1 Peter 5:6-11
If I begin to think too seriously about what it must have been like to live in the first century as a follower of Jesus, I begin to shudder. Life was awful, just plain awful. Everyone knew someone who had been martyred. Everyone knew someone who had been arrested by the Roman police and put to death in some horrendously agonizing way. The Romans were very adept at reducing the Christian population in some rather creative and gruesome ways. To say that the followers of Jesus were being abased and humiliated under the mighty hand of the Roman government, would be only to put it very mildly. Followers of Jesus could not help but live in fear of that inevitable day when soldiers would arrive at their homes to arrest them, simply because they named the name of Jesus among themselves.
And so when the Apostle Peter wrote, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God…” None of his readers missed the powerful irony in Peter’s words. Much against their will or desire, early followers of Jesus had been forcibly compelled to submit to the absolute terror of the Roman government, with all humiliation and abasement. The Roman government was the most powerful authority in everyone’s life, and the emperor intended to keep it that way. And yet, Peter says, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God.” In those words, Peter reminds his readers that there is indeed a higher authority than the Roman government, and while submission to the Roman government is forced and enforced, submission to God is done willingly and joyfully, but most importantly, with great anticipation and abiding hope. When a people is oppressed, for whatever reason that may be, there is always God. God is always a higher authority than any other human institution. It does not matter if this institution is good or evil; to God is always higher. And so when Peter says, “Humble yourselves, therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time,” that is the only genuine hope for oppressed people in all places and in all times. It is God’s business to lift up, to deliver and to ultimately exalt those who are down-trodden, abused and oppressed. It is also, by extension, undeniably, the business of God’s people to defend and to lift up those who are being oppressed or abused, even, and perhaps especially, if God’s people happen to be the ones who are being abused or oppressed. God’s people, both Jews and Christians, have long histories of being oppressed. We are in a unique position to oppose and to relive oppression and abuse of all kinds, because we’ve been there. We know what it is like even if it is only the stories that we have heard and read in our Scriptures.
But God, in addition to being the most powerful authority under which we must humble ourselves, is also the most loving and caring authority. And so Peter says, having submitted ourselves under the mighty hand of God, we are then free to cast all of our anxiety on him, for he cares for us. That is unusual. The mighty hand of the Roman government, which had, as a matter of its policy, humbled and abased the followers of Jesus, certainly did not care for them. The exact opposite of that was true. And so the irony deepens. There’s a huge difference between the mighty hand of the Roman government and the mighty hand of God.
This was not a good week in the news. I have discovered that the Coronavirus, as it marches boldly across this nation, has become anxiety producing for me. I am anxious for myself, my loved ones, my church and my community. I am concerned about our education system, because I know that remote education does not work. I am concerned about the future, and I wonder if we will ever recover the time when we feel safe gathering together in large enclosed spaces, surrounded by many strangers. Will we ever go to a basketball game, or to a live concert, or to a wedding reception? All of these things we did until just recently, without the slightest thought.
And this morning, I am extremely grateful for the word “vomit”. Vomit is not normally a word that brings joy or comfort to our hearts. The word “vomit” usually indicates that there is something wrong; something seriously wrong down deep inside of our tummies that needs to be cast out of us, lest it do us further harm. It is our body’s way of helping us to become well, even though it is not always a pleasant experience. And in verse seven, Peter uses the word “vomit” to describe what we must do with all of the anxieties and fears that pester and plague and paralyze us. Our Bibles simply translate the word vomit, as “cast”. “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” We ought not to be keeping our anxieties in our guts. Its not good for us. Casting out, or vomiting up our anxieties is the path to wholeness.
It is not often in the Scriptures that the devil is described as a lion. Most remarkably, it is our Lord who is the lion. And so here in the book of First Peter, it may be that the lion is standing in as a code word for the Roman government. And it would have been no surprise to any of Peter’s readers that the Roman government was prowling around looking for followers of Jesus to devour. For many Christians, staying safe and staying alive was a daily challenge. I think sometimes that we can’t fully appreciate how dangerous it was to be living in the first century and to be a follower of Jesus. For most Christians, the Roman government was the equivalent of the devil, anyway. Both were evil, both thrived on the promotion of death, and the demonic activities of both required that followers of Jesus stay very alert, very disciplined and very faithful to their Lord. Both could kill the body, but neither could kill the soul.
And so in the midst of the terror that surrounds his listeners, Peter issues a call to steadfastness of faith. Peter understands well the soul-damaging nature of a faith that wavers. He once denied, publicly, three times, that he had any relationship with his savior at all. Once, Peter found himself in the same position as many of his readers. He had the opportunity to deny his faith in order to save his skin, and he took that opportunity. Even though he was fully and dramatically forgiven, and even though he remained steadfast in his faith until his death, I don’t think that he ever fully got over that moment of faithlessness. He wrote, very cryptically, in this same epistle, these words: “Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God.” If anyone knew what it was like to speak on behalf of the devil, Peter did, because he had.
Peter knew, as did all of his readers, that not everyone would survive the Roman oppression and live to a ripe old age. The first century was a dangerous time to be alive, and everyone knew it. I suspect that most first century Christians walked a very fine line between staying faithful to Jesus Christ and staying alive for their families and loved ones. That is a position that I never, ever hope to be in, but Jesus himself warned us about that possibility, and he gave us some very difficult words to ponder on that subject.
Knowing the dire situation of his readers, Peter closes the passage with a bit of hopeful realism. He reminds his readers that they are not alone. There are followers of Jesus all over the world. They and we are part of a very big family. The realistic part of that though, is that not all is well with the family. Suffering seems to be a universal phenomenon.
And so with a bold statement of both hope and realism, Peter says this: “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to this eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.”
Did Peter believe that the Roman oppression would soon be over? Probably not. He died because of it. But what Peter did believe, was that compared to all of eternity, this life is indeed, just “a little while,” and equally important, that eternal hope is forever unchanged. So, however we count our days, we know that we have at this moment, a God on whom we can cast all of our cares, for we have a God who cares for us. And in “a little while,” and in “due time,” God will exalt those who have been abased by the world and who have humbled themselves under the mighty hand of God. And we will be strengthened, established, supported, and above all else, restored. To all of this, Peter says, “To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.”