Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sermon: 6 Easter (27 April 2008)

6 Easter: 27 April 2007
(Acts 17:22-31/Psalm 66:8-20/1 Peter 3:13-22/John 14:15-21)
Cultural Myths

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In my former career as an electrical engineer I had a colleague that we’ll call Bob. Now Bob was more than just a competent engineer; he was really good – some might even say great. Bob would have said great. I always had the impression that no matter to whom he was talking, Bob was sure that he, himself, was the most intelligent person in the room. He knew he was the better engineer: not arrogant, exactly, just supremely confident.

Our respective jobs sometimes brought us into professional disagreement. We would each argue our position – mainly because we each thought we were right, but sometimes just to win the argument. And, because I’d seen it happen to other people, I knew that at some point in the debate Bob would stop me mid-sentence and say, “Wait a minute. You mean to tell me,” and then finish his question by paraphrasing something I’d just said in a way that made it sound incredibly stupid, something that no rational person in his right mind could possibly believe. There was always a you-can’t-be-serious tone to Bob’s voice that let me know he had found the weak link in my argument – or at least that he thought he had. At such times I had a decision to make: roll over and admit defeat and buy Bob a cup of government coffee or stick to my guns, strengthen my argument, and fight on. I think my record was about 50/50.

I hadn’t thought of Bob in years until this week, until I began work on this sermon. I wouldn’t want Bob to hear this sermon because I think he would interrupt me time and again to say, “Wait a minute. You mean to tell me…”. In fact, I think you’ll want to interrupt me several times in Bob-like fashion, because I’m about to say some things that sound incredibly stupid, things that no rational person in his right mind could possibly believe. But people with the mind of Christ and the discernment of the Holy Spirit – people like Peter? Well, that’s another story.

So, let me dispense with these possible objections right now, right up front. “Wait a minute. You mean to tell me…?” to which I answer, No. I don’t mean to tell you anything. I mean to let the Holy Spirit, speaking through Peter in the words of Scripture, tell us all something. If what I say is true to the Scripture – and I pray it is – then these aren’t my words. I don’t like them any more than you will and I won’t take the blame for them. Take it up with the author; I’m just the messenger. This is what William Willimon calls “hiding behind the text.” He recommends it as a strategy for cowardly preachers, to which group all preachers belong at one time or another.

With that preamble, I want to talk about submission and suffering. I don’t really want to; I have to. You simply can’t do justice to 1 Peter without grappling with the issues of submission and suffering; they are major themes of the epistle. I start with a few observations about modern, western culture. These are subject to dispute because they are my observations and my conclusions. I can’t hide behind the text here; you can reasonably challenge and question and disagree if you like. I use these solely as an entryway into the text itself – which is the only really important thing – because I’ve found the context they provide useful. Feel free to “keep or toss” these ideas of mine as you will.

It seems to me that every culture has a set of myths it lives by: stories, icons, and beliefs that define the culture and allow it to be passed intact to the next generation. These are often such a deeply embedded part of the cultural landscape that we no longer see them; they form us without our conscious knowledge or approval. Only when they are explicitly pointed out, perhaps by someone from another culture or a maverick within our own, do we even become aware of them.

Out of the host of such modern, western myths I’ll single out three: the importance of power, the avoidance of suffering, and the right to redemptive retaliation.

The quest for power is such a part of our cultural psyche that we can’t imagine people not wanting power. Tim Allen – Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor – is the archetype of modern, western man: “More power! Ooh, ooh, ooh!” Another movie, different character, same attitude: In Galaxy Quest as Commander Taggart, Allen’s signature line is, “Never give up. Never surrender.” That’s what we expect from our cultural icons. They may be tragically flawed, morally questionable, self-serving – it doesn’t so much matter as long as they are not weak. Think of Bill Clinton as the poster boy for this. We don’t really believe our politicians are interested in public service, do we? They’re in it to win it. They’re in it for the power and we understand that and we’re largely OK with that so long as they take care of our interests and keep our nation in a position of power. We know that our nation is founded on and sustained by power: military and economic power predominantly. That’s why we’re so worried by our floundering economy and China’s expanding one. That’s why we’re so frustrated by the ability of local Iraqi militias to frustrate the greatest military power the world has known. We have deeply internalized the importance of power. It is a powerful cultural myth.

We run toward power and seek it out; conversely, we run away from suffering and do everything possible to avoid it. We must be the most anesthetized culture in the history of our species. Since suffering comes in so many different forms – physical, mental, and spiritual to name a few – anesthetics do also. Medicine cabinets look like pharmacies, with pills or creams for every ache and pain. If the suffering is emotional or mental we try to deaden it with busy-ness or entertainment – anything to keep our minds off the dull ache or emptiness inside. Blaise Pascal said that, “All mankind’s troubles are caused by one single thing, which is their inability to sit quietly in a room,” (Pascal, Pensees, II, 139). If he’s right, I suspect that we can’t sit still because the anesthesia wears off in the quietness and we feel the suffering too intensely. On both ends of the spectrum of life we invent ways to keep people from suffering: abortion to prevent a child from having to deal with suffering from genetic abnormalities or other birth defects and euthanasia to keep our old folks from suffering through the infirmities caused by advancing years. Better to die than to suffer, I guess. At least that’s the cultural myth we’ve inherited.

And, if you’re the one who makes me suffer, then I have the right to redemptive retaliation. This myth plays out on a trivial personal level and a significant state and national level. Cut me off in traffic – make me suffer the indignity of your disrespect and loss of two or three seconds – and I have the right to retaliate by throwing you the bird or screaming at you as I floor the accelerator and blow by you. And somehow I believe that will redeem the situation: the right of redemptive retaliation. A husband mistreats a wife and the wife finds a way to retaliate and this redemptive plan ends in divorce. A horrific crime is committed as we’ve seen lately in our own city and everyone wants redemptive retaliation. I’m not arguing against punishment for the perpetrators or the right of the society to protect itself by removing such people from society, but I question the redemptive character of such actions. Will executing or incarcerating these criminals for life actually bring good out of this situation? Is that where redemption lies? On a national level, after the 9/11 attacks our country was swept up in patriotic furor and demanded the right of redemptive retaliation. Our politicians listened to our cries for retribution and now we find ourselves engaged in wars on two fronts. If we looked for redemption in this retaliation, we looked in vain.

So, as a modern, western culture we are formed by and we greatly cherish several cultural myths: the importance of power, the avoidance of suffering, and the right to redemptive retaliation. And then along comes Jesus and blows them all away. He just doesn’t seem to care much for this great culture we’ve created. He’s more interested in the Kingdom of God, and that Kingdom has its own ways – nothing like our prevailing cultural myths. The importance of power is replaced by the beauty of submission, the avoidance of suffering by the acceptance of suffering, and the right of redemptive retaliation by the gift of gracious blessing. “Now wait a minute. You mean to tell me that I should submit to authority, embrace suffering, and bless those who persecute me?” No. Remember, I don’t mean to tell you anything. I mean to let the Holy Spirit, speaking through Peter in the words of Scripture, tell us all something. If what I say is true to the Scripture – and I pray it is – then these aren’t my words. I don’t like them any more than you do and I won’t take the blame for them. Take it up with the author; I’m just the messenger.

But first let’s listen to the message together.

13 For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, 14or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. 15For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. 16As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. 17Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.

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. 19For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. 22‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ 23When 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. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross,
so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

3Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, 2when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. 3Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair, and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing; 4rather, let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight. 5It was in this way long ago that the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves by accepting the authority of their husbands. 6Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord. You have become her daughters as long as you do what is good and never let fears alarm you (1 Pe 2:13-3:6)

In this one passage, Peter demolishes our three, precious cultural myths.

The importance of power? No. Instead, accept the authority of every human institution. Slaves, accept the authority of your masters – kind or harsh. Wives, accept the authority of your husbands. Well, there’s much here we want to argue about. Does Peter intend to ratify oppressive rĂ©gimes, endorse slavery, and promote male dominance? Do you see how these questions, which seem perfectly legitimate to us, are products of our cultural myth of the importance of power? We can’t imagine willingly submitting, willingly relinquishing power. But Peter points to Jesus who told us that, in the Kingdom of God, the last shall be first and the first last, the greatest among us must be servant of all, and our own will is nothing but God’s will is everything. Submission to authority and not the pursuit of power is the way of the Kingdom.

The avoidance of suffering? No. Instead, suffer for doing right and receive God’s approval and blessing. Again, Peter points to Jesus as our example and reminds us that we have been called to follow in his way of suffering. There is nothing redemptive about retaliation, but there is about suffering for the sake of righteousness. The suffering of Jesus brought the redemption of the world. Our suffering can participate in that and implement his redemption in the world. Peter encourages us to,

Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God (1 Pe 3:16-18).

Jesus told us to take up his cross and follow him in his way of suffering, to embrace the discipleship of the cross, a discipleship that surely will bring hardship and suffering. Endure the cross for the sake of the glory to be revealed in us when Christ returns. Let’s be clear; our cross is not the ordinary suffering common to all people: sickness, death, economic reversal – all the problems we encounter in Job. We should bear all these things in Christian hope and patience, but they are not the cross. The cross is that suffering peculiar to disciples, the suffering that comes precisely from being disciples. Our brothers and sisters around the world – in China, Indonesia, Viet Nam, Nigeria – they know the suffering of the cross. While we may not experience it now, we are to support those in the church who do, knowing that our time may come.

Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured (Heb 13:3).

Do not avoid suffering for the sake of righteousness. Embrace it; for by it we bear witness to the suffering of Christ who died for the salvation of the world.

The right of redemptive retaliation? No. Instead, when abused do not return abuse. When threatened, do not return threats. Why? Because this is the example and the way of Christ who taught us that the meek would inherit the earth, the merciful would receive mercy, and the persecuted would reap great reward in heaven. Because this is the example and the way of Christ who taught us to turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile, and to bless when cursed. Because this is the example and the way of Christ who told Peter to put away the sword because those who live by the sword will also die by it.

“Now wait a minute. You mean to tell me that we should submit to authority, embrace suffering, and bless those who abuse us?” No. I don’t mean to tell you anything. But Peter does.


[1] Unless otherwise noted all scripture references are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

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