In this series, we’re exploring Peter’s fourfold imperative to the Church in 1 Peter 2:17, a verse which helps us think through how the Church should act in a post-Christian society. Peter instructs: “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor.”
If the first command speaks to our relationship to those outside the church, Peter now turns our attention toward those within the household of faith. By all means, Peter says, be sure to respect everyone, but when it comes to our brothers and sisters in Christ, the imperative, above all, is love.
Peter’s second command comes as no surprise. The command to love one another is central to Jesus’ teaching, and every New Testament author echoes Jesus’ command in one form or another.
But we have to ask: When Peter commands Christians to love one another, is there something specific he is thinking about? Some context here, I think, might help.
An important clue is found just a few verses back in 2:11 when Peter addresses his readers as Beloved. The word is derived from the well-known Greek word, agape. Peter only uses the word twice in this letter, but when he does, he’s probably trying get us to pay special attention to what he’s about to say. It’s like when the preacher stops and looks you directly in the eye and says, “Friends!”—well then you know that you really need to listen to what he is about to say.
And what does Peter say in verse 11? “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh which wage war against your soul.” Here two things are especially applicable to the Church in the post-Christian era.
First, we must never forget that as followers of Jesus in this world, we are aliens and sojourners—people on a journey in the midst of a foreign land.
Most of us probably don’t use the word sojourner in everyday speech, but a word we do commonly use today is the word refugee. What is a refugee? Someone who finds themselves in a place not their own. Refugees may hope to take up permanent residence in the place they are at, but just as often they are on the way somewhere else after being rejected here, too.
My father and his family left Poland for Canada in 1938, managing to escape the horrors of the Second World War. Poland, of course, was particularly hard hit. But when they arrived in Canada, it was a whole new world. In fact, the first Alberta winters were so harsh they wondered whether they would have been better off staying in Poland facing the war than having to deal with Edmonton winters. They felt trapped between places. That is the sense Peter wants us to feel when he speaks of us being “sojourners and exiles.”
Now to be fair, few of us aspire to be a refugee. Yet it is this very image of being a refugee—finding oneself between places—that Peter wants us to cherish, not reject. Indeed, Peter is saying, If we’re getting too comfortable in this world, we may be in danger of forgetting we‘re aliens and foreigners in this world and that we are on a journey to the new world which God promises at Christ’s return.
Let me gently suggest that we, the Church in North America, have in past decades forgotten our refugee status. We’ve forgotten that the current socio-economic and political environment is not our ultimate home. And also, we should banish the thought that someday we may be going back to an earlier time and place.
All this doesn’t mean we don’t work hard to address injustices and suffering. Indeed, we must. But in the midst of that work, we must never forget we are sojourners, travellers on the way.
What does Peter ask of us as aliens, as strangers in this world? He says, “Abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”
Make no mistake: The passions of the flesh are waging war on our souls. We live in a culture which has as its primary modus operandi to feed the passions of the flesh. We can barely turn on our computers without being assaulted with images of lust, materialism, rebellion, crude and ugly humour, addictions of all kinds, and, of course, of the illusion life can be lived entirely without God.
I remember watching a video about children in Syria in the midst of the military conflict. It was bizarre to see children playing in the streets while tanks and armed soldiers went by. It was like they were oblivious to the war around them.
And yet I wonder about us. Have we become oblivious to the war on our souls? Have we become so accustomed to the things seeking to feed the passions of our flesh that we have actually welcomed them into our hearts, having even invited them into our own homes?
By now, it may appear I’ve lost track of our primary text, but I haven’t. What does this all have to do with Peter’s command to love the family of faith?
Figuring out what it means to love our brothers and sisters in the faith is a daily task. But at least one thing Peter asks of us is this: In what way are we doing our best to protect one another from the war being waged against our own flesh, even as we reside here as sojourners in a foreign land?
Unfortunately we the Church have sometimes assumed it’s our job to point out moral failings either of the world or, worse, of others within the family. But let’s be honest—most of us need little help in being reminded that we regularly fail.
Indeed, there are times we need to speak the truth to one another in love, pointing out our sins to another in in love. This is indeed one important way we love the brethren! But to what extent are we engaged in loving one another by getting our hands dirty to help those who stumble into sins of the flesh, who struggle daily with addictions and greed? How often do we condemn rather than help them?
Moreover, love for our brothers and sisters means proclaiming, with all the passion we can muster, that when we end up falling to these passions, upon confession, we need fear no condemnation—thanks to God’s faithfulness, grace, mercy, forgiveness and indeed reconciliation. In other words, being the Church in a post-Christian society starts with us—inside the Church—remembering that if we fail here in the Church to speak and act lovingly to those who fall to sin, we will have little hope of helping those outside the Church whose struggles are similar, if not exponentially magnified.
I wonder if the Church has comforted itself too often with war imagery, seeing ourselves as in hand-to-hand combat with enemy combatants both in and out of the church! Of course, we are in a war, but not against flesh and blood (remember Ephesians 6:12). Rather, Peter here reminds us: We’re more like the refugee on the street in the middle of a war zone rather than combatants ourselves. Yes, we’re often attacked and suffer as a result, and when necessary, we need to find a way to fight back against those spiritual entities that are waging war against our souls.
But more than that, let us love one another and in so doing, help each other, as messy and dirty and as uncomfortable as that will be, to raise each other up when we ourselves have fallen. That is, I believe, what it truly means to love the family of faith for whom Christ died.
[Editor’s Note: This blog is part two of a four-part series. When they are available, the subsequent parts will be accessible here.]
David Guretzki is Executive Vice President of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*