A Time of Testing

“For it is the time to begin judgment with the household of God;if we are first, what will be the end of those who not believe in the gospel of God?”

1 Peter 4:17

New Testament scholars identify 1 Peter, along minimally with 2 Peter, Titus, Hebrews, and Revelation, as “persecution literature,” literature produced during a period in which Christians faced oppression and persecution simply because of their faith. Typically, such literature admonishes believers, tempted to escape persecution by renouncing their faith, to remain steadfast in their convictions; it encourages them that God’s righteousness will ultimately prevail (cf. Rev 2:10; Hebr 10:35-39). First Peter 4 offers a nuanced analysis of the situation confronting the early church.  The author describes the moment with the Greek term καιρὸς (kairos), which can connote “time of decision.” Although Hebrew has no equivalent, the translators of the LXX employed it to refer to the time of Noah (Gen 6:13), to the moments preceding several of the Egyptian plagues (Exod 8:28; 9:4, 14), and, tellingly, to the crisis moment of decision that confronted Esther (Esth 4:14).

The author of 1 Peter argues that the time of persecution in which his readers find themselves was more than merely a moment to endure.  Indeed, it represented an opportunity to embrace, to share in, the suffering of Christ, whose crucifixion revealed the world’s unbelief and judged it by contrasting it with God’s persistent love. This kairos time, the author maintains, would surely reveal the true character of the Christians who must live through it.  This time would be a refiner’s fire, assaying the quality of believer’s faith, thereby revealing the glory of God’s grace. This time would bring judgment that “begins with the household of God.”

The author of 1 Peter offers more than warning and encouragement, however.  He recommends very specific behaviors that would reveal who these believers really were. First, they must exercise self-sacrificial love (ἀγάπη) for one another (4:8).  Second, they must display hospitality liberally and ungrudgingly (4:9). Although linguists ward against the dangers of placing too much interpretative weight on etymologies, the etymology of the Greek term translated “hospitality” here (φιλόξενος) helps to explain the high regard show the concept in early Christian literature. It combines the term for “filial love” and the term for “stranger.” Hospitality is love for strangers. Third, the author call upon his readers to serve (διακονέω) one another each employing the gift God had given them (4:10).

Remarkably, the passage describes this time of testing, not in terms of the condemnation of those persecuting the church, but as an opportunity for the community to prove its mettle. It calls on the community, not to resist its enemies, or vanquish them, or hate them, or consign them to God’s wrath, but to practice the other-oriented virtues of selfless love, openness to strangers, and humble service. First Peter does not raise the cry “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war,” but issues the call to loving selflessness.

Kairos now? It seems to me that the words of 1 Peter 4 have something to say to Christians in America today. Before I address that message, however, I think it is important to state explicitly two limitations.  First, by suggesting an analogy between the kairos of the time of 1 Peter and the kairos Christians face now, I do not mean to suggest that the eschaton is near. It may be; I do not know.  I do not think, moreover, that 1 Peters 4 gives any reason to expect that it is. After all, the eschaton did not appear 2,000 years ago when the author of 1 Peter wrote.  Instead, we can avail ourselves of the text because human history consists of a series of such crisis moments of revelation and decision. No doubt, others will come in the future. Yet, now is a moment of decision for us.  Second, I do not intend to equate the situation Christians face today with the sufferings of oppression and persecution Peter’s church faced.  Christians in the West may be unpopular with some, and we may longer enjoy the privileges of virtual establishment and majority status, but no one is coming to take us to the Coliseum.

Yet, we are surely experience a time of revelation that has openly exposed the fissures in our society and in our churches: race, culture, politics, religion, and ethics have all become battle arenas. Furthermore, just as 1 Peter 4 saw a similar time of crisis as a time of testing for the church, our kairos will also ultimately reveal the identity of the church in America.

Time (kairos) will tell whether believers will continue to draw lines of division that run even through local congregations and, in too many cases, families or will open themselves to one another in self-giving love, compassion, and at least the desire for mutual understanding.  Time will tell whether believers will opt to escalate confrontations with the “other” or extend hospitable “stranger-love.” Time will tell whether individual believers and congregations will abandon the urge to defend themselves against encroachment from others and loss of status in order, instead, to enter willingly into the insecure zone of service, asking first not whether the other agrees with them, but whether the other needs help.

“American values” will not suffice to bring the healing needed now. “American values” emphasize self-determination, freedom – even to hate, market-competition, the will of the majority, and the basic mistrust of one another institutionalized in the federal system of checks-and-balances/separation of powers.  None of these “values” can motivate one to span a racial or cultural divide to reach out to a stranger in the effort to make a friend. “Victory over” has no place in the church; ours is a ministry of reconciliation.

May the household of God stand the test of these times.  May we embody our Lord’s teaching that greatness lies in lowly servanthood.

Thanksgiving Break

The end of the semester rushes up to meet me; the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature with its editorial board meetings and panel presentations begins at the end of this week; Thanksgiving will be waiting as soon as I return.  You will forgive me, I trust, if I take a couple of weeks off from blogging.

Instead, I have just posted in the “Sermons and Lectures” section recordings of the first two of five sessions I led in October on the topic of “Israel’s Ancestral Narratives” at First Presbyterian Church here in Richmond.  Have a listen. I will post sessions three through five next week.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!  If you will be travelling, please take extra precautions on the highways.  Rest well before setting out, stop frequently to refresh, and drive defensively.

What Now?

“For God did not give you a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of sound judgment” (2 Tim 1:7)

I went to vote first thing this morning on the way into the seminary for an early meeting.  I cast my ballot. When I asked, the precinct workers reported that turnout was up somewhat over recent elections even at the early hour. I stuck my “I Voted” sticker on my lapel.  I left.

By this time tomorrow, barring some unforeseen scenario involving hanging-chads or malfunctioning voting machines, the results of the 2016 US election should be established knowledge.  Many will be relieved to leave behind a campaign season that has seemed mean and demeaning to a degree most of us have never seen in presidential politics…if we can, indeed, leave it behind. As I was driving to the seminary, news features on two radio stations examined the necessity of, and measures available for, “healing” the rifts in the body politic.

As unpleasant as this campaign has been, then, it has served to reveal the hardened divisions that run throughout our culture, the fear of changing demographics and social norms roiling in some segments of the population, and the anger that motivates almost one-half of us to mistrust and denigrate the other half, reciprocally. It has uncovered the troubled state of race relations, brought to the surface an undercurrent of misogyny, and exposed structures that slant the playing field in the favor of those in power – to name but three examples.

On the theory that facing the truth squarely promises a better outcome that continued denial, those of us who care about where we live and about others living here with us will confront an obvious question tomorrow and in the days to come:  Now what?

I want to remind believers that, until the consummation of the Kingdom of God, as has been true throughout human history, every generation will face such moments of crisis.  I have already lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis (I was in elementary school in Orlando, FL; it was a very real experience to me), Bull Connors’ Birmingham, 1968, the end of the Vietnam War, a major recession in the early 1970’s that put my father out of work for nearly a year, Watergate, the Iran hostage ordeal, four dollar per gallon gasoline, the fall of the Iron Curtain…. If you will search your memory, you will recognize that there has been no extended period of true peace and shared prosperity in modern history; if you search the history books, you will recognize that recent events continue an aged pattern. Now what?

I want to remind believers that – as important as politics and government are to the administration of justice, the maintenance or order, and the promotion of the common weal – we do not place our ultimate allegiance in the state or look to it for our salvation, neither here nor in the life to come. I saw a church marquis only yesterday bearing the admonition, “Put your trust in the lamb, not in donkeys or elephants.” Although silly in its phrasing, it makes an important point. Now what?

I want to remind believers of the exhortation from 2 Timothy cited above. In Christ, we have no reason to fear the circumstances we now face. We must honestly acknowledge them, of course.  Otherwise, we will tacitly accept and help to perpetuate them. For those in Christ, however, they do not represent threats to be feared, but wounds to be healed, injustices to be corrected, and rifts to be reconciled.

Furthermore, 2 Timothy assures us that those in Christ find the power to do the work necessary. “Power” is a tricky word. In everyday usage, it can mean “authority to control” or “ability to coerce,” on the one hand.  Clearly, the Gospel of the Crucified One does not view such “power” as a gift of God.  “Power” can also mean the energy, impulse, dynamism necessary to effect change. I pray that tomorrow, rather than recalibrating how to wield coercive, controlling power or merely lamenting the chaos, the church will reconnect with the power of the Gospel to change lives, families, communities, and entire societies.

Next, 2 Timothy lists “love,” underscoring the importance of using this power to bring life and liberty rather than to enforce control. This love moved God to “give God’s only begotten son” (John 3:16); it is patient, kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude; it does not insist on its own way (1 Cor 13:2-5, paraphrased).

As if aware of our circumstances, the author of our text concludes this brief, poignant admonition with the reminder that, in Christ, we do not wield power aimlessly and we do not love sentimentally (and ineffectively), but with sound judgment. In the days and months to come, no matter who wins today, we will hear calls for political retribution, threats of obstruction, and recriminations.  Sore losers and over-confident winners will fill barbershops, coffee shops, and break rooms.  Debates on cable news will not become suddenly more civilized. If we make progress of any kind, it will be because those with sound judgment powerfully and lovingly lead the way.

“Like a Thief in the Night” 1 Thess 5:2

1 Thess 5:2

“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” – Chicken Little

Paul wrote his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, which scholars date to the early 50’s CE making it probably the oldest document in the New Testament, largely to send greetings and encouragement, but also to assuage a fear that had arisen in the church.  The New Testament provides ample evidence that the early church eagerly anticipated the Continue reading “Like a Thief in the Night” 1 Thess 5:2

Dirt to Dust

Do Unto Others

Read in tandem, Genesis 1 and 2 state perhaps the most fundamental polarity of human existence.  Genesis 1 describes God’s creation of humankind in God’s very own “image and likeness.” It is difficult to imagine a more definitive declaration of the dignity and significance of being human. Humans bear God’s image; every human being is like God. Of Continue reading Dirt to Dust

The Syntax of Discipleship

Matt 28:19

The pendulum swings to and fro in the field of (higher, including theological) education from extreme to extreme, returning briefly to the center only to pass through it again. Early in my teaching career, the watchword was “transformational education.” The primary object of education, according to proponents of the philosophy, involves changing Continue reading The Syntax of Discipleship

A Little Leeway

1 Kgs 19:14; Exod 4:1; Acts 5:38-39; Amos 9:7

On a recent rainy weekend following a particularly demanding work for both of us, my wife and I spent a significant portion of Saturday afternoon watching a “Matlock Marathon” on cable TV. I found it amusing that, quite formulaically, the moment came in every episode we saw when Matlock would stop cross-examining the witness (invariably the true Continue reading A Little Leeway

By our Fruits

Luke 16:19-31

Several years ago now, when I had been teaching undergraduates for a few years, I said something (demonstrably true) in class about the text-critical problems with a particular passage of scripture that caused a minor disturbance among students.  It soon reached the ears of the administration.  Nothing came of it in the long run, I am happy to say, except for Continue reading By our Fruits