Connections 04.30.2017: A Tense Situation

1 Peter 1:3-5, 13, 17-23

Do you know why it’s impossible to run through a campground?

You can only ran, because it’s always past tents.

Please forgive me.

If you’ve chosen to keep reading (bless you!), I’d like to tell you about a podcast series I recently listened to. It’s a science fiction story involving time travel. For reasons I won’t get into here (full disclosure: I can’t get into them, because it involves physics, and I’m a Liberal Arts kind of guy), the time travelers can only go back in time. They can’t go forward. They can only go into the past; they can’t go into the future.

So far as I know, no one in real life can do either. Then again, if anyone could, it would be top secret (as it is in the podcast), wouldn’t it, so who knows?

For the sake of simplicity and sanity, let’s stick with “Nobody can travel in time.”

This week’s Scripture passage doesn’t call us to travel in time, but it does summon us to look into the past and toward the future as we live in the present. It calls us to look back to when Christ was revealed, to look forward to when Christ will be revealed, and to live fully in the present as Christ is revealed.

Peter encourages his readers to look to the past: “[Christ] was destined before the foundation of that world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake” (v. 20). Christ’s coming was God’s plan from before space-time began, but he came to the world “at the end of the ages.” That probably means the same thing that Paul means when he says, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son…” (Gal 4:4a). Jesus came, in other words, when the time was right.

So Christ has been revealed, past tense, over and done with. From the perspective of 1 Peter’s original readers, it happened a few decades ago. From ours, it happened a couple of millennia ago. When Jesus was born, lived, died, and was resurrected, Christ was revealed.

Peter also tells his readers, “Set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed” (v. 13b). So Christ is yet to be revealed, future tense, more to come. The time is coming, but is not yet here, when we will receive “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for [us]” (v. 4). When Jesus returns, Christ will be revealed.

Peter spends a lot of time telling his readers how to live in the present. Right now, they are to have a living hope (v. 3). Right now, they are to be holy (v. 15). Right now, they are to live in love (v. 22). They could do all that because they experienced the risen Christ in their time. We can do all that because we experience him in ours.

Christ has been revealed.
Christ will be revealed.
Christ is being revealed.

We live in light of all three tenses.

Thanks be to God for our tense situation!

Discussion

1. What do you think our heavenly inheritance (v. 4) includes?
2. How can we train our minds to focus more on the hope we have in Christ (v. 13)?
3. Peter refers to his readers’ present as their “exile” (v. 17). If we are in exile, how should we live creatively and faithfully in it?
4. Why is the resurrection of Jesus central to our faith and hope?
5. When we say that God is eternal, one thing we mean is that God lives outside of time, so past, present, and future are all of one piece to God. We also say that we have eternal life. How might that affect the way we think about time?

Reference Shelf

I agree with many interpreters that while “sojourner” or “temporary resident” may be literally true of some of this letter’s readers, it is also part of the writer’s rhetorical strategy. First Peter wants to put all his readers into one box labeled “transient,” no matter where they live, no matter what their actual status as citizen or non-citizen. This is also true of his use of “elect” and “of the Diaspora”; the author knew well that while some of those who read his letter would be Jews, others—maybe most others—would be Gentiles. Notice, however, that 1 Peter never calls his readers “the true Israel” or “the spiritual descendants of Abraham”; in other words, they are “God’s people,” and the author is not going to speculate about whether this displaces anybody else from that same category.

It is an interesting strategy, no? You, whoever you are, whatever your people, are now no longer citizens of the place where you were born (later, he will tell them that they have left behind all remnants of their family/tribal/national heritage). You belong now to God, and you are God’s people. Where are you from? God. What language do you speak? God-ish. In the place of a story about a famous founding ancestor—a Romulus, Remus, or Aeneas—these people have the story of Christ’s death and resurrection and the promise that God has become their Father.

It is not “My home is in Heaven / so I don’t pay no rent / Don’t work no job / just gon’ live in a tent”; while 1 Peter does have a lively hope for Jesus’ return and the rewards that will bring, he never says Christians are sojourners here because they are citizens of Gloryland. His point is that the readers’ commitment to Christ keeps them from many aspects of normal life in their cities and villages and makes them foreigners in their own lands.

That is simply not true of many American Christians. Nobody would argue that our current culture is Christian, even though Christianity is by far the majority religion; whether we are liberals or conservatives, we probably find a lot to criticize about the moral values of our society. We eat too much. We use too much water. We buy too much junk. We watch too many spectacles of questionable morality, interspersed with 15-second materialist propaganda segments. We use up, we pile up, and we throw away, and we too often fail to consider what that does to the rest of the world, especially to the poor. We do not like it, and we may even complain about it, but most of us do not go so far as to refuse to participate. We are mostly at home, not resident aliens, in our world.

If we took 1 Peter seriously, we would identify ourselves with those who truly are resident aliens or transients among us. Lots of churches provide all sorts of wonderful services to the immigrants in their communities, and more power to them—that is the work of Christ. But 1 Peter suggests that the immigrant experience has paradoxical lessons to teach about how to be less American and more Christian—less attached to such a high standard of living, more willing to do unpleasant but necessary work, more accustomed to handling discourtesy and adversity.

John Donne preached a sermon on 1 Peter 1:17 to a bunch of lawyers and legal clerks in 1621, and in it reminds us of how God- centric this first chapter of 1 Peter is. God causes us to be newly born, grants us an inheritance, expects us to be obedient, and has revealed the words that can help us live rightly. “Sins against the Father then, we consider especially to be such as are in potestate [against God’s power], either in a neglect of God’s power over us, or in an abuse of that power which we have from God over others.” Donne reminded the clerks and lawyers that our time on earth, as a sojourning, is neither a permanent dwelling nor “a gliding through the world, but such a stay, as upon it our everlasting dwelling depends.” We ought to fear God, observed Donne, since our eternal life depends on God’s judgment—not with the sort of fear that paralyzes, but with the sort that keeps our attention fixed on God and God’s law; like Esther, who despite knowing that she might die, approached her husband the king to beg for the lives of those he had so recklessly condemned. In his conclusion, Donne suggests that his audience live so that they will be able to pray, “‘God be such to me at the last day, as I am to his people this day,’ and for that day’s justice in thy public calling, God may be pleased to cover many sins of infirmity.”

Richard B. Vinson, “1 Peter,” in 1 & 2 Peter, Jude, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2010), 80-82.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at MichaelRuffin.com. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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