Friday night I finally watched the movie “Slumdog Millionaire.” It was a shocking look at a grim reality in India.. I can’t think of a worse scenario for a child. This little boy named Jamal saw his mother was murdered by a religious mob. He literally grew up on the trash heap. Bad people continually hurt him and used him throughout his life. If anyone had the right to become bitter and violent, it was Jamal. And yet, through it all, he stayed hopeful and told the truth, even when it meant he could lose everything.
It was a God thing that I watched that movie this week. I really didn’t want to watch it because I knew it was going to be difficult to see, but it came from Netflix and we thought we should probably watch it. I’m so glad I did. It’s one of those movies that changes you and helps you realize how truly fortunate we are in our circumstances. And I think it is a great example of what we’re talking about today.
I feel pretty safe to say that most of us here have never experienced the type of injustice that Jamal did, but have you ever been in a situation where you feel that you were treated unfairly?
Have you ever experienced that kind of thing? Have you ever found yourself in a position where the powers above you were oppressive and you felt totally powerless to do anything about it? Perhaps you have been over looked for a promotion because the boss didn’t like you. Maybe a coach or a teacher doesn’t like you and you have been boxed out of the “in-group” or the starting line-up. Perhaps you have been abused because you were different from the majority. Maybe you find yourself in an abusive situation with your parents, or in a difficult marriage.
It doesn’t seem fair, does it? In times like this things can seem completely hopeless.
What do you want to do to the person or the group that unfairly treated you? Let’s be honest. You feel like this guy. You want to punch them in the face. You want to make them suffer for the pain they inflicted on you. And, the deeper the pain they caused, the deeper the pain you want to throw back at them.
In our scripture lesson for today we are going to deal with this issue. We’re continuing our study of 1 Peter. I’d really like you to take out your Bible and turn there, because I want to show you something. The lectionary reading starts at verse 19, but if you’ll notice, that is right in the middle of a sentence. At first I wondered why they did this, but then I realized that this is Good Shepherd Sunday and the Gospel reading is the Good Shepherd passage and the end of this passage talks about Jesus as a shepherd.
Aha, I get it. They were trying to make this a Shepherd text. That’s fine, but, if we are going to do justice to really teaching from 1 Peter, then we need to widen the scope of the reading a little bit. Peel it back just one verse, to verse 18.
What is the first word? “Slaves.” Bam! That word hits you right between the eyes, and suddenly this isn’t just a cute lesson about the Good Shepherd. When we really look at the text we see that Peter is directly speaking to people who are dealing with the ultimate form of oppressive powers and unjust treatment. These people are literally slaves. They are human beings who are owned by another human being. We’ll start with the issues of slaves and injustice, then we’ll see how it ends with the Shepherd.
In the midst of their seemingly hopeless situation, Peter tells them how to have hope.
I can’t think of a more desperate situation than being a slave. Now, it would be safe to say that none of us in this room are slaves. Some children may disagree, but, I think I’m safe on this assumption. So, we might think that this passage has nothing to say to us. I think it does though. All of us have experienced some form of injustice at one point or another. All of us have been mistreated by someone more powerful than us, or ostracized by a group of people for some reason or another.
In order to understand 1 Peter, we have to understand the situation that Peter’s church found itself in.
Look how Peter identifies them back in 2:11. Peter says, “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles
Aliens and exiles. Let’s be clear, it’s not “aliens from X-files.” That’s something completely different. It aliens and exiles.
Peter’s people were foreigners and outcasts. They were Jews who followed Jesus in a Roman world. They were getting heat from every direction. Their Jewish relatives had ostracized them for following the heretic named Jesus of Nazareth. The Roman government was becoming increasingly antagonistic toward this new religious group because they would not bow down to Caesar as Lord. They did not believe in the Gospel of Caesar. They did not believe that Caesar had brought peace on Earth through the Empire. They bowed only to this strange person named Jesus, whom Pilate had crucified.
Not only that, they were predominantly people from the lower rungs of the class system. To understand today’s text we really need to look all the way from 2:11 – 3: 7. The first two groups he addresses are the slaves in 2:18 and then wives in 3:1. Back then, those were the bottom. Slaves were owned by masters, and wives were essentially owned by their husbands.
So, how do you have hope in such a desperate situation? How do you follow Jesus when people treat you badly and you really want to punch them in the face?
Let’s see what Peter tells them…
11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul.
In this context, I think the desire he wants them to abstain from is punching them in the face. He tells them to not become violent in revolt against these powers.
He continues with some really shocking words…
12 Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge. 13 For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, 14 or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.
Now wait a minute. Isn’t this the same institution that is oppressing them?
I need to paste a huge warning label on this sermon right now. For centuries this passage has been misused by the church to promote slavery and to promote a male dominated church structure. What I’m about to say is so crucial. Peter is not condoning slavery or male chauvinism. He is simply giving wise advice to people who are in a pretty hopeless situation. We’ll see how this plays out.
Here’s the heart of the message…
15 For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish.
You see, the end goal is to actually change the perspective of the oppressive system. But we have to do it the way Jesus would do it, not the way we would want to do it.
Here’s the key verse.
16 As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. 17 Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
In other words, Peter is saying to the slaves and the wives, “Look. You know you are free and that, in God’s eyes, you are equal. Jesus has set you free from sin and from the powers of this world. You know that, I know that, God knows that, but…they don’t know that yet. So, let’s take this nice and slow, shall we.”
With this context, now we can see what Peter is really saying in the lectionary text.
18 Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. 19 For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20 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.
I have to be honest, I’m not really happy with the NRSV translation here. It says, “it is a credit to you” in v. 19 and then in v. 20 it says, “you have God’s approval.” In this translation it sounds like we will earn God’s approval if we let our master beat the snot out of us. That’s weird, because, in the Greek the word translated “credit” in v. 19 and “approval” in v. 20 is the same word. It’s the word “charis” which, everywhere else in the Bible is translated “grace.” I think the English Standard Version actually does a better job.
19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 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.
What good would it do if the slave reaches up and grabs the whip and starts beating the master with it? Yes, it might make the slave feel good in that moment, but then the slave becomes the abuser.
What good does it do when Americans party in the streets when the enemy is shot? Is that any different from the video of Bin Laden partying when the Twin Towers fell?
What good does it do when the jilted lover, or the overlooked worker posts hateful things on Facebook or slanders someone’s name, or slashes their tires, or hurts them in any way.
Peter’s instructions don’t make sense to us. They seem so unfair and unjust. I mean, where is he getting this from? Is he a masochist?
Look what he says…
21 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. 22 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 23 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. 24 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. 25 For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
See, here is the shepherd piece. We live like this because Jesus did. If anyone had the right to fight back, it was Jesus. If anyone had freedom and power to bring about vindication and justice on his oppressors, it was Jesus. He could have called down the fire of Heaven and nuked every last one of them. But that isn’t how God’s Kingdom works. Jesus showed us the better way.
Sometimes, it is better to appear weak, and even lose an argument or your rightful place in society in order to show the love of God.
Last Saturday I was at the Synod Assembly meeting. Sounds fun, right? A woman named Vivian Jenkins Nelsen spoke. She is an African American woman who grew up in the south, the daughter of a Lutheran Pastor. Her father worked very closely with Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement. One day, when she was 18 years old, she was in a room with a small group of people, one of whom was Dr. King. They were preparing to March on Selma, Alabama. Vivian was angry at Dr. King and told him so in front of everyone. She said, “Dr. King, I think we need to shoot the white people, cause they just don’t get it.”
She said the he walked over to her, held both of her hands, and looked her intently in the eyes. “if we follow your way,” he said, “then everyone dies. You have to trust us, that the way of peace is the way to life for everyone.”
Where is hope today? Hope is found in the fact that we, aliens and exiles, strange people who follow Jesus, have been set free from sin. We have been forgiven and made clean, and given the knowledge that, no matter what anyone says about us, we are all equal and beloved in the sight of God. We have been set free so that we do not have to be right all the time. We do not have to fight back and return evil for evil.
Like Jesus, we can entrust ourselves to the one who judges justly. We are not the judge. We have been set free from judging and set free to love.
We have hope, because we know that in the end, no matter the cost to ourselves, love wins. We have a shepherd who has led us there and we can place our hope in that.