Le Cénacle, Geneva, 7-10 May 1997
Bible study on 1 Peter 3 led by John Fotopoulos
But even if you do suffer for righteousness, you are blessed. Do not be afraid of them, and do not be troubled, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting of the hope that is in you.
(1 Peter 3:14-15)
It would not be unfair to say that from the very beginning of the Church, the people of God have faced adversity and persecution. Indeed, from even the time of Christ's earthly ministry, Jesus and his followers faced conflict and persecution. In the Gospel of Mark, the evangelist adeptly uses pre-Markan tradition to demonstrate that despite Jesus' healings, popularity, and divine identity, the religious leaders were plotting Jesus' murder from the very start of his marvelous ministry (Mk. 3:1-6). In the Gospel of John the disciples are found to be in hiding behind closed doors after Jesus' crucifixion "for fear of the Jewish leadership" (John 20:19). In the Book of Acts, in the Pauline correspondence, in the Book of Revelation, and in majority of the New Testament, Christians face some kind of adversity for their faith in Jesus.
The adversity and suffering that the people of God experienced that has been recorded in the New Testament cannot be reduced to the psychological self-ideations of the Church's so-called "sectarian" origins. In other words, in would not be accurate to say that because early Christianity bore the sociological marks characteristic of a sect it largely perceived that it was persecuted and greatly exaggerated what in fact was reality. Rather, adversity, suffering, and persecution were genuine physical and emotional realities inflicted on members of the body of Christ for the particular beliefs and practices of the group. Indeed, persecution, suffering, and death were harsh realities inflicted on the group's very hero, Jesus.
Popular religious sensibilities of the Greco-Roman world were not adverse to devotion to new or foreign divinities despite reluctance on the part of certain officials in the Roman Empire to accept such religious innovations. The spread of both the cult of Isis and the cult of Sarapis from Egypt demonstrate how readily the Greco-Roman masses could accept a new divinity, provided that it met people's religious and existential needs. What would not have been so readily acceptable in the Greco-Roman world was exclusive devotion to one god over against all the rest, much less exclusive membership in the god's "association" and cultic meal to the exclusion of participation in any other. This kind of particular belief, devotion, and behavior would have definite social and political consequences, and possibly economic consequences as well. It is this very kind of particular belief and devotion to Jesus in the Christian communities of Asia Minor that would have engendered reproach and even suffering from non-Christians.
In today's pericope several verses were read from 1 Peter 3 regarding the suffering that the Christians in Asia Minor had been enduring because of their belief in Jesus. Some scholars have proposed that the use of the rare optative mood in the Greek word "paschoite" in 3:14 implies that Peter had in mind only the remote contingency of suffering. This, however, does not seem to be the case. The word "paschein" occurs in 1 Peter no less than twelve times. The word is used in reference to both Christ's suffering unto death as well as in regard to Christian believers' present experience of suffering, especially in chapter four. Peter's use of the optative here in chapter three seems to be a rhetorical device used to indicate that even if Christians do suffer for righteousness, this condition is better than that of those who will suffer for doing evil.
Righteousness in 1 Peter is the equivalent of doing what is right (2:24) or suffering for the name of Christ (4:14). It seems that in 1 Peter, Christians were suffering in large part for believing in Jesus and for living a particularly Christian way of life. In 4:3-4 Peter states that the Christians were maligned because they no longer took part in "licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry." It was a combination of Christian belief and behavior with particular social implications that lead many non-Christians to abuse, threaten, and inflict suffering on the followers of Jesus.
It is clear that in many parts of the world the people of God still suffer for doing what is right. They suffer in defense of the poor and the needy. They suffer in support of women's equal rights. They suffer as they fight against racial discrimination. I'm afraid, however, that there are also many Christians who do not feel there is much for which it's worth suffering. It is, quite frankly, many times easier to look the other way and not to get involved. It's easier to depend on the government for assistance, after all, "we pay taxes." In fact, I would be so bold as to say that there are generations of Christians in the one-third world, of which I am a part, who have known no real suffering at all; Christians who have never felt the weight of the cross and, hence, are also without the joy of the Resurrection. The question that Martin Luther King once posed seems seldom asked today in the face of suffering and need: "Not what will happen to me if I help them, but what will happen to them if I don't?"
A few months ago when the violence and chaos broke out in Albania my wife and I immediately thought of our friends there in the mission field from the Orthodox Church as well as of the beloved Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos. We prayed that God would keep these people safe and give them strength to endure. When the news broke on CNN that the United States Marines were going to be air lifting out American citizens from Albania, most people expected our missionaries to be home soon. However, they decided to stay in Albania in order to express the love of Christ amidst suffering. They were willing to accept any crosses that would come upon them for the sake of the crosses that the people of Albania would have to endure. These devoted missionaries and servants of Christ are living examples of those who are willing to suffer for righteousness. They exemplify Christians who are willing to ask, not what will happen to me if I help them, but what will happen to them if I don't.
Another point that I would like to touch on in regard to suffering for righteousness is that causes worth suffering for are often presented only as larger than life issues or crises. But there are many other everyday situations which can also incur a kind of suffering if the people of God live the life to which God has called them. It is these everyday situations which are able to provide an opportunity for crosses for Christians especially, but not exclusively, in the one-third world. For example, the everyday situation of talking inappropriately about another person. It is very easy to talk about others, especially when they're not around, and to malign them or make fun of them. It takes courage, however, not to participate in this kind of behavior or to point out that this is not a conversation appropriate for the people of God in which to engage. I remember once during my college years in seminary, sitting eating a lenten meal in the cafeteria where no one was permitted to speak but only to eat and listen to one person reading from a spiritual writing. This way of eating in silence with a spiritual book being read is the way in which meals traditionally occur in Orthodox monasteries. As I sat listening to the reading, the writer urgently counseled that when one hears someone talking bad about another person to say, "Stop, I do worse things than this!" I have found that exercising this very simple counsel is quite difficult. The cost of not taking part in certain conversation may be a lack of friends or having others saying that you think you are better than they are; a cost that would be easier to simply forego. It also reminds us of our own shortcomings before we are willing to speak about another's. Yet even this simple exercise, which is the fruit of devotion to Jesus, is a cross not easily accepted. It is these small daily crosses that the people of God could be encouraged to carry. These small daily crosses and sufferings might then foster greater Christian responsibility and sensitivity to larger issues of justice.
Another item that is worth emphasizing from today's passage is that suffering for what is right is met with a blessing. The "makarioi" of v. 14 joined with the idea of suffering for righteousness seems very much like a Petrine adaptation of the eighth beatitude in Matthew 5:10. John Chrysostom, in a homily on the Gospel of Matthew, says that the accustomed way of handling suffering or persecution is not to feel blessed, but to feel terrible. Yet Chrysostom says that it is a privilege to suffer for Christ; a blessing. Suffering, then, for behavior which is informed by devotion to Jesus is also a source of blessings; blessings to be rewarded not here but in the Kingdom of God.
It should be remembered that although suffering for righteousness is met with a blessing, this does not imply that the people of God are forced to remain in abusive or cruel situations. I have often heard it preached that we are to endure suffering and to carry our cross, and this is, of course, true. However, many times when this is being preached I have asked myself, "If I were a woman being physically abused by my husband, what conclusions would I come to from what the preacher is saying?" The conclusion I come to most often is that I would be led to think that it was God's will for me to stay in that abusive situation and to suffer. Situations such as the example I have just mentioned call for a further and fuller explanation of what it means to be blessed for suffering. The people of God should understand very clearly that although they may be in situations of suffering or abuse and are blessed for having endured whatever it is they have endured, they are also called when persecuted in one city to flee to the next. Or as John Chrysostom has so eloquently put it:
If you see someone who is licentious, vile, filled with wickedness ... pulling you out of place and wounding you, step back and leap away, just as Christ commanded, saying, "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away" (Matt. 5:29), commanding us to cut out and throw away those friends, who are as desirable as our eyes and are necessary in the affairs of life, if they wound us in the salvation of our soul (On the Kalends).
Peter continues on in today's pericope to exhort his readers/listeners not to be afraid of those who are causing them suffering. This phrase is almost an exact quotation of the Septuagint text of Isaiah 8:12 where it reads, "Do not be afraid of him." In Isaiah the object that was not to be feared was the King of Assyria. Peter has made a slight modification and has changed the object of fear from the singular pronoun "autou" to the plural "auton." The verse now states that the believers should not be afraid "of them."
As if this exhortation not to fear those who were causing suffering were not difficult enough for the Christians in Asia Minor to implement, Peter then adds, "and do not be troubled." In other words, "Don't be afraid of those people who are causing you suffering and inflicting pain, and, in fact, don't even be troubled or disturbed by them." The question that might first come to one's mind is how this is possible? How is it possible not to fear those who are hurting you, let alone to not even be disturbed by them? Thankfully, Peter provides the answer: "In your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord."
The word for "sanctify" here in the Greek is "agiasate." Commentators on the verse have noted the declarative aspect of the word, conveying an acknowledgment of Jesus' holiness in the face of threats and violence. In this context, however, the emphasis has been placed on the inward acknowledgment of Christ as Lord. It is the primary inward acknowledgment of Jesus as Lord that will strengthen the Christians in Asia Minor to make their outward defense.
In the Orthodox Church, the inward acknowledgment of Jesus as Lord in the spiritual life is accorded a prominent role in the tradition of prayer and watchfulness called the Jesus Prayer, also known as the Prayer of the Heart. The prayer is very simple, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." This prayer has been practiced for centuries by both Orthodox ascetics and the people of God. The prayer, when accompanied by a careful monitoring of one's thoughts, impulses, and sinful inclinations enables one to foster a more intimate union with Jesus as well as spiritual stability by God's grace. Hesychios the Priest writes in the Philokalia that in this prayer:
The heart breathes and invokes, endlessly and without ceasing, only Jesus Christ who is the Son of God and himself God. It confesses him who alone has power to forgive our sins, and with his aid it courageously faces its enemies (On Watchfulness and Holiness, 5).
With the heart continually sanctifying Jesus as Lord, it is possible to face whatever enemies confront the people of God. A sanctified heart is ready and able to make a defense to those who demand an account of the hope that is within.
One such enemy of many early Christians that I am always so fascinated by when I read his Letter to the Emperor Trajan regarding the interrogation of Christians in Asia Minor is Pliny the Younger. I find it so fascinating that we have first hand information regarding the kind of hostility Christians were facing in Asia Minor not long after 1 Peter was written. It is easy to imagine the Christians of the churches in Asia Minor standing before Pliny being interrogated with the words of 1 Peter in the forefront of their minds: "Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you." Pliny writes that when he examined those who were accused of being Christians he would ask them a second and third time if they had admitted that they indeed were, "with a warning of punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them away for punishment; for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakeable obstinacy ought not go unpunished" (Letter 10.96). To Pliny, Christian refusal to renounce Jesus was stubbornness and unshakeable obstinacy, but to those who had truly sanctified Christ as Lord in their hearts, renunciation of Christ was something that they could never be forced to do.
I consider this example of Christian faithfulness in the face of persecution to be a source of inspiration and strength for the people of God. Persecution and suffering for the people of God may take many shapes today, whether outright violence or oppression, or simply ridicule and a laugh. In any case, the people of God can gain courage and hope from those who have gone before us, from those who have suffered for their faith and persevered. It is these faithful Christians who have exemplified hope in Jesus who stand for us as those to imitate. These are the true heros over against those heros who merely hope in the almighty dollar or a shoe company for victory.
I would like to conclude by briefly summarizing the points that I wanted to convey as a result of today's reading. Suffering and persecution are part of the very foundational experience of the Church itself. Jesus, from the very beginning of his ministry faced persecution by religious authorities intent on crushing his message of hope and the Kingdom of God. Suffering, persecution, and death were the experience of Jesus himself. It should, then, be no surprise that the Church has also faced and will continue to face adversity, whether in Albania, Zaire, or in the materially comfortable one-third world.
The adversity encountered by Jesus and the early Church, however, were engendered, not by merely political concerns, but because of particular belief and devotion to Jesus. Particular claims about Jesus also demand particular behavior from the people of God. This particular devotion to Jesus should not be watered down in light of the influence of religious plurality or political correctness. Just as the Christians of Asia Minor suffered for their devotion to Jesus and for their Christian behavior, so too may Christians suffer today from those who do not agree with their beliefs or way of life. The people of God must be aware that particular belief and devotion to Jesus are costly, but in this price comes a blessing.
Although particular devotion to Jesus is costly and circumstances may foster fear, Jesus has provided the means for courage. It is the people of God who have sanctified and continue to acknowledge Christ as Lord in their hearts who are able to stand unshaken. A firm and Christ-stabilized heart can be developed with continuous prayer, watchfulness, and remembrance of Jesus.
Finally, the faithful people of God who have gone before us stand as shining examples of courage for us to imitate. They are the true heros who might be brought forward for the people of God to think and reflect on. Their defense of the gospel and abiding hope in Jesus is the result of sincere faith and devotion; something not offered by a pair of athletic shoes, but is the fruit of their faith and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
May the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, continue to strengthen the people of God as they endure suffering and strive to fully reflect the light of Christ to the world.