31 May – As if God
1 Peter 4:1-11
In a sentence
God ‘ends’ sin by refusing to pass it on; our calling is to do the same
Breaking open the Scriptures is never a straightforward process.
As we open the book, sometimes we find things which are difficult because it is clear what the text says and means, and we don’t like what it means! Other times we struggle even to follow the text because, from this distance, the flow of thought and character of the references or illustrations the writers use are so alien to us.
Something of this latter is perhaps what we strike in our passage today from 1 Peter. Peter writes of the suffering which indicates that we are finished with sin, of the time lost in pursuing things which don’t really matter, of the nearness of the end and of the possibility of living and acting as if we ourselves were the God of grace. And he moves from the one to another in such a way that it reads a little like a grab-bag of throwaway ideas not quite clearly following on, one from another.
Yet these are a constellation of reflections from a central light – the light of what God has done for Peter’s community in the person of Jesus, and what they might then expect for themselves, and what they owe each other.
‘Whoever suffers in the flesh has finished with sin’, Peter writes, not as a general observation about the relationship between sin and suffering but with direct reference to Jesus. Suffering, in itself, is not the reason we are finished with sin – as if we earn forgiveness and wholeness through suffering. Suffering is the way we put sin behind us, the form such a putting-away will take. Jesus on the cross – God on the cross – is sin stopped. Sin is rendered powerless by its inability – in Jesus – to force the reaction of sin in the other. Sin is a virus jumping from one to another in these reactions. Yet Jesus ‘absorbs’ the fear and brokenness of those around him, rendering sin without power beyond what suffering it might mean for Jesus himself. The matter of the conflict between God and God’s people ends with him.
To refuse to respond to human brokenness by causing yet more brokenness is to set sin and its power behind us. The destruction sin brings stops with Jesus because he refuses to participate in the faulty dynamic of power which nailed him to the cross; Jesus refuses to respond in the terms in which he is attacked.
In this way, though his time is cut short, it is time spent oriented towards God and the full possibilities of life in God. It is towards such an experience of time’s possibilities that Peter calls us: you have already spent enough time doing what ‘the Gentiles’ like to do. Do, rather, what is really creative, what will really fill the times; do what is life, richer in every way than the death which will bring it to a close.
For this is the ‘end’ of all things of which Peter write (4.7) – the goal of creation which has been glimpsed in Jesus and now is a possibility for those touched by him. Creation turned in on itself and its own designs is creation without a goal, moving in cycles of fear and destruction, of mere life and death. This is creation without a purpose other than to continue at whatever cost.
To live as if the end were near is – Peter surprises us – to become ‘as if God’. ‘Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength God supplies’ (4.11). In this way we are ‘stewards of the manifold grace of God’. A steward is one who apportions within the household – on behalf of the master – the appropriate share of the wealth of the house. The Greek word here for ‘steward’ is oikonomos – from which we have our word ‘economy’. In God’ household – in God’s economy, God’s grace is the currency, and God is the effect. Peter does not call his people merely to continue in suffering because that in itself has value. The value is in the gift which ‘absorbing’ sin might bring – the presence of God’s peace-making in the midst of a violent world. Peter calls us to do and speak as if God, apportioning God’s grace to whomever we encounter.
This letter has continually turned our attention away from what we might think is going on in and around us, to see what was going on in and around Jesus. With that in mind, Peter then turns us back to our own time and place with the invitation to respond not merely to direct experience without Jesus, but to what is happening as a sharing in what happened with Jesus.
Jesus himself spoke and acted as the presence of God’s grace to those he encountered – both to the poor in spirit who received him as a blessing and to those proud in spirit who found his God too strange.
Enabled by the Spirit God gives to and make Jesus present among us again, God’s life with us takes the shape of Jesus’ own,
By the power of that Spirit, then, become the presence of God to those among whom God has placed you, with whatever joy or suffering this brings.
Only then does brokenness begin to recede behind us as we begin to move towards God’s end for us: life in love, together in Christ.