People of Memory
Ecclesial Identity in 1 Peter 1:17–21
This is the first of a pair of manuscripts on hope for my homiletics course, Fall 2020.
My parents have been married for over 25 years. My father is a native of Edmond, the town I grew up in, but my mother grew up a few hours away. They only met one another when my mom moved to Edmond to finish her Bachelor’s Degree and only two months after they met, they were engaged. They decided to settle in the town they met, and somewhere along the way, they had me. Especially when I was a child, my mother would point out landmarks as we were driving through my hometown, “This is the hospital your dad was born in,” or “This is where your dad went to high school almost forty years ago” or “Your grandma and grandpa took your dad to church here when he was growing up.” My mom, of course, doesn’t remember when my dad was born, what Edmond looked like forty years ago, or how my father was growing up because all those years ago she lived in another place and she didn’t even know my dad’s name; when he was born, she was not even a thought in her mother’s mind! She knows his life and the places that formed him because she knows him covenantally. Her relationship with him is marked by her covenant relationship with him in marriage. Could we say my mother does not know those things about my father because she did not experience them? No! To say so would be a degradation of the binding love between them. Both my father and mother’s identities are normed by this covenant between the two of them, my dad in my mother’s memory is always her husband, even at a time when he was not that.
Let us take this one step further. Let’s say my father chose to marry my mother long before he knew her. Not just any woman, but my mother, Leslie. For the sake of the illustration, we will say he chose at the moment he was born that he would marry her. If he knew such a thing with certainty, everything that he would do throughout his life would be for the sake of her, even before he encountered her in person. For over twenty years, he would await that blessed moment where he walked into the same room as her, and finally would be free to love her as it was foreknown. His identity would be determined by his act of choice, the choosing of this woman, at this time, and in this place would always make him “Leslie’s husband.” Like their identities are determined from the moment they said “I do,” so would my father’s identity be determined from the beginning by his own act of choosing her.
Peter is concerned with identity. He was writing to a church that was beginning to suffer in minute ways, not all unlike how we suffer now. Christians had greater and greater difficulty in forming relationships and thus found it more and more difficult to trade and live daily life in their hometowns. These believers lived all over Asia Minor, much of which we now call Turkey, and the church was full of both Jews and Gentiles, and not just Greek Gentiles but also Gauls and Persians, among others. The ethnic and geographic diversity of Peter’s audience allows us to hear the words in a similar way to the first audience of the text. The goal of Peter’s letter is to establish the identity of the People of God, especially in the growing identity crisis. Does this sound like a familiar need for us? The audience of Peter’s text could very well be the American Church, and I feel it would be helpful if, as we listen to the words Peter wrote so long ago, we internalized them as words written for us. That indeed is what they are!
What is the question at the core of the text, what does it mean for us when Peter writes in verse twenty, “He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest for you”? God’s eternal choice is to draw near to humanity, but furthermore, to draw near to us, His People. Out of God’s free and eternal choice, he bound himself to us and made us His People even before it was so in history. This is the proclamation of the People of God throughout the ages! In the Creed, we proclaim, “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,” Hebrews 13:8 is inscribed above the pulpit of Moody Church and proclaims the same truth, “Jesus Christ the same yesterday and today and forever.” Why are we drawn to this eternal act, Jesus Christ, as our point of security? In 1 Peter 1:17–21 Peter begs us not to answer the question, “Who are you according to the World?” nor, “Who are you according to me?” but instead asserts the answer to the question, “Who are you according to the Father?” How do we know the answer to this question? Will we find it in the great bishops of old? Maybe we find the answer within ourselves upon laborious meditation or through artistic expression. Perhaps, the next great personality test could tell us who we are, or maybe, could it be the answer waiting for us in the next Gary Chapman book? Of course, we would say no to these things. Yet how often do we look to these to tell us who we are? I’m reminded how often I look to a podcast, devotional, or even a dear friend to tell me who I am. Yet, every time I walk away from these temporal things, I realize that I am left quite unsatisfied. Peter knows our tendency to do this, so where does he lead us to answer the question of who we are? We need the eternal act, that is, we need the incarnation, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ; only when we become a people of memory of this act can we reclaim our identity as it was revealed to us in Christ.
What does the Incarnation tell us about who we are? Many theologians grapple with what the Incarnation tells us about God, and rightly so. Much can be derived from this one act of God becoming Man. Here we receive a full revelation of who God is, both in the act itself but also in the teachings of Jesus. The Incarnation tells us that God loves the world so much that he would go after it himself to bring it back into relationship with him, it also reveals the great mystery of our faith that God is triune; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Incarnation displays the power of God and the knowledge of God through the miracles and teachings of Jesus. But that is not the question we are seeking now. No, what can we find in the Incarnation of the Word that tells us what it means to be human and, not just human, but be what Peter will later call “a chosen race, a royal priesthood?” Peter illuminates these things to us in verse seventeen, “And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile.” In the first verse we are hearing today, we can claim three things that are true of the humanity of Jesus Christ and therefore true of us when we abide in him and he in us. First, we can claim to be children of God. + The Greek could also be translated as the verb “to name” and the ESV derives the verb as the words “call on,” but the NRSV translates it as the much more passive verb, “invoke.” The latter translations bring to my mind schoolyard arguments I had as a child, where, instead of trying to prove my ability to defend myself I would instead assert the power of my father, “My dad could beat up your dad!” St. Patrick in the famed prayer The Breastplate prays this at the end:
I arise today
Through a mighty strength,
The invocation of the Trinity.
The mighty strength that we have is not a fleshly power we are filled with, but the invocation of the one who fights for us. Our strength comes from the assurance that our Father is a refuge and strength, and we can call upon him. When Jesus reveals his Sonship to the Father he names us as heirs with him and, furthermore, as sons and daughters, he gives us the intimate security that comes from the impregnable power of God our Father, ready to defend us. Second, we can claim humility. Our Lord was humble to the will of his Father. At no point in the Gospels is this more apparent than the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prays, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Christ is humble to his Father’s will even unto death, and this seems to be the fear which Peter commands us to conduct ourselves in. How great a task it seems to fear God, yet how much greater it was for Christ! In the words of the prophet, the government rests upon his shoulders, he is the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God. Our humility, our fear and trembling before God, ought to come easily to us. As mere created beings we have no power on our own to save ourselves from the vast expanse that sin created between us and God. Peter, likewise, calls us to live humbly and fearfully before God, for he so graciously ransomed us from the futile ways of our forefathers. Many of us descend from the most depraved of heathens — most of our ancestors were not the chosen people of God, yet God in his great mercy gathered us in and established for us the Church, so that we might hear her teaching and to turn to the Lord and live. Yes, Christ called many of us individually, but let us not forget the great grace that God has for us to let us live in lands where the Gospel is known. This leads to the third point, our identity as exiles of the land. As we remember our biological ancestors, Peter’s use of “exile” reminds us that we can also give thanks to God for gathering our spiritual ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the covenant people of Israel. This term is familiar to the Jews receiving the letter, as it was a word that signified the status they had in the Roman Empire outside of Palestine. The word could be more closely translated as “resident alien,” meaning they owed their citizenship or allegiance to another people but were allowed to live in a foreign land. Here, we also pattern ourselves after Christ. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.” Here, Jesus demarcates the boundary of heaven and earth for us. What it means for us to be exiles is to remain in the world as Jesus was in the world, knowing that we do not belong here but in the presence of our Father. As I spoke of earlier, God’s eternal choice is to draw near to humanity, and this is what Jesus reveals to us by giving us our belonging in the presence of the Father. The Incarnation reveals to us that we are made the children of God and belong in his presence.
Out of God’s free and eternal choice, he bound himself to us, he made us His People even before it was so in history. The death of Jesus Christ is the point in history where God chooses to bind himself to us. The power of the Cross is the power to finish the work that Christ came to do as the Incarnate Word of God. This is what Peter points us back to.“Knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of lamb without blemish or spot.” What does Christ’s death tell us about our identity? There is no sermon at the cross, no miracle-working, and certainly no parables delivered through the agony our Lord bore on our behalf. Frankly, the cross is not a very interesting story to the unbeliever. Jesus suffers, he is mocked, and he dies. What about the crucifix draws us in so closely that became and has remained the symbol of our faith for generations? Why not the figure Jesus healing and teaching or the Risen Christ stepping from the tomb? We know that this is not due to the desire for good branding or the ease of design in those two thin lines, but that the heart of the Gospels is, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” The centerpiece of the identity God gives to us is in the Cross, where God gave of himself. For Peter and for Christians throughout the ages, the Cross shows us so clearly that we are worth something, more value than we often give to ourselves. By using the language of purchase through the lamb, Peter calls to memory the guilt offering in the Levitical Law, where a ram without blemish is offered because the one who offers has incurred guilt. By reflecting on the futile ways of our forefathers and referencing Levitical Law as the solution, Peter gathers Jew and Gentile into the New Covenant and shows each that they have purpose and value because the cost of their freedom is the precious blood of Christ. We can most clearly see in the death of Jesus Christ what he does for us. When I was a child, our family went to my grandparent's church for Easter and we would stomp and holler the words of this hymn:
“Are you washed in the blood? In the soul cleansing blood of the Lamb? Are your garments spotless, are they white as snow? Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?”
We sang with such vigor because this is the moment Christ saved us, this is the moment that all history finds its peak. The Cross made the change, nothing before it was the same, and nothing after could remain like it was, certainly not those who cast themselves upon it. This is the core of our identity as followers of Jesus Christ, the blood that cleanses us! The death of Jesus Christ shows us that, although we are dirty, we can be made clean before God. Not only that, but we are so precious to the Father that he is willing to pay the price of his Son.
Finally, we look to the hope of the Resurrection. Peter writes in verse twenty-one, “who through him [Jesus] are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.” What is the Resurrection for the people of God? First, it is the reason for our faith, or our trust. I will always remember my youth pastor pointing to a chair and saying “I have belief that this chair will hold me up,” but it was not until he sat in the chair that he could claim to have faith. Because of the Resurrection, we can rely upon God. Peter then asserts that it is the point where we may put our hope. The word hope is used as an object by Peter, meaning “someone or something on which expectations are centered.” While the cross is central to the Christian identity, Peter recognizes that this truth would be meaningless if not for the life Jesus was raised to which he bestows upon us. Hope is not simply a thing we look forward to, excitedly awaiting the benefits without reaping any of the reward. Like every kid leading up to Christmas Day, I would agonize over what I might open up. I had no benefit from the gift until I could finally tear into it. The hope of the Resurrection is not like that. Peter reminds the People of God of the hope of the Resurrection because the expectation of it brings meaning to the suffering and persecution we face today. What does he mean by this? For the Christian, the hope of the Resurrection is the reality that this life will not end. Therefore, the suffering and persecution we face now is given meaning because it is formative. By recalling the Resurrection, Peter reminds of the eternal life that is assumed in Christ’s Resurrection, which is the glory he is given. What kind of glory does a king have if his throne ends? The glory that Jesus is given is eternal, and the life we have because of the Resurrection will give us the same. Hope is so perfectly embodied in the Psalms. When reading the Psalms, have you noticed that so many begin with lament and suffering but end with praise? Maybe you’ve asked yourself, “Why were things always fixed so quickly for the Psalmist?” But the Psalms show us the hope through Lament that Peter is leading us toward through memory. Psalm 77:4 says “You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak.” He is really at the end of his rope! But in verse eleven he makes a deliberate turn to “remember the deeds of the Lord.” Peter is doing the same for us, and the truths that he walks us through in the verses before on the Incarnation and Death are sealed and given meaning in the Resurrection. For Peter, faith and hope in God follow all of these things, for they are given to us through memory.
To close, I want to return for a moment to verse twenty. “He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest for you.” Remember that impossible hypothetical situation of my dad having foreknowledge of my marrying my mom? The reason that ought to be so powerful is that it enriches my parents’ relationship because of my father’s preparation. In the same way, Peter enriches the love that Christ had for us by reminding us of his eternal foreknowledge of the works he would do, the works we recite every time we gather:
He was born of the Virgin Mary
He suffered under Pontius Pilate
Was crucified, died and was buried
He descended to hell
On the third day, he rose again
he ascended into heaven
God’s love is so enriched because his choice was truly free, with no pressure or obligation to us because he had yet to create us! Peter reminds us that out of God’s free and eternal choice, he bound himself to us and made us His People. By constantly calling and recalling the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of our Lord, we can put our faith and hope in him with the assurance that he will not fail. + In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.