I am so glad I read a book this week!
I Peter 2:19-25
May 15, 2011
I have a young friend who recently reported a rather remarkable result on her math test. Just a little background here - my friend does not spend a whole lot of her precious time on schoolwork. I am convinced that she is learning and experimenting and drawing conclusions about the world and the ways of people in it constantly. I’m not saying she’s not curious or that she’s slow to pick up on things. But I don’t think she’d argue with the statement that school is not her thing. Especially English. Or science. Or Math! Especially math. So it was with great glee and not little bit of amazement that she reported that she had gotten an A! on her last math test. Wow! An “A”!
How did that happen?
Did you study for the test? No.
Was it a chapter on something you understood? Not really.
Did you cheat somehow? No, I didn’t.
How did this incredible event occur?
Well - at the beginning of each section of the test, I just went up to the teacher’s desk, and said, “These kind of problems . . . I don’t quite remember . . . Can you maybe . . . ” and the teacher would do an example of one of those kind of problems. And then I’d go back to my seat and do just what he did, only with the different numbers from the problems. When I got to a different kind of problem, I did it again. And he showed me another example. I did that the whole test. And I got an A!
Now, please, let’s not get all caught up wondering why the teacher didn’t seem to get it through his thick head what she was up to. And let’s not worry our pretty little heads about whether or not she really learned any math, OK? I almost think it doesn’t matter. Because what she learned is what Peter wants the church to get through their pretty little heads and/or thick skulls: The power and the value and the undeniable utility of having an example to follow when problems and tests come your way.
The passage we read is all about following Jesus’ example.
Look - Peter writes these early Christians - Jesus left you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. Peter is talking specifically about how Christians are to behave when confronted by people or situations which put them to the test - which test their comprehension of life and of God. (that’s not quite right. - But you know how all these standardized tests are supposed to gauge mastery of concepts and the ability to use what has been learned to think about, maybe even come up with an answer in a new situation? Well - Peter is writing to folks who were facing a whole new predicament as Christians in a pagan world. How to face the persecutions? The injustice? The uncertainty? Well - how do we face the situations in our lives? Do we, who call ourselves Christians, bring any special tools or techniques or concepts to the tasks of living? If we don’t . . . then we haven’t let our faith penetrate very far into our hearts and lives. We say with our mouths, “Lord, Lord” but we don’t give Jesus Lordship over anything important in our lives. And that shows up when? Every time we face a test. Which is pretty much everyday, in my opinion.)
And Jesus’ example is one of bearing the sins of the other - bearing them all the way to the cross. It is the love that bears an other’s evil that, somehow, someway transforms the Christians from death to life - commutes our sentences from a death sentence to a life sentence. It is what Jesus did in facing death out of love for living that changes us from sheep that have gone astray to members of God’s own flock, safely under the watchful eye and loving care of the Good Shepherd.
And being a Christian is less about believing that that is true (with our head or our heart or our guts) than with following the example that Jesus has set.
Followers of Jesus’ example - who take his radical beautiful impossible life as their pattern for living - do radical, beautiful, impossible things in this world, which we claim as the best part of our inheritance. The only part of our inheritance, I would argue, that it makes any sense to hold on to as we head into the test that is our future.
Let me give you a story from the very very beginnings of our story as Christians in America - a story about John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony: (I got this from a very fun and interesting book I picked off my son, the Americanist’s bookshelf when I was out there in California, where he’s working on his dissertation. The book is called The Wordy Shipmates and it’s about that colony of proto-Presbyterians that we call “Puritans”.) OK. John Winthrop - the governor of this group, who coined the term Ronald Reagan was so fond of “The City on the Hill”, as an expression of what they aimed to create over here in this continent when first they came - John Winthrop tells his fellow colonists “We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus said, “love your enemies and do good to them that hate you.” He also cites Romans 12:20: “If thine enemy hunger, feed him.” Our aim in this new land? Two words: Justice and mercy.
The author (Sarah Vowell) elaborates, “The colonists of Massachusetts Bay are not going to be any better at living up to this than any other government in Christendom. In fact, nobody can live up to this, but it is the mark of a Christlike Christian to know that he’s supposed to.
At least some of Winthrop’s ongoing difficulties as governor of the colony is that his charges find him far too lenient. For instance, some of his fellow magistrates in the new colony accuse Winthrop of dillydallying on punishment by letting some men who had been banished continue to hang around Boston. Winthrop points out that the men had been banished, not sentenced to be executed. And since they had been banished in the dead of winter, Winthrop let them stay until a thaw so that their eviction form Massachusetts wouldn’t cause them to freeze to death on their way out of town. “A community of perils,” writes Winthrop, “calls for extraordinary liberality.” Love your enemies.
Here’s another Winthrop story, from Cotton Mather’s history of the colony: One extremely bad winter, Boston was low on fuel and one of its citizens filed a complaint that a “needy person” was stealing from his woodpile. Winthrop expressed outrage at this violation of the 6th Commandment and declared that it must be remedied. He requested that the thief be sent to see him immediately, presumably for well-deserved punishment. Think stocks, cutting off ears, Puritan punishment was not easy stuff. Well, confronted with the thief, Winthrop tells the man, “Friend, it is a severe winter, and I doubt you are but meanly provided for wood: wherefore I would have you supply yourself at my woodpile till this cold season be over.” The Winthrop merrily asked his friends whether he had not effectually cured this man of stealing his wood.
Here is what Winthrop told those first Americans, clinging to survival with the thinnest of margins for error: “If your brother be in want you and you can help him . . .if you love God, you must help him. There is a time also when Christians must give beyond their ability.”
This is our inheritance - this is the example - of someone who was doing his utmost to follow the example of Jesus Christ.
Followers of Christ’s example have left us with a rich legacy. Let me give you one more expression of where that comes from and where it leads: Martin Luther King, Jr. concluded one of his most important sermons (November 17. 1957 - Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL) like this:
“So this morning, as I look into your eyes and into the yes of all my brothers and sister - all over Alabama and all over America and all over the world - I say to you, ‘I love you. I would rather die than hate you.’”
I’m gonna say that again. “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.”
That’s following (very closely) Jesus’ example. He choose to die rather than to hate. That’s the example our teacher has shown us.
The author of Peter urged his persecuted congregations to use that example as a template for working out the problems during their time of testing.
John Winthrop used that example, plugged in the perils and the possibilities of living on the American continent, and came out with a somewhat different, but equally correct answer.
Martin Luther King, Jr., used Jesus’ example, to work out and work through the question of obtaining civil rights and equal justice for all people in these United States. I hope you would agree that his use of the example also deserves high marks.
You and I face different problems. Our test - our achievement exam - is unique to our time and place and life situation. But we have what it takes to do well. With each set of problems, we need only to go to the Teacher’s Desk and say, “I need a little help. Can you maybe . . .” And sure enough, our loving teacher will remind us that we already have a fully worked out, complete and clear example of love and life in the living example of Jesus Christ.
And what makes it even better - and worse - but mostly better - is that we are taking our test as a group. We can work together. So, hey guys, Let’s Ace this one!