April 20, 2021 / Issue Volume 33, Number 1, Spring 2021 / Leading Ideas

Peter, the Pandemic, and Pearls: How Difficulty May Be Harnessed for Discipleship

By Joshua Coutts

Joshua Coutts

Joshua Coutts is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Providence Theological Seminary (Otterburne, MB). His most recent publication, The Divine Name in the Gospel of John, was published in 2017 by Mohr Siebeck (you can find an interview here). He is an instructor for a number of Regent College distance education courses.

As the pandemic has swelled to overtake and disrupt so much of our lives, one overlooked aspect of the New Testament has come into sharper focus: much of it was written in direct response to situations of hardship in one form or another. It is thanks to ethnic and relational tensions in churches that we have Galatians, Philippians, 1 Corinthians, and 1 John. Likewise, had it not been for a major famine threatening the Jerusalem church, we would not have Paul’s teaching on giving in 2 Corinthians. Difficulties generated by poverty and injustice within churches catalyzed much of the epistle of James and Paul’s teaching on the Lord’s supper in 1 Corinthians 11. We may not have had the Gospels had Christians not experienced the strain of Jesus’s absence and the loss of those who knew and saw him. And we would not have 1 Thessalonians, Hebrews, 1 Peter, or Revelation had early Christians not experienced social ostracism and its attendant hardships.

In what follows, I wish to focus on 1 Peter in particular as a case study of what it looks like when Christian calling collides with challenging real-world circumstances. Because of their allegiance to Jesus, Peter’s readers were likely suffering verbal abuse (3:16; 4:4, 16) and social ostracism in both the public square and the household. This is importantly different from the hardships carried along in the wake of the pandemic. Nevertheless, our circumstances, like theirs, can serve to remind us that the world is not as it should be. Moreover, were Peter writing to our church communities today, he would want us see our current circumstances not as a season to be wished away so we can get back to lives of comfort and ease, but as the grit that may well produce the “pearl” of a hopeful, joyful, Christ-like people of God. Peter “harnesses difficulty” for the purpose of discipleship in three respects that seem tailor-made for our circumstances: hardship can disclose hidden realities, cultivate hope, and help us conform to Christ. In short, the pandemic can help us recover our fundamental task and calling as a church.

Hardship is Revelatory

First, Peter recognizes that hardship reveals the truth that was there all along, but hidden. A genuine faith, like gold tested by fire, is tested by “various trials” and found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus is revealed (1 Pet 1:7). Dross is also revealed, of course, as Peter himself well knew. When his own hands were held to the fire at Jesus’s trial, a small, fearful, self-interested soul was revealed. Yet, this ugly disclosure launched a transformation of the man who would later pen this letter.

Our temptation is to wish this season away, to wish for a speedy return to “normal” services and programming. It is certainly appropriate to lament what is wrong and what is lost. But we can also rejoice in the disclosure of what is true. Just as an increase in COVID testing simply reveals more existing cases, so the pandemic itself, with all its attendant stresses, is (like Peter’s fire) disclosing heart conditions within society and in churches that were there all along—gold and dross alike. On the one hand, many Christians are realizing more than before how deeply we need each other, how precious family is, and how essential it is to be part of a worshiping community. And many are finding creative ways to strengthen those relationships. On the other hand, those with a complaining or bitter spirit may have found in the pandemic a new subject on which to fixate. For others, the increased time at home may exacerbate the vice of sloth or family dysfunction. And a selfish disposition may manifest either as the idolatry of “my rights, my way” at the expense of others or as the fear for physical self-preservation.

Peter reminds us that fire does not create dross or gold; it simply burns the fig-leaves we construct for ourselves. At the same time, for those with ears to hear there is an echo of God’s invitation to Adam—“Where are you?”—in and through the current crisis. So we might ask ourselves, what is the quality of gold being revealed in me or in my church community right now? Are my attitudes or actions here ones that will “end in praise, glory, and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1:7)?[1] If not, we dare not miss the gracious opportunity to “humble yourselves beneath the mighty hand of God” (5:6-7). Likewise, we would do well not to settle for normal in each other, but to pray towards the glorious gold that we could be. The pandemic can help haul the church more fully into the space to which she is called: the light (2:9).

Hardship Cultivates Hope

Second, hardship can actually point away from itself to hope. Straight out of the gate in his letter, Peter invites his readers to lean deeply into the future, identifying them as “exiles” or “resident aliens” (1:1). They experience social alienation socially because of their Christian way of life; but the nature of their exile is fundamentally eschatological rather than geographical.[2] Christians are, by definition, estranged from the present insofar as their true home is another time. They have broken with their past and live into their future. They “hope completely on the grace to be brought to you in the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:13). This future, in turn, meets them in the present; it is a “living hope” into which they have been “re-birthed” (1:3; cf. 1:6-9; 4:17). Consequently, as Eugene Boring puts it, “The Christ-event bifurcates not only world history but the readers’ own story.”[3]

One of the greatest problems afflicting the Western church is an impoverished eschatology. While many Christians harbour unbiblical hopes featuring private mansions, harps, and clouds, for many others, the anticipation of what (and Who) is to come has been starved out by a comfortable middle-class existence. Our lives are so convenient that when a pandemic hits, the best thing our withered souls can imagine is to “get back to normal.” But Peter would have us see the pandemic as a wake-up call to our short-sightedness and limited imaginations. Yes, things are not as they should be right now. But the pre-pandemic world was no less sin-infused and death-haunted. The Church is to be always lamenting the brokenness we see around us and within us, and always leaning into the future—not just during a pandemic. Yet the pandemic is the sort of lurch in the road that can propel us to set our hope more fully on the glorious appearing of Christ and embrace our identity as exiles estranged from the future to which we truly belong, rather than anticipating the mere recovery of “normal.”

Now, Peter does not encourage an escape from the present or from real difficulty; nor does he deny the reality of suffering. Indeed, he acknowledges the mental distress his readers have experienced in “various trials” (1:6).[4] Yet he reminds them that in the deepest, truest part of themselves, they quite simply love Jesus.[5] And this very love for the one whose “revelation” coincides with the future “time” to which they belong[6] effectively draws that future into their present. This is indicated by the present tense verbs and participles of 1:8: “Though you have not seen him, you love him ... you rejoice ... you are obtaining the outcome of your faith.”

Deep love for Jesus and longing for his return go hand in hand, and the Church would do well to recover practices that cultivate both. We might, for instance, learn again to pray with the earliest Christians, “our Lord, come!” and “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.”[7] These prayers of longing can also channel lament over the way things are. Likewise, we might allow more space in our worship for our disappointments and distress. For the Christian, it is ultimately in the context of worship that is oriented toward the coming Lord—not in vaccination rollout plans—that the qualification “although now for a little while” (1:6) is prefixed to the pandemic, thereby diminishing its power over us. Moreover, the anticipation of the coming Lord reminds us to regard the lesser, temporary goods that we hope for as gossamer-thin tokens of the unfading inheritance that rushes toward us (1:4).

Hardship and Conformity to Christ

Peter reminds us, thirdly, that hardship can supply the conditions by which we are conformed to Christ. Indeed, it isthepath of discipleship: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for all of you, leaving all of you an example, in order that you would follow in his steps” (2:21). As noted earlier, we are not suffering ostracism for our faith like Peter’s audience. Nevertheless, the fact that we claim to worship and follow a suffering Messiah must form our own responses to hardship. If you trust yourself to the Lord who “did not consider equality with God a thing to be seized” (Phil 2:6), you cannot at the same time claim your “rights” to worship in the way you prefer. If you follow the Lord who gave his life for the life of the world (John 6:51), you cannot at the same time value your own physical well-being above all else (that’s the old Peter, warming himself by the fire). If you worship the Lord who “made himself nothing and took the form of a servant” (Phil 2:7), you cannot at the same time maintain a complaining disposition, a belligerent selfishness, or a scornful attitude toward others.

This sort of disconnect between the kind of Lord we claim to worship and the kind of people we are leads to an impoverishing of Christian faith and the domestication of the church. The church becomes merely a wholesome family environment, or a means to secure the blessing of God. And to the degree that the church is subsumed by comfortable middle-class life, the pandemic will only be viewed as a thief or a threat to our happiness, or as the weakness or even the judgment of God. But what if God cares more about our holiness than our happiness? This is exactly the direction of Peter’s argument (1:14-16; 2:1-5). God, it turns out, is far more interested in delivering usfromour complaining, belligerently selfish, scornful, fear-filled selves than he is in delivering to us a smooth, comfortable ride. He is deeply invested in our becoming the grateful, hopeful, joyful, love-filled people we are created and called to be. And a pandemic may be just the sort of grit by which such a beautiful “pearl” may be generated. As Eugene Peterson puts it: “Think of your sufferings as a weaning from that old sinful habit of always expecting to get your own way. Then you’ll be able to live out your days free to pursue what God wants instead of being tyrannized by what you want.”[8] Likewise, a willingness to suffer reflects a depth of commitment to a worldview that is completely foreign to the world.[9]

How the Pandemic Helps the Church Be the Church

So, what is the task of the church in our current moment? In the polarizing environment fostered by pandemic protocols, fear and self-interest can make those who claim the name of Christ into hard-nosed fighters. Others may define themselves over-against them, and thereby leverage the pandemic to justify themselves to themselves, thereby reflecting the deceptive “guile” that believers have left behind (3:1-2, 22). But the church does not take its reference point from the circumstances that elicit such responses. Peter reminds us that the church is the community whose native home is a future time, and a people oriented toward their suffering Lord who will appear in that time. Thus, in a very important sense, the church is called now to be and do what it has always done. As resident aliens, in “living hope,” we proclaim the excellence of the one who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light (2:9).

As the church rehearses and celebrates the suffering of Christ and his future appearing, believers are freed from allegiance to “now” and their own small, impoverished stories—freed to be for each other and a watching world: “As servants of God, live as free people, yet not holding your freedom as a cover for evil. Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor” (2:16–17; cf. 1:22; 3:8; 4:8–10).[10] It is only those who refuse to be defined by their circumstances or their opponents who are free—free to bless, free to love, free to hope. And it is exactly this that constitutes an invitation to a watching world that is “gentle” (3:16).[11]

How might the pandemic hinder or help to embed the Church more deeply in her calling? Thatis the sort of question to pose in our current circumstances. The conditions of our exile can actually cement our citizenship more deeply, as they disclose and decouple us from our past ways, cultivate the holy character of that citizenship, realign us with our deepest love, and therefore catapult us toward the inevitable future. It is, however, by no means inevitable that the pandemic will have such effects. There is no virtue in experiencing a “famine.” But if embraced as a spiritual discipline, famine can be transformed into fasting. Likewise, difficulty must be harnessed for discipleship. There are, of course, various ways in which the pandemic poses challenges to discipleship. But Peter teaches us not to be fixated on our circumstances at all. Rather, Christ would have us recognize herein the grit which may help to produce the pearl of inexpressible and glory-filled joy (1:8).

[1] All unspecified Scripture references are to 1 Peter. All translations are my own.

[2] Elliott rightly argues that the designation of recipients as “strangers” (πάροικος; in 2:11; cf. 1:17) describes their social marginalization. His suggestion that this occurred prior to their conversion, however, is surely incorrect. John H. Elliott, A Home for the Homeless: A Sociological Exegesis of 1 Peter, Its Situation, and Its Strategy (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 21–58, 132.

[3] Eugene Boring, “Narrative Dynamics in First Peter” (2007): 31; cited in David G. Horrell and Wei-Hsien Wan, “Christology, Eschatology, and the Politics of Time in 1 Peter,” JSNT 38 (2016): 268.

[4] The word lupéō, rendered “suffer” (NRSV) or “suffer grief” (NIV) in 1:6, refers to emotional distress.

[5] After Peter’s only failure under pressure, Jesus gave him the opportunity to correct the public record regarding his love for Jesus (John 21:15-17). One wonders if that experience may underlie Peter’s language here.

[6] Horrell and Wan, “Christology,” 267.

[7] Paul can quote the prayer “our Lord, come” in Aramaic (marana tha) to his Corinthian readers (1 Cor 16:22) most likely because it was a well-known prayer of the very earliest Christians, used to invoke Jesus’s return, and perhaps also his anticipatory presence in worship.

[8] 1 Pet 4:1-2 (The Message). Interestingly, an April 2020 Pew Research Center survey of US adults found that 24% of respondents said their faith had become stronger because of the coronavirus pandemic, while just 2% said it had become weaker.

[9] Frank Thielman, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 581.

[10] Peter himself exemplifies this freedom. So thoroughly does he identify with reference Christ that, although he might have played the “rock” or “shepherd” cards that Jesus himself had dealt him, he instead identifies Jesus as the precious cornerstone and as the great shepherd of the sheep. Peter himself is simply a “witness of Christ’s sufferings” (5:1).

[11] Miroslav Volf, “Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation Between Church and Culture in 1 Peter,” Ex Auditu 10 (1994): 15-30.

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