Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading – “See How These Christians Love One Another”

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 17, 2020
1 Peter 3:15–18

Lucian of Samosata was a Roman Satirist who flourished around 180 AD. He would be a combination of Jay Leno and P.G. Woodhouse. He is mostly remembered now because of his satirical portrait of Christians and writing the first known work of Science Fiction. He thought that because Christians believed that, through the resurrection they had a literally new life both now and in heaven, they were extremely reckless and incurably gullible. The Christian would accept death rather than offering a bit of incense up to the gods but also would care for just about anyone without the simplest background check. His “Passing of Peregrinus” is still, I must admit, funny. He, quite possibly, coined the expression “See how these Christians love one another.”

It was not a compliment.

The ancients understood as well as we do that love binds people to one another and loving an unworthy person was inviting contamination. The attitude of the upright pagan was expressed by the Poet Horace: “I hate the vulgar crowd, and cast them aside.” (Book 3)

This should be familiar to any parent who has warned a child about “bad company.” The Christian, however, is constantly told to love one another. Peter himself has told us:

Since you have purified yourselves by obedience
to the truth for sincere mutual love,
love one another intensely from a (pure) heart
(1 Pt. 1:2)

This kind of love would not be unnoticed nor uncriticized. We have seen throughout this letter that the suffering these new converts would experience was not from the authorities, civil or religious, but from their own families, friends, and neighbors. They needed to accept intimate hostility from the very beginning and be prepared to explain and defend not only their new beliefs but more to the point their new behavior.

Always be ready to give an explanation
to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.
(1 Pt. 3:15)

We again need to remember that Peter does not mean optimism. The hope of which he speaks is more like that of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is a God-given gift by which we trust that our happiness both here and in heaven comes from Jesus, not from our own strength. We experience this hope through the actions of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives. (CCC 1817)

As it comes from the Spirit, hope is always rooted in the truth and expressed in love. The next sentence reads:

but do it with gentleness and reverence,
keeping your conscience clear,
so that, when you are maligned,
those who defame your good conduct
in Christ may themselves be put to shame.
(1 Pt. 3:16)

The new Christians are told from the very beginning to expect to be challenged and opposed; he says when you are maligned, not if. It is also assumed that it will not be honest or impartial questioning but heated, personal, and partisan questioning. Whom we love is very important for us but others may be highly invested in who can be despised and in our terms marginalized.

There is a tendency to repay fire and invectiveness with the same. Peter implores us to respond with “gentleness and reverence.” A Christian can fail not only by not living up to what is expected, but also by hostile and rude responses.

The culture wars in our own country have shown this clearly and painfully. We have declared boldly and nobly that the unborn are to be loved. This will be to the lasting credit of the Church. Yet were those with whom we disagreed shown gentleness, were their persons held in reverence?

Abortion brings up many questions of freedom and autonomy that demands respect and sincere appraisal. Very little of either has been demonstrated by anyone on this issue. I discovered that I respond viscerally when my motives are assumed, questioned, and disparaged. There are people with whom I have worked on neighborhood projects in the past who assumed that I was against abortion because I wished women to be socially and financially subjugated. I did not always respond with the gentleness for which St. Peter calls.

Christians in our place and time must be prepared to have not only our beliefs but our very integrity challenged and should take to heart the next sentence of today’s reading:

For it is better to suffer for doing good,
if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.
(1 Pt. 3:17)

Our purpose is not to win arguments but to change hearts.

Peter knows how difficult this is and immediately places before us the example of Jesus:

For Christ also suffered for sins once,
the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous,
that he might lead you to God.
Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the spirit.
(1 Pt. 3:18)

There would be times and places that the Christian needs to be prepared for physical martyrdom. This is the case neither for Peter’s audience nor for us. We like Peter’s converts may, however, expect to be misinterpreted and maligned. It is good for us to know that not only has Jesus has been there before us but his suffering has brought us life.

This is reassuring for those who have felt that their beliefs have separated them from others. Those who have not, should read this with some discomfort. Why haven’t they?

The most recent cultural conflict has been the “Mercy Wars.” Although we hold that the God revealed by Jesus Christ is one of Mercy who loves all, there are some who would tell us to whom we can and cannot show mercy.

Pope Francis seems to be the lightning rod for this. He recently instructed his Almoner—chief charity officer—to wire money to a transgender community in Rome. Most were prostitutes and unable to obtain a living due to the Italian curfew. They were literally starving. We should remember that Francis is not supportive of “gender theory” which he sees as a destructive example of the cultural imperialism of the global north. Yet he met with a trans man and his wife in 2015 and in no uncertain terms instructed their parish priest to listen, welcome, and accompany them.

The spiritual decedents of Lucian of Samosata baptized or not, ordained or not did not understand Pope Francis’s decision.

When I meet St. Peter at the gates of heaven and seek admission, I fear that he will ask me for an explanation of the reasons I did not hope, why I trusted my own strength, and did not love all those the Spirit lead me to love.