Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A
30 April 2023
1 Peter 2:(18)19-25
18Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. 19For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
22 ‘He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.’
23When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24He 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. 25For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
Carolyn Bryant Donham died last Thursday at the age of 88.1 She is the woman who in 1955 accused 14 year old Emmett Till of making inappropriate advances toward her in her Mississippi grocery store.
Emmett was from Chicago. In August of 1955 he visited relatives in Mississippi. After the alleged incident, Bryant’s husband and his half-brother abducted 14 year old Emmett from his great-uncle’s house. They beat and mutilated him before shooting him in the head and sinking his body in the Tallahatchie River. Three days later, the boy’s body was discovered and retrieved from the river. His body was returned to Chicago.
In Chicago his mother Mamie insisted on a public funeral service with an open casket. This exposed the world to his lynching and to racism in America.2 His mother’s courageous decision became a catalyst for the civil rights movement. The woman who had accused him, and who died this week of old age, never publicly expressed regret. Her husband and brother-in-law were acquitted by an all white jury. A year after their acquittal they admitted to the abduction and murder and for $4,000.00 they sold their story to the media.
Our passage from the first letter of Peter is part of a section of a household code, a set of instructions for ethical behaviour, common in the antiquities. Our reading leaves out the first verse of this section, “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” It was likely omitted because it is offensive to modern ears. But as always, context is important.
The addressees of this letter were converts scattered over five Roman provinces. They were the underprivileged and marginalized. That is why they are suffering already, even before they became Christians. They are not the wealthy we know from Corinth who would not share their food with the poor, nor dealers of fine cloth like Lydia, or the Ethiopian Eunuch in the Book of Acts. That these are the ones at the bottom of the social hierarchy is clear from the fact that they are addressed as slaves.
Some of our most beloved hymns are African-American spirituals. Born of faith and suffering they bear witness to the power of the Gospel. Those who were enslaved took on the faith of their oppressors and unlike their oppressors they understood that the Gospel of Jesus is not a confirmation of the existing order but is good news to the poor, is freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, sets the oppressed free, and proclaims the year of the Lord’s favour which is nothing short of societal and political re-alignment.
But if the Gospel of Jesus brings such re-alignment, then why should slaves obey their masters?
It is for two reasons, and none of them are a confirmation of the status quo.
The first is so that their suffering not increase. The second is because their obedience to their masters is a subversive act for people who know that they
are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, who are to proclaim the mighty acts of him who called them out of darkness into his marvellous light.
They know that
10Once they were not a people,
but now they are God’s people;
once they had not received mercy,
but now they have received mercy.3
They are to remember that this is who they are, at all times and in all places. And in the world in which they live to be God’s own people is subversive.
This mirrors the position and the understanding of the scriptures by African-American slaves. Despite their humiliations, they knew that they were God’s people.
The recipients of this letter and early African-American converts have in common that through their baptism into Christ they transcend their underprivileged status, because ‘for freedom Christ has set them free.’4 That in Christ God has set free even those who in this world are still in bondage gives them the dignity of the children of God and frees their imagination.
When the author of 1 Peter calls on these new Christians to accept the authority of their slaveholders without distinction between “harsh masters” and “kind and gentle masters”, he may in fact be saying that there is no distinction between harsh masters and those who are kind and gentle because both are violating the law of Christ that knows these Christians to be free and God’s beloved. And for people who are enslaved and suffering oppression to know their worth and to have it affirmed in the reading of the scriptures and in corporate worship is a counter-cultural act, it is an act of resistance. It is no wonder then that most slave states had prohibitions against teaching slaves to read and write, and that Bibles given to slaves elsewhere had been heavily redacted,5 including e.g. the bondage of the Israelites in Egypt but omitting their liberation.
In this tradition, Mamie, Emmett Till’s mother, had a much greater and deeper imagination than those who had brutally murdered her son and others for no reason other than the colour of their skin. She did not call for retaliation. All she did, and none of us can imagine her agony, is by having the mutilated body of her son lie in an open casket hold up a mirror to the society in which she lived.
One commentator on the First Letter of Peter writes, ‘… this letter … encourages nonviolent resistance toward a greater end, namely total liberation. … it is a baptismal homily …, demonstrating how the recipients should interpret and live out the meaning of their baptism in the context of suffering.’6
This is an interesting passage then for people like us, who by and large, are not disenfranchised or marginalized but who nonetheless have convictions about power, order, and authority. We, however, find our place usually on the side of authority, or at least we wish we did, assuming that such location would give us more control over our lives than being left out and left behind. But our reading has a different understanding of control. Control is what we exercise not over others, the kind of control we have a share in simply by being middle class citizens of one of the wealthiest countries on the planet, rather control is what we exercise over ourselves. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that self-respect grows with the ability to say ‘no’ to ourselves. The people Peter is addressing, and African Americans from slavery to the civil rights movement by and large learned to say ‘no’ to abuse, to threat, and to retaliation, and learned instead to entrust themselves to Christ who is their justice. In doing so they showed us a higher righteousness, they showed us what the Gospel looks like when its taken out of the pages of the Bible, and they showed us what Christian imagination looks like. They showed us the beauty of a life that trusts Jesus as our Shepherd and knows Christ as guardian of our souls.
This is instructive for what is called downward mobility, not the seeking of rising to the top but a life in solidarity with those left behind. May the witness of those gone before us and the witness of the scriptures enliven our imagination as well. May we ponder the possibilities.
2 This is not to suggest that slavery and racism did/do not exist in Canada. See https://humanrights.ca/story/story-black-slavery-canadian-history?gad=1&gclid=EAIaIQobChMIk8KVhYXN_gIV8xitBh3eiwF6EAAYASAAEgJD4vD_BwE
3 1 Peter 2:9-10
4 Galatians 5:1
6 Larry George, 1 Peter, in True to Our Native Land – An African American New Testament Commentary, Minneapolis, MN, Fortress Press: 2007, pp.477ff