Commentary on 1 Peter 2:19-25
In his recent book Finding Our Way Again, Brian McLaren recalls an interview he once facilitated before an assembly of about 500 pastors with author Peter Senge.
He remarks that while his opening question may not have been as profound as he would have liked, the answer it elicited was perhaps the most memorable part of the entire conversation. McLaren asked, “Mr. Senge, what would you like to say to this group of Christian clergy?’ In response, Senge invited his audience to reflect on a recent economic trend.
Why is it, he wondered, that texts on spirituality, and especially those on Buddhism, are one of the fastest growing commodities in the publishing industry today, second only to get-rich-quick manuals? Why aren’t books on Christianity equally as popular? After some discussion Senge provided his own assessment of the phenomenon: “I think people are attracted to Buddhism because it presents itself as a way of life, while Christianity presents itself as a system of belief.”
Of course, Senge is relying on a false dichotomy here, as if a lifestyle can somehow be removed from the values that inform it. But the point he is trying to make should not be lost on those of us in the church. It appears to many these days that Christianity has become so enamored with its own abstractions — its commitments to proper doctrine, for example, or to “what the Bible says” — it has come quite close to convincing itself that intellectual assent to first principles is really what the faith is all about. Right belief has become the foundation of Christian salvation.
The problem here, as Senge was polite enough not to mention, is that a system of belief, especially in a post-Enlightenment age, can be easily manipulated to justify nearly any way of life that the dominant culture deems acceptable. It then becomes little more than a convenient appendage attached to the body of the status quo. When this happens — when the embodied faith of the flesh becomes mere word — the full force of the incarnation is lost. Christians are then prone to wander like wayward sheep, and those in their midst are prone to wonder if “spirituality” might in fact be preferable to “religion.”
Wandering is quite the opposite of what Peter has in mind for the newly baptized Christians he is addressing. Though he employs the imagery of the exodus throughout this epistle, he is nevertheless clear that those who have been born anew have embarked on a clear path toward a certain destination. They are following in the steps of Christ and as his disciples they are commanded to carry themselves according to his example. The Greek term anastrophe, translated as “conduct,” is clearly important to Peter; it is used more times in this short epistle than in any other New Testament text (see 1:15, 18; 2:12; 3:1, 2, 16). It implies a “walk,” a distinctive way of being in the world, especially for those who have thrown off their old habits, picked themselves up, and set out anew (TDNT VII:714-717).
Though Peter is intent on teaching his readers about what is good and right to believe about the love of God the Father, the suffering of the Son, and the sustaining work of the Spirit, he balances all of this with an emphasis on anastrophe, the adoption of a way of life distinctive to the Christian faith. Anything short of this would be a job half-done, and in this respect he echoes the words of James: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17).
Though the introductory verse is omitted in our lectionary reading for the week, Peter is addressing this section of his epistle to “house slaves,” oiketai (2:18), imploring them to be submissive to their masters in all things, not in deference to their owners’ earthly authority but rather as an affirmation of Christ’s supreme example. Recall what I suggested in an earlier reflection about the new Adam, the church, living in an old world. Peter’s decision to address slaves first — and not the relationship between wives and husbands as in Ephesians and Colossians — suggests that he regarded this particular social group as paradigmatic of the Christian experience in Asia Minor at that time. They were all suffering the ills of a culture in which they had been effectively marginalized.
Our contemporary embarrassment over what appears in scripture to be the acceptance of a deplorable social institution has perhaps led us to excise the introductory verse from this lectionary pericope, but in so doing we miss the force of Peter’s argument. As members of a heavenly household (paroikos, exiles living “outside the house”), the faithful will inevitably have to suffer the injustices of the domination system that rules the individual and cultural households of which they are still a part, if for but a while.
In this, their response should be a reflection not only of their belief in the redemptive efficacy of Christ’s suffering, but also an embodiment of it. It is a lifestyle choice that speaks a resounding and nonviolent “no” to the dictates of an unjust empire. In suffering, the body of believers becomes Christ incarnate once again.
Over the last few years it has become commonplace for professional athletes to talk about defending their home turf with the provocative words, “This is my house!” Peter’s use of this metaphor, though subtle in our English translation, challenges all Christians, regardless of time or place, to reflect on what house they are willing to defend, and how. It is not enough simply to recite our beliefs about who Jesus is or what the Bible says. We are called to live a Christian lifestyle (2:21), to follow in our savior’s footsteps and embody in all things a central tenet of our faith: that Christ bore our sins in his body on a tree so that we might die to sin and live righteously (2:24).