First Peter is not a letter we read all that often. It’s just tucked away back there toward the end of the New Testament as though it was embarrassed to be included. “I’ll just sit back here, out of the way, so as not to bother anyone,” it says. “Call me if you need me. But I hope you won’t. Really.” And why so shy? Besides the fact that Peter had been through the wringer and was probably a little skittish.
Well, this letter isn’t really for us. I mean it is, of course, all of scripture is God-breathed and useful for building up. This letter was written when the church was under constant threat; when the benediction was spoken in a whisper because everyone knew when they gathered again someone likely would be missing, caught up in the cleansing, deportations, and imprisonment. They were afraid of their neighbors. They were afraid people might discover that they practiced a minority religion, a suspect faith. They worried that neighbors might turn them in to the increasingly vigilant authorities who were out to make the nation safe. They were looked at with suspicion as they passed their neighbors on the street. They didn’t feel safe in their own hometowns, their own places of work. They were, in fact, model citizens. They did jobs no one else would do. Christians were often the only ones who cared for the dead, who would treat the body as though it was something precious and give it a decent burial. They believed that life was bigger than what we could see with our eyes. But others thought that was just odd. And icky. And scary.
Questions began to be raised in the communities of faith. Should we go underground? Should we hide? Blend in, act like them? Would it be safer to pretend we aren’t saved by grace through faith? Should we act as though we weren’t asked to pray for our enemies and pray for those who persecute us because it’s risky and darned hard? The question was, “Should our faith move inside: inside our heads, inside our hearts”” Should it be a personal faith that keeps us safe and warm where it really matters in the imaginations of our inner life?
This was the question Peter set out to answer in this letter. OK, let’s be aware that there are some who don’t think this letter was actually written by Peter. “The timing is wrong,” they say; “the vocabulary doesn’t sound like a Galilean fisherman. Besides, his name was Simon, not Peter.” OK, I get that. And they’re probably right. But doesn’t it sound like something Peter would do? If he didn’t write it, then maybe he said it, and later someone wrote it down and put his name on it. If he did write it, I’m sure he did it without a sense of irony.
If the question “should we hide” is the one being addressed, who better than Peter to answer it? Peter, who professed his loyalty to his Lord with moral conviction and then ran like a scared bunny when things got heated. Peter, who claimed his steadfastness with loud protests and then claimed to not know who they were talking about when someone asked him about this Jesus. Of course, Peter would answer this question. He’s been there. He understands the pull to save one’s own skin. He has a grasp on reality; he knows what will work and what won’t. He’s as pragmatic as they come. So, who better? What do you say, Peter? Stay safe? By no means.
We’d need to study the whole letter to get all the answer, but we can catch a glimpse of Peter’s spirit even in these opening verses. A new birth, that’s our gift. A new life not based on our merits, not earned by the sweat of our brows, but by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And now that gift is ours. And nothing can diminish it. Nothing can snatch it out of our grasp. But it is ours. As sure as the air we breathe. As sure as the light we see. As sure as the hope in our hearts. It is ours, this gift of life. This way of seeing ourselves and all of creation around us. It is ours.
There is only one response to that. Only one. Rejoice. Psalm 16 tells us the same thing, that in God there is joy. That joy is found in obedience, in finding our place in the kin-dom, in following the counsel, in living into the instruction. All this is about living joy day by day, trusting in the constant presence of God and the blessings of fullness that we find in relationship with the creator. “Therefore, my heart is glad and my soul rejoices.”
Yes, of course, rejoice. And there are times when I can rejoice. Times when things are going well, and I can contemplate the fullness of the promise of eternity. Then, yes, I can look inward and rejoice; feel good about what has been given, content. Satisfied. “Uh, no,” says Peter, grinning in his beard. “You rejoice, even if now for a little while you suffer.” Wait, what? Rejoice while suffering? That doesn’t compute. “I know, right?” says Peter. “But yeah, it really does. Here’s the thing, you’re alive.” I know, and I’d like to stay that way. “No, alive. Not just living. You’re alive, which means that anything that happens is just a moment in eternity. Just a blip on the screen. So, all those things that terrify you don’t mean anything. They can’t diminish you; they can’t break you. You’re alive. I didn’t get that then. I get it now. All there is is love.”
Peter laughs at his own thoughts. “Sounds like a pop song, doesn’t it? But it’s the truth. The deep truth. Love that starts with him, the one I turned my back on, but who never turned his back on me. Love of him who loves so deeply it shakes you to the core. Love so profound we are remade. Made alive. Call it salvation; that’s the only word that fits. We are being saved by his love; saved to love as he loves. Saved to live as he lived. Does that sound like a party or what?”
His teeth gleam through that tangle of a beard, weathered face wrinkling around his eyes as he reaches out with those big fisherman hands to slap you on the back. “Welcome to the party,” he shouts a little too loudly. “Rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.” Amen, Peter, amen.