As I read this passage, I can hear tumbling down out of it, all the ways it can and has been misused. “Slaves obey your masters,” it says. It calls for us to accept suffering. I can hear their voices; the voices of slavery past and present. I can hear the voices of oppressors down through the centuries preaching this passage, which calls for deference and submission, which makes accepting the lash, accepting the injustice with humility a saintly action and I want to run away. I want to hide this passage back in its little read place in my Bible and faithfully ignore it. There are better passages from which I can preach. In fact we read two very nice passages this morning. Having everything in common, that will preach. Sheep, I can preach about sheep. Sheep preach. Let’s learn about how God knows our name and what it means to hear God’s voice. THAT would be so much easier.
It is not really in my nature to walk away from something because it is hard or difficult. And so I spent extra time in research and worked to delve a little deeper to come to a better understanding of what Peter’s intention and meaning where when he penned these words. I could not simply accept that this passage said what it seemed to be saying at first glance. I know too much about God, about the rest of scripture to believe the intention of this passage was for us to accept slavery, to accept injustice, to believe that it is saintly to passively allow the cruel systems of an unjust society to continue.
I do not believe God ever calls for passivity in the face of cruelty and injustice. I am unable to look at any other human being and tell, her that yes I know that her husband beat her, screams at her, rains all kinds of abuse down upon her, but God wants her to stay. It is not a part of the Christian faith that we are to submit ourselves to abusive authority with humility simply because in doing so we are suffering as Christ suffers. I cannot tell any person enslaved anywhere, in any place in our world, currently or at any point in history that it is their Christian duty to accept their slavery and reflect Christ by gently accepting their lot in life.
Wherever there is oppression, wherever lives are being stamped out, wherever freedom is being shackled hand and foot, wherever there is cruelty against others, I see no reason either within my own moral compass or within the Bible, which gives me that moral compass, for us as Christians to accept this kind of cruelty, as a part of what it means to follow the example of Christ. And nor do I believe that we can look at the entirety of scripture and come to any kind of belief that says God accepts the cruelty of servitude or the abuse of another, much less calls for us as Christians to endure it with humility. I am sure that turning a blind eye whenever we are made aware of these kinds of things happening that we are to work against them. And when we are made aware of our part of in perpetrating systems which support and uphold these kinds of sins of our society, that Christians living in pursuit of holiness seeking to live lives of Christ-likeness, we are to do our very best to extricate ourselves and seek to bring an end to these systems and practices.
What I know is that scripture says God is a just and good God. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, God speaks justice and peace into a cruel and unjust world. Micah calls for us to, “Love mercy, do justice and walk humbly with our God.” The heart of Israelite identity, the foundation narrative of the Old Testament is a story about slaves NOT accepting the cruelty of their masters. The scriptures say that God heard the cries of the people and remembered the covenant made with Abraham and God sent Moses to them. Moses, with the help of God, basically led a slave rebellion which resulted in Moses leading the people up out of Egypt, up out of the land of slavery. God heard the cries of these slaves as they suffered beneath the whips of cruel masters and God did not praise them for their endurance, God did not saint them for their suffering, which reflected that of the Messiah who was yet to come. No, God gave them a leader who sought justice on their behalf. God brought justice to them and set them free.
The exodus story, is one of the foundational narratives for us as followers of Christ. In the Exodus story and throughout Holy Scriptures, we read what it means for us as Christians to be the people of God. Our scriptural foundations are in justice and mercy and freeing the enslaved.
The Minor Prophets are all about lifting up the abused, about not accepting a society and a societal order which lifting up some while crushing others. Time and time again throughout scripture, God calls for us to speak for those who have no voice, to lift up those who are cast down. Jesus tells us the first are last, the poor are rich, and the lowly are mighty. Scriptures are full of calls for us as followers of God to DO God’s goodness in this world, to live God’s righteousness in this world, for us to be agents of justice in the face of this world’s overwhelming injustice.
Over and over again, throughout the Old Testament we are told God is a God of justice, a God who requires justice, who expects those who are God’s people to live just lives, which promote justice not only for themselves but the least of these. Jesus raises up the poor, the weak, and the sick the needy. Jesus sets the captives free. Revelation is in essence the ultimate story of justice and freedom not only being brought to individuals, but to all the world as in the end God’s justice, God’s mercy, God’s freedom and righteous will come to reign in the New Heaven and the New Earth. All will live as they are were meant to live. The created order will be restored, which is embedded in God’s righteousness, God’s goodness, and God’s justice.
From beginning to end, the Scriptures are the story of God restoring the rightness, the goodness and the justice of creation to this world. So, NO, unless this passage stands in contradiction to the whole of Scripture, this passage here in 1 Peter cannot be calling for slaves to accept their unjust lot in life, it does not and cannot be a call to accept any kind of injustice or cruelty as a Christian virtue.
So the key to this passage is the part which causes the most confusion. The key is in that 1 Peter compares the unjust suffering here to the suffering of Christ. Sure we can see an easy tie. The slaves are suffering unjustly in that they are being beaten by cruel masters, and Christ was beaten and killed unjustly. But the tie is not found simply in the cruelty each must endure, but in WHY they are enduring the suffering and cruelty.
The suffering of a slave who is simply being beaten because the slave’s master is cruel, simply being beaten because that is what masters do to slaves, then that is not only unjust but it is meaningless suffering. To suffer for the sake of suffering is meaningless. It holds no value and no honor. Christ did not suffer simply for sufferings sake. Christ did not die simply to show us as his followers that we too should accept unjust suffering even death when it comes our way, just because. Christ did not die to give us an example of what it looks like to accept abuse and cruelty. Christ’s sufferings and death were not meaningless acceptances of injustice.
Christ’s suffering and death had a purpose. Christ suffered to bring salvation, to save, to bring life, to bring freedom to the people of this world. Christ died to, “bring good news to the poor, . . . to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of the sight of the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.” (Luke 4:18-19). Christ died as a part of God’s overarching plan to restore the justice, righteousness and goodness of Heaven, to the created order, to all things. Christ suffered in humility and died for us, to bring us salvation, as a part of God’s plan to bring justice and righteousness to all creation.
So if we are to live reflecting Christ’s goodness, righteousness and justice in this world, we are to suffer as Christ suffered, that is in the pursuit of goodness, righteousness and justice in this world. So when Peter addresses slaves (which many of the Christians in the Churches to which this letter was written were) and they are suffering beneath the cruelty of those in authority over them, and they do so in the pursuit of Christian goodness, righteousness and justice, then accept they were to accept suffering with humility knowing that just as Christ suffered in the pursuit of justice they too were suffering.
Jesus’ example continually showed us that we are to give voice to the voiceless, strength to the weak and to bring the marginalized to the center. In Christ’s kingdom, the first are last. As Christians in pursuit of holiness, it is our job to do live in pursuit of bringing the values of Christ’s kingdom into reality in our world. As we work to bring justice, mercy and God’s goodness and righteousness to everyone, and as we seek to dismantle systems which work to marginalize, and dehumanize those around us, there will be times when those in authority over us will cause us harm. That is what it looks like to suffer for the sake of our faith, to suffer as Christ suffered.
As you pursue justice, show deference to those who have authority over you, whether that authority be shown to be kind or cruel. But in all things do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. As we work to bring justice and to the cruel places of this world, this sometimes means that we must lay aside our own comforts, our own desires, our own rights. When we are speaking up for the voiceless, the marginalized, the least of our society, this at time means doing things which are difficult, and uncomfortable for ourselves.
Right now this means, for the sake of others we are laying aside our right to move freely, to shop as we please, to see a movie in a theater, to go to a baseball game, to gather here together, for the sake of the more venerable among us. It means when we do begin to come together again, we must, like Christ, raise up the weak, the sick, the vulnerable, the least among us and think first of what is best for them as make the decisions that will need to be made in how we choose to come together as the people of God. As brothers and sisters in Christ we are to speak up for those who might not feel empowered to speak up for themselves, to put the needs of others above our wants and our desires and in these times it may be necessary to even lay aside our own rights to support and empower those around us.
We are to be people who call for justice, call for mercy, not so much for ourselves but for others and in doing so, we will walk humbly with God. This is a part of what it means to be called to be holy as God is holy, to live God’s goodness, to act out God’s love. By living out this kind of holiness we are showing this world what God’s righteousness looks like in these worst of times. And in times like this Godly pursuit of seeking the good of others, may mean walking away from the desires we have for ourselves, it may mean putting our wants below those of others and it may even mean setting aside our own rights. This may cause our own suffering and may invoke the ire of others who see things differently, but this is what holy living looks like right now, what it looks like today and what it may continue to look like for some time.
In all things at all times we are to continue to love justice, show mercy and walking humbly with our God, as we work to reflect God’s character in our own lives. And do so knowing, Christ also suffered in his love for us. As we live out Christ-likeness, many times this means people will respond to us with kindness and appreciation and we do not balk at being treating kindly. Most of the time people do not mind seeing us live out a life of goodness, righteousness and holiness, but sometimes that pursuit calls for us to fight for the sake of others as we pursue justice and mercy in this world. But there will be times when we may suffer in pursuit of living out the gospel, when that happens, bear up under the suffering knowing that Christ also suffered. Suffering happens but it should not be a deterrent to living the way we are called to live and it should not be a deterrent as we join God in God’s holy pursuit of supporting the weak, setting the captives free, and bringing justice to the places where only injustice is found.