[This blog is from a sermon preached on the 30th April 2017 at St George’s Anglican Church Paddington in Sydney. The text for the day was 1 Peter 1:13-25.
Thanks to my St George’s friends for their hospitality.]
I will begin with a famous passage published by John Bunyon in 1678.
… Then I saw in my dream, when they were got out of the wilderness, they presently saw a town before them, and the name of that town is “Vanity”; and at the town there is a fair kept, called “Vanity Fair”; it is kept all the year long. It bears the name of Vanity Fair, because the town where ’tis kept is lighter than vanity; and also because all that is there sold, or that comes thither is vanity…
This fair is no new erected business; but a thing of ancient standing. I will show you the original of it.
Almost five thousand years agone, there were pilgrims walking to the Celestial City, as these two honest persons are; and BEELZEBUB, APOLLYON, and LEGION, with their companions, perceiving by the path that the pilgrims made, that their way to the City lay through this town of Vanity, they contrived here to set up a fair; a fair wherein should be sold of all sorts of vanity, and that it should last all the year long.
… at this fair are all such merchandise sold: as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms; lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts – as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not.
… moreover, at this fair there is at all times to be deceivers, cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues and that of every kind.
Within the story of Pilgrim’s Progress, as the two central characters named Christian and Faithful journey to the Celestial city, they meet characters set to waylay them at every turn.
Here in chapter six, they come upon a corrupt city, a place of crooked dealing, with an evil marketplace.
This passage can be read in a number of different ways, each of them showing us a little of what Christians tend to think about the marketplace, and the world.
- The Evangelical Individual: Resisting the Market
Although this book was written hundreds of years ago, still today Christians can feel beset in the marketplace on every side; overwhelmed by the amount of worldly enticements or temptations that must be overcome.
The evangelical church was born from protest, and has focused upon resisting the evil that is constantly offered, the “lives, blood, bodies, souls” that are being sold by the world.
Within this paradigm, the passage of 1 Peter can be read a certain way,
“Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed”
There are many relics of this kind of thinking. In January, we happened to be travelling through the rolling countryside of New South Wales, when we came upon the town of Spring Hill near Orange. In this tiny village, was a Temperance Hall, established in 1883.
The temperance movement was strengthened by a group of Christians who drew upon this type of reading of “the world” as found in Bunyon’s passage. Prohibitionists in the United States also saw the world this way.
Individuals, such movements argue, are susceptible to the corruption of the marketplace and likely to make bad decisions. Ordinary people will only abstain from an action if it is prohibited, and the consequences enforced by the state.
In particular, these Christians argued that alcohol clouds our judgment, and must be prohibited.
But the argument goes much deeper, and is based upon the thought that left to our own devices, we tend to be unable to make good choices.
Any market in which all options are available, is a test. Each of us must be continually exhorted to stay true to Christ, just as Faithful and Christian do in Pilgrim’s Progress.
2. (Mis)recognised Metaphors: Embracing the Market
Unfortunately, these strong metaphors Christians have drawn upon for the world and its influence can be easily turned around or misused, in the sense that “the world” can refuse this characterisation.
The first editor of the American magazine Vanity Fair, Frank Crowninshield, happily drew upon the influence of Bunyon’s allegory. He declared his magazine a celebration of America’s “increased devotion to pleasure, to happiness, to dancing, to sport, to the delights of the country, to laughter, and all forms of cheerfulness.”
Surely, he seems to say, Christian and Faithful just saw the marketplace wrongly. Vanity Fair is not a place to be feared. The market creates new opportunities, and facilitates desires that are fundamentally good.
Individuals are only really unable to resist temptation if they are flawed. But, this argument goes – why resist at all? Why not truly enjoy what is good?
And thus, some Christians (maybe Pentecostal Christians shhhh!) would place the emphasis upon the passage in Peter upon the hope in Jesus Christ, and the possibilities of the Lord revealed.
This argument continues that, rather than making us boring people, Christians should be intriguing, and invoke questions because of the hope they profess and the possibilities of their future.
3. The Corrupt System of the Market
Interestingly, experts in literature often read the famous chapter six of Pilgrim’s Progress differently, not as a direct condemnation upon “paganism” or the ancient English markets where impulsive purchasing occurred, but instead as an indictment upon Roman Catholicism which commercialised the Christian religion.
Bunyon’s picture of Vanity Fair, they claim, echoes another market depicted in the gospels, in which Jesus turns over the tables. This market was only corrupt because it was selling objects of worship. In this reading, the moral of the story is that true religion is not to be sold, but must be free.
This reading emphasizes the corrupt systems of the world as they extract a fee from all those who engage in them. Buyer or sellers, we all are implicated as the market forces control the setting. No matter the choices we make as individuals, we are corrupted simply by because Vanity Fair exists.
Buyer or sellers, we all are implicated as the market forces control the setting. No matter the choices we make as individuals, we are corrupted simply by because Vanity Fair exists.
4. A Modern Vanity Fair
Bunyon’s actual meaning is left uncertain. But many of these ideas continue to influence the way we see ourselves as Christians in the urban context, and thus how we interpret the passage of 1 Peter. The apostle Peter continues,
As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.
In the modern environment, of course, many of us work for corporations. So, we may decide, this text indicates that we should live in our cities with sober judgment, making good decisions. As obedient children, we should grow up and make good choices. The passage continues,
18 For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.
Christians are reminded by Peter’s words that they were bought, and not with an ordinary price, or at an ordinary market. He continues,
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
Often scriptures such as 1 Peter are cited in church in order to help us see that Christians must work hard for the corporations we work for, and as the Beatles sang, “all you need is love.”
But, the question is, can we see more here in this particular scripture than just the formation of good citizens for transnational corporations and the state?
Is there perhaps something more we can learn from the church in Asia Minor, as it to read aloud the words of Peter aloud?
Something more profound, and deeply resonant than simply what our context today allows?
“Be Holy, for I am Holy
Perhaps what we must learn is held within the saying “be holy, because I am holy.”
In Peter’s epistle, God is not asking the church to be formed to serve the marketplace.
God is asking the church to be formed, indeed to be con-formed, to Him.
Peter exhorts the Christians to follow the lead of Jesus.
What He is, they must become. And God is holy. So the question is, what does this strange word “holy” actually mean?
Within the Bible there are 34 direct commandments to “be holy.”
- Leviticus, (11:44): “I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by [eating] any creature that moves along the ground
- Numbers (6 v 5): sets out rules around the temple Nazirites and holiness is demonstrated through growing hair.
- Deuteronomy, (23): “For the Lord your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you. Your camp must be holy, so that he will not see among you anything indecent and turn away.”
- Jeremiah (31:40): God even stakes a claim upon the rubbish tip, saying “The whole valley where dead bodies and ashes are thrown, and all the terraces out to the Kidron Valley on the east as far as the corner of the Horse Gate, will be holy to the Lord. The city will never again be uprooted or demolished.”
These things may seem very ordinary.
Eating. Cutting hair. The way Israel acts while camping. The rubbish tip. In each case, Israel must “be holy.”
But the passage most relevant for us today in relation to 1 Peter, is I suspect, found in Leviticus 20. It states,
“You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.”
1 Peter: A Letter Written From the Imperial City
You see, Peter writes his epistle to the church in Asia Minor from a place he identifies as “Babylon.” Most scholars believe that he is writing from Rome, the Imperial city and the seat of Emperor Nero.
John Calvin noted that its audience is largely the early Christians of modern day Turkey, many converted Gentiles. Perhaps some are even Roman citizens.
Taking into account the date and region, it is highly likely that those in modern day Turkey were struggling with fear regarding the way the Christian faith was perceived by Roman leaders.
And perhaps, as is often the case, those Peter writes to could feel public sentiment swirling against them, as they gathered to worship and eat together. Perhaps they feared for Peter’s life. Perhaps they feared for their own.
But Peter, after witnessing firsthand what happened to Jesus, is no stranger to this kind of atmosphere. Surely the disciple who denied his rabbi three times before the rooster crowed, knows how it feels to be afraid, and also to give in to fear. He knows how it feels to deny Christ. And from his words we can detect little chance of that even happening again.
If these Christian were, in fact, struggling with fear, it would not be completely unfounded.
History tells us that in the year 67AD, Rome burned with a great fire. Some historians suggest that Nero lit the fire himself. Thousands burned to death, as this blaze raged for nine days.
‘Tacitus’ a young boy writes this Roman history down. He speaks of the followers of Christus, the founder of a group put to death as a criminal by Pontius Pilate. He says,
“Therefore, to stop the rumor [that he had set Rome on fire], [Emperor Nero] falsely charged with guilt, and punished with the most fearful tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were [generally] hated for their enormities.
… Accordingly first those were arrested who confessed they were Christians; next on their information, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city, as of “hating the human race.”
In their very deaths they were made the subjects of sport: for they were covered with the hides of wild beasts, and worried to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when the day waned, burned to serve for the evening lights. Nero offered his own garden players for the spectacle, [mingled] with the common people in the dress of a charioteer, or else standing in his chariot.
For this cause a feeling of compassion arose towards the sufferers… because they seemed not to be cut off for the public good, but were victims of the ferocity of one man.”
Tacitus suggests that Nero’s persecution caused some Roman Christians to forsake their faith and their love for one another, and to testify against each other.
We are left wondering what how they felt, as they faced their death. We don’t know the answer. We don’t know for sure what happened, or to whom.
But we do know that shortly before this, Peter tells the Christians of Asia Minor in his letter,
Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”
Peter sets the holiness of Christ as the church’s model and guide.
Within this letter Peter warns them,
“All people are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of the Lord endures forever.”
You might right ask … if this is Peter’s final manifesto, why doesn’t he invoke intelligent and subversive political maneuvers? Why doesn’t he write a manual on non-violent direct action? Why does he not encourage Christians in Asia Minor to advocate to Rome on his behalf?
Eusebius later claims that it is, in fact, Nero who orders Paul’s death.
And that it is Nero who commands Peter crucified, in his chosen position, upside down in order to honour his Lord, Jesus.
Despite this, Peter’s message in his letter is not radical.
So how do we reconcile this – that an apostle senses disquiet, and yet, there is no call to arms. There is no overthrow of the market. There is no request for political solidarity or even asylum. There is only the declaration to “be holy in all you do.”
Miroslav Volf suggests that perhaps this is the profound moment that many scholars of Peter search for. He says,
“The call to follow the crucified Messiah was, in the long run, much more effective in changing the unjust political, economic, and familial structures than direct exhortations to revolutionize them would ever have been. For an allegiance to the crucified Messiah—indeed, worship of a crucified God—is an eminently political act that subverts a politics of dominion at its very core.”
The message of 1 Peter can arguably be misread. It may even perhaps be misused by the powers that be, just as Bunyon’s text has been read in many ways, likely different from his original intention.
But the truth is that the powers that be are no match for the risen Christ.
Indeed, Volf suggests that it is within the very act of refusing to be defined by their enemy that Christians have indeed been able to live free. He says,
But how can people give up violence in the midst of a life-threatening conflict if their identity is wrapped up in rejecting the beliefs and practices of their enemies? Only those who refuse to be defined by their enemies can bless them.
Peter’s call to the church in Asia Minor is to be defined only by Christ.
And, this is indeed a radical call.
Christ and him crucified.
In the words of another ancient Christian, St Patrick, who was able to forgive his enemies. I will finish with this as a prayer for us today:
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,