Do Not Fear What They Fear
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Sixth Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 3:13-22
Today’s passage from 1 Peter is a kind of hybrid. It’s the only non-Psalm reading that appears in the Revised Common Lectionary during both Lent and Easter. At first glance, it seems to fit much more naturally in Lent, considering that its focus is the suffering of Christians and the redemptive suffering of Jesus. In verse 18 it says, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” That seems an appropriate topic for contemplation during Lent.
But the passage does work during Easter as well. Verse 18 goes on to say, “[Jesus] was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (v. 18), and verse 22 concludes with the declaration that Jesus “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” That’s the triumphant tone we associate with Easter—you can almost hear the swelling of the strings as the orchestra builds to a crescendo. It’s the Hallelujah Chorus and “We are the Champions” and “Celebrate good times, come on!” all rolled into one.
But what about that other part? What about the predictions of suffering for the followers of Jesus? That doesn’t sound very Eastertide-ish. It sounds like the old order of things, not the new age inaugurated by Jesus’s resurrection, not the regime of the one who is now seated at the right hand of God with all the powers and principalities made subordinate to him.
Listen to how the writer progresses in this short passage from a lesser to a greater likelihood that his readers will experience suffering. In verse thirteen he says, “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?”, as though it’s stupid even to suggest that the innocent might undergo suffering. He quickly qualifies this statement, though, in the next verse: “But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed” (v. 14). He is willing to entertain the outside possibility that good people might suffer. A little later on, he says, “Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame” (v. 16). Now it’s when you are maligned, and abuse is almost a foregone conclusion. Finally he bails out completely, theologically speaking, by laying the blame on God: “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil” (v. 17, emphasis added). In the space of half a paragraph we have gone from “Suffer for doing good? Get outta here!” to “Well, it’s probably God’s will for you to suffer.” Quite a turnaround.
What we can surmise from this passage, and what even a cursory reading of the rest of the letter confirms, is that the audience is a group of people—Jewish and possibly also Gentile Christians in the province of Asia Minor—who are undergoing persecution for their faith. If we compare 1 Peter with Revelation, which is also addressed to a group of churches in Asia Minor, we see that at the turn of the second century, when both books are written, life is tough for those living in that part of the world who claim Jesus as Lord. The writer describes a “fiery ordeal” they are going through, and John, the author of Revelation, relates a vision of a heavenly altar under which he sees “the souls of those who [have] been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they [have] given” (Rev 6:9). Slaughtered.
What we can also gather from this passage, and from its inclusion as a lectionary reading for the season of Easter, is that suffering, persecution, and resurrection are not mutually exclusive phenomena. This may not seem strange, and early Christian writers such as Paul, Mark, and James would have been surprised that anyone would think it strange, considering that the author of our faith achieved resurrection only through a “fiery ordeal” of his own. But in a time when Christian triumphalism abounds, we need to be reminded of the relationship between suffering and resurrection. For many modern Christians, Jesus’s victory over death and the grave not only supersedes the cross but removes it from the picture altogether. The crucifixion is merely the prelude to the glorification; if it has any essential role to play, it’s because it was on the cross that Jesus substituted himself for us so we would not have to face the same kind of suffering. Jesus got the cross so we could get the crown.
From 2004 to 2006, I worked for a nongovernmental organization called Jubilee Campaign, whose primary mission was to defend and advocate for persecuted Christians around the world. The executive director, Ann, was a compassionate person who truly felt sympathy for the victims of persecution and outrage at their persecutors. And I cannot fault her dedication to the cause. For a small NGO based in Fairfax, Virginia, we had our fingers in a whole lot of pies. The places that delegations from Jubilee visited, or where we had connections, or whose causes we took up on Capitol Hill and at the State Department reads like a geography quiz on Sporcle.com: Pakistan, India, Iran, Iraq, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Nigeria, Eritrea, China, North Korea, the Philippines, and more. I myself traveled to India and Sri Lanka in October 2004 and had a chance to meet firsthand Christians who had experienced violent persecution.
The funny thing about it was that her extensive work with and on behalf of victims of persecution did not cool Ann’s triumphalist understanding of the Christian faith. If anything, it made it stronger. Her sense of outrage was all the greater because these evildoers had the temerity to abuse and persecute Christians—God’s chosen ones. Rarely was anything said outright, but I always felt that below the surface at all times was a desire not only for justice, but also for revenge. And if that revenge did not come in this life, there was the assurance that the persecutors would end up in hell, and that would show them! It’s more than a little chilling, but this attitude unfortunately has scriptural support. Remember the souls under the altar in John’s vision in Revelation? The ones who have been slaughtered for their testimony? John reports that “they [cry] out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’” (Rev 6:10).
The thirst for vengeance is one of the uglier traits of the human character, and it is even uglier when we see it in those who claim to believe in forgiveness and grace. It is ugliest of all when we see it in ourselves. I must confess to my share of Schadenfreude; of welcoming or even wishing for bad news for those I misguidedly think of as enemies.
But if I were to face real travail or persecution, how would I respond? How would any of us respond? Would we display the grace I witnessed in Sri Lanka? There I met scores of people who had experienced intimidation, vandalism, abuse, and violence from the Buddhist majority who accused the Christians of what they called “unethical conversions,” a charge that all the evidence we found said they were innocent of. Most of these pastors and lay people were very poor, and some of them had lost their homes, livelihoods, and standing in their communities as a result this persecution. But over and over, as we interviewed them, we found a willingness to forgive and a commitment not to retaliate if the persecution continued. One pastor we interviewed, when we asked if any of the Christians he knew had fought back, said wryly, “The Christians have not retaliated. They have bowed the head and got the hemorrhage.” Many of them said they responded to the abuse by praying for their abusers.
This is the kind of response the writer of 1 Peter is looking for. “Keep your conscience clear,” he says, “so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame” (v. 16). We can keep our consciences clear by responding in a way befitting followers of Jesus, who says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44). Paul also weighs in on the subject in his letter to the Romans: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Rom 12:14).
We are to do this not out of the resources of our own piety, however; on the contrary, we are to bless and pray for our persecutors in the full knowledge that we are weak, often vindictive creatures for whom the prayer of the martyrs under the altar sounds … just about right. We are to bless and pray and love because we realize how desperately we need mercy ourselves. Our prayers for our enemies are at least half prayers for ourselves—the sometimes half-hearted prayer that God will make us into the kind of people who really want to bless and not curse, love and not hate.
The writer says it matters why we suffer—for doing what is right rather than for wrongdoing—but it also matters how we suffer. We are not to cry out to God to avenge us, nor are we to rejoice when the tables are turned and our enemies get theirs. But neither are we to suffer in silence or without hope; rather, we are always to “be ready to make [our] defense to anyone who demands from [us] an accounting for the hope that is in [us]” (v. 15). We are not to do so in an arrogant or belligerent way, either, but “with gentleness and reverence” (v. 16). We are to face adversity with quiet yet unbowed confidence, unashamed to make the good confession of the reason for that confidence—the love of God we have experienced in Christ Jesus, from which, Paul asserts, nothing in all creation can separate us (Rom 8:39).
If you need a more powerful motivation than that to face life without fear, I don’t know where you’re going to find it. Which is precisely what the writer tells his readers: “Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord” (vv. 14–15).
These verses paraphrase a passage from Isaiah, in which the prophet urges his listeners not to give in to the fears that are pervading their society and are leading the people and their rulers to seek unwise alliances. King Ahaz of Judah has been standing up to the threats of Israel and Syria, a couple of bush-league kingdoms at best, but now he has lost his nerve, and is seeking assistance against them from the mighty Assyrian empire. Isaiah believes this policy will lead only to destruction, and he delivers an oracle urging Ahaz and the people to stand firm and trust in God. He says God told him, “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears, or be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy, let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Isa 8:12-13).
The writer has adapted this saying to refer to Christ, but the message is essentially the same: refuse to give in to fear. David Bartlett, in his commentary on 1 Peter, says that the directive “‘not [to] fear what they fear’ represents an insightful reading of the nature of idolatry. Idolatry is not only worship of the wrong god,” he says, “but also it is fear of the wrong power. It is to give the non-gods the power that should belong only to God—to frighten us, to make us awe-struck” (Bartlett 297-8).
We all have fears and insecurities; we all have constructed boogeymen in our psyches, threats before which we quail in fear. Each person’s fears are different. For some the great fear may be that they will prove incompetent or inadequate in their careers. Others may fear that they will never find anyone to love and share their life with. Still others may fear for their health, or that their nest egg will not be big enough to carry them through retirement, or that disaster will befall someone they love, or that they will be rejected if they open up and are honest about their sexuality or their failings or the dark secrets they have been trying to hide from everyone, including God. Some of our fears are chimerical—they have no real substance outside our imaginations. Other fears are all too real and constantly on our minds. The family that has fallen on hard financial times and is in danger of losing their house. The person whose spouse or partner has been sent into combat. The Christian who faces a genuine threat of persecution, bodily harm, or even death for her faith.
But what the writer is saying is that our fears, whether real or imagined, can become idols when they stand in the way of our trusting God with our whole hearts. God is greater than any and all of our fears and, as Bartlett points out, “The antidote to false fear is right worship” (Bartlett, 298). 1 Peter 3:14–15 says, “Do not fear what they fear … but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.”
To a considerable degree, overcoming fear through right worship has to do with seeing the world aright. There is a story in 2 Kings in which the king of Syria wants to kill or capture the prophet Elisha, and sends a great army to surround the city where he and his servant are staying. When the servant gets up in the morning, he sees that the city is surrounded by horses and chariots, and he cries out, “Alas, master! What shall we do?” Elisha very calmly and rather cryptically replies, “Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.” The text doesn’t say so, but the servant very likely looks at his master with a look that says, “What … are you nuts?” because Elisha then prays that God would open the servant’s eyes so that he can see. The servant looks again and sees that “the mountain [is] full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kg 6:17).
In the same way, we need God to open our eyes, because it is only with the eyes of faith that we can see and believe the Easter reality of the resurrected Christ “at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him” (v. 22). When we see and understand that, when it sinks down deep in our bones that that is the true reality, regardless of all appearances to the contrary, we will be able to face whatever comes with courage and without giving in to fear.
Lord, open our eyes that we may see.
Bartlett, David Lyon. 1998. 1 Peter. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XII: Hebrews – Revelation. Nashville: Abingdon.