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 (1 St. Peter 2:21).
We are confronted today with a challenging message from St. Peter. There is no way to massage or nuance the fact that one of Christ’s chosen apostles is demanding we live in a way that is flatly contradictory to how every worldly ideology would have us live. Even more challenging, these words are a withering and uncompromising rebuke of the lives lived by most men who call themselves Christians; truly, the apostle’s words war against the way my own heart would have me live. We will spend a good deal of time today searching the will of God for our lives, but before we do that, we should be honest in this place where truth lives, this place where the Truth hears our worship and judges our hearts. What is our reaction when we hear a Biblical teaching that makes us uncomfortable? Is our reaction to run from it? Do we, God forbid, stand back and judge God to determine whether we will accept His divine commands? Do we say, ‘That doesn’t feel right,’ and so give ourselves permission to do whatever our compromised and corrupt heart’s desire? Or, do we run to our master’s voice and follow the Good Shepherd wherever He may lead? The fundamental question we should be asking ourselves whenever we encounter the winnowing gaze of the Word of God is: Do we trust God and live forever as Christ lives, or do we trust ourselves and die forever in the dark freedom of anarchy, confusion, and futility? These really are the only two options available in the world of good and evil Christ came to liberate.
And it is that liberation which sets the context for our reading today, when earlier in the passage Peter writes, ‘Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as slaves of God’ (1 Peter 2:16). Here, we find the apostle using the same uncomfortable term Paul so often uses in the opening lines of His letters where he routinely introduces himself as an apostle andslave of Christ. These enthusiastic calls to slavery ring so very false in a Western world which prides itself on being the triumphant space in which the independent, sovereign self reigns supreme, but St. Peter, and God the Holy Spirit who inspired his words, simply does not care if the word ‘slave’ grates against our conception of who we are because it is the mission of the apostles to break and smash every lie the world has told us will set us free. Remember, St. Peter has felt the false freedom which comes from thinking we are our own masters; this freedom led him to betray his Lord three times and run away for fear of losing His life when confronted by a little girl. His fear of death, the fear of losing his supposedly triumphant, sovereign self, made him a liar and a coward. Any argument we might deploy to defend our world’s infatuation with self-pleasure must explain how an attachment to earthly, temporary things isn’t just ‘slavery’ by another name, how it isn’t slavery to a thousand masters who don’t care about us and will abandon us when we are no longer useful. Christianity, especially as represented by the apostles in their letters to the church, is very concerned as to what we must do to prevent ourselves from becoming just like those unloving masters.
Which is why St. Peter’s apostolic exhortation is focused on building a community whose commitment to the truth as revealed in and by Jesus Christ can withstand the temptations and seductions of a dying world. This radical servanthood unites us all under the same banner—centers us in the same struggle—and disarms the cruel masters who would make us slaves in the death cult which surrounds us. So, when Peter addresses us today, he does so in a way which binds the wealthiest member of our congregation with he who has the least possessions. Verse eighteen begins with what appears to be an address to only the latter: the household servants, whose position within the societal hierarchy, since Aristotle, was to be sub-human. The pure fact St. Peter would even talk directly to household workers was a radical affirmation of Christianity’s uncompromising stance toward the God-imbued dignity of all men; however, Peter’s command that these servants be subject to their masters—even those who are cruel and unjust—opens the door to a larger point about just what it means for all of us to be servants in the house of God. He writes, ‘For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God’ (1 St. Peter 2:19-20). Why would St. Peter command us to ‘endure sorrow when suffering unjustly’? How can he possibly tell us to stand meekly by and take it when we suffer the ever-present injustice of an evil world? St. Peter can demand this act of trust from us because he knows we will never find justice in this corrupt world. He knows that no matter how hard we fight and rage and plan and build, we will never carve out a sanctuary of justice for ourselves in these mountains of greed and malice and wickedness. That’s not to say that justice should not be pursued; we pray every day that our civil leaders will respect the grave responsibility they have taken on as the temporary stewards of God’s creation, but we must know that true justice will always be an ideal smashed under the weight of fallen human nature. St. Peter is that greatest combination of realist and idealist: he is a true Christian, and his love for God’s justice and truth and beauty, revealed in Jesus Christ, will not allow him to accept any worldly substitute, nor should we.
What does this mean in practice? It means no Christian is ever truly a victim. We live in a world in which people actively seek victimhood, or at least the status of a victim. From people who live in a state of luxury that would be the envy of Babylonian kings complaining about the most insignificant things in their lives to the various groups of people seeking cultural power by casting themselves as the victims of all those around them, we see our fellow Americans wear their victimized statuses on their sleeves like some kind of inverted military rank. Into this maelstrom of privilege and practiced victimhood, St. Peter proclaims a different, radical approach to human suffering. By patiently enduring the worst our fellow humans can throw at us—suffering we do not deserve—the Christian embraces an opportunity to show the uniqueness of what it means to have Christ as our master. For, if we do respond to the evil of our persecutors or our boss or whomever is mistreating us with just more evil, we become a true slave to our basest passions, boiling in our resentment and hate, waiting for the opportunity to exact a misshapen version of justice in our own crude and compromised way. Rather than becoming a slave to evil, we must trust in the justice of God; we must recognize that our temporary happiness or comfort or sense of right and wrong cannot ever become more important to us than cherishing every opportunity to share the Gospel with our mouth and our heart and our blood. In this context, there is nothing this world and its masters can do to us which can change whom we serve. We can temporarily work for a company or a business or a nation that treats us poorly; we can be horribly misused by those around us—and we shouldn’t expect anything else from fallen men and women—but we can still use those moments of persecution to reveal a self-sacrificing love which disrupts everything this fallen world takes for granted. We can use the great weapon in the fight for the true, the good, and the beautiful which evil will never understand. In short, we can follow Christ.
As St. Peter writes, ‘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’ (1 St. Peter 2:21-23). ‘…to this you have been called.’ Peter, who would die on a Roman cross just like his master, is very serious when he tells us we must follow in Christ’s footsteps. This calling to proclaim the Gospel in the midst of persecution rests upon every Christian man and woman, and it is a privilege. It is, in fact, the greatest privilege for the children of God to imitate the mercy and love of our Father, to rise above the failed justice of this evil world and become a glorious reflection of the death-confounding love God the Son revealed on the cross.
What would that kind of love look like in the life of a slave of God? The great professor of theology at Westminster Seminary, Edmund Clowney, tells the story of a South Korean pastor named Yangwon Son. In 1948, the pastor’s two sons, Matthew and John were executed when Communists briefly took control of his village. Clowney writes, ‘[these two young men] died as martyrs, calling on their persecutors to have faith in Jesus,’ even as the quest for a socialist worker’s paradise supposedly meant they needed to be destroyed by firing squad. He continues, ‘When the Communists were driven out, Chaisun, a young man of the village, was identified as one who had fired the murderous shots. His execution was ordered.’ Amazingly, Pastor Son asked that the charges against his beloved sons’ murderer be dropped and that this young man be released into his custody for adoption. Pastor Son’s 13-year-old daughter Rachel testified in support of her father’s world-denying request. The confused and radicalized young man who walked out of the prison of his condemnation and into Pastor Son’s home felt the gracious mercy and love of God in a way only Jesus Christ has made possible. This pastor, this shepherd, understood that when you worship the Suffering Servant as your Lord and Savior and King, then you already know that there has only ever been one real victim in the history of the earth, only one man who got what He did not deserve. You know, it is only by His wounds you will ever be healed, not by revenge or anger or depression or shame or regret; no, by His wounds you have already been healed. And so, we can obey the voice of Him who changed the meaning of suffering in this world; we can run to the Good Shepherd’s voice as He leads us through the valleys of death to the mountains of everlasting splendor.