1 Peter 2: 2-10
Special; chosen, beloved. These are just some of the words that fill the hearts of many new mothers as they take their newborn in their arms for the first time. Beautiful, perfect, an angel. These are other words I have heard. And at some point, most mothers start by nursing their baby, giving them the colostrum to clear out the baby’s little digestive system, followed by the nourishing milk. Doctors and nurses have told me how perfectly formulated mother’s milk is for the baby. Nature wants our children to grow well, and nurture happens when early parents do their best to protect and comfort their child. Babies are helpless and need a good mother or father to attend to their needs. In time, they start to grow, and learn, and stand. But for now, they need everything a mother can give.
As I said to those who heard my devotional or my sermon last week, the Middle Eastern culture taught mainly with theological metaphors- God comparisons. Here in 1Peter, he starts with this instruction: “Like newborn infants.” There it is: a simile, comparing grown persons to babies because they have not fully learned what apostles like Peter needed them to know! “Long for the pure spiritual milk” he says. In other words, get your guidance from the source, not polluted by culture. Peter was writing to instruct them. Christians in Peter’s day had their own enemy: the Emperor Neron Caesar. Today we face our own enemies: sometimes they are natural or political, but these days our enemy is biological: the Coronavirus. It has killed more people than several wars have. It is tenacious and covert. Here’s one example: a fully functional and physically fit 36-year-old was living his life when, out of the blue, like an alien invader, his body was attacked by the Big C, but this time it was not Cancer, it was Covid-19, the Coronavirus. Air sacs in his lungs got glued together and breathing became labored as the spongy virus clogged his air passages. That Big C won. It overcame him, even at that age. Leaving behind a family, the enemy took him down. And yet, like young children who want their freedom while wise parents insist on some limits, human beings are turning away from wise counsel, stepping into the firing squad of Covid viruses as they go to shopping malls, hold close gatherings on beaches, or engage in other activities without social distancing. Children want to be free like that! The disease just looks for an opening, and then it floats, floats on a spray of air to an opening in our skin. Then its destructive work can begin. At the time this First Letter of Peter was written, there was that different enemy: the description that people love to talk about even today: “The Beast.” Listen to this description from Dr. E.M. Blaiklock, who was Chair of Classics at the University of Aukland, New Zealand. He was an expert on the history of the first century:
The first letter of Peter, written in the early sixties of the first century to a great circle of churches in the rugged peninsula which we call Asia Minor, is a document of immense historical and contemporary significance….In a little over a generation after the death of Christ, communities of Christians were everywhere…. They had broken with the Roman Empire and the empire was about to react to their challenge It was a moment of crisis, for Rome and for the world. [First Peter, Waco: Word Books, 1977, p. 9,10]
Even though we hear about the Beast today, and the number 666 is pinned on political or military entities, the Beast was always only one person, Neron Caesar, the unstable Roman Emperor who was in power when 1 Peter was written. When the city of Rome began burning, he blamed the Christians and, as a public example, started tying them to poles at the Circus Maximus and setting them on fire to illuminate their events. He was brutal and deranged. There have been other brutal or deranged leaders in history and even now, but the beast is not them; the beast was Neron Caesar, whose name in Hebrew spelled out 666, or the alternate version of Nero Caesar, 616, described in Revelation 13. John, when he was imprisoned on the isle of Patmos, used a code to comfort Christians in the late 90s of the first century, when Christians thought that the Roman emperor of their time, Domitian, was Nero incarnate. But, John reminded them: Nero’s own destructive behavior became self-destructive, so he was driven by a military rebellion to commit suicide in 68 A.D. God prevailed over that evil. In the midst of Nero’s persecution, Peter gave comforting and uplifting words to Christians in the Roman Empire! Yes, Christians were one of Nero’s primary deflections and scapegoats. That kind of practice still goes on, but the BEAST is not in the future, the BEAST was in the past! Peter’s comforting words sound like he was treating grown persons like shell-shocked children, telling them to long for the pure spiritual milk. Perhaps he was. Just this past week I’ve seen images of grown adults—like nurses and chaplains—sitting in hospital hallways crying. I’ve also seen the images of a family who lost their daughter, a skilled ER doctor, as the Covid enemy and its advancement into human bodies drove her to take her own life. People are fragile; people need to be spiritually nursed. And yet there are militant demonstrators demanding their “rights,” and people who are starting to pour into businesses and onto beaches. May the enemy not bring them to the ground in a puddle of tears like it has done to some on our medical front lines.
We live in a time when the Covid virus pulls people to their knees. We listen to scientists, and hope for a vaccine, but people are worn down. Peter, if he were here, might call us back to Jesus Christ who he calls the “living stone.” Jesus cared about human beings: body, mind, and soul. Although cornerstones today might be mostly symbolic, structurally a true cornerstone needs to be carefully laid, setting the direction and the angle of a building. A keystone, likewise, is the final piece and locks other stones in place. One stone starts the building process, the other ends it. Peter calls on the Christians in the First Century, who were facing the enemy of the Roman Empire, to anchor their spiritual angles and their foundation in Jesus Christ, not on personal whims or wishes or political leaders. That is good advice today as well, amidst the powerful influence of people who share information on wide-ranging media platforms. Ground yourself in the chief cornerstone, the one who the gospels say was rejected by men, but Peter says” was chosen and precious in God’s sight.” That’s who Jesus is! He is “chosen and precious in God’s sight!” Just as there are evil people today who can seem to own the title of the BEAST, John comforted Christians to move through that age, today I imagine Jesus calling us “chosen and precious in God’s sight” as we seek to comfort others. I was so moved by an illustration I saw on Facebook this week. It was an artist’s rendering of Jesus in his Galilean white tunic, kneeling down in the hallway of a hospital. Behind him was a gurney and beside him a drawer of medical supplies. He is next to a hospital worker, fully gowned with a face mask and a surgical cap who has knelt on the ground, head in hands. Jesus put one hand on the back of the worker for comfort, and the other hand on the head for a blessing. Goodness. What can we do as the Body of Christ today?
Here’s one final thing Peter does that we can do: he becomes an encourager, almost a one person cheering section! I can hear Peter saying words like these to us:
You! You are chosen! You are in the royal court of God! You are set apart for your special work! You are God’s own people! And God is offering mercy to you! Please receive it, as you comfort one another!
Instead of the angry protestors that are in some pockets of our country, there are many more teachers driving by neighborhoods cheering on students! There are ordinary people lining roads outside of hospitals cheering on first responders! And there were the magnificent jets of our Navy Blue Angels and our Air Force Thunderbirds coming together last week in fly-overs to honor our heath care workers! So beloved in Christ: if you feel shell-shocked and frightened, draw close to a comforter as a baby does with his or her mother. As the enemy keeps marching forward, know that the march will one day end. And finally, lift up one another with words, with prayers and with deeds! That was the work of Apostles. And now it is the work for us.
Let us pray: Empower and anoint us, Dear Jesus, to do the work you need us to do,
say the words we need to say, and to show the love you showed others. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner May 10, 2020