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11 December. 1 Peter chapters 1-5
The theme of this letter to several local churches is suffering. The suffering of Christ, the suffering of the Body of Christ (the Church) and the sufferings of individuals for whatever reason. We are not talking here about medical conditions but about punishment, deserved or undeserved: slander, discrimination, persecution, imprisonment or even murder.
Peter (if we assume the letter to have been written by him, which is contested) had seen first John the Baptist and then Jesus suffer all these things. He had also witnessed the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit. So it is no surprise that these themes all appear in the letter, some of them several times.
Peter emphasises the distinction between just and unjust suffering. He has no praise for those who choose the path of civil disobedience, for we must “accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong” (2:13-14), and there is no merit in suffering as a criminal (2:20) – which presumes that the law of the land is necessarily morally good. That is a whole different discussion!
The focus, then, is on suffering for doing good. Why? Because that is how Jesus Christ achieved salvation for the rest of us. “If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (2:20-21). Or again, “It is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (3:17-18). And again, “rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed” (4:13-14). The fact that Peter says the same sort of thing three or more times in the same letter shows how important this was to him.
Persecution has never disappeared from the worldwide Church, though the location and nature of it have changed over the centuries. In our own day, there is state persecution in Communist or post-Communist countries such as China and Russia where only the “official” state church is tolerated, persecution by terrorists in places such as Egypt and Syria (where minority forms of Islam are equally targeted), and persecution in the form of discrimination in secular states where any form of religion is viewed with suspicion, and believers may find it impossible to get paid work, or schooling for their children.
In this season of Advent, we are reminded that one of the reasons we look forward to the “last days” when Christ will come again is that he will honour those who have suffered for his sake, and bring a final justice that will vindicate them (5:10).
I will conclude with a verse from the service of Compline in traditional language, derived from the end of this letter, and which also reminds of the discipline of Advent: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist, steadfast in faith” (5:8-9).