What’s this inheritance? Peter’s grammar is tightly wrought and hard to parse here. I don’t have good enough Greek to make my own judgment, so I may embarass myself by relying on the NRSV, but here goes.
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
kept in heaven for you,
who are being protected
by the power of God
for a salvation ready to be revealed
in the last time.
So, the new birth, that’s baptism. And it brings two things: a living hope, and an inheritance.
The living hope is given through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The inheritance has three properties: imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. And it’s “kept in heaven.”
And the recipients of this gift start out as “us”, but end up as “for you,” and who? We who are being protected by God’s power, and through faith. And protected for what? A salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
Ok, that’s the grammar of the sentence. So what’s the inheritance? I’m going to guess that it’s not mere repetition, and front the following interpretation. At least, this was in the background of my homily this morning. (But if I’m wildly off base here, at least my homily didn’t rely on this interpretation!)
The living hope, I think, is our present hope. The hope we have now, in all its fullness, for all the things we hope for. A constant theme in my preaching is that this kind of hope is hope for heaven, for universal justice, truth, and love, for reconciliation with everyone, for all that eschatalogical stuff, but also and perhaps even more urgently it is hope for all the ordinary things we hope for: hope for security and peace, hope for tasty food, hope for our children to be happy, and so forth. So that’s the present hope. Hope is a big thing, but my little quest here is to figure out what the inheritance is, not the hope.
Ok, so the inheritance. One is tempted to say “eternal life.” But wait. If so, that’s mere surplusage. Because eternal life is part of the hope. And eternal life isn’t being “kept in heaven.” Something close is; better than eternal life, perhaps the inheritance is our resurrection? Unlike eternal life, the resurrection of our bodies isn’t something we have now. It’s something being “kept for us.” But that doesn’t work either, because it doesn’t address really the strong theme of preservation which is going on here. If this were pointing to the resurrection of our bodies, then it wouldn’t be saying all this stuff about preservation. No, the resurrection is included in the living hope too, it’s part and parcel of our hope. Moreover, surely the resurrection is the “salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
Ok, so then what is the inheritance? It’s kept in heaven, for we who are being protected. I’ll tell you what I think it is. It’s the Body of Christ, and specifically the church as the body of Christ. And the church is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. This is how my homily this morning had it, but I relied on the gospel reading more. The church hasn’t been fading. It’s stronger than ever, and cannot be defiled, cannot perish, and cannot fade. (Why? Because it’s kept in heaven!)
Now this is pretty sketchy, I admit. Perhaps the more natural reading is just to take this as referring to eternal life and the resurrection and the consummation of all things. At least, that’s how I’ll probably think of it within a week. But I trot out this tendentious reading for one purpose: to underscore what Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus does not make here a comparison between Thomas and the other ten. No, no, no. For all eleven only believed after they saw. (And there is nothing in the gospel to suggest that Thomas takes Jesus up on the offer to touch his wounds either.)
The comparison is between Thomas and us, and indeed, the lectionary chose this bit from 1 Peter almost certainly because of the phrase Peter uses, “even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice.” Ah hah! See, we are better off than the apostles. We are more blessed, more happy, more fortunate. Why? Because we have so much greater a cloud of witnesses. Despite not seeing Jesus, we see him more clearly than the apostles ever could, and our successors in faith will see even more clearly yet.
The Buddhist picture has it that the Buddha comes, delivers the Dhamma, and over time it is corrupted and weakens and decays. Eventually it has vanished from the earth, and then after many ages another Buddha appears. But the Christian picture is the dead opposite. Jesus Christ came, bringing the Gospel. But the Gospel does not, over time, corrupt, weaken, and decay. No, just the opposite. It grows and strengthens and builds. The later you come, the more blessed you are, because the Gospel has expanded and grown still more, including more and more witness to the reconciling love of God in Christ. The legacy of Jesus is not just the Bible, or a “deposit of the faith once delivered” (though it includes those things); Jesus is with us now, and our primary witness to the Resurrection is in our heart, the testimony of the Holy Spirit, speaking to us through the Church, present and real.
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