Easter 4A

May 01, 2017

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 10:1-10

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Acts 2:42-47

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 23

    Author: Stan Mast

  • Lectionary Epistle

    1 Peter 2:19-25

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    If even once you have seen the photo, you know you’ll never forget it. Not so long ago in this country, it was both legal and commonplace to post signs in public places designed to cordon off some people from others. And so a drinking fountain in a hallway might be labeled “Whites Only.” A little farther down that same corridor you might find a public restroom labeled “Coloreds.” Eventually in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, a key way to protest such segregation was exemplified by Rosa Parks, who silently took a “Whites Only” seat on a bus. Other such examples abounded eventually.

    The photo to which I just made reference (see below) was taken at a lunch counter in a diner in Greensboro, NC, and I was reminded of it vividly about 6 months ago when I visited the Civil Rights museum in Atlanta.   They have even recreated the lunch counter there and you can take a seat on a barstool yourself and put on headphones to get an idea of what transpired.  Because back then the barstools along that lunch counter were “Whites Only.” But one day some black students—accompanied by sympathetic white students–sat down there anyway. The manager refused to serve them, of course, but they also refused to move, sitting in silence. Eventually the other customers began to hoot and jeer and curse at these people. But they sat stone-faced. So, just to add to the fun, first one person and then another began to pour ketchup and mustard onto the heads of these people. Then someone tore open a bunch of sugar and creamer packets and emptied them out onto the already-sticky heads of the protesters. Then someone snapped the now-famous photo. There these hapless people sat with mustard streaming down their cheeks, their hair matted with ketchup, their faces blotchy with coffee creamer and sugar. They took the abuse, but they did not move.

    Easter 4

    At Martin Luther King, Jr’s urging, the Civil Rights movement tried to achieve non-violent civil disobedience. But this idea hadn’t originated with Dr. King. King was himself a student of Mahatma Gandhi, who pioneered the method known as Satyagraha, which means “loving and truthful firmness.” Satyagraha, Gandhi said, is a way to be strong but not with the strength of the brute but with the strength one gets from God. As such, Satyagraha aimed for the vindication of the truth “not by infliction of suffering on the opponent but on one’s self.” But as Gandhi knew, not striking back at those who strike at you requires enormous reserves of self-control. Still, Satyagraha said that if words alone did not convince someone, then perhaps they would be convinced by humility, purity, and honesty. An opponent, Gandhi said, had to be “weaned from error by patience and sympathy.” Those who stand against us must be weaned, not crushed; converted, not annihilated.

    It is no wonder that Gandhi has sometimes been called the most Christian non-Christian who ever lived. Indeed, as Louis Fischer wrote in the classic biography of Gandhi, for many years Christian missionaries to India tried to convert Gandhi to Christianity. Gandhi, speaking in a soft voice, often tried to do the same for them! It is also no surprise, then, that even the Christian preacher Martin Luther King, Jr. saw in Gandhi’s words some of the same dynamics that come through the Bible in places like I Peter 2.

    Our Lectionary passage is in some ways about what we today might call the mission enterprise of the church.  Peter directs us to think of missions in a very different way from how we usually conceive of mission activity. Because Peter suggests that sometimes our most eloquent witness comes not through what we say but through what we do not say. Sometimes we carry out the mission of the gospel not so much through formal programs we launch on the world as much as by how we react when the world inflicts its program on us.

    The passage has a bit of a controversial history, however.  First, we confront here something that weaves all through the New Testament; namely, the apparent tacit acceptance of slavery (though the Lectionary would have you not notice this by not starting at the logical spot in verse 18). Peter appears not to bat an eye over an institution that we explicitly reject–indeed, we now reject slavery on biblical grounds. That fact alone makes us squirm a little. We wonder why Peter didn’t flat out say what we would now say, and that is that it is morally reprehensible to own another human being, to treat a person as chattel, as property.

    But I Peter 2 challenges us even more. Because Peter not only tells slaves to stay put and be obedient, he tells them to suffer in silence even if a given slave’s master is an evil tyrant who beats and verbally abuses his slaves. Peter goes so far as to say that the real test of Christian character comes not when you have a kind master who treats you well but when you have a wretch of a master who is grossly unfair and unjust. This is the feature to this passage that has long worried Christians who are passionate about social justice issues.  Because Peter seems to be saying that the best way to be a Christian in unjust circumstances is not to protest, not to seek change, not to confront the abuser. Instead Peter says to just take it. Just stand there and take it the way Jesus took it. But many find that troubling.

    What can we say about this and how can we preachers apply this passage fruitfully today despite these issues?  Here are a couple ideas:

    First, in our conduct before the eyes of the watching world, all of our words and actions need to be a grace and never more so than when we are hurting or suffering. Because the second idea is that we should expect some measure of suffering in this life and when we do suffer, we need to connect this to the cross of Christ.

    We begin with the need to be a grace. Twice in this passage the Greek word charis or “grace” occurs in a most intriguing way.  It happens in verses 19 and 20. In verse 19 where some translations render the Greek as “it is commendable” if someone suffers unjustly, the Greek literally says that if we suffer unjustly but, for the sake of God, endure it without hitting back, then this reaction is “a grace.” At the end of verse 20 when Peter says that suffering for doing good is “commendable before God,” the Greek again says this is “a grace before God.”

    Most commentators are quick to point out that although this is the exact same word used when the Bible speaks about being “saved by grace,” the precise meaning of charis in I Peter 2 is different than that redemptive gift of God. That is true, of course, but having made this distinction, too many commentators then act as though there is no connection between saving grace and this version of grace, and I think that’s a significant mistake.

    The New Testament makes clear that all who receive the saving grace of God should, as a result, lead a life filled with little gracelets. Getting graced by God in Jesus makes us gracious people in return. We lead good lives and do good things not because we are trying to earn our way into God’s favor after all and not even only because we are grateful to God. We exude gracelets because this is the inevitable result of having received the big Grace that saved us. Getting graced by God is like getting dipped into a vat of perfume: the residue of the fragrance should waft off of you from then on.

    Peter is saying that when the world throws its worst at us, when we get unfairly criticized, this is when we need to be the most mindful of our God and of the grace he has given us in Jesus. But this is not “grace under pressure,” as you sometimes hear that phrase used. This isn’t some generic poise or the ability not to get flustered. The grace we show when we are persecuted connects directly to how we got God’s grace in the first place: through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

    Our memory of how Jesus willingly suffered without lashing back prevents us from striking out. And when we can resist that natural tendency to seek revenge, then this is a grace in God’s sight. God sees it as a grace because we ourselves display the result of our having received the grace of God. The grace Peter talks about and God’s grace are linked.

    Those mustard and creamer-coated people at the lunch counter weren’t trying to witness to Jesus necessarily, but something in their example does highlight what Peter writes in this passage. It may have been difficult to discern at the time what good, if any, just sitting at the lunch counter was doing. But it is all-but certain that they did more good doing nothing than if they had turned around and started smashing mustard jars on the heads of their jeering and leering persecutors.