these words. As an Eastertide text, it’s clear enough to see Peter’s celebration of the resurrection and its history-shattering reality. This was a concrete, tangible event to which Peter was an eyewitness. Given the shameful way Peter himself had acted following Jesus’ arrest, no one knew the transformative power of the grace of Easter better than Peter. Two of the four Gospels we possess single Peter out for restoration. Mark 16 includes the little line from the angel to “tell the disciples, and Peter.” John 21 devotes a whole scene to the recommissioning of Peter to feed all those sheep and lambs of Jesus.
The resurrection was a real event, all right. It happened. But then . . . Jesus left. “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Peter and the others asked just before Jesus ascended. Well, no. Not in the way they had thought. Not politically. Not in the hurly-burly world we inhabit on this earth. There was a Gospel hope to proclaim but, well, it turns out it is actually a hope and not something we can grasp in the here and now. It is, as Peter declares, “a living hope,” but it’s kept in heaven for now. It will be a fine inheritance but not just yet. Clinging to it in faith may even lead to suffering for now. It’s a test, Peter says, it is a refining fire we endure. It’s all for the good. Really.
But then by verse 8 Peter admits that much though his readers love Jesus and are committed to him, for now they cannot see him. But he is real and so fills believers with hope even as we all begin already now to receive the salvation of our souls. Our bodies may suffer for now but our souls . . . well, they are just fine.
The Lectionary stops at verse 9 but verses 10-12 are curious. Because there Peter says that we’re still better off than the prophets of old who kept scouring the horizon for signs of the Messiah’s arrival. We at least live on the other side of that historical divide and have the words of the prophets themselves to confirm this. The Gospel, Peter as much as writes, is a thing of rare and inexpressible beauty so don’t ever discount your ability to read it and savor it. Why, he says in the end, even angels long to look at what we now can read and proclaim.
All of this is, as mentioned earlier, true and lyric and lovely. AND . . . let’s just admit that all of this also gets at some key tensions of what it means to be a Christian. We live in the already and the not yet. If it’s true that some of God’s greatest promises in salvation history have now been fulfilled, it is also true that they are not all fulfilled. Not yet. The fullness of God’s kingdom is, for now, still just up above us and just up ahead of us. For all that we know and experience in the present moment, the stubborn fact persists that the full richness of God’s kingdom is not available to us today. It’s tomorrow. Maybe. Or some time after that. But not just yet.
Scholars think Peter’s readers were experiencing trials and persecutions and so it is no surprise that Peter tries to comfort them. He needs at once to explain how to square an unhappy present with our hopes in Jesus while at the same time not wanting to water down that hope. It’s a delicate balancing act and it’s one the Church has been attempting for a couple of millennia now.
Peter’s own contribution to this in 1 Peter 1 is two-fold: first, our hope is alive and we have a Holy Spirit in us to confirm this again and again. We are not alone. Never have been. We testify to a reality that we find finally undeniable. When Peter says we are receiving already now the salvation of our souls, he is referring to a piece of knowledge that is as real for us believers as believing our eyes when we look out the window and see the maple tree swaying in the breeze. We trust our eyes, we trust God’s Spirit. The one is as undeniable for us as the other.
But secondly Peter says that what we know, what we preach about, what we rehearse in worship services are things so dear and so precious that, really, even angels love gazing at the Gospel over and over. Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis once told a story about a friend of hers who teaches art at a liberal arts college. The vast majority of her students don’t have much artistic talent or aspirations—they will not go on to be artists. They just have to take a core course in art. Davis asked her friend if that ever discouraged her, and she said no because she can still accomplish something significant by exposing her students to beauty. “My goal” she said, “is to teach them a way to see the world so that they will never be bored again.”
Something like that is what Peter is up to here as well. Life can be tough, even downright brutal at times. And we just cannot fully see the reality of our faith on display on the average Tuesday afternoon or Thursday morning. But we do have the Gospel, the words of the prophets fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. And if we can view that and also turn that Gospel into the lens through which we view the whole world, well, we will never be bored again. The Gospel is the rarest of gifts, a thing of sheer delight and wonder. “Don’t forget that!” Peter here urges.
This Epistle text is assigned by the Lectionary for the Sunday after Easter. “Low Sunday” it’s called in some places. After the flush of excitement brought about by Palm Sunday and Easter, now it’s back to reality. The pews are not as packed. Ordinary life resumes. It’s getting on toward the end of the school year in lots of places and students face a ton of work yet even as those not on academic calendars slog away at the ordinary and the typical: piles of dirty laundry, an inbox full of work waiting for us to get to, the car that has a warning light that we need to have somebody check out when we can find the time (if we can find the time) . . . That’s life. And in some places it’s a whole lot worse than just hum-drum. Recent bombings at churches in Egypt remind us again that life for God’s children in this world is tragic at times. Horribly so now and then. No one needs to convince us that we do NOT yet experience the fullness of God’s new reality in Christ.
But don’t forget our living hope, Peter sings! Don’t forget the Gospel of beauty that transforms everything! Remember the resurrection! Remember your baptism into Christ! Remember such things and be thankful! Oh yes and remember too: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! Somehow, some day, he really will make all things new.
In one of the Narnia stories, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy finds herself in a spooky old house. She is a bit afraid but is exploring her surroundings nonetheless. At one point she finds a very old book. She opens it and finds one page that was blank except for some words at the top under the heading of “A spell to make invisible things visible.” She was not so sure she ought to try it but she does. Moments later she can hear someone coming up behind her and she turns around only to see her beloved Lion, Aslan, coming up behind her. “Oh, Aslan, it was kind of you to come” Lucy says. But Aslan had not come from anywhere. “I have been here all the time but you have made me visible” Aslan assures her.
I have always remembered this scene because, of course, the deeper meaning that C.S. Lewis was getting at is plain enough: there are times when we feel alone, when “Aslan” or “Christ” seems far from us. But it’s not true: we live in the abiding presence of our God at all times. It’s just that it’s fairly rare that such invisible things become visible. But it’s true: our Lord has been here all the time. And always will be, even until the end of the age.
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