Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sermon for May 22nd: 1 Peter 2:11-25

Us and Them

I’m not a big fan of science fiction, but I’ve dipped into it a little over the years, in both book and movie format. I’ve come to the conclusion that science fiction stories – and even more clearly, science fiction TV series’ – can be divided into two categories based on their attitude toward aliens. In some shows, the basic rule is ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ because the aliens are always assumed to be hostile. But other shows take a more conciliatory attitude: the aliens are assumed to be friendly unless they show evidence to the contrary.

Now the interesting thing that you may have noticed over the past few weeks, as we’ve been going through the first letter of Peter, is that we’re the aliens, and some people definitely don’t think we’re friendly! As we’ve already said, Peter wrote this letter to a group of Christians in what is now the northern part of Turkey, Christians who were beginning to get into trouble because of their allegiance to Jesus. Many people saw them as a dangerous antisocial sect, because they refused to pledge allegiance to the Emperor by sacrificing to him as a god, and they took two of the Emperor’s official titles – Saviour and Lord – and gave them to the crucified Galilean rebel who had started their movement. Also, they refused to take part in the worship of pagan gods that was an integral part of trade guild meetings. They wouldn’t do their civic duty of helping to keep the gods happy by participating in community sacrifices. They were rumoured to practice incest – after all, didn’t they talk about loving their brothers and sisters? – and it was said that their secret meetings included cannibalism, because they talked about eating the flesh and drinking the blood of their dead leader, Christ.

Today, also, Christianity and the institutional church are often the subject of slander and gossip, some of it well deserved. I feel sorry for most Roman Catholic priests, all of whom are now tarred with the same brush and suspected to be sexual abusers, despite the fact that the majority of them are not. Likewise, if you are a person who taught in a residential school, it is assumed that you took part in abusive behaviour. And then of course there are the folks who predict that the world is going to come to an end on such and such a date; every time one of their predictions fails, the world is confirmed in its opinion that we Christians are a group of unbalanced nutcases!

What should we do about that? Or, to ask a broader question, how should we relate to the people around us who don’t share our Christian faith? Should we be afraid of being infected by their wickedness and separate ourselves from them as much as possible – as some Christian groups have done throughout our history? Should we take an antagonistic attitude toward them? How should we respond if the media slanders the good name of the Christian church, or if Christian people are murdered because of their commitment to Christ, which, as I said, happens frequently in other parts of the world?

This is the issue Peter is addressing in our passage for today. Having spent the first part of the letter establishing our distinct identity as a people who give their primary loyalty to Jesus, he now turns to the subject of our relationship to the non-Christian world, whether it’s merely apathetic (as is so often the case in our culture today), or openly hostile (as it was in his day). And he has three basic pieces of advice to give to us: live honourably, be good citizens, and love your enemies. So turn with me to 1 Peter 2:11-25 on page 233 in the New Testament.

First, in verses 11-12, live honourably.

‘Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honourably among the Gentiles, so that, though they may malign you as evildoers, they may see your honourable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge’.

So we may be aliens, but Peter wants us to be honourable aliens!

This word ‘honourably’ is actually a rather unusual word in New Testament discussions of Christian lifestyle; it’s more common for us to hear phrases like ‘walk in love’ or ‘be holy’. The idea of ‘being honourable’ was much more common in Greek and Roman philosophy than it was in Jewish or Christian thought. And I’m guessing that this is exactly the point Peter was making. Let me explain to you what I mean.

When we put Christian and non-Christian approaches to ethics and morality side by side, there are always going to be some pretty sharp differences. For instance, we Christians are commanded to love our enemies, not to store up riches on earth, not to love money or the things that money can buy, not to engage in sexual activities outside of marriage, and so on. If we are faithful to the teaching of Jesus, there’s no way of getting around the fact that we’re going to look a little weird in the eyes of the world!

However, as well as divergence, there are also areas we have in common, and by using this word ‘honourable’, which was more of a pagan word, Peter was advising his hearers to find those common areas and live them out. As we’ve said, Peter’s readers were the subject of vicious gossip, but he tells them here that one way they may be able to silence this gossip is to be people of good reputation, people who practice the virtues that everyone could admire.

How would we put this into practice today? We can do it by finding those agreements, those commonalities, between Christian values and the values of the world around us, and then living them out. For example, we live in a time when there is a lot of emphasis in the world around us on caring for the poor and needy, ending injustice, protecting the vulnerable and so on. And these are biblical values too – especially in the Old Testament prophets. I have discovered from my own experience that if we Christians get involved in movements that seek to care for the poor - working shoulder to shoulder with our non-Christian friends, and even exercising leadership when we have the opportunity to do so - this can do a lot to alleviate the negative press that the Church gets over other issues.

So Peter’s first piece of advice about how we get along with our non-Christian neighbours is all about character: don’t live lives of unbridled selfishness, but instead practice the virtues that are admired by all people of good faith. The second thing he tells us is to be good citizens. Look again at verses 13-17:

‘For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor’.

When we examine the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, there’s one thing that’s very clear: all earthly authority is relative to the authority of God, and of God’s anointed King, Jesus Christ, who is described by Peter in Acts 10:36 as ‘Lord of all’. So we Christians cannot possibly give unconditional obedience to any earthly government, or any human political ideology. All earthly governments and all political ideologies will diverge from God’s will at times – some of them more so than others – and if so, Peter himself says in the book of Acts that we are to ‘obey God rather than any human authority’ (Acts 5:29).

But this is not a general call for rebellion against the powers that be. Some people who are of a more nonconformist character would like it to be so, perhaps; the Zealots in Palestine in the time of Jesus taught that the only way to be loyal to God was the way of violent rebellion against the Roman empire. But Jesus showed a different way; he spoke the truth fearlessly to those in power, but he also refused the way of the sword, choosing instead to love his enemies and pray for those who crucified him.

And so Peter says that for the Lord’s sake we are to ‘accept the authority of every human institution’ – that is, every governing authority. Peter recognizes a legitimate role that they exercise on God’s behalf: ‘to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right’. He is of course well aware that they do not always fulfil this role; it would have been impossible for him to be unaware of monsters like the emperors Caligula and Nero, and of course there have been many more like them since then. But nonetheless, order and justice are part of God’s will for society, and civil authorities have a legitimate role in this.

Notice that Peter isn’t just concerned that Christians avoid persecution: he’s concerned for the reputation of the Christian movement as a whole. ‘For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish’ (v.15). In other words, when some unbelievers begin to spread slanders about Christians, others will say, ‘but look, our neighbours Jack and Helen are Christians, and they’re not like that –they’re law-abiding citizens and they’re always the first to help when neighbours are in need’.

So we’re to live honourable lives, practicing the virtues that all people of good will can believe in, and we’re to be good citizens, obeying the laws of our nations wherever those laws do not contradict the law of God and the teaching of Jesus. The last thing Peter talks about is loving our enemies; look with me again at verses 18-25.

The context of these verses is a particularly difficult issue at the time – the issue of the vulnerable position of Christian slaves. It was always assumed in the ancient world that a household, including not only wives and children but also slaves – would practice the religion of the head of the house. But Christians challenged this assumption: they evangelized amongst the slave population, and slaves were seen as sisters and brothers on an equal footing with non-slaves in the Christian Church. And there were undoubtedly times when Christian slaves felt that they should not obey the instructions of their pagan masters – a dangerous decision, given that masters had power of life and death over their slaves.

Let’s be quite clear here that Peter is not addressing the issue of whether or not there should be slaves in the first place. It has been calculated that there were 60 million slaves in the Roman empire, and society was totally dependant on the work they did. To try to abolish slavery overnight in the Roman empire would have had the same sort of effect as trying to abolish technology overnight today. It was not within Peter’s power to end slavery anyway; a later generation, thank God, was able to do that, based at least partly on the biblical teaching that all people are made in the image of God.

But this option was not open to the slaves in Peter’s churches. When they were beaten unjustly by their masters, their main options were to cower, to fight back, or to run away. But what Peter tells them is something different: follow the example of Jesus and love those who persecute you. Look at verse 21:

‘For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps’.

The Greek word for ‘example’ here is an unusual one: 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. We are not to respond it kind; we’re to trust in God the righteous judge, and respond with love as Jesus did.

This principle is applied here to Christian slaves responding to the abuse they get from their masters, but it’s not only applicable to this situation. Later on in chapter 3 Peter says to all of us,

‘Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse, but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing’ (3:9).

This is simply the teaching that Jesus gave us in the Sermon on the Mount, that we should love our enemies, pray for those who mistreat us, and bless those who persecute us. Peter is not guaranteeing that this will get us out of trouble – far from it. But he has something even more important in mind. Look at verses 24-25:

‘(Jesus) 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’.

In other words, because Jesus accepted the unjust suffering that was meted out to him, people who were going astray have now come back to God through him. And this may well happen through you as well, Peter is saying. If we hate our enemies and ‘take them out’, they will have no opportunity to repent and turn to God, so in the end the Kingdom of God is harmed by our actions. But if we love them as Jesus loved them, then the Holy Spirit can work in their hearts, and who knows what might happen as a result?

I began with an illustration from the world of science fiction: are the aliens friendly or not? But in the case of us modern Christians, we are the aliens and we are definitely called to be friendly! We’re called to live honourable lives in the sight of all; we’re called to be good citizens, and we’re called to love our enemies, following the good example of Jesus.

Let me close with a true story of what can happen when we love our enemies. Many of you will have heard me tell this story before, but I think it is a good one so I don’t apologise for repeating it. It concerns 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. It turned out that the driver was Delbert. Tom 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; eventually, he became a pastor himself. But it all began the night an Anglican priest paid him back good for evil, and loved him instead of taking revenge on him.

So let us pray that the Holy Spirit will give us also the strength to walk in the footsteps of Christ.

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