Today’s reading from the First Letter of Peter seems to have very little in common with the modern world. It’s about upholding and justifying the ancient institution of slavery.
Christianity was very attractive to slaves. In his working life Jesus might have been more middle class than plebeian, but he endured the death of a slave when he was hanged upon a cross and he preached the equality before God of all people, male and female, rich and poor, Jewish and non-Jewish.
However, as slaves flocked to join the Church, so it’s leaders became increasingly anxious to explain to the government that the new religion was not subversive or dangerous. Slaves were not to demand equal rights to match their spiritual equality with their owners. Instead, they were to put up with injustice and suffering, while remembering that - in doing so - they were imitating the path which Jesus had walked.
‘When he was abused, he did not retaliate. When he suffered, he uttered no threats,’ says the writer. In fact, being treated unjustly was to be considered a badge of honour.
The slaves were to think of themselves as free men and women, but only in so far as Jesus has set them free from sin so that they could begin to live for righteousness. They were still to submit to their owners, even when their owners were unjust and cruel. Their consolation was that they knew Jesus was their ultimate master, and he was both perfect kindness and perfectly just, ‘the Shepherd and Guardian of their souls’.
No Christian would seek to justify slavery now, but - of course - many of us are still what Marxists would call ‘wage slaves’. We don’t have owners, but we do have managers and bosses, some of whom can be very unjust and even vindictive at times. We wouldn’t expect to have to put up with a beating, but might we be expected to suffer all sorts of other minor humiliations and unjust criticisms in order to set a Christ-like example in the workplace? I know ministers sometimes feel that way and I’m sure lots of other people have the same sort of experiences.
I was amazed one day, talking to my female colleagues in my day job, when some of them began talking about the sexual harassment they had endured in the workplace, especially when they were much younger and had first gone out to work. Managers and supervisors had routinely cuddled and squeezed them. One or two had even chased girls round the office - or wherever - begging for a kiss. The women seemed to feel it was just something they had had to endure as graciously as possible, with quiet resignation.
Of course that was ten, fifteen or even twenty years ago. Perhaps we live in less forgiving and more equal times now. I know from experience that employers and managers often live and work in fear and trepidation of the dreaded employment tribunal, where wrongs against employees can be spectacularly righted. And yet, did you know that - in most cases - people who have been employed for less than one year have virtually no employment rights at all and can still be hired and fired at the whim of their employer? If you’re young, or new in post, times may not be so very different from the days of ancient Rome.
So what does this passage have to say to us about how we conduct ourselves at work, or when we’re dealing with our own employees? Surely it reminds us to try to be kind, forbearing and respectful to everyone, even when they don’t always deserve it. Sometimes we do behave well and yet find ourselves having to endure a tongue lashing from managers or customers. Behaving graciously under fire is a true test of our Christian convictions.
Mind you, if the writer is suggesting that we are supposed to be doormats, putting up with constant abuse, I am sure that is wrong. But we are supposed to try to diffuse conflicts, avoid retaliation and trust that our own Christ-like conduct will the be the best response to injustice and will stand us in good stead if things finally do come to a head and we find ourselves making a formal complaint or submitting a grievance.
In the earlier service this morning we saw that the Church is supposed to be a place of comparative safety and security compared to the world beyond. It’s not perfectly safe, because there are still people in the Church who are not dedicated to following the way of Jesus but have climbed in some other way, like a thief clambering over the wall of a sheepfold to attack the sheep.
However, those who are truly committed to the way of Jesus, though never perfect of course, should be safer to be around than some of the rapacious and unkind people we sometimes encounter outside the Christian community. If that turns out not be true of any of the Christian communities we know, then it says something about how close or far away they are from Christ himself.
That is what is so shocking about the catalogue of child abuse uncovered in the Roman Catholic Church in recent years, and the way it was covered up. None of the Churches escapes its share of blame for failing to deal with pastoral abuse, harrassment and bullying in the past - whether by ministers or lay leaders - but the Roman Catholic Church sometimes seemed to feel that it was better to pretend to be a safe and secure Christian community than to admit that some wolves or rustlers had got in amongst the flock. This is a reminder that the Church and its members always have to be on their guard, to look after the vulnerable and to make sure that those who seek the protection and support of the Church really are safe from harm and will be surrounded and supported, by and large, by a loving and caring community.
And so we come to the picture in the Acts of the Apostles of what the ideal church should be like. If the early Church really was like this, it certainly didn’t last for long because - by chapter five - people were already being expelled for hypocrisy and double dealing, and when we get to the Letters of St Paul all of the problems of today’s church are already much in evidence. But here in Acts chapter two we are told that the first Christians met constantly to hear sermons and Bible study, to pray and to share holy communion. And these were not once-a-week Christians; this pattern of spirituality was a daily routine.
Not that they were they a bunch of kill-joys or spoil sports. Instead they shared their food and possessions with unaffected joy, filling their lives with praise and impressing all the people who came into contact with them. Not surprisingly, the Lord was able to add daily to their number.
We live in more cynical times, I suspect, and in a nation renowned in Europe and throughout the world for its particular cynicism, shallowness and lack of spiritual awareness. But even so, if we could manage to be just a little bit like the joyful and enthusiastic church described in the Acts of the Apostles, and if we could make sure that we were a safe and secure zone where people can shelter in the love of Christ and away from the casual injustices and petty cruelties of the world, could we not also add new members monthly, if not daily, to our number?