This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday of Easter, given in the “church up the road.” The Scripture it references is 1 Peter 2:11-25.
Freedom! It’s an ideal that has inspired everything from great works of art to nation-building, and yet for Christians, there’s a lot of tension in how we think about it.
On the one hand, we say that in Christ we are free from sin, free from the law, and ultimately – in an eternal sense – free from suffering. On the other hand, we say that we are bound to serve God with the totality of our being, that we are bound to love others as we love ourselves, and that we are bound to be part of a movement in which achieving our mission means taking up our cross.
I think, too, for Christians today there is another tension. We have inherited from the recent past a solid tradition of Christian action which has been about opposing the “powers that be” when they’re unjust; and yet we know that in many times and places, the Church has been one of those powers, or closely allied with them, and has not always been just. Obedience to authority has long been a spiritual discipline. The proper attitude to authority – conformity or rebellion or something else – is a matter of hot debate.
Are we confused yet?
And in the middle of this confusion we read today’s passage from 1 Peter, which has some things to say on these issues; but I think for them to be helpful to us, they probably need some unpacking.
So, “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution,” is where he starts with this train of thought.
Why, “For the Lord’s sake”? What does it matter to Jesus, whether or not we accept the authority of the government or the various services under its umbrella?
I think we need to remember that this was a community which was already starting to experience official persecution. Only a little bit later than this record we have historical documents – Roman correspondence from the area – which discusses torturing Christians to find out the truth about what they believed and did. And the Romans forbade people to gather in groups of more than five, so that it would be hard for anyone to start an uprising. There are records that in Bithynia – which is in the region this letter is written to – there had been terrible fires which couldn’t be put out, because this law against gathering together meant that even the fire brigade had been disbanded. In today’s terms, we would say that the government was more than a bit paranoid.
So it seems to me that what Peter is saying here is, “don’t cause any unnecessary trouble.” We are Christians, we need to live as Christians with integrity, but don’t stir the pot by doing anything unnecessary that’s going to upset the empire. Don’t bring the wrath of the powers that be down on the church, for the Lord’s sake, because we suffer enough for the things we really do need to do. Try to do the right thing, and to submit to the empire when we can. I think it’s important here to realise that the words “as sent by him,” describing the governors, doesn’t mean that the governers are sent by God. It means we ought, as much as we can, to relate to them as if they were sent by God, even when we know they weren’t; showing deference for the sake of not being treated badly.
While we’re fortunate not to live under the same kind of brutal or paranoid regime, I think there’s an important principle for us here; not to cause trouble about things which are not core issues for Christianity. I leave it to you to reflect on what that might mean in our own context.
So Peter goes on from there to tell his listeners, “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.”
And there are a couple of interesting things about this. I’ve already talked about how the thrust of his earlier comments seems to be, don’t cause unnecessary trouble. And he seems to be repeating that idea here. You’re free people, and you should live in that freedom, but don’t let that be an excuse for what our translation here calls evil. But again, the word used here seems in this context to have the force of something like “social disruption.” The kind of evil Peter is talking about is the kind of evil that is subversive, creating turmoil. So again, live free, but don’t start a riot.
And then the rest of the letter really goes on to unpack the implications of that principle in the social structures of the day. Slaves are to be submissive, wives are basically property, and everyone needs to know their place and keep to it so that we don’t get into trouble. Honour the emperor.
If I’m a little sour about that, I’m sure you can understand why. Long after the paranoid and oppressive government was gone, this social system was held up as being “the way God wanted things,” partly because of the way Peter wrote here. But I don’t think it ever was what God wanted; it was the way things were, in which Christians needed to endure.
But there’s one other interesting feature of the way Peter puts things here. He says, “Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.” It’s like a basic list of where the lines of obedience are, in this moment where we need to make sure we present the smallest possible target to the authorities.
God, emperor, “everyone,” – well, that seems to cover all bases. But in the middle of that, he throws in, “love the family of believers.” And while I’m sure he does want all of his listeners to love one another, I think here in this particular context, he’s saying something a little bit different; esteem the church; be dedicated to it. In that sense, the family of believers, with its system of leadership already beginning to form, also has a claim on the honour and obedience of each Christian.
Not that I get to tell you what to do; but that I think Peter is here positioning the church community as being owed something by each of us, alongside or perhaps as an expression of the reign of God. It bears thinking about, what that might mean for us, too.
So freedom, it turns out – at least in Peter’s thought – might mean something a little bit different than “doing whatever I like,” and maybe something more like, “getting to participate to the full in things which are good.” And that way of looking at things might be helpful, when we think again about the tensions I mentioned at the start; between conformity and rebellion, or freedom from evil and yet being bound in love.
So my challenge to you from this text, something to take away and reflect on, is “What would it look like for you to participate to the full in something good this week?”