Sermon: "Unjust Suffering," May 7, 2017

May 7, 2017
The Fourth Sunday in Easter
1 Peter 2:19-25
Rev. Ryan Slifka

Last week we heard started in to the first Epistle of Peter. It's a letter, one that comes to several communities in Asia minor, modern day Turkey. For the most part, it's a letter of encouragement. Encouragement to people who are suffering. This week, we continue a little on in to the letter, which continues on the subject of the suffering that they are enduring. The part before our passage isn't included in our reading, but our passage is directed to slaves who are a part of the community of faith. And the suffering they experience at the hands of their masters.

"For it is to your credit," our passage begins, "for it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly." They are to be commended, argues our author, if they put up with suffering and pain inflicted by their Masters, if that suffering and pain is undeserved. After all, he says, "if you're beaten for doing wrong, where's the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God's approval." Basically, he says, there's no virtue is accepting punishment you deserve. But if you're treated badly for good behavior, and you keep up good behavior anyway, this is the kind of thing that counts with God.

So, according to Peter: if you're a slave, and you do something wrong and are punished by your Master, then it's all on you. No sympathy here. But if you do your job, you follow it to the letter, then you're punished--whether your Master is incompetent, or cruel or simply misunderstands you--and you not only put up with it but keep at it as employee slave of the month. Then, he says, this is the kind of thing God approves of. You're on the right track.

Just about every commentary I read on this passage pointed out a moral problem. Passages like this, after all, were once used by slave masters to ensure their slaves accepted their lot in life, remained nice obedient slaves, and didn't rise up against them. And another passage that's part of this letter counsels women to submit to their husbands even if they're abusive. And that passage was used to convince women to not only stay with abusive husbands, but to put up with the abuse. Really, in the end it just sounds like a strategy for oppressors to keep on oppressing and abusers to keep on abusing. And a recipe for the oppressed to stay on being oppressed and the abused to keep on being abused. All in obedience to the will of God. Maybe with rewards to come later.

Encouraging this kind of suffering not only seems unfair. It's dangerous, it's exploitative.  It's corrosive to the human soul. Not good.

Now I'm not going to make excuses for this text. This text comes with a lot of baggage. And a lot of brokenness. But regardless of the problems, though, there's a deeper point that's worth listening to. There's a crucial insight here that needs hearing.

After Peter tells his listeners to endure suffering, he gives them the reasoning behind it. "For to [suffering] you have been called," he says. "For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you and example, so that you should follow in his steps." Here Peter points to Jesus' example. Jesus, in the Christian tradition, is referred to as the One without sin. "He committed no sin," says Peter, quoting Isaiah 53 from the Old Testament. "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth."

Jesus lived a full human life, a human life as it was always intended to be. What a human being looks like fully in perfect relationship with God. He never gave in to evil. He didn't resist the people who arrested him. Jesus was then abandoned by his friends in his hour of need. He was tortured, and died on the cross. And Jesus did not even curse those who tortured and murdered him. "Father," he said. "Forgive them, for they have no idea what they're doing."

Basically, Peter says, because Jesus is the perfect model of human life. Then you should do the same, Peter says. Follow in his footsteps.

Jesus was righteous, Jesus was blameless. Jesus did the right thing. He suffered unjustly. So Peter says to heed his example. It seems simple enough. Do what Jesus did. But it's never actually that simple. It's not just Jesus' example that the Bible is interested in. It's also what God is up to in the world. What God is doing for us, and for humanity. And beyond. Specifically on the cross.

"When he was abused," says Peter, "he didn't return it. When he suffered," he says, "he didn't lash out against his enemies." "No," says Peter. Instead of lashing out, Peter tells us, Jesus trusted his life fully to God. And in doing so, Peter says, "Jesus himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds," Peter says. "You have been healed."

Somehow, Peter says. Somehow, Jesus himself suffered the sins of the world, so the world could be free from sin. On the cross Jesus was wounded for the world's healing.

This is what we traditionally call the doctrine of Atonement. That how the world that is broken and shattered can be made one again--at peace with itself and at peace with God. At-one-ment. You don't even need to be a Christian to know that this is something that's needed. Just look around the state of the world and the problems in our own lives. When Peter says that Jesus "suffered for us," and that he "bore our sins in his body" he's saying that on the cross, God in Christ experiences every kind of thing that we do as human beings to wound and injure each other. Every kind of evil, twisted, violent thing we could do. And that, rather than returning evil for evil. Rather than punishing us in the same way he was punished. God actually receives it, suffers it. Takes it head on, absorbs it into himself. Purifying it, transforming it in to an event of pure mercy and grace. So, rather than being stuck in our own cycles of sin, self-deception, brokenness and violence, we are, Peter says "free from sins so we might live for righteousness." God can take what is polluting our souls in to herself, suffer it, overwhelming and overcoming it with pure Love.

Peter argues that Jesus experienced immense, unjust suffering. Not for its own sake—suffering itself isn’t good—but that his suffering was for the sake of the world. To bring freedom to all. Even his enemies. And if God could do that with Jesus’ suffering, the same way, God can use their suffering to bring healing, too.

God used Christ’s suffering to bring about healing for all. And if God can do that… God can use our suffering to bring about good, too. Even for our enemies. In the end, that’s what this text is all about.

Now, I doubt that any of us here are experiencing anything like the suffering of slaves. I do know some of your suffering well. For many others, I know your suffering is silent. It’s hidden. But I know that it’s there. I am not going to encourage any of you to simply put up with suffering because it’s good for your character. Or simply because of what Jesus did. What I’m going to say, thought, is that your suffering will not be made right or relieved by returning what you’ve been handed out. Returning anger for anger. Returning sin for sin. Returning violence for violence will only pull you deeper in. It will eventually eat you up inside. It will poison you. And turn you in to what you hate. The great German theologian Jurgen Moltmann puts it like this “Suffering proves to be stronger than hate. Its might is powerful in weakness and gains power over its enemies in grief, because it gives life even to its enemies and opens the future to change.”[i]

I am not saying to simply give in to those who have hurt you, or continue to oppress you. If you’re a slave—do what ever you can to escape. If you’re an abused spouse, don’t think twice about getting away. But I am saying that in enduring suffering, rather than meting it out. That God is so great, she can even use your suffering to bring about good instead.

Friends, brothers and sisters in Christ. What this scripture is teaching us today is that the only way for us to experience true freedom from those who oppress and injure us. Freedom from our sin, and the freedom to experience full life—righteousness, life as God intended it to be—is by giving up the idea that we can take control and make things right by inflicting the same old wrongs. By trusting justice and judgment to God the righteous judge. And discover that our own freedom, as well as the freedom of those who hurt us and others can only be found in the non-violent, self-emptying, radical Love of God in Christ. It’s in following Jesus to the cross.

“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” Because his path is the only one to new life. For me. For you. For all.

And for this, thanks be to God. AMEN.

[i] Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 103.