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Hear the word of God from I Peter 2, 11-25.
Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge. For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and praise for those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish.
As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.
Slaves, accept the authority of your master with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 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. 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. He committed no sin and no deceit was found in his mouth. 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. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds we have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
As servants of God, live as free people.
Live freely and live honorably, according the example of Jesus Christ, regardless of your circumstances.
You may have been taken aback when Nesie Williams read the verse:
“slaves, accept the authority of your masters.”
This is one of those verses that people have misused throughout history in order to keep others down,
along with that other verse, “for the Lord’s sake, accept the authority of every human institution,”
as well as that verse that follows closely, “wives, accept the authority of your husbands.”
Because of the difficulties with the “plain, or surface, meanings” of these texts,
many today simply choose to skip over these when reading the Bible, as if they weren’t there,
or they choose to dismiss the entire Bible outright because of these parts they don’t like.
But those who take the Bible seriously do not just pick and choose.
We take a hard look at every passage, even the passages we don’t like,
and try to understand them within their context, and what they might mean for the world today.
We realize that much pain and agony has been caused by focusing only
on the Bible’s “plain, or surface, meaning”, and so the Church spends rigorous time
understanding the importance of cultural context and development of theological thought.
It should be stated, for example, that first century Mediterranean slavery was far different
than the slavery of the South prior to the Civil War.
The issue of race or background was not absent, but it did not hold the same weight.
In those days you could not necessarily distinguish a slave from a free person in the marketplace.
In some situations, slaves were more educated than their masters.
Someone became a slave by military conquest or perhaps being born into slavery.
Many became slaves because they had to sell themselves in order to retire a debt.
Imagine if we didn’t have the option of bankruptcy today.
Imagine if everyone who had ever declared bankruptcy had become a servant instead,
a slave of another until their debt was entirely repaid.
Many of our real estate moguls and business entrepreneurs would have had very different lives.
Though different from the plantations of the rural American south,
still, it should be said, slaves in the first century were often without rights and sometimes abused.
We do not belittle their suffering, but, with Peter,
we honor their desire to be faithful in unfaithful circumstances.
Many of these household servants had become drawn to the message of Jesus.
They had become Christians of their own accord and joined a local household church.
This letter was written to encourage them to live faithfully in unfaithful times.
The encouragement was to live honorably as a Christian disciple,
no matter what your station in life, no matter what difficulties you may face.
The focus of one’s life was not to be on the submission under which they lived,
but on the constant call to love God and to love neighbor as one’s self.
We do not read the verses in I Peter about slavery and unfaithful institutions and marriage
and consider that we have guidance for every circumstance, but neither do we dismiss them outright.
In the particular context of Asia Minor house churches in the first century,
one can argue that these words about submission and obedience were helpful in their time,
even if today, in the vast majority of situations,
we find that these attitudes should not be espoused or even tolerated.
On Friday, I heard the story of a Syrian woman who now lives in Clarkston.
She and her children participate in a literacy program, one of the many non-profits
helping families in dire need in the international community a few miles from here.
One of every two children in Clarkston lives in poverty,
but most are far better off than they were in the refugee camps from whence they came.
This woman, Numa, was talking about the bombings in her hometown in Syria.
She said that they became so frequent that no one would go outside.
Everyone stayed in their apartments for days, even weeks, at a time.
The children, as you can imagine, were terrified, but they were also restless,
and young families were struggling mightily not only with their safety,
not only with putting food on the table, but also with all these children
who were trapped all day in their small apartments.
So Numa began holding school classes in her den and leading games in the hallways.
She gathered the other mothers for mutual support and assistance.
Her den was very crowded during the daily lessons;
they were often interrupted with the sounds of warfare,
but they were doing the best they could to continue the children’s educations
and to help families manage in the midst of chaos.
One local Decatur woman spoke up and said, “Thank you for sharing your story.
This is hard for us to hear, but I am glad you spoke the truth.”
Numa replied: “The truth must be spoken, even if the truth will break your heart.”
The truth – about today’s Syria, or about the history of slavery in the American south,
the truth about today’s human trafficking in Atlanta, or about the suffering caused
by a myriad of unjust human institutions, or the truth about abusive marriages,
will break your heart.
Erin Gruwell in The Freedom Writers Diary wrote:
“It would be easy to become a victim of our circumstances and continue feeling sad, scared or angry;
or instead, we could choose to deal with injustice humanely
and break the chains of negative thoughts and energies, and not let ourselves sink into it.”
At least on one level, the Apostle Peter was encouraging the early Christians,
and even those who suffer today, like Numa, to deal with their unjust situations humanely,
to break the chains of negativity through Christ-like love and a faithful moral example.
Robert F. Kennedy once said: “Each time a (person) stands up for an ideal,
or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice,
he or she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope,
and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples
build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
To stand up for an ideal, to act to improve the lot of another, to strike out against injustice…
is a different response than simply to accept authority blindly or endure suffering unjustly.
On Thursday morning, I enjoyed the good privilege of leading chapel for the preschoolers of DPCC.
The topic for the day was the Ten Commandments, and I was seeking to help the four and five year olds
understand the Ten Commandments and how we might live them today.
We were talking about the seventh commandment – thou shalt not kill.
In the children’s Bible story book we were using, the commandment is paraphrased:
“do not hurt anyone.”
After we talked about this commandment for a bit, a little boy raised his hand,
waited patiently for me to call on him, then said very plainly and wisely,
“this means that when someone hits you on the playground, you don’t have to hit them back.”
That’s right, I said.
How many wars could have been avoided, how many deaths could have been prevented,
if those involved in conflict could have the wisdom of that young boy?
“You don’t have to hit back,” and if biblical truth be told, we are not supposed to hit back.
Long term cycles of violence and abuse within a family or an institution
or even within a government can be ended by the next generation.
How then should we live? How can a Christian survive, even thrive in an un-Christian world?
Let’s return for the moment to the “do not hurt anyone,”
or the “you’re not supposed to hit them back,” commandment.
This is true in sports.
Any athlete who has been abused on the field by the other team by a neck-jarring facemask,
or a punch in the gut, or an elbow to the face, knows what happens when you retaliate.
The referee only sees the retaliation, then you’re the one who gets kicked off of the field
for the rest of the game, or in soccer, for the following game as well.
Conduct yourself honorably on the field, and you won’t be the one who ends us sitting on the bench.
Accept the authority of the referee, even when they are wrong,
and you won’t be the one who hurts your team, and the larger purpose, by being ejected from the game.
We are familiar with the Old Testament, Hatfield and McCoy, rule:
“do unto others what they did unto you or your kin.”
The Golden Rule, taught by Jesus, is different:
“do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The Golden Rule sparks hope, undermines injustice, and breaks the cycle of violence.
The Hatfield and McCoy rule, the “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” rule,
leaves the whole world blind and toothless, and still raging for retribution.
The Apostle Peter was seeking to set ground rules for Christian behavior in an un-Christian world.
We follow Jesus, taught Peter, the One who laid down his life and died for the sin of the world.
We follow the One who said, not my will, O God, but thy will be done.
We follow the One who said, “turn the other cheek,” and then did, when the chips were down,
even when he was arrested and beaten and crucified. As the text claims:
When he was abused, he did not return abuse, when he suffered, he did not threaten…
He did so in order to accomplish a far larger purpose, the coming of the kingdom of heaven,
and the salvation of the world.
What Peter is saying in this letter is that the actions of people of the Church
should never become a stumbling block, not to any “master,”
nor to our government, certainly nor to our spouses or families.
We are to live freely, honorably, giving no one an excuse to accuse the followers of Jesus
of continuing cycles of violence and retribution.
Christian evangelism and mission, sharing the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ
through words and deeds, has always been what the church is called to do.
The first step of evangelism and of mission,
the first step of reaching out to our community and serving the needs of the world,
is made clear in Peter’s letter–honorable conduct.
Without honorable conduct, any words or deeds of the Church are empty.
You and I may not live today as household servants,
but there are many who feel as though they are slaves to their corporations or their careers.
You and I do not live under the thumb of a Roman emporer, thank God,
but we do live every day among the unchurched, and the dechurched,
in a society that cannot honestly call itself “Christian.”
If we want for the anyone to value the mission of the Church, to be drawn to the message of Jesus,
then our daily conduct must be honorable.
Of course, the Church will not be perfect. It never has been and never will be.
As we have said, “The church is not a resting place for the saints, but a hospital for sinners.”
Never the less, the Church, which is you and me, is to seek to be honorable in our conduct,
and to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul,
for the sake of the larger purposes of God, for the sake of the coming kingdom of God,
for the salvation of the world.
As servants of God, live as free people.
Live freely and live honorably, according the example of Jesus Christ, regardless of circumstances.
To God be the glory as you do so. Amen
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
May 7, 2017
Allysen Schaaf graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia with a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Christian Education. Prior to that she received a Bachelor of Arts in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Rev. Dr. Todd Speed has served Decatur Presbyterian Church since August, 2007 and has been an integral part of the Decatur community ever since. As a part of his personal calling and service, Dr. Speed regularly serves on local non-profit or education-related boards, has led or co-led over 20 mission trips in various cultural contexts, and has participated in learning seminars on five continents.
Rev. Alexandra Rodgers was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. She grew up in a large Presbyterian church where she and her family were very involved. Alex has a degree in interdisciplinary studies from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and a master of divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.
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Worship is the heartbeat of Decatur Presbyterian Church, the most important hour of the week. In worship, we offer praise, receive forgiveness, listen to God's Word, pray for the needs of the world, and offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God.
The mission of DPC is to share Jesus Christ's love for the world.
Founded in 1825, Decatur Presbyterian Church has contributed in numerous ways to the cultural development of Decatur over nearly two centuries, transforming Decatur from a tiny frontier settlement to building the foundations of the city we live in today.
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