A sermon on 1 Peter 2:13-25 given by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD on May 3, Fourth Sunday after Resurrection of the Lord (Good Shepherd Sunday).
Where Is Our Identity?
As we come to Good Shepherd Sunday in the year 2020, it amazes me how perfectly suited our epistle passage is to our situation right now. 1 Peter 2:13-25 confronts us with this question: what does it mean to have our identity thoroughly rooted in Jesus while trying to be the best citizens we can?
This couldn’t be a more crucial question, because right now, we are caught up in a rapidly changing society that continues to move further away from the kingdom of God (and all in the context of a global pandemic). In this context, Rico Tice tells us that there are three temptations for Christians (Discipleship for Today), and I think he’s right. Here they are:
Inculturation – mingle unobtrusively in the crowd. Don’t say hard things.
Intimidation – withdraw all together. Circle the wagons.
Infuriation – get mad because the culture has changed. Long for yesteryear.
If our identity is Christ, none of these options suffice. There must be another way. A humble way that is empowered, blessed, and given to us by Jesus himself. That’s what this passage is all about.
Submission to Authority for the Lord’s Sake (Vs. 13-17)
Verses 13 to 17 begin by talking about how we relate, specifically, to authority in culture. Here, Peter talks about that dreaded “s” word in our society today: “submission.” BUT, he does so in a way that is itself subversive.
Listen to verses 13-14: Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors.”
There is a dynamite in these verses, and the dynamite is this: God is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. At the time of Peter’s writing, the Roman emperor was being deified. But Peter says, no, Cesar is not Lord, Jesus is. These are merely human institutions and they themselves are subject to God.
Nonetheless, according to Peter, we are to seek to be the best civilians we can be. Peter declares that we are free people – citizens of heaven! And yet, for that very reason, we are to “live as people who are free, not using [our] freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” for the sake of the church’s witness in the world and reputation of our Lord.
How carefully the Church must think about her witness in this time! We are free people…who are called to serve. I heard earlier this week that some pastors and churches are considering adding their names to pending lawsuits because of financial loss from stay-at-home orders. I am every bit as concerned about religious freedom as the next pastor, but is this really what we want to say to our world at this time and under these circumstances?
No. In Jesus Christ, we are called to choose the hard and patient way of serving in the culture and context the Lord gives us. Right now, in both our Servants’ Council and our Vestry, we’re actively talking about how to best reopen our building. It’s going to be different. We’re going to take seriously the threat of this virus, even as we take up our deepest and most important calling: to worship the Lord.
Just before today’s passage, Peter says that we are sojourners and exiles in this world and that because of that we ought to, “Keep [our] conduct among [unbelievers] honorable, so that when they speak against [us] as evildoers, they may see [our] good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:12) In this time, I believe that we are called to be the Church with care, excellence, and humility, so that the gospel door might remain open. In the time to come, I believe that Christians will be criticized for gathering to worship. We ought to do everything we can to show the watching world why the hope we have is worth gathering for. And, we ought to do that with all the humility and care possible as citizens of our nation.
The Letter to Diognetus is an early Christian apologetic, written in the 2nd century, and I think it captures beautifully what we ought to strive for in the midst of the world today:
“Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.
They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked … yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.
To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. (Letter to Diognetus, Chapters V and VI)
St. Augustine said that the church is called to be WITH, FOR and (yet) AGAINST the World. Peter’s words here in this chapter give us road map for what that looks like. The Letter to Diognetus gives us a living example of how the church did that, even under persecution.
The Better Way: Christ’s Incarnation (Vs. 21-23)
Skipping down to verses 21 to 23, we find the alternative to the three reactions I mentioned at the start. Not inculturation, not intimidation, not infuriation, but Christ’s Incarnation. As Christians, we have been saved by the humble and costly incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And his way is our way.
Listen to Peter, who was writing particularly to servants who were suffering unjustly under their masters: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” (vs. 23-25)
Are we going to be known in this time as people who throw heat on the situation at hand – or light? Are we going to be known as people who keep calm and disciple on for the sake of the world? Are we going to continue to entrust ourselves to the One who is trustworthy?
The Gospel We Have Received (Vs. 24-25)
Verses 24-25 bring us back to root of all this: the Gospel we ourselves have received. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
He himself bore our sins on the cross. The Lord humbly served us so that he might be redeem us. He become the Shepherd and Bishop (episkopos) of our souls. Jesus is the bishop of our souls. Not the government, not our president, not our local leaders, but Jesus. And yet knowing the Lord as free men and women changes the way we respond to each of those – precisely for God’s glory!
I want to give you one more example of what this looks like from church history. In the 1700s, Moravian missionaries Johann Leonhard Dober and David Nitschmann discerned a call to preach the Gospel to the slaves of St. Thomas island. They were roundly told by most everyone that this was impossible.
As they prepared to sail to St. Thomas from Copenhagen, they were questioned by the King’s Chamberlain about their excursion and how they would earn a living.
“We shall work,” replied Nitschmann, “as slaves among the slaves.”
“But,” said [the Chamberlin], “that is impossible. It will not be allowed. No white man ever works as a slave.”
“Very well,” replied Nitschmann, “I am a carpenter, and will ply my trade.”
“But what will the potter do?”[referring to Johann]
“He will help me in my work.”
“If you go on like that,” exclaimed the Chamberlain, “you will stand your ground the wide world over.”
In this kind of radical humility, following after the example of Christ’s Incarnation, they went to St. Thomas. Despite all odds, their mission bore much fruit.
Wikipedia tells me that, “While in St. Thomas, they lived frugally and preached to the slaves, and they had a certain amount of success. … [O]ther Moravian missionaries continued the work for fifty years afterward, establishing churches on St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John’s, Jamaica, Antigua, Barbados, and St. Kitts. Moravian missionaries baptized 13,000 converts before any other missionaries arrived on the scene. (Wikipedia article)
Friends, we can’t go back. I know some of us are still mourning the death of what was. That’s okay. But we can go forward – confident and humble in resurrection hope. Amen.