Long time ago, people had to write letters and cards to share ideas, and information, and well-wishes and encouragement. There were no phones, no email, just letters. Our letter writer had more to say to the churches all around about how to love Jesus and live together as Christians. “Do your best to be as good as you can be.” He told the people to imagine they were stones— special stones that were precious to God. “Imagine building a house with those stones.”
Peter didn’t mean an actual house. He meant a community of people—the church! The people of the church love Jesus. They work hard show love for others. Now imagine you are a stone that helps build the church. You are an important part of God’s community.
If it’s happened once it’s happened 100 times–you’re enjoying a reading, a movie, a story and you think it’s going in one direction, then it takes a hard turn in a different direction, and you wonder if you’re the crazy one who didn’t see it coming.
1st Peter is writing to multiple churches throughout Asia minor around to Turkey and the Mediterranean sea. These are both Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus in each of the churches and they are learning what it means to be in community together. 1st Peter is called a circular letter, meaning that it was going to be delivered and read to multiple churches. Part of what the letter is doing is to get the churches to see that while they may have different cultures, they are all connected in their shared experiences and they share in the story and the good news of Jesus. 1st Peter is focused on and reminding them of hope and life that comes from the life and resurrection of Jesus that is given in to them And unites them no matter how different they all are.
First Peter talks about two households in this chapter. We have where we started with the children’s time–building the spiritual household. It is about About being a royal priesthood and a royal nation. To live well in the world. It’s about building a community whose foundation, cornerstone, is Jesus’ life and teachings and resurrection life. First Peter tells them to LIVE on that foundation And it sounds great… then it takes a turn beginning with “slaves obey your masters.”
This is the second household, and it has a different foundation and a different set of values and cultures. This set of household codes is based on Roman social expectations.
Typically, when this reading comes up, when this chapter shows up in our Lectionaries, it’s divided into parts. We might read the top part of chapter 2 and maybe some of the stuff at the end. But it’s designed to skip the stuff in the middle you know the stuff that makes us uncomfortable. And we are living in a time where there are some who are trying to ignore and erase the reality of slavery in our country because it makes them uncomfortable. And we know the horrors that came from slavery in the United States and around the world and that people have and continue to suffer In the midst of modern slavery and the generational consequences of it.
So, here we are, with something we call scripture, sacred and holy, telling us to honor our officials, to honor our government, to honor the emperor, to obey one’s master-even if they do them wrong.
And I went looking for good news. I read books, and articles, I listened to other people’s sermons. And that was probably the bigger mistake. Because 9 times out of 10, they told their congregations well it’s in The Bible You gotta honor the emperor, the politicians and leaders.
And if we are to accept whole cloth exactly what it says for us, that we are to honor and obey those who hold and wield power over us, It doesn’t take long to realize how this text has been used and wield it as a weapon against people. That the US slave master in training their slaves in Christianity would include this verse telling them that God wants them to obey their master.
Is that what this letter is trying to say. Is that what 1st Peter was telling to these churches in the midst of the Roman Empire?
I made a list of the ways in which the Empire function and some of the ways our time functions, so that we could look at the differences. Here’s what I had: the emperor called himself and thought of himself and was worshipped as the Son of God. Because we have to remember when Jesus was functioning and the names and the titles that Jesus was given were very, very political. While there was a single leader, there was a remnant of a Republic led by oligarchs and military leaders. They had focused on conquest and expansion trade and growth. There were local governors and leaders that reported back to the emperor and made sure what the emperor needed, happened. And there were local religions and gods and cultures and values that the people there needed to abide by.
When I got to the end of this list, which is clearly incomplete and basic, I noticed I would name the same things just maybe with slightly different words.
What is very different, is that 1700 years ago, the Christian church moved into a position of power and settled there, in ways that the early church of this letter could have never imagined. As Rome began to decline as an Empire, Christianity was growing. The Empire wrapped itself up into this new world religion that was inviting people into it. So much so that Rome remains part of this first church. And they wielded their power and influence and wealth and privilege in ways that are, well kind of embarrassing or horrifying in hindsight. Maybe it’s the story of Jesus and the church where we might say, “well that took a turn.”
When we read 1st Peter from the place intertwined with the Empire, from a place of privilege and power, one comes up with a very different way of reading it. When you hear that you are A chosen race, a Royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people from a place of power, it becomes an affirmation of your role in the world to do whatever you want by any means necessary.
And, 1st Peter was used by masters to justify their enslavement. It has been used by governments to justify their abuse of people. It has been used by men, both husbands and religious leaders alike, to demand women stay in abusive situations.
Here is the problem, this letter wasn’t written by the powerful and it wasn’t given to people with privilege. 1st Peter was written from and written to the margins. It was written to and from the underside of the Empire. It was written to small groups of people in cities. Historians tell us, there was little Empire-wide persecution of Christians, there was absolutely localized abuse, bullying, persecution, violence, rumors, mocking, and stereotypes about this group of Christians which wasn’t even a word they claimed as a community. it was a pejorative and demeaning word that was given to them by those who weren’t part of their group. Christians stood out. They didn’t participate in civic religions, in the military. Their worship was confusing and it seemed like they were eating bodies and drinking blood.
I imagine they were scared. There were Jewish Christians and their temple had been destroyed within their lifetime. They would have heard the stories of the executions of Paul and Peter–leaders of this growing community. There were more and more stories of people being killed, martyred for their faith, and those were held up as incredible examples of how to be faithful.
For 1st Peter, it wasn’t about dying for Christ, it is about living in Christ. It is about the life of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus that brings life to the followers. The followers are called to live lives that build the spiritual house on the foundation of the life and teachings of Jesus–rooted in love and care, interconnection, and community.
1st Peter says: Hey things are kind of scary out there and I need you to live. Don’t draw attention to yourselves. But live the way of Christ that causes you to be a good member of this community by participating In the household and the culture in the society in the best ways that you can while honoring and following the ways and the teachings and the good news and the love of Jesus. Don’t bring the law down on you and your community. Don’t aim for execution. Live.
Yes, they were hoping that with their good works, love, hope, humility, and modesty would lead people to ask them about Jesus. And, they were pretty sure Jesus was coming back to them soon, tomorrow at the latest. So, they weren’t expecting to overturn the systems of the world when they were a tiny little group of people in the midst of a giant Empire. They weren’t thinking that they could end slavery for all people. Jesus would take care of all that.
This isn’t a letter to keep people oppressed. This is a letter to offer survival strategies in the midst of dangerous times. This was about caring for the community and life, when so many were dying.
There are still people who are told to live this way. There are still those who are living on the margins and are told from within their group or from or from sympathetic Privileged Folks that if they just keep their head down things will be OK. Well-intentioned and loving parents of LGBTQIA Kids might tell them to just not be out until you get to college and you get out of this town and things will be different.
There while someone said that the folks coming up from Latin America immigrating illegally are dangerous, most of the undocumented immigrants live quiet unassuming lives, trying to fly under the radar, to not draw any attention to themselves lest they get hurt or arrested or bring the law back on their whole community.
Look here’s the thing we can tell everybody we can tell every person of color to not do anything wrong to submit to authority and it doesn’t mean it will save their lives. And next month there’s a commemoration and anniversary Because 10 years ago this summer, A wife’s supremacist walked into the Oak Creek sick temple shooting 10 killing 6. And look if anyone is living into the ideal that 1st Peter was trying to give this community, of living fully into the values, customs, culture of your traditions and using that identity to be a good citizen and community member in the world and this culture and the Empire around you, it is the Sikh community.
On March 2nd, 2020 the death toll from that shooting went from 6 to 7 as 1 of the victims succeed to his injuries after having been shot in the head in 2012. https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/survivor-2012-wisconsin-sikh-temple-shooting-died-69362120
Just before this, at the end of February 2020, there had a shooting at Coors in Milwaukee. When interviewed, Pardeep Kaleka, whose father was one of those killed in 2012 and is the current president of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee said, “It’s been a rough week for everybody. The Sikh community is all right. We’re hanging in there. We’re going to be brave for the world.”
There is a particular light that shines when a community knows it is on the margins is built on the foundation of its faith to be living and good and sacred and holy in and among the world.
We are closer to the Empire than we are to that little group of believers. We are closer to those with power and privilege and means and resources and safety, Then the one this letter was read to you.
This letter never anticipated us. It was not written for us. We could water it down and say that it is about living well in our community, and obey when we can, or just being good people. We couldn’t ignore the whole thing And say that we stand by the traditions of the prophets and Jesus who overthrew the tables in the temple and the generations of profits that have called out the powerful for the last 2000 years. But I could have done that in 5 minutes instead of the last 15.
Part of the call of 1st Peter, A call that is given to all of those who follow the way of Jesus, was to live. There’s a call to live fully into who God was creating them to be and live fully Into the life and good news and resurrection living that was given and revealed to them through Jesus Christ. The call was to root themselves in the foundational teaching of Jesus that included love and non-violence and to build themselves as a community holy and sacred set apart and beloved, And let that be their hope to get up every day and keep living. And I think that is our calling too to make sure our foundation is rooted in the way of, the teachings, the life, and the resurrection living of Jesus Christ to build a community that has centered on that love, So that that might be our hope and we might be a light.
It’s possible that that kind of action will put us on the margins of society but probably not in a way that will threaten our existence. So I think that means our call has to be a little different. Our call isn’t about survival because most of us aren’t dealing with issues that are life-and-death. I don’t think survival, I don’t think these household codes are divinely inspired. They are trying to get through another day. They are about survival. And if we are to be people Who are about life come about resurrection life about living into the fullness and we need to be people Who Stand up for, who advocate for, who fights for those who are just struggling to survive.
Those who are told to keep their head down and not do anything wrong, those who live lives undocumented, those who life, love, or body defy the norm, those living with are dying with addiction, and those struggling with mental illness. Those being abused. For the sick and the indebted, for the hungry. We use our place, our privilege, our means, our resources to make space for, to give voice To, To make opportunities for 2 allow for basic needs and necessities, and we advocate, And we March and we write letters and we build community and we make safe spaces and we read books. Because those for whom every day is a struggle to survive, they need someone going before them clearing a path, making a way so that they might live. That they might more than survive, that they might have lives abundant.
Can I tell you what I think using one’s privilege and power looks like in a way that is rooted in non-violence and love? Several years ago, a news story came out that schools were not going to allow students to carry backpacks–safety issues I’m sure. At one school, the students decided well if we can’t carry a backpack I’ll just bring this trash can with me or this baby stroller and they just brought random things instead of backpacks.
It came as no surprise to me, that when, as part of Florida’s “don’t say gay bill,” a school decided that they were going to require that their LGBT students, particularly their transgender students, will have to notify the administration so that the school could send out a letter notifying all of the parents in the school that there was going to be someone of the LGBTQIA community changing in the locker rooms with their students. Look, if there’s any group of folks like the 1st Peter church who are just looking to fly under the radar it’s our transgender community. But a group of students decided, bet, I guess yes we’re all transgender and gay now. Using privilege to upset the systems designed to keep people oppressed and instead being light and life.
But I see that list of those who live on the margins, those who are dealing with some kind of what it means to survive, and that might actually include You and me, at least a little bit.
Here’s where I think we go back to the beginning, that we, you and me and the church universal, are living stones building a spiritual house for life. In that way, you, though you struggle to survive, though you are kept down by your situation, by systems, by memories, or fear, you are not alone. You are part of a community that cares about you, desires your abundant living, and will carry hope until you can hold it for someone else. We are called to be light in the darkness. Bring hope and make space for abundant life.
So maybe 1st Peter is complicated, encouraging, jarring, and sometimes confusing, and maybe it is for all of us after all.
So beloveds, you too are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, bring light and life and hope to those living in darkness.