"Humanizing the Hero & Reversing the King"
Already on two Sundays since Pentecost we have heard portions of St. Peter’s First Letter to the churches of Asia Minor. Again this morning we used Peter’s expressed desire for “unity of the Spirit, sympathy and love toward one another, with a tender heart and a humble mind” as our Call to Worship. I believe those articulated values from the first (and greatest) Apostle -- Peter -- are still God’s desire for every church that hopes to follow Jesus… including ours.
You may recall from an earlier sermon last month that this letter was written to several Christian communities in rural Turkey – exiles of the dispersion, Peter called them – whose members were suffering because of their Christian beliefs (as well as their “outsider” status) in the midst of unbelieving (pagan) native-born neighbors. (I Peter 1:6)
Because they were mostly foreign “asylum seekers”, the locals slandered the Christians as “strangers” & “aliens” (2:12). Those who were former slaves & currently peasants were especially vulnerable to harsh treatment by their landlords and pagan masters (2:18-20).
As one reads the letter, we encounter a litany of social abuses: verbal attacks, personal hostility, being shunned by “non-Christian” family members, & ostracized from neighbors in the secular Greco-Roman society in which they lived. Things had not yet escalated to the systematic persecution which these same congregations experienced under later Roman Emperors – as reflected in the seven letters in the Book of the Revelation – but their suffering was real!
In many ways, these early Christians – followers of Jesus – were on their own in a hostile environment… and making their way was not easy! They did not have a lovely sanctuary like ours, with Kat’s music and candles on the altar, and caring friends around them in worship. No, they were looked upon as followers of an obscure Jewish Rabbi, who had been rejected by the Jerusalem hierarchy (the chief priests, the Pharisee scribes, and the Teachers of the Law).
Not only that… their founder (Jesus… who was also called the “Christ”, that is the “Messiah”, the “Anointed One” of God) had been executed by the Roman authorities – crucified on a Cross in a gruesome display of bloody violence, performed in public & sanctioned by the government – as an enemy of the state! This is not a very auspicious start to a social movement hoping to change the world!
Even beyond the public rejection of Jesus by the ruling Jewish elders, and the execution of Jesus by the ruling Roman governors, was the fact that these Christians were a mixed and motley crew… Former fishermen like Peter, former tax collectors and prostitutes, formerly blind beggars, formerly lame and leprous people… for the most part they were poor… simple and uneducated day-laborers.
Despite their low social standing and refugee status, these first-generation “Christians” didn’t try to “keep to their place” in society. They opened themselves to trouble by resisting the “status quo” – that is, the way everybody else acted around them. They stood out!
Without the protection of Roman Law (like the Jews and other religions enjoyed in those days), and without the support of wealthy Roman “patrons” (as most of the Gentile citizen enjoyed), these Christians followed their own sense of right & wrong – their own “conscience”, as St. Peter puts it – as they were inspired by the life and teachings of Rabbi Jesus, & relying on the continued presence of God’s Holy Spirit in their midst as an “alternative” kind of community.
Fortunately (as I alluded to last Sunday, when speaking of “Americanism”), America’s civil law -- as well as our many modern conveniences -- make the challenge of “being Christian” much easier than in former generations. Sometimes we might even get a bit “lazy” and (nevertheless) still get by as faithful, church-going, “believers.”
Our focus should still be, as Peter put it in our Call to Worship: to turn away from evil and to do right. To seek peace and pursue it. To keep our tongues from evil and our lips from speaking guile…
With those glowing remarks as opening advice in Peter’s letter, he then asks a strange question – it’s the one Karen Bacon asked this morning in our first reading: “Now, who is there to harm you, if you are zealous for what is right?” If we are eager to do what is good, who would even think to do us harm? (Right?)
I call it a strange question because -- in his own day, in his own lifetime -- Peter was deeply aware of the many kinds of suffering which had befallen good people unjustly! For example, Peter had been a friend of St. Stephen – the first martyr – who was stoned to death by the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. And Peter’s friend, James, the brother of Jesus -- who served at the time as the “head” of the Church in Jerusalem -- had been beheaded!
Peter’s opening advice to have (1) unity of Spirit, (2) sympathy, (3) love for one another, (4) a tender heart, and (5) a humble mind… should lead us to (6) not return evil for evil, but on the contrary to bless them. (7) Keep our lips from speaking evil, (8) do what is right, (9) seek peace and (10) pursue it. That sounds all well and good…
But now, when on the receiving end of unjust abuse, Peter goes on to say: (1) have no fear of those who would do you harm; (2) do not be troubled, but hold Jesus in reverence in your hearts, and (3) always be ready with your spoken defense, whenever you are called to account for the HOPE that is in you. … Such things are so simply said, and so very hard to do!
Making our defense “with gentleness and reverence” – that is, with modesty regarding ourselves and with respect toward our accuser – has not been modeled very well for us (I’m afraid) in today’s polarized, politicized, highly self-centered and rude rhetoric!
What St. Peter suggests is that it is not our place as followers of Jesus to “accuse” our accusers. (!) We are to simply “clarify” our position – to explain (in the face of contrary evidence) why it is that we have HOPE; why it is that we pursue peace; why it is that we do good, and so forth. By so doing, says Peter, our good conduct may expose their abusive conduct as shameful (by contrast).
It’s a great asset if you are able to keep your conscience clear! A guilty conscience weakens your defense, undercuts your testimony. Even if the thing you feel “guilty” about is hidden – a secret sin that only you know about… because it has not yet been brought to light – your ability to stand firmly for the good, to articulate clearly your basis for hope, will be undermined.
In that regard, I suspect Peter is remembering back to his own “dark night of the soul” – the night of his three denials, while Jesus was undergoing his trial.
According to the Gospels, Peter was the closest eye-witness of all the disciples to Jesus while on trial. He saw Jesus standing before the chief priests, and then before King Herod, and then before Governor Pilate. Peter knew that Jesus -- his friend, his Lord and Savior -- had been lied about, had been mocked and beaten, had been shoved from one jurisdiction to another, eventually declared “fault-less”, yet none-the-less condemned by the Governor to be crucified.
Through it all -- all the while -- Jesus stood silent, holding firm through his clear conscience. Jesus knew he had done no wrong! In this letter, Peter advises us to do the same. Hold firm to the right, through a clear conscience, even as Jesus did during his own trial. (!)
Jesus Christ not only “stood his trial” with a clear conscience, he died (writes Peter) “once for all.” He, the righteous, died for the un-righteous! He, the just, died for the un-just! And he did it in order “to bring us to God.” (I Peter 3:18) In all that, I agree with St. Peter.
However, Peter apparently means not only “us” who lived after Jesus… Peter says that Jesus, following his death, entered the realm of the dead… where he preached to the spirits “in prison”, making them alive in the spirit! (3:19-20). “For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead,” writes Peter (4:6), “that, though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God.”
Finally, with resurrection power, Christ entered heaven itself… to appear now before God on our behalf! Seated at God’s right hand, with angels, authorities, & powers subject to him. (Wow!) (3:22)
The implication of all this is that we, the followers of Jesus in our own day (as much as back then) -- who strive to live in the same spirit as he -- not only can follow him with the same clear conscience in the trials that are before us; but that we also can follow Jesus through times of suffering -- even through our own death! -- because of our union with his death & resurrection. (That can be comforting.)
And that’s not all, according to St. Peter… He gives us the further vision of following Jesus beyond death into the realm of eternal life, secure in the knowledge that God welcomes us in the presence of Jesus -- our advocate, our defense lawyer, our judge.
Most of you know that I don’t usually preach about points of doctrine or theology, but frankly, I like most of this letter from Peter.
I like his initial ten points of advice: to have (1) unity of Spirit, (2) sympathy, (3) love for one another, (4) a tender heart, and (5) a humble mind… so that we (6) do not return evil for evil, but on the contrary we bless. (7) Keep our lips from speaking evil, (8) do what is right, (9) seek peace and (10) pursue it. We should do that, always!
And I like Peter’s further four points of advice about how to keep focused in a time of testing: (1) have no fear of those who would do you harm; (2) do not be troubled, but hold Jesus in reverence in your hearts, (3) always be ready with your spoken defense, whenever you are called to account for the HOPE that is in you, and (4) keep your conscience clear, so that you can stand fast, stand firm, for the good.
On top of that, I am comforted to know that the ultimate measure of justice that God uses is that of Jesus, himself. That’s because the heart of Jesus Christ is “tuned” perfectly to God’s own heart. The way of Jesus of Nazareth is the ultimate way that God would have us live, whoever we are. I like that. I can relate to that.
And I kind’a wish Peter had stopped there… but he didn’t. (!)
Peter, like so much of the ancient world, was enamored by royalty. Kings and Emperors were seen as the pinnacle of power! Much like Queen Elizabeth’s royal monarchy, all the trappings of wealth and power, grandeur and glory, filled Peter’s imagination! He envisions Jesus, as the Risen Christ, entering heaven – after receiving the “submission” of all authorities and powers, even the angels, and being seated at the right hand of God. (I Peter 3:22)
It is a royal, courtly, image: God on a central throne, seated in the place of honor, with Jesus on a second throne (as, perhaps, a Supreme Court judge or Secretary of State in the heavenly realm). You can imagine crowns of honor & glory. A lot of bowing and kow-towing.
This pictorial-language became the pattern for Roman basilica: cathedrals representing God’s royal heaven here on earth. In time, priests & popes began ruling in splendor & power, seated on gilded thrones. They referred to Christ as “Panocrator” (Ruler of every-thing); he’s the “King of Kings and Lord of Lords”! (You’ve heard it.)
This kind of “royal” image used by St. Peter goes far beyond the simple Gospel story of Jesus…where we see him living an exemplary life, teaching & healing crowds of ordinary people, suffering and dying an unjust and untimely death at the hands of the ruling authorities. St. Peter is talking about the “Risen Christ”, who, first,“descends” into the shadowy world of the dead (Sheol), in order to reconcile those lost, imprisoned souls who had died in sin; and then “ascends” into an angelic realm as a triumphant victor seated on a throne.
Peter presents this “Risen Christ” as a truly “heroic” figure -- worthy of Plato or one of the great Greek tragedy authors.
In this expanded view of Jesus, the Christ-Hero came not only to “seek & to save that which is lost” here on earth -- among ordinary mortals like ourselves -- but also to redeem the lost souls in the shadowy realm of death! (!) And then he rises into the Royal Throne Room of God to rule in majesty as divine. This is Peter’s “Christ”.
Frankly, I’m not sure these heroic/royal authority images derived from Peter are as useful as they once were to express the meaning of Jesus’ life. Are we, for example, able to “warm up” to the awesome mythological proportions of a Savior/God/King residing in a heavenly throne-room, in the same way as we can connect to the indwelling Spirit of Jesus, the man of Nazareth… the man for others? I say, No. We need to humanize the Hero, so Jesus can lead us.
Throughout Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, and other great civilizations of the Middle East, stories are told of “heavenly visitors” who become “divine rescuers”. Jesus was not one of them, during his lifetime and ministry. (!) The image of King – which includes the Jewish notion of Messiah – relies on powerful stereo-types of wealth, materialism, political machinery, military might, police powers of social control, and so forth. The man Jesus was known for his humility & poverty. Quite the reversal, don’t you think?
To place Jesus in the role of a heroic savior, who passes briefly through this world as a “divine visitor”, and then goes on to redeem the spirit world and to conquer all heavenly powers -- as Peter depicts him in this letter -- must overlook the reality of Jesus: a man who sought peace and encouraged love, but who failed to persuade most people in his day. (!) It is almost scandalous to imagine a mythic hero hanging limp and dead on a cross – his fledgling followers abandoning him utterly.
The Jesus Christ I want you to meet is a “humanized” hero, not a conquering victor! I want you to know Jesus Christ as someone who is LIKE us… one of us – fully human, fully alive. Not just “dropping by” out of the divine realm, but fully one of us. Sharing “our common lot” in life.
And this “real” Jesus -- as we know him through the Gospels -- born in poverty, itinerant (or, as we would say today, “transient”) -- did not manifest “royal power” symbols in his lifetime… ever! And he demonstrated very little of “heroic” stature.
Jesus had no wealth of his own. As a matter of fact, Jesus seems to have approved when others “divested” themselves of theirs (such as the Prodigal Father who gave half his fortune to his younger Son; and Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, who gave away half his wealth to the poor; and the fishermen, who left their nets and homes to follow him; and the woman with expensive oil perfume which she poured on his head; and a rich young ruler, and so forth).
Jesus led no army, except for his friends, whom he called not to “power”, but to “servant-hood”. He had “nowhere to lay his head” (a condition we call “homeless” today). He had no “authority” over people; no credentials. He died by state-sanctioned execution.
When Jesus’ words are remembered, they fit neither the mythic “hero” (of the other world religions) nor the Messianic-King image of the Bible. He was simply too “human” – too humble, too real! For example, rather than claim “power” as divine kings and heroes always do, he said things like “Unless you become like little children (that is, power-less), you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
He said, “the last among you shall be first,” and “he who is greatest is the one who serves the most.” He told his followers not to “lord over other people as the kings of the Gentiles do.” Sayings like that reversed all the standards of the Empire. Jesus reversed the image of “king”! He humanized the mythic “hero”. A life like that was very unusual in his day, and still is in our day! A life like Jesus’ was too controversial -- too vivid! -- to be forgotten.
If that life – Jesus’ real life – was, in fact, like God’s life… what a surprising, refreshing possibility was being unleashed in the world!
If that life was God’s life, it is not to be found in a spiritual Throne Room, seated at God’s right hand. (!) Instead, it is as close as your own right hand!
The new image of God, as lived in Jesus (incarnate), is a power in life. The heart of Jesus can beat as your heart, and his heart (I believe) reveals the heart of God.
Hallelujah! … and Amen.