May 9, 2004

The Church in Society: Our Living Hope
1 Peter 1:1-12

Maintaining a balanced perspective in life can often be a very delicate thing. We move along from day to day, week to week, and year to year, through a wide variety of experiences, and our outlook on life fluctuates at times like a pendulum from one extreme to the other. We celebrate the highs that life sometimes brings, but we also find ourselves learning to cope with disappointments and even sudden alterations in our circumstances. Certain conditions in our own lives and in the world around us cloud our thinking, shatter our emotional equilibrium, and sometimes throw us completely out of whack.

During just the past few weeks, two tragic events within our own wider community illustrate what might happen when our outlook on life swings out of control. Last Sunday, Hollie M. Gable left a note in which she wrote that she couldn’t go on. “I love my kids and Ken,” she continued, so I am taking them with me.” Hollie then shot and killed her three children, her boyfriend, and herself.

In a different but no less disturbing event, 18-year-old Corey Bischof, who our own Joe Hess knew well and taught in class, apparently decided that he could not go on either. Though well liked by those around him and actively engaged in life—he was the star quarterback of Cumberland Valley’s nationally ranked football team—Corey drove to a wooded area in Perry County and took his own life. He died, if you can imagine it, clutching the crucifix that was given to him on his first communion.

These are, to be sure, extreme examples of what might happen when people are overwhelmed by the circumstances of life. Yet in a real sense, every one of us can at least begin to relate to feelings of despair that at times become hard to manage. Individuals, like Hollie and Corey, experience such despair. They feel threatened. They feel at risk. They feel angry. They feel unwanted. They feel unimportant. But communities—various groups of people—might very well experience similar despair collectively. Ethnic groups relegated to the margins of society. Religious communities threatened as a result of their faith. Clans, tribes and even entire countries at risk because of any number of natural or human-initiated catastrophes. This sense of despair sets in—I felt it keenly was I lived in Zambia in 1991-1992 during a horrendous drought. People were literally grinding corn husks in their attempts to find even a morsel of food. What is needed during such times, according to Erich Fromm in his book entitled The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, is neither optimism, which suggests that nothing needs to be done, nor pessimism, which concludes that nothing can be done, but hope. Hope.

1 Peter is not so much an epistle that addresses a specific theological problem. Peter did not write this letter to teach its recipients how to worship correctly, nor did he attempt to straighten out some major division within the churches here addressed. Instead, the letter seeks to encourage a group of people during what was clearly an extraordinarily difficult time. These followers of Jesus, living throughout the region that we today call Turkey, found themselves marginalized and persecuted. The very nature of the letter suggests throughout that Peter was concerned about their welfare, and he sensed that their corporate perspective on life was in danger. They were losing heart. And so he wrote this letter, sent throughout the area, to encourage and strengthen these believers. Peter wants them to keep perspective, even in the midst of an unfriendly world. And what he offers is a message, not of optimism or pessimism, but of remarkable hope.

Peter begins by assuring these believers that they, as a result of God’s mercy, have experienced a new birth through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Peter elsewhere in the letter refers to their former way of life, a life in which they were “nobodies.” Now, they not only have become somebody, but somebody in God’s sight. Peter, though writing primarily to Gentile believers in this letter, uses a key term here that was earlier reserved for the Jewish people alone. You have been “chosen,” he assures these believers. You are no longer on the outside looking in.

Do you remember what it felt like when you were chosen? Someone actually picked you? You stood there with your ball glove on the ground, hanging your head in anticipation of being rejected. And someone called your name—“I want Terry on my team!” You tried out for the play, knowing full well that you had no chance of making the cut. But then you saw it—your name was on the list hanging outside of the auditorium! “God chose you,” Peter assures these struggling people. “You have been invited in.

And with that invitation comes a new start. It is like “being born again,” Jesus said to Nicodemus. In Peter’s mind, the slate has been wiped clean. This new birth, he explains later (1:22-23), is such a complete act of God that ordinary people can be totally transformed, inside and out. Our souls, however corrupt, are purified. Our inclinations, however self-serving, are now shaped by genuine love. Why should we be people of hope, discouraged and despondent followers of Jesus might ask? Because, Peter replies, you’ve been born anew into the family of God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t so much matter if you feel at home in the world. It is not of great importance whether or not society deems you reliable and acceptable. You are members of a new family now.

Peter further assures them, however, that with this new birth comes an inheritance that is indestructible. It can neither be consumed by internal decay nor destroyed by external forces. When people make decisions these days concerning their investments, they factor in a wide range of variables, including interest rates, risk factors, and time periods. The best investments, of course, yield the highest rate of interest with the least amount of risk in the shortest period of time. But we all know what happens when external conditions throw the system out of kilter, and our investments head south. And you end up checking the paper and listening to reports from Wall Street, fearing that years of deposits will evaporate right before your eyes. Just think for a moment—perhaps you would rather not!—about what happened to your investments during the last few years.

These early Christians living in Asia Minor no doubt thought much the same thing about their faith in Christ. The world around them was unfriendly, their lives were at risk, and they were repeatedly tried and tested. And as their pendulum shifted further and further, Peter assures them that their inheritance is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. That same inheritance is kept, not in some volatile bank or credit union, but in heaven itself. This same investment is untouchable, and its value will only increase. Nothing can destroy it. No army can take it away. No tragedy on this earth can alter it in any way. Suffering cannot tarnish it. Persecution has no control over it. In fact, as we learn to cope with the adversities of this life, our inheritance in heaven simply increases in value (vv. 6-9).

Finally, Peter provides this rather imaginative—even mystical—description in vv. 10-12 so as to assure these Christians just how precious this inheritance—the salvation of their souls—actually is. The prophets of old, he suggests, vigorously researched the matter. They thought about it and anticipated it. The Old Testament is chock full of texts in which the prophets longed for God to write the law on the hearts of his people rather than in stone. They longed for God to send the anointed one who would come and shepherd his wandering people. They longed for a heavenly king to rule and reign in the place of earthly failures. They longed for the Spirit of God to make all things new. They longed for such things, and they wrote about them, but they never experienced them for themselves. “They did the homework, but it was for your sake,” Peter assures his readers. What they could only long for with great anticipation you have actually experienced. This salvation that you have is special!

And not only the prophets of old. The angels, messengers who serve as heavenly assistants of sorts, long to look into this salvation as well. They are bending over, desperately trying to see something that is clearly spectacular. This gift of salvation, this extension of God’s mercy, is truly something indescribable to behold. It is better than anything the world has to offer.

What is needed during times of discouragement and duress, Erich Fromm wrote, is not optimism, which says that nothing needs to be done, nor pessimism, which concludes that nothing can be done, but hope. And what is hope? Hope, while appreciating a careful and realistic evaluation of the present circumstances, however grim they may be, refuses to believe that such circumstances are all there is. And for those of us who follow Jesus, what lies above and beyond the hurts, disappointments, and injustices of life? What must we always keep in the center of our minds as we wonder through this world and feel displaced, or struggle to fit in? What must we constantly remind ourselves as we seek to keep our perspective in balance? According to Peter, it is simply this. Through God’s great mercy, we have been welcomed into his family–this world is not our home-and we have been given an inheritance that is priceless, eternal and indestructible. As the early Anabaptist martyr Hendrick Alewijns wrote to other believers shortly before his death in 1569, words that grew out of his reflecting on this passage from 1 Peter,
Yea, we confess and declare with all the saints rich in hope, that this present time is short, and that the sufferings of this time, for righteousness, are small, and hence not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us, as we here follow. Believers, rightly esteem the sufferings of the present time, because of the hope, promise, and reward.