A Nation Within a Nation–September 23

A NATION AMONG THE NATIONS: Thoughts on Freedom from I Peter 1:11-17

11Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. 12Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. 13Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, 14or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. 16Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. 17Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.

Fill in the blank: “I feel most free whenever…….” I have asked people these past two weeks, in preparing for this message, to finish that statement for me: “I feel most free whenever…..”. Many of them are perfect strangers: students at the colleges we visited for Church Fair Day, waiters and cashiers at Tuesday morning breakfast, and others. I told some of them I would be delivering a message this Sunday on Peter’s words, “Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a license for doing evil,” and I would like to know what people think and have experienced about freedom.

So, how would you answer that question? Please take a minute to think about your answer that question: “I feel most free whenever……”

Here are some of the answers I got:

  • I feel most free whenever……I have money.”

  • I feel most free whenever….Oh, that’s a tough question and its early in the morning and I haven’t had my second cup of coffee yet. Let me think about that a while.”

  • I feel most free whenever……gee, I really don’t know what freedom feels like. I’m not sure I really am free.” (Oh dear, I missed a good ministry follow-up opportunity there.)

  • I feel most free whenever I am too wrapped up in doing something to think about myself.”

  • I feel most free whenever I am in right relationship to God.”

  • I feel most free whenever I am praying….or reading scripture aloud….or worshiping God.”

All these answers represent the wide range of meanings that we often pack into the word, “freedom.” Freedom is so important to us that there’s a war going on for the sake of freedom, we’re told. But sometimes I wonder if by “freedom” we mostly mean the freedom to indulge ourselves with cheap oil and expensive lifestyles. Remember the old advertising campaign, “Its not just your car; its your freedom?” As we shall see, that’s not quite Peter’s idea of freedom.

Nor does it have much to do with dignity, another thing Peter addresses today. But to give you an idea of how important freedom and dignity are, consider this experience: Let’s say you’re stuck in traffic one morning on the way to work for a meeting, and its looking more and more like you’re going to be late and you won’t have the time you thought you would have yesterday to check your emails and refresh your memory of the subject so that by the time you finally get there you have to run into the meeting room with a stack of unread papers and you’re thinking to yourself that from now on I’m gong to get an earlier start and take the bus and use that time to prepare for work, and as you enter the room you excuse yourself by saying, “Sorry I’m late; traffic was a real bear out there today.”

And then somebody pipes up and says, “You need to get going earlier in the morning and take the bus to work so you can spend some of that time preparing, like I do.” What do you usually want to do then? Bow before him and say, “Thank you, O most worthy, Enlightened One, for making me see the light when I was most blind?” Or are you more likely to at least think to yourself, “Just what kind of robot or slave does he think I am, that I will suddenly change my whole life to do what he says just because he says I need to do like what he does?” And won’t we also at least think to ourselves, “And just what kind of idiot does he think I am that I need him to tell me what I need to do?”

Or am I the only one who has ever reacted like that?

I’m not saying that these are particularly charitable thoughts, nor that we should say them or act on them. But they do represent two closely related needs we all have, which are so common that I suspect that God made us that way: 1) the need for some degree of freedom and self-determination; and 2) the need for dignity and a sense of worth. If you have been around two-year-olds you know how strong these drives are. One of the first words that toddlers learn after “Mom” and “Dad” and “No” is “self.” As in “I wanna dress myself.” With the favorite red and green plaid pants and the pink and yellow polka-dotted shirt. For the fifth day in a row. But they need to go through that if they are to become responsible people.

But for Peter’s audience, the quest for freedom and dignity was about more than getting to work on time and choosing their own clothes. He addresses his words about dignity to people who are obviously getting daily doses of humiliation, suspicion and condemnation for being Christians. That he says we should live so as “to silence the ignorant talk of foolish people,” indicates that these daily doses of humiliation and condemnation were undeserved and unfair. They lived the precarious lives of spiritual pilgrims going through spiritually hostile territory.

And Peter’s words, “Live as free people,” are all the more odd when you consider that many of the people to whom he is writing are slaves, as we’ll see in future sermons from I Peter. Maybe most of them are slaves. So, how can they “live as free people?”

II. But First, how these words have been misused against freedom and dignity: “Wait a minute,” you might think. “Hasn’t Peter just told us to “be subject to all human authorities and powers,” and to “honor the king?” Indeed, didn’t he place the words, “Honor the king” right after the words “Fear God,” as though obedience to one is obedience to the other? By telling us to be submissive, doesn’t that sound like we are supposed to bow and scrape and bend the knee before anyone and everyone with a crown or a badge or a sword or a whip?

You could take it that way, and many have, I’m afraid. When we get to the issue of slavery in a few weeks, we’ll also see how Peter’s letter was used that way in the American South, on slave-owning plantations, to keep African captives “in their place.” But that only goes to show how two people can say the exact same thing and one of them can be wrong, even a liar.

Upon closer inspection, what looks like the language of submission starts to sound subversive, such as when Peter says to live as free people, “for the Lord’s sake,” and “to fear God,” while honoring the king. Its subversive first of all because God is the only person he tells us to “fear,” which means to “revere in awe and wonder.” Everybody else we are to honor, from commoners to kings. And we are to honor everyone, “for the Lord’s sake,” for the honor of God. That puts the honor of God above and before the honor of king and country. Whenever kings and caesars want more than the honor due all people, whenever they want the fear and reverence that Peter reserves for God alone, these words actually become subversive.

Another liberating and subversive thing about Peter’s advice is that Peter here sets limits to the authority of kings and governors. From what Peter says in this passage, I can understand and approve of the police function of the state within the borders of the state, whether you’re talking about traffic cops or safety inspections of food and work places. But nowhere in this passage can any kings and governors find the right to carry out war, certainly not wars beyond their borders, of empire, aggression or conquest, pre-emptive or otherwise. Yet those were going on in Peter’s time, as well as ours. So Hitler and the Nazis were dead wrong to use these verses to tell German Christians to sign up for the army and invade their neighbors, like the Fuhrer says. I’m not even sure you can get capital punishment out of this passage, because there are many ways short of the electric chair or lethal injection that murder and murderers can now be discouraged and dealt with.

Nor does Peter say anything about how Christians fit in with the mandate of the state, to suppress evil and uphold good. So we have to respect each other’s wisdom as to whether or not, or to what level, we participate in human government.

We all participate at some level, just by voting or having a driver’s license. A friend of mine in Kansas served a few years as a county commissioner. It was out of love for the community that he did so. But that, he said, was the highest level of service that did not involve moral compromise. And he was prepared to resist and pay the cost if ever some moral compromise was demanded of him.

By paying our taxes and buying our licenses we recognize the authority of the authorities and we agree to obey the laws, insofar as they correspond to the laws of God. That’s all Peter means by “submission.” His prime example of submission is Christ Jesus, who recognized the authority of Pontius Pilate and of the Jewish temple leadership when they brought him to trial, but who related to them with dignity and courage, not fear, because his conduct had always been blameless. He had nothing to hide. In the course of his trials before the authorities, he was forthright and honest. He also challenged them, or refused to reply whenever they violated their own laws of due process. Then, by freely taking up the cross, he accepted the legal consequences of his truth-telling and good deeds.

Peter himself was also an example of this kind of “submission.” When the religious leadership in Jerusalem forbade him and John to preach the gospel, Peter replied, “Consider for yourselves whether or not we should obey God or people.” He recognized and respected the authority of the Sanhedrin except when they demanded of him something contrary to God’s will. Then, he was willing to take the legal consequences of continuing to preach the gospel, out of respect for the rule of law.

Some of us here faced the unjust demands of the Communist government, in Ethiopia, that you disown God and do evil in order to advance in your careers or even avoid prison or death. You may have been accused of lawlessness and of being a threat to the social order. And you had to accept the consequences of not obeying them, out of respect for the rule of law, and for the greater laws of God. By accepting these consequences, whether imprisonment or losing your job, you actually showed greater honor and respect for law, for the rule of law, and for all people, from the leader to the lowliest, than did those who demanded blind obedience. You also did much more good for your society than what blind obedience would have done.

So when Peter says, “submit to every authority” and “honor the king,” it is as though he saying to all civil authorities, “I love you as I love all fellow human beings– and I respect and honor your role and responsibility, I respect and honor the rule of law to the point where not only will I obey the law, I will even treat it as just the starting point, and not the limit, of my conduct, out of love for all my fellow human beings, whether kings or commoners, and out of love and fear of the Lord.”

III. Which means that Peter has just issued us a challenge to rethink the meaning of the word, “freedom.” He says, “do not use your freedom as a cover-up [or an excuse, or a license] to do evil.” We are free to do evil, but doing evil is no true freedom. We are free to do evil, but choosing to do evil is choosing our own chains and bondage. Instead, he says, “live as servants of God.” The word he uses for “servant” in most of our translations is actually the commonly used Greek word of the time for “slave.” So Peter is telling all of us, slave or free, to consider ourselves first and foremost as God’s slaves, and in that servitude to find our freedom. Our freedom from doing evil. Our freedom for doing good. As Ghandi often said, “No one can ride your back if it is not bent.”

Because we will serve somebody, like it or not, and we will, and do, have a master, some master. And we can only have one master. Hopefully that master is God. I see those buttons and bumper stickers around town that proclaim, “No Gods; No Masters,” and I doubt if that is really even possible. Martin Luther said that we humans are incurably religious, and that if our inborn capacity for devotion, service and worship is not turned toward God, it will get turned toward the worship and service of money, country, race, ideology, party, power, position, pleasure, drugs, whatever. Those brutal and insatiable task masters are always demanding more of us than they’re worth, even to the point of human sacrifice through war, violence, poverty and oppression.

In the end, the most important freedom we have is the freedom to choose our master. And the most freedom comes when God is our chosen master. So let’s get our minds around this biblical understanding of freedom, that our freedom comes down to the freedom to choose our master, either the one whose service means freedom, or the one whose service is but bondage.

IV. Peter has also challenged to us to rethink the words “honor” and “dignity.” A lot of sleep is lost every night by people wondering and worrying, “Am I respected enough? Am I getting the honors I deserve?” I hope we are. But Peter encourages us to focus first on whether or not we are giving and expressing honor and dignity to others. After all, God has already honored us more grandly than anyone else ever could by sending us Christ and adopting us into his family. So we can be free from the constant, nagging obsession over who’s above and who’s below, who’s worth more, who’s worth less, who commands and who obeys, and find our honor through giving honor.

V. Which tells us something surprising about our witness before the world: That it should be an honor-based witness. First, as we live, for the honor of God, lives that respect the law but which go beyond them. Secondly, as we witness for the honor of those with whom we share our witness. Whenever we have the opportunity to share our faith stories with others, can we leave them feeling honored and appreciated, rather than disrespected, manipulated or looked down upon? But is that not one of our problems with witness and evangelism, that it so often comes across as manipulating, controlling, shaming and blaming? Or like we’re trying to sell ourselves, just like politicians are always selling themselves, or like Procter and Gamble is always selling soap? Like we’re the people on high, who have it all together, and we’re handing down the truth, which we “own,” to people who don’t have it all together? Like the irritating co-worker who says, “You need to get started earlier and take the bus, like I do?”

Yes, the gospel of salvation implies that we need to be saved from something. From sin, of course. But most of the people who would hear the invitation are probably spending about 90% of their time and energy trying to do the right thing, as best they can figure it out. Many of the people with whom we rub shoulders are like the man to whom Jesus said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” But they risk losing it all if they lose out on life with God. They may need some nudges in the direction of God’s kingdom, or an attraction in the direction of God’s kingdom. That’s all we can do anyway: plant some gospel seeds and give some gospel nudges here and there, and help them along the way. And as Abraham Lincoln used to say, a teaspoon of honey will attract a lot more flies than a bucket full of vinegar.

Sometimes they also have some very important things to teach us. So in our witness, we must honor our friends with at least as much listening as we do talking.

The goal of all our teaching and preaching from I Peter this year is that we might invite people into “a new birth into a living hope, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (I Peter 1:3).” Like any invitation to a party or a dinner, this invitation to “a new birth into a living hope” is itself an honor extended by God, through us. So rather than always beginning our gospel sharing with words like, “You’re a sinner in desperate straits (aren’t we all?)” often we can begin with observing and encouraging and affirming people where and whenever they already are most close to the kingdom of God. That’s what a Mennonite church in Inman, Kansas, does every year when it hosts a community-wide banquet in honor of police, fire fighters, paramedics, weather spotters, and others who risk their lives to protect the community. That’s what I’ve been trying to do with my questions around town: “When do you feel most free?” And, two weeks before, “What is church for, in your opinion?” Then I listen to them. Then I don’t tell them, “You’re wrong and let me straighten you out.” I say, “Thank you, you’ve helped me quite a bit.” Some of them I’ll see again and continue the conversation and thank them again for helping me. Because they have. They helped me write this sermon. And now its over.

Almost. Except for one more thing. I’ll ask you now to take a moment and think about someone outside of church whom you know who could use a word of interest, appreciation and honor from you for something he or she is doing that shows they too are close to the kingdom of God. Maybe they are working hard to support family, such as someone trying to take care of kids and aging parents. Or someone doing volunteer work with an agency like Citizens for Victims of Torture or Ten Thousand Villages, or a homeless shelter. Engage them in a conversation about their cause, listen to them, learn from them, and bless them for it. Maybe you can even help them. And see where the relationship takes you when it is based on those terms of respect. Let’s take another moment for silence, and if someone’s name comes to mind, then write their name on a blank space in today’s bulletin, and write the day of this week on which you will honor them for the way in which they are not far from the kingdom of God.

Now I am done. The rest is up to you.