When Natalie gave me the assignment to preach this Sunday, my initial response was “wonderful! I get to preach on one of my favorite passages in John’s Gospel: ‘Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.’” However, it’s my practice to read all four lessons and the collect, looking for the good news, not only in each individual lesson, but in how they converse with each other. So I did, but I got stuck in the reading from I Peter. You know, I can’t remember ever preaching on I Peter, and can’t even remember hearing a sermon on this little epistle (I’m sure there were some!). So I’m going to have do disappoint myself—and probably you: no mansions, no Thomas, no “come my way.” Sorry, George Herbert!.
This hole in my (and probably your) experience is really surprising: for a liturgical historian like me, I Peter is a really important text. It’s a mystagogi —a theological refection for the newly baptized, rather like the baptismal renewal class at St. Paul’s—based in the Easter Vigil, probably within 30 years of Jesus’s own death and resurrection. Most scholars of early Christian worship, find, if not the texts of the Vigil, significant echoes of a very early Vigil, embedded in this epistle.
I started out looking at today’s reading from I Peter, one of those passages I memorized as a kid: “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious.” It never made much sense to me, so I started digging. It took a while, but I finally realized that the “important word” isn’t “milk” but what got translated as “sincere” in my childhood KJV or “spiritual” in our lectionary. It’s that same word that starts John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the WORD.” All of a sudden it sounds like “Since you have eaten and chewed to find out that the Lord is wholesome food, like newborn infants, crave Jesus’s own milk, so that you can grow up.1” It’s kind of hard to hear this in our time of eucharistic famine, but for Peter, this is the bread and wine of the eucharist, which the newly baptized would have just received for the very first time. They had just found that God is wholesome and tasty food. They had just been incorporated into a temple, and just like Jesus, we are both temple and priesthood!
With that realization, I had to look at the rest of the lessons from I Peter during Easter this year, because we read most of the epistle during this season. In quick summary they are (Sunday by Sunday):
1. God has offered us new birth. Do you believe?
2. You know what obedience is. Place your trust in God and be baptized
(baptism itself fits here)
3. Christ has become part of you. Now become part of Christ
(eucharist fits here)
4. You will be tested. Follow Christ in his obedience (the post eucharistic reflection)
5. Baptism has saved you. Now enter into Christ’s resurrection
6. Be strong in testing. Join in Christ’s eternal glory
(these last two are the dismissal)
Now this would be an interesting historical exercise were it not that the situation in which Peter’s community found itself, and how similar it is to our own. The great persecutions of the end of the third century were a longways away—150 years or so. People like Peter and Paul were eventually martyred, sure, but it was because they seemed to ask for it—if you preach against the emperor and say things like loyalty to this Jesus guy trumped loyalty to Nero, you’ll get what you deserve. The rest of the attacks were pretty much settling grudges, not general persecutions. It was all on the order of being declared a non-essential business by the governor and kept from worshiping together in our temple. It’s not exactly “suffering” or “martyrdom.” “No lions were harmed in the preparation of this Epistle!”
Peter really liked his close-sounding words. The word he uses for Jesus’s death and resurrection is one we know well: it’s pascha. And the word that gets translated as “suffering” throughout our readings is pascho. They sound a lot alike, don’t they. But pascho doesn’t really mean suffering, but something similar—maybe more like the feeling in your legs at mile 22 of a marathon or mile 200 of the Seattle to Portland bike ride. Yes, they hurt, but the second wind, the endorphin rush is just around the corner. And yes, it’s tough for us, because we don’t have our eucharistic “power bar.” The entire letter is built around the idea that our “training pains,” as Christians, are very much like the battle pains of Jesus’s passion, and in his triumph over sin, evil, death (and COVID19), God (and we) can use them to make us more like Christ.
So we stand, waiting for our second wind in following Jesus’s own care and love for our world. We have been made a new community, a new house for God, and in this new community, we share ourselves and we act as priests even in solitude—, for the life of the world.
Christ is Risen!
The Lord is Risen indeed!
1 “into salvation” is missing in the three earliest mss of I Peter.