To This You Were Called…
1st Peter 2:18-25
This is a very difficult passage to preach in today's world. It's probably better to avoid the text than to try and explain it. How many people would put verse 17 on a sign in front of their church? The issue of slavery is hard for our modern ears, even if it is in the Bible. This passage is one of those passages that our critics use to condemn the Bible as irrelevant. As well, this passage has been used as an endorsement for slavery in the past. Preachers across the south often used it to justify the existence of slavery. Religious leaders used this text to teach slaves not to challenge their masters.
Frederick Douglas quotes: "For all the slaveholders I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others. It was my unhappy lot...to belong to a religious slave owner.. He always managed to have one or more of his slaves to whip every Monday morning."
More troubling, the passage belongs to a very difficult section of the Bible for modern readers - period. The more you read the worse it gets. Submit to the leaders of your government. Vs. 13. Slaves submit to your masters. Vs. 18. Wives submit to your husbands. Vs. 3:1. That's a trinity of controversy.
What do you do with it? The commentaries I've read suggest many different paths for preaching.
Some suggest using them as instructions on how to relate to our boss. How to be a model employee? This is a nice way to appropriate the text. Work hard and never complain. It's especially good advise for Christians in the workplace. The best witness a Christian can give is as an honest and hard worker. The worst witness is someone who has poor work habits and wears their faith on their sleeve.
Some suggest we interpret it as a metaphor for our relationship with God. The metaphor suggests that God is our master and we are his servants. By the way, the word for deacon in the Greek is doulos, which means slave. This is a nice metaphor, but probably won't preach in a community like ours - where people go church shopping. People looking for the church that will best serve their needs are not going to be immediately attracted to a church that says Christianity is more about serving than being served. How many Easter ads did you get in your mailbox from a church advertising the harsh demands of a Biblical faith? I saw a lot of Easter Bunnies and pastors wearing golf shirts. But I did not see a single one with a cross on it. Slave/master language is not good public relations.
Others suggest we avoid the slave/master metaphor. People in the 21st century will find it difficult to connect with such a harsh metaphor. Instead, they suggest focusing on the metaphor at the end of the text where Peter says that we are lost sheep and Christ is our shepherd. In fact, the other lectionary texts focus on the shepherds. The 23rd Psalm says, "The Lord is my shepherd…" John 10:1-18 calls Jesus the good shepherd. But I don't know much about shepherds or sheep. My only experience with sheep occurred when I allowed a bridal procession to escort beautifully groomed sheep down the aisle in a wedding. It sounded like a nice idea for a wedding. But I was not prepared for the earthly treasure a well-fed lamb can deposit in a service of worship. Besides most bridesmaids have never handled livestock, much less in a worship service.
Wisely, the common lectionary elected to skip it and begin at verse 19 for this Sunday. This allows the preacher to avoid it all together by editing it out of the reading. However, I think this is deceitful and assumes you didn't bring a Bible to church. If you didn't bring a Bible to church you won't be able to read the verse that provides its immediate context. Which I think is the best reason of all that you should be bringing a Bible to church and reading along with me. How will you ever know if I'm actually reading the Bible if you don't read along? I've been tempted when people don't read their Bibles to just make stuff up.
However, it is a mistake to avoid, or reinterpret it. The best way to deal with it is to accept it for what it is. Peter didn't condemn slavery because it never occurred to him that slavery was wrong. It was an accepted human institution at the time. As far as I know there is no place in the New Testament where the practice of slavery is condemned. In one place Paul dedicates a whole letter to the encouragement he gave to a slave to return his master. When we just skip over it and allegorize it, I think we only add fuel to the fire for Christianity's critics who say it's irrelevant in our world.
We want the Bible to be 21st Century book that is sensitive to issues that are important to us. But the simple fact is it was not written in the 21st century. Most of the Bible was written before the birth of Christ and the rest of it within 200 years after his birth. It was a pre-scientific worldview - the earth was flat and the sun revolved around it - people who suffered from diseases were being punished for their sin. There's no way of escaping the fact that there are customs and cultures and world views present in the Bible that no longer makes sense to us. This does not diminish the value of the Bible to our faith or as God's word. It just means that we have to read it with an awareness of the cultural context in which it was written. Believing in the Bible and accepting it, as God's word, does not mean we have to embrace the customs or culture of the world it was written in either. We'd all be Jews who had to observe very specific dietary regulations if we did. It's hard to believe God would ordain one culture in time as the only way to look at the world. The timeless message from God in the passage that transcends culture is what we are seeking.
Where we get into trouble is attempting to separate God's word from the culture of the author. How do you know when to separate the worldview of the author from the truth of God's word? Is it God's word to us, or more of an expression of an ancient worldview. This is a sticky problem for every age.
There is a good example in what he says 1st Peter chapter 3:1 about the role of women. Some people will say that this is the way that God intends it to be. Some will say that it was written in a patriarchal time and you have to take that into consideration. Which is it?
Realize it or not, we do this all the time when we interpret scripture. We automatically pick and choose what we believe does not apply to us. For instance, there are a lot of women here today wearing jewelry and makeup. Why? In chapter 3, Peter says women should not adorn themselves with jewels. What do you think he'd say about nose rings and pierced tongues? I assume that most of us would say that there was a specific reason Peter wrote it and it does apply to us today.
Every one of us has read the story of the creation in Genesis chapter one. Most of us will agree that God created the heavens and the earth. But how many of us believe the world is flat and the sun revolves around it? Getting at the heart of any scripture is understanding who wrote it, who it was written to, the historical circumstances that prompted its writing, and then the task of reinterpreting it for our time. How could we explain this passage about slavery if we did not do this? Surely no one here will argue for slavery to be reinstated because it is in the Bible.
Theologian Paul Tillich said, "Every generation must interpret the Gospel for its own needs. This is a perilous necessity. Perilous because in reinterpreting it you may change it or lose it. Necessity because if you don't, it will be irrelevant."
Therefore, when we read this passage about slaves and masters we must consider its historical context. The Romans believed the security of the empire was grounded in the stability of the local household. As the family goes, so goes the nation. Each household had a master - a wife, relatives, children, visitors, servants and slaves. For this reason there were specific household codes of conduct. These codes were the basis for the foundation of their society. The Romans were tolerant of other religions and allowed them to coexist as long as they were not a civic disturbance. Once they became a disturbance, the Romans would bring down the full weight of the empire upon them. This was especially true of anything that threatened their most basic societal unit - the household. Many in Asia Minor were worried that Christianity threatened it. When Christianity began to spread across Asia Minor, people from all kinds of backgrounds began accepting Christ. Among those accepting Christ were slaves. Understandably the heads of their households began to grow nervous when they heard their slaves talking about their new freedom in Christ. This, then, became a threat to Rome. Peter was then telling the slaves that they should not use their freedom as an occasion to rebel against their masters. Instead they should win them over to Christ be being model slaves. Peter believed the way to bring the world to Christ was through our example. Being a good and model citizen.
"Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us." 1 Peter 2:12 NIV
Though Peter is not concerned about something we consider a terrible evil today, there is something beautiful here being expressed about our Christian faith. Slaves were becoming Christians. Get it! We belong to a religion that reached out to free men and slaves. The love of Jesus cannot be restricted by the lines we draw in society between rich and poor, sinner and saint, slave and free. What does that tell you about Jesus? What does that tell you about the mission of the church? Can you understand how radical this kind of love was in a world like this? God was loving someone whom the rest of the world considered less than a human being - mere property. Which, of course, means slavery would eventually be undone. How wonderful to know that the way God would bring it to an end would be through the hearts of the slaves as opposed to the masters. When a person becomes a human being, how can you keep him a slave?
The slavery issue takes your attention away from this great truth, and one other. At the heart of the text is a demanding call to discipleship. It is the call to walk In the Steps of Jesus. Jesus, he said, did not fight evil with evil. He did not strike back when he was attacked. Though he was without sin and there was no deceit in his mouth, he did not retaliate. Through the sacrifice of his life, he brought redemption to the world. Walk In His Steps! Here is the tough part:
Do not retaliate. Do not repay evil with evil.
Let God be the judge. God will take care of it.
God should be the basis of our behavior.
Our behavior should not be determined by the attitudes and actions of others.
The only way to break the cycle of violence is to let it stop with us - which means refusing to strike back - no matter how bad you have been wronged. Think about this in relationship to what is happening in Israel. I'm thinking especially about Manger Square in Jerusalem. Inside the church are armed gunmen. Outside the church are armed soldiers. All if it taking place where the Prince of Peace was born.
It's one thing to talk about it. It's another thing to question the truth present here. It's another thing to actually put it in practice. It's easier said than done. I can't tell you how many times I've lain awake dreaming up some kind of sweet revenge for someone who has hurt me. How many of you are holding onto grudges? Holding onto a grudge is failure to trust God. When God looks in your heart and sees a heart that desires revenge, he says there is someone who does not trust me. Are you walking in His steps? You remember those WWJD bracelets don't you? What if you began to ask the question "What would Jesus do" and then actually did it?
Have you heard the story of Laura Blumenfeld? She is a Washington Post Reporter who wrote a book called Revenge: A Story of Hope. The book is about her experiences with the family of the man and actual man who attempted to murder her father. Laura's family is Jewish and the man who tried to kill her dad is a Palestinian. It is the story of one family caught up in the whirlwind of violence between these two peoples. She took a leave of absence and went to Israel to search for the would-be killer who was in prison and for his family. When she found them, she worked her way into their lives and befriended them. During her time with them she never revealed her identity. She just told them she was a reporter writing a book and asked for their help. She said that she was sick to her stomach every time she met with them. She said her feelings of disgust and hatred nauseated her. Eventually she finally did them who she was and her dad was the one he tried to murder. She did it at his parole hearing where she stood up and begged the judge to release him. When the judge asked her what gave her the right to speak, she said that the man he tried to kill was her father. She said everyone in the courtroom gasped. The family and the would-be killer were stunned. Afterwards she arranged a meeting between her family, including her dad, with the family of the would-be killer. Everyone involved was changed. The hatred they had for one another's race slowly faded as they began to see each other as human beings. She ends the book by talking about how she began the whole affair. She went to the Wailing Wall and wrote a one-word prayer on a peace of paper and stuck it in the wall. What was that one word? Transformation. And, as she said, "Transformation. It is exactly what happened."
That is what Peter is talking about. This story illustrates what this passage is about. Don't waste your time trying to explain the reference to slavery. Deal with the heart of God's timeless word in the text. So I end with this word from God, words that are hidden behind the ugly institution of slavery, words, which I believe, are as timeless as they are demanding.
(1 Peter 2:21 NIV) To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps.