A Sermon about Resistance in the Face of Suffering

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Augustana Lutheran Church
7 May 2017 + Fourth Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 2.19-25



Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Fourth Sunday of Easter brings us to Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s tempting, isn’t it, to dwell in the midst of the idyllic early Christian community described in our reading from Acts, or to linger beside the psalmist’s green pastures and still waters, abiding in the tender care of Jesus our shepherd. So given all that, it’s also tempting to just gloss over that second reading from 1 Peter. I mean, really, who put that in there alongside today’s other readings? On the other hand, at least they spared us an even more disturbing opening line that didn’t make the cut in the final lectionary edits: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is a credit to you…” the epistle writer goes on. Kind of changes the perspective, doesn’t it?

And yet, I believe, this text, including the address to slaves, begs examining. It begs examining because the history of this country, built on the institution of slavery, makes the very word slave difficult to digest and yet at the same time necessary to confront. It begs examining, too, because so many in our world today still suffer injustice and violence and the last thing they need to hear is someone from a lectern or pulpit telling them to suck it up because the Bible tells them so.

In the first place, let me be clear: The point of this text is not to suggest that suffering for suffering’s sake wins over God’s approval. Nor is it meant to insist that those in physically abusive and potentially life-threatening situations should continue to endure abuse. But, the epistle writer clarifies, if you endure when you do right and suffer for it—or to put it another way, if you are pursuing justice and righteousness and that lands you in hot water to the point of suffering—so be it. The epistle writer’s aim in the larger context of this passage is to outline a “code” for Christian conduct in society, and the far greater emphasis in this passage is the exhortation to do good and to pursue justice. It nearly goes without saying that the history of civil disobedience among people of faith in this pursuit predicts suffering as its probable by-product.

Oftentimes, though, professed Christians have been the worst offenders of upholding the very unjust systems that others so passionately fight against. Slavery in the pre-Civil War era was condoned by Christian slaveholders with passages such as this, and still today, many of our LGBTQ+ siblings are bombarded by so-called “well-meaning” Christians who pluck out choice passages of Scripture to deny their very humanity.

In recent weeks, the newly debuted TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale makes us keenly aware of this point. The series depicts a not-so-far-off future United States, now governed by a strict totalitarian government based on an extreme form of Christian fundamentalism. Here, the class divide is stark, comprised of an elite ruling class and a class of servants and sustained by a select, literal interpretation of Scripture. In one scene this dramatically comes to a head when one of the handmaids is reminded, “Remember your scripture. Blessed are the meek.” And in a short-lived but fierce act of defiance, for which she is then subjected to an attack of physical violence, the handmaid responds, “And blessed are those who suffer for the cause of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Like the handmaid and like the slaves to whom the epistle writer writes, the condition of slavery and oppression is never one that is sought out or chosen, but there are ways to live defiantly even in the midst of injustice while fighting against it.

Another verse outside the bounds of our lectionary reading is key: “As servants of God, live as free people,” verse 16 begins. So, while this is still an address to actual slaves in the first-century world, it also includes a reminder that they are first and foremost servants of God and therefore are free. It does not deny their present suffering nor make excuses for it, but it does offer them hope and encouragement even in the midst of it.

The principle of Christian freedom—that we are not only freed from sin, death, and the power of evil but also freed for service to our neighbors in the world—is a core part of Lutheran theology. Of course, as we know, using that freedom for the pursuit of justice is not easy. In recent months, people of faith have marched in the streets and called and emailed legislators to bear public witness to the faith that compels us to oppose harmful and life-threatening policies around health care, immigration, and so much more.

Nearly 60 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this well when he wrote of the path of nonviolent resistance. Nonviolent resistance is not passive: it does not mean being a doormat in the face of injustice. Nor does it mean that those who resist become the aggressor or oppressor in return. Nonviolent resistance, for King, meant opposing evil itself, not the persons who commit evil acts, and he admitted that it also meant a willingness to suffer and sacrifice.

In that same spirit, the epistle writer offers us Christ as an example of what it means to suffer as a result of opposing evil for the cause of pursuing justice. Lifting up the lowly and reaching out with unconditional love to the marginalized was the whole point of Jesus’s earthly ministry. And it got him killed.

As James Cone has said, “If you are going to worship somebody that was nailed to a tree, you must know that the life of a disciple of that person is not going to be easy.” Following in the path of Jesus, as we who profess to be Christian claim to do, we are told that we don’t suffer in isolation for the cause of justice, but that the crucified Christ who has gone before us still accompanies us today.

Today we hear a word of comfort and hope that the crucified Christ is with us still, in every moment, and in this Easter season, we proclaim the victory of Christ’s resurrection over the forces of evil that newly emboldens us in our baptismal calling to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

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