St Michael’s and St Barnabas 3rd June 2012
Reading – 1 Peter 2:13-25
The world has changed so much since 1952. Back then in 1952 I don’t think anyone would have ever imagined that one day we could fly people to the moon, or perform heart transplants, or genetically modify living organisms. If there was such thing as a computer, only a few people would have known exactly what it was – a huge machine with valves that filled a whole room. The web would have been something a spider spun and Spam was definitely something eaten out of a tin. It’s not for me – a young whippet born in 1967 – to judge whether 1952 was better or worse than 2012. It was just a different time, in a different century, where the world looked a different kind of place.
But some things have remained the same. Or rather, one person has stayed the same. In an age of rapid, sometimes almost bewildering change, the monarchy has carried on. It has survived times of crisis, it has continued to offer stability to the British people, and at its helm the Queen has quietly steered the ship of state. There really is so much to be thankful for today, and it is right that we honour and pray for our gracious Sovereign, Elizabeth the Second.
And for us, who call ourselves Christians, there is particular reason to rejoice as we worship today. For, through all the many challenges that she has faced, our Majesty has retained a deep and living Christian faith. If you want any proof of this, let me quote the ending of her Christmas speech last year:
God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive.
Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love.
In the last verse of this beautiful carol, O Little Town Of Bethlehem, there’s a prayer:
O Holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us we pray.
Cast out our sin
And enter in.
Be born in us today.
It is my prayer that on this Christmas day we might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord.
There’s not much more you can add to that, is there? If you want to know how to explain the Christian faith in 150 easy words, there it is. We have a Saviour, Jesus, with the power to forgive and it is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love. Isn’t right? And if this morning anyone wants to know how they can be forgiven in the name of Jesus, please do speak to myself or any of the leadership team after the service and we’d love to tell you how.
But the fact remains that despite the personal faith of our queen there are times when we find the policies of Her Majesty’s government deeply challenging. For example, you may remember the proposed introduction of the poll tax back in the early 1990s. Or you may have been one of the half a million who marched against the Iraq War. I certainly hope you are one of the half a million who have signed the petition against the government’s plans to redefine marriage. As we heard back in 1 Peter 1:1 we are strangers in the world and it is not too surprising that as Christians we may sometimes find ourselves at odds with the current government in the land.
So what should our response be? Well, first of all we should be thankful for the immense freedoms we enjoy in this country. No-one will knock on our door at midnight if we dare to criticise government policy. There are no secret police cells or torture camps hidden away from public view. If I decide to stand up and say marriage should be between a man and a woman I won’t be arrested for my point of view – at least not yet. And we still have the immense privilege of being able to vote in free, fair and democratic elections, even though many people choose not to take part in these elections.
But this still leaves the question of how we should respond when we find ourselves wrestling with our conscience, when we are not sure what is the right thing to do. For example, I still remember from my working days when I was asked to change a few figures to reduce the tax bill for a client. According to the law of the land my task was not illegal. Legally there is still a difference between tax avoidance – which is OK – and tax evasion – which is not. But I have to say I still felt uncomfortable carrying out my assignment.
So what does God’s word say to us on this subject of duty? We are coming this morning to another key word in our letter from 1 Peter – submission.
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority (2:13)
Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. (2:18)
Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives (3:1)
Now our natural instinct is to recoil from such teaching. We think of submission as becoming somebody else’s doormat. We look at history and see how kings have trampled over their subjects, masters over their slaves, and husbands over their wives. And sadly we can probably think of examples when texts like these were beaten into slaves and wives to provide an excuse for domination and brutality and worse.
So what do we do with Peter’s teaching? Do we simply ignore it as outdated or irrelevant to today’s world? That, certainly, would be one option. But if we take a pair of scissors to this part of the Bible, who is to say what else we cut out as not being applicable in today’s modern world? If we have a high view of the Bible as God’s word written down for us, then removing the parts we don’t like is not allowed.
And in fact I hold that if we go just a little bit deeper into the text we find that Peter’s teaching has a very real and relevant message for us today. Just before today’s passage Peter has urged his hearers to live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Pet 2:12). Now Peter wants us to realise what that means in plain cash terms and although we might find his teaching hard, that’s no reason simply to dismiss it.
After all, the very idea of submission comes from our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. As Peter himself says in verse 21: To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. To put it plainly, to follow Jesus means to walk in His way. So, for example, when we take up a new job, the first question we ask ourselves should not be, “What are my rights here? How much holiday can I have? What sort of pension will I get?” But rather we should be asking Jesus how best we can serve Him in this new position and what responsibilities we have towards our new employer.
You see, we live in a world where everyone demands their rights. Rights, of course, are important. Many people have made incredible sacrifices to secure the freedoms we enjoy today. But I believe we have reached a stage where the ideas of duty and service can sometimes be forgotten. And that should not surprise us, as the Christian foundations of our society are being eroded. It is up to us as followers of Jesus to live differently – to give and not to count the cost, to labour and not to ask for any reward. For, if we really are serious about being salt and light in our daily lives, then we need to learn how to be distinctive. And the only way of doing this is by taking up our cross and counting all things loss save for the privilege of knowing Jesus Christ our Lord.
Of course submission like this may be costly. We may get passed over for promotion because we find we can serve the Lord better in our current post. We may find our honesty in claiming expenses means we lose out in comparison to our colleagues. We may find our employer tries to take advantage of us because he or she knows how hard we work. Let’s not kid ourselves – following Jesus will bring us into conflict day by day.
But then, anyone who says that faith is something private, that we shouldn’t bring our beliefs into the public sphere, has in my opinion never really understood what faith is in the first place. It is a living, personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. And by declaring Jesus as Lord, we are saying that He is the boss, He is our number one. He deserves our total loyalty, our total devotion, and there are no areas where He does not reign over us. Why? Because as Peter goes on to say in verse 24: He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. That, my friends, is the Jesus we follow. How dare we give Him anything other than top position in our lives?
So to follow Jesus means to walk in His way, and that way involves submission. Does that mean, then, that we simply let other people do to us exactly what they want and we become their doormat? Again, if we want a proper answer we have to dig a little deeper into the text.
Let’s begin by looking more closely at verses 13-14: Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. Peter clearly expects that those in authority over us are discharging their God-given duty to punish what is wrong and advance what is right. Because whether or not these authorities actually recognise God’s sovereignty is beside the point. The Bible makes it clear there are certain universal standards God has given to all of humanity to uphold. Thus the opening chapters of Genesis, for example, teach us that we all have a responsibility to protect the environment, uphold marriage, and bring order to the world. And it is the function of those who rule over us to promote these responsibilities.
Where however the political agenda conflicts with God’s standards clearly it is right for us to stand up and make our voice heard. That is why the current debate about marriage is so important for us as Christians. We are not arguing simply that our rights be protected. We are arguing that by redefining marriage we are moving away from God’s plan for the world, and undermining the very fabric of our society. Now this message may be unpopular. We may find that our arguments will often be distorted or caricatured or silenced. But that is no reason not to keep on speaking out. For in the language of the BCP Communion service our constant prayer for our nation is that under our Sovereign Elizabeth we may be godly and quietly governed and that prayer can only be effectively answered as long as Her Majesty’s government exercises its authority in accordance with the responsibilities God has given them.
And this leads on to the next point, that where there is a conflict between serving the Lord and serving others, then serving the Lord wins out. This is the point Peter makes in verse 16: Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. So when you are asked by your employer to do something immoral or illegal, the answer is “no”. When the law is changed so that you have to act against your conscience, the answer is “no”. Of course you have to be very sure that your resistance is based on your duty to Jesus as your Lord and Saviour. It is not unknown for people to use their faith as an excuse not to do something they actually ought to be doing. You may, for example, resent the level of tax that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are asking off you. But you better be on fairly firm ground before you decide your conscience is telling you not to pay!
That’s why, it’s also worth noticing that Peter’s command to submit is not addressed to individuals but to the church together. As I think I’ve made clear sometimes it can be very hard to put this teaching about submission into practice. On our own we may almost find it impossible. We can if we are not careful get picked off one by one and lose our effectiveness as servants of the Lord. It’s for this reason we need to be part of a worshipping community, where we share honestly our dilemmas and our decisions week by week, where we have a network of prayer which upholds people in their workplaces and their marriages, where we encourage one another in the power and strength of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s finish by going back to 1952. Back then, one in three children went to Sunday school. Shops and businesses remained shut on the Lord’s day. Three million people regularly attended church. Now despite the outstanding example of the queen, society has moved on. Many of the freedoms it has gained have also represented departures from Christian moral standards. In the new atmosphere of tolerance everything is tolerated except faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We might wish we were still ministering in the climate of 1952 but we are not. Peter is offering us here a vision of how together we can live in a hostile world, aiming always to Live such good lives among the pagans, to follow the example of Christ and to take up our cross daily. Let’s today respond positively to his vision so that by our submission we might be more effective in mission and point others to the kingdom of God where God’s just rule can be seen by all.
A moment’s silence and then I’ll pray…