The 4th Sunday of Easter (A)
3 of the 4 readings we have heard this morning are lovely passages: one is about a thriving new community of faith and 2 give a beautiful picture of God as our shepherd. Then we have this passage from I Peter that is upsetting when read out of context and without explanation. For the past two Sundays my sermons have been about the 2nd readings which came from the first chapter of I Peter. This morning, I continue with I Peter. It is a short passage this morning and I am going to read it again so that it is fresh in our minds. I am going to start one verse earlier, though, with verse 18 to help with context and then we will see if there is anything good in this passage. So if this passage upsets you, just hang in there with me and we will see that it isn’t saying what we think it is saying at first glance:
“Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. 19For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. 22“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 23When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”
Unfortunately, chapter 2 is a bit more difficult to deal with than chapter 1. This is one of those passages that causes all kinds of emotions- very few of them good. The speaker that Pastor George and I recently heard actually advocated for leaving this reading out. But I disagree. We must look at the difficult and upsetting passages of scripture as well as the passages that make us feel really good…like Psalm 23 or John 10.
How do we deal with this passage from I Peter? First and foremost, we say loudly and clearly that it is never OK to suffer emotional or physical abuse. Secondly, and just as importantly, even as we read verse 18 in order to understand the context of the passage, we acknowledge that the idea of people living as slaves is morally repugnant and completely unacceptable.
So. What do we do now? Remember the last two weeks? Remember how I Peter begins: “To the exiles of the Dispersion…” This letter was written to people who didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the Roman empire because of their religious practices. They were people who were at the bottom of the society. Chapter one calls these Christians to live as people set apart, people who live counter-culturally, who do not give in to the dominant culture, but who live subversively by doing crazy things like loving each other with deep, genuine love; who embrace a living hope that brings new life. We are people of the Resurrection. We serve a Risen Lord. As Christians, we do things a little differently than the rest of the world.
Now we take all of that and we move on to chapter two and now, we find out that these were people who not only lived differently than everyone else, they were also at the bottom of society as slaves.
There are three things that I am going to mention this morning that might help us hear the good news of this difficult text. First: As I already said, this letter was written, not just to Christians, but to Christian slaves; those who had no standing in society other than the labor they could do. That tells me that the good news of the gospel is for EVERYONE. That no matter who you are in this world, no matter what the rest of the world thinks of you, the hope of the Resurrection is for YOU!
Second: We have to address the issue of suffering. I believe the key to understanding this passage is how we understand suffering, and, as always, we have to look beyond our meager, human understanding of this word and go right to Jesus. Christian suffering is different than human suffering. Human suffering is the suffering I mentioned earlier: abuse, enslavement and oppression. Human suffering is the suffering caused by the evil of this world. When we are called to suffer as Christians, we are called to enter into the suffering around us, just as Christ did. The suffering of Christ was the result of God coming into the world to stand in solidarity with those that the world would throw away or ignore as unimportant. Christ endured pain and death so that we might see just how far God was willing to go to be in relationship with us. We are called to suffer for the sake of Gospel; to mourn with those who mourn, to be in relationship with those who are undergoing injustice and oppression; take that on ourselves as we work to put an end to the suffering. That is the example of Jesus Christ that we are called to follow.
And yes, there are times when being a Christian is going to cause us to make decisions that will not be easy. Jesus warned us about that in the gospels. When Jesus said take up your cross and follow me he didn’t say that the cross was going to be made out of lightweight Styrofoam.
Once again, we hear the message of I Peter that says we are to be just a little odd. To hold onto different values than the rest of the world. Being a Christian is so much more than believing a certain doctrine, it is about turning everything upside down and living a certain way.
And finally, this passage offers us an alternative ethic. We live in a world of cause and effect, you-lose-so-that-I-can-gain, you attack me-I’ll attack you back, violence begets violence, hateful words spawn more hateful words. Two options seem to be the understanding of the world: you are either the winner or the loser. But what if there is a different option? What if, by focusing on Christ, we embrace the life-giving option of the cross? Violence overcome by peace. Injustice overcome by compassion and caring. What if we, as holy people, shared the living hope we have in Christ rather than responding with the very things Christ came to defeat? What if we continue to choose life over death?
Death takes many forms in this life. It kills not only life, but those things which make life sacred and meaningful, valuable and beautiful. Death takes many forms. There are fathers who die, as fathers, because they are waiting until other obligations are less demanding before becoming acquainted with their sons. There are mothers who die because they sincerely intend to be more attentive to their daughters, but just can’t find the time. There are partners or husbands and wives who promise they will be more understanding toward each other but aren’t. There are people in this room who are alone and lonely, feeling friendless, seeking security and compassion, some are grieving. There are many forms of Death. In the face of such deaths, what can we do to affirm the value of life? What can we do in the face of death except affirm the value of life?
That is what I Peter is talking about: claiming our identity as people of the Resurrection; people who choose a living hope.
We will risk some suffering if we embrace a different way of life. But ask anyone who has chosen the way of life over death and they will tell you that it is worth the risk. If Christ, the good shepherd, is guarding our hearts we will be OK. Abundant life is what we have been given and abundant life is what we shall have. Thanks be to God!!
Pastor Charlane Lines
418 W. Main St.
Sidney, MT 59270