First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Easter 2

William Loader

Easter 2: 19 April 1 Peter 1:3-9

From Peter the fisherman of Galilee joining the cry for the breaking in of the reign of God to bring good news to the poor to a finely composed, highly stylised letter to congregations in Asia Minor who find themselves up against it - that is quite some journey in faith and theology. Some see in the person of Peter the unbroken thread which links these events. Others recognise, with greater probability, a succession from Peter to one who owns his authority and writes in his name. There are many such threads. People did the same with Paul. The outcome, however, is a writing which joins the inspired pieces with which we engage in celebrating our Christian heritage and in which we declare that we have also heard the word of the Lord.

The focus here is not transformation of life here and now but escape from present hardships in a salvation to come in the heavens (1:4). Christ's resurrection is its guarantee (1:3). It is the goal of our rebirth (1:3) and gives us joy in the mean time (1:6, 8). The here and now is a time of exile (1:17). We don't belong here. Who can write like this and understand faith in this way? It collapses the gospel into survival mentality - we just can't wait to escape the here and now. Are we a self-congratulatory clique holding on tight? Such an approach contrasts starkly with the outgoing compassion we find in the gospels and with Paul's sense of mission and willingness to risk crossing boundaries.

It is, of course, too easy to challenge such theology - and it should be challenged. There are however situations where people feel so overwhelmed and threatened that the only hope lies in looking beyond and the only comfort in being reassured that ultimately we shall not be abandoned. Is the author perhaps addressing similar dangers to those which prompted John of Patmos to produce the Book of Revelation with its visions of the future and its hopes for the fall of Rome? Here in 1 Peter the situation is not so desperate. We pray for the emperor rather than cry for the annihilation of the beast. 1:6 does however suggest that adversity threatens. It is likely that we have to do with a combination of civil pressure and Jewish opposition. These had a nasty way of combining when Christians could be exposed as no longer belonging to the tolerated religion of Judaism. All this makes a date in the 80's probable. It also makes sense of the letter's emphases.

Even within the statements about hope and future relief or salvation we find the flavour of the gospel. God's action comes out of abundant compassion (1:3). Response is also love (1:8). The goal is also more than escape. There is little to suggest a consumer mentality, no heavenly hedonism, no concrete rewards - hope seems tied to the person and presence of God.

The image of testing (1:7) was common enough. People purified metals by fire. A deterministic theology will reinterpret all suffering as part of a divine plan and find comfort in it. Perhaps the author stays only with the imagery. The need to be in control of the explanations even of one's own suffering comes often at the expense of turning God into a puller of strings and worse. Big picture thinking which looks outside into the world beyond a few of our own private experiences makes such theology hard to believe if not unbearable. It was a theology that failed with the holocaust and failed with the tsunami. And many now find God, if at all, in the vulnerable, in the crying and the vicissitudes. We carry all the options in our traditions and so cannot escape the conflict.

Blessed be God - in adversity is a defiant assertion of hope and love, often blurred by our not having answers and coming from a deep sense of alienation, perhaps exile. Love is our only hope, Christ's death and resurrection, its grammar. When the mists clear, we will also see the world around us in a different way. The letter will come to that. But out of the void of adversity sometimes all we can do is cry for hope: Blessed be God!

First Reading: Easter 2: 19 April Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Gospel: Easter 2: 19 April  John 20:19-31