All readings from the day can be read here. Preached at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, May 21, 2017.
1 Peter 3:13-22 Common English Bible (CEB)
13 Who will harm you if you are zealous for good? 14 But happy are you, even if you suffer because of righteousness! Don’t be terrified or upset by them. 15 Instead, regard Christ as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. 16 Yet do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience. Act in this way so that those who malign your good lifestyle in Christ may be ashamed when they slander you. 17 It is better to suffer for doing good (if this could possibly be God’s will) than for doing evil.
18 Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous. He did this in order to bring you into the presence of God. Christ was put to death as a human, but made alive by the Spirit. 19 And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison. 20 In the past, these spirits were disobedient—when God patiently waited during the time of Noah. Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water. 21 Baptism is like that. It saves you now—not because it removes dirt from your body but because it is the mark of a good conscience toward God. Your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who is at God’s right side. Now that he has gone into heaven, he rules over all angels, authorities, and powers.
“Now who will harm you if you are eager to do good?”
So opens our reading from 1 Peter today.
“Who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?”
While this letter is attributed to Peter, the Apostle famous for denying Jesus and then walking on water with wobbly feet, this letter is from the first century – some fifty years, or so, after Jesus’ resurrection.
It is a turbulent time in the early church – this sect of Judaism we come to know as Christianity is at best, a fringe religious cult, and, at worst, a fundamental threat to way things have always been. This letter was a leader’s advice, and appeal, to the vulnerable converts.
“Now who will harm you, if you are eager to do what is good?” It’s a pleading question, but also an ironic question, because this fringe group – these clusters of Christians are being harmed. Ridiculed for their belief in Jesus the criminal’s resurrection.
In the midst of this Easter season it is sometimes easy to forget that though Jesus was resurrected from the grave – he did not materialize in Pontius Pilate’s locked room. Jesus did not walk alongside Roman centurions on the road to Emmaus. Jesus appeared to those who had watched him die, not those who had killed him.
And the powers that killed Jesus, the powers that wanted things to remain in order, are still in power.
And so this early church is left with a burning question: why, God, did you do what you promised – deliver a Messiah, defeat death – and leave?
“Jesus Christ has gone into heaven,” verse 21 says. And here are Jesus’ people, suffering still. They are outsiders, largely in part because they are no longer participating in the worship customs their communities expect. They do not pray the way the community prays; their image of God is a person whose body they remember – by eating his body in bread. Christians were not necessarily being offered up in gladitorial arenas – yet – but they were mocked. And the first step in dehumanizing someone is to discredit their ideas, to laugh at their way of life.
The first step in dehumanizing a group of people, the first step in persecuting a group of people, is to be afraid of them.
And so the author of the letter tells them: “do not fear what they fear.”
Do not fear, what they fear. Do not fear that your way of worship may be wrong because someone else encounters God differently. Do not fear the loss of control, or a change in social stature, or being ridiculed because you have followed God.
“Do not fear what they fear – but in your hearts sanctify Christ as lord.”
It strikes me that 1 Peter says the opposite of fear is not courage. The opposite of fear is not fearlessness – the opposite of fear is faith. The opposite of fear is a faith that regards Christ as holy.
To be free of fear is to know there is a God far bigger, far wilder, far more unpredictable than we can even know. An enormous God who is worshipped in the smallest of acts – breaking bread, a God who chose to appear to a group of poor, unimportant, grieving women as God’s first big act of resurrection.
To know that Christ is holy can be to fall to our knees and ask for forgiveness.
To know that Christ is holy is to also know that God does not always do things the way they have always been done.
To know that Christ is holy is to know that God is too big for us to control.
It also means that the Christians in this letter and us gathered here today are sometimes forced to ask: if God is so big, why am I suffering?
Verse 17 asks this same question. “For it is better to suffer for doing good – if suffering should be God’s will – than to suffer for doing evil.” On the surface, this seems to say that sometimes, God wants us to suffer for some greater lesson. That there is a reason terrible, senseless illnesses of mind or body descend. That there is a purpose to children falling as casualties in war. That God needed another angel in heaven by causing a terrible accident.
I do not think God wants us to suffer.
But I think it is okay for us to wonder.
That’s the thing about regarding Christ as holy, when we glimpse how unruly, uncontrollable, unpredictable, and mystifying God is – sometimes all we are left with is: if You are so powerful, why don’t You fix it?
My favorite religion professor once said to me “you don’t want a God you can’t kick in the shins.” She did not mean that we should abuse God. She meant that sometimes, we need to give ourselves permission to be angry at God. Sometimes, we have to name that we are ashamed of just how hurt we are. Sometimes, we have to yell at God that we are afraid. Because God can take it.
God’s love came for the righteous and the unrighteous – and I think we are both. We are capable of suffering for good with humility and we are capable of raising cane because God why is the world not right?
We live in an era that is rife with anxiety, rife with fear – fear of the future, fear of the other, and fear of pain. Knowing that Christ is holy means knowing God is big enough to listen to our fears, and our pain, but God is also too big to let us stay in our fear.
Verse 19 reminds us: God liberates spirits who are free and spirits in prison.
And sometimes, we can let our sorrow become a prison. We can isolate ourselves, and say that no one will understand our pain, because being afraid is easier than choosing faith.
We live with all kind of fears.
The fear of being unwanted. The fear of not being enough, the fear of being too much. The fear of being incompetent. The fear of being without guidance – or the fear of being controlled by others. The fear of loss. The fear of an identity transition. The fear of having no identity.
Fear will keep us in all kinds of prisons if we let it.
And fear has the power to turn us into the persecutor.
We Christians gathered here do not face the same kind of religious persecution the Christians of 1 Peter’s faced, even if we still can know what it means to suffer.
And so this letter gives us a word of encouragement, but it also offers a word of warning: do not fear what they fear. Do not build a prison of your own fears so as to put others in prison. Do not ignore your anxiety, or your shame, or your anger – because if we ignore our capacity to do harm we deny the liberating work God can do in our hearts.
The opposite of fear is faith. And faith still requires courage, but faith means we do not rely only on ourselves. We rely on God.
And God will not leave us orphaned.
And God is always, always weeping with us, wailing with us, walking with us when we do not want to take one more step. That is what our faith tells us. That is where our faith leads us – perfect love, God’s inimitable, unimaginable love is too big to let us stay afraid.
 Adapted from a line in Call the Midwife, Season 5.