24 May – Do not fear

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Easter 7

1 Peter 3:8-22
Psalm 68
John 17:1-11

In a sentence
Fear causes us to act in ways which reduce us and those around us

A quick reading of Peter’s first letter gives the sense that it is his advice to his church as to how it might respond to the difficulties it is experiencing as a community which doesn’t quite fit within its wider social and political context. The advice would seem to be something like this: ‘make yourself a small target by living a life which all will recognise as upright’.

Yet, as we noted last week, Peter’s is not a passive-aggressive survival strategy. In fact, it is the way Peter proposes they behave which attracted the ire of the wider community in the first place: their good behaviour and actions within the wider community are the problem so far as that wider community is concerned.

The life to which Peter calls his community is, then, not a response to the difficulty they are having with their neighbours; it is the cause of their difficulty. Unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, a humble mind, not repaying evil for evil but repaying with a blessing – these are not a solution but the problem. His moral instruction, then, is not something new they should adopt to fend off their persecutors. He calls them to stay the course, to continue in the way they have been going. Peter’s advice is, Do not stop being a problem!

This may be difficult to see because the ethic Peter calls for looks like the kind of thing all communities value, to some greater or lesser degree. Where are humility, sympathy and tenderness not valued? But if humility and sympathy and tender hearts are what all communities commend, then we get the impression that there might be in Peter’s community ‘too much’ tenderness and humility and sympathy.

Certainly such traits as these can be badly distorted, but unhealthy humility is neither what Peter demands nor likely to be offensive to those who oppose his congregation.

We get a clue as to what might be at the heart of the matter in the middle of today’s passage: ‘Do not fear what they fear’. Fear is a great motivator for us. We behave at least as much according to what we fear – what we seek to avoid – as according to what we hope to gain or give.

The reference to ‘fear’ in verse 14 is matched with the word ‘sanctify’ in the following verse. What we fear is what we sanctify. Our fears indicate to us what is most sacred to us: our fears create and call upon the gods. This is as much the case for the Christians as it is the non-Christian neighbours. We confuse the matter if we imagine that for Christians we no longer fear God but love God. In the Scriptures, fear is not a matter of shaking in our boots but a matter of what is most honoured in our lives, what it is we imagine will secure us against the many things which seem to threaten us. Peter says here, then, do not honour what they honour, do not consider sacred would they consider sacred; rather, sanctify Jesus as Lord.

Peter illustrates this with Jesus’ own way. Here is one who does not fear what most of us fear, who willingly submits to God alone, even if that leads to death by crucifixion. Here the crucifixion is not about some economy of salvation which makes it possible for God to love us again; it is about knowing what is truly sacred in the world, what is to be sanctified, and what not.

In Jesus we see a life of humility and sympathy and unity of spirit, of love for the other, of tenderness – a life which submits to those who fear the wrong things but does not submit to the fearsome things themselves. Jesus submits to the powers and institutions and fears in place around him, but without himself fearing anything they might take from him, even should they seem to win in the end. In this way, the cross is itself the victory of Jesus, whatever might have happened on Easter day.

Peter calls his community – and us – to the same humility before those who hold power over us, without submitting to the powers which might cause our overlords to be ungracious and without hope.

In this way, what is truly of God in the world – the human creature made in the image of God – is honoured, even if that human creature is subject to all sorts of dehumanising powers and perhaps even becomes an agent for the dehumanising of others.

This is no easy thing. Peter does not give the answer we seek when we ask the question about dealing with evil in the world. There is here no strategy for alleviating the suffering of his community, although that suffering is radically reinterpreted. Peter reminds them that they suffer because there is a conflict in the world – a conflict between the God from whom all things come and to whom all things will return, and those gods which have us in their grip because we fear death, or fear the loss of some lovely thing, or fear just having to get up in the morning and face the day.

There is a lot we will do when we are afraid. Much of it is hidden in the fabric of our economies and political systems. And it is likely that an awareness of this and a refusal to participate is what causes disruption for Peter’s community: they won’t share any longer in the injustice inherent in the common life of the city. They refuse to participate in dehumanising practices – financial, or relational, or political. And the nuisance value of this will sometimes be very high for the powers that be.

But being a nuisance is not the point. If Peter’s people are refugees and aliens in their own community, it is ultimately for the sake of those who persecute them. To continue to be a problem is to continue to model a true peace, and to make it possible. Only humility, sympathy and love for one another can bring true humility, sympathy and love for one another. And it is scarcely the case that we have too much of these things.

Jesus suffered, Peter says, as God’s stirring nuisance, to bring us to God. We ought not to be surprised, then that we are called to do the same, so that all might see how fear only reduces us, and how only love will expand us.

Let us, then, live lives which conform not to the fears of the world but the freedom of Jesus in the love of God.