Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor.
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 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. For to this you have been called, because 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 him 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 2:11-25 ESV)
I came home from our Camp with the imagery of Jesus as the tabernacle, pitching his tent along our life’s journey, fresh in my mind. We’re going through 1 Peter this Easter season and by the light of the empty tomb, we learn that this place – all we’ve ever known – is itself a campsite where we live before we go home. Such a perspective defies our experiences for we believe that there is more than our senses tell us and there is more when our senses cease in this world. That’s what Peter has pointed out in chapter 1 and the first part of chapter 2 of his letter to the diaspora Christians that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have an inheritance in heaven that is safe and secure. Here in this life we have a faith – given in baptism and strengthened by his Word because God has created it and protects it and we live it as newborns so dependent on God, as living stones of the spiritual house, as God’s chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation – so many pictures to tell us that we’re not in darkness anymore and we have received mercy. Yes, it’s a powerful light that shines from this empty tomb! And by it we see that we are in hostile territory. The world wants our allegiance – the country, the corporation wants our commitment to them first – and this world is not happy to discover that we live freely – yet critically in it. No longer do we automatically obey the world but we check first to see how Jesus wants us to respond – and the world doesn’t like that.
So coming home from Camp with all these thoughts in my head, I was and wasn’t surprised – saddened and yet paradoxically intrigued – by the news reports that the Chinese government, citing not following building regulations, had bulldozed a cathedral – the Sanjiang Christian Church – which had taken over 12 years to build at an estimated cost of just under $US5million. Situated in Wenzhou (pron – ‘when-joe’) – a hub of Christian missionary activities, the news reports claimed that the city was known as ‘the Jerusalem of the East’ and had the largest percentage of Christians (some say up to 15%) of any place in China. We can imagine the heartache and sadness caused to the members of the church. We can imagine the anxiety of what might come next to other churches. But we shouldn’t be surprised in the slightest that such events happen. We are sojourners and exiles in this world, not marking time, twiddling our thumbs, but living with God whom we don’t see in a world we do see and which can often say that it doesn’t like us!
Having reminded his readers and listeners of their identity in Christ and their place in the world, Peter’s letter now turns to the practical consequences of being a disciple of Jesus. In this section from chapter 2, Peter now offers advice and guidance on what following Jesus – being Israel – the fulfilment of the Old Testament is all about. We heard three sections:
1. We are to struggle – and Peter describes it as waging war – against the passions of the flesh.
2. We are to live freely following Jesus but not use our freedom as a
pretext or cover for evil.
3. Addressing servants – we should say ‘slaves’ for a better understanding of the group he’s talking to – though we need to hear the word ‘slave’ as describing an economic relationship with less freedom
than a hired labourer and we should try and minimise the nationality, skin colour, life long components so often associated with our view of slavery – and to this group Peter calls Christian slaves to be respectful to their masters even when it involves suffering.
Our struggle with the passions of the flesh is not to be seen as some sort of focus on lust or sexual sins only – a concentrating on human behaviour in the bedroom, so to speak. Rather Peter is referring to our whole behaviour that it be good – not necessarily according to the law, or according to culture or custom but so that God is glorified and the Gentiles – the world that doesn’t follow Jesus – has to admit that we have done ‘good’ by them – served, helped, cared for, had compassion on, didn’t seek revenge against those around us – those who see us and know us. The world may still see us as weird – may even regard us as a bad for society – but when they actually look at what we do and how we live towards them, they are forced to conclude that we have actually made things better in our small corner after all.
Peter then addresses Christians in terms of their civic responsibilities and if he is writing at the time of Emperor Nero, then his words need to be heard clearly. We are called to honour and respect the authority we find ourselves under – whether then it was the governors and the emperor or now it is more diffuse within a liberal democracy. Paul also talks about this in Romans 13 and Peter and he are speaking similar messages – use your freedom in Christ to be respectful, to accept authority – and while it is not mentioned here because of the situation of those diaspora Christians who had no or very little power as such, we should also note that Christians who have authority are to exercise it under God just as those under authority place themselves under it. Recall what I said earlier, that Christian engagement with the world is not acquiescence, uncritical allegiance, or unthinking obedience but rather a critical engagement as a disciple of Jesus which might even lead to civil disobedience – but always done respectfully! Again Peter talks about ‘doing good’ – not to make a heaven on earth, not to grab power or possessions for ourselves, but to serve those round us and to bring honour to God.
Christian living is not sleepwalking through life. It is not robotic – awaiting instructions from someone to tell us what to do. No, Christian living is energetic, critical, reflective, active because it is engaging the world – looking actually at the people around us – their roles in society, themselves as individuals – and then responding as we follow Jesus – not them as such – so that we ‘do good’ to our world.
‘Do gooders’ is a negative expression today because the good is usually imposed upon others or it meets the do-ers agenda rather than the needs of the other person. This is not what Peter is meaning when he uses the word ‘good’. For him – and he uses the term in all three sections – ‘good’ means behaviour that God would regard as good – sinful though we are – as we seek to honour God and serve those around us. This is the key – loving service – sacrifice.
And perhaps it is the slaves of that time who most acutely experience the consequence of following the risen Jesus, that the world is not necessarily going to pat you on the back, applaud and appreciate you, give you a medal or set you free. No! It can happen that in fact the world makes your life miserable. Yes, it’s perverse and wrong and nasty but welcome to Planet Earth. Our human nature can say ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ or ‘might as well be hung for sheep as for a lamb’. If I’m going to get beaten then I might as well do something to give them cause. We all can understand that behaviour, that desire and Peter simply points us to Jesus. Jesus understands this hardship – he truly does – not from reading a novel and imagining what injustice is like but from feeling it himself via whips, thorns, nails, betrayal, mockery, and a cross. Sin and hurt and fear are taken to the cross and righteousness and love come forth from his empty grave with him for us – and for us to share and offer to those around us. That’s good news. It is good for us. And it is what motivates and guides us in doing good to those around us.
Christians are not hermits, isolated from the world, just marking time until we leave. On the contrary, Peter points out that the resurrection realities of Jesus’ presence is our engagement with the world – at whatever level we are called to serve – and we seek to do good – loving service – a sacrifice – for those around us. And if we didn’t already know this, that means our lives as we leave here just got a lot more complicated. But take heart … Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!)
- 1 Peter 2:11 - 25