1 Peter 2:19-25
May 11, 2014
William G. Carter
For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 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. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
Tuesday was a beautiful morning at Antietam National Battlefield. The sky was bright blue, the rolling farmland was a carpet of spring green. John Conklin suggested I should stop by, if ever in the area. Tuesday morning, I realized I was very close. With a little time on my hands, I stopped by.
Most of our Civil War battlefields are now quiet spaces. Well preserved, hauntingly quiet. Standing at the ridge by the visitor’s center, I looked toward the old German church, imagining McClellan’s army coming up on Robert E. Lee. I recalled Matthew Brady’s early photographs of dying soldiers on the fields of Antietam. 23,000 people died in the one-day Battle of Antietam. September 17, 1862 was the bloodiest single day in United States history.
If you have visited these battlefields as I have, you wonder about the blood and the massacre. On a beautiful spring day, you wonder what the violence accomplished. In 1862, Antietam did not end the war. The leaders of both sides did not recoil from the horror and say, “That’s it. All of us have had enough. No more violence ever again.” Oh no. The Civil War went on for two and a half more years. Violence does not end all violence.
I was thinking about this sermon as I wandered around the battlefield. Our text reminds us of Good Friday and the death of Jesus. That was another brutal day. Sometimes I think we have spruced up the crucifixion, much like we have tidied up a Civil War battlefield.
Holy Week was not that long ago. I recall the grim faces at our last men’s Bible study. We were studying the account in the Gospel of John, where the Jewish religious leaders asked the Roman soldiers to speed up the executions so they could get on with their Passover celebrations. The men in our group turned pale as we read of soldiers breaking the legs of the crucified men so they could suffocate sooner. The cross was a horrible way to die, brutal and violent.
In today’s text, an early church leader turns to the cross for a moral lesson. “Look to the cross,” he says. “Jesus did not return abuse for the abuse he suffered. When the Lord suffered, he could have retaliated but he did not. Instead he trusted himself to the God who judges every person.” All the time, in the words of the African American spiritual, “He never said a mumbalin’ word.”
Peter was speaking to a congregation of Christians who are suffering. They knew first-hand that those who follow Jesus have a tough time in the world. They can be mistreated for doing the right thing, maligned for setting God’s ways as their highest pursuit. This was especially true for the primary audience addressed by Peter. They were house servants, many of them domestic slaves. They were bound to serve earthly masters, but as Christians they had a higher Master. And it is God in Christ who determines the Christian’s behavior; it is not our situation in life.
It is difficult to stay clear about that. With my hands shading my eyes, I looked toward Antietam Creek. The water ran thick red on that day in 1862. Sharpshooters stood on the ridges above, picking off scores of enemies trying to forge the stream. 23,000 men died in a single day. We remember three men dying on crosses outside of Jerusalem. One was more than enough.
The writer of our Bible text is reflecting on that single death. What does it mean? For a group of downtrodden Christians, the violent death of Jesus means that we must refrain from perpetuating the violence. Jesus taught as much: “You are not,” he said, “to love the neighbor and hate the enemy, speak to the friendly but not the unfriendly, be generous to the generous but withhold from the selfish. No, God acts out of God’s own nature, never reacting, but sending sun and rain to both the just and unjust.” God loves all, even if they do not deserve it.
Here is one of the many things that the New Testament says about on the death of Jesus. What does this mean? “Christ suffered for you,” he declares. There is something freeing about this, something profoundly liberating. Peter says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness.” Then he reaches back into the Jewish scriptures to find an affirmation from the prophet Isaiah, “By his wounds you have been healed.”
It is intriguing that after President Lincoln heard about the violence at Antietam, he regarded the Civil War differently. It was about more than states rights, and whether or not the southern states could do whatever they wanted. It was also about freeing those who were enslaved. Four days after the gunfire stopped in Antietam, Lincoln announced he would issue his Emancipation Proclamation as of January 1863. All slaves in rebellious states would be forever free.
So I’ve been thinking about how all of this holds together. What amount of self-sacrifice is necessary to provide freedom for others? Not merely to exert control over the rebellious tribes but to create freedom – and finally reconciliation? These are more than Civil War questions from 152 years ago. They are matters of the greater gospel, begun on a cross in 30 A.D.
We say a lot of things about the cross – “Jesus died for our sins,” for instance, even though our sins continue. Or another New Testament writer declares, “Christ has broken down the wall of hostility between us . . . through the cross.” But there is still great hostility in the air among a lot of people; I observe, in some corners, we could make the case that the Civil War may not be over yet, and it’s still Blue against Gray.
So in these days after Easter, when we reflect on the cross, we see how far God will go to bring violent people into peace. God cannot compel warring people to stop their war, not without obliterating all of them. But here is what God will do: with all vulnerability, God will step onto the middle of the battlefield and take all the bullets – all the anger, all the hostility – into his own body. God takes all of it on the cross, in order to take it all away . . . provided we let it all go.
That’s the human struggle, isn’t it? I saw war in the eyes of the lady who cut me off on the highway yesterday, then she glared at me as if it was my fault. Sorry, not that time. But I have to let it go.
I saw it on the sign outside the visitor’s center at Antietam. In official lettering, it declared that guns and firearms are not welcome at a battlefield memorial. Just let the irony of that sink in. Then ask: why would anybody take guns and firearms to a battle that is already over?
But my favorite glimpse came when I pulled off to a little spot to write a few notes about Antietam, and I discovered where I was. There it was - a monument to Clara Barton. I didn’t know for what she did on that battlefield. A forty-year old clerk in Washington’s patent office, she collected medical supplies and food to deliver to the soldiers. Her father had taught her that Christians care for those in need. She persisted with army officials until she received permission in August 1862 to take humanitarian supplies to the front lines.
One month later on the field of Antietam, she got busy, bandaging the wounded, feeding the hungry, showing compassion regardless of what side of the line anybody fought. They called her “the Angel of the Battlefield.” A few years after that, she organized the American Red Cross.
She did this willingly: she went to the battlefield to bind up wounds. She offered compassion to all soldiers regardless of whether they wore blue or gray. She is still remembered for her mercy at a level far beyond the soldiers or their generals. Through her deeds, she pointed us beyond the war to another way of living. And just to score the point: we would never have known about her if she hadn't entered the war.
These are clues to the work accomplished by Jesus on the cross. He entered the battle between heaven and earth, putting himself squarely on the battlefield of rebellious Confederates and warlike Yankees. And he gave himself that all people ultimately might be healed.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.