The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio, 1603
Second Sunday of Easter
1st Letter of St. Peter 1:3–9
April 19, 2020
During the weeks of Easter, the first reading will be from the “Acts of the Apostles” and the second reading from the very intriguing “First Letter of St. Peter.” We will use this opportunity to examine this letter in some detail.
Often discussion of 1 Peter can become fixated on if it was, in fact, written by St Peter. We will avoid this issue to a great extent and simply hold that if it was not it was written by Peter, it was constructed by a close associate who would have communicated his thought faithfully and reverently. This is most important. We will assume that the letter was written if not by Peter, who was executed in 64 AD, then soon after it, no later than 90 AD and most likely closer to 70 or 80 AD—in any event, rather early in the Church’s history. The author is addressing the same issues as other New Testament writers of this time especially St. Paul, his followers, and St. Matthew. Although St. Peter has a distinctive viewpoint that is well worth hearing, we should keep in mind how similar his message is to his contemporaries.
One of those clear parallels is the form of the letter itself. Like Paul, he will use good Greco-Roman techniques:
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,
to the chosen sojourners of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,
in the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification by the Spirit,
for obedience and sprinkling with the blood of Jesus Christ:
may grace and peace be yours in abundance.
(1 Pe. 1:1–2)
He establishes first who he is—an apostle—and to whom he is writing—“sojourners” of the “dispersion” in what is now Turkey. These “sojourners” would not have been born Jews and he is including them, like Paul, as part of the “dispersion,” the renewed and completed Israel. At least the first part of this letter is quite possibly a Baptismal homily, and he is unambiguous that Baptism alone connects a person to Jesus and his church. Also, he will later say that he is writing from “Babylon,” that is Rome. It would be premature to refer to the Papacy here, but Peter is asserting his authority as first among the apostles to instruct and inspire disciples throughout the world.
Also, like Paul he provides an overview of the key themes of the letter at the very beginning:
- New Life – which will be examined more fully in 1:22–2:3.
- Hope – seen again in 1:8, 21; 3:15
- Jesus’ resurrection – 3:18-4:6
- Inheritance – 1:7-8
Throughout the letter is the reality of the trials facing the “sojourners.” Although there may have been some government interference in the lives of the early Christians, true persecution is decades away. At this time, the trials are rejection by family and friends. We see this throughout the New Testament:
From now on a household of five will be divided,
three against two and two against three;
a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father,
a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother
a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
The themes as we have seen of this letter are majestic indeed cosmic, but Peter, ever the attentive pastor, is concerned how this affects the disciples’ daily lives. How can our new life in Christ bring peace to family turmoil and hope in unemployment?
The inheritance of which Peter speaks is based on the promises to Abraham and David that are now fulfilled in Jesus’s death and resurrection. Here Peter reflects the early Christian insight that the kingdom of God is already present but will be completed only in heaven. Note also that it is safeguarded by “faith,” that is, a personal connection with Jesus not in a recognition of unspecific or impersonal divine powers.
Peter sees that our relationship with Jesus is usually experienced as one part of life. The trials that we endure will reveal that Jesus is life.
In this you rejoice, although now for a little while
you may have to suffer through various trials,
so that the genuineness of your faith,
more precious than gold that is perishable
even though tested by fire,
may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor
at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
(1 Pe. 1:6–7)
The experiences and ideas which Peter examines in this reading developed into the Catholic understanding of hope. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (“CCC”) states that:
Hope is the theological virtue by which
we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life
as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises
and relying not on our own strength,
but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit
The theological virtues are faith, hope, and charity. They are called theological because they have God “Theos” as their object and are given to us as a gift from God. They are interconnected. Hope requires a supreme trust, faith, that Jesus is who he says he is and in his rising from the dead has offered us new life. Christian hope is not optimism. It does not depend on external circumstances but in our relationship with Jesus. (CCC 1812-1813)
This hope directs us to happiness and connects us to love. As it is God-given, nothing in this world can take hope from us.
The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness
which God has placed in the heart of every man;
it takes up the hopes that inspire men’s activities
and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven;
it keeps man from discouragement;
it sustains him during times of abandonment;
it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude.
Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and
led to the happiness that flows from charity.
We are being tested by the effects of the coronavirus even if we are spared contagion. Fear for family, who may be elderly or have preexisting conditions, and the effects of isolation are real and Peter would have understood.
He will show us that, because of our faith, there is no time when we cannot hope and no place we cannot love.