Sermon: Lifestyle Witness
May 14th, 2017 Rev. Betsy Perkins
First Baptist Church, Delavan WI
Scripture passages: 1 Peter 2:11-25
I found some advice on motherhood from a hundred years ago or so. As a former obstetrics nurse, I was particularly interested in the recommendations for mothers after giving birth. One guide read, “After all that the newly made mother has under gone, she needs perfect quiet for several hours before she is permitted to see anyone. A 5-minute interview with her husband is all that should be allowed. Even if the new mother insists that she is well enough to see her friends and family, it is critical that she not be allowed any company until she has adequate rest. Excitement is dangerous and no visitor can be permitted to enter the room, nor should any conversation be allowed even if the mother wishes to talk. Neglect of this precaution may cause serious disaster.” A 1916 book titled The Mother and her Child recommends, “Handle the baby as little as possible. Turn it occasionally from side to side, feed it, change it, keep it warm, and let it alone.” We certainly have come a long way since then! Thank goodness we have learned more and made changes!
The portion of Peter’s letter that we read today is a kind of writing that was known at the time as a household code. These household codes were common in the Roman and Greek societies. The codes gave advice and guidelines for how a household should be run, about the relationships between members of the family and how the various levels of slaves and servants in a house should function. Households at that time would have been much larger than today, with wider extended families and people working in the household – more like a family business today, or a close knit community like a small congregation. And if we think that the advice for mothers from 100 years ago sounds outdated, the advice for families from 1,950 years ago seems even more so!
Even with the modernized language of The Message, Peter’s directives seem antiquated, even oppressive with mention of servants/slaves and submission. But what we miss due to the distance of time and culture, is how revolutionary and transformative Peter’s household code was from the codes that were being followed at the time. For example, typical household codes were always addressed to the man who was the head of the household. By comparison, Peter begins his by writing, “Dear friends, I urge you as foreigners and exile,…” – it’s to the outsiders. He goes on to speak directly to the slaves, or servants. And in the paragraph continuing on from our passage today, Peter talks directly to the women, the wives, and then lastly to the husbands. Peter writes to each and every person in the household. He gives each one respect, values their role, and empowers each person to make choices on living in the example of Jesus Christ.
Typical Greco-Roman codes assumed that women and slaves were the property of the head of the household, to be managed as he saw fit. Aristotle, who wrote his own household code around 300 BC, argued that it was impossible for slaves to suffer unjustly since they were simply property. Peter, on the other hand, acknowledges in verse 19, the pain of unjust suffering, being “treated badly for no good reason”. But you still might wonder what there is in this passage that is relevant to us today. Does it have anything to say to us?
I believe that it does. But before I explore that further I must make one corrective note. I must acknowledge that this text has been misused over the years, by preachers and by men in power, to silence those without power and to perpetuate injustice. Sadly, too many have misinterpreted Peter to be saying “Good Christians need to put up and shut up.” That is NOT what Peter is saying!! He is not saying that women should quietly endure abuse, or that employees need to accept discriminatory treatment without complaint! This is where Peterson’s paraphrase of the The Message is helpful in better interpreting loaded words, like “submit” that is used throughout this part of Peter’s letter. So I apologize to anyone who may have suffered as a result of this misunderstanding and misuse of scripture, and I hope to lead us to a better understanding.
Peter is calling believers to find that balance of living in the world yet not being of the world. We live within the nations and cultures God places us but bring to them the distinctive example of Jesus. We seek to be the best ambassadors for Christ that we can be. That is the crux of Peter’s concern in this passage. He has just told the congregations that they are built together to hold God’s presence in the world, like a temple, and to serve the world, like priests. Therefore, he says, follow a lifestyle that makes nonbelievers around you to wonder what makes you different. The ultimate goal is to enable them to see the difference God makes in us, to see God in us. Some theologians have called this “soft resistance”. Jesus did this by gently chiding his disciples, by asking questions to the religious leaders of his time, by saying things to make people wonder and to take another look at themselves and to think of God in new ways – to recognize God right there in their midst.
I want to point to 4 principles of lifestyle witness that Peter teaches in this letter.
God is Priority #1
Throughout his instructions, it is clear that God is to be the first priority. Peter writes, “Make the Master proud” and “Revere God.” He writes, “What counts is that you put up with it for God’s sake.” The focus is on honoring God, on wining people over to God’s side, so that we and they may one day all glorify God together. God is number One!
Peter advises believers to be good citizens, to respect authorities, to follow the rule of law. He says that God’s will is that ideally, national leaders are in places of power to keep order. But Peter is not naïve. He himself had to deal with instances when the demands of authorities clearly contradicted God’s will. Acts, chapters 4 and 5, tell the story of Peter healing a man who was crippled and begging in the Temple area and then preaching to the people about God’s healing plan through Jesus. The religious teachers arrested Peter and demanded that he stop teaching in Jesus’ name. But Peter responded, “Do you think God wants us to obey you rather than Him? We cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard.”(Acts 4:19-20) And again when they are put on trial, Peter says, “We must obey God rather than human authority.”(Acts 5:29)
Peter is asking believers to respect human leaders and live under their rules, to be a part of the structure of order God desires, but to do that with the first priority of living under God’s rules and Jesus’ example.
Conduct yourselves honorably
The next principle of lifestyle witness is about living honorably. Verse 12, in the NRSV/NLT and reads, “Conduct yourselves honorably among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God.” And again in verse 15, “It is God’s will that your honorable lives should silence ignorant people who make false accusations against you.” The Oxford dictionary has a whole list of synonyms for honorable – honest, moral, ethical, principled, trustworthy, credible, dependable, good, fair, reliable.
Increasingly in politics and business, it seems to no longer matters what someone’s character is as long as he or she can accomplish a goal. There is a sense that the ends justify the means. It no longer matters how many people may be harmed along the way, as long as my taxes go down. It doesn’t matter how many lives are lost, as long as my rights are not infringed. No, Peter says, we need to live lives of integrity, of being willing to follow Jesus’ teachings each step of the way even if it makes things more difficult or more challenging, even if it means I may need to suffer as Christ did.
The third principle of lifestyle witness is to be respectful of others, of everyone – the vulnerable and the powerful, the kind and the nasty, the fair and the unfair. As representatives of Jesus Christ, we use respectful language to everyone.
There was a small business where the boss could hear his receptionist as she took calls from their clients. The receptionist was efficient in her work, always on time, and had creative ideas to solve problems, but the boss called her in one day to talk about her behavior on the phone. The boss noted that on some calls the receptionist was pleasant and helpful, but on others she was rude, demanding and abrupt. The receptionist explained, “I treat people pretty much the way they treat me. If they are kind, I’m the same way. But we have some clients who can be unkind and I have no intention of changing how I act towards them. If they want to be treated better, they need to fix their attitudes.” The boss was floored and exclaimed, “But that is not the way I want it around here. You will treat every customer kindly no matter how they treat you.” Hearing that, it was the receptionist’s turn to be floored. She responded, “Why should I do that? If they are rude to me, they don’t deserve kindness!”
In our age of social media it is so easy to lash out at those with whom we don’t like with verbal attacks, with taunting tweets and name-calling memes. Peter urges believers to be respectful to all people, to treat everyone with dignity. That is what Jesus did. Though he was taunted, he did not retaliate; though he was false accused, he did not threaten.
Cultivate Inner Beauty
Finally, Peter lifts up the principle of lifestyle witness that what is on the inside is much more important than what is on the outside. Let me read to you the next few verses, about wives and husbands: “The same goes for you wives: Be good wives to your husbands, responsive to their needs. There are husbands who, indifferent as they are to any words about God, will be captivated by your life of holy beauty. What matters is not your outer appearance—the styling of your hair, the jewelry you wear, the cut of your clothes—but your inner disposition. Cultivate inner beauty, the gentle, gracious kind that God delights in. The holy women of old were beautiful before God that way, and were good, loyal wives to their husbands. Sarah, for instance, taking care of Abraham, would address him as “my dear husband.” You’ll be true daughters of Sarah if you do the same, unanxious and unintimidated. The same goes for you husbands: Be good husbands to your wives. Honor them, delight in them. As women they lack some of your advantages. But in the new life of God’s grace, you’re equals. Treat your wives, then, as equals so your prayers don’t run aground.” (3:1-7, MSG)
At the center of Peter’s household code is the example of Jesus Christ. The kind of life we are invited into is the kind of life that Jesus lived. He lived that way so we would know it could be done, and so we would know how to do it. We were once lost sheep, but we have found the Shepherd. There are more lost sheep that still need to find their way. So we shape our whole lives, our lifestyles, in such as way that it speaks of Jesus and of His love.
In the verses just before Peter lifts up Christ’s example, he speaks of what “counts” with God. If you look at the passage (on the back of the bulletin) in verse 19, “What counts is that you put up with it – mistreatment – for God’s sake.” And again in verse 20, “that is what counts with God.” In the Greek, that word is actually charis, the word for grace. What counts, what is God’s grace displayed in our lives, is that we might follow Jesus. The grace Christ extended to every person, and extends to us, is the grace that we too extend to the world, in Jesus’ name.
Amen. May we so live.
Closing song: Grace Alone (Grace alone, which God supplies; strength unknown, He will provide. Christ in us, our Cornerstone; we will go forth in grace alone.)