Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 3, 2020

1 Peter 2:19-25 Commentary

Many members of the American civil rights movement embraced Peter’s commendation of Christians who put up with unjust suffering’s pain.  In fact, that movement produced a treasure trove of photos of people bearing up under such misery.  One could fill books with pictures of people kneeling in non-violent resistance to beatings and submitting to attacks by snarling German shepherds.

However, the photo of a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina is perhaps especially iconic.  While management had reserved its stools for “Whites Only,” people who were black sat on them together with people who were white.

So customers who were white began to mock the protestors.  To add to that misery, people began to pour ketchup and mustard on their heads.  Then someone else emptied sugar and creamer packets onto the protestor’s already sticky heads.

Yet as my colleague Scott Hoezee, to whom I’m indebted for some of this Commentary’s ideas, points out, while a picture may be worth a thousand words, in this case a movie would have been worth a trillion.  After all, the protestors might have lashed out at their tormentors after the snapshot was taken.  But a video would show how they continued to accept the abuse of mustard streaming down their cheeks, hair matted with ketchup and faces marked with creamer and sugar.

Peter’s first readers found themselves in a slightly similar situation.  Their neighbors, friends and, in some cases, family members made them suffer unjustly for refusing to conform to the pagan culture.

In verses 19 and 20 of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, Peter calls “slaves” to endure such unjust suffering.  Eugene Peterson paraphrases as telling them to be good servants to their masters.  Yet, the apostle adds, servants must serve not only good masters, but also bad ones.

“What counts,” paraphrases Peterson, “is that you put up with it for God’s sake when you’re treated badly for no good reason … If you’re treated badly for good behavior and continue in spite of it to be a good servant, that is what counts with God” (20).

So it may seem as if 1 Peter 2:19-25 doesn’t just condone slavery that we categorically reject on biblical grounds.  The apostle even seems to call slaves to suffer in silence when their cruel masters abuse them.  As a result, some American Christians claimed Peter approved of the institution of slavery.  “The Bible tells you to submit to your masters,” too many white Christians scolded African-Americans.

So would Peter have told those protestors at Greensboro’s segregated lunch counter to just let the ketchup, mustard, sugar and creamer stream down their faces?  Would he have told other protestors to let German shepherds maul them and fire hoses batter them?

Such advice would trouble many of God’s modern adopted sons and daughters.  Especially when we add to that Peter’s call to “submit … to every authority instituted among men” (13). After all, no matter when exactly the apostle wrote those words, brutal tyrants ruled the Roman Empire’s subjects to whom he wrote.  So how could he call those who were suffering unjustly to “submit to” it?

A dear acquaintance once challenged me to look in the Bible for the answers to all my questions because it answers every question ever asked.  But I’m learning that sometimes the Bible raises more questions than answers.

So how might those who proclaim 1 Peter 2 untangle its culturally shaped elements from its timeless principles?  We might begin with a pragmatic question: what might have happened had Christian Roman citizens and slaves rejected Peter’s advice?  What if Peter’s first readers had refused to submit to the Roman authorities?  Those who don’t know the answer to that question might ask Jesus.

And what would have happened to Christian slaves who opposed their masters, especially cruel ones?  What happened to those who, for example, ran away from tyrannical masters?  They were often mercilessly punished.

And who might those Romans have blamed for it?  Not just Peter, but also the living God who’d inspired him to encourage their resistance.  Those who suffered unjustly might have seen them as virtually partnering with the brutal Romans and tyrannical masters to make them miserable.

So Peter counsels submissive self-restraint, just as he later does to spouses.  It’s almost as if he suggests that Roman citizens, including slaves and spouses, put up with unjust suffering so they can survive to continue to serve the Lord.

In verse 19 Peter links such bearing up under unjust suffering to being “conscious” of God.  Scholars tell us that word is difficult to translate.  Yet it at least suggests that a key to dealing with undeserved suffering is remembering that God has a plan for God’s people.

Jesus’ followers don’t fully understand that plan or how unjust suffering fits into it.  So God’s adopted children never use “God has a plan for you” as a cliché to muffle sufferers’ questions.  Yet Christians trust that God, not our persecutors or oppressors, is in control.

Peter uses the word “commendable” in both verses 19 and 20 to describe people’s enduring unjust suffering.  However, the Greek word for “commend” is one we generally translate as “grace.”  That at least suggests that the endurance of unjust suffering is somehow God’s undeserved favor.

Yet if Peter’s call to slaves to suffer in silence is difficult, how much harder is the idea that unjust suffering is a gift from God?  So some scholars hurry to insist it isn’t the suffering that’s a grace, but the results of that suffering.

However we understand unjust suffering’s grace, the apostle reminds us that it’s never somehow separate from God.  While God isn’t the source of undeserved misery, God is determined to graciously use it for God’s dearly beloved people’s well-being anyway.

So whether Jesus’ followers choose to patiently tolerate or somehow battle unjust suffering, we never try to deal with it on our own.  You and I remember God.  God’s people always soak our responses to undeserved suffering in humility, praying, “Father, your will be done.”

Yet Peter isn’t talking about some general “grace under fire.”  He isn’t just calling his readers to refuse to let some generic undeserved suffering get to us.  The apostle connects our putting up with suffering we don’t deserve to Jesus’ own suffering and response to it.

The apostle reminds us Jesus never did anything wrong or said anything inappropriate.  His foes and tormentors called him every name in the book and he said nothing back.  Think of what Jesus put up with for God’s sake in just the last few hours of his life: his betrayer’s intimate gesture.  His view of his fleeing disciples’ sandals’ soles.  One of his best friend’s vigorous denials of even knowing him.  His chin dripping with soldiers’ spittle.  His back beaten and bruised to a bloody pulp.  God’s abandonment.

Jesus could have obliterated both his unjust suffering and tormentors in an instant.  Yet he never once lashed out.  Jesus never even threatened to get back at his oppressors.  He silently put up with the pain of unjust suffering.

Hoezee reminds us that at almost no time is Jesus’ followers’ credibility tested more than when people treat us badly for no good reason.  At no time does our witness to who Jesus is come through more clearly than in our response to others’ unfair treatment of us.

Those who proclaim 1 Peter 2 might explore with our hearers the things that prompt Christian responses.  Our Christian testimony may come as the byproduct of the undeserved criticism of a spouse or child.  It may come when a friend abandons you because she gets a better offer.  It may come when a co-worker files an untrue complaint or a boss scolds you for something you didn’t do.

For most western Christians the question isn’t whether we’ll suffer because of our Christian faith.  The question is how we’ll respond to the unjust suffering that nearly all of us experience at some point in our lives.

After all, how do even God’s adopted children naturally respond to suffering, especially that which we don’t deserve?  You and I whine or become bitter.  Even Jesus’ followers naturally become angry or complain about unjust suffering.

North Americans live in a society that will do almost anything to ease our pain.  We’ll do virtually anything to avoid suffering.  Since Americans believe the pursuit of happiness is our natural right, we do everything we can to avoid unhappiness.

This Sunday Peter doesn’t call his brothers and sisters in Christ to somehow invite undeserved suffering.  However, he does remind us we have a higher calling when we do suffer for doing good.  Followers of Jesus keep serving God and our neighbors, even when others make us suffer for it.  Christians patiently put up with that unjust suffering, just as Jesus did.

Yet Peter’s primary audience today may be people who are in a position of relative strength.  He doesn’t authorize God’s adopted children to simply tell the poor, hungry and immigrants, as well as the elderly and children to just put up with injustice.

The apostle, instead, invites people who generally have options for responding to injustice to walk the non-violent way of Jesus.  He may also be summoning us to speak up for those who would suffer even more if they spoke up against their unjust treatment.

Those who proclaim 1 Peter 2 this Sunday might think about how this applies to the COVID-19 pandemic.  It’s becoming clear that it disproportionately impacts people who are materially needy.  Things like lopsided rates of infection, job loss or work-related health risks give Jesus’ followers more than ample opportunities to speak up for those whom this virus especially unjustly treats.

Yet it isn’t just unjust suffering to which Peter invites Jesus’ followers to respond.  It’s also those who make us suffer in ways we don’t deserve.  Peter addresses how we respond to those who make themselves our enemies.

It may be tyrannical governments, those with whose policies we disagree, unjust bosses, or those who make foolish decisions.  Those who follow Jesus don’t treat such people as they deserve.  Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters treat them as Jesus treated those who unjustly harmed him.

Illustration Idea

Thomas More was England’s Chancellor during the reign of the mercurial Henry VIII.  After being convicted of failing to support the king as head of the Church over even the pope, the authorities unjustly sentenced More to be executed.  Some say it was his finest hour in a life filled with days, months and years of far less than moral finery.

Just before More’s execution, he prayed, “Almighty God, have mercy … on all that bear me evil will and would me harm … and make us saved souls in heaven together where we may ever live and love together with thee and thy blessed saints.”


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