April 27, 2020
Author: Scott Hoezee
Sometimes your need for a Shepherd hits home. Like during a global pandemic. I don’t know about you, but I spent the first 9 weeks of this year in one of the busiest stretches of my life. And when you run from day to day, from event to event, meeting to meeting, class to class, it’s easy to fancy yourself as in charge, as master of your own destiny and captain of your own ship. Sometimes we equate being busy with being important and so . . .
And then in a few blinks, it’s all gone. The calendar empties out before your very eyes. Every other email you get cancels an event just a little farther along in the year than the previous email did. And suddenly weeks that had evaporated at an almost alarming rate stretch out and drag on. Perhaps it is just then that one realizes that having a Shepherd—especially a Good Shepherd—to take care of you and be the real Master of your life is a good thing.
John 10 opens with the image of a shepherd with sheep. And the first five verses are all about the shepherd and how his voice is the familiar and trusted voice for his own sheep. The shepherd makes his distinctive calls and whistles his distinctive tune, and his sheep just know he’s the one they trust to follow. It’s all about the shepherd. He’s the one who comes in through the front gate (and not the one who sneaks in by climbing over the fence). He’s the one who leads the sheep out to pasture. He’s the one whose voice the sheep trust.
The shepherd. It’s all about the shepherd.
But in verse 6 John says that after hearing that, the disciples looked at Jesus with slack jaws and glazed-over eyes. They didn’t get it.
So Jesus explains a bit more. “I am the gate.”
Huh? OK, now it is I, the reader, who is confused, and I imagine the confusion of the disciples only deepened at this juncture. I was expecting Jesus to say what he will eventually say a few verses on in this chapter (though just beyond the boundaries of this week’s Lectionary selection); namely, “I am the shepherd.” After all, the first 5 verses were all about the shepherd. So where did this “I am the gate” image come from and how does it clarify what the disciples found hard to understand in the first five verses of John 10 as it was?
And anyway, how is Jesus’ being a gate helpful? Gates are not real exciting. It’s not the stuff of great art or stained-glass windows (the way the ubiquitous image of the Good Shepherd is). A gate of grey, weathered wood dotted with knot holes and being swung open and shut by some gatekeeper is not as interesting as the human image of a gentle shepherd. Why be a gate? Have you ever seen this on a stained glass window? The folks at Pixar are good at making animate characters out of everything from fish to toys to cars but even they would be hard pressed to make a talking gate an exciting character. I mean, a gate can’t go anywhere. It just swings.
What’s more, in verse 9 Jesus talks about the need to “enter through me.” But really no one ever actually passes through a gate any more than you could walk right through a door in your house. You pass through the doorWAY, which is the empty space that opens up for you once the door itself is opened or moved aside. But unless you are a ghost, you cannot literally pass through a door or a gate. Indeed, our inability to pass through the wood of a door is precisely what makes the thing useful: exactly because the wood is solid, your being able to lock the door is what prevents the good from escaping and the bad from trespassing.
So what is going on here? Why is Jesus a gate even before he identifies himself as a shepherd? And how does one pass through a solid object? A few thoughts:
First, there is something I read in a commentary a while back. Apparently while doing some research in the Middle East, the Bible commentator ran across an Arab shepherd. This shepherd was not a Christian and did not know the Bible. But he was a keeper of sheep and so was showing off his flock as well as the penned-in area where his sheep slept every night. “And when they go in there,” the shepherd said proudly, “they are perfectly safe.”
But then the scholar noticed something. “Your sheep sleep in that pen and yet I just noticed that the pen does not have a gate on it.”
“Yes, that’s right,” the shepherd replied, “I am the gate.”
“What do you mean?” the man asked in startled wonder.
“After my sheep are in the pen, I lay my body across the opening. No sheep will step over me and no wolf can get in without getting past me first. I am the gate.”
Here is an image to savor. Perhaps this may explain how Jesus can so freely mix up the imagery of being at once the shepherd and the gate. Perhaps it was possible to be both after all. The gate is the one who lays himself down to keep what is good on the inside and to keep what is bad at bay. And whether or not the good is kept safe from the bad, the point is that it will be the gate, perhaps the very body of our Lord, that makes the difference.
Actually, it is not certain that this was the precise imagery Jesus had in mind. In fact, verse 3 indicates some kind of actual gate that can be swung open and shut by the gatekeeper, and some commentators have used that feature to this allegory to argue against the notion that Jesus as gate is no more than the shepherd curled up on the ground at the opening to the pen. Again, however, the imagery is fluid enough in these verses that it may be possible to hold both images in creative tension: Jesus may be the gate that gets opened and shut, but perhaps we can imagine that what gets swung open and shut is nothing short of the body of Jesus itself.
However, a main thing to notice in this otherwise lifeless gate image is that it is actually all about life and its flourishing. Thieves and robbers harm and destroy. They take life and livelihood. But as the gate, Jesus protects life in the watches of the night and promotes life during the day by giving the sheep access to green pastures. It is all about life and life abundant, life to the fullest.
It is all about, therefore, that thing called shalom.
But what about that “passing through” part? That seems a little tough to understand whether it is an actual wooden gate or the body of the shepherd. Either way, one cannot literally pass through it—as already noted, you’d have to be a ghost to do that. And maybe that is part of the point, too.
Ordinarily the gate or door needs to be moved aside, it has to yield and give way, in order for a person or a sheep to pass into whatever the gate encloses. But in a sense isn’t this what Jesus did by coming to this earth? He emptied himself, gave way, he opened himself up by shucking the perks of divinity and glory so that he could come here as a humble servant. He let himself get moved aside–shoved aside, in fact–until finally he was dead.
Yet by God’s power and grace he was raised again. But the resurrected Lord Jesus could do things he didn’t do before and which ordinary human beings don’t do–things like being able to pass right through locked doors to appear in the midst of his disciples just as they were sitting down to eat some bread and fish. Is it too odd to suggest that the same Jesus who said he was a gate through which we need to pass is pointing in some sense to what we need to become in him through baptism? In baptism we die, we drown, we get crucified with Christ, the New Testament claims. Yes, we are raised with Christ, too, but like that risen Lord Jesus we are not the same after our baptismal dying and rising. Having died with Jesus, we now have the ability to pass right through him into the newness and fullness of the life he has promised.
Jesus is a two-way gate: he not only locks up behind us to keep us safe but also unlocks and swings open so that we can enter into a life dripping with more fullness than we can know. But whether we are going into the pen or out into the pastures, it is Jesus himself, and his crucified but now resurrected body, that we pass through. We are purified by this baptismal journey through death and back to life again. We are changed, altered, re-oriented, re-energized. And this rhythm of baptism’s passing in and out of Jesus the gate is re-enforced by also the Lord’s Supper. There again we see the body and blood of Jesus laid down for us–the body and blood through whom we pass into newness of life but that, in the ritual act of eating and drinking, passes also through us!
All in all what we find in John 10, and then in the rest of the wider gospel as well, is a marvelous co-mingling of images. We have a living gate, a gate not of wood and steel but of flesh and blood; a living gate that is “swung aside” not because some wood swings on hinges but because Jesus’ body was killed on the wood of the cross. Having been crucified and then raised, Jesus’ new body has the wondrous ability to pass through doors and, by baptism and the Lord’s Supper, to be passed through as the gateway to new life.
In short, there is just possibly a bit more Eastertide in John 10 than first meets the eye! And again, during a time of COVID-19 pandemic when we are stalked not by some wolf we can see but by a virus we cannot see; at a time when staying behind the doors of our houses offers some protection but not certain protection, we need a Shepherd and a living Gate who can assure us of his love, his power, and his protection—whatever may come—at a time when our own helplessness stands out for us to see with startling clarity.
Yes, during ordinary moments we might fancy we are taking care of ourselves and our families. We are the breadwinners, the protectors, the bulwark against the wiles of the world. But then we hit the brick wall of our limitations and we pine for the One who alone can stay with us through all we experience.
Maybe we think we are free range sheep a lot of the time. And then we realize we’re not. And so how happy we are to hear the voice of the Shepherd who calls us back into his pen and to stay behind his living Gate through which nothing final can harm us or those we love. Surely this is a message the Church needs this year as much as ever.
As Scott Black Johnston points out in his article on John 10 in “The Lectionary Commentary,” there is some irony in John 10 considering that Jesus makes a big point to say that the sheep know and follow the recognized voice of the shepherd. They don’t listen to a stranger’s voice but they do so to the familiar voice of the shepherd. And yet given all that, how ironic to note that in John 10:6, right after Jesus says all this, we are told that the disciples and others listening to Jesus that day “did not understand what he was telling them.” Apparently even when we recognize the Good Shepherd’s voice, we don’t necessarily always understand what he is saying to us!
Some years ago there was a story carried in various newspapers about a woman from Missouri who was startled out of a dead sleep one night by some desperate cries of “Help! Help!” You know how it is when you awake to some sound: you are not at all certain whether you really heard something or if it was just a dream. At first she thought perhaps her husband had cried out, but he was sleeping soundly next to her. Then suddenly she heard the cries again: “Help! Help!” Finally she threw back the covers and headed downstairs toward their living room. “Help!” went the plaintive voice yet again. “Where are you?” the woman replied. “In the fireplace,” came the rather shocking answer.
And sure enough, dangling in the fireplace with his head sticking through the flue was a burglar, upside down and quite snugly stuck! The police and fire department got him out eventually, though not before having to disassemble the mantle and some of the masonry. Perhaps the best part of the story was what this woman did in the meantime. She flipped on all the lights and videotaped the whole thing. I don’t know what the two talked about while waiting for the police and company to arrive, but had I been she, I think I would have hauled out a Bible and given the crook a pointed reading of John 10: “Verily I tell you, anyone who does not enter by the door but climbs in another way is a thief and a robber!”
Author: Stan Mast
We are in our fourth Sunday of reflections on Easter, using the book of Acts as our guide. We began on Easter in Acts 10, where we saw the world-changing significance of Christ’s Resurrection in Peter’s startling realization that God includes people from every nation in his covenantal embrace. Then we backed up to Peter’s Pentecost sermon, which reminds us of three things: the Easter message at the heart of the Christian faith, the Easter response we ought to expect as the result of preaching the Risen Christ, and now the Easter community that is created when people respond in faith to the preaching of the Risen Christ.
In these few verses we learn that the church is not an afterthought or an option. It is the natural and necessary result of the outpouring of the Spirit, the preaching of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the change of mind that brought people to Christ. When 3000 people are added to the 120 followers of Christ, they immediately “devoted themselves” to the church. Conversion to Christ naturally and necessarily led to commitment to church—not to a building, of course, but to the four things that constituted the heart of that saved community.
This Easter community warrants careful attention in this age of “spiritual but not religious” and “nones,” where church is not only optional for true believers, but even an obstacle for non-believers. Acts 2 reminds us that in the beginning (and so it should be to the end), the church was not a human invention, something dreamed up by the apostles to enforce rules, hammer home religious dogma, and pile responsibilities on already overtaxed lives.
The church is God’s plan for all his children. The language in our text seems to be intentionally inclusive and all embracing. Note the universals that fill this text—“everyone,” “all,” “everything,” “anyone,” “every,” “daily.” There were no barriers, no red and blue, no half commitments (though that would come all too soon in Acts 5 and 6). Everyone was all in. An unchurched Christian was an oxymoron. No one had to tell these first believers to go to church, to join church, to be church. It was the most natural, joyful thing they could do.
Thus, if church is not a source of joy today, something has gone very wrong. And, of course, something has gone wrong. When I preached on this text years ago, I entitled the sermon, “Re-discovering the Joy of Church.” For some of my church that title sounded like an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp, open secret, living dead, joy of church. Though America is a heavily churched country, many people would not associate the church with joy.
Even those who go to church with some regularity aren’t always filled with joy by their church experience. An article in USA Today entitled, “Dissatisfaction, Yearning Make Churchgoers Switch,” talked about all the reasons people change churches: they become disenchanted with the pastor or the church; their needs aren’t being met; something changed about the church; they felt out of place; they couldn’t agree with church teachings. They couldn’t find joy in church anymore, so they left.
A careful study of this text may help us find the missing joy of church. The very first sentence in the description of the early church identifies four practices that brought them joy. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to the fellowship, and to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.” They got their joy from Jesus, but they expressed their joy and they experienced their joy as they did those four things. More than likely, if we’re missing joy in church, it’s because one of these four things is missing from our church or our lives.
They had joy in church because they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching. What did the apostles teach? Well, look at what Peter taught in his Pentecost sermon. He taught Jesus—who he was, what he did, what it means, how he was the great and final revelation of God and God’s will and God’s salvation. When Jesus left this earth, he said to the apostles, “Go into all the world and make disciples, teaching them all that I have commanded you.” That’s what they were doing in those days after Pentecost, and it brought great joy.
Of course, it would and it does. In a world filled with confusion about how to live and how to be saved, about the meaning of life and the nature of ultimate reality, what an incredible gift it is to have God’s clear authoritative word for your life. In a world full of bad news and hopeless situations, what a gift it is to have the Good News of great joy which is for all the people. No wonder these first believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. It was simply the best thing they had ever heard, and they couldn’t get enough of it. If there isn’t joy in the church today, maybe it’s because we preachers aren’t teaching what the apostles did or because you listeners aren’t devoted to it anymore.
Second, they devoted themselves to the fellowship. The word there is koinonia, which is the kind of intimate fellowship you find in a marriage. It is fellowship with a purpose– not simply enjoying each other’s company over coffee, but a shared commitment to an important task, the task of loving each other sacrificially. We see that demonstrated in the communism of the early church. “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, their real estate and cars and laptops, they gave to anyone as they had need.”
You can call that communism to get your congregants’ attention. But it wasn’t really communism, because that is an economic and political theory that has historically been godless. This wasn’t communism; it was koinonia, community centered on God in Christ and filled with a love so deep that people were willing to sacrifice their own stuff to make sure that no one in church had an unmet need.
They were devoted to this kind of self-sacrificing fellowship, and it brought great joy to those who gave and to those who received. In a world full of callousness and compassion fatigue, where everyone is watching out for themselves, it is a rare and joyful thing when people actually watch out for each other. If there isn’t joy in the church today, perhaps it’s because we have lost this kind of warm hearted, open handed fellowship. To the degree that we express and experience this kind of love, we will have joy in church.
Third, they devoted themselves to the breaking of bread. Nearly all scholars think that this is a reference to celebrating the Lord’s Supper. They didn’t just do it once in a while. Remembering Jesus’ death was so central to their lives that they did it all the time. But the breaking of bread meant more than that, because verse 46 says that “they broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.”
They didn’t just meet together in large gatherings for worship; they also had small group meetings in homes. And eating together was a key part of that, because sharing a meal creates a bond, moves us toward reconciliation, even anticipates the heavenly banquet when we shall all eat and drink with Jesus. The recent popularity of small groups isn’t some new-fangled fad; it’s a return to the early church. If there isn’t joy in church today, maybe it’s because we’ve forgotten the centrality of eating together in the Lord’s Supper and in small groups.
Finally, they devoted themselves to prayer, and to worship. “Every day they continued together in the temple courts,” joining in the normal times of prayer in the Temple. Every day they worshipped God in prayer and praise. Further, says verse 43, God was obviously working in their midst. “Everyone was filled with awe and many signs and wonders were done by the apostles.” Not only did they hear the Word of God every day, but they saw the hand of God regularly.
That created this sense of awe and wonder and mystery and reverence and transcendence. They weren’t just going through religious motions; they were in touch with God in worship and God touched them. If there isn’t joy in church, perhaps it’s because we aren’t devoted to reaching up to God in worship and expecting him to reach down to us in wondrous ways.
I encourage you to end your message with a word to the members of your church and another word to those who don’t attend church. Encourage your members by thanking them for their devotion to these four things. “There is a lot of joy in our church and it’s because so many of us know the joy of being saved by Jesus and we express that joy by our devotion to these things.” Where a church lacks joy, each of us must ask, “Am I devoted to all four?” To the degree that we aren’t, our joy will be diminished and so will the joy of the whole church.
End with a word to the non-churchgoers who will access your message on-line or who will receive a copy of it from one of your members. That word is this. “Come home.” I will never forget what my grandson, Owen, said when he moved into a nice new home. He was just two and he had lived his whole life in a cute little house, but now he had this bigger new home. He played happily in the new house that first day after they moved. But then at the end of the day, he said, “I want to go home now.” His mom said, “We are home, honey. This is our new home.” No,” said Owen, “I want to go to my real home.” Invite all God’s children to their real home, to God through Jesus, and to the one place in all the earth they can be sure to find him, the company of those devoted to the joyful disciplines of the early church.
There was an article in the New York Times a while back about all the tall steeple, white clapboard churches on the windswept prairies of North Dakota. They are closing down by the hundreds because their members are moving away from their farms and small towns. David Haslekaas, a 34 year old Norwegian farmer, bought his old church just to keep it open. He explained his rationale. “I remember my parents’ words to me when I was a young boy and I would go out to play in the fields. They told me, ‘If you get lost in the tall wheat and you can’t see where home is, look for the church.’” Go to it, and it will help you find your way home to the joy of the Lord.
The church has been disappointing people for centuries now, and we ought to frankly admit that. Perhaps we need to do what a tiny group of Christians did during the wildest party time of the year at the very secular Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Donald Miller tells the true story in his book, Blue Like Jazz. Miller and his friends built a confessional booth right in the middle of the campus so their atheistic classmates could sit down and listen to these Christians confess the sins of the church to them.
Their first customer was Jake, a young man with a postmodern smirk. He could not believe that these Christians were going to confess to him. “Confess what?” he asked. “Everything,” replied Miller. “Explain.” “There’s a lot, but I will keep it short,” began Miller. “Jesus said to feed the poor and heal the sick. I have never done very much about that. Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened…. Jesus said not to mix spirituality with politics. I grew up doing that and it got in the way of the central message of Christ.” And he went on to the Crusades, and slavery, and treatment of the Indians. “It’s all right, man,” said Jake, very tenderly, his eyes watering. “I forgive you.” By the time the party was over, these Christians had confessed the sins of the church to dozens of people, and out of that came four Bible studies, ongoing relationships, and a number of conversions.
Author: Scott Hoezee
It’s not quite true but sometimes it feels like Psalm 23 pops up in the Lectionary every couple weeks. In fact, this psalm really was assigned just a few weeks ago for March 22 during Lent. Psalm 23 pops up at least once—and usually twice—inside any given calendar year in Years A, B, and C of the Lectionary. And so there is a sense in which I believe I have nothing new to say about this most famous of all the 150 psalms than I did six weeks ago.
Yet early March now seems like a very, very long time ago after all. I wrote that most recent sermon starter on Psalm 23 the week of March 8. My son had had a birthday on Saturday the 7th and we celebrated at a favorite restaurant. I had a birthday on Thursday the 12th and we also went out to eat at a lovely steakhouse in Grand Rapids. When that March week began, I assumed the semester would continue as usual. I taught my first of four scheduled enrichment classes at a nearby Retirement/Nursing Home on Monday the 9th and anticipated finishing the course across the next three Monday afternoons. On Tuesday that week I taught the 5th of 6th scheduled classes at a nearby prison where Calvin University has a satellite campus. I was looking forward to finishing with my inmate students on the 17th. It was going to be a busy March but then the first week of April we’d be off on a Spring Break trip to New Mexico.
And then COVID-19 descended (it had really been with us for some time). Now we are not sure when we will eat out safely at a restaurant again. My seminary classes all went online for a month effective March 14 (and not long after that for the duration of the semester). The Retirement Home shuttered its doors to all visitors, cancelling my Monday afternoon class after just the first session. All Michigan prisons also closed off to outside visitors, ending my class at the prison one week earlier than planned. And soon we were all confined to work at home. And canceling Spring Break plans. And every person reading this can tell the exact same story with only the details being a little different person to person. And for some reading this, COVID-19 has brought a grief and an overwhelming sense of fear that make the disruptions I just described a mere pittance of trivial inconvenience.
Psalm 23 hasn’t changed since I posted a sermon starter the second week of March. But the acoustics in which we hear these familiar lines have altered radically.
As I note in also the Gospel lection for May 3, 2020, from John 10: sometimes our need for a shepherd becomes achingly apparent. When I preached on this psalm years ago, the title of my sermon was “Everybody Needs a Shepherd.” But most of the time we agree with that idea only in theory. In reality most days we are pretty sure we can operate independently without any shepherd minding after us thank you very much. And then . . . we suddenly find ourselves looking for help. For a shepherd. For a Good Shepherd.
Maybe right now it’s not the green pastures and still waters parts of Psalm 23 that leap out at us but the parts about walking through shadowy valleys. Maybe it’s the shadow of death that leaps out at us. Because all across the globe and right down to our local neighborhoods and most certainly cutting right through the middle of all our congregations there is the fear of death. There is a sense that a shadow has descended—a shadow that even some of the brighter Spring days we may have experienced recently cannot quite dispel.
One way or another, we are experiencing a valley time. For some of us the valley is dim with inconvenience and uncertainty and a few things that are testing our patience. But for others of us the valley has gone all-but completely dark: someone we know is very sick. Someone we loved has died. And we can’t even hold a funeral.
But Psalm 23 tells us even so to fear no evil. Well, easier said than done right now. Easier said than done.
What keeps us sheep going as we stumble through these valleys? The rod and the staff of the shepherd. They say that unlike cattle who need to be driven from behind if the herd is going to get moving and headed in the right direction, sheep prefer to be led. But sometimes the shepherd must need to walk backwards a bit—or perhaps alongside the flock—because how else can he use his shepherd’s crook to keep us on level paths without our falling off to one side or the other?
But for us as Christians who cannot help but read Psalm 23 in the backdrop of John 10 and Jesus as the Good Shepherd, it’s not just the presence of the Shepherd’s crook that comforts us but our knowledge of how very often this Shepherd has been through this valley himself and on our behalf. If you look closely, the scars of his past valley experiences are visible all over him—hands, feet, side. And the Shepherd’s crook looks oddly enough to be in the shape of a cross. And here’s the weirdest thing: the Shepherd apparently was himself a Lamb once too. A slain Lamb according to John’s vision in Revelation. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” John the Baptist said, coining a phrase found nowhere else in all Scripture. But that Lamb had to go through something quite horrific—a very deep and very dark valley—to take away that sin and blaze a path toward a Life that could not be taken away.
Is it any wonder that the Lord Jesus who entered death ahead of us in order to blaze a trail to eternal life picked up on this pastoral image in John 10 to say, “I am the good shepherd and my sheep know my voice.” Jesus is the one who has revealed that if all along in this world death has been casting a kind of shadow, maybe it’s only because a brighter light has been shining behind death all along–that’s how you get a shadow after all: a light shines behind something. Jesus is the shepherd who knows the way through death to get at that light.
Like many Christians, I first memorized Psalm 23 in Kindergarten. But back then I knew little of dark valleys. And when you get to also that part of the poem about God’s preparing a table in the presence of one’s enemies . . . well, if I had any enemies back then, I didn’t know it and could not have named any.
But I am older now and so are you. Now we’ve got enemies, including an invisible virus that is stalking us like we are prey. Now we are altogether too acquainted with that final enemy named death. Now more than ever we need a shepherd to guide us through death’s chill shadow in this dangerous world. Life is not easy. It’s not all still waters and green grass. We wish it were and we pine for the day when maybe that will describe our every waking moment. But until that day comes, we can know and celebrate again and again that the Lord is our shepherd. With this great and good shepherd of the sheep with us, we lack nothing because in his presence we already have everything.
This is not an easy truth to be declared lightly in this time. No pastor preaching to an empty sanctuary or into a camera lens needs to be told that right now probably. It’s not an easy truth. But it is The Truth. It is the Gospel’s Truth.
Everybody needs a shepherd.
Thanks be to God, we’ve got One.
As mentioned in this sermon starter, I am told that unlike cattle who like to be driven from behind, sheep prefer to be led. Sheep apparently have an uncanny ability to form a trusting relationship with their shepherds. I read sometime back that a sleeping flock of sheep will not stir if their own shepherd steps gingerly through their midst. But let a stranger so much as set foot near the flock, and the sheep will startle awake as though a firecracker had gone off. In fact, in the Middle East to this day, you may see three or four Bedouin shepherds all arrive at a watering hole around sundown. Within minutes these different flocks of sheep mix in together to form one big amalgamated flock. But the various shepherds don’t worry about this mix-up because each shepherd knows that when it’s time to go, all he has to do is give his own distinctive whistle, call, or play his little shepherd’s flute in his own unique fashion, and all of his sheep will separate themselves from the mixed-up herd to follow the shepherd they’ve come to trust.
1 Peter 2:19-25
Author: Doug Bratt
Many members of the American civil rights movement embraced Peter’s commendation of Christians who put up with unjust suffering’s pain. In fact, that movement produced a treasure trove of photos of people bearing up under such misery. One could fill books with pictures of people kneeling in non-violent resistance to beatings and submitting to attacks by snarling German shepherds.
However, the photo of a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina is perhaps especially iconic. While management had reserved its stools for “Whites Only,” people who were black sat on them together with people who were white.
So customers who were white began to mock the protestors. To add to that misery, people began to pour ketchup and mustard on their heads. Then someone else emptied sugar and creamer packets onto the protestor’s already sticky heads.
Yet as my colleague Scott Hoezee, to whom I’m indebted for some of this Starter’s ideas, points out, while a picture may be worth a thousand words, in this case a movie would have been worth a trillion. After all, the protestors might have lashed out at their tormentors after the snapshot was taken. But a video would show how they continued to accept the abuse of mustard streaming down their cheeks, hair matted with ketchup and faces marked with creamer and sugar.
Peter’s first readers found themselves in a slightly similar situation. Their neighbors, friends and, in some cases, family members made them suffer unjustly for refusing to conform to the pagan culture.
In verses 19 and 20 of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, Peter calls “slaves” to endure such unjust suffering. Eugene Peterson paraphrases as telling them to be good servants to their masters. Yet, the apostle adds, servants must serve not only good masters, but also bad ones.
“What counts,” paraphrases Peterson, “is that you put up with it for God’s sake when you’re treated badly for no good reason … If you’re treated badly for good behavior and continue in spite of it to be a good servant, that is what counts with God” (20).
So it may seem as if 1 Peter 2:19-25 doesn’t just condone slavery that we categorically reject on biblical grounds. The apostle even seems to call slaves to suffer in silence when their cruel masters abuse them. As a result, some American Christians claimed Peter approved of the institution of slavery. “The Bible tells you to submit to your masters,” too many white Christians scolded African-Americans.
So would Peter have told those protestors at Greensboro’s segregated lunch counter to just let the ketchup, mustard, sugar and creamer stream down their faces? Would he have told other protestors to let German shepherds maul them and fire hoses batter them?
Such advice would trouble many of God’s modern adopted sons and daughters. Especially when we add to that Peter’s call to “submit … to every authority instituted among men” (13). After all, no matter when exactly the apostle wrote those words, brutal tyrants ruled the Roman Empire’s subjects to whom he wrote. So how could he call those who were suffering unjustly to “submit to” it?
A dear acquaintance once challenged me to look in the Bible for the answers to all my questions because it answers every question ever asked. But I’m learning that sometimes the Bible raises more questions than answers.
So how might those who proclaim 1 Peter 2 untangle its culturally shaped elements from its timeless principles? We might begin with a pragmatic question: what might have happened had Christian Roman citizens and slaves rejected Peter’s advice? What if Peter’s first readers had refused to submit to the Roman authorities? Those who don’t know the answer to that question might ask Jesus.
And what would have happened to Christian slaves who opposed their masters, especially cruel ones? What happened to those who, for example, ran away from tyrannical masters? They were often mercilessly punished.
And who might those Romans have blamed for it? Not just Peter, but also the living God who’d inspired him to encourage their resistance. Those who suffered unjustly might have seen them as virtually partnering with the brutal Romans and tyrannical masters to make them miserable.
So Peter counsels submissive self-restraint, just as he later does to spouses. It’s almost as if he suggests that Roman citizens, including slaves and spouses, put up with unjust suffering so they can survive to continue to serve the Lord.
In verse 19 Peter links such bearing up under unjust suffering to being “conscious” of God. Scholars tell us that word is difficult to translate. Yet it at least suggests that a key to dealing with undeserved suffering is remembering that God has a plan for God’s people.
Jesus’ followers don’t fully understand that plan or how unjust suffering fits into it. So God’s adopted children never use “God has a plan for you” as a cliché to muffle sufferers’ questions. Yet Christians trust that God, not our persecutors or oppressors, is in control.
Peter uses the word “commendable” in both verses 19 and 20 to describe people’s enduring unjust suffering. However, the Greek word for “commend” is one we generally translate as “grace.” That at least suggests that the endurance of unjust suffering is somehow God’s undeserved favor.
Yet if Peter’s call to slaves to suffer in silence is difficult, how much harder is the idea that unjust suffering is a gift from God? So some scholars hurry to insist it isn’t the suffering that’s a grace, but the results of that suffering.
However we understand unjust suffering’s grace, the apostle reminds us that it’s never somehow separate from God. While God isn’t the source of undeserved misery, God is determined to graciously use it for God’s dearly beloved people’s well-being anyway.
So whether Jesus’ followers choose to patiently tolerate or somehow battle unjust suffering, we never try to deal with it on our own. You and I remember God. God’s people always soak our responses to undeserved suffering in humility, praying, “Father, your will be done.”
Yet Peter isn’t talking about some general “grace under fire.” He isn’t just calling his readers to refuse to let some generic undeserved suffering get to us. The apostle connects our putting up with suffering we don’t deserve to Jesus’ own suffering and response to it.
The apostle reminds us Jesus never did anything wrong or said anything inappropriate. His foes and tormentors called him every name in the book and he said nothing back. Think of what Jesus put up with for God’s sake in just the last few hours of his life: his betrayer’s intimate gesture. His view of his fleeing disciples’ sandals’ soles. One of his best friend’s vigorous denials of even knowing him. His chin dripping with soldiers’ spittle. His back beaten and bruised to a bloody pulp. God’s abandonment.
Jesus could have obliterated both his unjust suffering and tormentors in an instant. Yet he never once lashed out. Jesus never even threatened to get back at his oppressors. He silently put up with the pain of unjust suffering.
Hoezee reminds us that at almost no time is Jesus’ followers’ credibility tested more than when people treat us badly for no good reason. At no time does our witness to who Jesus is come through more clearly than in our response to others’ unfair treatment of us.
Those who proclaim 1 Peter 2 might explore with our hearers the things that prompt Christian responses. Our Christian testimony may come as the byproduct of the undeserved criticism of a spouse or child. It may come when a friend abandons you because she gets a better offer. It may come when a co-worker files an untrue complaint or a boss scolds you for something you didn’t do.
For most western Christians the question isn’t whether we’ll suffer because of our Christian faith. The question is how we’ll respond to the unjust suffering that nearly all of us experience at some point in our lives.
After all, how do even God’s adopted children naturally respond to suffering, especially that which we don’t deserve? You and I whine or become bitter. Even Jesus’ followers naturally become angry or complain about unjust suffering.
North Americans live in a society that will do almost anything to ease our pain. We’ll do virtually anything to avoid suffering. Since Americans believe the pursuit of happiness is our natural right, we do everything we can to avoid unhappiness.
This Sunday Peter doesn’t call his brothers and sisters in Christ to somehow invite undeserved suffering. However, he does remind us we have a higher calling when we do suffer for doing good. Followers of Jesus keep serving God and our neighbors, even when others make us suffer for it. Christians patiently put up with that unjust suffering, just as Jesus did.
Yet Peter’s primary audience today may be people who are in a position of relative strength. He doesn’t authorize God’s adopted children to simply tell the poor, hungry and immigrants, as well as the elderly and children to just put up with injustice.
The apostle, instead, invites people who generally have options for responding to injustice to walk the non-violent way of Jesus. He may also be summoning us to speak up for those who would suffer even more if they spoke up against their unjust treatment.
Those who proclaim 1 Peter 2 this Sunday might think about how this applies to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s becoming clear that it disproportionately impacts people who are materially needy. Things like lopsided rates of infection, job loss or work-related health risks give Jesus’ followers more than ample opportunities to speak up for those whom this virus especially unjustly treats.
Yet it isn’t just unjust suffering to which Peter invites Jesus’ followers to respond. It’s also those who make us suffer in ways we don’t deserve. Peter addresses how we respond to those who make themselves our enemies.
It may be tyrannical governments, those with whose policies we disagree, unjust bosses, or those who make foolish decisions. Those who follow Jesus don’t treat such people as they deserve. Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters treat them as Jesus treated those who unjustly harmed him.
Thomas More was England’s Chancellor during the reign of the mercurial Henry VIII. After being convicted of failing to support the king as head of the Church over even the pope, the authorities unjustly sentenced More to be executed. Some say it was his finest hour in a life filled with days, months and years of far less than moral finery.
Just before More’s execution, he prayed, “Almighty God, have mercy … on all that bear me evil will and would me harm … and make us saved souls in heaven together where we may ever live and love together with thee and thy blessed saints.”