A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Easter 3 ~ 1 Peter 1:3-9
Today we get another prime example of why it’s so important not to read the bible too quickly or lightly – to not just skim the surface – or you might get yourself into a lather about what it seems to be saying. On the one hand, today’s scripture is a treasure trove of deep, theological insight and inspiration. On the other hand, it might seem to be saying things that feel contrary to what we generally say we believe about God.
Remember, if you read something that makes God into anything other than pure love, pure holiness, and pure compassion, the first thing that you need to do is to read it again with a different lens of interpretation. God is always and only Love. So if something sounds unloving – like maybe the whiff of God sending trials to test us – then we need to reread and rethink, because that ain’t God.
Another good thing to remember is that you’re always encountering someone’s editorial view when engaging the bible – either the original writer’s, or the translator’s, or the editor’s, or even mine. In other words, that’s a lot of humanity influencing how you hear the text. Yet another caveat is that we’re just looking at 6 verses of a much longer letter, so we’re just getting a snapshot, a small piece of a larger puzzle – and this letter is just one book of 27 that make up the whole New Testament, so a laser-beam focus on a sentence or two can be problematic.
A final word of caution is to say that context is supremely important to understanding. Words mean different things in different contexts – and we hear things very differently depending on how and when we’re hearing them.
So what’s the context? I’m glad you asked. My answer is, “it depends.” This is called a disputed letter, meaning that biblical scholars can’t agree on who the author really is. Some say it’s the actual Simon Peter, one of Jesus’ original 12 disciples. If so, it had to have been writing before the mid-0060s when Peter is believed to have died. If it’s from Peter’s hand then the dispersed, fledgling church groups that he’s writing to are just getting started on their Christian journeys, and he’s encouraging them to stay the course, even when there are trials challenging them.
The majority of scholars believe it was actually written in the 0090s, or later, and it was named 1 Peter in his honour. That was a very common practice in ancient days, and not just in biblical writing. Also, the sophisticated level of Greek grammar in the letter was almost surely too elevated for a simple Galilean fisher. The later date also allows the explanation that the trials facing the early church-folk were actual persecutions by the Romans.
For us, it doesn’t really matter which view you hold, unless you start to draw big conclusions from it which might not be appropriate. For instance, 1 Peter 1:6-7
In (God’s love) you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith–being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire–may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
That sounds suspiciously like the old joke: Jesus is coming. Look busy!
But I don’t think that’s what is intended here. It’s not aimed at seasoned veterans of faith. It’s not really about the big picture of a whole life lived in faith that will surely encounter trials by times. It’s much more narrow than that. It’s about those first tentative steps in a mysterious new life, or new way, or new season that you haven’t fully got a handle on yet, but you deeply desire to walk in.
It’s a message about those perilous first steps, fraught with danger. It’s a message about trusting in the new life you ‘are receiving’ and staying the course, despite trials. It’s a message applauding and affirming the faithfulness of followers of Jesus who follow him without actually having the benefit of the first disciples who actually ‘saw’ him ‘in the flesh’.
It’s a message about encouragement to revel in your new life, and not be tempted to relapse, revert, backslide.
It’s a message about starting a great new adventure, and it offers these new venturers some wisdom about staying the course.
That may apply to some people in our midst, but most of us have been at this ‘following Jesus’ stuff for a while. So what is it saying to us?
We talk about Easter every year, and we lift up these wonderful themes of renewal and rebirth – and those are themes for all of us. Even the faith veterans. We are always being reborn, and renewed – if only to continually journey ever deeper into the Way of Jesus. Every deepening is a rebirth and a recommitment. That’s why we all said the creed together, and I hope many of you quietly reaffirmed your own profession of faith when we baptized Ken earlier. New life is for all of us.
And as you probably know all too well, when you enter into a new life, or a new phase of life, or a new way, sometimes elements of your former life/way rise up and try to drag you back into it. Just like Michael Corleone said in The Godfather: Part III, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” Anyone who’s ever committed to breaking a ‘bad habit’ in favour of a healthier choice knows that the clarion call of craving to give in to the former thing is very powerful.
That’s the context of this passage. It speaks of the holy fire refining us (that’s actually what “tested by fire” means) – it’s a refining image. The dross, the impurities being ‘burned away’ in refining, the ‘crud’ that we’ve accumulated that needs to fall away to reveal your truer, more ‘whole’ self, are the vestiges of your former way.
We’re not being tested in order to purify ourselves – and God surely does not send trials to make sure we’re faithful.
Instead, the rebirth that persons who claim Christ as guide/teacher/leader/saviour has – in that very act of saying “I will, God being my helper” – has already begun the refining. Our claim of oneness with God and kindred-ness with Christ IS our refining action – that melts away our former way – that helps us ‘die’ to what was, and claim renewed life, resurrected life. And in that constant renewing, that always Eastering pattern of dying and rising into new life and new depth, we become renewed venturers again and again.
Verse 5 “you who are being protected by (God’s) power” and verse 9 “for you are receiving the (fruition) of your faith” – those are present tense! It’s not some test to pass for some future reward. The ‘reward’, if you want to frame it that way, is our identity and groundedness in love – and that’s already present from the first moment you claim it. (Ok, it’s actually always present throughout everyone’s entire life, but we really only get the benefit of it when we awaken to it, and open ourselves to it, and let go of what we were grasping, and receive it fully.)
This is a great Easter season text because it makes us focus on venturing – on being venturers. There’s no time to bask in the glow of Easter, because Easter isn’t the end – it’s a new beginning. And new beginnings are often rocky, and filled with challenges, especially if the ‘dying’ part, the ‘leaving the former thing behind’ part, the ‘ending’ part meant embarking on a very new Way of being in the ‘reborn’, ‘renewed’, new life part. Laying claim to new life, to Easter, doesn’t mean we pat ourselves on the back and get a holiday – it means we begin to be equipped (or re-equipped) to journey forth ever deeper in Christ’s way of loving God, loving people, and loving one another – love, love, love.
I’ve used the word ‘venturers’ a few times today – even titled my sermon that. A venturer is someone who undertakes a path that is dangerous, daring, or of uncertain outcome – a risky enterprise. Our faith doesn’t carry physical dangers for us, but we are certainly on a daring and somewhat risky path – not because of persecutors, but because of those who would denigrate us for living differently because our values of love, love, love have consequences for our ethics and our interactions. When we stand for radical love and holy justice we must risk offending those who prosper from injustice, and when you call someone out they tend to not take it kindly. That’s a risk. When we became an Affirming congregation we drew a line in the name of love, that had consequences.
We are all venturers in a daring faith – and our venture is always being renewed and deepened.
1 Peter 1:8-9 Although you have not (physically) seen (Jesus), you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him (belove him) and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for (as you love, love, love – as you venture in faith) you are receiving the (fruition) of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
As I was writing this sermon a wonderful song by Stephen Curtis Chapman kept playing in my brain. It’s called “The Great Adventure” and it uses kind of an old western movie theme to describe this Great Adventure that a life of faith is. I will finish with his words, my fellow venturers:
Saddle up your horses / We’ve got a trail to blaze
Through the wild blue yonder of God’s amazing grace
Let’s follow our leader into the glorious unknown
This is life like no other / This is The Great Adventure
(watch the song video here)