MOST OF THE EPISTLES found in the New Testament are attributed to St. Paul. In addition there are three Epistles of St John, one each of James and Jude, and two of St Peter. Since these are not read at a Sunday Divine Liturgy, we may be less familiar with them. They are all read at weekday Liturgies in the time between the Theophany and the beginning of the Great Fast. In addition portions of 1 Peter are read at Great Vespers on June 29, the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul.
1 Peter is addressed to Christians in “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:2) which were all Roman provinces in Asia Minor (Turkey today). Many of the Churches there were most likely the result of missionary activity from Antioch, which had been St Peter’s home in the 40s and 50s. St Peter, we know, was martyred in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero (c. 67-68 ad) and 1 Peter was likely written there. The letter concludes with greetings from the Church “who is in Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13), as believers of the day called Rome. They saw themselves as exiles in that pagan society, much as the Jews who were exiled to Babylon in the sixth century BC.
The Christians in Asia Minor, to whom the letter in addressed, are described as “pilgrims of the diaspora” (1 Peter 1:2), or “dispersion.” Exiles – from the Jews in Babylon to Greeks or Russians in America – have used this term referring to their status as political refugees, strangers in an alien country. St Peter is using the term in another sense. All believers in the world are exiles, dispersed in either a pagan society (like the first century Roman Empire), a Hindu or Muslim society (like so many Christians in Asia or Africa today), or a pluralistic secular society such as ours. Like the Israelites of old, who “confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13) we too are pilgrims passing through or sojourners (temporary residents) here, but “our citizenship is in heaven, from which we eagerly await the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).
Our Life in the Church
Much of this epistle is devoted to proposing ways in which we ought to live in this “diaspora.” As Christians we are committed to living by the Gospel, according to the values of God’s Kingdom, the highest of which is love. Christians are to love one another fervently, without hypocrisy (cf., 1 Peter 1:22). This is certainly something more than “coffee-hour love” – being nice in a social setting. People in any society may face economic hardship from time to time. How should a church respond when a member loses his job, can’t pay the rent or is threatened with foreclosure? As the Apostle James insists, our response points to the quality of our faith. “If a brother or sister is naked or destitute of daily food and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:15-17). Faith and love must be made concrete by action.
What About the Unbelievers?
Most of the people in Asia Minor – like many of the people with whom we interact every day – would have been unbelievers. St Peter sets out these principles for dealing with them. First of all, these Christians – presumably all converts – were no longer to live as unbelievers do, according to the “aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers” (1 Peter 1:18). Roman life was organized around festivals in honor of pagan gods and goddesses. Roman culture found no fault with practices such as abortion, infanticide or homosexuality. Jews – and consequently Christians – viewed these things as contrary to God’s plan for His people. There could be no compromise with the dominant culture on such matters. Those who are in Christ are called to be holy.
Christians in a pagan world were to observe all the commandments and to conduct themselves honorably among the unbelievers, “as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice” (1 Peter 2:16). They were not to assume that Christianity was simply a matter of not worshipping the Roman gods. Those who claimed to be “in Christ” should expect to follow a higher standard of behavior than those who did not know the true God. As the Lord Himself indicated, they were to be in the world but not of the world.
At the same time Christians were not to dismiss non-Christians and their world as unworthy of their respect. Christ had come “to enlighten and sanctify everyone in the world” (cf., John 1:9); consequently believers were bound to honorable relationships with all men and to the legitimate structures of civil authority. “Submit yourself to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake… for this is the will of God” (1 Peter 2:13, 15). After all, the Lord Himself told Peter to pay the temple tax “lest we offend them” Matthew 17:27).
At the same time, as Peter knows too well, Christians may still suffer at the hands of their unbelieving neighbors. People often see their way of life threatened when others live in ways contrary to it. In Peter’s day, some saw the Christian’s refusal to honor the Roman gods as disloyalty to the state. Many Romans saw devotion to the gods and an expression of patriotism; those who refused to do so would be suspected of treason.
In that case Peter proposes a twofold course of action. First, believers are to “Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts”, praising and blessing God no matter what hardships we might have to endure. Second, Christians should “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Believers should be able to articulate their faith with both clarity and charity. They should know how to express the teachings of the Gospel and how to do it in a positive way, with respect for those who question them.
Peter’s vision of a suffering Church would be realized quickly enough. But although Christians were hated, persecuted and killed by pagan rulers, they still sought to live as good citizens. St. Justin the Philosopher emphasized this in his defense of his fellow Christian: “And everywhere we, more readily than all men, endeavor to pay to those appointed by you the taxes both ordinary and extraordinary as we have been taught by Him . . . Whence to God alone we render worship, but in other things we gladly serve you, acknowledging you as kings and rulers of men, and praying that with your kingly power you be found to possess also sound judgment (Apologia 17).”
Witnesses with Peter
St Peter concludes his letter with an exhortation to the presbyters of the Churches to whom he is writing. He identifies himself as a “witness of the sufferings of Christ and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed” (1 Peter 5:1). While Peter was an eye-witness to Christ’s death and resurrection, we too are witnesses of these mysteries. Every Sunday at matins (orthros) we become icons of Peter’s experience at Christ’s tomb. We hear the Gospel of the resurrection and respond with the words “Now that we have seen the holy resurrection of Christ…” We then partake of Christ in the Eucharist, anticipating the glory of the eternal heavenly banquet. We see with the eyes of faith what Peter saw with the eyes of the body: that Christ by His death and resurrection has made us sharers in the glory of His kingdom which will never end.