Link to Service


Genesis 12.1-4

I Peter 2.13-3.9

Blessed Rage for Order

Fourth Sunday of Easter

As I was driving up to church Wednesday morning, I wondered about this morning’s sermon.  Sometimes I know right away what I’m going to preach about; other times, when I don’t have anything particular in mind, I’ll look at the lectionary to see what it may suggest.  The lectionary for this morning lists four different possible Bible readings, so I looked at each of them.  One is the 23rd Psalm, always good for a comforting word, but in my opinion too overused.  Another was similar, Jesus’ “I am the good shepherd” sayings from John, but not only is that too 23rd psalm-ish, but I just talked about Jesus’ “I am” sayings last month.  A third is the end of the story of Pentecost from the book of Acts, but since Pentecost itself is still three weeks away, reading the end of the story first didn’t seem quite right, so I finally landed on I Peter 2.  I wish I hadn’t.  And by the time I’m done some of you will wish I hadn’t as well, since it has a little something in it to offend just about everyone.  I don’t like it, you probably won’t like it, and we don’t have to like it, because the Bible never asks to be liked, and maybe that’s part of the point.   Actually the lectionary threads the needle; it suggests we read only verses 19 through 25, but that cuts out all the context, so I’m going to read the passage in its entirety, chapter 2 verse 19 through chapter 3 verse 9.  And if the Bible ever decides to add trigger warnings, this would be a good place to put one.  [I Peter 2.13-3.9]

I confess, when I read this Wednesday morning, my first reaction was, “I can’t preach on this!  I’ll get run out of town on a rail, and with good reason!”  But then a little voice asked me, Why not?  Well, because I don’t like it.  And the voice replied, Who said you have to like it?  Maybe that’s part of the point.  And it’s true:  you can’t avoid bits and pieces of the Bible because you don’t like them.  As Paul wrote to Timothy, a young pastor just getting started in his career, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching… and for training in righteousness.”  So here goes, and let’s hope that little voice in my head knows what it’s talking about.

Princeton Theological Seminary held – and still holds - daily chapel services weekday mornings at 10:00.  Attendance is voluntary, and though there is a chapel staff that does the organizing, the services are often led by any faculty or students who sign up, and it is usually fairly straightforward Presbyterian worship.  Until the morning when some good friends of mine who fancied themselves ecclesiastical iconoclasts – amazing how much you think you know when you are still in your early twenties – my friends decided to give chapel service a good twist.  This was back in the late seventies when political correctness was beginning to flex its muscles in the academy, and my friends decided to turn it on its head.  So, tearing the idea of correctness and gentility to shreds, they chose some of the most objectionable passages from the Bible they could find, including one about God running around trying to kill Moses for no apparent reason; they chose some ancient prayers with words that looked like they came straight out of Beowulf; they picked some of the most unsingable hymns from the hymnal, the way I sometimes do here at the United Church; and they proceeded to offend nearly every sensibility and constituency in the Princeton Seminary chapel that morning, including those of the seminary president.  They thought they were being clever – even though they were my friends, I think they were simply boorish.

Besides God’s attempt on Moses’ life, another passage my friends read was this morning’s lesson from I Peter.  As I said earlier, there is something in here to offend pretty much everyone:  “For the Lord’s sake, accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by God to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.”  Regardless of Peter’s confidence in human rulers to be able to judge right and wrong, to mete out punishment and praise, accepting the authority of government is something I have not always been inclined to do, particularly between the years 2017 and 2021.  But even this pales when we read on:  “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.”  Shall I keep going?  “Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.”  And, just for good measure, “Husbands, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honor to the woman as the weaker sex.”

As I said, I don’t like it, you probably don’t like it, and we don’t have to like it, since the Bible never asks to be liked.  For the preacher, the temptation is always strong, when confronted with objectionable passages like this, and there are many throughout the scriptures, the temptation is strong to somehow defend the writer, or to find some way to ameliorate the objectionable and make the whole thing palatable to the 21st century reader or hearer.  And even though there are some mitigating circumstances, I doubt they would make Peter’s words any easier to hear.  For example, these are part of what are called ‘household codes’ in the Bible, they appear in various guises, and are meant to bring a kind of sacred order to the way households and families conduct their lives.  These codes were particularly important in the early church, since this new religion that was called Christianity was under intense assault from both the Jews and the Romans.  Part of Peter’s intent was to keep to a minimum any grounds for suspicion or criticism against the still nascent Christian community.  In fact, it is this desire for order and conformity that led me to my title this morning:  Blessed Rage for Order is the title of David Tracy’s book on the development of theological pluralism in the late 20th century, and it was the early church’s desire for order and conformity in its developmental years that inspired the household codes Peter and to a lesser extent the apostle Paul occasionally write about.

But order or no, conformity or no, the words still grate on the contemporary consciousness, and with good reason.  All the explanation and culturally conditioned justifications do not make these words any easier to hear.

Way, way back in the early 1980s, when I was still a very wet-behind the ears minister, for some reason I was asked to give the keynote address at the annual meeting of the United Northern Association of the UCC’s Michigan Conference.  It was not long after Ronald Reagan was elected president, and the topic was to be family life.  You may recall the emphasis on the so-called “traditional family values” of the 1980s; Reagan thought he was being clever when he infamously joked that God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.  At the time, the UCC had recently adopted its “Family Life Priority” which encouraged congregations to take a faithful and critical look at how the church could speak prophetically to the state of flux in which family life found itself in those days.  Because biblical studies was one of my strengths, my topic was Biblical Images of the Family; the address was later published by the UCC.  I described three ways the Bible looks at family life.  One is the Historical Image, which simply describes the ways families lived together.  The second is the Prescriptive Image, which is the way families ought to live together, and this is where the household codes like the ones we heard from I Peter come into play.  And the third is the Interpretive Image, the ways that the idea of family, of parents and children and siblings and other household members and relationships can serve as a metaphor for our understanding of God and the community of the church.  But as I spent time with the difficult words of this morning’s New Testament lesson, a fourth image came to mind, which for me brings a new understanding of what God is inviting us to do in difficult passages like this.

Whether we like it or not, Peter’s words accurately reflect the social culture of the day.  There were prescribed roles for husbands and wives, there were prescribed roles for slaves and masters, there were prescribed roles for individual members of the community, including the worshipping community, to fulfill.  And Peter is inviting his readers of the first century to consider the ways their relationships with one another might reflect or represent their relationships with God.  Look around at the things and relationships that are already familiar to you, Peter is suggesting, and consider how this might open up your understanding of your own faith.  In other words, there is something that can be known and understood about God by simply looking around the table at your family and your household, those people you know best.  If I were writing that paper again, I would call this the Inferential Image of the family; that is, we can infer something about God and the dynamics of faith by looking closely at the people around us, the people in our own families and in our own communities.

I think this is the key.  If the church of the first century could learn something about God from their everyday relations with the people closest to them, then the church of our own day can learn something about God from the people closest to us, right?  The fact that families today look different from those of Peter’s day doesn’t make a difference.  What do you and I see when we look at the contemporary family?

Well, sometimes we do see the Ozzie and Harriet family, a mom and a dad, a couple kids and a dog.  And that’s good, it’s a part of the family fabric.  Sometimes we see blended families, which is also good, and there are plenty of those in the Bible as well:  parents and siblings from previous marriages or relationships that come together and create strong bonds of love and affection among each other.  Peter was familiar with these too.  Sometimes we see a family with a single parent, struggling to raise and provide for their children, and the fact that one parent will do anything for their kids can serve to remind us that God does and will do anything for us as well – and in the crucifixion and resurrection, God did.  We see families with two moms or two dads, which speak powerfully to the rule of love that creates and unites a family.  Sometimes we see a family with two dads and a mom, or two moms and a dad, and parents, who has never secretly wished for an extra pair of hands when raising children?  My older daughter Clare went to school with a child of a three-parent family back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.  What can we infer from families that are different from ours?  The power of love makes things work even when they look different to us.  Remember, we worship a Jesus who was conceived and likely born out of wedlock, a Jesus who radically redefined what family looks like when he said “Who are my mother, my brother and my sister?  Anyone who does the will of God is my mother, my brother and my sister.”

David Bartlett, Dean of Yale Divinity School from 1990 to 2005, offers his take on this morning’s difficult passage from I Peter: 

“[People of faith] will come to different understandings of family, and [it is important] they do so out of faith.  It seems implausible to assume that as we move into the 21st century that faithful family life will precisely replicate faithful family life in first century Asia Minor any more than faithful Christian citizenship would simply honor the emperor.  Fidelity to God in our time and place will not exactly look like fidelity in Peter’s time and place.  Christian freedom is not so simple or simpleminded as this.  We learn from I Peter that family relationships require real mutuality and a gentle spirit for men and women alike, and constant communion with God and one another.”

It's like I said, I don’t have to like Peter’s words, but I can find in them the suggestion that every human relationship can tell us something about the love and affection God has for all of us.  It goes for Ozzie and Harriet, it goes for Adam and Steve, it goes for all their offspring, and it goes for every one of us, every human family, not regardless of what it looks like, but precisely on account of what it looks like.  God can be known and experienced in every human relationship.

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