Friday, October 10, 2008

Bringing the soft difference into focus

As promised here's part 2 of last week's post arising out of Miroslav Volf's excellent essay on 1 Peter. Having preached about it last Sunday, this Sunday, I'm asking how what Peter says works out in his context - and how it might work in ours (that's for the congregation to work on in groups).

It seems to me that soft difference is all about helping people see what God is like. So Peter talks about it applies in the three key areas people live in - the political arena, the work place and the home (of course, the last two were the same place for many people in Peter's world).

What a number of commentators seem to miss is that Peter expected Christians to get noticed. Bruce Winter has shown from 1 Peter 2:14 (and Romans 13:3-4) that Christians who can should behave as benefactors and be recognised as such by the powers that be. This means doing good works that benefit everyone in the community (Jeremiah 29:7 in action). The ancient world was littered with inscriptions commending folk who did such deeds. and Peter says that the followers of Jesus should also do it so that they get noticed and commended. this will silence some of the nonsense spoken about the new movement (2:15).

It's interesting that Peter tells us three times to 'submit' (2:13, 18; 3:1). Submission has a rather negative feel in our culture. But I wonder if all Peter means by it is 'recognise the context you live in and live well in it.' It's interesting that he doesn't use the word 'fear' or 'obey' - those are reserved exclusively for God. Rather, it seems that he is telling his readers to accept the world they live in rather seek to change it, but in their acceptance of this world, they should live in such a way that God comes into focus and the seeds of social change are sown - possibly though the coming to Christ of husbands, masters and governors (not so far-fetched as it sounds if Luke is right about Sergius Paullus in Acts 13:12).

So we submit in the political arena by doing good works that help to bring God into focus. In the workplace we submit to our masters. A good proportion of Peter's first readers would have been slaves, some of good masters, most of those who treated them like chattels. it's possible that Christian slaves would have got a beating for worshipping a foreign god and consorting with others who did so. But Peter says they should do 'good' to their masters, perhaps suggesting that they work beyond what they're instructed to do, going the extra mile, as it were.

And wives submit at home. This is the most foreign part of this passage to our ears - and the one that gets hackles rising (not to mention the one that has been horribly abused to justify the ill-treatment of wives by their husbands - something the text absolutely does not do).

We need to remember that wives were, in a similar way to slaves, the property of their husbands. They were expected not to have an independent life of any kind - no friends that were not from their husbands circle of acquaintances and certainly no religious allegiances that their husbands didn't share. So how is a Christian wife to conduct herself in a non-Christian household (for that certainly seems to be the context Peter is talking about in 3:1-6).

submission has to do with not doing anything that would blur God rather than bring him to focus. So, beauty is to be inward (2, 4) which sounds terribly spiritual but is also very practical: if the wife is going out to a Christian gathering, it's better she doesn't go made-up and wearing her best gown and jewels or people might assume she's heading for an illicit romantic tryst!

The reference to Sarah is subtle and amusing. The only time Sarah called Abraham 'lord' was when laughing at his faith about having a child! (Genesis 18:12). The reference is possibly rather to Genesis 12:13; 20:5, 13 where Sarah goes along with Abraham's plan in order to save Abraham's neck - at considerable risk to herself. In fact three times in Genesis, Abraham obeys her - again because the advice will save his life (16:2, 6; 21:12). Peter's point seems to be that a wife's selfless action can more often than not save the husband - exactly what he wants to see happen here among his first hearers (3:1).

It's interesting that there very little in this section about the wife's motivation, perhaps because Peter wants us to see that this flows straight out of his meditation on Jesus as the servant of Isaiah 53, suggesting that such wives are examples of Christ's submission and suffering that we should take note of and emulate.

So, that's possibly how Peter thought soft difference might work itself in the context he was writing to. The question we have to wrestle with is how might these principles apply to our very different political, working and domestic contexts. That's over to you, then....

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