Monday, 25 July 2022

Slaves of Christ

A Sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
31st July 2022, 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.

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 is that we, here in Bloomsbury in 202,
            are reading this verse from a perspective of power.

It is an unavoidable truth that we are 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 all, 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 2.18 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 rather 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 himself, like them, 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 themself 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 comforting to those who are powerless,
            but it is profoundly 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 this 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]

And so, I think, our attention is turned,
            to the key issues for our society and our world,
and 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. 
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. 
You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters. 
            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 to live 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 ways that require 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?

Can we 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?

Can we see the truths of our society’s enslavement
            that are 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?

Can we hear the call on 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)

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