The answer to the question posed in the title might surprise you.
Generations after Jesus’s death it was still a very scary time. Violence was the norm, and as ironic as it sounds, Roman violence kept the peace among warring factions throughout the ancient Empire. Violence was the Roman method for keeping the lid on the boiling kettle, so it was a case of the means justifying the end with no end in sight.
It was bad enough Jesus had been killed, but he wasn’t the only one who had been targeted. The Roman rulers (such as Pilate and other Roman officials) had already killed many Jews and non-Jews, and then they appeared ready to kill Jesus’s followers too. Desperate to find a solution, one of Jesus’s leading ambassadors, Peter, sent a proposal to a fellow disciple, Philip, to come together. Until then, Philip hadn’t been so closely allied with Peter, but now he enthusiastically agrees to put away their differences in order to pray together and seek a community-wide solution to the frightening prospects.
Basically, they were asking the same old question: What would Jesus do (WWJD) – in the face of this violence?
The Letter of Peter to Philip – probably composed many decades after the deaths of the real Peter and Philip – uses the framework of the story to ask the question in a new generation. Many of the texts of the New Testament and extacanonical books were like this, written much later than the actual events, but sought solutions to new problems from their understanding of Jesus’s ministry.
That’s what makes this text valuable for any age. The so-called ‘letter’ formulates a new idea as to what Jesus would have done in the face of the ongoing injustice and state-sanctioned violence.
Surprisingly, here’s what it does not say. It does not suggest his followers should band together and respond with violence. Nor does it even say, “believe in God, and everything will be OK.” What does it say?
First, they pray:
“Son, Christ of immortality, our Redeemer,
Give us strength, because they are searching for us to kill us” (134).
A voice responds:
“Why are you looking for me? I am Jesus Christ, who is with you forever” (134).
Paraphrasing their response:
Why are we stuck in this place of violence? How do we get out? (134-135).
Paraphrasing Jesus’s explanation for the cause of the violence:
The arrogant (false) god assigned powers to mold mortal bodies, misrepresenting the true God.
“You are detained in this situation because you are mine. When you strip yourselves of what is corruptible, you will become luminaries in the midst of mortal people” (137).
How do we fight against these rulers over us?
The voice replies:
“The rulers fight against the inner person. You must fight against them like this: come together and teach salvation in the world with a promise (137) …Don’t be afraid. I am with you forever, as I already said to you when I was in the body” (138).
What?! Fight back against the rulers who attack the inner person, by coming together and teaching salvation? Yes, they got that right. The voice returns:
“I often told you that you must suffer. You must be brought to synagogues and governors so that you will suffer” (138).
So the “apostles rejoiced greatly and went up to … the temple and taught salvation in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and they healed a crowd” (139). Peter assembled as many others as he could and reassured them of the message they had heard. And what did they do?
“Each one performed healings, and they left to preach the Lord Jesus” (140).
I don’t think I’ve ever heard this message preached in church, in self-help books, or even among friends! What to do in the face of violence? Jesus’s response in this letter is that the rulers, their violence and injustice are not going away any time soon. But his followers are to not be afraid. They are instructed to come together, teach salvation, and heal.
I’m struck with the fact that when the apostles went back to the temple, “they healed a crowd.” And then when more of the Jesus-followers had gathered, they also got on bard with the preaching, and “each one performed healings.”
What an unusual way to respond to fear, violence and injustice! To heal.
It sounds like the ultimate calling to love with all their strength and might. They did it with joy, and they turned all their energy away from self-preservation in order to save others. There is no report that their enemies retreated, giving them the space to go do loving things to others. But despite the danger to themselves, they acted on their knowledge of Christ’s presence.
I note three critical elements of love that appear to have contributed to their power to heal.
- They recognized they were loved in the constant presence of Christ.
- They put away their differences and came together for a larger purpose.
- They turned on their own fears and gave unselfishly to others the gift of their ministry.
These three expressions of love were evidently sufficient to give them each the power to heal.
The more I think about this, the more I understand the way Jesus’s love for them is portrayed in this text too. He says he recognizes there is a real injustice going on. In fact, he was killed by it. He knows it. And he doesn’t tell them the injustice is going to just vanish. But he does tell them to focus on the deeper things, just as he did during his own persecution. This is their guide for handling fear.
Healing appears in the text almost as a side-effect. But the joy and healing works of the apostles indicate that they truly wanted to follow him, as they “stripped themselves of what was corruptible” and became “luminaries in the midst of mortal people” (137).