The With-God Life: Suffering and Unity

As he comes to the end of his first letter, the Apostle Peter pastors the pastors. Having been charged by Jesus himself to “feed my lambs” and “tend my sheep” (John 21:15-17), Peter exhorts “the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge…” (1 Pet 5:1-2). To establish his credentials for such an exhortation to such leaders, Peter identifies himself not just “as an elder myself,” but as “a witness of the sufferings of Christ” (v 1).

That lived experience of history’s most agonizing moments permeates the letter. Jesus “himself bore our sins in his body on the cross,” writes Peter, perhaps with tears running down his aged cheeks, “so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness….” (2:24). “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same intention… so as to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God” (3:1-2). Peter urges readers beset by a “fiery ordeal” to “rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings…” (4:12-13).

Cornelis Engebrechtsz’ 16th century painting of the Crucifixion, with Peter (holding keys) standing to the left – Metropolitan Museum of Art

Christ-like suffering, to Peter, is a hallmark of Christian discipleship. But our suffering is not to be borne alone, forsaken and denied, but in community.

Reading today’s epistle lesson from the lectionary, I’m struck above all that the theme of suffering running through the second half of Peter’s first letter starts with a broader exhortation:

Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. (3:8)

Just as Paul exhorts one church to “be of the same mind” by singing a hymn about a Christ who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phi 2:2, 8), Peter speaks of suffering in order to admonish his readers to “clothe yourselves in humility in your dealings with one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble'” (5:5).

Indeed, that same proverb is also quoted in the epistle immediately preceding Peter’s, as part of the Apostle James’ own lament for Christian disunity: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” (Jas 4:1)

So often I want to ask the same questions of American Christians today. And I don’t have a great answer to the problem of disunity — not even in the chapter on that subject in my last book. But one way or another, it seems that the “unity of spirit” must take the shape of the Cross. It’s uncomfortable to consider, but perhaps Peter’s “humble mind” requires some small fraction of the suffering that Jesus anticipated even as he prayed “that they may all be one” (John 17:21).

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