Everyone wants to be chosen, especially those who feel marginalized or undervalued. Many of us remember what it feels like to be the last one chosen in a pickup game of basketball or uninvited to the school party.
Sometimes we feel like outsiders, and sometimes we are treated like outsiders. Sometimes we simply are outsiders.
Yet, though unchosen by others, we are chosen by God.
Peter opens his circular letter to the “elect” (chosen) of what is now modern Turkey like any other letter in the ancient word:
- Identification of the author: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ.”
- Recipients: to the “elect exiles dispersed” throughout northern and western Anatolia (modern Turkey).
- Greeting: “may grace and peace be multiplied among you.”
While the form is typical, Peter’s language and further elaboration illuminates the pastoral focus of his letter.
The community is described as both exiled and chosen. They are both rejected and embraced. This is central to understanding how, as Peter puts it, this letter testifies to the “true grace of God” (1 Peter 5:12).
The community lives an exiled existence as aliens (foreigners) in cities throughout the Anatolian peninsula. Though settled in these Roman provinces, like Abraham before them, they are “sojourners and aliens” (paroikos kai parepidemos, Genesis 23:4). Peter uses both terms in this letter (paroikos in 1:17, 2:11; and parepidemos in 1:1; 2:11). Specifically, the term parepidemos (foreigners, aliens) refers to one who is not a citizen, and consequently those who are citizens view a parepidemos with suspicion, fear, and often hostility.
This is a displaced existence. The letter’s recipients are part of the Dispersion (NRSV) or Diaspora (1:1). Technically, in the first century, this describes ethnic Jews who no longer live in Palestine, their homeland. Combined with the language of exile and the use of “Babylon” as a metaphor for Rome (1 Peter 5:12), Peter addresses the people of God scattered among the provinces of Roman power and culture. This is not their home. They are exiles, foreigners, or aliens.
They are “resident aliens” (to use the title of significant book as well as The Epistle to Diognetus [5:4-5] in the second century). Their lives are different, and their relationship with Roman power and culture is different. Their community is a living contrast with their surrounding environment, and this creates tension in the communities where they live. So much so that the peaceful existence they desire is threatened by violence, incarceration, and local hostility. They suffer for the sake of Christ.
In other words, their “alien” status is not a contrast between earthly existence and heavenly hope, between present life and eternal life. Rather, it is their social location as a community whose values and interests are out of sync with the surrounding culture. They stick out like a sore thumb. They are regarded as “strange” or weird because they do not engage in the practices of their neighbors (1 Peter 4:4) or participate in the civil religion of the Empire like good citizens.
As a community, they are despised and rejected, much like the servant of Isaiah 53 (to which 1 Peter 2:21-22 appeals). They face intense questioning, hostility, and mockery from their culture. They are marginalized and oppressed. They are aliens in a culture that does not like aliens.
This is an alarming picture. This kind of life might generate a sense of unworthiness. Living on the margins, especially when the culture is hostile, might generate some questions about whether God also dislikes them. How might an alien feel beloved?
They are elect, chosen! Rejected by culture, they are chosen by God. Marginalized by culture, they are at the center of God’s project to redeem the world. They are God’s elect through whom God will transform the world.
Peter characterizes this election with three phrases:
- according (kata) to the foreknowledge of God the Father
- by/in (en) the sanctification of the Spirit
- unto (eis) the obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus the Messiah
The triune nature of this statement is immediately obvious, though the order is rather unusual (even in Scripture, much less in the tradition of the church): Father, Spirit, and Jesus.
We are elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. Whatever this may mean (and there are historic debates about the relationship between foreknowledge and election), it at least means that God was focused on our election long before we were. Our status is a gift of grace driven by God rather than us. God takes the initiative in our salvation. We did not start the ball rolling. Instead, God has been moving toward this moment from the beginning. We are not an afterthought in God’s eternal purposes; we are the objects of God’s election.
We are elect by the sanctification of the Spirit. Sanctification may refer to the moment we were made saints (that is, we were set apart or consecrated at our conversion), or it may refer to the long process of becoming like Christ in our lives (that is, becoming holy as God is holy), or it may refer to God’s completed work in the end (that is, when God fully perfects us). Since the work of the Spirit here moves us toward obedience and the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus, it probably refers to the initial work of the Spirit in separating us or setting us apart. But perhaps Peter has something broader in mind analogous to: “living in the space sanctified by the Spirit.” In other words, though we are exiles amidst the kingdoms of this world, God has gathered us as a people who live in the holy space of God’s Spirit. Living in the Spirit, we live in sanctified space, beloved by God. The Spirit consecrates us to God and separates us from the world. This is part of what it means to be one of God’s elect. Consequently, though exiles and aliens in a culture infused with hostility toward God, the elect live in space sanctified by God.
We are elect unto the obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus. Though a difficult phrase, it does represent movement toward a goal. We are elect on the ground of the Father’s foreknowledge, and we are elect through the consecration of the Spirit. Our election has a goal, that is, to lead us to obedience to the covenant and the sprinkling of the blood of the covenant, which is the forgiveness of sins. The language probably echoes Exodus 24:4-8 where Israel entered into covenant through a pledge of obedience and a sprinkling of the blood. So, we are elect toward the goal of obedience and the cleansing reality of the blood of Jesus. Obedience, then, is part of the conversion narrative where we experience our election because of the work of the Father, Spirit, and Son. And obedience is also part of our ongoing life in the Spirit. We are elect so that we might become obedient people as a people holy to God. The sprinkled blood of the Lamb continually cleanses us as we progressively become what God has called us to be, that is, “You be holy as I am holy.”
The Father foreknows. The Spirit sanctifies. The Son cleanses. The Father, Son, and Spirit together participate in the movement to redeem humanity. We are elect because of what God has done for us, and our response is obedience as we live in the sanctified air of the Spirit, gracious predisposition of the Father, and the sprinkled blood of the Messiah.
Elect, but exiled. Foreigners, but chosen.
The echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures abound here. This is Israel’s story–they are elect exiles scattered among the nations. They were exiled, yet loved (Malachi 1:1-4). They were despised by the nations but the apple of God’s own eye.
The elect scattered among the provinces of Anatolia occupy the same space as Israel: exiled but chosen. Standing in the grace of God, they are a displaced, but chosen, people.
This is our story: we are aliens in an increasingly post-Christian culture.
This is our joy: we are chosen; we are loved….foreknown by the Father, sanctified by the Spirit, and sprinkled with the blood of Jesus.