At a previous pastoral assignment, I led a weekly meeting of a small group of parishioners. The group began as a bible study but evolved into a study of Church teaching, then a study of Catholic spirituality. The group maintained a stable membership for more than ten years.
At the point the group became comfortable discussing matters of faith and spirituality with one another, I suggested that they were probably ready to begin an evangelization project in the local environments where they lived and worked. I was unprepared for the panic that ensued. They were so terrified by the thought of giving public witness to their faith that I expected them to quit attending the group meetings.
That group’s reaction to a suggestion of embarking on an evangelization project makes a sharp contrast to the situation addressed by today’s second reading. Today’s reading from the first letter of Peter is an excerpt from an instruction addressed to newly baptized adults. Apparently, some of the newly baptized were so excited about the experience of baptism that they couldn’t wait to talk to anyone and everyone about it.
The enthusiasm of those newly baptized adults appears to have been so fervent that the author of the letter felt the need to introduce a dose of harsh reality. The author told the newly baptized to live blameless lives so that “when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.” (1 Pt 3:16) The mistreatment mentioned here was not an organized persecution by the Roman Empire; rather, it was the common response by secular culture at the time.
Secular culture in the ancient Roman Empire was extremely avaricious, licentious, and vicious, even by twenty-first century standards. The crimes and vices we consider to be serious social problems today were commonplace, and commonly accepted, in ancient pagan culture. Sometimes, I get the impression that many Catholics use the Sacrament of Reconciliation as permission for selfish behavior. In antiquity, selfish behavior needed no permission; it was accepted as the norm.
Christians in the ancient world were often the subject of taunts and hostility because they refused to engage in the sort of immorality that was ubiquitous in the ancient world. Christian writings from the first and second centuries of the Common Era list the kinds of common behaviors that Christians considered immoral. The Didache, for example, adds to the sins proscribed by the Ten Commandments acts such as superstition, hypocrisy, hatred, dishonesty, jealousy, pretentiousness, anger, and greed. The baptized were, at all times, to be meek, gentle, patient, forgiving, and generous.
Because the life that baptism demands is so countercultural, the first letter of Peter says that the baptized should “always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” (1 Pt 3:15) The “hope” mentioned here was believers’ rationale for embracing values so diametrically opposed to the common cultural values of the time that it elicited harassment by non-believers.
The church congregation addressed by the first letter of Peter appears to have been a group of people who were eager to explain the reason for their hopeful lives. They stand in stark contrast to the Church today. Based on anecdotal evidence only, I would guess that most Catholics today are as terrified of witnessing publicly to their faith as that group was that I led so many years ago. The fact that Catholics are ill-prepared to fulfill Jesus’ command to give witness to him before all people (Acts 1:8), is probably also the cause of Catholics’ inability to respond to criticism from other Christian sectaries.
Perhaps, today, the dose of harsh reality the Church needs is quite different from what the author of the letter of Peter thought his congregation needed. Perhaps, today, we need to be encouraged to be more forthcoming with substantive evidence that we take baptism seriously enough to embrace the same countercultural values treasured by our ancestors in the Faith. The first generations of Jesus’ disciples gave bold witness to the Resurrection, not because they feared or disliked secular society but because they knew that wider society needed to hear a message of hope.
Baptism used to inspire joy. At some point, baptism degenerated to something very close to superstition. It became a way of escaping the possibility of eternal punishment and ceased to be Divine empowerment to live a just and righteous life. That shift in understanding led to two equally faithless religious alternatives; baptism was viewed as being like a lucky near-miss collision on US19 or as permission to judge others harshly. The depths of this faithlessness can be measured by the extent to which the baptized deny themselves none of the self-indulgent behaviors of unbelievers.
A reasonable explanation for Christian hope is always in season because Christian hope rejects selfishness and sin as incompatible with the life of baptism. A reasonable explanation of Christian hope is impossible, however, in the absence of that hope. Rather than viewing Baptism as a scheme for avoiding punishment or eternal loss, it’s long past time for the Church to see Baptism as a privilege granted to those who desire eagerly to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus.
We have an unshakeable hope, and we have reason to profess our hope. Further, the world in which we live needs to hear the message of Christian hope. “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” (1 Pt 3:15) We can do this with complete peace of mind because, in baptism, we have new life in God’s Spirit. (1 Pt 3:18)