It’s Complicated

Message for Sunday, May 7, 2017
Glennon Heights Mennonite Church
Betsy Headrick McCrae
Scripture passage: 1 Peter 2:1-5, 9-25
It’s complicated
Contrary to what you see on your bulletin covers this morning – “With gladness
and simplicity” – I’m here to tell you that sometimes reading the Bible – like all of life –
is not simple. In fact, it’s complicated. That’s just what you wanted to hear, I know. We
like things to be straightforward and easy to understand. Or, put another way, we want
the way we understand things to be the way they really are.
But the way we understand things is often limited. It’s limited by our experience,
our relative privilege, our place in society. It’s Mile’s law: “Where you stand depends
on where you sit.” On April 29 at the Mountain States Mennonite Conference Faith and
Life Forum, Dr. Drew Hart reminded us of the necessity of learning other people’s
stories. We need a “thicker framework,” he said. In order to see beyond our limited
perspective, we need let go of our desire for simplicity and learn to embrace and give
credence to the complexity of what really is.
So, what does this have to do with reading the Bible? I’d like us to explore that
question this morning by looking at the letter of 1 Peter, chapter 2. You can find this on
page 984 in your red pew Bibles. It might be helpful to you to have this to refer to as we
In this chapter there is poetry; there are beautiful images that are familiar. They
are precious to us and helpful in our walk of faith.
For instance, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” We sing this sometimes as
we receive Communion. This comes from verse 3. We are fed and nourished by the
Word of God, which is our spiritual milk.
Our understanding of the church as a priesthood of all believers has roots in this
chapter. Verse 5: “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be
a holy priesthood.” And verse 9: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy
nation, God’s own people.” Our Anabaptist ancestors often quoted these verses as they
challenged the prevailing understanding that priests and church hierarchy were necessary
to connect people and God.
The beautiful words of Verse 10 remind us of who we are: “Once you were not a
people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you
have received mercy.” We have been drawn into relationship with God and each other.
We have been treated graciously – we have received mercy. We have been forgiven. As
God’s people, therefore, we will live gracious and forgiving lives. This is at the core of
our identity as people of faith. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s
people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” This
knowledge shapes how we interact with the world.
At the end of the chapter, verses 24 and 25, are words that echo throughout our
hymns and sacred music: “Christ himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that,
free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For
you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and
guardian of your souls.” Christ bodily entered our human story. He shared the depth of
our human experience, even pain and death. He did this to draw us near to God, to show
us that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. By his wounds we have been
healed. We have seen and have come to know that God truly is the ever-present guardian
of our souls.
Yes, the poetry, the beautiful images of 1 Peter chapter 2 resonate with us. But
what about the rest of this chapter? That’s where things get complicated, I think. We’re
rolling along, nodding our heads and saying, “Uh-huh, uh-huh,” when suddenly we’re
brought up short: “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution,
whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who
do wrong and to praise those who do right.” (verses 13 and 14) And this is followed by
another jolt: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only
those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” (verse 18) Wow. What
kind of advice is this? What does this have to do with being God’s people, a priesthood
of believers, a holy nation? How are we supposed to deal with this?
Remember Miles’ law: “Where you stand depends upon where you sit.” In this
case, how we interpret, what we hear in these verses, depends on our station and position
in life. We here at Glennon Heights are mostly white, middle- or upper-class, educated,
and financially stable. We hear these words as citizens – fully legal, fully franchised – of
the most powerful nation in the world. We hear these words as people who would much
more likely be slave owners than slaves. We hear and interpret these words from a
distance, really. A power distance. This has allowed us, or historically, folks like us, to
use these words against those who less powerful, against folks who are at the mercy of a
system which does not benefit them. We have used these words to keep them in their
place, to uphold the status quo. “Follow the laws! Obey your masters! This is the will
of God! It says so right here in the Bible!” That’s what I hear happening when I read
these words and it troubles me. I cringe. Is this God’s intent?
But these words were not written to us who have power, who have a place in the
heart of the system. These words were written to those on the margins, those without
power. The early church was a motley collection of folks who had very little power in
the society in which they lived. They were mostly resident aliens of provinces and an
empire in which their status was always uncertain. Among them were servants and
slaves at the mercy of their masters. They were nobodies, really. The dregs of society.
But what they were doing – calling Jesus Lord, giving their allegiance to him instead of
to the emperor, gathering in worshipping communities and encouraging each other – was
dangerous and had to be stopped. They were subject to all kinds of persecution. This
letter was written for these folks. Peter is deeply concerned about the attitudes and
behaviors of believers in response to the hostility and suffering that they are
experiencing. These words do not refer to hypothetical situations. They are not lessons
in civic responsibility. For folks who were exiles and aliens, slaves and servants, they
were, and are, real-life concerns.
I’m currently reading a book by Eric H. F. Law, entitled The Wolf Shall Dwell
with the Lamb, a Spirituality for Leadership in a Multicultural Community. Dr. Law
writes about how differently folks who perceive that they have power or influence see the
world from folks who feel they are powerless. Their needs are different, he says. In the
church, if we truly are to be a body of Christ, folks who have societal power, need to
recognize that they have power. They need to be willing to give it up, or give it away, he
says. Folks who are powerless, on the other hand, need to receive power. They need to
be encouraged, they need to gain strength and endure.
Let’s look at these two problematic passages from 1 Peter through the eyes of
those who need to gain strength and endure. Listen to verses 13-17 through the ears not
of a stable citizen, but of a vulnerable undocumented immigrant: “For the Lord’s sake
accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of
governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.
For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As
servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.
Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”
Even though you are not citizens with rights, Peter says, you are free people,
God’s people. Remember that that’s your basic identity. Live into it. Live into it by
honoring those around you. Honor even the humanly designed system which doesn’t
honor you. Hang in there. Don’t act irresponsibly or maliciously. Instead hold onto
what is true and right even in the midst of uncertainty and injustice. Be faithful in all that
you say and do. God and the community of believers are with you.
Now listen to verses 18-22 through the ears not of a master but of someone caught
in modern-day slavery or unpaid servitude, or through the ears of someone unjustly
incarcerated: “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 if,
being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 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. 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.”
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that these are difficult words. Hard and troubling
words. Where is the good news in this passage? There’s no easy response. I’m not sure
exactly how to deal with this. But what I understand from reading particularly African
American theologians, is that when suffering is real and unavoidable, when unjust
punishment is a seemingly intractable fact of your life, when you have no power to
change things, knowing that Jesus, too, suffered unjustly, helps you to endure. Knowing
that God has entered into and is with you in this place of pain, hurt and horror, and deeply
understands what you’re going through, gives you hope. It helps you endure. It gets you
The gospel of Jesus Christ comes as a message of hope to the hopeless,
encouragement to the discouraged and empowerment to the powerless. It is always lifegiving, never death-dealing. It is never meant to keep people down or in their place.
This is what needs to be front and foremost in our minds as we read the Bible. When
don’t see this in our interpretation, an alarm bell should go off. We are missing the point,
and the message is being undermined. Going with what appears on the surface simplifies
things, but that simplification can actually result in distortion, like slave owners holding
these words over slaves, saying to them that this is God’s will. Life is complicated and
God doesn’t dance around this. God speaks into complexity. God dwells in complexity.
In order to dwell with God, we have to go there, too. We have to let go of our desire for
easy answers. We have to accept uncertainty and discomfort. We have to take a hard
look at ourselves. We have to be willing to enter into the story – to believe the validity of
the story – from completely different, rather challenging points of view. In the words of
Drew Hart, in order to really understand what is good news, we need a “thicker
This chapter from 1 Peter is challenging. I had to sit with it for a week and a half
before I was ready to come to terms with with all of it. I feel grateful for the poetry, for
the images that inspire me and nourish my faith: Living stones; a royal priesthood; once
you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy. These are beautiful words that I receive and cherish
as gifts. And I am grateful, too, to have been brought face-to-face with my own
dismissive assumptions, with the places where my understanding is limited, where I have
blindness because of my societal power and place. I have learned – again – that in
reading the Bible, I sometimes need to hold the discomfort, even to lean into it. I need to
stop and wait – however impatiently – for Holy Spirit to take me where I need to go,
trusting that that will be the case. That is the great secret of the Bible, of course. The
Holy Spirit works within it. Of this I have no doubt.
Sisters and brothers, open your Bibles. Then open your eyes, open your hearts,
open your minds to the leading of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will take you into
unexpected places. This will change your life and feed your soul. Amen.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top