April 17, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
Poor Thomas. He is the classic example of the old saying, “Make just ONE little mistake and you’re labeled for life!” Or in Thomas’s case, labeled for something more like FOREVER! But honestly, would any of us be so different were we faced with what Thomas confronted? Probably not. We’d be skeptical too. After all, his fellow disciples were not asking Thomas to embrace some commonplace. We’re talking about the history-shattering truth of the resurrection here! It is SUPPOSED to be an amazing, unique, and (just so) a HARD thing to believe.
So let’s stop pigeon-holing poor Thomas with the adjective “Doubting” for saying exactly what we’d all say if someone came up to us three days after a loved one’s funeral to say they’d run into the once-dead person. Not one of us would say, “That’s wonderful! Thanks for telling me!” No, we’d say “Right! I’ll believe that one when I see it!”
Thomas did too and it is wholly understandable. The notion that a dead man was back alive again was not exactly something you grabbed hold of and easily believed in a minute or two. So Thomas plays it safe but also then speculates aloud as to what it might take for him to believe this after all. As he talks, his rhetoric gets more and more exaggerated. “My friends, I’d have to see with my own eyes the nail holes in his hands. No, tell you what, I’d need to touch those holes with my own finger. Better yet, I’d want to stick my whole hand right into his side where the sword pierced him!”
Thomas kept mounting up an ever-larger heap of evidence that he thought he’d need to believe (and was just maybe being increasingly cheeky the more radical he got).
Of course, once he does meet Jesus, all that evaporates. To paraphrase a traditional aphorism, if you don’t have faith, then there will never be evidence enough to convince you and if you do have faith, no evidence is needed. Without faith, no evidence is sufficient; with faith, no evidence is necessary. And although most of us probably agree with that in principle, we can perhaps admit that sometimes we are still hungry for a little evidence, or a little more evidence than we usually have.
Jesus himself knows that faith is both a blessing and a miracle. That’s why he says in verse 29 that while it was one thing for Thomas to believe with Jesus standing right in front of him, it would one day be quite another thing to believe without such undeniable physical proof standing in the same room. But John at least seems confident that he has given us enough for just such faith to be born. That’s why he immediately follows this comment by Jesus with his own commentary in which he says, “Now listen, friends: I have left out a ton. Jesus said and did lots of other really amazing things that I just have not gotten around to even mentioning. But what I have given you is enough. Read it and believe!”
Now I don’t know about you, but when I read how much John left out, there is a part of me that wants to cry, “Tell me!” It’s rather like narrating a story to a little child. You know what happens the moment you say something like, “I’ve left out some of the best parts but I’m not going to tell you all that now!” The child’s reaction is predictably along the lines of, “Awww, come on! Don’t leave me hanging in suspense!”
There was so much more to say but John seems convinced that he had said and written enough. And by the Holy Spirit who guided John’s pen, we believe that he’s right about that. If John could know how many millions of people over the centuries have come to faith, or had their faith strengthened, by what he wrote in this gospel, wouldn’t it most certainly reduce him to tears? Could he have had any idea how great an effect his carefully crafted account of Jesus would finally have?
Sometimes we may find ourselves wanting more, but by faith we need to be satisfied with enough, which is exactly what our God in Christ gives us.
As everyone knows, John 20:30-31 looks powerfully like the end of the gospel. Jesus’ ministry is summarized, John admits he’s written down only a portion of what all Jesus said and did, and then gives the purpose statement for the whole gospel: “But these things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ of God and that by believing, you may have life in his name.” You can almost see the words “The End” following that verse. Fade to black.
But then comes the surprise: another entire chapter with a homely story on a beach. Jesus cooks breakfast for his friends, re-commissions Peter despite his recent failing, and then John again concludes the narrative in almost word-for-word replication on the conclusion of John 20 but this time, in John 21:25, he reaches for a hyperbole to indicate that not only did he not write everything down that Jesus said and did (a point he’d already granted at the end of chapter 20) but that as a matter of fact, IF anyone even could write them all down, the whole world could not contain the books that would be written.
This double-ending of John seems strange. It’s almost as though John finds it hard to ring down the curtain on his gospel. He knows it has to end and yet . . . and yet maybe not just yet. One more story. And then when that one final narrative snippet gets written down, he knows he has to quit and so says in essence, “I’m really going to quit this time but it’s not the end of the story. In fact, the story has no end. I have to quit writing and you have to quit reading but in truth, the world isn’t big enough for this story.” It seems to be John’s way of reminding us that when he quits writing and we quit reading, what remains is for us to go out into all the world to tell of the Christ who, though for a while he was in the world, was actually bigger than the world, too. And THAT is something to talk about every day forever and ever!
One of the most difficult disciplines that film actors need to learn is to resist the temptation to look directly at the camera. Actors need to pretend like the camera is not even there because if for even a second or two they glance into that lens, viewers see it immediately. In fact, if you’ve ever watched amateur video productions, then you know that one of the main things that distinguishes amateur work from professional films is that you can often spy one of the people in the scene cutting their eyes in the direction of the camera. It’s hard to resist! But it’s a problem because when it happens, it breaks the magic spell that films try to cast—it breaks down what in theater they call “the fourth wall” which is the one that exists between the stage and the audience.
Viewers need to suspend the awareness that this is just play acting so as to get immersed in the movie or the play as though it were really happening. But the second some actor becomes obviously aware of the camera, the viewer is aware of it too and the gig is up. I have been interviewed for a couple of mini-documentaries and the rule is the same. To help, the person who interviewed me stood just to the left of the camera and insisted I maintain eye contact with him so I would not start cutting my eyes in the direction of the camera lens.
Occasionally, of course, having an actor intentionally look at the camera is done for humorous effect. It becomes like an inside joke between the actor and the audience. (As in this clip from the movie Trading Places when Eddie Murphy’s character is being condescended to so badly that he looks square at the camera as if to say to the viewers of the movie, “Oh puh-leeze!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emvySA1-3t8 )
In general, though, not looking into the camera remains a thespian rule of thumb.
If you read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, then you know that these three evangelists also avoid, as it were, “looking into the camera.” They tell the story of Jesus straight out but without addressing their reading audiences directly. John, however, is different. Throughout his gospel John keeps stepping out of the scene to talk to us directly as readers. As you read various stories, it’s almost as though John stops the narrative now and again to whisper into your ear, “Now, remember, when Jesus first said this to us, we didn’t get it. It was only years later that we figured it out. OK, now back to our story!”
But nowhere is this as clearly evident as at the end of John 20 when we readers take center stage as John turns directly toward us. He even uses the second person pronoun: “This is written so that you may believe.” You can almost see John’s finger pointed in your direction.
But then . . . what John is writing is no piece of fiction, no novel or play or short story. It is the truth. And it is a truth that comes straight at every one of us!
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Author: Doug Bratt
Sometimes we need help understanding even the events that we ourselves witness. After all, no two-eyewitness accounts, to say nothing of the interpretations of the same incident are exactly the same.
For our text’s Peter, there can be no doubt about what has happened in just the past few months. While we don’t know if he actually witnessed it, he knows that the authorities “put [Jesus] to death by nailing him to the cross” (23b). Peter also knows that “God raised [Jesus] from the dead]” (24a) because he was among the many people to whom the risen Jesus appeared. What’s more, Peter knows that the Father “exalted [Jesus] to the right hand of God” (33). After all, he watched it happen with his own two eyes.
While we can’t be sure, it wouldn’t surprise us if some of the people in Peter’s audience on the first Pentecost Sunday had also watched the authorities crucify Jesus. And even if they themselves didn’t actually watch it, we can imagine that at least some of them have heard about it.
As a result, Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, believes he must explain to his hearers just what actually happened to Jesus. He begins his presentation with an account of what he assumes many of them already know: “Jesus of Nazareth … [did] miracles, signs and wonders” (22). The apostle, however, adds a detail about Jesus’ work that at least some members of his audience didn’t recognize. He claims that Jesus’ wonders were part of God’s accreditation of him that God actually performed through him.
On top of that, Peter speaks of Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion. Jesus was, he says, “handed over to you” (23). And “you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” The apostles’ words are almost shockingly blunt. Their both apparent insensitivity to both power dynamics in occupied Israel and the way people have sometimes used his words to justify anti-Semitism jolt modern ears. However, Peter’s message is clear: the Roman authorities and Jesus Jewish contemporaries share culpability for Jesus’ crucifixion.
Acts 2 preachers and teachers must show great sensitivity in the way they handle verse 23’s assertions. It’s not just that people have historically misappropriated them to justify cruelty toward Jewish people. It’s also that the New Testament writers insist that each of us also shares in the culpability for Jesus’ death on the cross.
Jewish religious leaders may have convinced the Romans to execute Jesus. The Roman authorities may actually have crucified Jesus. But people like Paul imply that we have figuratively pounded the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet by refusing to completely love God and each other.
At this point, however, Peter’s sermon makes a striking turn. The apostle has just used the second person plural “you” (su) four times in just two verses (22-23). He points his finger directly at Jerusalem’s Jews who stand before him as sharing culpability for Jesus’ crucifixion. They, Peter insists in verse 23, put Jesus to death by nailing him to a cross. Under any ordinary circumstance, that would give the members of his audience the last word on Jesus. And that word would be death.
Yet Peter’s sermon isn’t primarily about human actions and cruelty. It’s about God from first to last and everywhere in between. Peter, in fact, spends far less time talking about what people did to Jesus than on what God did to, for and with Jesus. He doesn’t just speak of God’s role in working miracles, wonders and signs through Jesus. In fact, the apostle insists that Jesus was handed over to be tried and crucified “by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge” (23). Whatever that mysterious assertion means, it almost certainly includes the fact that God chose to allow the Jews to hand Jesus over to the Romans.
Yet Peter adds a detail about Jesus’ life with which members of his audience may or may not be aware. It, in fact, may come as news to some of them that “God raised [Jesus] from the dead, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (24), just as, Peter adds, David had predicted (31). So Peter insists that while people, including members of audiences in all times and places (including our own) killed Jesus, God raised him. No matter what their religious leaders have tried to convince them, Peter tells members of his audience that Jesus is alive.
Yet while the Lectionary mysteriously chooses to omit his account of it from the text it appoints for this Sunday, Peter insists God didn’t just raise Jesus from the dead. He claims God also “exalted [him] to the right hand of God” (33). In doing so, the apostle adds in verse 36, “God … made this Jesus … both Lord and Christ.” The risen and ascended Jesus now reigns from the heavenly realm on behalf of all those whom God loves and calls to himself.
Those who wish to preach and/or teach Acts 2:14a, 22-32 might let the Spirit help them approach it from several different angles. As my colleague Scott Hoezee earlier noted in an excellent Sermon Starter on this passage, Peter might just as well have been talking about his fellow disciples and himself in verses 22-23. In fact, he might just as well have admitted, “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to us by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among us through him, as we ourselves know.”
Peter and his fellow disciples had always realized that Jesus was special and different. Yet there was a lot they didn’t know about him. But on the first Pentecost God miraculously showed them that God had raised Jesus as both Lord and Christ. Just ten short days after Jesus ascended to the heavenly realm, the Holy Spirit showed Peter and Jesus’ other disciples that Jesus was, in Hoezee’s words, “not just a man but the divine Son of God whose death had caused the whole cosmos to turn the corner from darkness into light.”
This same God who graciously transformed and inspired Peter is still busy changing God’s modern adopted sons and daughters. After all, we’re naturally no more aware of who Jesus really is than any of his contemporaries, including both his persecutors and disciples, were. It’s only through God’s gift to us of the Holy Spirit that we realize that the risen and ascended Jesus is our own Lord and Christ.
A second potential “angle” for a sermon on the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday is what one might call an “interpretive angle.” Peter claims his first Pentecost audience knew some basic things about Jesus. They apparently realized that Jesus had performed miracles, wonders and signs. Members of Peter’s first Pentecost audience also at least seemed familiar with Jesus’ crucifixion.
Yet they didn’t yet understand what it all meant. Peter’s first hearers didn’t seem to understand that God was at work accrediting Jesus by working miracles, wonders and signs through him. They also had no way of knowing that Jesus was handed over to his executioners “by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge” (23). They, in other words, couldn’t know what was really going on in Jesus life and death, as well as resurrection and ascension, unless someone told them. Peter’s hearers needed the Spirit-filled Peter to explain it to them.
In similar ways, those whom we teach and to whom we preach observe all sorts of things about daily life. Most of them are materialists who assume that everything has a material cause. We conceive children because we’re intimate. We put food on our table and a roof over our head because we make enough money to do so. We live a long time because we eat and exercise right.
It’s the job of Peter’s heirs in whom the same Spirit lives and works to help interpret what’s going on, or more precisely, what God’s doing in the world. So, for example, conception isn’t just or even primarily a biological act; it’s part of God’s creative work. Our food and shelter aren’t just the products of our good work; they’re among God’s many gifts of “daily bread” to us. Long life is not just or even mainly our rewards for careful living; they’re part of God’s generosity towards us.
Some speeches don’t just interest, move or even bore us. They also change the very way we understand things. In his fine book, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Garry Wills claims that Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address did precisely that. In it the President— in just 272 words that took him only three minutes to deliver — transformed our understanding of the Declaration of Independence.
Lincoln wasn’t the featured speaker that day. That honor was given to a then-famous orator named Edward Everett, who spoke just prior to the President. Yet few people now recall anything Everett said in his lengthy and elegant speech. Lincoln’s speech was so short that some in the crowd were confused and left to wonder if that was all there was to it. It was. And it changed history.
But it did so subtly. Lincoln assumed no one would pay attention to or remember his speech. But he was wrong. The world has forgotten what the Honorable Mr. Everett had to say, but Lincoln’s handful of words remains legendary.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” But Mr. Lincoln, unlike those founding Fathers, was now including people who were African-American in the definition of “all men.”
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Subtly but skillfully Lincoln turned the tables on his audience and his country: he shifted from dedicating a cemetery to making the American people dedicate themselves to a new birth of freedom – a new birth that was nothing less than the end of slavery. After all, sometimes you don’t need many words to create a huge effect. Sometimes you don’t need “in your face” rhetoric to get someone’s attention and so alter his or her viewpoint from the inside out. Acts 2 shows that the Apostle Peter understood that.
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 16 is the perfect Psalm for this second Sunday of the Easter season. The last 3 verses were the text for Peter’s Pentecost sermon, in which he proved from Scripture that Jesus’ death and resurrection had always been at the heart God’s plan of salvation. Psalm 16 is also the perfect Psalm for our times. The first verse of Psalm 16, which sets the tone for the entire Psalm, taps directly into the intense search for security that dominates our terror haunted time. “Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge.” Fascinatingly, the Easter theme of Psalm 16 is exactly the solution to our frantic search for safety. Let’s take a closer look at both.
In this second decade of the 21st Century, the old Peanuts comic strip paints an accurate picture of Everyman and Everywoman. There stands Linus clutching his security blanket to his cheek. As long as he has that blanket, all is well. But all is not well, because Snoopy is lurking somewhere off on the next panel of the comic strip. At the moment when Linus is feeling most secure, Snoopy will come tearing along and rip that security blanket from Linus’ hand. And Linus’ world will fall apart.
That’s us, holding tightly to whatever give us a feeling of security, whether that’s the power of government assuring us of homeland security or a comprehensive insurance policy or a carefully constructed portfolio or a set of religious beliefs and practices. But the dogs of war or sickness or accident or market collapse lurk just off the screen of our vision.
No wonder the construction of safe rooms is a booming business. A safe room (also called a panic room) is a fortified room that is installed in a private residence or business to provide safe shelter, or a hiding place, for the inhabitants in the event of a break in, home invasion, tornado, terror attack or other threat. The Internet is filled with ads for such safe room. “Peace of mind with RSC steel safe rooms” reads one ad.
Psalm 16 points us in a very different direction in our frantic quest for security. As I said, the first verse is the theme text of the entire Psalm, and it should be the theme text for our time. “Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge.” It’s a prayer of trust. The simple petition is based on a simple profession of faith—“for in you I take refuge.” You are my safe room. The rest of the Psalm shows us the deep meaning of such a simple faith.
Verse 3 shows us the central pillar of that secure faith with a play on words. “I said to the LORD, ‘You are my Lord….’” The capital letters of the first Lord indicate that the Hebrew word there is Yahweh, the quintessential covenant name of God. The smaller case letters in the second Lord point to the fact that this is a different Hebrew word. It’s the word Adonai, a word that connotes power and authority. In using that word, David is saying, Yahweh owns me; I belong to him. Not only is he my covenant Lord who has promised to be with me through thick and thin, but he is also my Lord and Master, to whom I have given my whole life.
Here’s the point of that play on words. Only when we have made God our absolute Master will we experience the security of dwelling in him. This verse reminds me of the First Question and Answer of the Heidelberg Catechism with which I was raised from a very early age. “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”
In verses 3 and 4 Psalm 16 continues to narrow the focus of the trust that brings security. As James Luther Mays says, such trust must be monotheistic, not pluralistic. I will not run after other gods. I will rely on Yahweh, my Lord, alone. Ancient Israel was surrounded and infiltrated by a host of other potential sources of security and prosperity, as are we. But running after such false gods will disappoint us, because they cannot give security. Even worse they will also “increase our sorrows.” Dividing our loyalties between the true God and any of these fake substitutes will only deepen our insecurity.
In verses 5 and 6 David begins to describe the blessings of taking refuge in God alone, using familiar images from Israel’s life. “My portion” and “my cup” and “my lot” have all been assigned to us by God himself. The language harks back to the days of Joshua when Yahweh apportioned the Promised Land to the various tribes and clans and families. They didn’t get their lot by human invention, but by divine intervention. So human intervention cannot take that inheritance away. It was God’s to give and to take.
So, as long as Israel trusted in Yahweh, their lot and portion and cup was safe. It was only when they forsook Yahweh for the other gods around them that he took away their inheritance and sent them into Exile. But then in his covenant faithfulness, he brought them back to the place where he had drawn the boundary lines. Interestingly, Israel is back in that land again today, fighting like a wildcat to keep the inheritance. Will such human efforts make them secure? Or, as Psalm 16 says, will security finally come only to those who put absolute trust in Yahweh alone?
Indeed, Psalm 16 suggests very strongly that the greatest blessing for those who take refuge in God alone is their relationship with God. The greatest benefit of trusting God is not what God gives us; it is precisely having such a relationship of trust. Verse 2 says, “apart from you I have no good thing.” That might be nothing more than an acknowledgement that all blessing flow from God. But it might also be the deeper confession that God himself is the greatest blessing in life. Psalm 73:25 says that most clearly. “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.” If that is our deepest confession, nothing can ultimately rip away our security, because God is our all in all. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In verse 8 David expresses the complete security of those whose focus is on God and God alone. “I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” In that first sentence, David “practices the presence” of the Lord. By deliberate actions of our wills, and by strong concentration of our faith, perhaps supported and strengthened by spiritual disciplines like prayer and meditation, we must keep our focus on the Lord.
But even when we lose our focus and our eyes begin to dart around in search of our Snoopy, the Lord is still at our right hand. Our security, in other words, does not depend on our vigilance. It depends on the Lord’s faithfulness. Because he is beside us in the position of complete authority, we will not be shaken.
That’s easy to say. But what happens when the ultimate enemy attacks. It’s easy to have a glad heart and a joyful tongue when the lines have fallen in pleasant places, but what happens to our faith when death comes to visit. If we have not made the Lord our refuge in life, our Master in all things, and the Center of our desires and loves, the invasion of death will shake us. I’ve seen it happen to many a fine church member who had professed faith in Christ. Death shakes us.
So, it helps us to hear David’s confidence in the face of death: “my body will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.” That is a remarkable statement of faith for the Old Testament, where almost uniformly death is the end of things, including one’s relationship with God. “Death in the Psalms is not only the loss of one’s vital existence. It is also the loss of the presence of God and the pleasure of his presence. It is God who is lost in death.” (Mays)
David has confidence that this will not happen to him. His hope is for more than this life. It is true that many scholars wonder exactly what to make of these last 3 verses. But Peter and Paul in the New Testament knew exactly what they meant. In Acts 2:24-32 and 13:34, both of those central apostles proclaimed that these verses in Psalm 16 were about the resurrection of Jesus. Though David could not have known that, the early church knew because of their encounter with the risen Christ. As Patrick Henry Reardon says in Christ in the Psalms, “The Church’s experience of the risen Christ is the source of all correct understanding of Holy Scripture.”
Perhaps because of the Lord’s “counsel” (verse 7), David had new insight into the fate of believers after death (cf. the way Psalm 23 ends). “You have made known to me the path of life,” he says in verse 11. God has surely made that path known to us through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the path of eternal life has been opened to all who put their trust in him. His resurrection guarantees ours (cf. I Cor. 6:14, II Cor. 4:14, and Romans 8:11). We will not be abandoned to the grave. Our bodies will not see decay. We will not lose God when we die; rather he “will fill us with joy in his presence, with eternal pleasures at his right hand.”
The ultimate security is knowing that even when we die, we live. In speaking to Martha whose life had been deeply shaken by the invasion of death, Jesus spoke to all who take refuge in him. “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Our answer will determine whether we enjoy security in our times.
An estranged wife and her diabetic pre-teen daughter have just purchased a renovated brownstone in New York. To their delight they discover that the previous owner had installed a safe room. Very soon they discover to their horror that they will need that room, because three burglars break into their new home. Mother and daughter race to the safe room, followed by the sinister thieves. Unfortunately, the previous owner hadn’t gotten around to installing a telephone in that room, so they can’t call out for help. The daughter has no insulin with her and is slipping into diabetic shock. And, worst of all, the intruders know they are in the room. In fact, they have broken into the house precisely to get something that the previous owner had left in that room, namely, three million dollars. In a movie filled with terror, the safe room becomes the title of the movie, “Panic Room.” Ultimately all of our safe rooms become panic rooms, because they cannot provide us the safety we crave. Only by trusting the Lord as our refuge can we enjoy a panic free security.
1 Peter 1:3-9
Author: Scott Hoezee
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.