In his book Practice Resurrection Eugene Peterson quotes a fellow named Herbert Butterfield who wrote a book called International Conflict in the Twentieth Century. Mr Butterfield wrote the following in that book:
“Let us take the devil by the rear, and surprise him with a dose of those gentler virtues that will be poison to him. At least when the world is in extremities, the doctrine of love becomes the ultimate measure of our conduct” (as quoted by Peterson, p 265).
This afternoon, I read through the short letter Peter wrote to those who were ‘scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bythinia.’ I have read through Peter’s letter several times, and I have preached through it more than once. I saw something this morning which made me do a double-take–maybe something I hadn’t seen before or had and wasn’t all that interested in. Either way, I saw it; I was caught.
Peter’s letter is normally exegeted in such a way that the exegete will be able to expound dutifully on the virtue of suffering as Christ suffered. That is to say, Peter wrote about how to suffer as a Christian. To be sure, Peter does write quite a bit about suffering—suffering in a variety of contexts and at the hands of a variety of people. If there is someone who can cause suffering for the believer, they have caught Peter’s eye and he has written of how the Christian can and should respond. All of this suffering we do is blended, in Peter’s letter, with both lengthy and pithy explanations and expositions of Jesus’ suffering. Somewhere in all five chapters Peter talks about Jesus’ suffering.
That is good.
But there is an undercurrent also in Peter’s letter that might be easily enough overlooked if we do not pay attention (as evidently I have done). It’s one of those ‘forest and trees’ things. Easily enough are we caught up in conversations about suffering and how we suffer and why we suffer and where we suffer and who is suffering and so on and so forth—and, we should not dismiss the suffering of Jesus which is the context in which all of it makes sense. The undercurrent in Peter’s letter is what we do for one another when we suffer. He begins in chapter 1, verse 8, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
Peter’s optimism shines out: Though you have not seen him, you love him. In light of Jesus’ suffering, we suffer and while we do we hold fast to our love of him. Jesus suffered. We suffer. We love Jesus whom we have not seen. It all makes good sense. We love Jesus. Yet Peter spends significantly small amount of time expanding on this love we have for Jesus and instead turns his attention back to people we do see, those people on earth who dress funny, who stink, who irritate us, who gossip about us, who live side by side with us in the congregation called the body of Christ—that is, those we suffer with every day. And his word for us is difficult.
I don’t think loving Jesus, whom we have not seen, is all that difficult. Peter must not think so or he would have expanded on it a bit more. It is loving those we live with that is difficult. It is the loving of those we have seen that is so confounding. Love one another, he writes, not just once, but nearly as often as he writes of the death and suffering of Jesus. And he starts right in, badgering us for our lack of love and compassion for one another: “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22) In other words, “You are really good at doing things like staying pure in a funky, armpit kind of world. And you say you have sincere love for each other. Now do it! Get on with the business of loving each other, deeply, from a place inside of yourselves.” Most of us can keep rules all day long. Most of us can stay pure all day. But can we love each other? Will we?
Holiness is easy. Love is difficult. Yet Peter seems to believe the two are somehow intertwined, bound up together like Gollum and the Ring. Loving Jesus whom we cannot, have not, seen is a piece of cake. Loving one another whom we see every day—that’s another story. Holiness is important, no doubt. But what is holiness if we do not love one another deeply, from the heart? “This is the word that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:25). “This” includes the admonition to ‘love one another.’ Loving one another is just as important as our born-againness, as the death of Jesus, as the resurrection of Jesus, as preaching, as prophecy—it’s a cardinal doctrine. Love one another.
He doesn’t let up either. “I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Great! Another passage about living pure and holy lives in the bowels of existence. No sweat! But he doesn’t stop: “Show proper respect to everyone, love your fellow believers, fear God, honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). Well, what does fearing God and honoring the emperor have to do with the way I treat those who are my brethren in Christ? Seemingly nothing, except that it’s easy to fear God, it’s easy to respect the emperor, and it’s easy to show respect to ‘everyone.’ What is difficult is the loving of my brother and sister in Christ when the only motivation for doing so is because Jesus expects me to whether they love me back or not. Sometimes I wonder if we are not more threatened by those in the body than we are by those who are not.
I like how Peter sort of throws that in there. “Hmm…let’s see…respect EVERYONE, fear God, the emperor, laugh at Muppets, dance with clowns….oh, yeah, LOVE ONE ANOTHER.” It’s like he’s going to throw that in every chance he gets in order to remind us of what really matters. Holiness matters. Human authority matters. But you must not forget to love one another. If you succeed at loving God and honoring the emperor but fail at loving one another–well, you have not succeeded at all.
He doesn’t stop. In chapter 3 we learn that we will most certainly suffer in this world: “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed” (1 Peter 3:13-14). But before all this, before he warns us of insults, evil, suffering, threats of violence, and all this he has the nerve to say: “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble” (1 Peter 3:8). The last thing he says is: Love one another. You are going to suffer. You are going to have bad days. You are going to be thrown under the bus by anyone and everyone in this world: Love one another.
The world is going to spit upon you every chance it gets; love one another. Treat each other right. You are going to have enough trouble in this world without going to all the effort to create it amongst yourselves. And this is the problem I have seen in every single church I have preached among. Churches do not really know how to love each other, and, frankly, no amount of exhortation from the pulpit or reading from the Scripture or praying in the closet seems to alter the simple fact that we, the body of Christ, do not know how to love each other.
Don’t think I’m preaching this from the loft, wearing a halo, and fluttering about with wings. I’m am chief among sinners here. Maybe we do not know how to love each other because we do not know how to suffer together, as a body? Maybe when one part suffers we are far too content to allow that one part to suffer alone or with the pastor or with their family. Maybe suffering needs to be more of a communal thing in the church—but we are too quick to abandon those who suffer, thus love is never truly cultivated and never truly matures among us. Maybe this is an American church phenomenon. Maybe churches in, say, Africa, where suffering takes place daily, do know how to love each other precisely because they have suffered together.
And still Peter doesn’t stop: “The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
“The point is that in the situation of persecution the one thing that matters above all else is love toward one another. It has to be a ‘deep’ love, but the English word doesn’t adequately convey the sense of the Greek ‘at full stretch.’ Why at full stretch? Because this love will be stretched to the limit by the demands made on it. Let us remind ourselves that Christian love means caring for other people in their needs and that such care will be accompanied by a growing affection for them. Many people are prepared to care for others; they are less ready to have affection for them and to demonstrate it. It requires love at full stretch to do this” (I Howard Marshall, 1 Peter, 143).
It is inevitable that we will sin. It is probably even more inevitable that we will sin against one another. These sins, grievous and heinous as they are, can be forgiven. I don’t think this means that the person sinned against simply overlooks the offense. That doesn’t seem to square with other thoughts in the New Testament that we have a right, perhaps an obligation, to confront those who sin against us in order to either offer or obtain forgiveness. Rather, I think Peter is drawing on the imagery of the work of God: God’s love covers a multitude of sins. The cross has been in every thought he has uttered in this letter, surely he is thinking of God’s great love. In other words, God forgives, we should too. And as God does not continue holding on to our sin once he has forgiven us, so too should we let go when we have forgiven or been forgiven by others. Whatever else ‘covers’ might mean, it surely means that the sins are no longer visible in some sense. They are forgotten, hidden, no longer a part of the memory or function of the relationship. Love conquers all. Love wins.
Love does this. Only love does this. Only because we love Jesus whom we haven’t seen are we able to love those whom we have seen. So as Peter wraps it up, he has one last charge for us: “Greet one another with a kiss of love” (1 Peter 5:14). In other words: demonstrate your deep, from the heart, sincere, compassionate, sin-covering love for one another by laying a big, wet sloppy one on each other. I suspect James would tell us not only to kiss the lovely and good smelling folks among us, but also the broken and smelly ones too.
We are not so cultured in our world where a kiss of affection and love is often shared among brethren. It’s not the way we roll. But I wonder if a handshake sort of misses the point? We shake the right hand of fellowship and carry a dagger in the left. I wonder if a hug is too phony. I wonder if a kiss gets at the root and heart of the matter. In a kiss we expose ourselves to all sorts of trouble—not least of which is sickness. A kiss, however, is intimate. It is necessarily sexual. A kiss necessarily exposes us to the one we share the kiss with. Just ask Judas or Caesar. Maybe Peter had in mind Judas who betrayed Jesus with such a kiss: “Don’t be like Judas and betray with a kiss. Let your kiss be one of love.”
Whatever the case may be, and it is possible that I am overstating the case, Peter’s charge here is definitely that our love be demonstrated. I don’t know how this gets accomplished in various cultures. I don’t know if a kiss is like foot-washing and merely a cultural thing we must adapt in some way. But I am fairly certain we must find a way to demonstrate, without hypocrisy, our love for one another.
Peter has covered a lot of ground here, right?
You are in the process of becoming holy, don’t forget to love each other while doing so or else your holiness will amount to nothing. (1 Peter 1:22).
You are living under strange conditions as foreigners and exiles, facing all sorts of strange masters and rulers, don’t forget to love one another which is just as important as living at peace with everyone else (1 Peter 2:17).
You are going to suffer in this life, here on this earth. You will have enough trouble on this earth without inviting it into your fellowship, so love one another; you need each other’s love when the world is destroying and hating you. (1 Peter 3:8).
You are anxiously awaiting the day to be revealed, to see how all of this will turn out in the end, but while you wait, there will be times when we sin against one another. In light of what we await, love one another and forgive. Deeply. (1 Peter 4:8).
And don’t forget to make certain that your love for one another is not merely in words or in thoughts. Demonstrate it, intimately, with a kiss of love. (1 Peter 5:14)
Jesus created the church to be a place, a people, who will support, strengthen, comfort, forgive and love one another while we are doing life together. As always the question remains: How am I perpetuating love and contributing to an atmosphere of love? Am I a balm of healing or picking at scabs?
Peter’s letter amply describes and portrays the difficult world we live in, a world where we will have much trouble, but it is also the world where some have been marked by the cross of Jesus. We will have enough trouble in this world without being trouble for one another. And how else will we take the devil by the rear if we do not love one another?
Soli Deo Gloria!