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Sometimes it’s hard to live out the Christian life in a society that doesn’t always sympathise with our beliefs. Sometimes we might find ourselves in a certain circumstance and the peer pressure on us, or the expectation of our boss at work is that we will take a particular course of action - but, as a Christian, we know that we need to make a different choice. And when we make that choice, people think we are a bit odd or a bit strange or life may get difficult for us in our work context.
We have heard stories in the news over the last few months of retail businesses having to close down because the owners have taken a stand on a particular faith issue. We hear stories of people being taken through industrial tribunals because they have pursued a particular course of action as a result of their faith. For me, one of the most beautiful aspects of contemporary British culture is its diversity: multi-faith, multi-cultural – the UK is a microcosm of the world - and, for me, that should be celebrated and encouraged. But alongside multi-faith, multi-cultural celebration comes the conversation of how we are allowed to stay true to the faith we own, and how we enable people of other faith groups to stay true to the faith they own, and yet all learn to live peaceably and with mutual respect for one another.
Whether a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, or a Sikh, it can be hard to be a person of faith in our pluralistic society today. If we are to thrive and flourish as a nation, we must find a better way forward together.
This is not a new problem, of course. It has always been the case right back to the earliest times of Christianity that followers of Jesus have tried to work through what it means to stay true to the tenets of the faith whilst living and working within a system that may sometimes demand or expect a different set of behaviours. And as Peter writes to these Christians in this letter we are studying, he wants to help them find a way forward with this and that’s what we are thinking about this morning.
If you want to follow the reading with me, you’ll find it on page 250 in the second half of the pew Bible, the New Testament.
And Peter starts off in verse 13 by making a very clear statement: “For the Lord’s sake, accept the authority of every human institution”. And we are to do so in matters both large and small, as he makes clear: “…accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors”. So that is both large-scale and small-scale; the authority of the emperor – so we need to pay our taxes, for example; the authority of governors – so we need to obey our boss at work, for example. In all things, accept the authority of every human institution.
And why is that? Peter tells us in verse 15: “By doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish”.
Peter’s argument is that, if we are seen to be law-abiding, respectful citizens, no-one will have the opportunity to accuse Christians of being trouble-makers because they won’t be offended by us. And when Peter talks about “the ignorance of the foolish” here, he is not saying that all politicians and bosses at work are idiots but stating that, for many of them, they haven’t experienced God for themselves and so the ignorance is a lack of spiritual experience and our behaviour can draw them closer to God.
Many years ago, when I worked for Waitrose, I was asked to take on a piece of work that would then lead to a decent promotion. But I wouldn’t do it, because it meant that I would have to work when I wanted to go to church. And, of course, my boss was annoyed with me and I never did get the promotion. But, over the following weeks, he used to come into my office and talk to me about the Christian faith and why it meant so much to me and he ended up becoming a Christian. My stand for the Christian faith, however hard it was for me at the time, became the catalyst for someone else coming to faith in Christ.
And that is what Peter is suggesting here: how we behave at work and in society will impact how other people view our God. And so he says very clearly in verse 17: “Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.”
Living the Christian life is as simple and straightforward as that…
These are the underpinning attitudes towards church and society that should form the basis of all our relationships and, as a Christian community, we should become known for our compassion and kindness and respect and love towards everyone and in that way, bring honour to the name of Jesus Christ.
And Peter then moves on to give some examples of how this might work itself out in practice: first, in verse 18, referring to slaves who are being mistreated by their masters and second, in 3:1, referring to women who are married to non-Christian husbands. But it’s the first of these we are looking at this morning.
Verse 18: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.”
The issue here for Peter, which is a key issue for us all in the faith, is how are we to respond when we are treated unjustly as a result of our beliefs in Jesus? That is the question – so how are we to respond?
Peter lays down a firm perspective on this issue in verse 19: “For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.” What he is saying is that there credit with God if we put up with unjust afflictions for the sake of our conscious commitment of faith. He doesn’t argue that there is merit with God when we suffer justly; sometimes we do stupid things and have to face the consequences and Peter is not suggesting that there is any merit with God in this. He is clear on that in verse 20: “If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what is the credit in that?” But if you or I suffer unjustly because of the faith, and put up with it in a godly manner, then there is merit with God as a result of that.
So patient endurance – in and of itself – is not a virtue worthy of merit. But patient endurance in the face of unjust treatment is indeed a worthy virtue. And, of course, the ultimate example of that is the life of Jesus Christ, who had to endure through the most unjust treatment that first Good Friday: mocked, humiliated, tortured, crucified for no sin of his own…
In verse 21, Peter writes, “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.” The example that Jesus has left us was that he patiently endured in the face of unjust treatment so when we do the same thing, we are imitating Christ and following in his footsteps. Whenever you or I patiently endure unjust treatment, we know that Christ understands, because he has been there before us…
So then, in verses 22 and 23, Peter is able to cite from Isaiah 53:9: “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”. That is the example Christ has left for us through the events of Holy Week
Now, there is something interesting here, which some Christians fall foul of, which is contained in the idea that Jesus “never threatened…” Of course, we wouldn’t expect Jesus to threaten people would we? When the soldiers came to whip him, we would be stunned if Jesus had said, “If you come near me with that whip, I’ll punch your face in!” That sort of threat would never leave his lips…
But the type of threat that Peter is referring to here is far more subtle, and something we often hear Christians engaging in: the threat of eternal judgement and damnation. Throughout Jesus’ trial and suffering, he never once said to his accusers, “If you treat me like this, you will face judgement from God”. He never once threatened them with the eternal consequences of their behaviour: he just patiently endured. How different is the behaviour of some Christians today! How quick some are to threaten people with the consequences of their behaviour if they don’t think they are living up to God’s standards, or the church’s standards. “If you don’t put your faith in Jesus, you will not go to heaven” or, “If you persecute me for my faith, you will suffer the wrath of God on you”: these are threats; the type of threats that Jesus never engaged in. Instead, as Peter said, he just left it up to God the Father to judge justly. And we have a great deal to learn from that, I think…Instead, as Peter says in verse 24: “He himself bore our sins in his body to the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed”. Our sins are taken from us so that we might live differently in the future.
So this is only a short passage – but there is so much in it. We are reminded of our social responsibilities; to defer to those in authority. We are reminded that we need to love one another and revere God. We are reminded that we must patiently endure when we suffer unjustly. We are reminded to look to the example of Christ in Holy Week as our pattern for living that out. We are reminded that it is wrong to threaten anyone with eternal consequences; but must leave judgement up to God. We are reminded that we have been parted from our sins so that we can live for what is right.
This is a new and radical lifestyle to which we are called: it may hurt and it will always be a struggle. But it is that to which we have been called - and it is the example of Jesus Christ to each one of us. And we must do all we can to learn from that example and follow in his footsteps.