Imagine if someone told the so-called “ugly duckling” the truth. That it was in fact not a duck at all, but a swan. You know the children’s story. I’ve mentioned it before in relation to this letter. The “ugly duckling” gets bullied by the other ducklings for being different, but when he grows up, he discovers that he is a beautiful, graceful swan, not a duck.
Why didn’t anyone tell him, back in those horrible days when he was being abused and called ugly, that there was nothing wrong with him? That the things that make him different are just part of what he is and that one day he would mature and be a great swan.
Wouldn’t that change the story? Wouldn’t that help that little cygnet to endure and even rejoice in the ways that he is different. Wouldn’t it give him hope and strength?
Peter, writing this letter to Christians all over the Roman province of Asia Minor (the land that makes up most of the country of Turkey today) is a bit like someone taking that bullied little swan aside and telling him what he is and what he will grow to be in the future.
These Christians were once pagans like their neighbours. They heard the gospel, believed in Jesus and were saved. Born again. A new identity. A new purpose. A new hope. But because of their differences they were being persecuted. They were suffering for their faith. So, when Peter the apostle writes to encourage them, he doesn’t just tell them to cheer up, he reminds them of their identity. Peter reminds them what they are.
These are not just some people with new ideas that make them strange where they once used to fit in. They are, as Peter says in his greeting, “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood” (1 Peter 1:2).
That is the identity of every Christian. You included, if you belong to Jesus. If you’ve put your trust in Jesus and his sacrifice for your salvation and accepted him as Lord, then what Peter says of the first readers of this letter is also true of you.
While we have this new heavenly identity we still must live in this world. This sin-broken world. Part of living in this world, and living out our faith, and being different is enduring the world’s negative reaction. Just like that little swan, we will suffer for the ways that we stand out. And yet we must stand out. We must be different. We must live out the identity we’ve been given. Or else what use are we? We’d be like salt that’s lost its saltiness or a lamp that’s been covered? How can the world see the different way that Christ calls us to if we don’t live it?
Suffering for the faith is to be expected. We may suffer persecution, or we may suffer through temptation, but there will be suffering or struggle in the Christian life. It’s a struggle to swim against the current. So, as well as telling Christians the amazing truth of what we are and the hope that we have, Peter also instructs us on how to live this life going against the flow and enduring the suffering that comes with it. And that’s really what we’re getting into today in this passage. How to confront the darkness. How to react to evil.
Imagine that young swan is told that he is in fact a swan. How should he react the next time he’s taunted for being different? Should he shout back? Should he declare that he is a magnificent swan and how dare these silly ducks try to bully him? Should he become mean as a reaction to the meanness he’s suffered? No. Christians must respond with grace and goodness. We fight the darkness not by becoming like it but by shining our light.
Peter says in verse 16:
“Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.”
(1 Peter 2:16, NIV)
Free people and God’s slaves. Same thing. We are truly free people because we belong to God our Creator and live to serve him. We’ve been liberated from the darkness of this world that has power over others. But we must use our freedom for good and not as an excuse for evil.
The two examples Peter gives here of how Christians should react to the world are submission to authority (namely the emperor and governors) and submission of slaves to their masters.
The emperor at this time wasn’t just obeyed, he was worshipped. So, these Christians, freed from this idolatry by the gospel, with their eyes now opened to the ugliness of that worship, how should they act? They must not worship the emperor, but they must still obey the law and submit to authority. We must too. We must keep the law, even the laws we don’t like, so long as they do not contradict God’s law. We are to show ourselves to be good citizens who benefit our society.
Peter’s words on slavery can be a bit alarming to modern ears. I could go into how slavery in the Greco-Roman world, was very different from modern slavery, which it was, but slavery is still bad, and some people say that this text is an example of the Bible justifying slavery. The slaves are told to submit to their masters out of fear and consciousness of God. It says nothing about slavery being good. As I said earlier, this passage is about how to confront the darkness. How to react to evil.
Jesus gave similar instructions. For example, Jesus said:
But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.
(Matthew 5:39, NIV)
We are to react with grace and courage and goodness in response to evil. Being told to turn the other cheek when someone strikes you does not justify the act of striking. Nobody thinks for a second that Jesus is saying that slapping people on the cheek is okay. In the same way a slave being told to submit to their master is not justification for slavery. This passage does not attempt to justify slavery. It is instruction for those who suffer on how to respond to evil. How should Christians respond to evil? In the same way that Christ responded.
Christ endured his suffering. He never responded to cruelty with cruelty. He never returned hatred for hatred. Even as he was being nailed to the cross, Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of those who were crucifying him. Jesus responded with grace, and if we are followers of Jesus then that is how we must respond too.
Jesus entrusted himself to God, and so we must do the same. We respond with grace because we know that God is sovereign over all. It is better to reflect the grace of God that we have been shown than to reflect the hatred of the world that we experience.
Sovereign Lord, may we entrust ourselves to you knowing that you are in control. You are Lord of all. We pray that you would help us to live lives of faith, which enable us to be gracious even in the face of hatred and opposition.
We pray for our government and all those all over the world who have been entrusted with authority. We pray that they would lead with wisdom, justice and a love for those in their care.
We pray for the safety of the people of Ireland as we are seeing a sharp increase in the number of COVID-19 cases. Help us to care for each other by exercising caution and abiding by the guidelines issued by our government.
We pray for the protection of the vulnerable. We pray for comfort for those who mourn and healing for those who are sick. We pray for strength, skill and protection for those leading the fight against this virus.
We pray also for those we know personally now as we take a moment of silence.
In Jesus’ name we pray.