The Example of Christ’s Suffering
Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 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. 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. “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. This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
“Some Bible verses should never be read aloud in public.” (Barbara K. Lundblad, Professor of Preaching at Union Theological Seminary, Feasting on the Word, A.2.P 437) That is apparently the opinion of the Revised Common Lectionary Committee who chose to leave out the first verse of this section – Verse 18 – the one that addresses the slaves. The problem with leaving that part out is that it removes the context from this passage and makes it harder for us to understand and interpret it. It is important that we understand that in Peter’s audience there were new Christians who happened also to be slaves in pagan households. They were being harassed for their beliefs. Living in a world where jumping to the whim of the master’s voice was considered normal behavior now had to add accepting insults to your faith to the list of things that made life difficult.
For the modern reader of this text we have to also wrestle with these questions: What shall we do with Bible texts that have been used to harm people? How will abused women and children hear words about enduring pain and unjust beatings? What are some of the options we have for hearing and interpreting this text today? It may be uncomfortable to hear this text read aloud, but we must hear it so we can struggle with it.
Pastor Joy Douglas Strome suggests that we need to first notice what this passage does not say. “Nowhere does it suggest that suffering is a legitimate condition for those who are abused, coerced, or oppressed. Nowhere does it suggest a stoic tolerance for violence against anyone. Nowhere does it suggest that God’s name be invoked as the hand strikes or the belt comes out or the vestments come off. What is suggested is preference for an alternative ethic, an alternative to the pagan culture…” (Feasting on the Word, A.2.P 436) You see, what this text suggests is that we should hold our fire when we are under attack. That just seems unnatural, doesn’t it? We want to defend; we want to retaliate; we want to hit back when we are threatened. But that is not the example Jesus offered for us. “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.” (vs. 23) In other words, abuse did not produce more abuse; suffering did not produce more suffering. Hurt was not the knee-jerk response to being hurt. What Jesus tried to teach us is to trust God in the midst of our suffering.
That is a lofty goal in the best of circumstances. For these slaves it must have been a brutally hard lesson to learn. Consider how hard it must be to trust God under the hand of your abuser. Imagine trusting God while blanking your mind to the reality of your attack or trying to shut out the words that fly in your face. I think we need to consider an alternative ethic to the one that seems to reign in our culture. I think we need to consider our options. Consider this for a moment: much of the world in which we live functions with a binary component. Our cell phones, laptops, iPads, and so forth basically function based on the choice between One and Zero. Digital technology is possible because of the never-ending array of combinations of ones and zeroes that can be chosen. This one-zero choice is so imbedded in our technology and in our culture that we hardly notice that it affects nearly every decision. We don’t realize how deeply this one-zero thinking informs our lives. It implies what we think of as possible and what we think is not. Limiting choices to one of two leads us to fall back on impulsive right-wrong, black-white, either-or, yes-no, fight-flight decision-making.
There are so many examples of binary living evident in our culture. One gang member’s insult becomes another gang member’s death sentence. One quirky learner is quickly labeled as a problem in the classroom. One disappointment in a relationship becomes the foundation for a divorce. In church, a year of decline quickly becomes the death knell for the congregation. Peter suggests that there are always more than two choices; we always have options. A person can be abused and not become a serial abuser. One can be bullied and beaten and not grow into a cycle of violent behavior. Couples can fight and not end up in divorce court. A church can struggle and not close its doors.
I believe that the story of Jesus is a story about options. There are always other options…God always has options. God’s options involve hope and redemption and expanding possibilities. There is much more to God than “either-or”.
In many ways it is impossible for us to imagine the plight of the First Century slaves Peter is writing to. We have limited information about how slavery worked in those days and what it must have been like to try to be a Christian when your master was a Greek pagan with a dozen gods. Peter tries to reassure his audience that being ridiculed or abused by one’s master does not determine their self-worth or their value to God. While we cannot identify with those to whom Peter writes, we might be able to understand a bit of what it means to be boxed-in, feeling less-than-free. We might be slaves to the mindset that is limited by binary thinking. Crisis, doubt, and fear may box us in and limit our ability to think about creative solutions. Anxiety about health or work or getting to the next paycheck may enslave our hope for the future. Emotional ties may hinder our ability to see the future of church in an un-churched world.
We need to hear Peter’s words of encouragement and learn to trust in the midst of our own suffering. That’s what this part of the letter is about: not that we should blithely accept whatever bad things come our way; but that we should trust God to offer options in the midst of whatever happens. When we think about it we realize that we find ourselves backed into a corner in a culture that couldn’t care less about our alternative ethics or in trusting God for options. The prevailing ethic seems to be self-centered at its core, with “Eat or be eaten” as its motto. Trust is defined as a safe place to shelter your money. Charity stays at home; and we become trapped by limited thinking and spiritual claustrophobia. You remember that last week I said Peter’s was “an Easter Letter”. Peter tells us that God liberates us from the slavery of our limits by bursting forth from the tomb with expansive possibilities. If we follow Jesus out of the tomb, we will discover a life that might actually mean something someday. A young boy is having a conversation with his friend, a much bigger boy. “I could beat you up,” says the bigger friend. “Yes,” the boy replied, “but why would you want to?” With that the conversation moved on to friendlier topics; God offered another option. It is amazing what a little perspective can do.
Author, theologian, and civil rights leader Howard Thurman tells the story of walking down the street with his two young daughters. They came upon a school and the two girls were very excited to see the swings on the playground. “Look, Daddy, let’s go over and swing!” “You can’t swing in those swings,” he told them. “Why, Daddy?” “When we get home and have some cold lemonade I will tell you.” And so, at the end of the day when Thurman and his daughters returned home, the girls asked again why they could not enjoy those particular swings. “It is against the law for us to use those swings, even though it is a public school. Only white children can play there. But it takes the state legislature, the courts, the sheriffs and policemen, the white churches, the mayors, the banks and businesses, and the majority of white people in the state of Florida – it takes all these to keep two little black girls from swinging in those swings. That is how important you are! Never forget, the estimate of your own importance and self-worth can be judged by how much power people are willing to use to keep you in the place they have assigned to you. You are very important little girls.”
This same message of hope and liberation offers God’s options to all those who are being kept in “their place”. The self-worth of the abused is not defined by their abuser. The beauty of a marriage cannot be reclaimed by someone who walks away. The mission of the church is not fulfilled by those who do not participate in it. Peter tells all of us that we must not be defined by the culture in which we live. No matter what we go through as individuals, as families, as a community, or as a church, God is standing by with options that help us endure and return us to the arms of the Shepherd. We do not have to choose between “bad” and “worse”…One and Zero. Hurt does not need to breed hurt. There are always other options. We are called to find the options God offers and live with them.
As I read Howard Thurman’s story it occurred to me that HOW we see determines WHAT we see. Options are almost always about perspective. If we can let go of our personal agenda and really try to see everything from God’s perspective, I believe we will realize that we always have options…options that we can only imagine through God’s eyes. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.