Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.1 Peter 1: 3-9
To modern Western ears, even Christian ones, this passage sounds strange. This might be because it comes from a letter written to early Christians who suffered what we do not suffer, expected what we do not expect, and believed what we can hardly believe. The language and message of this passage, however, does not simply distance some contemporary Christians from the early church. It is a call for contemporary Christians to distance themselves from the world that tests the Christian at the core of their belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and the hope in Christ’s imminent return that sustains the Christian life.
Our passage begins with praise, blessing the name of God in which Christians rejoice. Gratitude and worship to God are political acts that demonstrate that whatever is happening in the world, whatever our political leaders are doing (or not doing), God remains worthy of our praise and devotion. We are to rejoice even if suffering political persecution and various trials. No worldly events should interfere with the praise of God, which for the Christian is primary. The reason for Christian praise is the hope that Christians have in God’s free gift of salvation. This God is named as the “Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” thus identifying the God who is the God of the Christians, and no other. This is not some vague transcendent deity that can be assimilated into the imperial pantheon and used as a divine power to justify political ambitions.
God the “Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” gives us the gift of “new birth into a living hope,” if we will accept it. God’s gift is imperishable, it does not fade or deteriorate with time. God’s heavenly reward is immutable, unlike worldly rewards that need ongoing preservation and protection. In this time of coronavirus many of us have seen how we take our perishable worldly inheritance for granted. It’s only a couple of days until the supermarket shelves are bare, until the rubbish piles up, until our businesses run out of custom, and our bank accounts start to empty. Many people have lost their jobs, livelihoods, and loved ones. Even touching other people, whether with a handshake, a kiss, or a hug can no longer be taken for granted; in fact, these moments of intimacy and humanity are now positively proscribed. We are learning that all the things we value in this world have to be preserved, even if they cannot always be. People die, thieves break in, things rust, rot, and deteriorate (Matthew 6:20). Furthermore, millennials are not wrong to believe that the worldly inheritance passed on from older generations is defiled, and fading. We are handing down a climate catastrophe to those coming after us.
Despite Peter’s apparent dualism between the world and the church, we should not think that in focusing on God’s heavenly gift that Peter is other-worldly. In 1 Peter 2 there is a concern for the city and this world by living “honorably among the Gentiles” and accepting “the authority of every human institution” (1 Peter 2:12–13). God’s inheritance is kept in heaven, not in the way of being kept there until we arrive in heaven after we die; it is heavenly gift from God, stored there until we can receive it on earth in the fullness of time. The model for this is the new heaven and the new earth (Revelation 21), in which God takes seriously the current world’s grief and suffering: “he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4, citing Isaiah 25:8). Christians eagerly await this time of fulfillment, knowing that it cannot come through the power of politicians, scientists, technologists, medical professionals, or messianic preachers. God’s gift and inheritance will restore our world and regenerate our lives.
While Christians await this “last time,” they live under God’s protection. This gift would seem to be an urgent need for the Christians Peter was writing to. Facing persecution, they might wonder whether there is a contradiction between verse 5, where Christians are protected by God, and verse 6, in which Christians are suffering various trials. What kind of protection is this if it doesn’t protect against various trials and suffering? With such a question (and with its own answers), the world taunts the Christian. Surely there is better protection to be found through worldly means. Politicians offer protection from dangers from within and without. By its own reckoning, the state exists, after all, as an order of preservation through mutual protection of all against the state of nature. While this is the state that claims to protect, it is also the state that persecutes. In our present coronavirus crisis, we see that self-preservation of the state, capitalism, and presidencies are taking precedence over the common good provided by public health initiatives. The idols of our age will not allow a coronavirus to stand in the way of the perpetuation of their own self-preservation and aggrandizement. Many vulnerable people around the world have good reason to fear the state more than the coronavirus, as politicians make use of the pandemic to seize powers and suppress the means of public democratic accountability.
What protection, then, is Peter talking about? Whereas worldly politics, through the state and its law, may protect us from things, such as personal harm, according to Peter, the Christian is protected by God for something—“a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5). God will protect his most valuable gift, our salvation, even when we are tossed about on this earth. This relativizes politics into a realm that cannot penetrate or disturb the Christian’s faith or take away our salvation and our hope. This is why the real danger for the Christian is not just biopolitics, but also ideologies that provide an alternative salvation through false gods.
Suffering in this moment and in this world is but for a little while; it will not and cannot last. Whether we are currently in lock-down, self-isolation, quarantine, or other forms of deprivation of freedom, these are short term measures that Christians can happily cooperate with (1 Peter 2:13-17). Even if we are ill or threatened with death, our suffering is but for a short time, compared with the glory to come. In this we can be sure, God will not only keep our treasure in heaven, God will also protect the recipient of the gift on earth. For all gifts need both a giver and a recipient, hence God will protect both the gift and us, as its recipient, for the time when our inheritance will be given to us.
A misinterpretation of this passage is that Christian faith is a comfort in times of persecution or trial. Christians might believe that they are ready for persecution given their life of prayer, faithful worship, and regular Bible reading. Yet simply doing these things in one’s private life is unlikely to provoke the world to persecute Christians. Persecution doesn’t come to many Christians because they are no threat to the world they have largely capitulated to. Christians who are not standing up for the downtrodden, who are not speaking truth to power, who are not casting down the idols of the modern world, or pointing out the sins and hypocrisy of their leaders, have no need to fear persecution. They have so compromised their faith that they are not worth persecuting; in fact the political powers court them knowing that they will support their war crimes prayerfully and with reverent obedience, believing the political powers are even God’s anointed as they bomb the third world.
Peter, however, teaches the opposite: the lived faith of Christians becomes the very reason for their persecution. Why should discipleship of Jesus, the one crucified by Roman authorities, lead to a life of comfort and repose? Instead it is the following of Christ to the cross and sharing in his suffering that defines the life of discipleship. Standing up for justice, peace, the common good, a livable climate, and the underdog is what will bring trials to the Christian church. Holding on to hope in Christ alone is something that the world cannot abide. All politicians want us to put their hopes in them, as witnessed by them courting Christians at election time. Corporations offer hope by advertising material possessions or experiences intended to satisfy our spiritual longings. Worldliness, whatever shape it takes, however, cannot compete with hope placed in the resurrected Jesus Christ.
As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, we are hearing about hopes of worldly resurrections. An example is seen in the emergence of people from their tomb-like apartments in Wuhan, China, after their long Holy Saturday-like isolation, with the promise that in this resurrection of life, things are returning to normal. But can life be ‘normal’ again? Does it deserve to be? Will socialism, communism, social democracy, or nationalism be resurrected in the places where neo-liberal capitalism and globalization have reigned? Would that be a return to old failed formulas? After coronavirus should we resurrect a failed political or economic order that condemns the poor and vulnerable to an early tomb? Or can something new be born in place of the old? Can there be new ‘normal’ that is more just and peaceful than the old ‘normal’?
For Christians, however, things have never been ‘normal’ since that first Easter morning. Following Jesus’s resurrection, things never returned to ‘normal.’ For 2000 years Christians have grappled with, celebrated, and spread the gospel of the resurrection of Jesus, who defeated death and brought salvation to the world. For Peter, Jesus’s resurrection gives Christians a “living hope” to sustain them as they live as disciples of Christ and await the new world that is to come from God’s beneficent hand.