Supper at Emmaus, Matthias Stom, 1633-1639
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
1st Letter of Peter 1:17–21
April 26, 2020
This week we continue our examination of the 1st Letter of St. Peter. We saw last week that either Peter or a close associate who felt comfortable using his name wrote from Rome to converts in what is now Turkey around 70 AD. He began this letter by offering hope and today he will be more specific on where this hope rests.
As gentiles, they would have been struck by the idea of creation that Christians took from Jews. That a loving God brought the world into being would have been foreign perhaps unbelievable to them. Indeed, even now when we look at the world, it seems difficult to believe that it was made by all-loving and all-powerful being. There is simply so much evil in it that the alternative views that “creation” came from accident, greed, or outright hatred may seem far more likely.
Yet they made this decision and creation has its consequences. Once we accept that we were made intentionally and out of love, there are other things we will need to accommodate into our lives.
Peter tells them today:
He was known before the foundation of the world
but revealed in the final time for you.
(1 Pt. 20)
Creation has a purpose and meaning and that is found in Jesus. Jesus existed before creation and the overwhelming love of God is now fully revealed in Him.
Jesus is the “spotless unblemished lamb.” This is a reference to the Passover lamb and the specific relationship between God and the Jewish people. The converts in their Baptisms were, as Paul tells us, “grafted on to” the Jewish people (Romans 11:17) This relationship is a covenant. Covenants are pledges to share life together. The Jewish covenant is between God and the entire people of Israel. Covenants are always connected to a meal as we see at Passover itself.
The “precious blood of Jesus” forms the new Passover which begins the final times.
Another consequence of true creation is that there is a conscious beginning is that the universe will reflect the consciousness of the being who made it:
If you invoke as Father him who judges impartially
according to each one’s work
(1 Pt. 17)
Most religions did not have a solid ethical core. A person could attain divine favor by building a temple or subsidizing a public event in honor of a god. “Perishable things like silver and gold” would define the relationship. But our relationship with God is through Jesus’ “precious blood” and it is by our actions we will be judged. How do we build up the relationship with God and our neighbor?
Thus, the converts are told to “conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning.” We were made in love and can only be true to ourselves when we love.
Yet love brings us down to earth and earth is a messy place. There is a natural desire to put God and religious things on a pedestal and then worship and ignore. The holy is too good for this world and too precious to be exposed to it. Yet God became man and dwelt among us. Jesus got his hands dirty and knows that our lives are not spent contemplating the eternal but in very practical efforts to get to the next day.
Peter also understood this. He will speak often in his letter of suffering and trials. For the new Christians he was addressing, this meant primarily family stress brought on by their conversions. They had lost a lot. This was a common experience for new Christians. At about the same time this letter was being written, St. Mark wrote to his community, possibly at Rome itself:
Truly I tell you,
there is no one who has left house or
brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields,
for my sake and for the sake of the good news,
who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—
houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields,
with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.
Christianity does not offer a way out of the problems of this world. It is not a spiritual anesthetic, but rather a way of life that will confront the world and transform it. As we will see, Peter will agree with Mark that “in this age” we will receive more than we have given up, because we will be given a family and community in the church. The new life that Jesus offers us, as Mark reminds us, will be fulfilled only in heaven but here and now, we should live in a way that strengthens our covenant and makes us one with God and neighbor.
It is characteristic of Christianity that we are presented with an elevated theology which can answer the great questions of the cosmos but also practical wisdom that can help us with everything from the discovery that a child has addiction problems, personal financial troubles, and indeed the effects of COVID-19.
At the time of this letter, it would be too early to speak of the Papacy or the Petrine office as we understand it, but it is no accident that it is St. Peter or someone acting in his name who is speaking. He thinks that it is his responsibility to “strengthen his brothers” as Jesus told him at the Last Supper. (Luke 22:31)
This is leadership at its best and we see it with Peter’s most recent successor Pope Francis. He can write an encyclical on the environment (Laudato Si) synthesizing the churches ancient teaching, modern science, and a sophisticated philosophical analysis, but also to speak to people directly and compassionately about the present crisis with the virus.
In his daily homilies at his residence in the Santa Marta guest house, he has spoken about everything from caring for aging relations to keeping children occupied at home without ignoring the imperative to examine the failure of our economy to protect the most vulnerable and the recognition that there are more disasters to come. His ability to speak plainly and simply is so refreshing in this age of spin. I especially appreciated the old Spanish saying he quoted in one homily: “God always forgives, man occasionally forgives, nature never forgives.” I also promise to tell myself often “the risk is that we may then be struck by an even worse virus, that of selfish indifference,” spread “by the thought that life is better if it is better for me, and that everything will be fine if it is fine for me.”
Peter and his successors are pledged to witness that the Father has “raised Jesus from the dead and gave him glory so that your faith and hope are in God.” It was true when Peter sent a letter to encourage converts in Turkey it is true now when Francis broadcasts a message of hope to us all.