1 Peter 3:13-22
If I were you, I would choose another passage to preach this Sunday. Acts 17 packs a wallop for the apologetically inclined and John 14 sets you up nicely to talk through more comfortable territory. These will both preach more comfortably than 1 Peter 3 in the North American church which, along with the New Testament teaching on suffering assumes some strange things to our ears.
The apostles were just sure that we would suffer for doing good. Following Jesus was going to get us into trouble, and it did get the apostles in trouble both inside and outside the church—from Jews and Gentiles, Christians and non-Christians. Peter, writing to the “Dispersion” all throughout the Roman world (1:1), starts with a fantastic line in v. 13. “Who will hurt you for doing good?” The community's unspoken answer is “A lot of people.” Of course they shouldn’t but that doesn’t mean they won’t. The American Gospel that perverts the wisdom literature to say that the righteous person lives a good and happy life (#Proverbs31 #blessed) is a lie—at least according to Peter. And Paul. And John. And all the other apostles. Happiness and freedom from suffering are neither the aim of righteousness nor the promised outcome of Christian faithfulness.
The aim and outcome of Christian faith and discipleship is Christian Virtue. That is where we ought to find our hope and happiness—what Peter calls the blessedness in verse 14. And here is the thing, preachers: For all of their tendencies toward silliness and distractedness of their lives (what else should we expect?), our people already know this. Despite the corrupted gospels that are peddled in our land, they already know that blessing and righteousness are not always correlated and that suffering and virtue go hand in hand because they have lived it. What they need from us is to proclaim, like Peter, that this is true: that Christ suffered and we must suffer as Christians when we are pressed by a world that wants nothing to do with us.
This brings us to the next point that needs to be made. Peter knew that the world would hurt sometimes, but he also knew that Christians would not always fit. We almost never meet people who actually believe that. In Peter's epistle, the assumption is that being the church means that we are a holy and distinct people, called to be something different from the rest of the world. That holy calling is the root of our suffering. In today's church, there's a lot of talk about holiness and not much talk about suffering. Our Superintendents and educational institutions and the pastors of mini-megachurches cannot abide the thought of a church that loses cultural power but holds to the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount that Peter repeats in miniature here–forgiveness, respect, righteousness and a pure conscience. It will make you irreconcilably strange to all the Powers-That-Be.
And then there are those who choose to be strange to the church but not to the world. The church is, after all, deeply uncool these days. The (failed) attempts to make the church cool only shows how true that really is. You can have a group of cool people and you can have a church, but if cool means some blend of cultural power and competency along with an edge of what the next thing is, then the first thing we need to do is give up any idolatry of cool. After all, what we proclaim is something that has already happened in its fullness. The Gospel is not what is "next." It is something that has already taken place. Peter gives us an unbelievably dense account of it in v. 18-22: death, descent, resurrection, ascent. And so as we face a world that seems impossibly strange, we don't need to be running off to the next and greatest management style and technique that promises to get us through the crisis. We need to maintain the foundation of our faith, the story and proclamation of what Jesus has done as we have received it in Scripture and the tradition of the Church. Our churches give in, over and over, to the temptation to gain power and avoid suffering rather than bearing it, but Peter calls us to recover a proclamation of the Gospel–Jesus' death, descent, resurrection, ascent.
But only in suffering does the proclamation begin to do its full work. The apostles and early Christians knew this. The leaders and members of the great renewal movements have always known this. We are not the only generation of Christians to have accepted a disjointed faith, but having realized it, we can no longer let it stay like this. Instead, let us proclaim the whole truth of our faith (including the parts we find difficult to grasp) and do it in every corner of the world, accepting the suffering that comes with it and living out the virtues of patience, righteousness and a pure conscience that come as a result of the victory through death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
About the Contributor
Pastor, Sacramento, CA