Sermon: Fifth Sunday of Easter, Rev. Paul Weaver, 14 May 2017, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 14th May 2017

 Rev. Paul Weaver


 (Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5,17-18; 1 Peter 2:11-25; John 14:1-14)

“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people”. Perhaps you remember those words from the last week’s reading from the First Letter of Peter. Peter had begun the Letter by emphasizing the wonderful things God had done for us in Christ, and reminding us of the blessings of forgiveness, salvation and hope. We are called personally to respond to God’s call, but Peter also makes clear that we are called into relationship with him – and with each other.

Peter has shown something of who we are, even what God has made us: but in today’s reading he takes up a new angle. How does this Christian life work? What does it actually mean to live as a follower of Jesus Christ?

Peter again calls his readers “aliens and exiles”. His point is the same as the old song: “This world is not my home: I’m just passing through.” Yes, says Peter, your goal is God’s kingdom, but right now according to God’s purposes, this is where you are. This world made by God; this good world made by God; this world which is beautiful in so many ways, but which has so much that is wrong in it; this world with so much ignorance and sin, and so many problems. This world which still is God’s world; this world which right now is our world. How do we live in it as Christ’s people?

The whole letter has much to say, but one of the keys is Peter’s call to “submit to every human creature”. Now you mightn’t have noticed that statement in our reading this morning. You might have heard, a few lines down, Peter’s call “for the Lord’s sake to submit to every human institution”. This is a common way of translating Peter’s statement here, and it neatly links to what Peter is about to say. But it is not the natural translation, and to me misses something significant, even if uncomfortable.

What Peter says is “submit to every human creature”. He is calling us to be ready to submit to everyone. We are all only human beings, creatures made in the image of God. But we must be ready to submit to one another.

Now we are not naturally keen on the idea of submitting to others. We know that it is sometimes necessary; but after all, each of us knows that “I am No.1”, don’t we? Especially in today’s world, where my rights are so important, and where my freedom is a top priority. Submission implies that others have power over me, and the fewer people who have power over me, the better! But the natural reading of Peter is this call to submit: in other words, to choose to put others first, not yourself. He is not setting up some new power structure with two levels: on top, everyone else, and on the bottom of the pile, me – us!

Submission in this sense is not so different from Jesus’ teaching on loving our neighbour. Is there anyone who is not my neighbour if I have the opportunity to show them love? Of course there is not. Is there anybody to whom I should not give priority if God’s love requires it? No! So Peter says to submit to the Emperor: yes, it’s pretty common knowledge what a terrible man he is, what a mad man he is, but – submit to him and the rules of his empire. And Peter says to submit to the governor of the area where you live: yes, he’s probably corrupt, and he has no understanding of what  Christians are on about, and he may turn on you at any time, but submit to him!

Peter points out that God is a God who wants order in this world, and that in his purposes, government is meant to be a good thing. Good government will provide order, in which Christians may live their lives without unfair treatment, and be free to practice their faith and to bear appropriate witness to Jesus. Of course, no government is perfect. Some are corrupt, some are dictatorial, some are incompetent. Some will make unreasonable demands which will be difficult to meet. Some will make ungodly demands, which A Christian may feel they cannot take on. That was the reason for Stephen’s martyrdom about which we heard: he was commanded to keep quiet about Jesus, and faithfulness to Jesus required him to preach the message powerfully, though his words were hardly diplomatic!

In our own situation, for which we must be thankful, whatever we think of our political leaders, submission will involve obeying the laws as required of us, and playing our required part in the life of the community.

There will be particular laws or government decisions we believe are wrong, and we have a range of ways to challenge these things or lobby for change. But it comes from a basis of submission: recognizing the legitimacy of the government system with which we have been provided.

Our passage provides a second example of submission, about which we will rightly feel a degree of discomfort. This is to do with slavery. In the days of the New Testament, most work was done by slaves. There were millions of slaves in the Roman Empire. And slaves worked not only in the fields and on building projects. Doctors and teachers were slaves – some would say that they still often are! Actors and musicians and secretaries were slaves. Any household of standing had slaves. Why be a person with resources and do your own work? Let the slaves do it! In Roman law, a slave was not regarded as a person, so much as a thing, a piece of property, a living tool.

Of course the reality was more complex. Household slaves, to whom Peter would mainly have been writing, had no legal rights, and the way they were treated varied widely. Some slave owners treated their slaves as part of the family and showed them fairness and even respect, but other slaves could be treated brutally.

Now of course slavery is not part of today’s western civilization. Indeed the abolition of slavery was largely due to Christians who, admittedly 18 or 19 centuries later, saw that slavery was incompatible with the implications of the Gospel and its breaking down of barriers between slave and free, and the nature of humankind as all made in God’s image. But Peter was writing to Christians in the world as it was, and submission was his message.

“Submit to your masters with all deference”, writes Peter. They didn’t have a choice about submitting: they had to do that. But deference or respect is not something a person gets because they demand it. Peter calls on slaves to choose to give that respect and honour. Some masters will deserve it: others will not. The point was this: respect was not a bonus only for the really good master. Christians were to show it to all, whoever they were, whatever they were like, because they were made in the image of God.

One particular aspect of slavery was the potential for brutal and unfair treatment. Peter says that if slaves were punished by their masters, they must make sure that they don’t deserve it. And they should accept it without resentment or anger. And if they are treated unfairly, they are to continue to give the honour that their master may well not deserve. In all this, Jesus is the pattern. He was arrested, mocked, beaten and crucified: it was totally unjust and brutal. And yet he did not retaliate or threaten to get even. When we are mistreated, he is to be our pattern.

Whenever we feel unfairly treated, whatever the situation, it is so easy to hold on to anger or resentment. Sometimes there are things we can do if there are issues that need to be dealt with: people we can speak to or respectful things we can say, things that can be followed through. But if we follow Peter’s message, we must first of all seek helpful ways to handle our anger and resentment, so that we can go forward as Christ’s servants.

Peter reminds us that Christians are free people. We are set free from sin and guilt: set free to serve God and our neighbour – not because we are forced to do it, but because we choose to do so as followers of Jesus, who sacrificially showed us such love.

Peter has other examples of submission in this letter, and Paul also calls on Christians to submit to one another. We can allow the idea of submitting to others to be all about giving power to them, but Peter sees it as being about humble and loving service, loving our neighbour, whoever they may be.

People still notice whether Christians act like Christians. They want to see us live good positive lives. There is increasing ignorance about the Christian faith, and our lives can either help people to see something of the truth, or push people away from the truth. We are called to make clear to people the true nature of Christian faith: that it is based on love, and on the One who in love died and rose for us all. Let us choose to live his way as free people, as Peter says. Let us honour everyone; let us love our Christian family; let us be good citizens.

This really is the good life: the good life is not about classy restaurants, upmarket hotels, the indulgences that life offers some of us. It is about following Christ and serving others, even submitting to others, as Jesus has done for us. Amen.

Paul Weaver