In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
These words were written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran Pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi activist who was executed alongside conspirators against Hitler on 9th April, 1945, in Flossenburg concentration camp.
As with many statements we encounter in theology, it’s not quite what it seems. Bonhoeffer went on to say “It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world.” Basically, the death Bonhoeffer wrote about was the death of losing our attachment to the everyday world. We start to do this at the start of our journey with Christ, not at the end of our lives.
For Bonhoeffer there was a literality to this statement; his beliefs inexorably led him to a place where he engaged with plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and so to his own death. Despite his words, he had an attachment to the world that did not allow him to turn his back on what was happening in Germany in the 1930s.
The author of tonight’s second reading is Peter. Peter is mainly known as the chap who engaged with the political powers of the day by lopping off someone’s ear and then denied his relationship with Christ. This letter was probably written in the early 60s AD – 30 years after Christ’s death – and it shows that the hot-head of Gethsemane has matured in to a thoughtful man.
Tonight’s reading is a HARD one; it needs to be looked at in conjunction with the text that immediately precedes it, and that preceding text might bring us up sharp.
In Verse 2.13, Peter tells us:
“Submit yourself for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men…”
This is something quite hard for us to take on board today; there is, of course, 2000 years of history between now and when peter wrote these words; and Peter wrote in a culture still attached to the idea that kings worked with the authority of God; but it’s still hard for us.
But in Verse 2.16, Peter tells us to “Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.”
This brings us closer to where we are – and to where Bonhoeffer probably worked from. Submit to those authorities – living as free as you can – but do not submit in such a way as disobeys the law of God. In fact, we’re being told to live as servants of God, and, where possible – that is, where it doesn’t impact on our relationship with God – ‘play by the rules’. Peter’s saying that the need for Christians to abstain from common cultural practices of the day will raise eye-brows; no point in making things worse for yourself by behaving badly.
In Verse 2.18, we hear:
“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only those who are good and considerate, but also those who are harsh.”
Again, we have to take this in historical context as referring to both slaves and ‘house servants’ – slavery is not actually frowned upon in the New Testament, and was incredibly common in the times that Peter lived in. And this is where we come to tonight’s reading; in verses 19 and 20 Peter is following on to the comments he made about the behaviour of slaves in verse 18. A good, well-behaved slave, he says, may suffer undeserved pain and punishment and in those situations it’s commendable that he bears the unjust punishment because he is aware of God – that as a good Christian he’ll submit to unjust suffering if it’s God’s will. If you’re a bad slave – a concept that we might well have difficulty with today – then Peter states that you can expect to be punished, and that you deserve it. Sounds incredibly tough. But then he says
“But if you suffer for doing good, and you endure it, this is commendable before God.”
And he goes further – as a Christian – a servant of God and Christ – we’re CALLED to do this because:
“Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”
Christ – the total innocent – died a humiliating and painful death after taking the insults and abuse and betrayal of other men. He made no efforts to retaliate; he entrusted himself to God, and bore our sins so that we might DIE to sin.
Like Bonhoeffer said – when Christ calls us, he calls us to die. The death may be losing our life, but it will certainly be death to sin in our lives.
And what about us? How do Peter’s words speak to us tonight?
Before becoming Christians, Peter says that we were ‘like sheep, going astray’. Now we are under the care and guidance of our shepherd, Jesus Christ. And this means that we are expected to behave like our shepherd would. We can be good citizens and good employees, but in order to be good Christians we must strive to do nothing that puts either of these roles ahead of our love of God and our compassion for our fellow man.
We may find ourselves enslaved in some way; maybe literally, maybe to we feel enslaved or in servitude to our work, maybe we’re literally imprisoned. Again, as Christians we need to respond to that slavery by following the example set us by Christ.
To fail to do so would, in the words of our confessional prayer, ‘mar the image of God within us’. We know we’ll fail; after all, we’re human; but we are promised our Shepherd’s mercy and grace.
I have a number of friends – and extended family members – who’re agnostic or atheist and who have been known to ask me to sum up Christianity for them. I give them a short answer; “Love God, love one another, and don’t be an idiot.” (Although I have been known to use stronger words than idiot…)
Peter – who, let’s face it had a few problems loving all of his fellow men and not being violently foolish in the Garden of Gethsemane – clearly developed in faith.
Maybe, just maybe, if Peter could develop like this, so can we.
Reader Joe Pritchard
Readings for the sermon and links: