Sermon on 1 Peter 3:8-22, preached at St Nic’s, Durham, by CSBV Research Associate Brandon Hurlbert, on 7th June 2020, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests in the USA and across the world. Sermon transcript is as delivered. Listen to it here.
I have to be honest, this week has been really difficult. My heart is heavy and burdened for America. I sit half way across the world and I’m watching it burn and I have no idea what to do and I am left in a perpetual state of shock as I see video after video of black bodies lying on the street, peaceful protests erupt in violence as police injure, maim, and even kill innocent people. As someone committed to the non-violent way of Jesus I am opposed to virtually every instance of violence, yet I am shocked to see so many posts on social media seemingly care more about burnt buildings than bleeding bodies. More about losing wealth than losing life, and not just any life or all lives, but in particular: Black Lives, and the black lives in particular: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. What is more, is that same people who call for the riots to end did not listen to the peaceful protests of times past, nor the stands of solidarity, or even the hashtags that have had to be re-used because the victim was murdered in the same way. These same people, who have not understood or heeded the cries for justice, now even make a mockery of the gospel by tear-gassing and shooting rubber bullets into crowds of peaceful protesters all for a photo-op with a bible that’s never been opened, in front of a church that’s never been visited.
What does Christianity have to say to a world on fire? Does it have anything to say at all, or has it lost its credibility? Is the gospel of Jesus good news for black and brown people, for us right now?”
The gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for all because it is the proclamation that every barrier that stood between humanity and God has been demolished and overcome by the sacrificial death of Jesus and by his resurrection he has reconciled us to our heavenly father and opened up a new way of life in him. Among many things, this life is one of daily invitation, both for us and to others. It is a life of mission: to join in with what God is doing here on this earth. In Jesus’ own words: The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the Gospel”. This gospel, this good news, is a reversal, a great upheaval of racism, oppression, violence, and every type of cruelty. And even more than that, it offers systemic change for it address these issues at the roots and offers a compelling vision of how our lives may be lived with God.
But here’s the issue: if there’s a pattern of injustice and evil in our society, it means that something has gone wrong. Somewhere down the line, God’s people didn’t step up or speak out.
And we have witnessed just this: evil is still present, racism – both individually and systemically never truly went away, oppression and violence it seems has only increased on a global scale, and even though our knowledge of these events has increased by means of technology and social media, it seems too that for some, this increase in knowledge is only matched by the increase of their apathy, what James Baldwin called, the ‘death of the heart’. And it seems that both historically and today, the church has not always been on the side of the oppressed, or championed, much less, listened to the voices of people of colour.
Far from it being an American problem, it happens here in Durham too. It looks a bit different, but it’s just as devastating. I’ve heard it, I’ve seen it, my non-white friends have experienced it. It seems to me that we’ve lost the plot, or perhaps, camped out in a certain chapter while neglecting the rest of the story. In this regard, we are failing in our mission. And hear this from me, I am in the same boat. In fact, I’m the American here. I’m the white guy talking about race. I don’t have all the answers, not in America, and certainly not here. I honestly don’t know which I have more of: Privilege or things to repent of. I need grace and forgiveness. I need to be reminded of my mission. And I have a feeling that some of you might need some of this too.
Fortunately, our passage tonight can remind us of that mission. It can remind us of who we are called to be as a church and as Christians by giving us a fresh vision of who Jesus is. This text is rich and so much can be said, and I won’t be able to cover every verse, and in fact I’ll spend much of my time in just two of them, but I want to discuss 2 things: 1) Jesus is our model for life, 2) why we can trust in his example in a world on fire
- Jesus as our model for life.
We have been working through 1 peter and the past two weeks we’ve been in a small section of the letter. We’ve discussed how as exiles, the Christian life is bound to be at odds with surrounding culture. Jesus is king, not Caesar, and our lifestyle is going to make us stick out, but in all of the freedom we find in Christ, we are meant to love others. As Jo said last week, Not retaliation, but resistance.
Now we come to the close of this section of the letter. Read with me in verse 8
Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. 9 Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.
This is peter’s manifesto for the Christian life, and it is laser focused on Jesus Christ. In the Greek, he uses 5 adjectives all strung together to describe how Christians ought to act. Firstly, they are to be unified or of the same mind. We could say that Christians are called to stand in solidarity with one another. If one member of the body suffers, we all suffer.
The second word: Christians should be sympathetic. Now this is much more than condescending sympathies, the casual ‘thoughts & prayers’ offered when the conversation gets too real. This word is meant to be interchangeable with what we would call empathy. Christians are meant to be people who dwell in other people’s pain. This word also appears in Hebrews 4:15 to describe the actions of Jesus:
15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.
It is in this way that our empathy may be informed by Jesus’. The God of the universe, who breathed out stars, formed planets out of dust, this God decided to become human and live among us. He worked a manual job, he got splinters, he had family, he had friends, he had enemies, he witnessed injustice and he responded to it. He even suffered death on a cross –– because our God drew near to us, he knows our pain and frustration. He gets us. The black theologian, James Cone, talks about how in Christ, God has identified himself with the oppressed. For Cone, the Cross looked like the lynching tree, and Jesus could be seen in every black man who was murdered. This powerful observation should cause us to reflect: In this time, where would we find Jesus? To whom is Christ showing empathy? And to whom is God calling us to do the same?
The third marker of the Christian is that they show familial love. This ‘love one another’ is this brotherly or sisterly love. And this kind of love isn’t sentimental or a weird Christian freindzoned.. you know, the dreaded “I love you like a brother” In the first century, this family love meant something tangible. If you loved them like your family.. they became your family. We have seen a glimpse of this kind of action during COVID. People have taken friends or acquaintances into their homes to quarantine together. And though they may not be related by blood, they have become this tiny family unit, sharing food and hospitality. Now the ancient world could get behind such a dramatic display of affection, but only if the person was worthy enough, from the right family, the right class, the right ethnicity, or at least they went to Oxbridge. But what was so radical about the early Christian community is that that invite was for everyone. Slaves became brothers. Widows became sisters. The poor, the oppressed, the undesirables got to eat right along side the wealthy and “worthy” Why? Because that’s what it meant to follow Jesus. Because the gospel they believed called them into a new type of family, all were children of God—equal in their need and equal in their receiving of God’s indiscriminate grace and mercy.
Moving along to the 4th adjective – compassionate. I don’t know if you are seeing a theme or anything. This compassion is an intense emotion that will compel you to act. It is the opposite of moral apathy or the ‘death of the heart’ People who have this type of compassion’ their heart breaks to see injustice, they have almost a physical reaction to other’s pain. We see this similar word used to describe the emotional life of Jesus:
In Matthew 9:35, it says: Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and illness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Or in another instance, a leper came to Jesus, begging him to heal him, and in effect bring him from the margins of society to the centre. And Jesus, Moved with compassion, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.
Or again, in Luke 7:12: Jesus is traveling to a town
As he approached the town gate, a dead man was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she had already lost her husband. And a large crowd from the town was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and he said, ‘Don’t cry.’
14 Then he went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still. He said, ‘Young man, I say to you, get up!’ 15 The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.
Jesus’ emotional life was consistently characterized by compassion. In each of these stories, Jesus observes—he sees the plight of these people, the harassed and helpless, the sick and social outcasts, the mothers who mourn, This is not a causal glance or scrolling through Facebook, but He sees them and in so seeing them, he is moved to compassion, his tender heart is fixed toward them, and he reaches out to heal and to comfort. So the Christian likewise is called to exhibit the same compassion.
This 5th marker is humility. Shocking right? This connects again really well to the life of Jesus. The apostle Paul, sitting in prison for preaching the gospel, writes this to the church in Philippi:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be used for His own advantage, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Just as Humility characterized the life of Jesus, so it should characterize the life of a Christian.
Right, so now that we’ve covered the first verse, let’s move quickly along.
Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing,
This is one of the most defining elements of the Christian faith. We do not retaliate, but instead we love our enemies. There is no room for passivity here in this verse. We resist evil strongly, it’s just that Our resistance to evil does not use the same weapons. In the words of 1 Peter, we resist by giving a blessing.
Now what’s interesting is that this blessing, connects the mission of the church to the mission of Israel. Way back in Genesis 12, it was told to Abraham that through him, that every nation would be blessed. Abraham’s descendants receive the Law so that Israel might be both a light and a blessing to the nations. In the earliest Christian communities, Jesus was seen to be the fulfillment of this blessing. What was promised to Abraham has now been fulfilled in Jesus Christ––through his death all of humanity can be reconciled to God. And in his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us to follow his example, to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute you. And these weren’t some nice words Jesus put on his twitter… he lived them. Like, he’s on the cross, dying, suffering, for a crime he didn’t even commit…and how does he react? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Even though he was betrayed and abandoned by his people and his closest friends, he still died for them, and gave them a blessing. And now this mission to bless every nation comes to the church.
But how difficult is this? Do not repay evil for evil or curse for curse. Just think of how many things are off limits to Christians. If you want to follow Jesus, think about some of the things the you can no longer tolerate or accept: Violence, getting even, undercutting your coworkers for the promotion, or even being passive-aggressive. These are unbecoming of an apprentice of Jesus
For the early church, this concept of enemy love was one of the defining markers of being a Christian. The early church father, Justin Martyr (who, spoiler alert, gets martyred for his faith). He is writing to the Emperor, begging him to stop the persecution of Christians. Part of his argument is that the Christian community is a moral force for good. And he says this: “We who hated and slaughtered one another, we who would not welcome to our home people of a different race because of their customs, now, since the coming of Christ we live and eat with them, and pray for our enemies.”
Tertullian, another early church father, explains that Christians are persecuted unjustly because they love their enemies and are forbidden to retaliate. “But now in all this conspiracy of evils against us, in the midst of these moral provocations, what one evil have you observed to have been returned by Christians? Yet I ask, banded together as we are, ever so ready to sacrifice our lives, what single case of revenge for injury are you able to point to.”
Imagine trying to make that argument today.
Let me share a hopeful story about a brand new Christian in Turkey. For safety reasons, We’ll call him Eric. He had been meeting with some believers and they were reading the bible, discovering more about Jesus. And Eric took Jesus’ words seriously, believing that in order to really practice the way of Jesus, he had to forgive his long-standing family enemy. So he does. And what happens next is crazy. Eric’s brother, became so enraged that he had forgiven their enemies, which no doubt was explained by his new found faith in Jesus, He was so angry that he shot his own brother 4 times. Can you fathom the amount of hate he had for those enemies that he would shoot his own brother? But, Eric survived, He was in critical condition, but he pulled through, likely because he had so many people praying for him. But the story get’s even crazier– the first thing Eric did when he woke up from his coma was to forgive his brother. And now, Eric’s son is coming to these church meetings and the brother is likely very confused as to what just happened.
So why do I tell this story? I think it highlights the simplicity of our faith. Eric has only been a Christian for a number of months, he doesn’t have the resources that we do or the theological tools by which to analyze things. He has Jesus though. For him, the matter was simple, if he wanted to obey Jesus, he had to love his enemies.
- Why we can trust in his example in a world on fire
This obedience is easier said then done. Why can we trust this way of life? How can we be certain that following Jesus is going to work out? Why we can trust in Jesus’ example in a world on fire?
The rest of our passage deals with this question. Peter talks about the differences between suffering for what is good as opposed to doing evil. When you suffer for doing what is good people will get curious. How can you love your enemy? Why aren’t you getting even? How can you forgive me? Our suffering for righteousness gives us an opportunity to share the hope we have in Jesus.
What is this hope? What is the hope for exiles, for the persecuted, the suffering, the broken, the crushed?
Our hope is in Jesus Christ – that if we join with him in his sufferings we will also join him in his victory. Peter is encouraging his audience to be faithful in times of persecution because look what happened to Jesus! Though suffering death on the cross looked like a defeat, it was actually his victory, Death didn’t get the last word, Evil didn’t win. No, Jesus rose from the dead and He now is seated on his throne, high above every ruler and authority. Jesus is Lord. And by his resurrection, Jesus has proclaimed to the Evil powers, those who crush the weak, those who oppress the vulnerable, those who are racist, he has proclaimed: your time is up. Justice is coming for you. And Jesus is coming again to bring a lasting and all-consuming shalom—a peace coupled with justice, a love that redeems and reconciles all things to God.
That’s why Peter quotes Psalm 34 right in the middle of this section, starting at verse 10. It’s a call to live as a blessing to the world: turn from evil, do what is good, seek the peace. And we can do all of this, even in the midst of suffering, because God has turned his face towards us in Jesus Christ. He sees our hurting and he is with us in our pain. God is on the side of the oppressed. Black lives matter to God. Anyone who is need of rescue, of forgiveness, grace, and mercy, will find a friend in Jesus Christ, a loving father in God Almighty, and a new family in a redeemed Church.
So how can we trust and follow Jesus today, in a world on fire? It might look a bit different depending on your context, but let me offer a few examples that you can start doing this week:
- Stand in solidarity with the black community. They need our support, our prayers, and our actions. This cannot be simply another trend or hashtag.
- Show empathy by listening to black voices. For too long the stories and experiences of people of colour have been neglected. We need to listen, research, learn.
- Love those who are hurting. This might mean reaching out to your non-white friends, donating money, its about being available for our black brothers and sisters.
- Let yourself feel Jesus’ emotions of compassion. Now is not the time for stoic silence. But feel the heartbreak of our black sisters and brothers. Weep with those who weep. Let the feelings of weariness and emotional exhaustion drive you to the Lord in prayer, and move you to the world in action
- Finally, be humble. The conversations that the white Church needs to have are going to be difficult and painful. We have a lot of learning and listening to do, and my friends, it is not going to be fun to learn about all the direct or inadvertent ways we have been complicit in oppression. In our growing, we are going to make mistakes or say the wrong thing (as I probably already have in this sermon), but, let’s be humble and accept correction.
The hope of the Christian faith and the life that is on offer will only be compelling and appealing to a world on fire if Christians actually look like Christ. So let us live up to our calling and be a blessing to a broken world, following after our savior Jesus Christ as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to seek peace, pursue justice, and work for reconciliation in all that we do.
Brandon Hurlbert is a research associate of the CSBV, and a PhD student at Durham university