< May 08, 2011 >

Commentary on 1 Peter 1:17-23

 

Old habits die hard, especially when they have had a lifetime to reach their roots deep into the human psyche.

We can understand, then, why Peter chooses the imagery of the exodus to impress upon his readers the overwhelming implications of the new life that has been bestowed on them through their baptism. Drawing on the symbolism of the Hebrews' urgent flight from bondage he implores them to "gird up their minds" (1:13) and to rely fully on the grace of God as they hasten toward the land prepared for them. Peter knows how difficult this journey must be for these recent converts and how likely it is that many in their persecution will fall back on the lament of their predecessors at Sinai:  "...you have brought us out into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly..." (Exodus 16:3b).

Such is the plight of the resident alien. The Greek term, paroikos (1:17), emphasizes all the more the poignancy of the experience: the newly baptized Christians are now a people "beside or outside the house," strangers on the margins whose temptation to return to the "passions of their former ignorance" (1:14), futile though they may be (1:18), will at times be overwhelming. They have been called to be holy, set apart, to live a new commandment of love toward one another, a love founded on the blood of an unblemished lamb. Their experience of exile is therefore twofold: they are at once reliving the estrangement of God's people in the wilderness and enduring the persecution of God's son at the hands of the domination system.

In a society where new movements so frequently invite us to seek out novel paths and experiment with new identities, we have little sense of how difficult it must have been for these Gentile converts to turn their backs on everything they had held dear from the day of their birth. In their first-century Greco-Roman context, antiquity was the fundamental criterion for authenticity. The further into the past one could trace the origin of a tradition the more legitimate it became. So for men and women to relinquish all that their culture had emphasized as good and true -- and this for the values of a new community featuring a savior executed at the hands of the authorities -- would have been regarded as sheer lunacy in the minds of those living "inside the house."

Knowing this, Peter emphasizes all the more that the truth he is proclaiming precedes the establishment of any human institution. In the epistolary prescript he addresses his readers as "the exiles of the Diaspora... chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit" (1:1-2). And in case anyone missed it in the preface, he repeats as much in the pericope we are now considering: Christ, in whose blood they were ransomed, was "destined before the foundation of the world... (1:20). Further, their new life can be attributed to the imperishable seed of God's Word. This is the inheritance that was spoken through "Moses and all the prophets" (Luke 24:27) and will soon come to its final fruition in the revelation of Christ. Surely every human institution must pale by comparison. Old habits must therefore be set aside for the seemingly irrational wisdom of God that purifies the soul.

Old habits die hard for modern theologians as well and our lectionary passage for this week offers a case in point. I think most of us when we see the term "ransom" tend to fall back easily on Anselm's doctrine of substitutionary atonement, or perhaps we will turn to Charles Hodge's more recent notion of penal substitution. It's a sermon slam-dunk. Our congregations will be reminded that God's justice demanded a perfect sacrifice in restitution for what had been lost in the Garden. Knowing that humans in their fallen state could not offer such a gift, God in God's mercy provided the unblemished lamb in the person of God's Son. Jesus dies an excruciating death and we are thereby reconciled to God through the spilling of his blood.  

Recent critics of penal substitution have pointed out that, tragically, the doctrine has only served to justify and perpetuate the redemptive violence that Jesus so vehemently opposed in his every word and deed. In light of this, we have to ask ourselves whether this theory would have resonated in the ears of Peter's audience. We especially need to be aware of the fact that in the context of the exodus from Egypt the unblemished lamb was not seen as a sacrifice at all but as a divine invitation to a meal. Its blood was offered not as an appeasement to God but as a symbol of Yahweh's favor. Seeing it, the Angel of Death would pass over the households of the chosen.

What we too often fail to acknowledge, however, is that in order for the Hebrews to embark on their journey of liberation, they also had to pass through this same blood as they abandoned their homes for the freedom of the desert. It was therefore not seen solely as the means of their escape from bondage but also as a symbol of their acceptance of new life in God's grace. While our theological sophistication may try to persuade us that Peter's audience would be conversant with the later doctrine of substitution, we should emphasize here a more likely alternative: that baptism in the blood of Christ marked their complete separation from the futile inheritance of their ancestors. It signified that Christ's sacrifice would indeed be their sacrifice. In their new life in exile they could expect, like their savior before them, to remain for a short time "outside the house." Yet their ultimate hope lay not in the blood but in the resurrection, the affirmation that, despite present circumstances, they would soon inherit the glorious home of the New Jerusalem.