“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.