Monday, 22 May 2017

The Harrowing of Hell

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
21 May 2017 11.00am

1 Peter 3.13-22
Genesis 6.1-14, 17-19; 7.11-12, 21-23; 8.6-11, 15-21 


I don’t know about you, but I love a good story.

If it’s well told, and the moment is right,
            I can so enter into the world of a good book
                        that the real world disappears for a while,
            and I find myself living the lives of the characters on the page in front of me.

Just recently, I’ve been spending quite a lot of time in the 9th century,
            as I’ve been reading my way through Bernard Cornwell’s epic version
                        of the life of Alfred the Great,
            and his battles to establish a kingdom for his descendants
                        of all the English-speaking peoples,
                        in the face of wave after wave of Danish invasion.

I would certainly recommend these books if you like historical fiction,
            and I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler if I let on
                        that Alfred is, in fact, ultimately successful in building his dream
                                    of a Christian Saxon kingdom for all the lands
                                    south of Scotland and east of Wales.
            We are, after all, living today in England and not Dane-land.

However, I also think it’s fair to say that
            whilst on the one hand Alfred is entirely successful,
            on the other hand he fails completely.

After all, many of the kings who succeeded him were not his direct descendants,
            and many had decidedly Danish names,
            from Cnut, to Harold, to the Norman (or Norse-men) conquest.

But while Alfred may not have secured his kingdom
            for his direct Saxon descendants,
he did secure his kingdom,
            because he told the story of the idea of a nation of England
            so compellingly that in time, even those who originally opposed it,
                        came to be its strongest defenders.

And this is the thing about stories:
            they have the power to give shape to the world.

So I can tell you a story of ‘one nation’ called England,
            and of how it came into being.
I can tell you a story of Christian kings for a Christian country,
            and of how that story took hold not just in England but across Europe,
            giving shape to the political landscape that echoes down
            to our own contemporary context of sovereign nation states,
                        two great wars, political and economic union, and Brexit.

Arguably, all these came into being
            because Alfred the Great was consumed by a story
            that he spoke into being.

One of the interesting areas of Alfred’s story
            that Bernard Cornwell explores at some length
is the difference between the God of the Christians
            and the gods of the Danes.

The Danish Gods ask nothing of their followers
            other than that they keep them amused:
            there is nothing Thor wants more than to see a fine warrior fighting for glory,
                        and taking his reward in women and silver.
Whereas Alfred’s God, the Christian God, demands duty, and laws,
            and sacrifice to the higher ideals of the emergent holy nation.

And the stories that are told about these gods,
            from the Norse pantheon to the Holy Trinity,
            give shape to the lives of those who follow them,
                        and the communities that they then construct.

And it is this world of competing stories,
                        divergent ideologies, and conflicting dogmas
            that gives us our way into our reading this morning from 1 Peter,
                        and specifically to the two verses
                        which have been described ‘by almost unanimous consent
                        [as] one of the most difficult texts in the entire New Testament’,
                                    as one of the commentaries I was reading this week put it.[1]

I am referring, of course, to 1 Peter 3.19-20.
            Let’s hear them again now:

He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you

Did you spot them when they were read for us in our reading a few minutes ago?
            Did they jump out at you with a large question mark,
                        or perhaps exclamation mark, hanging over them?

Maybe, if you have an Anglican background,
            you found yourself reflecting on the Apostles Creed…





I believe in God, the Father almighty,
            creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
            who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
            and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
            was crucified, died, and was buried;
            he descended to hell.




Or maybe you found yourself thinking of the medieval artwork
            depicting the ancient doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell,
the belief that in the time between his crucifixion on Good Friday,
            and the resurrection of Easter Sunday,
Christ descended into the underworld of the dead
            to release from Hell’s fires the righteous women and men of the Old Testament.




I remember a few years ago going to the Globe Theatre to see the Globe Mysteries,
            an updated take on the medieval mystery plays
            that were still so popular at the time of Shakespeare.

Three hours of biblically-inspired drama,
            took the audience on a journey from creation and fall,
                        to the nativity and the massacre of the innocents,
            to the crucifixion, and then, of course, to the Harrowing of Hell
                        where Jesus faced down a variety of comedically evil demons
                        to rescue Noah, Adam, and Eve from their fiery fate.

But the thing about the harrowing of Hell
            is that it isn’t really a biblical story at all.
It has a strong tradition within Christianity,
            but if you look closely at the text itself,
it’s not obvious that this is what it’s saying.

The grammar of our verses from 1 Peter
            would seem to imply that it is the resurrected Christ
            who makes a proclamation to the spirits who are in prison.,

He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,
19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison,

And it’s only when these verses are forced alongside a few other texts
            from elsewhere in the New Testament[2]

            that have their own meaning in their own contexts,
that the doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell starts to emerge.

One of the problems with this belief that Jesus made a journey
            to the depths of hell on Easter Saturday
is that it seems to deny the truth of the crucifixion,
            which is that Jesus really died!
It implies that instead of dying, he just temporarily vacated his earthly body,
            to pop down below on some kind of celestial rescue mission,
            only to make it back just in time to re-inhabit his body at the resurrection.

I’m afraid, according to the early church fathers, this is a heresy.

Rather, and I think rather more helpfully,
            the point that the author of 1 Peter is making here,
is that the crucified and resurrected Jesus
            announces God’s judgment on all those spiritual powers
                        which are in rebellion against God,
                        and which cause evil in the world,
            by working to release all those who are currently held captive
                        in the hell of their own minds or circumstances.




This becomes a bit clearer as the author
            moves on to speak about the story of Noah,
which he offers up as an allegory of the way Christ, through the church,
            rescues people from the waters of destruction
            that would otherwise overwhelm their lives.

For the author of 1 Peter, Noah’s ark becomes a symbol for the church,
            a symbol of the community of God’s people
            through whom salvation comes to the earth.
And the story of Noah and his ark becomes a foundational story
            for those Christians who are called to be a faithful minority
            in a world that all too often seems hell-bent on its own destruction.

And so we’re back to the power of stories to transform the world.

The stories we tell about our gods
            will give shape to the communities we construct in their service,
and this is true whether that community is a church or a nation state.

Thinking again about my Bernard Cornwell novels for a moment:
            for Alfred the Great, as for much of Christendom,
            the church and the state were synonymous;
                        and the stories of God and country became fused.

In the Jewish foundational mythology of the Hebrew Scriptures,
            their God became synonymous with their king,
                        and they believed that he was higher than all the other gods
                        of the competing nations.

So they told their stories to deconstruct the competing stories
            told by their neighbours and enemies.

It's well known that many cultures have their flood narrative,
            and certainly the Babylonians who conquered Israel
                        in the seventh century before Christ,
                        carrying off the scribes and the priests into exile,
            had a flood story.



You can normally read it if you go to the British Museum,
            just round the corner from where we are this morning,
although it's been on display in Beijing recently
            so I'm not sure if it's back in London yet.

However, it tells a story called the Gilgamesh epic,
            which itself is a retelling of an earlier flood narrative
                        called the Epic of Atrahasis.

In the Babylonian story,
            the great gods became angry and decide to flood the earth
            to kill all the people living there,
but one of the gods rebels, and tells a human called Utnapishtim to build a boat,
            to keep living things alive on the earth.

The boat is built, and the rains and floods come
            to destroy all the living things.
The flood is so severe that even the gods are afraid,
            and they retreat to the heavens regretting their decision to unleash such violence.

Meanwhile Utnapishtim's boat floats above the flood,
            and eventually lodges on a mountain.
So he sends out a dove, and then a swallow to see if there is any dry land,
            but they come back to him,
and then he sends a raven which finds land to live on and doesn’t come back,
            so he knows the flood is receding.

Utnapishtim then lets out the animals and the livestock and sacrifices a sheep.
            And the gods smell the smoke of the sacrifice
                        and realising that people still live on the earth
                        they come down to have a look.
But the chief god Ea is furious,
            because he still wants all living things destroyed.
The gods then have a discussion about the proportionality of the flood
            as a punishment for human depravity,
and in the end Utnapishtim and his wife are made into gods themselves.

You can see how this story lies behind the Noah story of the book of Genesis,
            which was written in Babylon during the time of the Jewish exile.
But I’m sure you can also see that there are some significant differences,
            mostly to do with the nature of the gods.

And what is significant about the Noah version of the flood story
            is not whether or not it actually happened,
but why it is told the way it is,
            and what it tells us about the God that the ancient Jews believed in.

Was the Jewish God, like the gods of Babylon,
            to be regarded a violent and capricious God,
                        hell-bent on punishment
                        and capable of overkill?

Does humankind only survive
            because someone betrays the will of the supreme God
            to rescue a fortunate human being?

No, of course not, says the Jewish story.

The flood, according to Genesis,
            is an entirely proportionate and appropriate response
            to the sinfulness of the humans on the earth,
and Noah survives with his family
            because he is righteous and deserving of God's mercy.

We have to hear the Noah story against the background of the Babylonian flood story,
            and we have to realise that it is told to undermine, to deconstruct,
            the view that the gods are capricious and given random acts of violence.

The God of the Jews may not (yet) be an all-loving non-violent deity,
            but, says the Noah story, he is at least just and proportionate.
And the twist at the end
            hints at further theological development still to come
            in the ongoing Jewish quest to fathom the nature of God;
as God's shining warrior's bow
            is placed across the heavens after the rain
as a symbol of God's commitment
            to never again destroy all life on the surface of the earth.




By this way of understanding it,
            the Noah story is a story a bit like that of Alfred's story of England;
it is a story told to define a culture,
            a story that explores the nature of what it is
                        to be a people chosen and saved by God
                        from the waters of chaos that otherwise overwhelm the world.

It’s a story that far transcends its original historical context,
            such that people living thousands of years after it was written,
                        in lands never heard of by its author,
            can still hear the story
                        and proclaim that it speaks to them of the God they worship.

And part of this appropriation of the Noah story into the Christian tradition
            happens through its use
            in our confusing verses from 1 Peter this morning.

In a nutshell, what I am suggesting is going on here
            is that in 1 Peter we find a repeat of what happened in Babylon
                        when the Jews heard, and then deconstructed,
                        the Babylonian story of the flood.

In 1 Peter, we have a Christian deconstruction of the Noah story.

You see, for the author of 1 Peter,
            the Jews in Babylon hadn't gone far enough,
            in their re-working of the Babylonian flood narrative.
And this was because they hadn't known
            the story of God revealed in Christ Jesus.

They hadn't known the story of salvation enacted in baptism,
            they hadn't known the story
                        of God-made-flesh in the person of Jesus,
            they hadn't known the story
                        of the God who died on the cross
                        and defeated death to lead his people through death to eternal life.

And so 1 Peter re-tells the story of Noah,
            casting it as an allegory of the story of Jesus,
and in doing so it takes the deconstruction of the pagan gods of war and violence
            to the next level.

1 Peter tells its readers that in Jesus,
            the forces of evil that would overwhelm all life
                        are robbed of their power,
            as life continues to reassert itself
                        through the faithful people of God,
            who survive the waters of the flood
                        by passing through them.

The theological point here
            is that those who die with Christ in the waters of baptism
            are also raised with him to new life.

The waters do not overwhelm them,
            and they rise from the depths to bear living witness
            to the Christ-story of life from death.

In essence, we, the people of God, become the ark,
            rising above the waters that threaten to drown us,
to keep alive the story of a God of love
            who is not like the gods of vengeance, violence, and over-kill.

We each of us live by defining narratives,
            and we construct our lives around foundational myths.

We are the only species that creates legal fictions,
            stories that carry force in the real world.

We are the only species to sin,
            we are the only species to believe in God,
the only species to take the transcendent and clothe it in words
            until it takes form in our midst
            as words, perhaps the word, becomes flesh.

So we spin our stories, and we live by them, and we live them into being.
            The only question we have to address, really,
            is which stories we will live by.

Well, 1 Peter invites us to live by the story of Christ,
            to live by the story of one who goes into the grave to redeem death,
            and who offers us life in the face of the deluge of pain and suffering
                        that would otherwise overwhelm all hope on the face of the earth.

1 Peter offers us a comprehensive deconstruction
            of the mythological view of a wrathful God who punishes,
and it challenges all those who would still construct faith and life
            on the basis of violence and vengeance.

There is no place in this view of the world
            for Isis,
There is no place in this view of the world
            for the crusades.

1 Peter’s re-working
            of the Noah story’s re-working
            of the Babylonian flood story
directly challenges all forms of religious extremism
            which would seek violence as the answer.

The notion of a wrathful God
            is transformed into the concept of a suffering God,
who deals with human sin not by wiping out the sinful,
            but by forgiving them.

So, how do we live this story into being?
            How do we incarnate the story of Jesus in our own lives?

Well, which stories, I wonder, still define our existence in this world,
            but which desperately need deconstructing
            through the faithful retelling of the redeeming story of Jesus.

For some of us these will be intensely personal stories,
            where we find ourselves swamped by the floods of guilt,
            overwhelmed by worthlessness, or drowning in depression.

Do you ever find yourself repeating to yourself the mantra,
            ‘I’m not worthy’; ‘I’m not good enough’; ‘I’m an idiot’; ‘everybody hates me’.

These defining stories are not the story
            that we are invited to inhabit in Christ;
                        who has overcome the darkness that would overwhelm us,
                        who helps us to rise above the floods that would drown us.

For some of us the stories we live by are stories of anger and retribution,
            as we seek meaning and justice for the wrongs that have been done to us.

I’m thinking of the teenager known to me who cannot control his temper,
            and punches out at people and things at any opportunity,
because he has taken deep within himself
            a narrative of hatred of the other,
seeking meaning and justice for the wrongs that have been done to him.

I get it, I really do,
            but this is not the story we are invited to inhabit either.

For some these will be stories that get written in the wider world
            of politics and policies,
as we seek to work out which vision of our common life
            we want to seek and see spoken into being in our midst.

Do we want a national narrative built on violence and retribution?
            Is this the God that we want to worship?

Would you press the nuclear button, if someone entrusted it to you?

Which story we live by will affect every area of our lives,
            from how we see ourselves, to how we see others,
            to who we will vote for on June 8th.

And the invitation of 1 Peter is to make our story
            the story of Jesus Christ,
who deconstructs all the stories of violence and retribution,
            and who rescues all those who are imprisoned in their spirits,
            in the living hells that humans are so good at making for themselves.

1 Peter invites us to inhabit a story which brings life where there is death,
            and which tells of one who has ultimate authority over all principalities and powers.

And we do not do this alone.

We are invited to find our place in the community of faith,
            the ark of safety that can carry those of us who would otherwise be overwhelmed.
Because we are called to watch over one other,
            and in the name of Christ,
            we are called to offer salvation to those who are drowning.





x

[1] Harinck, p.99
[2] 1 Peter 4:6  For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.
Acts 2:31  Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, 'He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.'
Romans 10:6-7  But the righteousness that comes from faith says, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'" (that is, to bring Christ down)  7 "or 'Who will descend into the abyss?'" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).
Ephesians 4:9-10  When it says, "He ascended," what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?  10 He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Slaves of Christ



Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
7th May 2017, 11.00am

1 Peter 2.18-25
Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.  19 For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.  20 If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God's approval.  21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.  22 "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth."  23 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.  24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.  25 For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

You can listen to this sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/bloomsbury-1/2017-05-07-simon-woodman-slaves-of-christ-series-on-1-peter-week-3


The first verse of our reading this morning,
            along with is parallels in some of Paul’s letters,
is surely one of the most catastrophically misused verses in the New Testament,
            because the entire theological construction
                        that has allowed Christians to own slaves
            has been built on these passages.

From the transatlantic slave trade, to apartheid, to the legacy of racism,
            some of the most grievous sins of the so-called Christian world begin here.

So what are we to make of a such a troubling phrase as,
            ‘Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference,
            not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.’? (2.18)

Part of our problem here is that we, in Bloomsbury in 2017,
            are reading this verse from a perspective of power.

Dawn rightly pointed out to us last week that,
            as the beneficiaries of Western Capitalism,
                        a system founded in the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade
                        and maintained by its twenty-first century equivalents,
            we are the powerful ones in our world.

We may not like it,
            we may not have asked for it,
                        and we may not even realise it,
but our position in life and society is predicated
            on a system of globalized domination, oppression, and enslavement.

From the factories that make our clothes,
            to the farmers who harvest our luxury groceries,
                        to the finance systems that keep us solvent,
            we are, at least by proxy, slave-owners.

And, if you’re anything like me,
            you probably find that to be an intensely uncomfortable realization.

And so, when we read a verse like v.18,
            and when we read it in the light of the unspeakable evils
                        of the slave industry that it has historically legitimated,
            it is no surprise that we find this verse, too, to be intensely problematic.

However, and I say this recognizing that in no way
            does this let any of us off the hook,
I wonder if we have been reading it upside-down, so to speak.

1 Peter 2.18 was not written for slave-owners, but for slaves.
            It was not written to either justify or challenge the powerful,
                        but to comfort the weak and the vulnerable.
            It was not, dare I say it, written for us, but for others.

And if we are going to hear it,
            we will need to make the effort to shed ourselves
                        of some of our inherent privilege,
            and attempt to take a few steps in another, less powerful, person’s shoes.

We simply need, for a moment at least, to get over our emancipatory impulses,
            and we need to leave behind our modern discourse on human rights,
in order that we can enter instead into a world
            where Christians have no power to change
                        either their own social circumstances,
                        or the situations of others.

Those in the churches of Asia Minor at the end of the first century,
            who were the original recipients of this letter,
had no option to buy fairly traded products,
            or to demand ethical investment from their bankers or pension fund providers.

They had no political freedom to make the case for freedom for others,
            and no freedom to research and publish stories
            that might re-frame the narrative of their society.

Their lot in life was fixed, usually from birth,
            and there was little they could do to change it.

Those worshipping in the churches to which 1 Peter was written
            were either slaves, or freemen of the lower classes,
            with possibly a small number of slave owners for good measure.

Paul addresses the responsibilities of slave-owners
            in his letters to Ephesus (Eph. 6.9) and Colossae (Col. 4.1),
but 1 Peter 18 is clearly written to those in the churches
            who are slaves with no possibility of repeal;
including those who were not necessarily slaves of Christian masters,
            but of those who are harsh, unjust, and violent towards them.

And in the advice to slaves, that we find so hard to hear with our modern ears,
            the author offers them a radical perspective on their plight:

He tells them that they are already free.

This is a revolutionary answer,
            it is something that has the capacity to turn the world upside down.
They are slaves, but they are free.

His point is that in their willful subordination of themselves to their earthly masters,
            they become active participants in the sociopolitical revolution of Jesus,
which began with Jesus’ own willful subordination
            to the forces of violence and hatred that took him to his death on the cross.

This is the upside-down thinking that I was talking about earlier,
            where powerlessness becomes agency,
            and slavery becomes freedom.

The lesson that 1 Peter is attempting to convey
            is that, in Christ, a paradigm shift has taken place
in which even the least powerful person receives the capacity
            to respond in a Christ-like manner to their circumstances,
            however horrific and disempowering those circumstances might be.

Even a slave can model the example of Christ,
            who endured suffering and death for doing right.

Now, I admit it, from my point of view
            as someone who has had choice and privilege from my birth to today,
this all has the potential to sound rather like a small crumb of comfort
            designed to keep the workers in their place.

And so it has become, when this passage, and those like it,
            have been taken from the poor
            and pressed into the service of the oppressors.

But for the person who is utterly powerless,
            this remains a revolutionary perspective.

The slave who chooses faithfulness to Christ in the face of suffering
            becomes aligned with Christ’s own faithfulness,
and so is joined with Christ in the great project of salvation
            which disempowers and unmasks all powers of domination and oppression.

And this crucible of suffering and disempowerment
            smelts away all the layers of nuance and compromise
                        with which the rest of us, who do not face such heat of persecution,
                        manage to surround and cocoon our own discipleship.

The slave who subordinates themselves to the evil powers,
            whilst refusing themselves to do evil,
speaks of a faithfulness to Christ
             that utterly rejects all forms of dominance, oppression, cruelty, or violence.

By refusing the path of revolutionary emancipation,
            and by choosing not to seek to reverse the balance of power,
            or to long for violent retribution against their oppressor;
the slave in Christ demonstrates
            that any who would seek such power over others,
                        whether they be master of many slaves,
                        or the perpetrator of hidden domestic violence,
            are simply un-Christian.

There is no place here for violent or dominant Christianity in any form.
            Because to seek to take power over another
            is to seek to take power over Christ.

And this is a hard message for those of us
            who have inherited considerable power to hear.

The message of 1 Peter may be challenging to those who are powerless,
            but it is equally challenging to those of us who are powerful;
because the situation of the Christian slave
            is offered as a paradigm for the way all Christians are to live in the world.

We saw in our first sermon on 1 Peter, a couple of weeks ago,
            that central to the message of the book
                        is the principle that Christians are called from the world by God,
                        sanctified and transformed by the Spirit,
                        and then sent back to the world as resident aliens and exiles
                                    to live in obedience to Jesus Christ.

But what does obedience to Christ look like?
            Well, says 1 Peter, it looks like slavery.

We are all, each of us, from the most powerful to the least,
            called to realise that we live in a world which is trying to dominate us,
                        to subjugate us, to bend us to its will.

It will use coercion if necessary,
            but is equally happy to buy our allegiance,
                        to pacify us with pleasure and bribe us with benefits.

The lesson we need to hear loud and clear from 1 Peter
            is that ‘all existing social orders,
                        even those regimes established on the constructs
                                    of emancipation and human rights,
                        are always only systems of relative justice and injustice
            [and] none of them, not even egalitarian liberal democracies,
                        represent the arrival of the new creation’.[1]

The lesson we need to learn from the advice to the slaves
            is that subordination to systems of evil is not, in Christ,
a call to ‘fit [either] resentfully or happily into a given system,
            whether hierarchical or egalitarian,
nor [is it] a call to struggle for a higher place within it.’[2]

Rather, the call on us, as it was for the slaves of the first century,
            is to ‘live and act as free persons with respect to all existing systems.’[3]

So, as we approach a general election,
            and as our attention is turned to issues of party politics,
                        and the key issues for our society and world,
            we can hear the call of 1 Peter echoed in the letter of Paul to the church in Corinth,
                        challenging them to discover what it is to be a slave of Christ
                        in the midst of a hostile society:

1 Corinthians 7:21-24   
Were you a slave when called?
            Do not be concerned about it.
Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition
            now more than ever. 
22 For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave
            is a freed person belonging to the Lord,
just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. 
23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters. 
            24 In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters,
            there remain with God.

The call for subordination becomes, after the example of Christ,
            a call for service:
                        to love of the other,
                        to self-giving,
                        to suffering for the other.

And this is a revolution unlike any other.
            It is not the revolution of bombs and guns,
                        or of knives and swords,
            as the oppressed rise up against their oppressor
                        to reverse the status quo
                        and assume power in place of powerlessness.

But neither is it a quiet acquiescence
            and submission to the powers that be.

Rather, it is the dogged determination
            to live life by one rule, and one rule alone;
            and that is the rule of Christ.

The world challenges us to a choice:
            acquiescence or revolution
                        – and both will break our spirits and consume our souls.
But the path of Christ is the third way,
            it is the path of obedience to Christ
                        in the face of overwhelming opposition.
            It is the path that says it is better to die for right than for wrong,
                        so stay faithful in the face of all pressures to conform.

And it is this path of obedience that sows the seeds
            of the kingdom of Christ in the world,
the seeds that scatter throughout society to spring up suddenly
            bearing the fruit of the kingdom in their own time and place.

1 Peter knows full well that the world will treat such people harshly
            – he knows that slaves and freemen alike will face opposition
                        if they take seriously their commitment to nonviolent resistance
                        to the systems of violence that dominate the world,
and so he points his readers to the example of Christ,
            who ‘entrusted himself to the one who judges justly’ (v.23).

We who have become slaves of Christ
            can join him in leaving the enaction of justice to God,
because we know that if we take justice into our own hands
            we simply become the system we are seeking to undermine,
            and we in our turn become the agents of the oppression of others.

In sharing in the subordination of Christ,
            we follow the pattern of the original messianic revolution, Jesus Christ.

He is our example and our teacher in
            how we should live as aliens and exiles in this world of domination:
‘When he was abused, he did not return abuse;
            when he suffered, he did not threaten’ (v.23).

We are followers of the one who ‘emptied himself,
            taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
            he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death
                        -- even death on a cross’,
as Paul puts it in his letter to the church in Philippi (Phil. 2.7-8).

It is by taking this Christ-like path
            that we break free from the shackles of society
to live lives which bring the new creation into being
            in the midst of our current social order.

When we live as slaves of Christ, the whole world is changed.

Jesus, in his life and example,
            makes ‘a complete and fundamental break
            with the sins, lies, threats, abuses, and violence
                        of existing political, social, and familial systems.’[4]

And so any truly Christ-like response
            to the systems of domination that enslave the world
            must make that same break.

Just as there is no place in 1 Peter
            for a Christian who would seek violent domination over another,
neither is there any mandate for Christian guerrilla warfare, armed revolt,
            or indeed any attempt to right wrongs
                        in a way that requires the humiliation, suffering, and death of others.

Rather, just as Jesus took upon himself
            the socially and politically authorized violence of the empire,
so those who would follow him
            must also find the nonviolent path to transformation.

So what does this mean for us?

What are we to do when faced with monstrous injustice?
            How do we respond to the illegitimate or oppressive regime?
            What do I say to the cruel master,
                        or the man who beats his wife?
            How can I make the world right?

The answer, of course, is that I can’t.
            I can’t make the world right,
                        and if I take it upon myself to enact justice
                        I simply become part of the problem.

The path of Christ is to trust ourselves
            to the one who judges justly,
and in the light of that to find freedom
            from our enslavement to the narratives of redemptive violence
            that underlie the scripts by which our society keeps acting.

When we together learn to do this,
            we become together the new humanity that is in Christ Jesus,
and our collective woundedness, our addiction to revenge,
            is healed by the wounds of the one who died for the sins of the world.
We who were lost like sheep
            are drawn back to the shepherd who will lead us into life.

So what does it mean, then,
            for us in our world to live as slaves of Christ?

What does it mean for us to discover, in our own lives,
            that we are truly free from all the systems and powers
                        that seek to dominate and dictate our daily living,
            to beat, coerce and cajole us into acquiescence
                        to their whims and desires.

What might it mean for us to have the courage to do right and die for it,
            rather than to do wrong and die anyway?

What are the truths of our society’s enslavement
            that seem every bit as self-evident and immutable
                        as the system of slavery that kept the Roman empire functioning?

And what would it look like for those of us enmeshed in such systems
            to discover that in Christ we are truly free?

What would it look like for us to live lives of absolute non-violence;
            of unconditional acceptance of the other;
            of radical obedience to the path of Christ in all areas of our lives?

It may seem that such a thing is beyond us,
            that we are too compromised, too trapped, too enslaved.

It may seem to us that this Christ-like path
            is dangerous foolishness when taken to this kind of extreme.

And so it is.
            Well, dangerous at least.

But it is the challenge that 1 Peter dangles before us,
            telling us that ‘to this you have been called,
                        because Christ also suffered for you,
            leaving you an example,
                        so that you should follow in his steps.’ (v. 21).



[1] Harinck, 1 Peter, p.81.
[2] Harinck, 1 Peter, p.81.
[3] Harinck, 1 Peter, p.81.
[4] Haricnk, 1 Peter, p.83)