Sunday, August 20, 2017

Living Hope for Family Life: Sermon on 1 Peter 3:1-7

Almost every day, the woman wept. This hadn't been the direction she wanted her life to take. This wasn't how she wanted her family to look. She'd married young – she was just a teenager then. She'd been raised as a Christian. But her husband Patricius had not. He was a town councilor and a pagan – not an especially devout pagan, but a pagan all the same. He was skeptical of her faith, resisted her pleas to baptize their children – she almost won that one when her son seemed deathly ill and he gave way, but his recovery put an end to that. And now, while that son was off at school in pagan-dominated Madauros, sliding away from the faith and into the clutches of his pubescent lusts, she was left at home in forest-bedecked Thagaste with her husband Patricius – dealing with his lusts. His constant affairs with one mistress or slave girl after another. It took all the grace God gave her to keep silence over it, both to him and to town gossips.

And his temper! He was a very enthusiastic man. Impulsive. It was his impulsiveness that led him to shower more than they had on their son's education – most men in his tax bracket wouldn't, she knew. But that same impulsiveness gave way to furious outbursts – he was intensely hot-tempered. She knew she was the only one among her friends who avoided domestic violence, but he still was verbally abusive and foul, and he beat the slave-girls. A hot-headed, adulterous pagan husband, perhaps a tad overly fond of wine... a son set adrift and with his faith in peril... and so Monica, the long-suffering wife and mother, saw nothing to do but weep in her room in Thagaste, lift up holy hands to her Father, and pray, and be patient, and strive to preach her God to them through her behavior. What else was a lady to do?

It would be nice, Monica surely thought, to all have harmonious families – to plant the flowers of Eden around every hearth. It would be a beautiful thing for the family to be all united in worshipping God and God alone, through Jesus Christ our Lord. It would be wonderful for all faults to be stripped away – for nothing to infringe on the marriage bed, for no storms of temper to roil the household peace, for no demons of criticism and fault-finding to find a place to nest, for the channels of communication to remain clear and sweet with love and forgiveness. But it's not always so. Sometimes we're not so equally yoked. Sometimes our family life seems a counsel of despair. Throughout human history, how many really happy homes have there been? And how many have seemed to be eaten up by moths until the fabric is on the verge of unraveling? It was God's plan for every home's hearth to be surrounded by the sweet flowers of Eden. But east of Eden, our families so often play host to thorn and thistle.

A few centuries before Monica was born, one of her favorite authors – the Apostle Peter – knew that all too well when he wrote his letter to the churches in Anatolia, a land far away from Monica's home forty miles inland from the north African coast. Too many of the believers in first-century Anatolia were in situations not so very unlike hers. And so for Peter, it wasn't enough to give them counsel on how to relate to governing powers, or to society at large, or to their workplaces – we covered all those last Sunday. Peter would also need to address one last locus of human living: the family. He spends only seven verses on it, but his advice has been controversial – his words can be hard to hear, hard to understand. There are a few things we should keep in mind as we read.

First, at the time when Peter wrote, women in Anatolia – Asia Minor – were relatively free, as far as the Roman world goes. Many of these women had educations, they could hold political office, they had more authority to run a household, they had rights. If you had to be a woman in the Roman Empire, well, that was one place to do it. So when Peter advises Christian wives how to behave, this is the baseline.

Second, the local Christian communities Peter was writing to – they included a significant number of female converts who, like Monica, were married to husbands like Patricius who had not converted but were pagans. And so a disproportionate number of Christian women in Peter's audience were in mixed-faith marriage situations – married to unbelievers. This was a social setting where the husband legally had life-and-death authority over all members of his household – that was the ideal of the Roman paterfamilias. And prevailing philosophy convinced men and women alike that women were inferior creatures – Aristotle said they were like deformed men – whose interests could be disregarded and who could be, to a certain extent, controlled. Things weren't quite as bad in Asia Minor as in some places, but still, domestic violence was common and abusive language, adultery, and other offenses against marriage were even more so.

Third, in the Roman world, women were expected to follow their husband's lead in religious matters. The idea of a woman adopting a foreign religion right under her husband's nose was a troublesome one to the Roman mind. One author, Plutarch, said that a woman should befriend her husband's friends, and his best friends were obviously his gods; and therefore it was necessary for every household to be united under a husband's gods and for him to take whatever measures were needed to protect that unity from any cult or superstition – which is exactly how the Romans tended to classify Christianity. So you can imagine what a problem that presented for Christian women who converted after marriage! Their faith itself was seen as a rebellion by their husbands, who would be mocked by their friends and neighbors for inability to control his household's religion.

And so when Peter writes, he has an eye firmly fixed on their situation – one where the gospel is viewed as a home-wrecker and an embarrassment. So Peter encourages the women to live up to Roman gender roles in every other way, so as to counteract the suspicion of rebelliousness their pagan husbands, or pagan onlookers at Christian marriages, might have. The things Peter writes on marriage here, he would have written differently if addressing Adam and Eve on Day Six. But Peter has to keep an eye on preserving peace, calming tensions, and evangelizing the pagan marriage partners in a non-offensive way.

So Peter says, “Likewise, wives, be subject” – that is, defer to – “your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives when they see your respectful and pure conduct” (1 Peter 3:1-2). That's exactly it. That's the goal. Even if they're in a mixed marriage with an unbeliever who doesn't obey the gospel word, the wife's respectful and pure conduct – faithful, true, without critical harping or defiance, according to Roman standards – may have the best chance to illustrate to their skeptical husbands the value of the gospel, the beauty of Christ. They're to illustrate that, while the gospel may trump their husbands' legal right to control the wife's religion, nevertheless the gospel makes them better wives than ever – so they strategically 'out-Roman' the Romans at it. And the hope is that this kind of peaceful, respectful, pure conduct will quell the storms of marriage, defuse the ticking time bombs of conflict, and perhaps even pave the way to attract their husbands to the gospel – which, as a matter of historical fact, is exactly how Christianity spread in its earliest centuries, often with women converting and then leading their households to Christ.

Again, you might remember from last week: in Peter's mind, the believers at the greatest social disadvantage are actually the ones best positioned to imitate Christ and be rewarded for it. These women, who might be mightily discouraged by their situation, should actually, Peter says, be encouraged – they have a radical opportunity to be united with their Savior, and his whole life on earth was lived to dignify their indignities. These women Peter addresses have a unique opportunity to bear witness to Christ in a non-confrontational way, and to live out what Christ's calling looks like in their difficult station in life. The wives submit to their husbands – again, that was the Roman model for marriage relationships – but not in fulfilling the expectation to worship their husbands' gods or participate in pagan rituals. These women are not to be bullied into that; they are not to be intimidated by however their husbands may react to their faith. Peter urges them to obey, not so much their husbands, but the word of God – and, as spiritual servant-leaders, to perform the priestly duty of inspiring their husbands to do the same.

Peter goes on to add, “Do not let your adorning be external – the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear – but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:3-4). A gentle and quiet spirit certainly is very precious in God's sight – and that goes for both men and women. It's the total opposite of being quarrelsome – a gentle and quiet spirit doesn't stir up trouble. But a gentle and quiet spirit also doesn't nurse resentment within, letting it build up and disturb the spirit until it finally is unleashed on the spouse. A gentle and quiet spirit turns things over to God's own gentle and quiet Spirit to deal with, and then is able to calmly address marriage and family issues at the right time, without a sense of pressure. A marriage involving truly gentle and quiet spirits is a marriage less likely to be pierced by conflicts about money, about behavioral quirks, about one another's faults and flaws.

As for what Peter says about adornment: It was trendy then for well-to-do women to imitate the latest fashions in the street, and elaborate braided hairstyles and exquisite clothes and mounds of gold baubles and jewelry were part and parcel of that. Even some pagan moralists were troubled by it – it seemed like women were in rebellion against their husbands, consuming untold household resources just to look the part of being rich and fashionable. And, truth be told, it's a common temptation today, sometimes for men and women alike: How we dress communicates something, and we might dress in a way that communicates wealth, social status, elegance, glamor, or freedom from social ties. Any fashion magazine is rife with those messages, to say nothing of our cinema and our network TV. Minus the technology, it was no different in Peter's day.

The point is, investing in those messages is a waste of God's resources. Gold, jewels, stylish clothes, fancy hair – that's not what makes someone beautiful. Real beauty radiates internally, and can last far after the clothes have been eaten by moths and the hair has fallen apart and the gold and jewels have been lost or stolen. Peter's talking about an “imperishable beauty,” the kind that radiates out from “the hidden person of the heart” where a “gentle and quiet spirit” makes its home. Instead of a wasteful message of conspicuous consumption, Peter's advice is to communicate something more human – a message of inner strength and inner beauty, which shuns the outward trappings of wealth and status and reclaims the dignity of simplicity. That's good advice for both men and women – but in Peter's day, it also was advice that would reduce marriage friction by taking away one major source of conflict. A Christian wife following this advice would be likely to make an impression for faithfulness and good sense – one that might elicit admiration for the faith that led her to it.

Peter goes on to give an example: “This is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him 'lord.' And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear any terror” (1 Peter 3:5-6). Looking back through scripture, Peter finds a precedent for the behavior he's asking of these women: it's like Sarah, the mother of the faithful. But there's actually some irony in what Peter's saying. On several of the occasions when Sarah submitted to what Abraham asked, it was precisely when Abraham was being most disobedient and skeptical toward God's word of promise: It was when Sarah was told to say she was Abraham's sister, for his protection against those who lusted after her beauty (cf. Genesis 12:11-13; 20:2). There is one occasion when Sarah refers to Abraham as 'lord,' which was a common word for husbands at that time – but when she says it, she's being sarcastic! It's when she overhears God say she'll bear a son, and she laughs while eavesdropping and scoffs at how “my lord is old” (Genesis 18:12). The only obedience Abraham asks of her there is baking some bread for the heavenly guests (Genesis 18:6). Not only does Genesis depict her obeying him, it flat-out says that “Abram obeyed the voice of Sarai” (Genesis 16:2).

Unquestioning, one-directional obedience is not Peter's vision for the ideal marriage. It can't be, because Peter knows how to read, and that's not what the relationship between Abraham and Sarah was like. Sarah submitted to Abraham, treated him with all the deference due to a husband in her culture; she was loyal and faithful to him whatever happened, even when he wasn't being terribly bright; she did as he asked, but also gave him advice and received his obedience in return.

She never let Abraham's authority intimidate her, nor did she let herself be cowed by the perilous situations they got into. But instead, her faith grew alongside his, so that from her former state of scoffing, she learned how to entrust herself totally to God. The both of them did – and so Sarah is described as a holy woman who “hoped in God” – her lifestyle, her conduct in marriage, were a display of her living hope in a living God. And to the Christian women who similarly respected and deferred to their husbands without being intimidated or fearful, but who instead persisted in good conduct and good faith, Peter holds out the majestic title of being Sarah's children, Sarah's heirs – the daughters of the divine promise. Now that's an adornment far richer than any display of jewelry, diamonds, or glamorous gowns.

After Peter's said all this – and it's noteworthy that he addresses these women directly, which was uncommon, since moralists of the time tended to talk about women a lot more than to women in their works – only after he's said all this does Peter turn his attention firmly to the men, the husbands, who have converted and thus likely belong to united Christian households. (That's not necessarily a sure thing – Paul mentions some households in Corinth where husbands believe but their wives don't [1 Corinthians 7:13]. But in Peter's setting, if the husband was a believer, odds are strong the wife and kids followed.)

And Peter tells them: “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives with knowledge, honoring her as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7). That language – 'weaker vessel' – has been a big sticking point for a lot of people in recent years. But Peter just means that, on average, the women he's been talking to were less physically strong than their husbands. And that's why they were so vulnerable to domestic abuse – which is exactly what Peter is ruling out here.

See, to many pagan husbands, the fact that the woman was “the weaker vessel” was a license to bully them – since the woman was weaker, she mattered less and deserved less respect than his male peers. Peter's turning it on its head: If a man's wife is “the weaker vessel,” as they used to say, then she deserves greater respect and greater honor. There's no license to bully here; Peter is explicitly revoking that license in his commands to the men. Once, they treated their wives callously and disrespectfully in ignorance, regarding them as little better than servants. But now that they've encountered Jesus in their lives, now that the light of God has fallen on them, they have an obligation to live with their wives with knowledge – knowledge of God, and knowledge of their wives as God's image-bearers and, as Peter says, “heirs with you of the grace of life.”

That may be one of the most exalted things anybody had said about women up to that point in time. Peter is pointedly reminding Christian husbands that their wives are their spiritual equals, fellow recipients of unearned grace that yields life and living hope. These husbands are obligated by God to treat their wives respectfully as equal partners. Peter tells the husbands to 'honor' their wives – just as they have to honor the king and governor and municipal authorities. Anything less will hinder their prayers, detain them short of heaven, tie them to earth (or lower) with a short leash. Those who ignore their wives and disregard them will find, in short, that their prayers are similarly ignored and disregarded by God. And that's serious business! There's no excuse here for domineering behavior, or an “I'm the boss” mentality, or any of the similar ways Peter's language has been sadly perverted over the years. The simple fact is that these husbands are to illustrate to their wives how Christ cherishes his church, like Paul says (cf. Ephesians 5:21-33).

All good for Peter's time. But what does it mean for ours? Peter's advice is so thoroughly tailored to the lives of families in his world; does he have anything to say to ours? I would say yes, he does. He shows that there is a clear and definite way to display living hope for our family lives. There is a way to plant a few flowers of Eden around your family hearth. But it requires mutual respect and consideration: Wives and husbands putting one another's needs, and the family's needs, before their own; wives and husbands deferring to each other where they can, being reasonable toward each other, speaking kindly to one another, exhibiting gentleness and a quiet spirit toward each other. Try it – you might find it nips a lot of arguments in the bud.

Peter encourages us to focus less on accessories – less on material goods, on things to buy, things to own, less on our building projects or on our income – and more on one another. Less time at work, more time with the family. Less expenditure on flashy things, and more focus on character formation. We're to build one another up, encourage each other, praise the good in each other. But our focus is on correcting ourselves, not each other, in a marriage. Peter never says to the men, “Husbands, make your wife submit.” Nor does he tell the women, “Wives, criticize your husband until he honors you.” Peter's words are not weapons to be employed against each other; they're a way to heal, not to destroy.

Peter urges us to win one another over with love, not with arguing, and with an ultimate focus on winning one another, not to our 'side,' but to Christ. If you're wondering how things turned out with Monica, it went well. The surviving description of her life says “she busied herself to gain him to [God], preaching [God] unto [Patricius] by her behavior” – and she did. She offered “the witness of the fruits of a holy life.” As a result, a year before his death, her husband Patricius was baptized into the faith and changed from his former adulterous and violent ways. Having submitted to her husband, Monica's patience “brought forth fruit unto God” and won him for the kingdom.

As for her wayward son, who did abandon his Christian upbringing for years, her prayers prevailed there, too. Monica was certainly diligent – not just praying at home, not just going to church every Sunday, but going twice every day, and praying for her wayward son with many tears. She eventually pursued him across the sea to Italy to minister to him. As a result, he became, not only a Christian, but a bishop; and not only a bishop, but one of the greatest Christian thinkers in history, St. Augustine of Hippo. And he always gave ample credit to the prayerful witness of his mother, St. Monica, whose obedience to Peter's words changed not just his life, but the whole world, long after she fell ill and died at the age of fifty-six.

That's the power of living hope for family life. In the end, Patricius became, like Monica, an heir of the grace of life. And for his final year, they were a model Christian couple – surely not perfect, but a breath of fresh air for all their neighbors, no doubt, who were accustomed to something so much less in their own lives. What Peter advises for us today, in the end, is this: If your spouse isn't an active believer, isn't committed to the God of the church, then don't draw back. Be the marriage partner in whose conduct your spouse can see the life-changing beauty of Jesus Christ. Submit as Jesus submitted in this world; display a gentle and quiet spirit like his; give honor to all, including your spouse – especially your spouse.

And if your spouse is an active believer, then together, be a couple who strive to recapture the harmony of Eden, by God's grace. Build a marriage, build a family, where others can see the beauty of Jesus in your relationship. Aim for a marriage and a family that can unite in common prayer, with no impediments to your love for one another or for God – nothing holding you or your prayers back. This isn't my marriage wisdom, of which I, a bachelor, have none. No, more to the point, this is God's marriage wisdom – so, unlike opinions mine or yours, it matters. Apply it in faith and in living hope.

And if you aren't in a marriage, then devote yourself to Christ and to the encouragement and support of the marriages around you – they might need it. But whatever situation you're in, live as an heir of the grace of life. Invest your singleness, your widowhood, or your marriage into the Greater Marriage: the impending nuptials of Christ and his Church. For “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” on the cross (Ephesians 5:25), and the Church in turn honors and loves the risen Christ in godly submission (Ephesians 5:24). He died for her and rose again for her, and the Church is waiting for the day when her Bridegroom returns for her. She waits – we wait – with living hope, and any marriage here is meant to be a living parable of Christ and his Church. “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb [will soon] come, and his Bride [is making] herself ready” (Revelation 19:6-7). Thanks be to God. Amen.

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