Are we still that community?
Early Christian interpretation of 1 Peter begins with Hermas. Hermas was connected to the church at Rome, or at least Tradition tells us this. In this, he would have no doubt had a long standing access to Peter’s letter. While this may not be an exact interpretation of 1 Peter 3.18-4.6, Hermes most diffidently has a certain strain of Tradition in mind which may help us understand how the early Church thought of the ‘preaching to the dead.’ In 16:5-7 we find a description of the Harrowing of Hell in which Christ (and by Hermas’ account, the Apostles) rescued from the hand of death those disobedient souls in prison. This is not the only section from the Shepherd which we find a connection to the Petrine epistle. In 2.4-9, we find the Shepherd speaking about stones building together a tower, which is of course later interpreted to mean the Church. What is seen is that the community to which Peter wrote received his letter and no doubt, even today, we can see the effects of that suffering community obeying his charges to them to remain strong and to be built up as living stones.
Today, however, we have allowed ourselves to be fractured over various things which we insist are doctrinal and thus Apostolic. Peter’s letter, unlike Paul, was not to correct doctrinal matters, but to encourage the saints to suffer the insults of being outside the power structures of the Imperial world and thereby reveal the Glory of God through Jesus Christ. The Church today has taken generally one of two paths. It either renounces power or it tries to take power. But Peter is advocating a third way. In modern times, the Ugandan martyr Bishop Janani Luwum spoke of the sanctification of power which recognized that his people suffered because they had chosen to remain outside the ‘public and political sphere’. He labored intensely to be a positive Christian voice, even to dictators, to inform them of where the Church stood on the matters which related to the governing of the people. In doing so, through coups and other forms of violence, Bishop Luwum eventually lost his life at the hand of a governmental assassin. He served as a true priest, while today his theological descendants are attempting to serve as kings in forcing conservative (American) theology upon Ugandans. He whispered in the ears of tyrants to bring good to his people but they and so many in the West use the name of Christ to shout down the message of God.
A priest is not of the ruling class, but a priest is one which brings the sacrifices of the people to God. Peter was not advocating an attempt and capturing the culture for Christ, or in today’s terms, cultural warfare, but was advocating that they become the Priests in an order already secured for them by the victory of Christ who suffered as they did. Today, we are at a crossroads in the West, wherein we see the effects of a powerless Church who for so long sought to engage in physical warfare, dependent upon laws and other instruments of a human’s mind; and yet, I find that there is hope in the word of the Petrine epistle, even for the West. Even today, we find that those who are engaging in prophetic movements are suffering at the hands of Imperial powers, albeit these powers are doctrinal or hierarchal and often times, Christian. Those we are seeking different aspects of Christianity, of the witness of Christ are coming under attacks, with their name and honor being challenged and even denied, because they are trying to live God’s call. I think of Liberals and Conservatives, Pentecostals and Emergent, and even Catholics and Mainline Protestants who are experiencing change and yet, in this apocalyptic atmosphere must endure suffering at the hands of their brothers and sisters who resist the humble and give a special place to the proud.
In regards to the use of Scripture, I think that Peter’s example is one which must be heeded to. I find so many using the text to justify their doctrines and their beliefs, and yet, not being guided, shaped or molded by the text. While it may be a fine line, the difference is one which allows the Text to be used, and the other which allows one to be used by the Text. Peter wasn’t proof-texting, but was using Scripture, something it was obvious that both he and his audience would know well enough, to show the community what they were to become. I would much rather a Christianity which allowed itself to be guided by Scripture, allowing Scripture to set the bench mark, than a Christianity which uses certain passages, here or there, to justify their actions.
A Christian reader who has endured a transition of faith and the subsequent suffering forced upon them by their former associates and the lack of a solid foundation will find hope in the words of this epistle, even today. It is the quintessential ‘catholic’ epistle in that it is for all Christians, at all times, to teach them to use Scripture, to endure, to love, and to not seek socio-political powers, but to assume what has already been given to them, and to develop their heavenly citizenship as the Temple of God wherein they act as Priests by the extension of honor of Christ. Further, if we were to take it at its word, it is from the hand of one who witnessed the sufferings of Christ first hand, who is waiting to share in the revealed glory, and sits in the heart of the beast. Can we find no better encouragement then that?