Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Free to Serve
Easter Season, The New Normal, week 2 of 5 Preached April 26, 2020 at the 9:30am Virtual Worship
Last week, we started a new sermon series Caitlan and I are calling “The New Normal.” We are looking at Jesus’ disciple, Peter, and the big change he went through because of Easter, from the one who tried to stop Jesus or denied him three times, to the powerful prophet and pastoral preacher. We wonder, what can we learn from Peter as we, the church, come out of this season of isolation and social distancing? What will the new normal of church and life be on the other side of this Coronavirus?
Last week we read 1st Peter 1, and I suggested Peter is describing all of us as reborn from our old lives into the coming household of God, because of Christ. Therefore, we are now one family, one household of God letting go of anything that does not welcome and accelerate the arrival of the coming community of God as the New Normal for all God’s children.
I’m really grateful for the ways you are receiving these messages. To talk about a New Normal can bring up in us several different feelings… maybe sadness for what we enjoyed that “New Normal” seems to suggest we won’t get back, or maybe frustration that things have changed so much so fast beyond our control, or maybe anger that “New Normal” feels in some way like we are surrendering to this disease instead of fighting to get our lives back. Those emotions are normal and okay as we talk about what we are losing.
Here’s why I am grateful. Some of you are realizing we don’t lose any of the good, the beautiful, the loving in the new normal. All the good, beautiful, and loving are amplified in the new normal, the coming kingdom. We are losing any former habits, thoughts, beliefs, or practices that resist the coming of God’s community for all God’s people.
This week, we keep going into 1st Peter and read from chapter 2. I need your patience and care as we read a delicate text. We are going to speak carefully, honestly, faithfully and try to hear what was normal for them, and what the new normal was becoming because of Jesus. Then, we will see if we can hear and feel that same Jesus pulling us forward from our old normal toward the new normal of God’s coming kingdom in some beautiful hopeful ways too.
I’ve done some work in the Greek and made my own translation, so what you hear me read may not match exactly the words on the screen. I hope my translation gives some clarity to us in our time and culture. Let’s listen for the word of the Lord from…
Scripture 1 Peter 2:11-25
11 Dearest friends, I urge you, as immigrants and outcasts, to refrain from mistaken desires, which wage war against your (own) spirit. 12 Live such good lives among the (others) that, though they (may) accuse you of doing wrong, they may (also) see your good deeds and glorify God on the day God visits us (all).
13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the highest human authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by the emperor to punish those who do wrong (by them) and to commend those who do right (by them). 15 Yet, it is God’s will that by doing (God’s) good you will silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 16 Live as (if you are) free people, but do not use your freedom as an (excuse) for (getting away with doing) evil; live as God’s slaves. 17 Show proper respect to everyone, love the household of believers, worship God, honor the emperor. 18 (and) Slaves, in reverent fear of God, submit yourselves to your rulers, not only to those who are good and considerate but even to those who are harsh.
19 See, it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because (their conscience is with) God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive repercussions for doing wrong (by God) and endure (sufferings that come from that)? But if you suffer for doing (God’s) good and you (keep doing the good despite the suffering), that is commendable before God. 21
To this, you were called. Like Christ suffered for you, you are left (him and his suffering) as an example, that you might follow in his steps, 22 “He the one who committed no sin, and in whom no deceit was found in his mouth.” 23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our mistakes” in his body to the cross, so that we might (also) die to our sins and live for (his) holiness, his justice, his peace; “by his wounds you have already been healed.” 25 For (before) “you were like sheep running, scattered, lost,” and now you have returned to the Shepherd as Steward of your very lives.
(This is the word of the Lord… Thanks be to God!)
Sermon - Free, to Serve
To be a follower of Christ in the New Normal, the coming Community of God, means three things. One, in the culture, we might be considered strange, and be outcasts. Two, in our communities, where others have power over us, we will be non-violent and obedient to God first and human authorities second. Third, in our new normal, the household of God, we will all be equals at the lowest level.
Let’s walk through all three of these, first in Peter’s time, what was the old and new normal for them, and then what that might means for us as we move from old to new normal in our time.
First, Peter names all Christians he is writing to, regardless of their location or status, as immigrants and outcasts. They are not mainstream anywhere. They are different everywhere, not by how they look, but by how they act, what they say and do. As they move through their different cultures and nations, being followers of Christ is obvious in any culture or nation other than the Kingdom of God itself. They are strange, strangers, perceived as outsiders or immigrants. Because of this, they find themselves cast out, suffering ridicule and pressure to conform or get out.
Peter reminds them to resist conforming. To do so would split them and make them hypocrites inside themselves, what Peter calls a war against your true nature, your own spirit. He instructs them to continue living, speaking, and acting publicly in such a way that may make others uncomfortable, which may attract their ridicule or resistance or anger. That’s okay. Do it anyway. Be so good and true to God and God’s coming community that in the end, all will see and be grateful for God and God’s goodness. That’s the first new-normal lesson.
Second, we are called to be obedient to God, and then all human authorities. We are to be faithful to God, no matter what and not just privately or secretly or spiritually, but publicly, bodily. All our words and actions are accountable to God. Then, as we are able, also submit ourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority, the emperor, the emperor’s governors.
Now, they will have their own definitions of what is good and right. Our actions must do good and right by God, and in obeying God, we might be perceived by human rulers as being disobedient, and be punished by them, our human authorities. That’s okay. That’s our calling in the new normal. Doing (God’s) good, even when the emperor or governors have different opinions of good, will eventually silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.
Should we fight our human authorities, mutiny, undermine them? No. If, when human rulers and authorities judge God’s peoples’ actions as wrong, they might insult, threaten, or restrict us. God’s people, by Christ’s example, do not retaliate and make no threats. When human authorities don’t like our obedience to God, we are to be non-violent.
However, God’s people keep on doing what is good and right by God. We follow and obey God anyway, and suffer under our mistaken, ignorant, foolish human authorities, trusting ourselves to the only true judge in our lives, God and God alone. That’s the second new-normal lesson.
Third, in this new family we are born into, the household of God, we are all equals at the lowest level. In the normal households of Peter’s time, there were levels of power, authority, and freedom. The male was the head and had all the power and authority, and was the only one truly free. Women were next. They had no power or authority over men, but on the men’s behalf, they did have some power and authority over the rest of the household. Next were the children. While all children were under the women, the boy children had certain powers and privileges girl children did not. One day boys became men and instantly had full power. One day, girls became women and were sold to a man for a price. All of this was normal back then.
Also, normal back then were slaves. There were two different Greek words for slave, but English versions of scripture translate both as slaves. The more common Greek term was douloi. The less common term was oiketai. Douloi and Oiketai were both slaves, owned property of other human beings. Douloi worked in the farms and factories and shops. Oiketai worked in the household and lived in the house with the family.
The word Peter uses here for those reborn through Christ into the household of God is oiketai, slaves who are in the household and work for the household, but have no power, no privilege, and no authority over anyone. In the new normal of the coming kingdom of God, no one wields power, privilege, control over anyone else in God’s community. All people in God’s household, older and younger, more male or more female, wealthier or poorer, former slaves or former free, all are equal, not by moving up in our traditional understandings of power or privilege, but by becoming servants, equal to one another, and equally bound to serve the whole community with no degrees of power, privilege, or authority over one another anymore. That’s the third lesson of the new-normal.
That new kingdom is not here yet. It’s coming, though. The tomb is empty, and Jesus has shown us a glimpse of it and has promised to bring it here. In his death, we died to all our old identifiers that divide us and give us power or privilege over anyone, or submit us under the power of authority of anyone. We are all equal as one community, and we are all already reborn into that coming community of God.
But if we look around, we easily see ways it’s not here yet. We see people suffering because too much of our world is under ignorant, foolish, or harsh human authorities who do not know God’s kingdom, or worse, know it but don’t want kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. They would lose too much power and control and privilege over others.
So what shall we say or do until it comes, to help it come? Peter’s advice to them (and to us) is to make everything we say and do build God’s household, God’s community here and now. When we do, we will be perceived as strange, and be outcasts. Follow God anyway. When we do, human authorities may judge us and punish us for not obeying their definitions of right and wrong. Obey them where we can, but follow God anyway, without violence or threat against our mistaken human authorities. When we do, voluntarily lay down any powers or privileges we individually have over one another, and become equals with those this world says are the least. That sounds hard. Follow God anyway.
See, every power and privilege Jesus did have, he laid down to be united with us and all his brothers and sisters. Jesus spoke and acted in ways that lifted up the true community of God as more important than any human kingdom. He was ridiculed, rejected as an outsider, an instigator, and punished with death on a cross, but never fought back with violence. That Jesus rose from the dead and is the cornerstone of the greatest community, the new normal, the household of God. We are being called to be built onto him, and build God’s community for all people.
To God be all the glory and honor, now and forevermore. Amen.
Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.
Rev. Joel L. Tolbert Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown