Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bible Reading: 1 Peter 1:1-2

1. Peter, an Apostle of Jesus Christ, to the sojourners of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynai, chosen 2. unto the sanctification of the Spirit according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, unto obedience to Jesus Christ and the sprinkling of his blood: grace and peace be given to you in abundance.

It is important for any well formed Catholic and any serious Christian scholar to study and comprehend the writings of Peter. Because they are only the two Epistles (letters) and not as numerous as the writings of Paul, people tend to forget that these are the words of St. Peter, the first Pope, the actual person who Jesus named his rock and the shepherd of his people. So I hope to use a few exercises here to help you better savor and appreciate what information Peter is conveying. As I've been blogging about, reasoning skills are less developed today than they ever have been, and the reading of a communication such as this is an example.

This verse, 1 Peter 1:1-2 is simply the "Dear...." part of a letter. An Epistle is a written letter, and the opening several lines are what most people would think of today as the "Dear..." in a personal letter, or the "To:.... with cc:...." in a business memo.

But you must also realize that in what seems to be elaborate and floral wording, there is also much of the "From:.... with titles" and "For:...." (where a letter is written on behalf of someone else). You can see with careful study that while this is a letter from Peter, he is very mindful that he is writing on "behalf" of Jesus Christ, as he is the first Vicar of Jesus Christ.

Peter is humble, as are the Vicars of Christ, for he calls himself "Peter, an Apostle of Jesus Christ." He does not call himself "the" Apostle, or the "number one" Apostle. But this does not mean he is not mindful of his role. How do we know? Because he inserts the phrase "unto obedience to Jesus Christ." He is stating in his opening that he, Peter, is corresponding "unto obedience to Jesus Christ." In other words, Peter is obediently performing his role as shepherd as mandated by Jesus Christ himself.

This letter was written in the last years of Peter's life, for he would be martyred within a year of his letter being written in the latter part of the year 63 AD or the beginning of 64 AD. So you can think of this letter as being written around 30 years after Jesus was crucified and resurrected, and thus during Peter's last several years in his "reign" as first Pope. The Christian faith in the first few years was not at all a "written" type of faith, because like most of society in general, it was verbal and "in person." The first Apostles and disciples, obviously, were struggling to spread the word of Jesus Christ and the New Covenant AND trying to stay alive long enough to do so. While the Apostles and disciples did not run from martyrdom, they had to have a sensible balance of staying alive long enough to establish the Church as Jesus Christ had instructed them, and to put into place the clergy and succession for the next generations. So it is not a coincidence that as the persecutions under Nero increased that Peter put "pen to paper," while he had not done so before. 2 Peter is written several years later, while he is in prison, and he knows that he will soon be put to death as a martyr. So these are the two writings that the Bible has that were written by Peter's own hand and contain his thoughts toward the end of his Pontificate.

Peter gives himself the title and identifier of "Peter, an Apostle of Jesus Christ." He gives the identifiers of his audience as being people in "Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia," but please note that he gives them a title, an honorific too. He calls them "the sojourners of the Dispersion." This is a profound title, connecting the early Christians firmly to their Jewish roots in the Israelite history AND the forthcoming kingdom of God to come, manifested in the body of the Church present. How do we know this? First of all, the word "sojourner" refers to someone who while settled and living in a place is doing so on a somewhat temporary basis in the long run. It is like someone who has a home, but while waiting for their true home. But even more important is that this is an actual historic title given to Jews by the Jews themselves. "The sojourners of the Dispersion" is how Jews referred to themselves as they live in lands outside of Palestine. Jews already called those who lived outside the "holy land" as being part of the "dispersed." This term was already in existence before the final destruction of the Temple, which was still in the future when Peter wrote this. So Peter is affectionately using a term for the dispersed Christians that Jews, such as himself, had used to describe Jews who lived on the edges and beyond of the holy ancestral land.

Understanding this mindset and cultural "shorthand," you can now click to seeing that not only is Peter drawing an affectionate parallel between dispersed Jews, who are still in spiritual community, and dispersed first Christians, who are in spiritual community, but he is also alluding to the group of dispersed Christians as being the "sojourners" of the body of Christ, which will one day be part of the heavenly abode. Peter is basically saying, "earthly flock, no matter how far away you are, as we the flock await our permanent heavenly home."

See, you must understand the context of the Old Testament and Jewish culture in order to extract the maximum understanding of each phrase that the Gospel writers utilize. They are using a combination of theologically significant wording AND "home town" talk and lingo. It reminds me of why I am so fond of Yiddish. Yiddish words convey such precision and layered meaning that you cannot find in the Hebrew, German or English vernacular. With four words, "sojourners of the Dispersion," Peter conveys a remarkable vision that spans Israel faith history, the current birth of the Christian Church, and the current hope for the future abode with God.

Next, Peter lists the "from in behalf of" section. He greets fellow Christians "unto the sanctification of the Spirit" (the Holy Spirit), "according to the foreknowledge of God the Father" (God), and "unto obedience to Jesus Christ." Wow! If you think about it this is a powerful theological lesson and statement of Creed packed into part of a single sentence. Peter is reminding the readers that Christians are sanctified by the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit having been sent by God in foreknowledge of the charisms that the faithful will require, and that the faithful act in obedience to Jesus Christ. Peter is reminding the readers of the letter that they are performing within the Holy Spirit's sanctification, obeying the words of Jesus Christ, all as are given in accordance to God's will.

Dear friends, sometimes people who are anti-Catholic are so very harsh and so they harm their own charity and limit their learning. They rail that "the Bible doesn't use the word Trinity" and attack the Catholic Church for "adding to the Bible." If you read the letter of Peter with any charity and wisdom you will understand that the Gospel and the Epistles was not a vocabulary creation exercise. It was the very beginning of Jesus, the Apostles and the disciples explaining the concepts, not making up shorthand. Peter, as shepherd and Vicar to Jesus Christ, uses words to teach, not to get through writing the letter quickly. It would never occur to him to use a word of convenience, like "The Trinity," just as they are beginning to teach far flung Christians how to be formed in their faith. It is fine for the Church to develop words that convey a totality of meaning concisely; that is not being "outside of Bible."

It makes me think that if I ever speak to someone who attacks our use of the word "Trinity," but who quotes the Bible day and night as their personal justification, that I would insert the words "1 Peter 1 verse 2 unto the sanctification of the Spirit according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, unto obedience to Jesus Christ" wherever I might have used the word "Trinity" when speaking to them. What if I had to mention the Trinity thirty or forty times? Ha, ha, I would make them sit through the entire passage from Peter thirty or forty times.

Notice that as part of what is still this greeting and opening to the actual letter, Peter states "unto obedience to Jesus Christ and the sprinkling of his blood." He is about to give them in an invocation, "grace and peace be given you in abundance." The meaning of that is obvious. But realize that Peter has invoked the Spirit, God the Father, and Jesus Christ before giving the invocation AND he is giving a very specific metaphor about the power of Jesus Christ.

A metaphor is like an analogy. We know this is an analogy because while Jesus Christ did "shed his blood," his blood was never actually sprinkled in either ritual or literal actions. So what does Peter mean to mention the "sprinkling" of his blood, rather than a more generic term for bloodshed? Peter, a Jew, is basically quoting from the Torah and drawing a direct parallel that is absolutely as clear as can be, regarding the New Covenant springing from the Old Covenant.

Exodus 25: 5-8

Then, having sent certain young men of the Israelites to offer holocausts and sacrifice young bulls as peace offerings to the Lord, Moses took half of the blood and put it in large bowls; the other half he splashed on the altar. Taking the Book of the Covenant, he read it aloud to the people, who answered, "All that the Lord has said, we will heed and do." Then he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying, "This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words of his."

There is not a Jew alive who would not have understood very clearly what the expression "the sprinkling of his blood" referred to. Without writing an unnecessary explanation, Peter used the very phrase that Jews would have understood perfectly clearly to convey that just as Moses sprinkled blood from the offerings to the Lord to confirm the Covenant with God, likewise the shedding of the blood of Jesus through his death and resurrection confirms the New Covenant with God. Gentiles who became Christians would have had this Torah (Old Testament) meaning explained to them by evangelizers such as St. Paul.

Just as an aside, you can see here that St. Peter's use of the metaphor of the sprinkling of blood to dedicate the altar of the Covenant, as you can read Moses literally, not symbolically, performed is in direct obedience to the instructions of Jesus that the consecrated wine is his blood literally, and not symbolically. There are many references to what Catholics call the Real Presence of the body and blood of Jesus in the bread and wine, if only, like I showed with the "Trinity" example, the readers are truly reading and comprehending ALL the words of the Holy Scripture. Peter, the first Vicar of Jesus Christ, invokes the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ as the source and authority for his blessing for "grace and peace be given you in abundance."

I hope you find this helpful. The next passages in 1 Peter 1 were cited by the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI during his Apostolic visit to the USA last week.