I Peter 2:18-25
We do not like slavery. The very idea of it is repulsive to us. It is inconceivable to us that one person could own another human being. To us, that is the most basic violation of human rights. This becomes especially true when we realize, that as Christians, we cannot truly possess anything but eternal life. We know, deep down, that we do not really possess anything: not our homes, not our cars, nor any other stuff, not even the clothes that we are wearing this morning. All is a gift from God. Nothing is truly owned, all is held in trust. And so it seems horrendous to us that anybody could possibly consider that it is acceptable to own another human being.
But here’s something to ponder that might get our hackles up, one way or the other. This congregation was established about 40 years before the Civil War. And while slavery was far more prevalent in the South, is it possible that one or two of the members of the Thomaston Baptist Church kept a household servant or two? We certainly know that Christians in the South kept slaves. That’s how many of them found Christ and gave themselves to the Lord.
And around the world, slavery is certainly not extinct. People continue to own worker slaves, household slaves, and shockingly, as yet another reminder of our broken world, slaves for sexual purposes.
If I was writing the Bible, I would have clearly stated that slavery of all kinds was strictly forbidden and punishable by death. But nobody asked me to write the Bible, and that’s probably a good thing. God tends to be far more gracious than I am. The Bible promotes the fair treatment of slaves, but it does not name slavery as an evil. In fact, servanthood is the exalted position of all who are the children of God. We are the Servants of Jesus Christ.
One of the most interesting books in the Bible is the tiny Book of Philemon. It is all about the fair treatment of slaves. The whole book is only 25 verses long, and it could be memorized in an afternoon. It is a letter written by the Apostle Paul to his friend Philemon, and the entire 25 verses discuss Paul’s friendship with Philemon and the matter of one of Philemon’s runaway slaves. The slave has run away into the arms of the Apostle Paul. Sort of. Paul is in prison, and Onesimus, the slave, has been tending to Paul’s needs. That means that Onesimus has been bringing Paul food. Prison care wasn’t like it is nowadays with three hots and a cot. In Paul’s day, prisoners had to provide for their own nourishment. In the process of bringing Paul food, Onesimus has given his life to Jesus Christ, and he’s become a servant of Jesus Christ.
Just the same, though, Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon. But in the letter, Paul is very clear that he’s not sending a slave back. He is, instead, sending a fellow brother in Christ. And he expects that Philemon will receive Onesimus that way; not as a slave, but as an equal.
In our passage this morning, the Apostle Peter is encouraging slaves to be obedient to their masters, even if they are unfortunate enough to have masters who are cruel. In fact, he encourages them to be a shining example of perfect obedience.
Somewhere in this passage, and it is a little difficult to tell exactly where, Peter stops giving advice to slaves who are owned by another person, and he starts giving advice and instruction to all persons who understand themselves as being servants of Jesus Christ. It is a subtle transition, and we could probably make it anytime after verse 19.
Even in its earliest days, the Christian church recognized that slaves were human beings. And this is because everybody, before they met Jesus Christ, was a slave. We were all a slave to sin, until we found our freedom. And so knowing this, the early church welcomed all persons in worship, regardless of who they were, whether slaves to sin or slaves to their owners. This is an important lesson for us to learn. All persons, regardless of who they are, or what they are, must be welcome in our worship services.
And so, when Peter says in verse 20, “If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that?”, I believe that Peter is speaking not just to slaves who are owned by somebody, but to everyone who is a servant of Jesus Christ. If we suffer because we have done something wrong, so be it. That’s life. We should expect that wrong doing will be met with punishment. Servants of Jesus Christ must be obedient in all areas of our lives, and that includes civic responsibility as well as the demands of our faith.
But if we suffer for doing right, for being obedient, then our suffering takes on a whole new dimension. Our suffering becomes sacred and holy. Unjust suffering is always sacred, it is always holy. And we must believe this, and we must begin with this belief every time we find ourselves suffering unjustly. And that’s because we do not always understand our suffering in this manner. In fact, we often respond to suffering as if it were neither sacred nor holy. Often when we suffer unjustly, we respond in either of two ways. First, we might get all puffed up and self-righteous. We might say, “Why me? I’ve done nothing to deserve this!” Or we might get really depressed, and begin thinking rather morosely. We’ll beat ourselves up and we’ll decide that we truly are a miserable excuse for a person, riddled with sin, and that we deserve every bit of unpleasantness that comes our way. Both responses are wrong, and both responses deny the sacredness and the holiness of our situations.
Unjust suffering is sacred and holy because it connects us with our Lord in a most intimate way. If there ever was an obedient servant who suffered unjustly, it is our Lord Jesus Christ. And, in a most mysterious and wonderful way our Lord’s suffering turns our own suffering into a calling or a mission, just as Christ’s was.
Try to think of it this way: as the children of God, we are welcomed into the most glorious family in the entire universe. We call God “Our Father.” Jesus taught us to call him “Daddy.” In this family, we are nothing less than brothers and sisters. We are created as equals, and we treat one another as equals. We love one another, and we love one another deeply, from the heart. This is a wonderful, glorious reality. There nothing better than to be with one another.
But we can’t be with one another 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, can we? We’ve got to spend time in the world, too. And as we know all too well, this world is not one big, happy family. But we go into the world because Jesus told us to go. And we go with the good news of salvation and eternal life, because that is also our calling.
And when we go, we know that our going is a sacred and holy thing, and so we can go with joy, knowing that whatever may befall us, we will always be in the loving and protective arms of our Lord Jesus Christ, even if in our going, we suffer.
And that is because our unjust suffering is sacred and holy, and elevated to the level of a calling. Just as our Lord’s suffering was unjust, and sacred and holy, it too, was his calling. We are most Christ-like when we suffer.
But with most things, there is also a bit of a twist. We are also complicit in our Lord’s suffering. We are the cause of our Lord’s agony. It was for our sins and for our wrongdoing that Jesus suffered and died on the cross. And yet, like the slave who is beaten for doing nothing wrong, Jesus endured that agony and he received God’s approval. “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.”
That is deep and solid comfort indeed to know that far above and far beyond the cruel task-masters of this world, there is a judge who executes judgment with justice. We have a loving Father who understands the plight of his seemingly insignificant children and servants who struggle, sometimes daily, just to survive in this world.
One day, all of God’s children and servants will ultimately be vindicated. One day, all wrongs will be righted, and all who suffer now will be exonerated and praised for their faithfulness in time of trouble. This is our certain hope.
The most awesome bit of good news in this passage comes at the very end. As it turns out, we who are the servants of Jesus Christ do not just have a master, we also have a shepherd. A shepherd cares for and feeds and protects his sheep, seeing that no harm comes to them. Jesus, our Good Shepherd, provides an atmosphere of peace and security even in the midst of danger. But in addition to peace and security, we also experience his love. Each of his sheep is valuable to him. Each of his sheep is worthy of his love and care. His love for us is so deep, it is impossible for us to imagine the depth of it. As our Good Shepherd, Jesus sustains and keeps us as we toil away in the daily grind of this earthly existence. But his love reaches even farther than that. His love for us guards us for eternity. Jesus is the guardian not only of our lives, but also of our souls. He is our shepherd for all of eternity.
In the hymn that we are about to sing, the writer has this to say about Jesus, the guardian of our souls:
Savior, like a shepherd lead us,
Much we need thy tender care;
In thy pleasant pastures feed us,
For our use thy folds prepare:
Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus,
Thou hast bought us, thine we are.
“In thy pleasant pastures feed us” is an allusion to Psalm 23, and it is our hope for today, as we go forth from this place. “For our use thy folds prepare” is an allusion to John chapter 14, which, as we know from last week, is our eternal, imperishable, undefiled and unfading inheritance. Our hope is in Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and the guardian of our souls.