04/30/23 “Stewards of Grace”

1 Peter 2:13-4:11, sel.

I love maps. GPS is great in its way, but there’s just no substitute for a paper map. It shows you not only where you’re going but where you’ve been. It can show you the terrain you’ll have to cross—hills and lakes and rivers. But, best of all, it shows you that you have options—ones that may not show up on any GPS device. One route may be the most direct, but it’s slower because of the little towns along the way. Another may be longer in miles but take less time. Another may be a scenic route that offers indescribable beauty, or one that takes you past historical sites and markers. You get to pick the one that suits your needs for that trip at that time.

We need a map for faithful living, too, and scripture offers us a whole book of them. But how do we know which map to choose?  How can we tell which roads on the map are still ones we can travel on today? This is the challenge we face when we struggle to faithfully use and interpret scripture as a guide to living faithfully today.

Our friends back in the 1st-century needed a map to help them chart their course to faithful living in a world that didn’t understand their beliefs or approve of their lifestyle. Peter’s 1st-century readers were wrestling with questions like “Can I be a Christian even if I’m married to a pagan?” “Since we’re all equal in God’s sight, is it OK for Christian slaves to rebel against their masters?” “If Jesus is my King, what’s my responsibility to the emperor?” “Should I let my new way of life stand out as a testimony to my faith, or should I try to blend in with my surroundings?” In his letter, Peter attempts to lay out a route that will lead his readers to lives that are both faithful and secure.

The route that Peter recommends can be something of a bumpy ride for us. The passages that we’re focusing on today can make us very uncomfortable. In fact, they should. The lectionary deals with these troubling passages about stoic slaves and submissive wives and honoring human rulers by ignoring them. We shouldn’t ignore them, because these words have caused a lot of pain over the course of history and into the present day. This happens when Peter’s words are taken out of their original context and applied directly to life in a very different setting.

So, instead of ignoring them, we need to examine them closely, with an eye towards understanding the realities of life for 1st-century Christians. We need to discern where Peter wanted to go with his advice. Then, we can mine his letter for the truths that can lead us to faithful living in our world today.

As we learned last week, Peter’s readers were living in pockets dispersed throughout what we now know as Turkey. They weren’t being systematically persecuted for their faith, but their new way of life did attract some hostility. Jewish Christians were no longer welcome in the synagogues, and Gentile members had given up the gods commonly believed to hold the community’s well-being in their hands. The Christians’ faith in Jesus separated them the culture they still lived in.

These Christians were eager to build strong communities where they could live faithfully and authentically. But, that didn’t mean that they didn’t also want to live in harmony with those around them. Peter was concerned about how Christians could endure in their cultural environment. He wanted their faith to thrive in the midst of whatever suffering they encountered. He also hoped that, if Christians lived peaceably among their neighbors, accusations against them would be proven false, and even that non-believers would recognize the Christians’ honorable way of life and come to glorify God themselves.

One of the realities in the 1stcentury world was that social order was highly prized. The emperor, imperial appointees, and institutions were responsible for maintaining this order. By acting and living in ways that ran counter to the prevailing social norms, Christians could be accused of disrupting social order. This would draw negative consequences for them and, worse, cast God in a negative light.

Part of that social order was the relationship between slaves and their masters. Christian slaves may have been free in Christ, but they were still bound to human masters. It’s possible that non-Christian masters were accusing Christians of inciting newly-converted slaves to insubordination or rebellion, with all their talk of freedom and equality.

Political security and unity were believed to begin in the home. Anything that upset the established order in households could rock the nation’s stability. Romans disapproved of wives (and slaves) being drawn into what they saw as bizarre religious cults, because it would cause tension in the household, which could spread to society at large.

Peter takes these cultural values into account. His advice doesn’t offer a picture of what God’s kingdom should—and eventually will—look like. He’s not suggesting that the way things are, are the way things ought to be. But Christians have to live in and with the way things are, in their time and place, so Peter’s advice is geared towards balancing the demands of the Christian faith with the realities of life in the 1st century. What he offers is a tactical plan for living in the 1st-century world as it was. His letter was like a AAA TripTik which would route them around the cultural road hazards as they waited for Christ to come again and make all things new.

“For the Lord’s sake,” Peter says, “accept the authority of human institutions and honor the emperor.” Christians were to do this as though these leaders had been sent by God to punish wrong and encourage good. These leaders should be obeyed, not because they actually have some divine right to rule, but simply for the sake of good order. If Christians lived according to the values of their culture, those who accused them of being disruptive would be proven ignorant and foolish. “Yes, you are indeed free people in Jesus Christ,” Peter says, “but that doesn’t mean you are free to do anything you like. Use your freedom to live honorably, not for the sake of the ruling people and institutions, but for the sake of the Lord and the Lord’s people.”

Peter encourages slaves to accept the authority of their masters, whether those masters are good and kind, or unjust and cruel. He doesn’t condone cruel treatment, or suggest in any way that it’s acceptable. But slavery is a fact of life for Peter and his readers. It is better for the community as a whole, Peter says, for slaves to endure cruelty and injustice. Indeed, Peter holds them up as a reflection of Christ’s own response to cruelty. When slaves endure unjust pain and suffering, they literally embody the suffering of Christ and become living examples of what it means to follow a crucified Savior.

Finally, Peter addresses wives. In order to preserve the household peace and unity so prized by their culture, he encourages wives to be submissive to their husbands. In the same way that slaves were to accept the authority of their masters, wives were to accept the authority of their husbands, in order to preserve household order and guard against unfounded accusations. But, more than that, Peter sees another benefit of this behavior. Non-believing husbands might be won over. Those who didn’t believe the Living Word of Jesus might be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct.

Peter does give a nod to husbands. Christian husbands were more likely to have believing wives, since households typically followed the lead of the husband. There aren’t any words of mutual submission here; husbands retain their power. But they are to recognize women as the “weaker sex”—not weaker in intellect or faith but in physical strength which made them vulnerable to abuse. Peter reminds husbands that, while wives may lack power in the household, they are equally heirs to the gift of eternal life and should be honored as such.

All of this may have been practical advice for 1st-century Christians. But, when we read Scripture through the lenses of tradition, reason, and experience, we can quickly see that Peter’s 1st-century advice can’t be applied directly to our 21st-century questions. The route he recommended then is not the best route for us to take now.

We accept now that slavery is a bad thing. Slavery was an accepted practice in the 1st century, usually as a way for people to get out of debt and regulated by law. But we reject slavery now, especially slavery that’s based on the assumption that one race is superior to another and has the right to own another person’s body. Fortunately, that form of slavery has been abolished. But, slavery in other forms does still exist today, in our country and around the world, and today we wouldn’t think of telling someone who’s being trafficked to just accept their lot.

Peter’s advice to women is just as inappropriate. Although it’s not universally accepted by all Christians to this day, in the United Methodist Church, men and women are seen as equals, in all aspects of life, including marriage. There is no assumption that men are divinely invested with power over their wives. Although it’s nice that Peter encourages husbands to treat their wives well, he doesn’t challenge the basic assumption that men are in charge. Peter’s words, and others like them, are still used to convince women that it’s their Christian duty to accept whatever their husbands dish out, including emotional and physical abuse, with disastrous results.

The 1st-century Christians lived in an empire where to claim someone other than the emperor as king was treason. Dissent, at least among the common people, was not acceptable. Anything that threatened the prevailing order was suspect. Bowing to the authorities may have been the best survival strategy then, but Peter never anticipated that his letter would one day be read by people like us who have a voice and a vote in our government’s policies. Now, we value the freedom and the responsibility we have to live out our baptismal vows to resist evil, injustice, and oppression by insisting on justice from our elected officials and institutions.

The specifics of Peter’s advice are inseparable from the culture of his time. With the passing of time, his recommended route has become one that should have barriers across it and detour signs posted around it. But, that doesn’t mean we have to throw the scriptural baby out with the bathwater. We just need to recalculate our route to faithful living, based on what we now know and what is true of our culture today. The good news is that we have some tools to help us do that.

The first thing we should consider when we look at Scripture is the perspective of the author or the speaker. Peter is writing from a privileged position. He’s not a slave. He’s not a woman. He doesn’t really know what it means to be in a position that makes you vulnerable to physical abuse, or keeps you from making decisions about your own life. We don’t even know how much he cared about what the lives of slaves and women were like, as long as they weren’t making waves for the community. If wives and slaves followed Peter’s advice, the ones who would benefit the most were the people most like Peter: the husbands and masters.

As we evaluate Scripture’s route recommendations, we need to ask ourselves, “Who benefits from this advice?” We also need to ask, “Who is left out, and who bears the burden of following this advice?” We especially need to be conscious of this when we are giving directions to others. It’s easy to assume that the route that serves us well is the best possible route for everyone. But the choices we make may not take into account the roadblocks that others face. As we seek a good route to a God-honoring life, we need to be conscious of what we don’t know. If we don’t know what it’s like to be gay, or transgender, or a person of color, or poor, or undocumented, or disabled, we need to be as careful about the directions we give to others as we are in evaluating the directions that are given to us.

As we examine maps like Peter’s, and even the maps that people recommend to us today, we can consider the way the author arrived at their choice. Peter’s advice was to hold on to Christian values while blending in with the prevailing culture as much as possible. But there are many ways of approaching the intersection of culture and faith. The Christian ethics professor H. Richard Niebuhr described five of them, beginning with the extreme of completely separating from the current culture. The other extreme Is not seeing any separation between Christ and culture at all. In this view, the most important cultural values are the ones that best mesh with Jesus’s teachings, and the favored teachings of Jesus are the ones that best support cultural expectations.

Niebuhr describes other routes In between that embrace a little more ambiguity. Culture can be seen as part of what God created, which we need because it’s the place where we experience the grace of God, and where we express our love for God by serving our brothers and sisters. We have to consider society’s demands, but we never assume that the culture’s claim on us is equal to Christ’s. Or, a route may be grounded in the paradox of humanity’s sinfulness joined with the gracious action of God in the world. This will guide us to lives of service to others, regardless of the need or the personal cost. Or, another mapmaker may look to Christ as the “Transformer of Culture” in a world that was created by God to be nothing but good, but was damaged by sin and now is in need of conversion. When we follow this route, we see ourselves as participants in Christ’s culture-transforming work.

Today the cultural issues that confront us may be more like “What should I do about a boss who’s a bully or who expects me to play along with unethical practices? How do I mesh my Christian beliefs with my responsibilities as an American citizen? What is my Christian duty in my family and in the world?” When we read passages like Peter’s advice to his churches, we need to remember that they were written for people with concerns as specific to their time and place as ours are.

But some concerns apply to Christians in all times and all places. We all want to live as faithfully as we can, and to help others do the same. We want directions on how to get there, in a way that’s safe for ourselves and others. This is where grace comes in. We are all sinners who have been drawn by grace, redeemed by grace, and are being sanctified by grace. We have been entrusted to use the grace we’ve received in ways that help others grow in their knowledge and love of God. Grace is the compass that keeps us pointed in the right direction as we seek to be good stewards of God’s grace in our world.

The Bible is full of maps, and we are indebted to the ancient mapmakers for what they created for us. By using the tools we have available to us, we can be good map readers for our time, and we can be good mapmakers for those who will come after us. When we keep the compass of grace in front of us at all times, it will help guide us so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young