Dennis R. Edwards on 1 Peter and Good Shepherd Sunday
For lectionary Year A, Good Shepherd Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Easter, includes a reading from 1 Peter. New Testament scholar Dennis R. Edwards explains why Peter’s first letter is especially relevant as people deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dennis R. Edwards teaches New Testament at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois. Ordained through the Evangelical Covenant Church, he has planted and pastored churches and authored 1 Peter (The Story of God Bible Commentary), What Is the Bible and How Do We Understand It?, and the forthcoming Might from the Margins: The Gospel’s Power to Turn the Tables on Injustice. In this edited conversation, Edwards explores key themes in Peter’s first letter.
Why is 1 Peter especially relevant now in this time of COVID-19?
1 Peter is directed to people who are suffering. They’re not suffering because of a pandemic, but they are nevertheless disoriented. Right at the start (1:5–6), Peter points out how his readers are suffering “various trials” as they await ultimate salvation. In the meantime, they are trusting in God’s protective power. Even if their bodies suffer, their souls are secure with God.
Furthermore, in our time of COVID-19 lockdowns, our conversations are happening primarily in cyberspace, where people notoriously feel free to be snarky, dismissive, and downright rude. Peter reminds his readers how we should relate to those within the community of faith as well as those outside the community. Love, with its practical outworking of unity, humility, and hospitality, must be supreme among the believers (1:22; 3:8; 4:8–9). Our upright behavior communicates the good news of Jesus to onlookers (2:11–12; 3:15).
What else does 1 Peter say about how our behavior can communicate the good news of Jesus?
Peter knows that his people are not the only ones suffering (5:9). We can certainly relate in that people all over the world are suffering—and some much more than others because of the vulnerable position they were already in. 1 Peter also helps us to understand that suffering is not permanent (5:10), and it surely does not accompany us beyond this life (4:7).
1 Peter teaches us that during times of suffering and disorientation, our posture should be one of prayer, love, and service (4:7–11). Prayer, love, and service appear differently for different people at various times and in diverse places, but the impact should be the same: to bring God glory (4:11).
Also, regarding prayer, we can take all our anxiety (about the coronavirus or anything else) and toss it onto God (5:7). The verb there is used to describe placing a load on a beast of burden. In essence, the Lord is ready to take on our heavy loads, to relieve us of our worries because he cares for us.
What cautions do you see for preachers in 1 Peter, especially in chapter 2?
We must always make sure in our preaching not to neglect historical context. For example, Peter commands the Christian community to show deference to the emperor and the state (2:13–17). The Christians to whom Peter wrote were in a vulnerable place and needed to take care not to bring the wrath of Rome upon them. They still needed to obey God rather than humans (Acts 5:29), but they also needed to do all they could to keep society from hating and harming them.
Peter’s instructions in 2:13–17 do not suggest blind allegiance to the state, nor do the words to slaves in 2:19–25 mean that slavery is God’s will. Peter advises his readers in order to minimize the wrath of unjust structures. The word to slaves to bear up under “unjust” suffering (2:19) is reminiscent of African Americans and other marginalized people telling their children to be extra-well behaved to avoid the scrutiny of law enforcement or of the dominant culture in general. In other words, “driving while black” could be enough to get some people pulled over. And even within the injustice of that, it is wise for the black driver to endure the injustice so that life can be spared. Peter does not validate the evil being done to his people—he uses the word “unjust”—but his pastoral concern is the well-being of his readers.
In Peter’s view, how should victims of injustice respond?
When victims of injustice refuse to retaliate with violence, they demonstrate Christlikeness (2:21–24). Indeed, the most vulnerable in society are often our best exemplars of Christian faith. My caution to preachers is not to preach 2:13–17 or 2:19–25 as endorsements of injustice or incompetent leadership. Rather, those verses present a strategy for survival when in a vulnerable position within an unjust society.
The COVID-19 situation is exposing injustices in US healthcare in that African Americans are being infected and dying at higher rates in Detroit, Chicago, and elsewhere. People who are already in vulnerable positions are being hit even harder by this new coronavirus.
What are you learning about 1 Peter and the Good Shepherd as you teach this material?
At the seminary, I mainly teach basic New Testament classes. Although I can weave in themes from 1 Peter, we don’t have any classes that specialize in his letters. But I’m pretty ecumenical and often teach and preach in many kinds of churches. COVID-19 lockdowns have postponed an opportunity for me to do a longer set of adult education classes on 1 Peter.
I like the hopefulness of the Good Shepherd imagery in 1 Peter. The Good Shepherd watches over us (2:25) so that even in our suffering we are never outside of his watchful eye. This does not mean suffering disappears. 1 Peter is clear that suffering is part of life—and perhaps especially so for followers of Jesus. Yet we are always under the Lord’s care, which extends to our souls and not just our bodies.
The Good Shepherd has shared our human existence and hence understands what we go through (2:21–24). He knows what it means to suffer (5:1).
The Good Shepherd is our ultimate example of humble leadership. In the way that Jesus took on the role of a slave by washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:1–20), we are called to “clothe ourselves with humility” (5:5). And I’ll reiterate: The Good Shepherd cares for us, so we can give him all of our worries (5:7).
Read 1 Peter (The Story of God Bible Commentary) by Dennis R. Edwards. Some denominations also observe the fourth Sunday of Easter as Vocations Sunday. Look to Hymnary.org for hymns related to 1 Peter 2:19–25 and other Good Shepherd Sunday lectionary readings.