1 Peter 1 : 13 - 16
Verses 13 – 16 - 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. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”
Christians are meant to be mentally ‘switched on’. I suppose that Christians today are thought to be weak-minded, dreamers and in retreat from reality. The language of Christian worship is esoteric. The prayers and incantations seem at odds with tech savvy people, almost perpetually online in one form or another. Elon Musk thinks that we are already cyborgs. A cyborg is a human whose skills and abilities exceed those of others because of electrical or mechanical elements built into the body. People with heart valves, cochlear implants and insulin pumps might also be called cyborgs. Much of the human race are already grafted on to mobile phones with avatar personalities and identities different from their actuality. Rich parents with disabled children are exploring means to implant technological corrections to brain functions in order to correct inherited disabilities.
This is not what Peter was thinking about. He couples the words ‘alert and fully sober’. Was there drunkenness in the early Church? Maybe there was an enjoyment of wine. This was not scripturally prohibited. Psalm 104 : 15 describes ‘wine that gladdens human hearts’. Jesus was called a ‘glutton and a drunkard’ (Luke 7 : 3). He produced the bevvy for a wedding reception (John 2 : 3 - 10). Even ascetic Paul advised Timothy ‘Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses’. (1 Timothy 5 : 23) It could be argued however that this was for medicinal purposes. That justification persists to this day and now is used to defend the taking of the hallucinogenic drug cannabis.
Sobriety has a particular history within Christianity. Methodists and Quakers were mostly tea teetotallers. Church of Scotland ministers never were. To this day many like a dram of whisky. One of the ministers of Aberchirder in Aberdeenshire even had an illicit still (distillery) in the basement of his manse. The Independent Order of Rechabites was founded in England in 1835 as part of the wider temperance movement to promote total abstinence from alcoholic beverages. Rechabites took their name from the ancient Israelite sect founded by Rechab. He was a zealot for the God of Israel in the time of King Jehu (841 – 814 BC) and had countered and eliminated King Ahab’s apostasy. His son Jehonadab forbade his descendants to drink wine or to live in cities. They were commanded to always lead a nomadic life. Temperance movements sprang up in the 18th and 19th centuries, mainly in Protestant communities and nations. The Band of Hope began in Leeds in 1847, inspired by a Baptist Minister called Jabez Tunnicliffe along with a Presbyterian woman called Jane Ann Carlile. It sought to teach children about the dangers of alcohol and persuade them to adopt abstinence for life. It is now called Hope UK and seeks to educate children in drug and alcohol awareness.
The Roman Catholic Church has had no equivalent. Priests and hierarchy have long been associated with the consumption of alcohol and Roman Catholic church halls are often premises licensed to serve alcohol. Church of Scotland halls, in contrast, were never allowed to have alcohol on their premises. Some reprobate elders would get round this injunction by having alcohol in the boots of their cars in the church car park. The apotheosis of the temperance movement was reached in America in early 20thC America. It was called Prohibition. This was a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages and it lasted from 1920 to 1933. Pietistic Protestants, aimed to heal what they saw as an ill society beset by alcohol-related problems such as alcoholism, family violence and saloon-based political corruption. However, Prohibition drove alcohol sales underground and resulted in Mafia expansion with attendant increased political corruption and violence.
Alcohol remains a grievous societal problem in Scotland and in other parts of the world. There were 1020 alcohol related deaths in Scotland in 2020, an increase of 17% over 2019. There is no obvious correlation between countries with the highest per capita consumption rates for alcohol. These are Czechia, Latvia, Moldova, Germany, Lithuania, Ireland, Spain, Uganda, Bulgaria, and Luxembourg. Alcohol advertising is a global business infecting everyday life, business, entertainment and sport. The image of the drunken Scot has not gone away though there are many fewer sightings of working class men weaving their way home from pubs on Friday nights. The more common sights are of young women leaving night clubs tottering on high heels, a significant danger to themselves.
Should then Christians abstain from alcohol? The answer is probably ‘Yes’. However, some hold that a glass of wine with a meal is no sin and is to be welcomed. Christians probably should not frequent public houses. Cultural differences matter. The English village pub is a civilised place where food is served. The traditional Scottish pub has almost disappeared but some remain for the sole purposes of consuming alcohol on a serial basis. No-one can justify this. Christians should not need the mind altering artificial stimulus that alcohol provides. Getting drunk on the Holy Spirit is a better way to live. There are no dangerous side effects and relationships, marriages and careers are not at risk. Perhaps the wine that Jesus provided in large quantities at Cana was grape wine. Or at least of low alcohol content. ‘Alert and sober’ may seem dull and Presbyterian. But it is good advice for life. Peter’s Christianity was filled with spiritual joy. No-one who truly knows Jesus Christ needs alcohol in their life.
Peter writes ‘set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming’. Christians are on the winning side on the day of Jesus Christ’s appearing. This is the opposite of our status on earth, in the world, as part of societies and nations with no love for God. God’s good will and favour will be made explicit. This grace is also part of the Christian’s everyday experience. It is also how Jesus Christ reveals himself to those who begin to believe in him, follow him, commit to him, witness to him and declare him to be Lord. Only in this sense has Jesus appeared.
Peter writes ‘As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance’. Obedient is not a word much heard in family life or educational circles or in society more generally today describing children. Self-affirmation and future achievement are promoted. Creativity and imagination are prized. Conformity is not. Obedience is more commonly found among dog trainers where it is much valued and indeed the end point of the exercise. Obedience in children is a means to an end, that is, a future successful life based on keeping rules and norms. Jesus was an obedient child. ‘And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man’. (Luke 2 : 52) But he was not an obedient adult, at least as far as contemporary Judaism was concerned. ‘No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” Christianity is the new garment. Christianity is the new wine. Jesus was, however, obedient to his Father. ‘And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!’ (Philippians 2 : 8)
Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) was a monk. He kept his vow of poverty, obedience and chastity - for a time. But he broke this vow. He became disobedient to the Church. He left the monastery and got married to a woman called Katherine who had been a nun. He never became rich but he did have a home and a family life. Luther was not an apostate, a reprobate who had given up his Christian Faith. His rebellion was against the obvious institutional corruption of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. He based his understanding of Christianity on the Bible, especially the book of Romans 3 : 28 - Paul’s teaching on justification by faith. Thus the Reformation was born and Protestantism formed. In every age and generation, people have ‘pushed the boat out’ and sought change and advancement in all fields of human endeavour by refusing to accept the understanding and practice of the day. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 - 1543) was a Renaissance mathematician, astronomer, and Catholic canon, who formulated a model of the universe that placed the Sun rather than Earth at its centre. This was heresy since it contradicted the Biblical teaching that the earth was at the centre of creation. ‘In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun...It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other’. (Psalm 19 : 5 -6) But Copernicus’s discovery proved to be the beginning of the modern scientific understanding of the world. Science proceeds by debunking previous knowledge and replacing it with new knowledge.
Peter is writing about moral obedience. He is talking to people who had not had the benefit of knowing the Law, the Ten Commandments, the Hebrew Bible. It was their ignorance which caused their immorality. No doubt this included sexual immorality but it was more broadly based including greed and dishonesty, violence and idolatry. Just the natural condition of human nature in every generation. These characteristics are found in our society today in spite of being informed by centuries of Christianity. Even if there never was a golden age of Christian perfection in our land there was an acknowledgement of a gold standard of behaviour in Jesus Christ to which we might at least aspire and by which we may judge our conduct. In our time this gold standard has been brought down and trampled over by the general agnosticism of the age, by self obsession and by promotion of minority and micro minority lifestyles as the new norm. The permissive society of the 1960’s ushered in an age of disobedience towards Judaeo-Christian ethics and understanding.
Evil desires abound. They are advertised, promoted and encouraged throughout society, largely in connection with money-making. Some argue that the West, that is Europe and America is decadent. Vladimir Putin has thought that for some time. He thinks that his dictatorship in partnership with the Russian Orthodox Church is not decadent. He is the epitome of ‘evil desires’ in his invasion of Ukraine and Patriarch Kirill betrays Jesus Christ in justifying Putin’s war. Every human life has evil desires from time to time. Christianity offers the means of overcoming these. Christianity offers healing and redemption and a new beginning in the personal company of the Risen Jesus Christ.
And so Peter proceeds to discuss being ‘holy’. In our culture ‘holy’ is not a good word. It is associated with insults such as ‘holy rollers’ and Robert Burns’ ‘Holy Willie’. Holy in this sense means suffocatingly pious, oppressive and judgemental of others. But it also reflects the core meaning of ‘holy’ which is ‘different’ and ‘separate’. The Old Testament People of God were called to be distinct, holy, different from those around them in that area at that time and in that culture. The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.”’ (Leviticus 19 : 2) This is repeated in Leviticus 20 : 26, ‘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’. The Psalms continue the theme. ‘Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idol or swear by a false god’. (Psalm 24 : 3 – 4) The Prophet Isaiah had a significant experience of God’s holiness. ‘In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”’ (6 : 1 – 3) This awesome vision is mitigated by Isaiah in 57 : 15. ‘For this is what the high and exalted One says— he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite’. (57 : 15). Thus the very ‘different’ God does not keep His distance with mere human beings. He engages with us, lives alongside and even within us, if we welcome him. The Christmas Carol ‘O come all ye faithful’ encapsulates this incarnational truth. ‘Lo! he abhors not the Virgin’s womb’. John the Baptist appeared as an ascetic, a holy man. ‘John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey’. (Matthew 3 : 3) Jesus was not so styled however being identified by warmth, compassion and effective healing love.
Peter was looking for high standards of personal conduct distinct from those of non-Christians. Jesus, impossibly had asked his disciples to ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’. (Matthew 5 : 48). Many centuries later these words inspired 19th century Methodists in England to seek to fulfil them. The Holiness Movement was defined by its view of personal sin, and emphasis on the doctrine of a second work of grace generally called entire sanctification or Christian perfection. For the Holiness Movement today the term 'perfection' signifies completeness of Christian character, its freedom from all sin and possession of all the graces of the Spirit’. Main line denominations such as the Church of Scotland and Church of England do not espouse holiness in this sense. Neither does the Roman Catholic Church. Acknowledgement of sinfulness and trust in forgiveness through Word and Sacrament are as far as they go. Peter was more ambitious. The Book of Revelation has a verse which makes an interesting distinction. ‘Then he told me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near. Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong; let the vile person continue to be vile; let the one who does right continue to do right; and let the holy person continue to be holy’’. (22 : 11) A good person, even a just person, may not be a holy person. The latter must be a Christian in whom the very embodiment of God’s holiness is visible. Catholics call the Pope ‘the holy Father’. No-one calls the Moderator ‘the holy Moderator’ nor does anyone call an Anglican Archbishop ‘the holy Archbishop’. But Pentcostalists who avow the gifts of the Holy Spirit do not describe themselves as a holiness group or movement. Nor do the Christian Brethren though they aspire to holiness in distinction from Babylon (the Roman Catholic Church) and Lesser Babylon (the Church of Scotland).
By default Christians today are ‘holy’. They may be the only ones taking part in general conversations who do not swear. Certainly they are the only ones who get out of their houses on Sunday mornings and physically and visibly go to attend Church services. Christians though are mostly incognito, indistinguishable from everyone else. It has ever been thus. Paul wrote ‘For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God’. (Colossians 3 : 3) Yet there are very high profile distinct Christian lives such as Pope Francis, Archbishop Tutu that was and Martin Luther King in his time. They may not always be thought of as holy in the strictly pious sense. It is the good that we may do that marks us out as holy in God’s sight. It is naming Jesus Christ as Lord that marks us out while here on earth.