For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds. Declare these things; exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one look down on you.
The writer encourages his reader to live a counter-cultural life. A direct assault on the power structures of Empire would have been doomed. Instead the writer focuses on inner attitudes which would, if exhibited, subvert empire and transform the world. In a culture where the elite, at least, had unimaginable luxury and every whim, and vice, could be indulged from the enslavement of others the virtue of self-control would have been counter-cultural indeed. In a culture where values had to bend with the political reality of the current emperor – some of whom were out of control – the virtue of living an upright life would have been counter-cultural indeed. In an age where lip service was paid to the imperial cut but where many of the elite were functionally atheist the virtue of a godly life would have been counter cultural indeed.
Christian values eventually played their part in the fall of the Roman Empire – an economy based on slavery won’t last when people insist there is no different between slave and free. Several early bishops of Rome were, themselves, slaves – so the social order was subverted.
Looking back and seeing how things were, and how they were subverted, is much easier than analysing our own world and seeing how God may be calling us to be counter-cultural. Maybe the writer’s advice is still useful – self control in an age of excess still speaks of the One who calls us to live more simply so that others may simply live. Political expediency still seems the order of the day – which in part explains why politicians who seem upright – sincere are given a fair hearing wherever they are on the left-right spectrum. Genuine godliness is still attractive in an age where all truths are deemed equal.
We won’t challenge our world order directly but, like those early Christians, we can embody the values of the Kingdom of Go which subvert the powers and principalities of our own age.
Lord Jesus, you overturned the tables, upset the religious, and threatened the powerful, help us to live self controlled, upright and Godly lives, that we may play our part in changing our world as we long for the coming of your Kingdom. Amen
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is minister of Barrhead, Shawlands and Stewarton URCs in the Synod of Scotland’s Southside Cluster.