SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL L. WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, MAY 29, 2011, THE SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

In Eastertide we’ve pretty much stayed in the Gospel of John, tackling some of Jesus’ most revolutionary claims -- “I am the True Shepherd” and “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”  But today I want to make a brief foray into the epistle we’ve also been reading since Easter because 1 Peter – this little book with only 5 chapters – is as relevant to us, and tells us as much about the “post-Easter lives” Christians are to live in the world, as any other book in the Bible.  Why?

Peter wrote this letter to people he calls “strangers” (1.1) and “aliens” (2.11) in the world, people out of place, who didn’t exactly fit the prevailing demographic.  They were geographically diverse – “scattered” (1.1) throughout a handful of provinces in Asia Minor, in what is modern-day Turkey.  And they were racially, culturally and religiously diverse.  They had “different origins, ethnic roots, languages, customs, religions, and political histories.”[1] One thing I love about Boston is walking down the street or riding the T and hearing people speak different languages.  Ours is a diverse city in an increasingly diverse country.  Diana Eck, a comparative religion professor at Harvard, has written a book called A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation, and she says “there are more Muslim Americans than Episcopalians, more Muslims than members of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. and as many Muslims as there are Jews – about six million.”[2]  One of my old professors, David Wells, who is probably miles away theologically from Dr. Eck, nevertheless agrees with her analysis of the diversity of the modern religious landscape.  He writes:  “The apostles [lived] in the midst of a world that was more religiously diverse than any we have known in the West until relatively recently.  We today are far closer in religious temper to apostolic times than any period since the Reformation.”[3]  We have to go back to the first century apostolic world to find anything like the “cauldron of conflicting religious claims”[4] that our world is today.

1 Peter is important because it tells us how the church is to live in that kind of world, and specifically today’s reading tells us three things:  First, it describes the unity the gospel produces; second, it describes the distance the gospel creates; and, third, it tells us where we get the power to live lives that are marked by that unity and that distance in the world.

First, in a world as religiously diverse as ours, Christians are to have a peculiar unityAll of you, beloved, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind.  (1 Pet. 3.8)  We really have to unpack that sentence because the different versions of the bible are all over the place in how they translate it.  First of all, the version we read today left out a whole phrase that some other versions translate “finally.”  Peter says “Finally . . . ” do all this stuff.  He links what we read to what came before it, making sure we know it’s part of a longer block in chapters 2 and 3 that addresses a whole range of relationships – the relationship of citizens to the state, of slaves to their masters, of husbands and wives, and now the relationships of members of the church of Jesus Christ.

Growing up, how many times did you hear “My house, my rules”?  In the first-century Roman Empire a pater familias (the "father of a family") had absolute control over his household (I've yet to figure out how they did that), and there was a common literary device called a “household code” in which the pater familias listed his rules for how people in his household were to behave.  Peter probably did that here – took a common literary construction, the “household code,” and applied it to the church, which earlier in the letter Peter described as “living stones [] being built up as a spiritual house” under our God, our pater familias (1 Pet. 2.5).

And the distinctive element in all the traits Peter includes here – unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind – is:  Unity.[5]  If you had the Greek words there in front of you, you’d notice something interesting:  The word we translate “unity of spirit” really means “common mind” or “the same mind.”  We are to think the same thoughts.  The word for “sympathetic” combines the words “with” and “suffer” or “feel” – we are to feel the same feelings.  The Greek word for “tender heart” is much more evocative because the Greeks put the seat of emotion and feeling not in the heart but in the intestines, and this word means “good intestines” – we are to feel for each other a tenderness so deep that it comes up from our guts.  These are “body words” that describe how people should behave who are so close to each other that the only real metaphor for their relationship is that they inhabit the same body.  You can’t get much more unified than that.  Peter and, especially, Paul knew that our common commitment to Jesus as our Lord should produce that kind of unity in here.

But Peter doesn’t tell us only about the unity the gospel produces.  Second:  He tells us about the distance the gospel createsHave no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord.  Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.  (3.14b-16)  Notice, here, that there is clearly an “us” and a “them” implicit in Peter’s exhortation.  Peter assumes that the church will be different from the culture around it, and difference always creates distance, but the question is what will that distance look like.

Miroslav Volf is a professor at Yale Divinity School, and I came across a journal article he wrote that I wish every one of you would go read.  The article is called “Soft Difference,” and in it Volf uses 1 Peter to understand how the church relates to the world.  His premise is that traditionally there have been two ways of thinking about the church and the world – one can understand the church as a “sect,” an elite group that retreats from the culture to stay pure of the world’s values.  On the other hand, the church can choose to affirm the values of the world and make compromises in order to achieve status and respectability and power for itself.  But Peter envisions a third way, a life of “soft difference.”  Volf writes:

[T]he Petrine community was no aggressive sect . . . .  It did not wish to impose itself or the kingdom of God on the world, but to live in faithfulness to God and to the values of God’s kingdom, inviting others to do the same . . . .  The had no covert totalitarian agenda.  Rather, the community was to live an alternative way of life in the present social setting, transforming it, as it could, from within . . . .  [T]he community did not seek to exert social or political pressure, but to give public witness to a new way of life.[6]

You see, the key is how we establish our identity and our difference.  If we are identified by rejecting others’ beliefs, by retreating from and keeping ourselves untainted by the world, we either become grow to hate the world or we try to force it to conform to us.  But standing on the sidelines uncritically isn’t an option.  We believe Jesus isn’t just Lord for us, he’s the Lord of the whole universe, and Peter says we have to be ready when asked what makes us different to proclaim a truth that others do not possess.  So, Volf says,

Truth will be spoken, value judgments will be made.  The question is only how – upfront or surreptitiously, with harshness or with gentleness, from a position of power or from a position of “weakness” . . . .  [T]he soft difference is the missionary side of following in the footsteps of the crucified Messiah.  It is not an optional extra, but part and parcel of Christian identity itself.  To be a Christian means to live ones own identity in the face of others in such a way that one joins inseparably the belief in the truth of one’s own convictions with a respect for the convictions of others.[7]

That’s the sort of Christian I want to be, but it’s not easy.  So Peter tells us a third and final thing:  Where do we get the strength, the security, the courage and the fortitude, to live that kind of unity with that kind of difference in the world?  And the answer is:  The Cross.  For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.  (3.18)  Understand this:  What unites us at the Advent isn’t that we all like each other.  What we have in common is that Jesus, the righteous one, died “for” us, the unrighteous ones.  The little Greek word “for” there in verse 18 is a very particular word – it’s the word huper, and when it’s used how Peter uses it here it means not just “for” but “in defense of” or even “in the place of.”[8]  That’s substitution – Jesus on the cross standing in the gap for us and taking the punishment our sins deserve.  Jesus came apart on the cross so you and I could be made one unified body, and that means I can love you even if you vote for the other guy, even if we don’t agree on every point of doctrine.  On the cross Jesus took into himself all the hatred and enmity of the world so we can go out and live in the world without becoming exactly like the world.  We believe Jesus has made us alive with him in his resurrection, and even now he is using us to renew the whole creation -- and that’s the answer we must have ready when anyone asks us to give a reason for the hope we have in the world.

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] Edmund P. Clowney, The Message of 1 Peter: The Way of the Cross, TBST (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity, 1988) (quoting J. H. Elliott, A Home for the Homeless: A Sociological Exegesis of 1 Peter, Its Situation and Strategy (Fortress, 1981): 61)).

[2] Diana Eck, A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation (Harper Collins, 2001): 2.

[3] David F. Wells, No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993): 104.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Clowney, The Message of 1 Peter, at 137.

[6] Miroslav Volf, “Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation Between Church and Culture in 1 Peter,” in Ex Auditu 10 (1994), available online at http://www.yale.edu/faith/resources/x_volf_difference.html (last visited 27 May 2011).

[7] Ibid.

[8] See huper in TDNT vol. 8, p. 507f, and BDAG 3d ed., p. 1030f.