Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sermon for Easter 5: 1 Peter 2:11-25

Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus

A few years ago the IGA store in Valleyview made the decision to open on Sunday mornings. I was the pastor of the Anglican church in Valleyview at the time, and I and my colleagues in the Ministerial Association were concerned that our members who worked there would be free to attend church if they so desired. So we wrote a letter of concern to the IGA manager asking that the rights of our members to attend church be respected. In his letter of response the manager expressed some annoyance with us, but he made the statement “No one will be forced to work on Sunday mornings if he or she doesn’t wish to do so”. Of course that turned out to be completely false; we had one member who worked there, and it soon became clear that he had no choice about working Sundays; the only choice he had was whether he kept his job or not!

Christian employees at this store were in a vulnerable position; if they wanted to keep their jobs, they couldn’t refuse Sunday morning shifts. The readers of Peter’s first letter were in an even more vulnerable position. Laws were on the books requiring citizens of the Roman Empire to worship Caesar as a god on pain of death. Pressure was strong for Christian businessmen to participate in the idol worship that went with being a member of a trade guild. Christians were vulnerable to slander and gossip, punishment and even execution. And one group was especially vulnerable: the slaves of non-Christian masters.

How are Christians in these vulnerable positions to respond? In our reading today Peter encourages them to follow the example of Jesus, to ‘follow in his steps’ (v.21). So we are to see ourselves as followers of Jesus, and to respond to the slander, gossip and persecution that come to us in the way Jesus responded to similar situations in his earthly life. Let’s think about how we might work this out.

Let’s think first of all about how Jesus shows the way. Philip Yancey has told the story of how he happened to be watching a collection of film clips of the Beatitudes on the same day that General Norman Schwartzkopf was doing a briefing about the 1991 Gulf War. He says:
It took a few seconds for the irony to sink in: I had just been watching the Beatitudes in reverse! Blessed are the strong, was the general’s message. Blessed are the triumphant. Blessed are the armies wealthy enough to possess smart bombs and Patriot missiles. Blessed are the liberators, the conquering soldiers’.

There’s an obvious contrast between the way the world tends to deal with violence on the one hand, and the way Jesus responded to it on the other. Peter tells us in our reading that Jesus ‘also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps’ (v.21). What is that example? Peter says:
‘“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When 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. He 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. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls’ (1 Peter 2:21-25).

When Peter tells us that Jesus has left ‘an example’ for us to follow, he uses an unusual word in the original language, the word hupogrammos. Children who were learning to write in Peter’s day were often given a sample of perfect handwriting at the top of a page. They then had to practice the letters, copying them underneath the original over and over again until they got it exactly right. That sample of handwriting was called a hupogrammos. In other words, Jesus’ life is like that perfect sample of handwriting; our job is to practice imitating him over and over again until we get it right. And this is particularly so, Peter is telling us, in the way we respond to insult and injury that comes our way because we are Christians.

One prime example of this from the New Testament is Stephen. Stephen was one of the early Christians in the book of Acts, and we read that he became a powerful evangelist who was influencing many Greek-speaking Jews to become Christians. The religious establishment eventually arrested him, putting him on trial and whipping up a mob to stone him to death. Acts tells us that when Stephen died he used very similar words to those Jesus had used at his crucifixion; Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34) and Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

So the example of Jesus shows us that faithfulness to God does sometimes mean that we are slandered and persecuted because of our Christian discipleship. Jesus’ response to this slander and persecution was not to strike back in anger and revenge, but rather to respond with faith in God and love toward his persecutors. That’s the example Peter is calling us to follow.

So Jesus has shown us the way; let’s think now about how we follow in his footsteps. And before we get into detail here, I need to address two important issues.

First, there isn’t time this morning for me to address the background of slavery in the Roman Empire. Slaves of course were in an especially vulnerable position if their masters weren’t Christians. It was not within the power of Peter and the other New Testament authors to abolish slavery in the Roman Empire. That would be like trying to abolish technology in Canada today: possible, but it couldn’t be done in a week! What the early Christians could do was to treat slaves in the church as equal human beings, and we know that they did that: Catallus, one of the early bishops of Rome, was a slave.

Second, this teaching has sometimes been misapplied to say that people who are in abusive relationships should just suck it up and shouldn’t remove themselves from those relationships. The situations are completely different. Peter doesn’t tell those who suffer not to remove themselves from the situation if they can. He tells them to follow the example of Jesus by not responding to violence and threats with violence and threats. There is a difference.

The slaves to whom Peter was talking did not have the power to remove themselves from their situation. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul addresses that possibility; he says, ‘Where you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you – although if you can gain your freedom, do so’ (1 Corinthians 7:21 TNIV). In later years Christians took this philosophy as a charter for providing freedom to slaves, and so William Wilberforce and his colleagues worked for the abolition of slavery. And in the same way today we need to do all we can to make sure that people who are in abusive relationships are protected from their abusers. No New Testament teaching should be misapplied to tell them that instead of removing themselves to a place of safety, they should just put up with it.

Of course, this discussion begs the question: how should we apply this teaching to our lives? Peter gives us three guidelines here.

First, remember who it is you’re representing. You may remember a few years ago when a Russian diplomat in Ottawa killed a woman through drunk driving. This man was not only a lawbreaker; he was also a bad advertisement for Russia, and his superiors knew it. If you’re a diplomat you always need to remember that people are going to judge your country by what they see of your conduct.

In verse 11 Peter says ‘Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul’. When he calls us ‘aliens and exiles’ he’s reminding us that although we live in the world we have another citizenship, which is more important; we are citizens of the kingdom of God. That being the case, our first responsibility is to be good advertisements for that kingdom. So he goes on to say in verse 12 ‘Conduct yourselves honourably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honourable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge’.

During the Second World War there was a saying in Britain to discourage people from giving clues to spies: ‘Careless talk costs lives’. C.S. Lewis, writing at the same time, made the point that ‘It’s equally true that careless lives cost talk’. If I live a careless life, not remembering that I bear the name of Jesus before the world, people are going to slander the name of Christ because of me. To live for the glory of God means that I live in such a way that God’s reputation in the world is enhanced, and not diminished, because of me.

So we’re to remember who it is we’re representing. Secondly, we’re to make sure we’re suffering for the right reasons. I once knew a Christian woman who was always complaining about her non-Christian husband and how he persecuted her for her faith and made it difficult for her to practice it. I also knew him, and I knew that this wasn’t the whole story. About 25% of her persecution was because she was a Christian, and about 75% of it was because she was a pain in the neck! She seemed to think that God had appointed her as judge and jury for her husband, and every time he stepped out of line she let him have it. Not surprisingly, this caused a great deal of resentment on his part!

In verse 20 Peter says to Christian slaves: ‘If 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’. In other words, if you’re going to suffer, make sure it’s for being a good Christian and not for being a bad slave! Or, we might say today, if you’re going to be slandered or excluded or criticized, make sure it’s for being a follower of Jesus and not for being thoughtless or judgemental or greedy or hypocritical.

So we’re to remember who it is we’re representing, and we’re to make sure we’re suffering for the right reasons. Finally, we’re not to return evil for evil. Peter says, ‘When 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’ (vv.22-23). Peter is thinking obviously of Jesus’ conduct when he was arrested, unjustly tried, flogged and crucified. In this, Jesus simply lived out his own teaching of loving his enemies and praying for those who persecuted him.

Some of you have heard me tell the story of a friend of mine, Tom, who once served as the rector of four rural congregations, two of them on a First Nations reserve. One night he had a call from a woman on the reserve. “My husband is drinking in the bar in town”, she said. “Could you go over and bring him home?”

Tom was young and a bit rash in those days, and so he agreed to her request. He went over to the bar, found the man and began to talk with him. But while he was there he was accosted by another man, Delbert, who had been drinking quite heavily. Delbert began to punch Tom and make fun of him; “Hey, preacher, is God going to help you now?” Tom did his best to ignore Delbert; he managed to get the other man out of the bar and over to the rectory, where he pumped in a gallon of coffee to try to sober him up.

After several hours, Tom put the man in his car and headed out for the reserve. It was the dead of winter and very cold, and the gravel roads were extremely icy. As they drove onto the reserve, Tom noticed a car in the ditch, up to its windows in snow, and he began to slow down to see if the passengers needed some help. Wouldn’t you know it, the driver was Delbert! When Tom told me this story, he said to me “So I prayed ‘Lord, you delivered him into my hands’”. He stopped, and when Delbert rolled down his window Tom said, “Do you want some help?” Delbert, totally inebriated, could only splutter, “Are you for real?” So Tom dug him out and gave him a ride home.

For months afterwards, whenever Delbert was drinking with friends and saw Tom he would say loudly “Thish man’sh a man of God!” Eventually he sobered up, gave his life to Christ and began to learn to live as a Christian. It all began the night an Anglican priest paid him back good for evil and loved him instead of taking revenge on him.

Scripture tells us that the power of God’s love has transformed us from his enemies into his friends. Now, as we walk in the steps of Jesus, we’re to live that love toward those who slander and persecute us, trusting that in God’s good time he will change their hearts too, changing them from persecutors into followers of Jesus. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will give us the strength we need to follow in the footsteps of Christ.

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