The Way

Easter 5 – 2011

1 Peter 2:11-22 (John 14:1-4)

Marian Free

In the name of Jesus Christ who stands with the oppressed and the disadvantaged, and who was not afraid to die to bring life to others. Amen.

I imagine that the reaction of many of us to situations such as those in Libya, Syria, Yemen and throughout the Arab world today stand in stark contrast with the words of the letter of Peter which we have heard read this morning. The author of this letter urges his readers to accept the authority of every human institution, to honour the Emperor and insists that the slave submit to his or her master – even if, in fact especially if, they are cruel. According to this view we are contradicting scripture if we applaud the Egyptians for standing up to and overthrowing an oppressive regime and we are going against God’s will if we support the presence of NATO in Libya.

Measured against this letter of Peter, the Egyptians should have patiently and submissively continued to endure the oppression of Mubarak, the Libyans should bear the consequences of their revolt against the human institution that is Gadaffi and the unrest in the remainder of the Arab world is unlawful and is rightfully being punished. The same sort of logic would say to the battered wife, the abused child or the bullied worker: “Go back to your abuser and submit to the unjust violence, then you will be like Jesus.”

The letters of Peter were written in the early second century, to a persecuted community in Asia Minor. They were written to encourage believers who found themselves in difficult circumstances and they do so by exhorting believers to accept their suffering, because in so doing they imitate Christ’s suffering and will gain an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled and unfading”. The readers are encouraged to endure their sufferings, to repay evil with good and to live such exemplary lives such that the injustice of their suffering will be without doubt.

The believers to whom Peter writes may well need to keep their heads down so that they do not draw more attention to themselves, and they obviously need to be reminded that their suffering has value, and that even if the present is filled with danger and fear, they can look forward to a future that is eternal and filled with joy. They can be reassured that they are imitating Jesus and sharing in his sufferings.

This does not mean that it is a rule for all Christians in every age to “mind their own business” or “to bury their heads in the sand”. The situation of a second century community that is experiencing persecution is vastly different from that of a Christian community in the 21st century in a country in which they are part of the status quo and in no danger from the government of the day.

The idea that Christians should by their silence condone violent and oppressive regimes is not something that can be supported by the gospels. Jesus was not afraid to stand up for the oppressed and marginalised and he does not hesitate to criticise those whom he believed to be oppressing and restraining the people of Israel. In fact, it was because Jesus was prepared to take a stand against the human institutions of his time, that he found himself in trouble. It was because Jesus was not silent in the face of injustice that he found himself on the cross.

Conversely, once Jesus’ knew that his fate was inevitable, he submitted without a fight knowing as he did, that by giving his life he would win life for others.

Over the centuries, many who have followed in Jesus’ footsteps have risked their lives because they dared to speak out against injustice and oppression, to stand up to unjust governments and to declare what was right in the face of what was clearly wrong. Despite the danger to themselves, the saints of past ages have been prepared to make a stand. Yet when the battle was done they too submitted without reserve to the fate that was theirs. On the other hand, in the last century alone many atrocities were carried out against innocent people because good people chose to remain silent – whether out of fear, or from a mistaken belief that God himself condoned evil and unjust regimes.

What then do we make of the letter to Peter, and how do we in the 21st century make decisions as to when to be silent and when to speak out, when to submit and when to stand up for what is right? It is not easy and not many of us have the clarity of vision and purpose, or the courage of the martyrs.

John’s gospel gives us some insight into the answer. In today’s reading, Jesus is preparing the disciples for his departure. However, he causes some consternation when he says: “You know the way to where I am going.” Thomas speaks for all the disciples when he responds: “We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” The disciples have failed to understand what Jesus has been saying for some time – that is that he has come from the Father and that he is returning to the Father. The way that this return will occur is through his lifting up, through his death on the cross. The way to life, the way to the Father – for Jesus and for all those who would follow – is through death. The way is the how as well as the direction.

Following Jesus who is ‘the way’ does not mean a life of ease and safety. It does not mean standing silent in the face of injustice or cruelty and it does not mean seeking one’s own comfort at the expense of another. It can mean taking the risks that Jesus took, knowing when to speak out and when to be silent and when it is necessary to give one’s life so that others might live.

Jesus said: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The way of Jesus is the way of the cross. It is only if we follow Jesus to the cross and beyond that we will come at last to the Father and to our eternal inheritance.

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