Sunday, August 13, 2017

Living Hope for Social Life: Sermon on 1 Peter 2:13-25

Fr. Alexandros knew he didn't have much longer. In this second week of February, Alexandros was terminally ill. And Alexandros was extremely relieved by that fact. You see, Fr. Alexandros' last twenty-four or twenty-five years of ministry had been a very trying time. In the year 704, he was hauled from his monastery to be acclaimed patriarch – as a successor, he and his fellow Copts believed, of St. Mark the Evangelist. But by the 700s, Alexandria and all Egypt were not under Coptic rule. No, they were subject to governors sent by the Umayyad caliphs, the rulers of the vast Islamic empire that had conquered Egypt over sixty years before. And in the wake of rebellions and some failed expeditions, that empire was desperate for extra revenue streams. So why not go after the churches in Egypt? That's how it was that, during the reign of one caliph after another, one governor after another, taxes on Christians, especially on monks and bishops, began to skyrocket.

On his deathbed, Fr. Alexandros remembered how one governor demanded each bishop to cough up two thousand dinars and more, every year; how that governor had spat on images of the Virgin Mary and mocked the name of Christ. But still he paid what he could. He remembered how the next governor taxed him an extra three thousand dinars, and to be tortured 'til he came up with it, though he was under a vow of poverty. And when he went to greet and honor the next governor, that man demanded the same – even though, after going through the land like a beggar, Alexandros still had five hundred dinars left to go on his last tax debt!

Fr. Alexandros recalled being thrown in prison, seeing the churches be robbed, watching his associates tortured in the streets. But through it all, he submitted, he patiently endured, he prayed. The next governor was worse still, and things didn't look up until they'd actually started branding the hands of Christians with the mark of a beast, so that if they were caught doing business without it, the Christian was fined and had his hand cut off. It was at that point that Alexandros prayed God to make him deathly ill and spare him from being branded – and God answered him. But in the meantime, up until that last straws of the mark and of forced labor provoked some bloody Coptic revolts here and there (which Alexandros didn't endorse), the History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria tells us this:

The Christians gave [the caliph] all the money they could, and trusted in God, and rendered service to the Muslims, and became an example to many.

That sums up Fr. Alexandros' approach to the government under which, the society in which, he ministered and lived. But a few centuries earlier, his predecessor Mark's mentor, a man named Peter, felt a burden to advise a band of Christian communities throughout several Roman provinces on how they should approach their society and their government. They were in tight straits. Some of those believers had been wealthy, had been doers of good and indeed benefactors to their cities and regions. But was there a point to it, if society would be this hostile? And many believers wondered: Can we really remain subject to a pagan government, in a world where all around us, temples are being built to the emperor as a god? Should we just give in and go with the flow? Should we take a stand and revolt? Peter tells us we ourselves are a “holy nation” all on our own (1 Peter 2:9). So in light of that, should we denounce the emperor, condemn his governors, mock municipal officials, withhold taxes, make up our own laws, separate ourselves from surrounding society, form Christian ghettos in our towns? What should we do, Peter? What should we do?

Peter doesn't outright say it, but by way of analogy with what he does say later on, he might well have started off his reply by saying this: “Do you not know that to this you have been called, because Christ left an example for you, so that you might follow in his steps? Didn't Christ live on this earth under a pagan government? And yet he didn't withdraw from society. When I walked with him, we did not live unto ourselves, nor live by ourselves. Christ didn't angrily denounce Caesar. He didn't revile Pontius Pilate with disrespect. Nor did he urge violence against that fox Herod. Nor did he despise their centurions, but readily offered them aid in their hour of need (Matthew 8:13); nor did he shun their tax collectors, but made one his disciple alongside me (Mark 2:14). No, Christ paid his taxes – and mine (Matthew 17:27)! 'Render to Caesar what is Caesar's,' he said, 'and render to God what is God's' (Mark 12:17). So as not to give needless offense (Matthew 17:26), he submitted to the laws of Rome and Jerusalem in all that didn't infringe on his mission and conscience, though he was Son of God, and King of a higher kingdom than theirs.”

So might Peter well have said. But what Peter goes on to actually say is just as helpful in guiding them – and us – on how to deal with government and society. Peter hints, first, at what government actually is. He tells them to consider the governing authorities as a subset of “every human creature,” or perhaps we should read, “every human creation” (1 Peter 2:13). Caesar may claim to be a god on all his coins, and he may have temples to him scattered throughout these cities – actually, imperial cults were the fastest-growing religion in the first century – but he merely stands alongside other human creatures. His whole authority structure is man-made, though by these conventions, he does wield the highest authority. And into his provinces, Caesar sends out his governors to wield an accountable authority. And they have two purposes: first, they are to punish evildoers. That's their job – that when people violate any of Rome's just laws, a penalty should be imposed. But the second function is to praise those who do good – Peter's language suggests he has his eye on civic benefactors, those who perform notable services like buying grain to feed the people, or sponsoring construction projects, or representing the city on a diplomatic mission, or things like that – things the governor, or the town council, would invariably notice and set up a monument or plaque in commemoration (1 Peter 2:13-14).

So that's who the government is: not a divine power on earth, but simply a human creature with some valuable purposes. That's what they're for. But who are we in relation to it? Peter says, “People who are free” (1 Peter 2:16). Maybe he remembers the time he asked Jesus about taxes, and Jesus pointed out to him that even in this world, the children of the kings of the earth are, by right, exempt: “Then the sons are free” (Matthew 17:26). The rightful authority of “the kings of the earth” doesn't touch the royal sons in the same way, because the royal sons are free. And that, Peter is saying, is who we are. We relate to the powers and authorities of this world in a unique and special way, because we are free. And we are free because we are royal sons and daughters, or as Peter says here, “God's servants” (1 Peter 2:16). In that way, we are not under this world's jurisdiction.

And yet... And yet, Peter says, it matters how we use that freedom. We dare not use it as “a cover-up for evil.” Our status as royal sons and daughters isn't meant to free us up to be lawless, to spread anarchy in the land, to mindlessly defy Caesar and his governors over every little thing. Instead, we are to live as God's servants – our relationship is to his authority, which we really are under. And God's will, Peter tells us, is that “by doing good you should silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 1:15). He tells us, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 1:12). The way we treat governing powers, the way we treat society, the way we treat our neighbors and our neighborhoods, is meant to be a witness. It's meant to be a refutation of all the accusations they bring against Jesus and his people. Lawless living, tax evasion, withdrawing from society – those behaviors don't silence the ignorance of foolish people. Instead, they're bound to occasion a lot more speaking against us as evildoers! But conscientious living, willful contributions, positive engagement with society – those behaviors are a good witness. And that's what our freedom is for.

And so, Peter encourages us, “be subject to” – submit to, defer to, show respect to – “every human creature” – yes, even the emperor, even his governors – but do it “for the Lord's sake” (1 Peter 1:13). Even though we are free, even though in a sense we aren't under their jurisdiction, yet we submit to them... because we don't do it for them. We don't obey their laws because those laws are binding on us; we don't obey their laws because we fear the consequences that might befall us if we don't; no, we obey their laws for the Lord's sake, as an act of worship. Paying the taxes they demand – that's an act of worship, because we, as sons and daughters of God, offer it as voluntary contributions. Following the speed limit, give or take – that's an act of worship, because we do it out of honor for God's other image-bearers on the road and as a witness. The same for all other laws that don't step beyond what pertains to Caesar. We voluntarily submit to those human authorities, for the sake of worship and witness. No one has to pry this submission from our cold, dead hands, as they say; we give it for the Lord's sake.

And so Peter presents us with a set of exhortations – tells us how we should treat the various relevant parties. First, he says, “Honor everyone.” There's a basic level of honor and dignity that every fellow human deserves from you, by God's command. Honor the janitor.  Honor the tax collector. Honor the banker. Honor the crook. Honor the rioter and protestor. Honor them regardless of their gender, regardless of their sexual ethic, regardless of their skin color – I trust I don't have to mention this weekend's events in Charlottesville, Virginia, to those of you who pay close attention to the news. But it'd be an understatement to say that the ugliness observed there was in no way obedient to this command: to “honor everyone.” How we speak of those of different ethnicities, or (for that matter) of different social classes and subcultures, is directly relevant to this command. White, black, Asian, Hispanic – honor everyone. Speakers of English, Spanish, Pennsylvania Dutch, Arabic, Farsi – honor everyone. Man or woman, young or old, immigrant or native-born, inner-city dweller or suburbanite or country dweller, Republican or Democrat – honor everyone. Do good to them, treat them with respect, speak about them with respect. Yes, that's a challenge. It's a challenge because we don't always do that. We harbor prejudices, we speak before we think, we pass along malicious rumors and stereotypes, we fail to see our actions through their eyes or hear our words through their ears. And that's a violation of this commandment. Peter calls us to repent, and to honor everyone.

Next, he tells us: “Love the brotherhood.” That's the next step beyond honoring everyone. When it comes to our fellow believers, we owe them a loyalty, a fidelity, a solidarity, that goes even beyond the universal honor we give to God's creatures. When it comes to the church, Peter tells us to love her. When it comes to Christian fellowship, Peter tells us to love it – be loyal, be faithful, to the active gathering of believers. Is that compatible with avoiding church and trying to lead a do-it-yourself 'Christian' life? Not even close. A solitary rendition of the so-called Christian life, one that doesn't intertwine with other believers as much as possible, is a blatant violation of this command to love the brotherhood. And so, for that matter, is our sad neglect of Christians who don't look like us, don't speak like us, don't live in the same place as us – we need to be more active in showing love to the believing 'brotherhood' in countries of persecution.

And at the climax, Peter tells us: “Fear God.” As in, give God your absolute devotion, your utter reverence, your total obedience. God, and God alone, is the one with an ultimate claim on you. He's your Father, your Maker, your true King. If God says it, that settles it. Your life, Peter's telling us, should be one oriented and shaped around this reverence and devotion to God, and God alone. So what, then, about the king – the governing authority, like Caesar? Where does he fit in this ranking? Peter saves him for the end: “Honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17). Note the choice of word. It's not 'fear the king,' as if the king were on the same level as God. No, it's “honor the king” – because the king (or in our days, the President and the Congress and the Supreme Court) is part of the 'everyone' mentioned earlier. And that's true if his or her last name is Reagan, or if it's Clinton, or if it's Bush, or if it's Obama, or if it's Trump – honor the king.

Don't view him as a God-substitute, don't render your conscience to him, don't obey his example or edict when it contravenes God's will; but at the same time, show appropriate honor and respect. And I have to admit, that's hard sometimes, especially when presidents, legislators, and judges leave themselves open to fair criticism. And yet we're to honor them even when we rebuke them, and to do it from an attitude of submission to every human creature. The way we talk about our political leaders – does it reflect that command to honor the king? Or do we prefer talk-radio shock-jocks and loudmouthed pundits who 'tell it like it is'? Instead, Peter tells us, honor the king, just as we honor everyone else; love the brotherhood; and fear God, out of which we fulfill God's will by offering the worshipful witness of our productive citizenship, even in a society that's looking for an excuse to accuse us. And in doing so, we are in a perfect position to imitate Christ. That's how we live out our living hope with respect to government and society.

But that's not the end of Peter's counsel for our social life. He goes on, in the next paragraph, to address slaves directly – specifically, domestic slaves in a Roman household. Their situation was a lot better than what our country put many people through in times past, but still, it's a perilous position for them to be in – especially if they're bound to serve a pagan master, as some of the believers in Peter's audience were. They were attached to pagan households, and pressed into service to sometimes cruel masters. And you can just imagine the difficult situation that was – especially now that, in Peter's letter, they've heard that they're living stones in God's temple. Maybe they wondered if they should rebel. Maybe they wondered if they should despair. What is God's will for them, in that situation?

Peter turns here to the life of Jesus, who innocently suffered injustice during his earthly ministry and especially as he neared the cross: “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to the One who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:21-25). Peter's telling these Christian slaves: You better than anyone are positioned to imitate Jesus! When he came, he came to be like you! He suffered injustice for your sake – and look how he reacted. Be like that.

And so Peter tells these slaves that, out of their fear for God, they should “be subject to [their] masters..., not only to the good and gentle, but also to the crooked” (1 Peter 2:18). It would be one thing if their masters, their supposed owners, would consistently be easy to work for. But some of them are out-and-out crooked, ready to dole out beatings without just cause. How should the Christian slave respond? Like Jesus did: submitting and being voluntarily subject anyway, as a witness to what Jesus does when a heart is fully his. Jesus didn't return insult for insult. Jesus never threw a punch at the soldiers who whipped him. When the nails went in, Jesus did not say, “You'll get your just desserts, just you wait.” No, he looked past the human injustice to the God who judges justly, and so he was innocent in death as he had been in life; and now, praise God, he's innocent in life that's too indestructible to ever end!

And so in imitation of him, Peter tells Christians who are enslaved in Roman households that, if they suffer as Jesus did, they should be mindful of God and receive it as actually being an expression of grace, that he counts them worthy of being like Christ (1 Peter 2:19). That's a totally separate thing than if they were to suffer justly for something like stealing silverware. “For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if, when you do good and suffer for it, you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God” (1 Peter 2:20). Buried in the pain is the grace of God in a broken world.

For us today, it might be difficult to see how this matters to us. The Roman slave-system has been dismantled. Its more brutal and racist cousin on our shores was abolished in the Civil War. And while human trafficking and slavery are still a real problem, even in twenty-first-century America, none of us are among its victims, so far as I'm aware. So does Peter have a message for us, or should I have skipped these verses? Well, I'm not convinced I should have skipped them – as much as some of you may be eager for me to get to 'Amen'! Because while we don't have Roman slavery, the closest analogy we have – imperfect though it is – is still relevant to some of our lives here. Everywhere Peter writes 'servants,' read 'employees.' And where he writes 'master,' read 'boss.' “Employees, be subject to your bosses with all fear [toward God], not only to the good and gentle ones, but also to the crooked. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while being penalized unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you do wrong and are penalized for it, you endure? But if, when you do the right thing and are penalized for it, you endure, this is a gracious thing in God's sight” (cf. 1 Peter 2:18-20).

Now that hits home! I know many of you here this morning are out of the workforce – just as many of those who heard Peter's letter the first time weren't Roman domestic slaves. But for those who are employees, or have been employees, here's the message. Maybe you're prone to resent your boss, your supervisor, the manager, the owner. Maybe their policies are ridiculous and unfair. Maybe they're giving credit to absurd complaints against you. Maybe you feel like you're doing good work and not getting ahead, while co-workers are bilking the company and getting away with it. And you wonder if there's a point to being a good worker in a situation like that – why not take advantage, why not complain, why not goof around on company time, why not swipe some meaningless supplies, why not call in sick, why not protest and resist?

And here's Peter's answer. Suffering justly is not a credit. If you do those things and get caught, well, he says, you deserve it – you get no credit for it, you've done nothing valuable, and you've pointed nobody to Jesus. But on the other hand, if you put up with an overbearing boss and crummy co-workers and crazy complaints and dreadful demands – if you do all that, and you suffer for doing good, that's grace! That's grace, because that's exactly what Jesus did for you – he put up with the crazy complaints lodged against him, and the dreadful demands of the soldiers, and the crummy co-workers his defective disciples were, and the overbearing tyranny of Pilate, and he was censured and penalized in the heftiest way and, though he was innocent, was fired from the land of the living. But his Father hired him to a new and better life.

So when you go to work, be subject to your employers and supervisors, even the crooked ones, out of the fear of God – do your work with an eye to him, and not to the rest. Those employers and co-workers are part of the 'everyone' we're told to honor, anyway. Only entrust yourself to the Boss Above who judges justly the work you do in his name – even if that work is wiring a house, or selling wares, or cutting hair, or running a copier, or living wisely and honorably in retirement. That's what grace looks like in the workplace. If Peter can say these things even to Roman domestic slaves in danger of real abuse and physical beatings, how much more does it go to those of us who are in no bodily danger from our supervisors on the job? And if Peter can say these things even to those who live under pagan Roman rule, how much more does it apply to us who live under a pluralistic, Christian-leavened-but-sadly-secular-leaning government with the structures put in place by the United States Constitution?

We've talked over these past few weeks about the living hope we have – how the word of God, the gospel which announces the death and resurrection of Jesus, has made us born again, made out of gospel stuff, with a new-creation inheritance in store behind the veil. We have a new relationship to a trustworthy God – Peter calls that our 'living hope.' We are the living stones in his temple; we are the royal priesthood who minister to him; we are the holy nation and treasured possession set aside as God's special portion; we are, in Christ, chosen and precious to our Father. And yet as we sojourn in this world as exiles, resisting the aggression of fleshly desires that still wage their war against our souls, we live out our living hope in our social life – our relation to the workplace, our relation to the public square, our relation to the governing authorities, to societal institutions, to our neighbors and our neighborhoods.

And Peter's message to us is this: Living out your living hope here looks like living out the life of Jesus here; and living out the life of Jesus here means submitting for the Lord's sake, even to man-made authority; it means looking past the suffering to the God who judges justly; it means giving honor to everyone; it means seeing every situation, every mundane social act, not as a chance to voice our personal opinions but as a God-given opportunity to serve the Lord and bear witness to his kingdom and its King, Jesus Christ, “the Shepherd and Overseer of [our] souls” (1 Peter 2:25).

We're no different in that respect from Fr. Alexandros and his fellow Copts under Umayyad rule: Our living hope for social life involves voluntarily giving whatever we can from what authorities ask of us; entrusting ourselves to the God who judges justly; rendering honor and service to everyone; and, God willing, acting as an example to many. We are not property of the state, or the courts, or our employers (however much they sometimes think we are); no, we belong to God, we live as his servants and as the free children of the King; but this is how we serve God with our freedom. This is our opportunity for worship and witness, here and now. Thanks be to God – our living hope is hope for the world! Amen.

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