Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Peter's Transformative Table

Peter writes “For God wants you to silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good” (2:15).  Taken together with the “those who do good” of the fourteenth verse, we can hear Peter reinforcing the need for public benefaction, as this is what such words implied when used in that day.  Most of us, with our experience of Christianity as intensely personal (and it is, but the only reason for it be intensely personal is so that it may be intensely social in demonstration that the kingdom of heaven has invaded this world and that Jesus is its Sovereign), are accustomed to reading “good deeds,” “good works,” and “doing good,” as either the avoidance of that which we consider to be bad deeds, or in the Reformation-oriented paradigm of doing good works in order to earn salvation.  Therefore, we have an over-compensating reaction, which attempts to smooth out this supposed wrinkle in the Scriptural witness, saying “No, we don’t do good works to earn salvation, we do good works as a response to God’s having saved us” (which is true), with all of this colored by a mis-guided notion about what is meant by the “works of the law” and the way that those “works of the law” functioned in the days of Jesus, Peter, and Paul. 

It takes a bit of work to discover that the language of good deeds, in this context, is truly about seeking to do what is best for the communities in which we live.  In general, we have no problem extending our helping hands “to those who belong to the family of faith” (Galatians 6:10b), but we often forget the attitude that was basic for those who understood themselves to be the harbingers and representatives of a real and present kingdom, which was that “whenever we have an opportunity, let us do good to all people” (6:10a), while finding that we are most naturally inclined to do good for those with whom we share our meals.  This is what truly allows the people of God to function as a light to all peoples, fomenting a desire to align oneself with this movement of cosmic reconciliation, and in so doing bring glory to the God of the universe. 

As Peter speaks through his letter to a group of people from all walks of life, consisting of slave and free, Jew and Gentile, male and female, and even those who might be attaching themselves to the Christian community because they have notions of revolution and are drawn to a community that talks about a new kingdom, a new king, and a new way of living, he goes on to say “Live as free people, not using your freedom as a pretext for evil, but as God’s slaves.  Honor all people, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the king”  (2:16-17).  Free people who are slaves?  Again, this represents a new way of living, and it is learned at the meal table of the elected family of the God of Israel. 

It is relatively easy for us to hear the words “Honor all people” in our own day, especially in the western world in which we (in theory) embrace the notion that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and to miss out on the incredibly radical and earth-shattering nature of this concept.  With these words being spoken in a world that was attuned to the pursuit of honor as the pursuit of status in the world, with this pursuit of honor providing justification for all manner of selfish and self-centered activities, the idea of honoring all people equally, even to the point of living as slaves (the least honorable), was a foreign concept.  In a world in which lines were drawn between the civilized people of the Roman empire and the “barbarian” hordes of those that refused to accede to the divinely backed pretensions of Roman hegemony, the notion of honoring all people would have been dismissed out of hand. 

Additionally, any community that hailed a different king, let alone a King that was superior to all kings of the earth, would have been hard pressed to continue honoring the Roman emperor, especially considering the fact that the Christians were undergoing much persecution owing directly to their counter-imperial claims.  Therefore, the universal directive to honor the king would necessitate a preferring love that would be difficult to manage.  Achieving this lofty ideal would be yet another evidence of the transformative power of the Gospel, so how could the church bring about such an attainment?  The answer brings us back to the table.  That powerful social institution, which maintains some of its power even in this day (though we tend to miss it), can be the basis for societal transformation and the establishment of the kingdom of heaven, just as it was and can also be the basis for maintaining the societal status quo.  If the idea of the messianic banquet is embraced, and the church attempts to be the place (the overlap of heaven and earth) where “people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and take their places at the banquet table in the kingdom of God” and “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 12:29-30), then Peter’s directive, which is a component of the overall Scriptural missive, will not be impossible to achieve.       

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