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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Patience—2 Peter 3:8-15a (Richard Davis)

The Apostle Peter calls for the virtues of patience and peace in our waiting for the eschaton. At face value, these virtues might appear more congruent with an apolitical complacency. However, closer reflection reveals that they involve both the work of bringing peace and commitment to works of anticipation.

8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.

9 The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire?13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.14 Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish;15 and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

Patience may be considered a heavenly virtue, but many of us find it difficult to be patient. “God, give me patience now!” is a common prayer. Yet patience is hardly a political virtue, unless it also describes waiting for the term of the incumbent President or Prime Minister to end. That is a more of a democratic courtesy than a virtue. For God, “one day is like a thousand years” and, for the politician too, a day can be a long time in politics.

Our reading ends by suggesting that we “regard the patience of our Lord as salvation” (2 Peter3:15, NRSV). This refers to the long awaited parousia. Peter does not explain the reason for the delay in Jesus’ triumphant return, but suggests that one benefit it provides is the extended opportunity it offers for repentance. Jesus’ delayed return was a source of derision by those who scoffed at Christianity (3:3-5). They readily saw in the delay of the coming of Christ’s Kingdom a license for indulging their lusts for sex, money, and power. The scoffer thinks the world will continue as it is forever and is happy exploiting it as long as it lasts (the parallel with today’s climate change denying capitalist class hardly needs highlighting).

One difficulty here is that Peter’s letter condemns the scoffers for denying that the world will end, but in stating his case Peter provides his Christian readers with a reason for apolitical complacency and otherworldliness. The world will burn up and be no more, proving the scoffers wrong and condemning them to judgment for which they will not be prepared. And the Christians? Do they simply wait for the end, looking skyward for their savior to return?

It is not so simple. Peter asks: “Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire?” (3:11-12, NRSV). This can be a confusing text. Are Christians supposed to wait patiently or to hasten Christ’s return? The problem seems to rest mostly with how they could hasten the coming of the day of God (I acknowledge that a textual variant has “earnestly desiring” instead of “hastening”).

There is little indication from Peter of what might hasten the day of the coming of the Lord. Is it living a good life? Is it political action to bring about the Kingdom? Perhaps inspired by this text, some Christians have thought that they could they build the Kingdom of God here on Earth. But this sort of political action is directly contradicted by this text. Jesus will return like a thief in the night, so we cannot link his return to any measurable reform or success of a political moment. We do not prepare a house for God. We do not build and hope that God will inhabit; God prepares a house for us (John 14:2-3). Peter also writes that we wait for the new heavens and new earth that God will make for us.

While we cannot build the Kingdom here on earth, we may be able to move toward the coming Kingdom. One cannot make the tide come in any faster, but one can move down the beach toward the waves. This orientation toward the coming of the tide makes it appear relatively quicker. The timing of Kingdom’s coming is God’s alone, but we can orientate ourselves towards it and prepare ourselves for the Kingdom. This action toward receiving the Kingdom as a gift of God is action taken now. In moving toward it, we must move away from the noise of the scoffers and those who see the Kingdom as remote or non-existent.

In waiting for the new heavens and new Earth filled with righteousness, Peter urges that Christians “strive to be found at peace, without spot or blemish” (3:14). What sort of peace is meant here? Is it the peace of heart that comes from resting in God? In his commentary on 2 Peter, Calvin suggested that “This peace is the quietness of a soul at ease which rests on the Word of God.” This is a peace worth striving for. It comes in part from recognizing that the savior of the world is Jesus and we are in no way its messiah. Have you ever noticed the lack of peace in those working for peace and justice as though the salvation of the world rests solely on their shoulders? Christians find peace in the knowledge that God saved them through God’s initiative alone and that God will deliver righteousness and redeem the whole of creation. God is the world’s savior so that we don’t have to be. Our efforts are important penultimate works, but our peace in doing them comes from knowing that ultimately is God that will bring things to completion.

For all its merits, Calvin’s answer is not sufficient. In addition to being at peace within ourselves, we are also to strive to be found at peace amongst ourselves. In fact, our internal peace demands that we are at peace with others. When Peter addresses this remark to the “beloved” (3:14) he probably means the congregation as a whole. If so, many pious Christians who claim peace in their own hearts will be found wanting because of the wars they wage against others. Christians can be found at strife with Christians from other denominations, or those who hold to other theologies. Can we claim to be at peace when the church remains split over issues of sexuality, minor doctrinal points, and the sacraments? Furthermore, Christians are often beneficiaries of violent and economic warfare carried out against others in their name.

To be found at peace, means to be found on the front lines of action for reconciliation and justice. Can we have a peaceful heart when our brothers and sisters are being harassed by the police, go to bed hungry, are being killed in foreign wars, are homeless, or have their homelands threatened by rising sea levels? We Christians are called to be restless waiters. Waiting patiently for the rule of the Kingdom requires the works of anticipation and of bringing peace to our broken communities.

Dr Richard A. Davis is Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at the Pacific Theological College in Suva, Fiji Islands. He occasionally blogs at http://radiescent.wordpress.com/.

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