Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. - 1 Peter 3:15-16
Peter is writing to a group of churches who are suffering as a result of their faith. The question these Christians face is how to hold on to the promise of God’s blessing and at the same time act appropriately toward those who are hostile to the faith. How do we remain faithful in a hostile, unbelieving world?
We are called to be holy and pure. How do we do that in a world so filled with seduction and temptation?
We are called to simplicity. How do we do that in a culture infected with consumerism and materialism and greed?
We are called to humility. How do we do that in a world that only rewards fame and celebrity?
We are called to evangelize, to share our faith. How do we do that in a world where that is not only politically incorrect, but can be considered intolerant, or bigoted? How do we respond when we are mocked or ridiculed for our faith? When we are disregarded or ignored by the cultural elites? When we are misunderstood by friends or family members?
Peter’s answer is, it won’t be easy.
We are called to be set-apart and distinctive from the world and at the same time visible and engaged within the world.
That is not an easy balance. There will be tension. Pain. Rejection. Just as Christ suffered, those who follow him will suffer.
So Peter’s purpose in writing this letter is to talk about how the dynamic of Christ’s life can be reenacted in ours. It is a call to “keep the faith” in the midst of persecution. It is a call to non-retaliation in the face of evil. It is a call to endure suffering rather than to return it in kind. This is radical stuff, but Peter says we can do all of this because of our hope.
The Christian hope is not just doctrine or an abstract idea, it is a life-transforming, life-shaping, living hope. If you understand and receive this hope it enables you to face things that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to face.
Hope not only explains how the early Christians endured persecution
Hope also explains the reason why they were persecuted.
Our vision for the future is rooted in the New Heavens & New Earth. A radical reordering of power and resources and relationships A restoration of peace, wholeness, shalom. But when one looks forward to a new day it implies that the present is not as rosy as some would have us think. And the powers that be don’t like that.
Our hope for tomorrow is also the radical questioning of today.
It is no coincidence that immediately after Constantine's conversion, there were many who felt the book of Revelation should not be included in the canon. Not only did it speak of Rome as the harlot sitting on seven hills, drunk with the blood of martyrs, it also spoke of a completely “new order of things” coming down from heaven to earth (Rev. 21). Which, of course, implies that the “benevolent” reign of the Roman emperor was far distant from the rule and reign of God.
Christians were the targets of persecution because they refused to worship the Roman gods or to acknowledge the emperor as divine. In the Roman empire, refusing to sacrifice to the emperor or the empire’s gods was tantamount to refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to one's country.
As a result hey had their homes taken away and plundered. They were sent into the arenas to be torn to pieces by wild beasts as the crowds cheered. They were impaled on stakes, covered with kerosene and used as human torches for the emperors garden parties. They were crucified by the dozens along the highways in and out of Rome.
In the face of all of that Peter says remember your hope. Hold on to your faith. Christ has died, Christ is Risen, and Christ will come again!
“The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” - Tertullian, 2nd century church father
The most astounding thing is that it worked. The early Christians endured their suffering with such poise and peace they were known to sing hymns as the beasts were tearing them apart. They forgave the people that were killing them. They responded to persecution and suffering with such gentleness and peace that the more the Romans killed them, the more the church grew.
Their hope not only helped them to endure.
Their hope showed them how to endure.
Because when people saw them endure this kind of treatment with such peace, such gentleness they knew they had something. They were fearless but gentle, courageous yet humble, confident in their faith, but not cocky about it. It was their hope that gave them this gentle, fearlessness.
The promise of Christ’s second coming gives us strength to endure.
The pattern of Christ’s cross shows us how to endure.
Our hope is not only derived from the future, but from the past. At the cross we discover a God who would rather die than kill his enemies.
At the cross the forces of darkness assail him with all of their violence. Religious forces, political forces and spiritual forces all conspire to have Christ tortured and crucified. But they cannot change his compassion into hatred.
The work of the cross is about God’s power disarming and dethroning the cruel, illegitimate, power of Satan with genuine, self-sacrificial love.
Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. - Colossians 2v15
Christ’s death is the victory of suffering love. The victory of love over hatred. The victory of compassion over vengeance.
Jesus said, now is the time for judgment on the world. Now is when I disarm the powers and authorities once and for all. Because the greatest force in the universe is not hate, not violence, not fear and retribution. No. The greatest force in the universe is love. God is love.
In the end, the power of God is shown, not so much in the power of His creation or his miracles, but rather in his love and gentleness. On the cross He “emptied himself”, poured himself out in generous, self-sacrificial love and it was that display of power that completely disarmed the principalities and the authorities of this world once and for all.
“At some thoughts a man stands perplexed, above all at the sight of human sin, and he wonders whether to combat it by force or by humble love... Always decide: “I will combat it by humble love.” If you resolve that once for all, you can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force: it is the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it.” - Fyodor Dostoevsky “The Brothers Karamazov”