15 May 2011
Readings: 1 Peter 2:19-25
Heavenly Father, as we bring ourselves before your Word this morning – and as we engage with this letter of St Peter – still us, quieten our minds and our hearts and help us to listen to the still small voice of your Holy Spirit and to hear the Word that you have for each of us today. Amen.
“By his wounds you have been healed”
Last week we started our romp through the first letter of St Peter. Although I am sure that you all have eagerly found the right place in the pew bibles just to remind you that this book starts on p. 1217, if you would like to follow as we go along.
Just in case you weren’t here, or you were asleep or you have simply forgotten last week served as a gentle introduction to this book and we looked at the following:
The earliest version of this letter was probably written by St Peter, one of Jesus’ first disciples, sometime around 60 AD, although bits of it may have been edited slightly later;
- It was written as a letter of encouragement to a number of scattered Christian communities that probably had access to very little written information about their new faith and who were coming under persecution for being different from those around them;
- The general theme of the letter is one of bearing up under adversity whilst seeking to maintain a distinctively Christian ethos; and
- Finally we reflected on the fact that this is not merely an historical artefact but remains part of God’s word to God’s elect now, to use the term in verse 1, and that Peter’s letter of encouragement to the early church is also God’s letter of encouragement to us now.
What I intend to do for the next few weeks – and don’t worry when I say the next few weeks I am not intending to speaking continuously for that time so you don’t need to worry about sandwiches or sleeping bags or anything – what I am intending to do for the next few sermons is to explore in a little more detail those bits of 1 Peter which are the lectionary readings set for each week – i.e. those bits which are on our sheets – however as we look more closely at the detail it is always worthwhile bearing in mind the big picture themes that I mentioned as this should help to keep the right perspective – and the big theme is? Encouragement to persecuted Christians.
Today’s reading on the sheets starts at verse 19 and opens with the words: “Brothers and Sisters”, which makes it sound like a very generic or general opening to a wide group of people. However if you look at chapter 2 verse 19 in the pew bibles, which is a different translation from that used in the sheets, it will only take a moment to notice that today’s reading should more sensibly start not at verse 19 but at verse 18 which tells us more clearly who these words are aimed at – and who does this verse mention? Verse 18 says:
“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.”
The actual term in Greek used for slaves here is “Hoi Oiketai” which actually means household slaves – and oiketai of course gives us the English slang for ‘oiks’. So this section of 1 Peter is actually addressed not simply to a generic ‘brothers and sisters’ but is actually addressed to the oiks of society – the servants, the slaves, the persecuted. For me the rest of the reading is actually more meaningful if we bear in mind that it is addressed to real slaves suffering real wounds in their daily life, and not simply to generic brothers or sisters suffering metaphorical rather than real wounds or insults.
So, having established that this passage is addressed to literal slaves I will be the first to admit that whilst it brings the rest of the passage alive in one sense it also makes it slightly more uncomfortable and challenging reading to modern ears – because what is the message of the next few verses?
“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 are beaten or persecuted for being bad – for stealing or running away or sleeping in late then, essentially, that is your own fault for being a bad slave. But if you are beaten or insulted or suffer for doing good then , as the sheet says, it is a credit to you and as the pew bible says it is commendable.
Now part of this offends all our modern sensibilities – not only is the idea of slavery anathema to us but the thought of putting up with being beaten for being a bad slave makes us want to scream: “No that is wrong, run away, call the police, go to an employment tribunal.” But whilst that reaction is understandable, and I’ll come back to that in a moment, it is also to make two fundamental errors – the first error is that of trying to simply impose 21st century values onto a 1st century text – and, before we get too self-righteous don’t forget that even in our society slavery was still part of our economy until only a couple of hundred years ago and many would say that it still is, albeit that we hide our slaves in the sweatshops of the third world.
And the second error is to be so outraged at the concept of submissiveness in anyone – whether that is slaves, or children or wives as we shall see in chapter 3, that we miss the central point. No matter how much our 21st century equality for all hackles are raised, in theory, at the idea of anyone being submissive to anyone else the point that St Peter is making here is that being submissive, suffering for the sake of the gospel is both part of the calling of being a Christians and an essential part of becoming more Christlike.
“For to this you have been called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”
Being a Christian is not merely about giving mental assent to the principals of the sermon on the mount, it is about being a follower or a disciple of Christ and, like all good teachers, Jesus gives us a practical example to follow:
“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.”
By the way, just let me be crystal clear about something: these verses and these types of verses, should not be used to justify being submissive to violence or abuse in the workplace or the home now – to say that they do mean that is to make the opposite mistake of the one I mentioned a moment ago and that is the mistake of imposing 1st century social values into the 21st century and that is not what we are about either. Let me say loud and clear: If you are being subject to abuse anywhere in your life then, in the words of Fireman Sam, Get out, Stay out and dial 999. Is my crystal clear enough on that?
But is all this emphasis on submissiveness and suffering just an excuse for holy passivity or even masochism or protecting the economic status quo? We hardly need to look very far either in Christianity or other faiths to find examples of people who seem to revel in suffering for its own sake. But is that the message that we are being given here – Christ is being offered as the model of submissiveness and suffering but did Jesus submit to unjust punishment and suffering for its own sake? Let’s read on from verse 24:
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that [here comes the reason], 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 soul.”
Don’t forget that even though most of the chocolate eggs are now merely a memory around our waistline we are still in the season of Easter and in Easter, contrary to public opinion, we are not celebrating the suffering of the cross we are actually celebrating the victory of the resurrection. The suffering and submission of Jesus was not an end in itself but was a means to the end of setting us free from slavery to sin and death. The submission that Peter urges on the early Christian slaves was not about securing the temporal victory of the slave owners but it was about securing the resurrection victory of Jesus by becoming ever more Christ like.
So, bearing in mind what I have said about the need to avoid simplistic transpositions of 1st century values into the 21st century what are we to take from this? Well, I trust that God will speak to each of us individually and we may each take a different lesson but two things occur to me:
First, I think, very healthy for us to be reminded that Christianity started and flourished amongst the oiks of society. Throughout history and in many parts of the world Christianity has been a powerful force for liberation amongst the so-called dregs of society – in South America, in Africa, amongst the low caste people of India it is often the most poor, the most enslaved, the most outcast who find a home and a resurrection power in the gospel of Christ. In my view we should take full hold of the fact that many of our brothers and sisters in the early church were literally slaves suffering daily persecution and that many of our brothers and sisters in todays church around the world are still in the position of being the lowest of the low and ask ourselves what that means to us and for us.
Secondly, but remembering what I said a few moments ago about not putting up with literal abuse in the home or in work, I think that we could still learn a great deal about the power of submission in the name of Christ. When people abuse us as a church do we follow the way of the world and hit back in kind or do we follow the example of Jesus in front of Sanhedrin and Pilate?
Jesus was given many opportunities to get out of going to the cross but he did not take them and, thank God for that because by his wounds we have been healed. The church is the body of Christ here on earth and perhaps it is by the wounds of the church that the world will continue to be healed.