Sometimes the way to follow Jesus is to go to the cross with him. Peter thought this was the only option for the household slaves — he appealed to them to look to God for grace, to look to God for vindication, and to follow the example of Jesus. Sometimes we pursue justice “within the order,” and sometimes we bear with the system and suffer. I don’t think there are any hard and tight rules to show us the way. We live by faith; we discern; and we step out.
Sometimes the steps we take are in the steps of Jesus. The steps of Jesus lead to the cross, and for Peter the cross is the central reality of God’s revelation. And we are to look not through the cross but directly at the cross — and not even look beyond it. For on the cross God reveals his identification with us and on that same cross, which is empty, his victory over that identification with suffering. On that cross we also see the Savior who saves, who ransoms and redeems and restores (Peter doesn’t really have a “theory” of atonement — so I’ll leave that to the other posts).
Peter sees the place to begin a theology of how to live in the Roman world with Jesus, and now we learn that the place to begin that theology of praxis is with a Jesus who was crucified. Peter views the entire Christian life through the cross — and he therefore constructs a cruciform theo-praxis.
There is a deep tradition from Jesus through the early Church to see the redemptive value of suffering, the redemptive pattern found on the cross. It is called pacifism or, in the words of John Howard Yoder, revolutionary insubordination.
John the Baptist taught people to go the extra mile, even if it was shaming;
Jesus taught this followers to turn the other cheek, even if it hurt;
Jesus gave the cross to his followers as the symbol of life, even if it meant death;
Jesus told his followers, more than once, to forgive insead of seeking vindication;
Jesus exemplified gracious Christianity, over and over, and that grace established the path on which he walked —
And Peter knew that path, and he encouraged others to walk with him in powerless times in the very steps of Jesus. I don’t think this is a surrender to injustice as the courageous act of a person led by the Spirit to suffer redemptively. And neither is the “household slave” of 1 Peter the New World Slave, and that means for me that we should distance this text from New World Slavery (which doesn’t mean that this text has not been abused). In suggesting we distance this text, we need at the same time to retain sensitivity to alternative messages that will inevitably find their way into this text.
Peter counsels the powerless slaves to follow Jesus right into the thick of suffering not only because God can be trusted to establish justice, someday and in some way, but because grace creates room for conversion, because forgiveness both undoes injustice and creates an alternative way, because love is nearly irresistible by humans.
Grace creates an alternative society: and that is what Peter is most concerned about — the society called the Church in which the will of God is done.
So, when Peter is urging the household slaves to endure, he is arguing that the grace of God that is learned in Jesus has a way of changing things — the seeds of suffering are redemptive. I haven’t seen the movie The End of the Spear but I did teach with a professor whose wife was one of the wives of those men who were killed — and forgiveness and grace has turned that world around. That, I think, is what Peter is teaching. But, I would be the first to say that Peter’s theology here is the emerging theology of how to live as powerless people when you desire to live before God and extend yourselves missionally for the kingdom of God.
I would not say that Peter’s strategy, and this makes this little post emerging and contextual, is always the only strategy. There is a time to resist “within the order” and there is a time to let the system grind away so that God’s grace may become visible.