Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world. But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you. To him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
Remember that we are taking some time to examine human desire. And the very first thing to note is the very first thing necessary to any inquiry, which is the Apostolic call to attentiveness. Sobriety, vigilance, attentiveness, is required if we are to succeed at understanding, appropriating, and when necessary changing human desire for our good, for the good of the people the we love, and for the good of all creation. No one has ever written a sermon or a book, or prefaced piece of advice by saying, “I have paid no attention what-so-ever to what I am about to say.” In fact, I cannot recall or imagine any culture of people at any time in history that put a premium upon inattentiveness. Attentiveness is a universal imperative and it is not so much a virtue as it is a spontaneous response to human desire. I pay attention to what I want. Sometimes, one desires to grasp and possess the object of one’s desire. Sometimes, frequently, one desires to know and understand the object of one’s desire. The human desire of the Christian is a result of our participation in Christ’s humanity, and it is a longing, a yearning to love, to cherish, to value and to esteem what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful. When Peter lays down the imperative to be attentive, to be sober and alert, he means for us to be attentive to our cherishing, desiring the good and in particular the good for the children of God and for all of creation. Peter ends his first epistle with this warning: inattentiveness will impede and even obstruct God’s finality for you personally and for your siblings in Christ. We can learn about human desire and the human will from Peter and his pastoral care for his people.
First I want to understand the context of Peter’s whole Epistle. He opens by addressing what he called the Diaspora of Christ’s Church in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia. He refers to them as “strangers” and “resident aliens.” Though we often spiritualize these terms — there is the sense in which all Catholics are resident aliens in whatever culture they inhabit — they likely refer, literally, to the legal status of Peter’s intended audience. There are good reasons to believe that Peter composed the epistle in Rome. A man named Silvanus was the courier, and he appears also to have been Peter’s amanuensis, that is his secretary/scribe. He sailed from Rome, following a well-established trade route, stopping off at major population centers to deliver copies of the Epistle to the Churches. It is reckoned, conservatively, that about 40,000 Christians were living in Asia Minor in the late 60s. By the turn of the century, when Ignatius of Antioch wrote his Letters the Christian population had grown to 80,000.
Peter refers to their “heaviness,” to “ fiery ordeals,” and to their common experience of sharing Christ’s sufferings. Some have thought that a Roman sponsored oppression was underway. But, there is not a hint of that in the Epistle and in fact, Peter specifically instructs the Christians to submit to the Emperor and governors who punish evil behavior. There were no Roman persecutions at that time.
But there are serious problems and they are all local. Locally realized, but universally spreading over Asia. These are hometown troubles and conflicts rising from the differences between Christians and their non-Christian neighbors. Christians were not thought to be enemies of the state at this point, but they were objects of slander, suspicion, accusations, and hostility because they were so different from their neighbors. Peter says these local troubles have a common source in “the ruler of this age,” the cosmic slanderer who is behind all the enmity and abuse being heaped upon Christians by what we would call community leaders. Peter says these forces aim to absorb and neutralize the Church are driven by an evil entity:
Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour; who resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world.
There is a campaign afoot, Peter is saying, to absorb the follows of Christ and turn them into good citizens. The same is the case today. The prevailing culture, our institutions, systems of law, the entertainment industry expects Catholics to accommodate standards, values, and behaviors that are alien to the Gospel and the will of God. “Resist these pressures,” Peter declares. Remain “stedfast in the faith” and resist those who lean on you to assimilate. You are called to be the holy children of God, you are called to deification, to holy and exclusive solidarity within the Body of Christ formed by the pattern of Christ, not the patterns of this prevailing culture that is already passing away. This is the way Peter puts it in Chapter 1:14:
Do not allow yourselves to be molded by the craving of your former ignorance, but, in conformity with the Holy One who called you, you too be holy in all your conduct…
The word that Peter uses here that we translate as “cravings” is the same word that may be translated in another context as simple desire. In the next chapter Peter uses a form of the word when he writes, “desire the sincere milk of the Word.” The point that Peter is making is that desires mold and fashion the man or the woman as well their community. It is also the case that desire does not drop down fully formed from heave — we are formed by desire, yea — but we are also formed for desire especially in worship.
Peter now identifies two solidarities, two fraternal communities made up of like-minded people, two communities opposed to one another. There is a human solidarity with sin and that solidarity, that fraternal community, moves from darkness to darkness, it avoids light, it avoids insight, it deforms knowledge and distorts their view of the human condition and that gives birth to disordered desires. These desires are socially constructed, socially communicated and socially affirmed. Though such communities may appear to flourish here and there for a moment, their destiny is decline and eventual destruction of the solidarity itself. Peter names some of the disordered desires that are on display in the institutions of our society, in our politics, in our schools, in popular culture, and right down to neighborhoods: compulsive ambition, selfish yearnings, uncontrolled passions, revenge, envy, and concupiscence — being driven by one’s sensual needs. This community’s destiny, which is absolutely unavoidable, is to break up and fall apart.
Do not be “molded by temporal cravings, by the desires of this world, a world whose destiny is to fall to pieces.” You are Children of God. Don’t fall back into that way. Remember that Peter is address by and large converts to Christianity — people who lived half of more of their life in some other religion. Peter is crystal clear that our break with this way of life must be conscious, intentional and definitive for ourselves individually and in our community. Christians end such allegiances.
Just as this human solidarity with sin deforms knowledge and human desire and the whole human condition, there is also a Divine solidarity in grace which is the mystical Body of Christ, Holy Mother Church. If acts of sin confirm one in sin, so Christian actions confirms us in Christ. If acts of sin deform us and deform an already deformed culture, acts of love, every kindness in the Name of Christ, every attempt to truly understand and affirm reality, every Mass, every prayer from the heart of the simplest Christian, clarifies and establishes the true, the good, and the beautiful to the building up of the Body of Christ and to the building up of all humanity and creation. Private rationalizations and private justifications for sin find support in the world and even public approval of disorder, but to the contrary, the ascent of our soul to God is not merely a private event — it is truly personal and yet alway a common affair, common prayer, common life in the Body of Christ which transforms every single feature of human life, beginning with the life of the mind. There is an old saying:
Sow a thought reap a deed
Sow a deed reap a habit
Sow a habit reap a character
Sow a character reap a destiny
And as I said, just as this human solidarity with sin deforms knowledge and human desire and the whole human condition, there is also a divine solidarity in grace which is the mystical Body of Christ, Holy Mother Church. If acts of sin confirm one in sin, so then, Christian actions confirms us in Christ. Actions begin with thought, with desire and desires mold and fashion the man or the woman as well their community. Christian desire is a result of our participation in the humanity of our Lord which is an outright gift through our baptism. As I have said before, this reality is a result of our common life in the Body of Christ. Jesus’ life-story enfolds your life story — in fact, Jesus’ life-story enfolds the life story of single human being who has ever existed or every will exist and that inclusion in Jesus’ life story bestows ultimate meaning upon each person. Through Holy Baptism we have been made children of God and we now participate — Peter says we partake of the divine nature. Faith, hope, and charity were infused into every Christian at baptism and those virtues are springs of desire. But, it would be a great mistake to assume that these virtues, infused gifts of God, should make life in Christ easier. They make our participation in Christ a reality, but actualizing the virtues is not effortless. Every single day what you take to be a temptation or a rough patch, a nuisance, or a hardship, or for that matter what you take to be a joy, a success, ease and plenty, are ample opportunities to appropriate and actualize the heavenly virtues. Whatever the trouble or the success, nothing diminishes the fact that God is, and nothing diminishes God’s finality, and the God who is God loves his creation and no joy, no perfection, and no desire is better than loving him back.