A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on May 15, 2011.
Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25
Most of you are aware that I preach from the lectionary. For those of you who did not know this, and are not aware of what the lectionary is, I will explain briefly. Designed by a committee (and yes, I am aware that a camel is a horse designed by a committee!), the lectionary is a prescribed set of scripture readings for each Sunday that span a period of three years. Each week, you’ll find a reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, an epistle reading, and then a passage from one of the gospels. They follow a pattern based on the liturgical calendar. The point is, that if each passage is considered, over a period of years the reader will have studied most of what the Bible has to say.
Currently, we are in the season of Easter. According to the calendar, this is the fourth Sunday of Easter, a part of those fifty days that lead to the celebration of Pentecost, the birth of the church.
And since I’ve been preaching of late pretty exclusively from the gospels, I decided today to consider the epistle reading, the one we took a look at a few moments ago. After reading this passage carefully, I consulted some commentaries to see what others have to say about this text. In doing so, I discovered something very interesting. Most of the commentators wanted to talk, not about the text we read earlier, but the portion of the passage that was left out by the lectionary committee.
If you read along from the pew Bible, or perhaps your own Bible, you might have sneaked a peek at the verse that precedes our formal reading. Our reading began with chapter two, verse 19. Again, that was the decision of the lectionary committee (or is it the elephant that is a horse designed by a committee?). When you read verse 18, which really is in context with today’s reading, you will see why it was omitted.
The subject is most uncomfortable for our twenty-first century sensibilities. Don’t bother to open up your Bibles again to take a look. I’ll tell you what verse 18 says…
Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. Then, Peter goes on to say what is included in today’s text. “For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.”
As Paul Harvey would say, “And now you know the rest of the story.” Now you know why that verse was omitted. Slavery is history, done, kaput… a painful chapter of our history that we’d just as soon forget. Why re-hash old painful stuff like that? At least, that seems to be the position of the lectionary folks. But sometimes, considering the past can help us deal with the present and the future.
It is pure coincidence – or is it? – that this reading was chosen for today when our special guests are our Native American friends from Oklahoma. You see, that very verse from 1 Peter is one that was used in the 19th century by many folk, including those who went to church every time the doors were open, to justify the institution of slavery. All of that, of course, goes part and parcel into the same spirit of domination that drove our European predecessors to take over this land from those who already lived here.
It just goes to show that the scriptures can be used to justify just about anything, if you believe it hard enough and want it to be so. If you doubt that, pick up the Democrat-Gazette on any given day and read the letters to the editor, many of which use the Bible to justify some pretty outlandish ideas.
Several years ago, a young man visited our church for worship… once. After the service was concluded I greeted him and welcomed him. Without hardly a hello-howdy, he grasped the worship guide in one hand and pointed to it with the other. “This Deacon of the Week,” he said. “Is that a girl?”
Realizing the tension in his voice, I tried to lessen it somewhat by saying, “Well, if you consider a woman pushing toward her 80’s a girl, then yes, I suppose she is.” He looked at me and said, “That’s not biblical,” and then commenced to quote passages from 1 Timothy that backed up his interpretation of things.
I’ll tell you now what I told him then. The slope gets pretty slippery when you take ancient texts, such as found in the scriptures, lift them out of their equally ancient context, drop them down into the twenty-first century word-for-word and expect them to have an exact fit… especially when it comes to those biblical admonitions that are cultural or social in nature. That would include Peter’s admonition to slaves. It would also include, in my opinion, those that had to do with males being dominant over women. Paul and Peter, in writing about such things, were acknowledging the present reality, not necessarily suggesting it should continue, or that it ought to be the norm.
If you insist that deacons or elders or ministers must be male because the Bible tells you so, then we will also have to consider the re-institution of slavery because, alongside those scriptures that talk about male domination, there are very clear passages – such as 1 Peter 2:18 – that tell slaves how to behave toward their masters. And you will also find those that tell slave owners how to deal with those who are under their command.
I don’t think any of us would consider going back to slavery, would we?
Let me tell you what the greater miracle is in all of this… that those who are descended from slaves, or from Native American ancestry, would have ever had anything to do with the gospel at all. This is the way one person put it: “How does a people enslaved by a people of a Book come to accept that Book as authoritative and legitimate?”1
I think I can tell you why. Because they listened very carefully to what Jesus had to say. The One by whom all scripture is to be accepted and interpreted and understood said very clearly that all the law is summed up in the commandment to love God and neighbor. It is very hard to love someone you conquer. It is most difficult to love someone you own.
Let us not forget that the context of this passage in 1 Peter is not slavery. It is hardship. Followers of Jesus were being persecuted at every turn, and Peter chose to use Jesus as his example of how to live in the face of such difficulties. “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.”
“Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”
This isn’t the only place in the Bible you’ll find this kind of advice. It’s found elsewhere, especially in the New Testament… “self-emptying language, self-denying language, language of endurance and hardship.”2 But let’s admit it: we don’t suffer. Not much anyway. Not like the people to whom these words were first written.
Being in the presence of those who do, however, brings perspective. Last Saturday morning, during our farmers market, I was talking to a friend who’s not a member of this church. He told me he was headed next over to Junior Deputy to the Miracle Field. Are you familiar with the Miracle Field? It’s a program designed to enable physically and mentally-challenged children the ability to play baseball. Buddies help them bat and then assist them around the bases. Even children in wheelchairs get to participate. It’s a wonderful program, and I encourage you, if you’ve got nothing else to do, to spend some Saturday-time helping out.
My friend told me he had a teenage niece who was just giving her parents fits. She had come to the misbegotten idea that the world owed her, that she was being completely put-upon, and that life was treating her unfairly. “I’m planning to get her down here,” he told me, “and take her to the Miracle Field. She’ll see firsthand what ‘unfair’ really is.”
No, you and I don’t suffer… not like others do. There are people, right now, in other parts of the world who are being persecuted because of their beliefs. It makes no never-mind if those beliefs aren’t necessarily Christian, it’s just the idea that they can’t exercise their beliefs the way they want.
Last Sunday, when we considered the story of those two followers of Jesus who were on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, I suggested that Luke included in his narrative a few things that we needed to lift from the story, hold them up in the light of further scrutiny, highlight them if necessary, and see how Luke used these simple elements to tell his story. We can do the same today. In fact, we can do it every time we open the scriptures.
From today’s passage, let’s not focus on the slavery issue. Instead, take a look at Peter’s simple affirmation that when it comes to suffering Christ has left us an example. Pull that word out from the page of your Bible. Hold it up in the light. Turn it around and examine it thoroughly and carefully. Example. Example. Why kind of example?
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross,” Peter says, “so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness…”
So this is what I suggest you do, and who knows, I might even try to follow my own advice. In your life, as you journey down this road of following Jesus, if you ever wonder about what you ought to do next and you find the Bible to be more of a puzzle than a help, do this: focus on Jesus… what he said, what he did, and to whom he took his message. Let him be your example. Out of this book, lift from it that which would enable you to think as he thought, to talk as he talked, to do as he did. If you will do that, my guess is that you will “never run out of redemptive things to be or do.”3
And if there be few who walk beside you, then understand that was true of him too.
Lord, be our example, and may we walk in Jesus’ steps. Amen.
1Barbara K. Lundblad, Feasting On the Word: Year A, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 441.
2Ron Adams, “Living By the Word,” The Christian Century, May 3, 2011, p. 23.
3Barbara Brown Taylor, “Something About Jesus,” The Christian Century, April 3, 2007, p. 43.