By Derek Weber
If you are committed to this series, then this week, you need a special blessing. It will be difficult to not just give this text a pass. John 10:1-10 is a text that’s easy to preach. You can go for a long time about the Good Shepherd; you can preach an amazing sermon on the abundant life in Christ, especially if you are going to lean into the suggestions in the Introduction and preach a revival. What better to invite folks to commit to than a relationship with the Good Shepherd and life abundant? Before you do, however, take another look at I Peter 2:19-25. Yes, it’s messy. And those verses have been the cause of a lot of bad theology. But that’s exactly why it needs to be preached today.
The lectionary attempts to make it a little easier for you by lopping off verse 18. But then not really. It is lurking there behind the words that we do have. “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” What in the world are we going to do with that? It appears to many to be a tacit acceptance of the institution of slavery. Not to mention, and this does continue in the verses assigned, an apparent acceptance of abuse. “If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.”
That is why this passage needs to be preached. There are likely folks in your congregation enduring abuse right now who have somehow come to believe that God approves of their abuse, that they need to stay and “endure” in such a situation because that is somehow God’s will. Surely, we can do better than that.
Dive a little deeper with the congregation to see what is being proclaimed in this passage. On the surface, there does seem to be this permission that is anathema to us today. But is that really the truth from this word? Abuse is not sanctioned; injustice is not approved. Endurance is. Endurance is another way of talking about faithfulness. It’s about holding on. The Book of Revelation is full of the call to endurance, not because suffering is good, not because what is happening is a good we should perpetuate, but because it is a strength of character and a sign of faith.
We would have wished that Peter had spent more time trying to erase the kind of abuse that he references in this passage, this letter could have turned into a polemic against the institution of slavery and of trafficking. What the author of the letter chose to do instead was to provide hope in the midst of a difficult situation. But here’s an important realization from our text: Many commentators talk about how Peter is referencing the household code. But he isn’t, really. If he had been, there would have been a word to each of the categories, slaves and masters both. But there isn’t. He talks only to the slaves. Why is that? The only logical response is that slaves were a part of the community, and masters were not. In other words, this isn’t some abstract commentary on a household code governing social roles in the culture in which this letter was written. It is, instead, a very personal letter to members of the community who were suffering from the injustice of a fallen world. This is an attempt to give hope and perspective and a sense of solidarity to those who might feel helpless and cut off. This is a pastoral letter and not a social justice one, except that the social justice is implied. It’s possible to read into a text what we want to see there; that is true. But there is hope here, if we listen.
Of course, Peter compares our suffering with the suffering of Christ and invites all to that higher standard, not that we would ever achieve that height; but again, it is a sign of solidarity with all those who suffer. Again, the insight to celebrate is the inclusion of those whom society considered of no consequence, treated as property. In the faith, even slaves can represent Christ, Peter argued, can reflect the fullness of the humanity that Jesus glorified in his suffering. All were included in this family.
A case could be made that this was an individual response to an unjust system, and that the dismantling of the injustice is the task of the community as a whole and not borne by the ones suffering under it. So, comfort was offered, even as change was coming. But maybe that is more than the text can bear. The preacher’s question this week must be, “Is it more than the church can bear in our broken world?”