Metaphors abound today. Sheep. Flock. Shepherd. Gate. Pathways of Justice. If we want to say something coherent, it helps to know our context. In our Lectionary, the Second Reading provides a sense of context. The First Reading gives us a story or poem or prophecy, the Psalm offers an allegorical interpretation, the Second Reading suggests a Church context, and the Gospel offers a kind of mystical truth that underlies the whole thing. So, context. We read First Peter for most of the Easter Season. Peter talks a lot about suffering, and today is no exception.
What is the suffering he mentions? I’ve talked before about the murder of Christians under Nero. We must not downplay those events as though their infrequency mitigates their savagery. We don’t have much success, though, if we hunt in historical records for an official, empire-wide program of persecution aimed at Christians. The suffering 1 Peter describes is likely localized, unofficial, and not sustained. There are days when the Christian receives no harassment, there are times when the town or province is stewing with anti-Christian sentiment, and there are times when being Christian turns fatal. That’s the reality in 1 Peter’s world. Christians are vulnerable. By refusing to worship Rome’s gods, Christians gave up any legal protections they had, and became defenseless. In today’s lection, Peter uses the metaphor of slavery. These are slave instructions. Peter has no instructions for masters or owners, and these instructions follow his claim that all Christians are slaves of God. Peter probably wants us to think of the vulnerability of being Christian. You’re defenseless like slaves, regardless of your life outside of the Church.
First Peter’s context is timely. Even before the Executive Orders signed Thursday there was a poll released by Brookings through The Atlantic. According to the poll, nearly half of Americans believe Christians are discriminated against for being Christian and that this is at least as big a deal as racism or sexism. A good question for us to ask when reading an article like this is, “What does one mean by ‘Christian’?” The author of the article cites anti-LGBT laws and anti-abortion laws as things Christians are supposed to like, so that may give us some idea of what people mean. The poll also indicates that American Christians don’t like non-Christians. In the poll, if immigrants are referred to (accurately) as Mexican, Americans oppose their immigration; if the same immigrants are referred to (again, accurately) as Christian, Americans favor their immigration.
Does this “Christianity” line up with the Church the New Testament describes? First Peter says all are slaves and vulnerable and that comes with the territory. The Acts reading conveys Luke’s memory of a church in which the participants, rich and poor, male and female, slave and free, lived together in common, sharing their resources, caring for the less fortunate, praying, eating together, and growing in numbers. These two things, vulnerability and equality, seem to be major causes of the early church’s troubles. First, being vulnerable makes you an easy target. Anyone whose spent any time on a school playground knows that the bully or the mob picks on the weak kid to feel better and stronger. Second, the Church was a group that flew in the face of Roman society. In that world, everything was about your family and its honor and status in the world. And here’s the Church, where elite citizens, slaves, artisans, and peasants are on equal footing and celebrate this and are acting like we should all try it! That sort of group is going to catch a whole range of grief. They’re different and growing but vulnerable: let’s get them!
Considering the situation the Bible describes, I’ve produced a quick questionnaire to see if you are being discriminated against for being Christian. First, are you living in a community of equals that practices radical hospitality and advocates for distributive justice and whose members worship an unseen person, that person’s human Son, and a nebulous Spirit person as a three-person God? Second, are you catching grief because of this or any part of this? If you can answer yes to both questions, you are suffering for being Christian. If not, then you aren’t.
Don’t worry: if you want to be a target, being authentically Christian is a great way to make that happen. Now, Christians may not get targeted for the sake of being targeted, like someone who arranges to have an accident so they can sue for the insurance money. It’s also worth noting that my claiming to be a target doesn’t make me one. Like, if I own a business with public bathrooms and won’t let transgender people use them and they sue me. I am not being discriminated against; I’m the one trying to discriminate! No, if we get discriminated against as Christians it is because we have this habit of finding the most vulnerable people and standing in solidarity with them. If you’re homebound, we come to you. If you’re hungry, we feed you, homeless we house you, targeted by society, we invite you in and we walk out with you and take the risks you have to take.
We pick up this habit from Christ. Peter calls Christ our “example.” The Greek word literally refers to a pattern of letters schoolchildren traced to learn the alphabet. My daughters learned to make their letters by first tracing dotted lines, and doing this repeatedly until they could try on their own. And then the letters are on the classroom wall for future reference. That’s the image Peter gives us of Christ. His life, death, and resurrection are dotted lines we trace and copy repeatedly. We trace his life with our life. We get into the habit of living this cruciform life.
With this context in mind we can approach the pastoral metaphors in the Gospel of John. Jesus says that the sheep know his voice. It’s fair to ask how. In part, it’s because we the sheep have been practicing. We’ve been tracing Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, so we recognize Jesus when we hear him. We also know his voice, in part, because Christ has made us able to know his voice. In the classic language of Sin and Forgiveness, Sin keeps us from following God but Christ destroys the power of sin and so we, being free, choose to follow Christ. That’s St. Augustine: a truly free will chooses Christ, so Christ frees the will from Sin that the will may follow Christ. John uses different images to say something similar. Jesus demands that we love God and neighbor, and then Jesus loves us, his neighbors, to the end and beyond—lays down his life for the sheep, he says—and draws us to follow. We see it done. In 1 Peter, we see the dotted lines of the alphabet and the pencil in our hand, and the Holy Spirit says, “Write!” In John, we see the love of God in Jesus for us and we hear his “Eat and drink with one another in remembrance,” and his “love one another,” and the Holy Spirit says, “Yes! Do that!”
It is Christ who enables us to be Christian. Seems obvious, but worth noting. It’s not us. We do social justice and excellent liturgy here at Trinity, but that’s not because we’re so great; it’s because Christ enables us to do those things. Christ enables us to be Christian. Christ enables us to trace his cruciform path. Our work for justice and our work in worship are only Christian insofar as we follow Christ’s cruciform path.
So, what shall we make of Thursday’s Executive Orders? Historically in the US Churches are permitted, by the Constitution and US Code, to engage in political discourse, advocate for people or issues, and to talk within our churches about how our teachings inform our political decisions. The Executive Order signed Thursday doesn’t change that. It makes it easier for churches to endorse candidates, to raise money for candidates, to use our churches to demonize our political opponents and deify our political allies, to turn our churches into organs either of the state we have or of the state we wish we had.
We as Christians aren’t supposed to do that. That goes beyond being Christian. Yes, I am Christian and I vote, and I also have to live and work with whatever government I’ve got. That’s why, as a pastor in this community, I don’t take on any sort of public partisan role. So, though I am now (at least until a federal judge says otherwise) free to endorse or condemn to hell whomever I please from this pulpit, I will not do it. Because as a Christian I am not supposed to do that. As a sheep, I follow my shepherd in his cruciform path of justice. As a disciple, I trace Christ’s cruciform dotted lines. As a member of the flock of equals, I imitate Christ in seeking out those whose vulnerability is involuntary, and in standing with them. It remains to be seen who is made vulnerable by this Order, but Christ calls me to be with them. So, to those who wrote the order: thanks for thinking of us. But no thanks.