May 7, 2017
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian, Columbiana
Text: 1 Peter 2:16-25
In this post-Easter season, we’ve been working our way through Peter’s letter to the churches in what is now modern day Turkey. Today’s reading brings us into territory so difficult for contemporary readers to hear that I’ve moved our time of silence to the end of the sermon, as opposed to the beginning. By untangling some of the questions before I leave you to your own thoughts, I hope to help you focus.
Right away Peter presents us with two thoughts that seem completely opposite.
First is up in verse 16: “As servants of God (the Greek here is actually slaves, of being so tightly bound to God that our very identity comes from him) live as free people.”
The second is down in verse 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.”
So, as Christians, we are called to live as free people because our life, our dignity, our very identity comes from God. But if we happen to be a slave, we should subjugate our God given freedom and show deference to our master? This only makes sense if I was on the payroll of a plantation owner in Alabama sometime before 1860. What’s Peter getting at?
First off, a little about slavery in the Roman Empire. Like the American south pre 1860, the Roman economy was a slave economy. Slavery was widespread and most reasonably prosperous households owned slaves. A sizable proportion of the early Christian community was comprised of slaves. Unlike the American south pre 1860, slavery was neither hereditary, race based nor permanent. Impoverished individals or those of low social standing would sell themselves to a household. In exchange for their complete subservience, they would receive economic stability and the social and political status of their master. By the time they were in their 30’s or 40’s, most slaves had achieved their freedom and advanced socially and economically in the process. That being said, slaves were still very much their owner’s property, were brought and sold like livestock and had no legal or human rights.
Secondly, Peter here is not condoning slavery. To be a slave is to suffer. To suffer as a slave is to suffer unjustly. A slave’s flesh, spirit, soul is crucified just as Christ’s flesh, spirit and soul was crucified on the cross. Just as Christ on the cross absorbs in his body the sins of the world, the slave also absorbs the sins of the world. And not just the slave.
Where there is sin, people suffer. Where our world is broken, some suffering will be neither deserved nor just: spouses broken by domestic violence; children living in houses devoid of food; the sick who lack access to healing; the innocent who rot in prison; the refugees trapped in international limbo; the unemployed whose company upped and left; the young adult trapped and trafficked for illicit pleasure. And the list can go on.
Like Christ, those who suffer unjustly absorb in their bodies the sins of our world. Like Christ, they can endure their suffering because they belong not to earthly masters, not to the powers and principalities, but to God who gives them freedom. Who promises resurrection.
Peter can preach acceptance to the slave because of the promise of resurrection. For the Roman slave faithful obedience could actually lead to an earlier release and greater rewards at the time of the release. First century Roman congregations were also known to pool their funds to buy the freedom of fellow Christians who were enslaved to particularly cruel masters. Resurrection can and does come in many ways.
As we leave this passage for our time of meditation, I ask you to consider where you find hope in the midst of suffering – either your own suffering or that of others. In this, I urge you to avoid the trap of limiting your hope, limiting your sense of resurrection, to that which comes only after we die. Yes, resurrection after physical death is our final hope, but its promise has too often be used to trap the abused and empower abusers. Justice, resurrection, can and does come in this life as well – through divine miracles and medical breakthrough, through just legislation and this world intervention.
Hope, resurrection, comes from God and through those who are slaves of God and who use their God granted freedom to bring freedom to others.
So, as we enter into our time of silent meditation, consider your own suffering or that of others. Where is there hope? How might you find, or bring, resurrection?