‘Endurance not Atonement’

Posted: April 27, 2023 in Uncategorized

‘Endurance not Atonement’

The text left of the lectionary is 2.17, 18 which give our reading context. In leaving them off we are invited into a generalization that invites us to think about Christ. 2:18 exhorts slaves to be subject to their masters, cruel or otherwise. 2:17 had commended honouring the emperor. For slaves there is a reward of some kind for suffering unjustly; none, however, for suffering what they deserve (2:20). 1 Peter lives within a structure of authorities, including abusive authorities, and obviously sees no way out except to remain faithful and at most shame or silence the abusers, as 2:15 suggests. 2:20 indicates perhaps that more is entailed than simply doing good in a passive way – not doing evil. Akin perhaps to peace not being the absence of war but the creation of another state of being. The comparison with Christ which follows may also invite us to think more widely about the nature of goodness, not in the sense of passive acceptance but with endurance. There are times when the only alternative is to endure. Few of us know such experiences, but they happen and are happening. When we are not facing such situations, we have little idea of what such courageous tenacity means. Imprisonment, torture, abuse, are still up to date in the arsenal of oppressive regimes. One might think of people living under an oppressive governing regime or captured withing the arena of war. Without power in the face of a dominant system the only option is endurance. Christ’s endurance can be a central model.

1 Peter sees the event of Jesus’ suffering primarily against the background of vicarious atonement interpreted from Isaiah 53 and probably reflecting earlier Christian tradition. Note that it is likely a vicarious atonement and not a literalized one. Metaphorical as opposed to factual. The passage from Isaiah allows the author to reinforce sinlessness, an echo of 1:20. It also reinforces non retaliation. History shows that it is hard for oppressed people not to hate their oppressors during times of oppression and, when they are over and they assume power, they are exhorted not, themselves to become oppressors. Hate has no place for those imitating Christ nor for those seeking to be in solidarity with them. When anger at injustice and the need to confront abuse and abusers takes the further step and hates or kills, then something terrible happens to the vision: it ceases to be a vision of justice and hope, because it has sown the seeds of death. It is, perhaps, too easy to reflect wisely about loving enemies. We need to meet those who have. 1:24 reminds us that all that God did in Christ was that we might live – not that any should die or be deemed unworthy of life. In Christ meant being in a changed state.

Isaiah 53 also stimulates the imagery of sheep and shepherds, taking off from the negative comment about going astray to celebrate Christ as the shepherd and overseer (episkopos; the Greek word for bishop, supervisor, superintendent, overseer). In such adversity this is something to hold onto and in which to hope.

Taken into other contexts this passage can serve the interests of oppressive regimes, however well dressed in piety. Then it teaches people to be doormats, to put up with abuse, be brave, and not to raise questions. It misreads the text to see it as a general call to passivity. Part of the “doing good” alluded to in 2:20 must also have echoes of “doing justice”. We often find ourselves in situations where passivity is collusion, where we can speak out and become active and need to do so. The more we come to understand how oppression and exploitation work, the more we need to address them, whether in the interests of those being oppressed or in our own. Jesus ended up facing his passion only because before that he had the courage to alert people by word and deed to an alternative vision, an alternative kingdom (regime), creating enough confusion and trouble for the authorities to tidy him away. He did not get there by being a doormat. We must also see Jesus’ death in the light of his life; otherwise we will have no idea what this life is for which he died and think it some kind of promise of escape to bliss.

Our reading from John’s Gospel introduces the shepherd image as a rich and traditional image, even if it no longer forms part of everyday life for most people today and reflects practices quite foreign to the sheep farming with which most are familiar. Like images of kings and queens, which have long since lost their relevance for most in contemporary society, even where monarchies survive, this is a persistent image. Images have their own life. The Latin translation, ‘pastor’, has tended to associate the shepherd image with ministry. Originally it was most common as a metaphor for rulers, as far back as the Pharaohs. It was a way of describing royal responsibilities which included caring for subjects, the flock. It was apt symbolism when David became the shepherd king and the model for messianic hope.

These associations are swirling around in the background as we consider our passage. The sheep are unambiguously people who are to be cared for. That fact, in itself, represents a value implicit in the image. For us it might evoke Jesus’ parable about caring even for the one lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), which Matthew then applies to care for members of the church who have fallen morally (18:12-14), an important value in a vengeful, unforgiving age. John’s Jesus is ambitious to make the whole world a flock for divine love, far beyond Israel (10:16; 3:16). The idea of Peter’s endurance comes to mind when thinking about herding sheep. The text from John introduces assumptions within which 10:1-6 focuses on leadership. When John reports in 10:6 that Jesus’ hearers did not know what the parable meant, John’s hearers are being challenged to get it and so are we. This was not too difficult with the image of call and response. A call to endure perhaps? Perhaps, the call to endure is a model of leadership of importance. It makes sense in an environment of systemic oppression where the new is an option some way off and endurance becomes a significant difference. Sheep belonging to a particular shepherd who endures would follow that shepherd through the gate in the morning out into the new day.

The parable may imply the instruction: make sure you listen to his voice! It might also be explaining why some sheep belong and why some do not, an assurance for those who belong that they are special and a comfort for the failure to attract others. The parable of the sower also came to serve that function. John’s gospel has a number of sayings which suggest a closed system according to which only those in the light respond to the light (eg. 3:19-21) and only those who are drawn may come (eg. 6:44). It is important to recognise their function and not to make them the basis for exclusive systems, because it is equally apparent that whoever hears and responds may come and will move from darkness to light. The paradox is promising.

There is more, however, to the parable than urging response and explaining rejection. It is warning about rival claims to leadership. In the context of Jesus’ ministry which forms the primary setting for the gospel story those rivals are the other Jewish leaders with whom Jesus is in dispute. In the context of the gospel they are doubtless also other Jewish leaders who compete for the loyalty of John’s sheep. The dangers envisaged here may be a range of rivals from other Jewish leaders even to Christian Jewish leaders and, perhaps, non Jewish as well. If we read this from the world of 1 John we would recognise such leaders as those who disputed the writer’s teaching and had led their Christians out to a new Spirit-inspired understanding of Christ which elevated him above the flesh and blood which appeared to compromise his divinity (2:19; 4:1-6).

It is difficult to discern how far these disputes already formed the background for the gospel, but it is clear here and in Jesus’ parting words and prayer (especially John 15-17), that disunity was a major threat. Certainly the image interprets Jesus’ conflicts with ‘the Jews’ at the feast, as 10:26-30 show. There the association of shepherd and ‘messiah-king’ is assumed (10:22-25). But like in most of John’s gospel, contemporary concerns are never far away. There is an ongoing tension between the will to include all and the need to explain rejection and console the flock who respond. The latter is quite dangerous and in some hands leads to hate and exclusivity (including antisemitism). Yet this is the gospel grounded in John 3:16 and a vision of unity, which ultimately wants to embrace all in compassion.

What seems to many a romantic and gentle image and even one of defeat, endurance is in fact a very theologically political statement. It invites us to look out for dangers in our own times and to recognise that rejection and punishment and success will sometimes present themselves as religiously plausible. What is important in the challenge is the place of endurance in suffering sometimes is a challenge to the status quo. What is apparent in this challenge is that thinking critically about theology remains crucial to the leader’s task. Endurance is ultimately a way of engaging and being engaged by God and being called out into the day. This could be an argument for including the first two verses of the text, and for acknowledging the part that endurance plays in the change process. It might have spoilt the generalization of the passage from 1st Peter but then that should alert us to the limited (yet valid) application of the passage and remind us that in many contexts endurance is not submission but rather endurance and as such is in harmony with the way of Jesus. Amen

William Loader https://billloader.com/lectionaryindex.html


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