Saturday, May 14, 2011

Easter 4

Easter 4 May 15, 2011

This Easter season we are reading from the first letter of Peter, written probably 35 years after the Resurrection, 15 years after Paul’s letters, about the time the gospels began to be  written down to Christians in north and west Asia Minor in churches that included  both Jews by birth and Gentiles but born again in Christ, churches that had split from synagogues, churches under persecution, churches that included both free men and women and slaves. Just before today’s reading from First Peter comes this: 16  As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. 17 Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor. 18 Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.

Slavery in biblical times was not race based. Slaves were either prisoners of war or debtors. In classical time debt could result in slavery, one reason St. Paul (Rom. 13:8) commands, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.”  Slaves legally had no civil rights; they were property, not persons. They had no legal right to make any choices in life; they had to do what the master orders. Children born to slave mothers were slaves from birth.

But Roman slaves could keep some of the money they earned. An industrious, healthy, and lucky slave could buy his freedom and though he did not have the rights of citizens freed slaves were protected as resident strangers.

The Christian faith offers spiritual freedom through service to Jesus Christ. As the Morning Prayer Collect for peace says, “his service is perfect freedom.” From the time of the early church oppressed people have continued come to Jesus for spiritual freedom. About a third of India’s 24 million Christians (2.3 per cent of the whole population) come from the Dalit or “untouchable” caste, who are still persecuted by the higher castes.  Despite severe persecution and burning of churches the Christian faith is growing in Muslim majority countries, in China and in Africa.

But Jesus told us (St. Matthew 5:11-12) “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  And St. Peter in today’s Epistle, “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.”

We are the servant people to whom God has revealed his purpose and plan in the world, and his purpose and plan for our lives. We are those who know that Jesus “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.” We know from experience how much we have been beaten up and beaten down by sin – by our own sin against ourselves and others, and by others’ sin against us. We pray to the Father, “forgive us our trespasses, our sins, and we forgive those who trespass, who sin, against us.” God’s love and grace are so much greater than our ability to receive them. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us; by his wounds we are healed. Only by the wounds of Christ Jesus can we be healed, healed and set free from the inside out.

Half measures won’t do. An example: just before my last year in seminary I had all 4 impacted wisdom teeth removed. The wounds healed over but the upper right was always tender and ached. I’d put my tongue up and press on the place to relieve discomfort. After several months I felt a rough place and eventually was able to pull out a piece of bone about an eighth of an inch long. Once it came out the gum healed and I haven’t had any trouble for almost 50 years.  Unconfessed sin is like that. We may appear to heal but we’re always sore until we are really healed from the inside. By his wounds we are healed. 

The Epistle ends, “you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” The word here translated “guardian” in Greek is “episcopos” and in the King James Version “bishop,” bishop of your souls. Martin Luther said Christians are “simul justus et peccator” at the same time justified by Christ’s death and resurrection and natural sinners. We have all gone astray, fallen short of the glory God plans for us, but now returned to Jesus our shepherd and episcopos. In the church bishops and other clergy exercise, in fear and trembling, spiritual authority to guard the flock of Christ, the body of Christ. One of the best revisions in the 1979 Prayer Book (is it a sign of age that some of us still call it the new Prayer Book?) is to put the sermon after the Gospel and before the Creed like a fence on either side of the preacher. God will guide us, through the Gospels and Creeds and conscience if we will listen and obey.

We are the sheep of his pasture; Jesus is our door. We have been bought with the shed blood of Jesus, ransomed from slavery to sin and death, slavery to our own uncontrolled and sinful desired and behaviors. We have become servants of the kindest and gentlest of masters, of God who loves us and knows and wants what is best for us, who gives us spiritual freedom to freely choose to love and serve him, and to love one another in the power of his love.  We rejoice in God’s love, in his gift of love for one another and for all creation. Truly his “service is perfect freedom.”

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