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Good morning everyone; welcome to Vieux Carre Baptist Church online. Happy memorial day weekend. It’s a weird one, but especially in light of our passage today, we want to give honor to the men and women, many in my own family, who have served and even died for the people they loved.
Go with me, if you will, to 1 Peter, chapter 2, and we’re going to start in v.13. We’ve been in 1 Peter since Easter, which, I think Easter was about six or so years ago, is that right? Seems right. I’ve really enjoyed this study, so I’m almost sad that we’re going to break from it for several weeks in the Summer, starting next week on Pentecost, to study the Holy Spirit. I said I’m almost sad, because I’m just really excited to talk about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God is our unity, he is our strength, our guide, our instructor. We’re going to cover a lot of ground, everything from speaking in tongues, to healing, to comfort and conviction, inspiration and illumination. If you’ve ever had questions about the Holy Spirit, I hope you’ll bring them to our Facebook page, to small group, ask them in comments or in the feed. I want to respond to all of them.
But that’s for next week. This week we’re talking about submission, fear, and weakness, and how God, starting with weakness as his raw material, is able to craft freedom and purpose in our lives. He’s always doing this, turning water into wine, rain into growth, tears into shouts of joy, death into life. He loves us where we are, in sin and brokenness, but he doesn’t leave us as we are.
I want to start by admitting that this is probably going to be a difficult sermon for a lot of people. I’m preaching on memorial day weekend about honoring the emperor, right? That should be a slam dunk. But this passage is a difficult one, and not trending at all, wildly countercultural, asking us to give up our power to walk in weakness and submission. This isn’t the passage telling us how Christians can do justice and effect change—I like those passages, too—; but this is a passage telling us how to live in a broken world not of our own making, where we can’t seem to change anything.
When we started this series, we looked first at the things God is doing even now, when everything else seems stopped. He is, even now, saving us, bringing restoration of the world ever closer, bringing us joy. He’s adopting us as children, building us into worshippers together. There’s nothing that mediates, that stands between us and God, because we are able to approach him as our father. And as his children, we belong to another race and nation. This world is not our home; we are exiles here. So we have to learn to live as exiles, to live in the already, not yet of the kingdom of God on earth, to live in a world that is groaning for the coming of the restoration of our world and the kingdom of God.
Let’s go together to 1 Peter 2:13-17. Peter writes, [1 Peter 2:13-17]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly: Father God, I pray that you would show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.
The first point from our text today is this: Submit and serve as people who are free. Submit and serve as people who are free.
One thing that’s lost in translation in this passage, where I’m drawing this first point: almost the whole passage is one sentence, and when Peter writes “as people who are free,” there’s no independent verb there. The verb for the sentence is actually that first word of the passage: be subject, or submit yourselves. If you cut out all the clauses in between, the sentence reads: Submit yourselves, as people who are free. Submit yourselves as people who are free. Your mind is meant to scream with this contradiction: slaves, subjects, who are free. How is that possible?
And this is something to keep in mind throughout the rest of the book, as we read. Peter, here, isn’t naïve. I know we read this and our minds explode with all the reasons we should protest and reform governmental rule—why we shouldn’t submit, and I’m with you—but again, that’s not the passage. Peter is teaching us something else, if we will listen, something just as valuable, if less comfortable. He’s not excusing the oppression and persecution they’re facing, he’s admitting to himself that oppression will exist as long as sin exists. We will not live under just rule until Christ, himself, reigns. He’s teaching us how to live as exiles.
Remember, Peter’s writing this in Rome, soon to be executed by the very government to which he’s telling others to submit, by the same emperor he’s telling everyone to honor. He’s writing to a people who are scattered throughout the empire because they’ve been persecuted, dragged by people in authority before judges who were quick to condemn them, before rulers who were glad to be rid of them.
If you, today, have any reason to be frustrated with your government, Peter has more. If you find any frustration in this passage where you’re being told to submit to the government, Peter’s people find more. He’s not writing that people should submit to the government because he approves of the government. He’s telling people that, as exiles, submit and serve the authorities above you, and out of your submission, God will bring freedom.
We have no concept in America today of freedom being found in submission. If you’re submitting to someone else, if you are enslaved, if you’re imprisoned, then you’re not following your own will, doing what you want, and so you aren’t free. Right? This is a large part of why people have rejected marriage, or have avoided being a part of the church. Both involve submission, and we want to be free, not-tied-down, not boxed in. Free.
This is how we’ve conceived of freedom, and of course freedom is one of our core cultural values in the west. Immanuel Kant, one of the foundational thinkers of our society, included the idea of freedom as self-determination in what he called the “categorical imperative,” the very foundation of his ethics. In other words, the worst thing you could possibly do to another person is to take freedom from him. This idea is still broadly one of the central ideas of our culture; postmodernism is built on a foundation of self-determination. So in many ways, to many people, joining a church, submitting yourself to the law of God, getting married—they’re immoral acts. It’s especially offensive if you ask someone else to submit themselves, for example if you evangelize or teach morality. In fact, a Barna poll from last year found that 47% of Christians in America—Christians, not just people—my age believe it’s morally wrong to share your personal beliefs with someone you know holds different beliefs. Morally wrong, because our society is founded upon self-determination.
It’s sometimes helpful to view your culture from the perspective of another—I have a very good friend who is an immigrant to the US from China. I’ve been really fascinated over the past few months, talking with her and her husband about the government-imposed lockdowns in both countries. She expected America to respond just as China did to the lockdowns, but I told her months before anything happened here, if the US imposes a lockdown people would be protesting in the streets. Again, does not compute, and I told her, it’s because our culture values the ability to self-determine, to follow our own will, above almost anything else, even above our own lives. Our favorite movie is Braveheart. Our favorite part is when he shouts the word freedom. In our society, submission is despised. It’s seen as deeply unethical. It violates the categorical imperative.
If you’re wondering why I keep mentioning marriage, I have my reasons. One, the concepts of marriage and government are tied—Peter and Paul talk about both institutions almost in the same breath; they both require submission and weakness, and Peter brings up marriage in chapter 3, so we’re going to talk more about it when we return to 1 Peter at the end of the summer. Another reason: I’ve been thinking a lot about my own marriage. My and Anne-Elise’s tenth anniversary was yesterday. This is real: we were saving and had planned to go on a riverboat cruise in Italy. Just let that sink in for a second. Instead we ate crawfish with my brother.
And you know how I get obsessive about books I’m reading. Right now I’m finally reading Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage (which a friend let me borrow shortly after getting married, ten years ago)—it’s a great, book which I would would highly recommend for anyone trying to understand why people would want to get married, what it means to be married instead of just dating or partners. Anne-Elise told me she’s very glad after ten years that I’m finally trying to figure out what marriage means.
But Keller talks a lot about freedom and submission in the book, and he argues something I think Peter is touching on here: that submitting, choosing to limit your own freedom, promise yourself to someone else, is actually the means to freedom; which, again, makes no sense in our culture, but it’s the only way of understanding freedom in the Bible and in the kingdom of God, so we have to be a little counter-cultural this morning, we have to seek to understand something difficult here.
I want to teach you a word from the Bible that doesn’t quite translate: the word is telos, and it means the purpose of a thing, its perfection; something being used in exactly the right way. So, take a spoon, for example. If you use a spoon to eat, you’re using the spoon correctly—but if you use the spoon to eat my great-grandmother’s turtle soup on Christmas day; that’s telos. Telos is a professional athlete running at top speed; or a house filled with family, life, and laughter; or sharing a meal you cooked with people you love; a book with pages falling out because it’s been read over and again; a toy your parents saved from your childhood being played with again by your children. Telos is a thing, or a person, achieving the fullness of the purpose for which it was created.
And when you ask, what is the telos of a human being, you can begin to see the Biblical view of freedom. Freedom in the Bible has less to do with self-determination and it has more to do with telos; freedom is a person achieving the fullness of the purpose for which she was created.
Think about this: we think freedom is being able to do whatever you want to do in this world; self-determination is the ultimate good. But the Bible teaches that our wills, themselves, are bound to sin. So if we follow our desires to their end, what we will find is death and enslavement—nothing at all the way our creator intended. At our church, haven’t we met people again and again—and if you’re willing to accept it, we were all this way—people who were doing whatever it occurred to their will to do, thrown off all restriction, all obligation, even the societal obligations and obedience to the government, and what’s the result? They are completely enslaved to sin, be it addiction, or isolation. They’ve followed their own will to their own destruction. They’re in a hell of everything they’ve ever wanted.
On the other end of society, I could introduce you to people wealthier than all of us combined, who have the money and the power to do whatever they want in this world, and yet, their will is bound by sin; they’re miserable, because they’re not free. They’re in a hell of everything they’ve ever wanted.
The Bible teaches that freedom is not being able to do what you want in this world; true freedom has very little to do with this world, except that his kingdom is even now breaking through to our world. True freedom is found, not in our world, not in any of our kingdoms, but in God’s world and his kingdom. This is why Christians can sing songs of praise in prison chains, why they can praise God as they’re walking to the stake, because if Christ has set you free, it doesn’t matter how much the world wants to deny it, but you are a son or daughter of the King; if Christ has set you free, you are free indeed.
First and foremost freedom is freedom from sin; we have to be restored from the bondage of our will before we are able to be free at all, before following our own desires does us any good at all. And this freedom comes through submission and service to Christ. Regardless of what nation you’re in, or what person wins the next election, or whether you’re married, or single, your freedom—real freedom—isn’t dependent on any of these things. You could be in prison, as Peter likely is when he’s writing this, and yet be free.
So in exile, even if your government is oppressive, if you’re in prison, if you have no voice or representation, Christ offers you freedom through submission and service. This means that we are able to live in submission to the government, so long as governmental laws don’t break the laws of God, because we’re already free. We don’t have to fight for it; God has fought that battle for us. We can honor the emperor, the president, the governors, even when they don’t offer us what they should, because they are not the source of our freedom or contentedness in the world. They can be incompetent in the extreme, evil, tyrannical, and yet we are free.
So even when you don’t have the power to change the world around you, in the most difficult circumstances, like being in jail or living under an oppressive government, you’re able to be free. Even while submitting to every ruling authority over you, being watched by your neighbors for any chance to drag you into court, you’re able to live an entirely free life, because your telos, your purpose, the way your life is meant to be, can’t be overcome by things of this world. It’s bound up with the kingdom of heaven.
Submit, then, as people who are free. In our society, this starts with obeying the laws. I have pastor friends who didn’t shut their churches during the stay-at-home order, and when they asked my thoughts, I told them: obey the law. Submit yourselves, because our freedom is not dependent upon such things. Our freedom is of the Lord. Now you may think a law is ridiculous, can’t see the reason for it, useless. But don’t rage against our government; submit, as to the Lord, because God is able to give you freedom even in submission. Part of our telos is that we were created to be functioning members of a society.
Yes, there are times when you should break a law for the sake of your faith, or seek to overthrow laws that are unjust, but there is a huge difference between civil disobedience and lawlessness—it’s the difference between suffering for Christ’s sake and suffering as a direct result of our own insufferable actions. If we, as Christians, don’t live lives of submission, if we refuse to honor those who are in authority, whenever we do protest injustice, people will disregard it. They will see us as outlaws rather than exiles, and ignore us, so Peter tells us to live lives that will not allow the people around us to speak ill of us.
In your everyday, this looks like submitting your own will to that of your employer, your spouse, your friends, not insisting on your own way, not lashing out whenever someone close to you asks you to do something—live in submission, because in your submission, God will give you freedom. We were made to live this way, with our relationships in tact, as healthy parts of larger bodies, in healthy relationships, eager to serve one another. We were made to live as part of a church body, which we’ll talk more about in chapter 4, serving each other selflessly with the gifts the Spirit gives us. Submitting to these relationships and societal structures isn’t giving up your freedom, it’s living up to it. It’s telos.
So God is able to bring freedom out of service and submission. The next point from our text this morning is this: Fear God, honor the emperor. Fear God, honor the emperor.
This passage, read to its original audience, probably would have caused some people to shout amen and others to walk out of the back of the church. I warned you this is a difficult passage. Peter says accepting the rule of Rome, then in v.17, honoring the emperor is according to the will of God, echoing Paul and even Christ, himself, stating that every state authority is established by God. We’re familiar with this kind of statement in the US, but it’s usually more of an endorsement of a candidate than anything—this candidate, the one I’m voting for, is doing the will of God for this country. That’s not how Peter means it. His church has been disbanded and scattered by the governor, and Peter was sent to his execution by the governor. I’m going to go ahead and say, Peter is not a fan of the governor. He’s not endorsing a candidate, he’s making a broad theological claim, citing the prophet Jeremiah, that those who have the authority of the state on earth have been given their authority by God. This isn’t a new concept, but it’s a difficult concept, and I warned you.
The idea originates in Jeremiah, chapter 27, where Jeremiah calls Nebuchadnezzar—the emperor of his time—a servant of God. Now this is one of those fun truths that, again, makes people walk out of the back of the church. Everyone would have been offended at Jeremiah’s statement. The empire would have been wildly offended to think that their emperor was a servant of anything or anyone. And everyone in Israel would have been wildly offended to think that the emperor who had conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, burned their homes, and taken them into exile away from their families, friends, and everyone they had ever known—that he was doing the will of God. Yet Jeremiah says it all the same, and Peter repeats the idea here.
What Jeremiah means, and what Peter writes, is that the governing authorities over us are established by God to bring law to the earth, just as the church is instituted to bring grace to the earth. The state is meant to yield strength, punishing wrongdoers, while the church is meant to walk in weakness. The church and the state are a living dialectic, they exist in tension with one another, the state bringing law and justice, the church bringing grace and mercy. A society without the state would be a society in chaos, a society which would be guilty of “pouring out rivers of grace without end” while everyone did exactly as they pleased, which as we’ve already said, is a kind of hell. A society without the church would be a society devoid of mercy and forgiveness, a world of death, a world demanding perfection, unable to find any other means beside strength to redress wrongdoing.
A society in which state and church are combined or intermingled is a society in which there is no dialectic, no tension, and that’s the most twisted of all. A society which confuses law and grace, which can’t tell the difference between justice and mercy, where the state is able to approve and forgive its own actions—that society is capable of great atrocity. There’s only one person who is innocent enough to be both priest and king—Christ, himself.
So what’s our role in this? Why is Peter writing this to his people in exile, normal people who, like us, wouldn’t really have very much say in the church or the state? We’re not preaching to thousands or signing bills into law. But both the church and the state are made up of people. They are both bodies, and just as in every body, even if you’re not the head, you still have a role. So even if you’re not the head of state, or you’re not the head of the church, you’re not calling the shots, it doesn’t mean you’re not a part of the body. You have a part in everything done by the church and the state in your time. You can exclude yourself, cut yourself off, but then you’re just a severed limb of the body. You’re not doing anything to actually help either body toward health—all you’re doing is ensuring that part of the body dies, and the rest of the body hurts.
All through the Bible, we see the messiah, Christ, as both king and priest. He is both church and state. A redeemed earth looks like a ransomed church, yes, but also a redeemed state. So the way we interact with the state is a part of our building of the kingdom of God.
Those last two statements are extremely helpful as we seek to live as a part of both bodies and contribute toward their health: Fear God, honor the emperor. Notice, most people would have reversed those two in his time, as well as in ours. Most people fear the emperor and honor the gods. Peter intentionally reverses them.
The word fear in the Bible means to be consumed with reverence, awed, to be deeply concerned about how that person thinks of you, or what judgements they will make of you, what they will do with you. If you’ve ever been on trial, think of the judge. Or think of dating, and being consumed with this desire to know—what does she think of me? What will she say if I tell her I like her? If I ask him out? Or think of your parents, when you were little. If you had a healthy relationship with them, think of getting in trouble. You know you’re not going to be harmed, but you know all the same that your life could be changed by what they decide. If they are disappointed, it’s a crushing weight. If you’re to be punished, you wait with bated breath to see what it will be.
Like I said, most people fear the emperor and honor God. They get it backwards. In the US, the emperor is the majority. So when people fear the emperor and honor God, they may obey the Lord, but their primary concern is how the majority of people will think of them. That’s what’s really motivating their actions. In the US, this looks like being the ideal progressive, or the ideal conservative—which one you choose depends on the opinions of the majority of the people you know. You don’t allow the Bible or worship to shape you; you carefully choose your news and your friends, in life and on social media, to be those who agree with you, then that’s what shapes you. You post online when you’re supposed to, get mad about the right things, you use the right slogans, and believe everything in line with the platform. If someone challenges you in one of your beliefs, you go back to the respective platform centers—the unborn, the oppressed—so you can assure yourself that the Lord would support you in your opinions. You say things in conversation, not because you think they are truths which will lovingly nourish people toward growth, but because you think most of the people in the room will agree with you. Your fear, your reverence, is for the majority.
But if you submit yourself to the Scripture here, if you fear God, instead of the majority, it enables you to honor everyone. Every president, every governor. Every brother and sister in your church, no matter if they are a Bernie Bro riding into the church every Sunday on a vegan donkey, or a #ForeverTrumper who removes his MAGA hat to pray on Sunday and rolls up in a hummer truck with a gun rack. You begin to see, not that person’s category, but their worth and value to their creator. The purposes of the creator for him or her. In short, you begin to care about their telos, wanting to help them toward it. You’re able to hold conversations with everyone, because you aren’t needlessly divisive, and the things you say are true, loving, and nourishing, useful for the building up of the body. When you fear God, God begins to shape you apart from the world. Your ethics are based not on a platform, but the firm foundation of Christ, and so you no longer fit neatly into the categories we use. Fearing God, and not the emperor, is what allows you to love the brotherhood and honor everyone.
I want to close with this, expounding on something we talked about in small group on Sunday: thinking about the church and the state, what role the church is meant to play with the state, and how we as individuals and as a community are able to take part in both bodies, we are reminded of our call as Christians to the way of weakness.
If it is the role of the state to hold power in a society, the church must learn to live and move in weakness, not grasping at power “as though it is a thing to be gained,” but emptying ourselves taking on the form of servants. Servants like servers, who aren’t able to insist on their own way, who aren’t invited to the room where decisions are made, who aren’t invited to the table. Servants who live in all quietness.
If this is ever going to be a reality in our churches, we need to practice it in our homes, this way of weakness, not insisting on our own way, not asking others to do for us what we will not do for them. Being quick to admit our faults, and quick to forgive. Not manipulating or doing in secret what we know the other wouldn’t support, but bringing everything out into the open and accepting when what we were hoping is not the decision of the family. Not triangulating, gossiping, or back-channeling, but having open and straight conversations in which we are vulnerable with our desires and able to be disappointed. What’s in our homes will spill out into our churches, and into the community around us. And that which overflows from a thousand churches into a thousand communities is that which will shape our nation.
If we see anything in our nation we wish to change, any oppression, any sin, the way of weakness doesn’t shout and scream and shame others when they disagree, but rather it quietly walks to the darkest places and brings what little light it can. It admits, first, its own sins and weaknesses before pointing out the sins of others. If a person traveling the way of weakness expects any glory, and power, any way of changing the world, he expects it from the Lord.
And so, Lord, we wait on you, and we pray.