Third Sunday of Easter – April 26, 2020

Today’s second reading from the First Letter of Peter is a continuation of the baptismal homily that began last Sunday. Today’s reading says, “Behave reverently in this impermanent world. You have been ransomed from the vain behavior taught by your ancestors, not by worldly wealth like silver or gold, but by the precious blood of Christ, the lamb without spot or blemish.” (1 Pt. 1:17-19) The author is admonishing his readers to live faithfully the new life of baptism, a new life which he describes as having been “ransomed from” a former way of life.

The word “ransomed” is taken directly from post-Exilic Judaism, the religious tradition that Jesus practiced. In the Hebrew Scriptures, “ransom” meant exactly what it means in our culture. In the ancient near east, it was common for rivals and enemies to take hostages as retaliation for past offenses or as provocation of impending conflict. Because kidnapping was so common, families and clans depended on one or more of their members to be “redeemers” who would ransom back kidnapped relatives or allies. Sometimes, the redeemer would pay a ransom in money or property; in other situations, the redeemer would pay the ransom in blood, either his own or that of the kidnappers.

The socio-political phenomenon of ransoming or redeeming fit easily into the religious consciousness of the former captives who were repatriated to Judea after the Babylonian Exile (c. 538 BC). They experienced themselves as having been ransomed by God and returned to the homes of their forbears. Later, that experience of the returned captives informed the hopes of those who lived in Judea under foreign rule. During Jesus’ lifetime, most Jews hoped that God would send a redeemer to free them from subjugation to Rome.

Jesus fit the description of a redeemer, but not in the way that most of his contemporaries expected. Jesus did not intend to liberate Judea politically from the Roman Empire. Rather, he intended to bring spiritual liberation to those who would put their faith in God alone. In a strange twist of fate, Jesus was condemned as a political insurgent because the crowds were disappointed that he failed to precipitate a political insurgency in Jerusalem.

Jesus is the Redeemer, but it is important to keep in mind the sort of redemption he made possible by his death. As the second reading says, Jesus has ransomed his followers from their “vain behavior,” that is, their former lives of sin. Jesus paid a ransom, in his own blood, in order to free us from captivity to sin. (Eph. 1:7) It is necessary to understand what this means as well as what it does not mean.

In the Scriptures, “blood” was understood to be life; blood, therefore, referred to an abstraction rather than a physical object. The ransom that Jesus paid to redeem us from sin was not a ransom denominated in terms of physical matter (blood), but a ransom denominated in spiritual terms (Jesus’ faithfulness unto death). Our salvation, therefore, is neither salvation from this world nor salvation in this world. As the second reading says, the salvation granted us in baptism is redemption from the old life of sin. The freedom from sin made possible in Baptism excludes other definitions of redemption; variant interpretations of redemption fall under the category of “vain behavior.”

Most of you have seen the stories in the news about the mega-church pastors who have disregarded the “Safer-at-Home” order. Everyone understands the motivation for continuing to host large crowds at mega-churches: it’s about the money. There have been news stories about clergy from traditional religions, as well; most of these are about attempts to continue to dispense religious goods and services without running afoul of civil authorities. These drive-through-window versions of religion are probably less about money than they are about placating congregation members, but they still amount to vain behavior. In addition to these above, there are daily news stories about individuals and groups who are unwilling to change their behavior in order to comply with the requirements of social distancing; this is inexcusable vanity.

Priests who define their lives in terms of indulging consumerism, mega-church pastors who define their lives in terms of acquiring wealth, citizens who define their lives in terms of disregarding the consequences of their actions – these are examples of the utterly vain behavior of hoping to find redemption by means of created things.

Redemption is not from the world, by means of magical thoughts and superstitious actions; nor is redemption in this world, by means of worldly wealth. Redemption is found in adopting new life in Christ, a life free from the vain accumulation of wealth, free from superstitious belief, free from self-serving behavior.

“You have been ransomed from the vain behavior taught by your ancestors, not by worldly wealth like silver or gold, but by the precious blood of Christ, the lamb without spot or blemish.” (1 Pt. 1:18-19) The only appropriate response to God’s gift of Baptism is to “behave reverently in this impermanent world.” (1 Pt. 1:17) Reverent behavior is not measured in terms of how much one has or gets; it is measured in terms of how faithful one is to God and neighbor. Reverence respects this world as God’s creation but realizes that this world will pass away. If everything in and of this world is passing away, in what can one hope? Unfailing hope rests on redemption from the old life of sin and admittance into new life in Christ; one’s behavior is an unerring indication of the presence or absence of this hope.

3 thoughts on “Third Sunday of Easter – April 26, 2020

  1. You are so good at clarifying. Explanation of ransom and redemption in ancient times was very helpful for me in thinking through salvation not from this world nor in this world but redemption as freedom from old life of sin. Your application to today’s world is so right on. Thanks for sharing.

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