April 19, 2015 Second Sunday After Easter
Breaking the Chains
Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 23, 1 St. Peter 2:19-25, St. John 10:11-16
It was about 400 years earlier that Aristotle had observed that it was impossible to abuse a slave. Since a slave had no rights, he reasoned, one could not violate his rights. It was an argument that held up well, philosophically speaking.
By the first century A.D., when Peter wrote, the lot of the slave had improved. Many of them were valued members of the household. Some had refined skills such as medicine and teaching.
But let us not romanticize. Under Roman law, a slave was not a person but a property. He still had no legal rights. He was not allowed to marry. Slaves did cohabit, however . . . but children born to their unions became, at birth, the property of their masters.
So by the standard of the pre-Christian world, first-century slavery was rather benign. From our perspective, it was horrific. Some commentators have experienced paroxysms when considering our epistle lesson for today.
“Since one knows the way in which these ethical injunctions have been employed in the church’s life,” one wrote from his fainting couch, “this text may promote acute embarrassment, shame, and outrage. The temptation to select another text for preaching lies near at hand.”
Ah, well . . . If we’re going to preach God’s word we’re going to preach all of it, so let’s see what we can make of this passage.
One profound difference between our culture and that of the first-century Roman world lies in how one’s status is established. Back then, and through the Middle Ages, a person’s place in the society was inherited. A carpenter’s son became a carpenter; simple as that.
To attempt to blaze a trail up and out of one’s inherited class was an act of disloyalty against those who remained in that culture. A modern parallel is those some call “Toms” – blacks who are said to betray their fellow blacks by climbing out of their environment and into the middle class.
Our Constitution, on the other hand, holds that God has endowed each and every one of us with an inalienable right to “the pursuit of happiness,” including determining our own status. So it is that many break out in cold sweats when they read:
“Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh. For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully.”
The word translated “servants” bears examination and we’ll return to it shortly. These thoughts strike us, steeped in the all-American gospel of upward mobility, as jarring. This teaching may have been fine for first-century Roman subjects but does God really expect 21st-century American citizens to lay down our constitutionally protected rights, to submit willingly to suffering and pain?
Can this be what our heavenly Father requires of us?
It’s what He demanded of His only begotten Son.
And the 2,000 years intervening haven’t changed a thing. A follower of Christ is entitled to no better treatment than his Lord.
It’s a sobering thought . . . but then sober thought ought to be a hallmark of the Christian life. I think back to my ordination and recall the hair standing up on the back of my neck as the bishop read his charge to me from the prayer book.
One thing I love about our prayer book is that its language takes us back behind the Enlightenment with its rationalism and the individualism it engendered. Here’s an excerpt from the charge that was read to me that day:
“The Church and congregation whom you must serve, is his Spouse, and his Body. And if it shall happen that the same Church, or any member thereof, do take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue.”
The prayer book will not let us escape sober thought.
The author of the letter before us had matured into a man of sober thought. We remember the younger Peter, the one who said to his Lord on Jesus’ way to the cross: “Far be it from you, Lord; this shall not happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). The Lord’s response: “Get behind me, Satan.”
By now Peter has grown into a man who teaches that to follow the Lord is to follow in His tribulation, one given to referring to Psalm 34: “Many are the afflictions of the righteous” (v. 19).
He borrows so liberally in our lection from the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53 that he ought to give the old prophet a shared byline. Peter and his colleagues had known Isaiah’s words when they bumbled along cluelessly with their Lord as He made His way toward Calvary. Now Peter grasps their meaning.
Isaiah had opened a window on the heart of the gospel: “. . . by whose stripes you are healed.”
And so, Christ-follower, what will you fear, the wrath of man or the wrath of God? What will you seek, the blessings of this life or the blessings of the life to come?
Some knew healing at the hand of Jesus, all may know healing by the wounds of Jesus. Those wounds are the cure for the curse of sin.
The apostle is not exhorting his readers to Stoic resignation but to a full-bodied understanding of what it means to be in Christ. Suffering cannot save us; only the blood of the One who suffered for us can do that. It is left to us to take up our cross and follow Him.
Now, to return to that word translated “servants.” The usual biblical word for “slaves” is douloi. It is variously translated “slaves” and “servants.” The important thing is that the ancient world knew no sharp distinction between the two as we understand today.
But the word Peter uses is oiketai, which is derived from oikos. You’ve probably seen it in the yogurt section of the dairy case. It means “house.” The oiketai were household servants or slaves. This word comports with Peter’s emphasis on the household of God in this letter to the persecuted church.
The household of God operates on a basis altogether different from that of the household of man. The apostle highlights the distinction by an inversion in the household code.
These codes were common in the ancient world, both in the Scriptures and in pagan cultures. They instructed people – wives and husbands, children and parents, masters and slaves – in how to behave in relation to one another.
Paul sets out such a code both in Ephesians and Colossians. In both he follows the usual pattern, leaving slaves for last. But here Peter, who will go on to address wives and husbands, puts slaves first and makes no mention of masters.
In the household of God, everyone is a household slave . . . of God. In Christ, all are free . . . free to enslave themselves to God. For make no mistake, you will be a slave of God or a slave of sin.
He who submits to man without giving his consent submits to God willingly, for his service to God prevails over all mundane concerns, even at the cost of liberty in this world. All of the faithful are subject to persecution for the sake of the gospel which chains us together.
The apostles pay so much attention to slaves in their letters because the early Christians came mainly from the lower classes, but Peter is saying something more: Slaves may be despised by men but they have a place in the household of God. There is no partiality with God.
Class distinctions, whether inherited or won by the sweat of the brow, do not impress Him . . . except perhaps in the negative. It is He who left the realm of glory to make Himself a slave to all who has become First Slave in the kingdom of God.
On the path to the cross, Jesus neither lashed out nor complained. He scarcely spoke. His followers, too, must behave in a way that turns the code of the household of man on its head.
Even more, this letter calls slaves to unjust suffering . . . along with everyone else. In time of persecution, every Christ-follower, highborn or low, must expect to bear the cross. Favoritism has no place in God’s plan.
And so, what of us, beloved, what of us? Reading the Scriptures, reading church history, reading Tof blood baths of Christians in our day, I cannot deny a sense of guilt for having it so easy. Even as I perform the labor I believe our Lord has called me to I wonder at how some can suffer so grievously for the cause of Christ while I play golf.
Perhaps God sees my faith as insufficient for more demanding work.
I could regale you with tales of grave injustice and great affliction, but not all believers are called to suffer on that scale. Let me keep things closer to home, spiritually speaking, with an account I read a few days ago written by Matt Colvin.
The Rev. Dr. Colvin and his wife, Sora, are Reformed Episcopal missionaries in the Philippines. He teaches, she trains midwives. He wrote:
“One day about two years ago, when we had just purchased a used vehicle from another missionary departing for home assignment, we had trouble starting the engine. A mechanic was dispatched from a shop to get it started.
“He arrived at our house holding only two items: a piece of red electrical wire stripped at both ends, and a flat-head screwdriver. With these in hand, he lay down on the concrete floor of our carport and disappeared under our engine.
“We brought him some water to drink as he worked. Two hours later, to my great astonishment, the engine roared to life. He had fixed the starter — for a time — with only a screwdriver and a piece of wire.
“I recently had coffee with the Rev. Vic Bernales, the pastor of the Reformed church we attend here. He shared his plans and dreams for future ministry: how he hopes to enroll in a (doctor of ministry) program in the States and use the resulting degree to further his teaching of Filipino clergy by starting a seminary here in Davao City.
“He labors with the pressure of the great need, but feels inadequate to the task.
“Sora has been working overtime this week, preparing to teach a class on statistics for the student midwives at the birth clinic. They need to know about statistics in order to understand clinical research and published studies in the field of midwifery.
"Sora herself has never taken a formal class in statistics; she describes herself as having ‘bootstrapped’ herself into a knowledge of the subject. But she's the one who was tapped to do it, and so she is digging deep to prepare to teach at a level that will satisfy her own standards.
“I'm in a similar position. Hitherto, I have taught Greek here in Davao. The students persevered, and in a little more than a year, they finished my . . . Greek grammar course. They have now read all of Mark and 1 John. Two of the five are graduates of a local evangelical seminary, which did not really prepare them to read and handle Greek at the level they desired.
“When we finished the Greek book, they asked me if I would also teach them Hebrew. I may have a Ph.D. in Greek, but my knowledge of Hebrew — acquired by sitting in on my daughter's high school classes and reading on my own for the last five years — is rather like Sora's knowledge of statistics: ‘bootstrapped.’
"Yet Hebrew is the need and desire of my Filipino friends and students, so I am giving it a shot. Last week, I handed out Hebrew textbooks and we started.
“Another missionary friend has a favorite saying, ‘Beware the comfort zone.’ God has a way of taking missionaries outside their competencies as they seek to fulfill the needs of the body of Christ to which they have been sent to minister.
“Why does He do this? Because our God is a lot like a Filipino mechanic: He can work miracles even with badly inferior tools. It would be great to have a Hebrew Ph.D. and a statistics professor and an ivy-covered Protestant seminary taught by experts with a huge library.
“I bet our car's ignition would have been fixed in no time with a shiny box of professional Snap-On tools, too. But sometimes, we find that we just need to be a screwdriver or a bit of wire in the hand of the great Mechanic. We have this treasure in jars of clay.”
So wrote Matt Colvin, a slave of God. Amen.