Sunday, April 10, 2005

1 Peter 1:17–23

Continuing the readings from 1 Peter appointed for the Eucharist this year in Easter, we have a clear indication that Peter’s letter is written to converted pagans, not to Jews. Notice that he refers to “the futile ways inherited from your ancestors,” and that “through [Christ] you have come to trust in God.” These are not things to be said to Jewish Christians, whose ancestors did not have “futile ways”, and who already trusted in God before their faith in Jesus. No, this is the way you talk to converted pagans.

Since we live in a pagan culture, a culture which cannot any longer claim to a general Christian or even godly understanding of itself and the world, Peter’s words are pretty good for us. He speaks of conversion and newness of life, being brought through faith in Christ, which his hearers could not have received any other way.

Think of such a converted pagan at that time. First Peter refers to the Father “who judges all people impartially according to their deeds”; this echoes Petrine preaching in Acts also, where Peter says that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” It’s actually distinctively Petrine. Our religion is so heavily Pauline, especially since the epistle to the Romans has been treated by some as if it were the basis of all theology. It’s good to stop and hear what Peter himself says, rather than filtering it through the lens of Paul.

Peter focuses on impartiality: that God does not play favors with Israel. This is a lesson that was hard won for Peter. But his experience of the gentile church taught it to him. Moreover, Peter follows this up, both in Acts and in his epistle, by referring to deeds as the standard for acceptability to God. It is right living which God wants. And since God shows no partiality, it cannot be that the written law is the key. That is, if you needed revelation from God to know what is right and wrong, then only those who get the revelation would have hope of living rightly. This is the dynamic of law and gospel again, but in a very different key from the more commonly heard Pauline version.

What Jesus brings to these pagans is not a new law even. It would be tempting to say that Jesus is the universal revelation, thus because Jesus is available to all, this is how God no longer plays favorites. But let’s not read Paul back into this here either. Peter himself tells us what he means. Jesus was indeed “revealed...for your sake.”

So what is this “for your sake,” what is it that Jesus did, according to Peter here? Two things. First, ransomed us from “the futile ways inherited from your ancestors.” Pagan religion and culture, those futile ways. Nothing here speaks of hell, nothing here speaks of the judgment of God, except to say that God judges everyone fairly according to their deeds. So the ransoming here is expressed as a ransoming from the past, from something bad we have gotten from our ancestors. If you think that Peter is talking about the future or some kind of ransoming yet to come then you’ve missed what he is talking about here. That doesn’t mean there is no such thing as a ransoming in the future; yes indeed there certainly is! But it’s not what Peter is talking about here.

Second thing Jesus did, according to Peter here. Because God “raised him from the dead and gave him glory,” we have come to trust in God. In other words, we see this wonderful thing God did for him, and we come to trust in God ourselves who can and will do such wonderful things for us.

And it ends with Peter’s statement of new birth: “you have been born anew,” with a new inheritance. And we must purify our souls, live in obedience to the truth, but that’s not enough: we must then “love one another deeply from the heart.” This is the point, and this is the “deed” most central by which we are all judged impartially.

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