Do you know the Serenity Prayer? It’s used in a lot of 12-step programs, and there are a lot of people who have it as decorative art in their homes. It’s a prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr, a well-known pastor, a little over 50 years ago, and it goes like this:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Most people think of this as a prayer that, at its heart, asks God to bring us peace when we can’t change things. Surely, that’s the first line, and is important. But just as important is the next line. It’s a prayer for courage to change the things we can. And finally, of course, it’s a prayer for the wisdom to know the difference between what we can change, and what we can’t; what we should change, and what we aren’t going to be able to.
A few simple lines, and yet they’ve been inspirational to people for over 50 years. In a lot of ways, these lines are ripped right from the life of Jesus. When he saw that there were people with diseases he could heal, he changed that and healed them. When he saw hungry people, he fed them, changing them. But when it came time for him to be betrayed and hanged on a cross… well, that was a little more complicated. He actually prayed for God to take away that fate, but God did not answer. Jesus had to go through with it, and in that moment, he needed peace – needed serenity. Jesus needed to be able to face his fate at that moment, because it couldn’t be changed, so he had to have the strength to face it.
Just so you know, before I go any further, just to let you know, I’m going to be doing a fair bit of reading against Scripture this morning. The Bible is more than a book – it’s a library. And, like any library, it’s full of diverse opinions, differing perspectives, and alternative understandings. This morning, I’ve read for you a passage from 1 Peter, and I think Peter gets a lot of it wrong. So this morning, I’m going to do as charitable of a reading as I can, trying to give Peter credit for what he gets right; but at the same time, we have to acknowledge the weaknesses in his arguments – the holes that he has in what he says. And I think, as we examine the words that Peter has for us, we need to keep in mind the life of Jesus, as well as the Serenity Prayer with which I started us off this morning, as I think they serve as good guides for how to best understand what Peter is saying.
So, today’s passage from 1 Peter starts off in a bold way. Peter addresses his audience and says, “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” Huh. Well, I’ll tell you this much: it’s a lot easier to tell a slave how to behave if you’re not a slave. We, as human beings, are very good at telling other people what they should do; we’re less good at listening to people when they tell us what to do. We think we know what’s best, and that’s how we’re going to act.
He begins by telling people, essentially, “It doesn’t matter if you’re beaten or mistreated, just deal with it.” Well, I’ll tell you this much: that’s terrible advice. If a situation is abusive, or if someone is being bought and sold as property, or if someone is bullying you, you have dignity and don’t have to be in that situation. No one deserves those things, period. Regardless of what Peter says in this letter, human beings have inherent dignity, being created in the image of God. And we shouldn’t treat people in a way that would be inappropriate to treat God. So Peter is flat-out wrong in this instance, and that’s why I have to read against this text a bit.
We need to talk about the problematic elements of this bit of writing from 1 Peter, because for years, this passage was used to justify slavery. It was used to convince women and children in abusive households that they just had to deal with the abuse. But those things aren’t right. They aren’t ways that we would treat God; therefore, they’re not ways we should treat one another. So we need to think about how bad some of this passage can be in order to get what good we can out of it.
And while we didn’t start off too well with the whole slavery thing, things don’t really get much better next, particularly if you think about abuse. Peter immediately transitions from his mention of slavery to the idea of being beaten when you didn’t do anything wrong, and how admirable that is. Of course, people shouldn’t be beaten. That’s just common sense. And when people are being beaten, they should get out of that situation. So it’s best not to take Peter too literally here.
However, we also have to give Peter a charitable reading. And while he’s wrong when it comes to how people should be treated in everyday life, he’s not altogether wrong about taking on punishment you don’t deserve, is he? We’ve all known (or lived) stories of siblings where one gets in trouble and the other gets away with something. And I’m sure we also know examples of one sibling taking the blame for something they didn’t even do. I know I’ve seen it happen. I’ve also seen close friends take the blame for one another to avoid getting someone in trouble with their parents. It is admirable to endure suffering, particularly if it’s on the behalf of someone else, when you’ve done nothing wrong. And that’s what Peter is writing to us about. While he starts by talking about slaves, I think that’s a misapplication of his own theology. Ultimately, what Peter is talking about is suffering for others. That’s not necessarily a goal we should shoot for; rather, it helps us put into perspective what Jesus has done for us.
Our goal is not to become a punching bag, either literally or metaphorically. Rather, our goal is to recognize the suffering of Jesus, and to live out his message. There’s a fine line between living out the message of Jesus and deliberately taking on punishment, but I think there’s a bit of guidance in this passage.
Peter talks quite a bit about Jesus in this passage. He mentions the sinlessness of Jesus – that, although we are sinners, Jesus is not. So Peter holds up Jesus as an example for us. And that is certainly something for Jesus to be – an example. Where Peter has it wrong is that we’re just supposed to arbitrarily accept suffering. That’s not the case; as I’ve mentioned already, that’s not even what Jesus does. He sees suffering all the time, and is often unwilling to accept it. He uses the gifts he has to fight against suffering, as we all should. Living up to his example means that, whenever we can, we fight back against injustice in the world.
We’re not supposed to give in to bullies, just because they want us to. We’re not supposed to roll over for disease, just because it gets to us. We’re not supposed to just accept a government if it starts killing its own citizens. We’re not supposed to allow people to be bought and sold like goods just because Peter says suffering is good. Yet, this passage has been used to justify all those things throughout history. It has been misapplied and misused to try to convince people that they don’t deserve basic human dignity; it has been used to affirm the exact opposite of what Jesus teaches us, which is that we’re all God’s beloved children, created in God’s image.
Thus, a more nuanced approach is this: suffering happens. We can’t fight everything, so what do we do when we can’t? This is what the first line of the serenity prayer deals with, and what a generous reading of this passage tells us, too. We can (and should!) stand up to evil, because that’s the very heart of Jesus’ message. But sometimes, we can’t. Sometimes, it’s too big, or we’re too tired. Sometimes, we take the punishment for someone else.
And in those cases, what Peter says is spot-on. In those situations, we remember the life of Jesus. We remember that he fought against all sorts of evil – demons that possessed people, religious authorities who persecuted him, hunger, disease, racism, sexism, ageism, violence. There are examples of Jesus fighting against every one of those things. But when the fight came that he couldn’t win, how did he conduct himself? What can we learn from that?
And in that context, let Peter’s words wash over you again: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.”
In other words, when we can’t fight back, we maintain our dignity. We recognize that we are still fearfully and wonderfully made, created in God’s image. We have to realize that, even when the evil comes that we can’t fight back, we have Christ at our side. And when he suffered in those circumstances, he bore that weight with love.
Jesus took his last days and made them about spending time with his friends; giving lessons to those who needed them. Jesus didn’t let his mortality get in the way of living out God’s call. Instead, he embraced things twice as hard. As he was dying on the cross, he took that moment of unbelievable agony to forgive someone else, as the criminal on one side asked for forgiveness. Jesus gave forgiveness to those who had him put to death, because he realized that they did not know what they were doing.
Basically, Jesus didn’t let a little thing like losing a battle get in the way of winning the war, as the cliché goes. You only lose the battle when you give up on the principles that put you where you’re supposed to be. In Jesus’ last moments, he embraced them harder than ever.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus suffered for us, so that we’re not asked to suffer. We inevitably will because the world is still imperfect. So when we face things, we’re asked to face them as Jesus did: with courage, finding the good in a bad situation. We can bring God into places that seem to dark to go. And in those dark places, Resurrection light is shined. It can’t take away the pain of things that are broken, but pain can be transformed into a brighter future when we embrace what God is doing.
We are meant to be more than just slaves, we’re meant for more than to accept harsh treatment by a cruel master. We’re children of God, created in God’s own image. We, and everyone, should be afforded the same dignity that God deserves. So let us go out and boldly live like Jesus. When we suffer, let us do it in a way that causes the world around us to marvel at who we are, and whom we serve. When we see others suffering, let us lift them up out of it. And when we cannot help others, let us remain in solidarity with them, knowing that they suffer just as God did when Jesus came to teach us how to live.
So don’t go out looking for suffering. And don’t let Peter’s poor turn of a phrase be a reason you have to continue to suffer. But know that when comes the battle that you cannot win, you emerge victorious, not by refusing to accept things that you can’t change. Rather, you win by embracing your inner Christ-light, and by living the life Jesus calls you to lead. Amen.