Many years ago I used to write training manuals and teach courses about various technical subjects. One of my mentors had previously served in the Royal Air Force, and told me that the basic technique I should adopt in writing technical manuals was “Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em, and tell ‘em you’ve told ‘em.”
If you’ve ever read manuals produced for the Services, you may well have seen this style of writing.
And I was reminded of it a few days ago when I read tonight’s reading from Peter to prepare this sermon.
You see, I’d preached on another part of Peter’s 1st Letter a couple of weeks ago. And to be honest, when I re-read tonight’s reading from from Peter I thought to myself ‘Hang on, this sounds a bit familiar’, and indeed similar issues are raised in it to the issues he covered in Chapter 2 of his letter.
It did indeed feel that Peter was drilling something very important in to us.
Peter’s first letter isn’t quite like that pastoral letters that Paul wrote; there’s little of a personal nature in it, and rather than it being addressed to a particular Church, it’s addressed to Christians scattered all over Asia Minor. Some scholars have commented that that this, and the general style of writing and content, suggest that it was either intended to be read as a sermon or a baptismal address, or that it was a letter based on a sermon. This would allow the content of the letter as a whole – which is based around handling and dealing with persecution, and the response of Christians to persecution – to be seen as an address to be preached. Other scholars have said that it’s just as possible that Peter wrote the letter as a letter to a widely spread group of Christians, to be copied and taken to different places, because many Christians from Asia Minor were in Jerusalem when he preached at the first Pentecost, and this was his follow up, so to say.
Whatever the case, Peter starts by again reminding us that if we’re to be persecuted or punished it should be for going good – doing what we are expected to do as a Christian – and not because we’ve committed a crime.
“ But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 17 For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.”
He’s telling the readers to answer those who might persecute them or criticise their behaviour in such a way as to make those persecutors think, or even feel shame. Remember the old saying “You catch more flies with wine than with vinegar’? I think Peter is suggesting that here!
Verse 18 reminds us that Jesus – the only totally righteous man – suffered and was put to death in order that the rest of us could be bought to God.
Verses 19 to 22 of tonight’s reading are quite widely discussed by theologians. There are a number of viewpoints held by different scholars, but I’ll stick with the most straight forward one tonight –
When Noah was building the ark, Christ ‘in the spirit’ – that is, prior to His incarnation through Mary – preached through Noah to the unbelievers who were on earth during the time. Noah and his family survived the flood, the others who disobeyed and did not repent so now are ‘spirits in prison’.
I have to say that better minds than mine have taken a look at this question and identified a couple of snags with this interpretation, and have offered other interpretations based on other translations of scripture.
But the thing to take away from this section of the reading is that the flood is symbolic of baptism. The water of the flood swept away the wicked; the water of our baptism washes the sin from us and allows us to be saved by Christ.
I think Peter’s letter speaks to ANY Christian at a time of direct persecution or at a time when it’s hard to be a Christian and behave in a Christ like manner in a society that is increasingly secular and that is governed and managed in a way that make deprivation and lack of compassion a common feature of everyday life.
Peter asks us “Who will harm you if you are eager to do good?” These days we may feel that society itself has a distinct tendency to make doing good – being a practical follower of Christ – hard; Peter tells us that even if we do suffer for doing good, we shouldn’t be scared. We shouldn’t respond with disrespect and anger but should respond in a way that reflects the fact that we are saved by Christ’s resurrection; with gentleness and love.
Sometimes we all feel moved to make a stand for something we believe in; as Christians we’re reminded of ‘what matters’ by the words of Micah – show mercy, do justly, love God. Being merciful, just and compassionate can be incredibly hard in a society that doesn’t value those virtues as much as it might. And we start wondering, “If it’s so hard, and I can get hurt, am I the right person for this job?”
But you know what? I think that Peter is telling us that not only are we the right people for the job, we’re the people who’re best equipped for it, and we’re the ONLY people who will be saved by Jesus Christ.
We’re not just the right people for the job; it’s the job we Christians are here for, and we need to get on with it.
Reader Joe Pritchard
Readings for sermon and links: