Live as men who are free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God (1 Peter 2:16).
Today’s reading from the First Epistle of St. Peter begins with two words: ‘Dearly beloved.’ These two words serve as the hinge for the entire letter. Before he writes these two beautiful and life-affirming words (which also begin our daily morning and evening prayer services), Peter is encouraging the small, persecuted churches of the mid-1st century by reminding them of who they are—not who the world tells them they are or who they think they are as they pick themselves up from their worst defeats—but who they really are in the eyes of God. He writes: ‘But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light; Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy’ (1 Peter 2:9-10). Can we imagine for a moment the joy and tears which must have overtaken the first Christians to hear these words from the mouth of a lector as he read them out loud in the presence of men and women who had forsaken everything to meet in sewers and secret rooms to praise the Living God. People whose every moment of worship and fellowship and evangelization was a moment closer to exposure and shame and execution. These were people who had left family and friends and entire identities behind them to follow the King of Kings, and here the apostle reminds them that—despite what all the supposed authorities of the world tell them—it is they who belong to the only nation built for eternity. These men and women, rich and poor, slave and free from all corners of the empire belonged to no one but the God who had forged a new peace between God and Man through wood and nails, through suffering and resurrection. This new era of humanity began with the cross and the empty tomb, and within this new age, God’s chosen people are a priestly nation in and of themselves. And what does Peter tell us changes darkness to light? What changes the lost into the chosen? The difference is the mercy of God. And that mercy, freely bestowed, is what makes one ‘Dearly beloved.’
How strange it is that mercy is the means by which God shows His power—that mercy is the way in which God forges a nation from the maimed and broken people of our fallen world? How different is this manifestation of true strength from how we would go about showing our power; how different it is from how, through the ages, the leaders of the world have shown their power? But we must remember that God, unlike the all too human leaders of men, does not need to prove His power to us in some cruel display of force; no, the God who decided how many times our hearts will beat does not need to throw His weight around. In fact, He does the opposite. In a world where death and destruction are the final tools of every powerful leader, God shows His alien power in the new life of the risen Christ and the new life of the holy nation He creates through mercy. The people of God are this new nation, and we are the beloved.
So, what grand title does the Apostle Peter use to describe this God-chosen, holy nation of royal priests? In the King James Version, the Greek words are translated as ‘strangers and pilgrims;’ the English Standard Version goes with ‘sojourners and exiles.’ Sojourners, strangers, pilgrims, and exiles—those titles don’t sound very triumphant or pleasant. Few churches will hang a sign reading, ‘Come be an exile with us,’ but Peter is not concerned with selling Christianity to anyone. What Peter is concerned with is making sure that the people of God know they are citizens of an eternal nation more real and true and lasting than any nation conceived by man. Of course, this talk was treasonous in the Roman Empire, but Peter doesn’t care about that either. Now, the Roman Empire did have a self-servingly tolerant system of recognizing all religions, particularly old religions, as long as they didn’t affect one’s political life. One could be as religious as one wanted to be as long as allegiance to Rome came first. If not, they murdered you. Christianity never fit well into this box as the religion seemed new, and it also seemed to change people into culturally embarrassing zealots. Quite frankly, in the Roman Empire, Christians seemed weird. They were, and we should be too.
In fact, Peter is telling the church, then and now, that being strange and unusual is a feature of the Christian life, not a flaw, because this fallen world in its broken state is not our home. Whatever nations rise and fall in the time between here and eternity, none of them is the kingdom of God. As our Lord said to the governor of Judaea, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world’ (John 18:36). Jesus stuns Pontius Pilate by declaring Himself to be not just a king, but a king whose victory will be accomplished—not by strength of arms—but by loving obedience and sacrifice in the great, world-saving act of divine, undeserved mercy. Again, the world of the 1st century—and the 21st century—sees in Christ a man giving up and dying for nothing. Through eyes trained in this blindness maybe we see tragedy, but we certainly do not see victory. Peter and John and Paul and all the rest of the martyred band of brothers want us to see that by acting the way He did, Christ was warring against sin and evil and death with the only weapons which can actually vanquish them. As He marched to His death on the first Good Friday, Christ was not engaged in re-establishing some political nation whose only legacy would be a few pages in the history books of tomorrow; no, Jesus was waging war against an evil more powerful than any bomb or mortar by creating a people destined to rule and love and live forever in the kingdom His resurrection revealed to be an inevitable certainty.
How then do we join in that war against evil? How do we declare our allegiance to the kingdom that is not of this world? Peter, the man who was scolded by Jesus for whipping out a sword and cutting off the ear of one of the guards sent to capture our Lord, does not tell us to find the nearest atheist and punch him in the stomach, but instead, ‘Abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul’ and ‘Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.’ Again, Peter’s plan is not how any of us would choose to battle the evil of this world. First, because it forces us to acknowledge the evil which still resides in our hearts, and second, because the goal of the whole Christian fight against evil is that God receive all the glory. As our Lord said in the Sermon on the Mount—a quotation Peter is simply elaborating here: ‘Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.’ (St. Matthew 5:16) Now, countless authors and politicians and other salesmen of ideas have courted our vanity by telling us we are the center of everything and that we have the power to change the world. I used to work in education, and it seems as if every modern textbook has this idea embedded as its central conceit. But changing the world is actually a very low bar—the inventor of the spork changed the world but there probably won’t be any parades for his genius—and changing the world as a singular goal is devoid of any directing moral force or clarity: few would call the spork evil, but would anyone call its invention a divinely mandated ‘good deed?’ That is not to say that our work in this world is not important, after all, we should believe in a God powerful enough to use even the spork for the glory of His kingdom, but it is God who is saving, not just changing, the world, and Christians are called to recognize the difference. We participate in that saving work as a community of faith offering all of our intellect and strength and courage and love to the God who can actually use them for good. We offer our faithfulness and work as an everlasting monument to the God who is re-creating an everlasting world in which to enjoy the fruit of our labors. As Christians, this eternal perspective should not only make us better neighbors and parents and spouses, but it should make us better scientists and artists and plumbers and teachers and retired folk because unlike those with no hope, whose work will—at best—disappear the day the sun stops shining, the Christian loves and dreams and works for the new earth promised by the risen Christ. The Christian is free to work with his hands and his heart and his mind because everything he does matters in a world being saved by the God of the living not the dead. The Christian can rest secure knowing that the good he does will live on forever. During Eastertide, it is good to remember that aspect of the empty tomb, and thank God for the great gift He has given us in His mercy. St. Peter can’t imagine us living any other way.
Finally, we get to how the citizens of the new earth to come are to approach their temporary but immediate relationship with the state. Much could be said about this important topic, and in our limited time we can’t possible say everything we would like, but here is what St. Peter wants us to remember: trust God. When the apostle tells us to be subject to the kings and emperors of our time he is not exhorting us to worshipfully trust in the state, and he is not pouring gasoline on our natural inclination to believe powerful men will save us. Remember, the emperor Peter is instructing the 1st century church to honor was Emperor Nero: the mad tyrant who viciously persecuted Christians, falsely blamed them for the Great Roman Fire, and whose dogged execution of every Christian leader he could find eventually led to the crucifixion of the very man writing this letter. Peter does not think Nero is going to save the world. So, what is Peter thinking? Peter is not crazy; he isn’t insane; he is simply and entirely sure of the victory Christ won on the cross, and he trusts the Father who brought his Lord and friend back from the dead. He trusts Him so much that he can submit to an unjust execution and know God will use that execution for His glory. In the same way, Peter asks us to submit to the state in all the ways which do not contradict the ordinances of God, and when we do break the state’s laws for Christ’s sake, that we be ready to take any punishments the state has to offer knowing there is nothing any tyrant can do to change the victory Christ has already won. All leaders should tremble at that thought, and all Christian subjects and citizens should hold their heads high knowing no politician or prince or king or judge can ever own us.
This freedom, however, is not without purpose. Just as Israel was liberated from Pharaoh in order to worship and serve God, the new Israel has been liberated from sin and death in order to live lives of holy service. Any part of us which recoils at the thought of using our divinely gifted freedom to serve God is nothing less than an evil which must be purged. I’m always amazed by people who don’t recognize this about themselves. People will say, ‘I just don’t feel like going to church or helping my brother in Christ’ or ‘I really feel like I’m supposed to sleep with my co-worker’ or commit whatever sin stains red the beaches of our fallen world. That feeling is the slavery we have been liberated from, that feeling is evil and sin and death. Sadly, every loudspeaker of our dying world tells us to live our lives for ourselves: to be docile slaves to sinful desires. But why would we trust a world that is so obviously wrong? A world which can’t save itself from anything? A world increasingly overtaken by ignorance and misery and unhappiness? Peter tells us we don’t have to find our meaning or purpose in the stinking fleshpots of this convulsing and dying world. We can be free to have the joy of the sojourner, the joy of the pilgrim as we joyously secure the beach heads upon which tomorrow’s new heaven and earth will triumphantly land. That is the Church’s job even unto death.
Let us then be strangers and exiles in this strange land we are making ready for the return of our king, but let us always remember that the land of promise—first made visible in the risen Lord—that land is just beyond the horizon, and it is there we will find the home for which every human heart longs.