Sunday, May 6, 2012

Harmony, Sympathy, Affection, Compassion &Humility

As something of a summary of what the author of the first letter of Peter has been communicating to the gathered congregation, it is written “Finally, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, affectionate, compassionate, and humble” (3:8).  With the specter of division and social stratification (always based on honor and shame, as there was no “middle class” of which to speak, though honor would naturally gravitate towards wealth and vice versa) looming large in the background, it seems reasonable to posit that the problems being experienced in the churches were nearly universal, as these words from Peter are effectively what we can also hear Paul saying to the churches in Rome and Corinth.  If asking the members of the churches to function together as a unified body, independent of honor and shame constructs, always considering the body of the community and its overall health as the visual representation of God’s ruling kingdom, cannot be, based on what we have learned to this point, summarized in our thoughts as “be harmonious, sympathetic, affectionate, compassionate, and humble,” then we simply lack the power of deductive reasoning. 

Truly, this language echoes Paul’s Rome-directed call “not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment, as God has distributed to each of you a measure of faith” (Romans 12:3), as he goes on to use metaphorical terms in relation to the functioning of the body of Christ, grounded in the operation of self-sacrificial love.  Keeping our thoughts there, the metaphorical treatment in Romans possesses great similarity to that which is to be found in the first Corinthian letter, and can direct our approach to Peter.  Harmony, sympathy, affection, compassion, and humility are the clarion calls of the thirteen chapter of first Corinthians, and contrary to any and all thinking about the subject, the concept of love therein expressed is (colored by the cross) what is demanded by one’s confession of Jesus as Lord, especially given the competition for honor and shame that provides the social context in which the words are first heard. 

Across the letters, what we see is that preference and humility are the demands of the example of Christ, and to what might strike most of us as an unusually high degree, the call for humility and consideration of others in the light of the cross is consistently and almost exclusively framed by references to the meal table.  This is more obvious in the letters to Rome and Corinth, and especially the latter, as the dissertation of chapters twelve through fourteen, which outline the way that the church is to behave (not in cultivation of a private spirituality or a quest for personal holiness but as the witness of a vibrant, present, and demanding kingdom), has for its foundation Paul’s treatment of the Lord’s Supper (that which, for all practical purposes, came to be the church’s representation of the messianic banquet, filtered through the prevailing sense of Greco-Roman banqueting practice, and therefore, it’s declaration that Jesus is Lord and ruler of all creation).

The next verse in this letter, after extolling Christian love, evokes the Jesus tradition in play in that day, giving a pre-Gospel composition voice to that which will be a cornerstone of Jesus’ truly revolutionary notions of how it is that the God’s rule will come to earth.  When Peter insists that this church “not return evil for evil or insult for insult, but instead bless others because you were called to inherit a blessing” (3:9), he speaks to a group of people that were very much in line to experience evil and insults, as they refused to participate in the emperor cult or the public religion.  Naturally, this calls to mind that which would come to be codified in the Gospels, which would be “Do not resist the evildoer.  But whoever strike you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well” (Matthew 5:39). 

Some would look at as the Gospels simply putting into Jesus’ mouth that which the early church leaders desired to hear Jesus saying, so as to provide back-up to their positions and a legitimization of their authority.  However, because what Peter is insisting upon flies in the face of basic social code and of predominant Jewish sensibilities in an era of nearly constant revolutionary activity, it most certainly must go back to the lips of one that put such activity on display in willingly going to the cross, with the power of the Resurrection later serving to back-up the words that would serve to inspire actions (by the Spirit, as through such responses it is being declared that Jesus is Lord---that God rules) that would transform the world. 

Beyond that, Peter insists that the focus be on blessing others---good deeds/public benefaction---because of the blessing that was being inherited.  Does Peter here speak of heaven?  In the sense that it was the role of the people of God, in participation with God by His Spirit (which is the means by which a person is able to confess that Jesus is Lord) to bring heaven to earth (God’s will being done on earth as in heaven), yes, that’s exactly what it means.  However, it goes further than that, in that any mention of blessing automatically reverts to the concept of the Abrahamic covenant, and its promise to bless Abraham for the purpose of exemplifying divine blessing, as part of God’s plan to set the world to rights (to restore it from its fallen condition, to provide justification).  Consequently then, calling attention to the Abrahamic covenant calls to mind the worldwide body of Abraham’s children coming together for the great eschatological (end times=the time of God’s rule, which began with Jesus’ Resurrection) feast that would mark God’s rule.  So with this, we have landed on the power and importance of the Christian meal table, as it becomes increasingly clear that it is something of a social and cultural phenomenon that cannot be ignored in our interpretation of Scripture, whether that interpretation is spoken, written, or lived.             

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