“Like living stones,” writes Peter, “let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” “Spiritual sacrifices:” what is Peter going to talk about? Not, as we might expect, the Holy Eucharist as celebrated every Sunday, but “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution” (2:13). So Peter goes on to talk about the empire, slavery, and marriage. Most of that is omitted by our lectionary, maybe because Peter’s words have been too often abused. But if Peter wants to talk about “spiritual sacrifices,” let’s let him talk, and we might be surprised at what he has to say. But for that we’ll need a running start, which we’ll get through the other readings.
In our Gospel we hear these well-known words: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, except through me.” These words continue to play a role in our conversations about what Christian mission is about. After we’ve said all that we need to say about God’s Spirit creatively reaching out to all peoples in all times and places—and sometimes we need to say a great deal more than we have said—if anyone is to come to the Father, it is through Jesus.
But in our text Jesus says “no one comes to the Father, except through me” not to start talking about evangelism, but to emphasize how closely the Father, Son, and Spirit intertwine, and that the disciples’ life depends on staying intertwined in this divine life. “The way, and the truth, and the life:” this isn’t about life in the world to come, but about this life, how one might live humanly now. And the claim is that Jesus is central to this human life now. Let’s see how that plays out in the other readings.
Our psalm is a cry for deliverance, assuming a world that we know too well. We may lack many things, but we don’t lack enemies, folk whose pursuit of their goals doesn’t translate into good news for us. As the wag rewrote the beginning of Kipling’s “If”: “‘If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs…’ you obviously don’t understand the situation.” Yep, our world.
Now, if we start with that psalm, how is Stephen’s trial going to turn out? Stephen had been giving powerful testimony to Jesus, he’d been hauled before the high priest’s council, he’d delivered a powerful but not very conciliatory defense, and now our text. If anyone needed deliverance, it was Stephen. But, the text tells us, he was stoned to death.
Now, our psalm reading ended with “Make your face to shine upon your servant, / and in your loving-kindness save me” and Acts reports Stephen saying “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.” So it sounds like Stephen was not feeling short-changed.
We may be. Some days I’d prefer an ending in which Stephen is whisked away by a squad of heavily-armed angels, and if they leave the temple leadership with a bad case of hemorrhoids, so much the better.
But here’s the thing. God’s not about just delivering Stephen. God’s about delivering the high priest, the folk who dragged Stephen before the council, and even that young man Saul who took charge of the executioners’ outer garments so they could carry out the stoning…vigorously. God’s going for all the marbles, and that, as Peter’s letter makes clear, even includes our institutions, like, say, the empire, slavery, marriage.
After what Jesus and followers like Stephen experienced, it would be very easy to write off the world’s institutions—like the Essenes who withdrew to the edge of the Dead Sea. If we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” why should we bother with all these worldly institutions?
Nevertheless, here’s Peter saying “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution.” Is Peter selling out? No. Peter understands Jesus being the Way, the Truth, and the Life to mean that Jesus is about transforming human institutions from the inside out. Peter could have talked about any number of institutions; he focuses on three: the empire, slavery, and marriage. Here’s an institution: what is Jesus going to do with it?
Empire. The core of what Peter wants to say about the Empire is contained in the following lines with their careful choice of verbs. “Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” “Honor the emperor.” Honor: give him neither less nor more than his due. Not “love the emperor”—the object of love is the brotherhood, that is, other Christians. Not “fear the emperor”—fear is reserved for God. So worship of the emperor is out, and Christians would pay for that exclusion with their lives until Constantine’s conversion some 300 years later. No, “honor the emperor”—the honor we owe any other human being.
Slavery. “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” Peter is breaking new ground. In first Century moral discourse there was plenty of advice and instruction to owners regarding how to handle their slaves. But one didn’t speak to the slaves themselves, for they were not considered moral agents (and the same logic applied to women). So, simply to address the slaves and address them as moral agents, as full members of this chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, is already to begin shaking the foundations.
And it is for the slaves that Christ’s conduct serves as an example: “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” The owner may think that the slave obeys out of fear; the Christian slave obeys as a way of imitating Jesus.
Do you see how Peter is rearranging our mental worlds? Where do we encounter the following of the resurrected Christ, so glorious, so splendid? Not in the glory and splendor of the owners, but in the obedience of the slaves. It is not that God is any friend of slavery—the exodus from Egypt should put that fear to rest—but, says Peter, if we want to watch the followers of the glorified Christ—watch the slaves.
Over time Peter’s rearranging of our mental worlds combined with Genesis’ affirmation of all bearing God’s image helped us realize that the transformation Jesus wished to make to the institution of slavery was its abolition.
There’s much more we could say, but let’s at least remember this: these words to the slaves speak to all persons in a subordinate position in any social or economic arrangement. Are you suffering unjustly in your work? You have Jesus Christ as your companion.
Marriage. Here Peter addresses both wives and husbands, recognizing both as moral agents. The wives are called to submission, the husbands to considerate living and to bestowing honor on their wives.
Christians at the “conservative” end of the spectrum take Peter’s words as expressing God’s will for marriages today. They’re probably making the same mistake the folk who thought God liked slavery made. Given what Peter’s already done with empire and slavery, I think it’s much more likely that Peter is simply starting with the institution as it then existed and pushing it in the direction of God’s will.
In a discussion of the same institution in Ephesians, Paul speaks of being subject to each other. Peter does not use that language, but his call on the husbands to considerate living and to bestowing honor on their wives comes to pretty much the same thing. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…
From our cultural context we hear Peter’s words as hopelessly hierarchical. What we forget is that in most times and places Peter’s words (and similar words elsewhere in the New Testament) are plenty revolutionary. What calls to “considerate living” and “bestowing honor on their wives” can do is begin to conform male desires to female priorities. Less money on the mistress; more money for school clothes.
My favorite story about this comes from a town Elizabeth Brusco encountered during her doctoral field work in Colombia. Like many towns one of its major festivals was that of its patron saint, and at that festival the town insured that no one went thirsty (free beer). Plenty of scores would be settled, and typically the birth rate would spike about nine months later, the father of most of the newborn designated as St. So-and-So. One year they had elected an evangelical mayor, whose church devoted considerable attention to texts like 1 Peter. So at the festival he announces: this year in honor of our patron saint the children will have all the milk they want. The milk will flow like rivers. Of course the wives are submitting—but to priorities that have more to do with their interests.
I do not imagine for a minute that I’ve addressed all the issues that come up with regard to Christian participation in these institutions. I haven’t tried; nor did Peter, and I think he’d be horrified at the suggestion that his words were the only words that would ever need to be spoken regarding these institutions. Rather, what Peter has done is give us an overall strategy: rather than withdraw from these institutions, or check our Christian identities at the door when we participate in them, participate in them as Christians and let that yeast ferment the whole loaf. This is a strategy for the long haul in which whether we are “successful” individually is less important than whether we are faithful. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life also with regard to our life in these very imperfect but transformable institutions.
“The kingdom of heaven—Jesus said—is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”