Good morning, everyone. Please go with me to 1 Peter, chapter 2, and we’re starting in v.18. We are diving back into 1 Peter for the fall, into some famously difficult passages, so, be kind to me, and I want to practice, over the next three weeks especially, an old church tradition that I think will help us, having to do with respecting and appreciating scripture.
Every faith tradition has different ways of respecting the word of God. I remember a strange one from when I was a young child—my church used the King James Version of the Bible with the “thus sayiths” and the “thou shalts,” so whenever we read the Bible it had this strangeness, this other-worldliness to it that reminded me of its holiness. I still have some chapters and verses memorized in KJV, so whenever I quote in the KJV, that’s how you know I’ve been holding onto that one for a while.
Some people stand while they read the Bible. I do that when people look sleepy in order to be mean to them. I once had a pastor who never read the Bible in church—he would memorize his passage each week and quote it to the congregation. I am not that pastor. Ancient Hebrew scribes, the ones who took painstaking care of passing on the true and original text of the Old Testament, as they copied the words of scripture, they would burn their quills and get new ones every time they wrote the name of God, out of reverence. But, until we fix the fire alarm, here’s what we’ll do: each week, as I read the scripture, I’ll do a simple call-and-response. I say, “this is the word of the Lord,” and then you are supposed to say, “thanks be to God.” Let’s practice. This is the word of the Lord.
I’m hoping that tradition can help put us in the right mindset about what we’re going to read. Because, again, over the next three weeks we are going to go through a very difficult section of the bible. One that has been misused in the history of our world, in the history of our nation and denomination, to justify racism and slavery, oppress the poor, to oppress and devalue women, and to promote false doctrine, splitting and segregating our own denomination, and many others. We are still confessing and uprooting those sins today. These are difficult passages.
But I’ve noticed something in my study of God’s word—we are able in our sin to twist the word of God, to distort it into something grotesque, something abusive. We, in our sin, take the power of God’s word and use it against our brothers. But we cannot, we do not have the power, to undo the Spirit’s work of inspiration. The word of God is good. If we take it and understand it for what it is, it will give us life every time. God’s truth will only ever set us free.
Read with me, 1 Peter 2:18-25. [1 Peter 2:18-25] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me briefly. Father God, we do thank you for your word, and we confess our sins in using the power of your word to lord it over the people around us rather than doing what you do with power; giving it up, suffering, serving, and with your truth, setting us free. Amen.
The first year after I graduated from college, I was 21 years old, (it was also the first year Annie and I were married) I taught 9th grade physical science at L.B. Landry High School in Algiers, near where the Shipps live on the westbank. It was an Orleans parish public school back then, the first year it was open post-Katrina, and it was a disaster. They opened the school in August with about 400 students and they had only hired two teachers, who kept the students in the gym all day. I was hired about a month later, and for about the first month the students figured if they could make me leave, then they could go back to spending all day in the gym, so they did everything they could think of to try to get me to quit. It was…unpleasant.
And I remember going to required PD, professional development put on by the vice principles to teach us how to manage a classroom, how to keep children from misbehaving. They did this by playing instructional videos. Y’all, I’m not making this up: these videos to teach us how to manage a classroom in Orleans parish public schools were made in suburban Wisconsin in the 1980s. Her example of a kid misbehaving in class was when someone was whispering to the child sitting next to her. Meanwhile, in post-Katrina NOLA, we had one kid steal a teacher’s car and take several classmates on a joyride before he wrecked it and walked home. We had one kid punch a teacher in the face, and he didn’t even get suspended.
I’m assuming that nice lady on the video really did know what she was talking about, and if I had been teaching in suburban Wisconsin, I probably could have used her management techniques in my classroom and done very well. But nothing she said actually helped me in my current situation, because she wasn’t comprehending how completely broken my situation was. She wasn’t speaking to my real life.
So thanks be to God for his word this morning, one which speaks into the real situation many people throughout history have found themselves in, so that they can know something to do, anything to do, in the middle of a situation that is entirely brokenness and sin. Peter is writing to servants, to slaves—to real people, telling them how they should live in the real world, because not everyone lives in suburban Wisconsin. Some people live in the Fisher projects, or on the street, and God loves them, too. He cares for them. His grace extends to them, and the Christian life is not just possible for people living in suburban Wisconsin.
Christianity isn’t just for good people, who are stable and perfect. It’s for you, too, right where you are, even if your life’s situation is filled with sin and brokenness, and you can’t even forgive yourself, much less bring yourself to ask God’s forgiveness. But there is hope in Christ on the streets of New Orleans. In the eighth ward. In the ninth ward. In Algiers. The Christian life is meaningful and possible here.
My first point from the text today is this: The grace and justice of Christ will allow you to stand up under unjust suffering. The grace and justice of Christ will allow you to stand up under unjust suffering. The passage gives us a picture of the life of a bondservant, or slave, in the New Testament era, and as you can see, it’s not a nice life. v.20 tells us, sometimes if a slave messed up, he would be beaten. Sometimes, even if they did everything right, they were still beaten.
Usually you would become a slave by going into debt. It was a system similar to sharecropping, where people would work for their master to pay off debts incurred just from living—you worked for credit toward your freedom, until your credit sheet went back to even. And everything that happens today, happened then. If you start to do alright, start to get your feet under you, guess what? Interest might go up. Your wages might go down. Or that credit balance might get lost somewhere. You mess up and your employer tells you its coming out of your pay, and soon you’re in a hopeless situation, like some people have experienced with payday loans and credit cards—the interest is so high, the lender so greedy, that you’re paying double, triple what you owed. Ruthless. Oppressive. But completely legal, and masters would often treat their servants like they were less than human.
Hear this: despite how this passage has been used in history, the Bible is wholly opposed to slavery and oppression—the restoration of God is not just personal and spiritual, but also societal and literal. He invites us to participate in both. Paul writes elsewhere that if slaves are ever able to obtain their freedom, they should—it just wasn’t always possible. Whenever the biblical authors have a chance to speak to people in a high place in society—the rulers, the masters—they speak against the institution of slavery, tell them to set their slaves free and consider them as family, argue for justice and equality in society, because righteousness is what makes a nation great.
And even in this passage, in v.23, we see Peter call us to trust in God to judge the masters for their sins. But here, Peter is not speaking to people who have the ability to change anything in their world. He’s writing to exiles, the lowly, the poor, the refugees. So just as I would give different advice to a banker than to someone crippled by debt, knowing that their debt isn’t just going away, Peter here writes about how to live rightly as a servant, as a slave. He’s not going to show a teacher in Orleans parish a video from suburban Wisconsin. He’s gonna get real and tell them something they can actually use.
You can live like Christ, he writes, even while you’re being oppressed. Even when your master sins against you. Because Christ went through oppression. He died like a slave, was beaten even though he didn’t do anything wrong. Arrested without committing a crime. So when these things happen to you, don’t think that God sees you as less than, that he’s embarrassed to call you his child. They did the same things to him.
The language here speaks volumes: in v.18, Peter says to submit yourself, and the word means to bow down, to place yourself under someone else. Then, in v.19 he says that God’s grace will allow you to endure, a word that bears with it an image of standing up, and standing firm. In v.20, he uses that word credit—bringing to mind the all-important credit balance of the servant working to pay a debt, the credit that determined whether he is slave or free—and Peter implies that God will be just in his accounting—change masters in your heart, he tells them; work for God instead of your earthly master, do the things God tells you to do—and God will forgive our debts, our sins, and set us free, both literally and spiritually. The word in v.18 he uses for masters implies lording it over those who are lesser, and he contrasts it in the last verse of the passage, v.25, saying Christ is our overseer, meaning Jesus is still Lord, but one like a shepherd who leads us toward our thriving, who looks out for us, and keeps us from danger. Like a parent. God is king, but also our father.
Peter is saying, you may look like a slave, bowed down to this earthly master, but that’s just a semblance, an illusion, if you’re a Christian. Your real master is Christ, and he will enable you to stand, and stand firm, even in the midst of unjust treatment. Every labor you do for Christ counts toward your credit, your freedom. Unthinkably, he’ll even forgive your debts and set you free. He is Lord, but he is a Lord who would rather suffer himself than see you suffer, a Lord who will look out for you, who will fight for you. He is a just judge, v.23, who will not see the difference between a poor servant and a rich master, but he will hear your case and give you justice in the end.
So, we who are in the room, not many of us have lived life as a slave, but we’ve known injustice. The injustice of being stiffed on a paycheck, of getting trapped by credit card debt, student loans, and payday loans. Of working too-long hours, or with an unjust or even abusive boss, but needing the job to pay your bills. Working multiple jobs because of low wages, and still not having enough.
Where is God in your suffering? He’s beside you, helping you stand up under it, giving you the grace to endure. This person lording it over you—that’s an illusion. He may think he owns you, but he doesn’t own you. Jesus is your lord. And Christ is a master who will forgive your debt and set you free. He’s the just judge, who will overturn judgements devaluing human life, contributing to systems of oppression, a judge who will lift up the marginalized and bring low those who are willing to step on others to get to a high place.
Don’t let these worldly troubles consume you. We spend so much of our life in anger and grief at the people and circumstances that brought us low. We want to get to a place where no one can ever bring us low again, we seek revenge, where they’ll never mess with us again. But in Christ, you can let it go, have the freedom of grace, and find that you’re able to stand tall in spite of everything they pile on you. Christ is able to set you free.
And as you have opportunity, as you have power and privilege, work toward freedom for the people around you, the continual lessoning of their burdens. Pay fair wages and don’t overburden people. Don’t string people along and require more from them than you should. Even forgive. Find ways to walk beside those who are suffering. Who around you is bent down? Who is enslaved? What can you do today to help someone stand up and endure? The grace and justice of Christ help us to stand up under unjust suffering. The second point from our text today is this: Christ suffers in our place. Christ suffers in our place.
Going back to that first year teaching, whenever I think about it, there are so many sad things from that first year. So much brokenness and sin in that place. I’m not even going to get into the suffering I saw for my students—that can be another sermon—but for me, it was fifteen hour days, no breaks, no support, no acclamation. Cursed at, spat at, injured. I gained weight with the thousand unhealthy ways I was coping with the stress, didn’t sleep, spiritually devoid, wasn’t healthy in any way. It was a year of the school trying to use me for all I had, caring nothing for me, only seeing me as a resource to burn, like gasoline, so the school could move forward. It was a year of serving and suffering.
I’ll never forget what a group of friends from my church did during that year, which showed me where Christ is in times of suffering. At one point, I had gotten behind on my grading, and was looking at probably eight or so extra hours tacked onto the end of an already 80 hour week. I asked them to pray for me in small group and told them I was having a hard time. So they prayed for me. And then three or so of them showed up to our basement apartment uptown to help me grade. It still took eight hours with everyone joking and distracting me, my having to tell them how to do everything and what were the right answers—but it didn’t matter, because they were there to help me. They brought food. It was a good time, a light in my memory of an otherwise dark year.
This is what Jesus does, and he is our example, so this is what his people do in the face of suffering. Not only does he give us justice and freedom in the end, but in this life, in the midst of our suffering, he comes and suffers alongside. It may still take the same amount of time, and we may still suffer, but he will be there beside us, a light in the darkness, a friend to sit beside us and bear part of the load. And if we’re honest enough to stop blaming God for the brokenness of the world, we can see that he’s doing exactly what we need him to do—we need someone by our side in this world broken by humanity’s sin.
This whole passage we just read parallels Isaiah 53, which speaks of the anointed person of God living his life as a suffering servant, bearing the burdens of others, bearing wounds to heal others. The suffering servant, of course, is Christ, who, rather than leaving us in our sin, left heaven to come be among his people, even suffer from their sins, and in doing so he bore our sins in himself, suffering even to death. He didn’t have to die—he chose to die rather than lose us to death and hell. But death couldn’t hold him, and in rising from the dead he has overthrown death itself to where it no longer has any hold on us, and if you believe in Christ, resurrection and restoration will be your end, not death, not this broken world.
And if you are in Christ, he is your example. My invitation for today is this: follow Christ where he leads. We have an idea in our country that if you follow Christ, he will lead you to a better life, your best life now, perhaps in suburban Wisconsin, with everything you’ve ever wanted. But everything you’ve ever wanted is closer to hell than heaven, because even our desires are bent by sin. God does want to bring you to a place of stability where you can actually serve God and the people around you rather than suffering from your own sin, as in v.20. But for all of us, when we follow Christ, we can only follow him to the places he goes, alongside people who suffer. The way of Christ will take you to people who are lost and hurting, because we are his servants, and with Christ as our example, we will be suffering servants. And in our suffering alongside people, our hope is that they would have life, just as in the suffering of Christ, we have life and hope.
This is not the way we naturally go, toward suffering. It’s never our first choice. We have to follow Christ there. But once you’re there, alongside the hurting, following Christ, you begin to realize that this is where joy is found, precisely because Christ is here.
So I’ll invite you again, the most generous offer I have: into servitude. If you are suffering from your own sin, turn to Christ instead, who offers grace and forgiveness of your debts. If you are suffering for the sins of others, look to Christ, who is able to make you stand up under it and stand firm. If you’re at ease, come alongside the suffering and bear some of the weight. Then together we can worship him who defeated sin and death and is even now bringing this age to a close, like a light beginning to shine in darkness. Joy comes in the morning.