August 5, 2012

Creating Copycats

You know what I haven’t seen during a major sporting event lately?  People running out on the field.  Particularly streakers.  Now, I’m no voyeur, but it is rather entertaining to watch people, usually people who have given control of themselves over to a little molecule made up of two carbons and five hydrogens linked together with an oxygen-hydrogen tail called ethanol, make a fool of themselves on national television.  And in a culture in which celebrity is worshiped with a devotion that makes typical religious devotion look pale by comparison, when someone grabs his fifteen minutes of fame this way, the great likelihood is that someone else is going to do it too.  Indeed, in a culture which doesn’t have a good understanding of the image of God and the value that imparts to all of us, where being famous is the only way to ensure cultural immortality (in this light, short-lived celebrities like this are our culture’s suicide bombers), the kinds of things people are willing to do in order to achieve this charade of everlasting life run the full gamut from harmless and silly, like running onto a football field, to evil and disgusting, like shooting 70 people in a crowded theater.  Do you know why you don’t see field runners on televised sporting events anymore, though?  Because the cameras don’t show them.  Now, before you give me a full chorused, “Duh!”, listen a bit further.  Yes, the cameras not showing the poor fools is the reason we don’t see them, but the reason the cameras don’t show them is where I’m going.  A few years ago some owner or TV producer came to the realization that the only reason all of these people were running out onto the field is that they wanted the momentary fame the first runner received.  Back in grade school we gave a name to people like this: copycats.

Here’s how copycats usually work: someone does something against the rules and gets a public excoriation intended to embarrass them into not doing it again.  Then people talk about the person and analyze her actions from every angle.  But what often ends up happening here?  Someone else notices the attention, decides they’d like a little piece of that pie, and does the same thing.  Do you know how I know this happens?  Because I see it every day.  Noah does something and Mini-Me copies it.  Sometimes that works in reverse, though.  The other day Josiah was pounding his cup on his tray and Lisa asked him to stop, a request he ignored, and then Noah started pounding his hand on the table too.  When you know how to discipline one without the other doing the thing you just disciplined the first for doing let me know.  Understanding they were dealing with adults—at least physically—the stadium owners and TV produces came up with a good plan: they stopped putting the fools on camera.  Neither the jumbotrons nor the living room sets across the country got a look at the field-runners anymore.  And once people realized that wasn’t going to get them any fame, they stopped doing it.

By all accounts, this was a wise approach to solving the problem.  You see, the thing about cats is that sometimes they scratch.  The first few folks ran across the field as quickly as they could.  The next few, though, recognizing public boredom with that approach (and therefore less celebrity and cultural immortality) ran around the field.  Before long someone was going to try to tackle one of the players.  Morgana, the Kissing Bandit, would run out onto the field and try to kiss players.  From there things were likely to get stickier.  When you let copycats breed, sometimes they scratch.  But, what if we took advantage of this copycat pattern and put it to work for something positive?  As we pick back up our series, Strangers, in which we are journeying through the New Testament letter of 1 Peter, this is exactly the method to which Peter points as be begins to unpack the theological truths he (and we) spent the first part of the letter laying out.

As we have taken a week off, let me take just a minute to bring us all up to speed.  In the first week of our series we learned the perhaps unsettling truth that followers of Jesus are strangers in this world.  We don’t look, act, think, or speak like everyone else.  We have given our allegiance to a foreign kingdom and are living as aliens in the place we used to call home.  Over the next three weeks we worked with Peter to uncover the tools we have to help us in this often uncomfortable place.  First, we have a living hope rooted in the life waiting for us when our journey through this place is done.  This gives us the encouragement we need to keep moving forward in spite of the pressures we face to turn around.  Second, we are called to mimic the lifestyle of Christ in our journey.  Anything less than this results in our not being recognizable members of the kingdom of God.  We are to live fully by grace, replicating the holiness of Christ by loving the people around us as we drink deeply from the Spirit’s bevy.  Third, we can rest comfortably in our identity as members of the kingdom.  We have been made a part of the household of God and taken from the ambiguity of sin to the clarity of real life.

As we come to the midpoint of chapter 2 (verse 11 if you’d like to turn there with me), Peter finally begins unpacking what all of these truths actually look like when pursued in the context of our lives.  In this first part of his application Peter focuses his attention on how we should be living with respect to authority in our lives.  There are lots of sources of authority in our lives and thus any model for Christian behavior in society must take this into account.  Peter does this both generally and specifically in a challenging call to action at the heart of this passage.  Wrapped around this challenge is the driving force behind Peter’s suggested approach.  Namely, followers of Jesus are to live in such a way that makes other people want to be like us.  Instead of trying to hide our lifestyle such that no one will see or care, we are to encourage copycats even if they do scratch from time to time.  I think the whole second half of chapter 2 here is structured to communicate this one simple truth: live to create copycats even if they scratch.  We should seek to be famous for doing good.  This is not for the sake of fame itself, but our pursuit of righteousness—modeled after Christ’s own approach—will garner its own recognition.  In the short term this will sometimes be for our benefit, but it will also sometimes be for our detriment.  Yet, when we are rooted in our living hope, lifestyle model, and firm identity, we can keep moving forward with confidence.  Let’s take a look at these words and see how Peter presents all of this.

He begins by focusing on us.  Start reading with me at v. 11: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.  Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”  He says several things here that are simply remarkable and worthy of a bit of attention before we move on.  Peter advises us to abstain from the passions of the flesh.  Does this mean we aren’t supposed to have any fun?  No movies?  No dancing?  No card-playing?  No smiling?  Certainly some believers have moved in this direction.  I don’t think that’s what he’s getting at, though.  His focus is on sinful desires—our desires for things which by all moral accounts we shouldn’t want and yet do in fact want and want more than we want to be rightly related to God for at least the moment.  Let’s be honest with each other: You and I both have our list of things which fit under this heading.  I won’t make us share these right now, but it’s probably worth some of your time to take a few minutes to think through exactly what these are and what they are doing to your ability to be righty related to God and the people around you.  If you want a hint, “nothing” isn’t an option.  Peter says these things wage war against our soul.  What’s a war?  A protracted battle whose end goal is the complete defeat of the opposing side.  You want the truth: all those items on your list, while perhaps not technically immoral according to a solid biblical understanding of our great freedom in Christ, have stepped into that role in your life and they are actively seeking to stamp out any sign of a connection to the One True God in your soul.  In this great conflict there is nothing neutral in this world.  They only have power, though, if we give them access to our soul.  Thus, Peter’s instructions to abstain.  Even if they aren’t technically sinful.  Abstain.  For you they are.

What is perhaps even more remarkable than this, though, is Peter’s reason why.  We should do it because we are strangers in this world.  Strangers of our nature don’t do things like this.  Citizens of the kingdoms of this world do.  Followers of Christ must look different.  The verbal proclamation that you are following Jesus Christ, while important, matters culturally not at all if it isn’t backed up with a radically different lifestyle.  As we live among “the Gentiles,” as my translation puts it (“the natives” as the Message more understandably puts it), if we don’t look differently, act differently, speak differently, think differently, we’re only going to justify the talk that’s already happening.  It’s not a matter of “if” when it comes to citizens of this world badmouthing Christ-followers.  It’s merely a matter of when.  Yet, when they see us living a radically different, radically better, lifestyle, their criticisms will fall flat and they will instead join the kingdom with us.  Christian witness absent a Christian lifestyle in word and deed is little more than intolerant strong-arming to force people to fit a mold into which they don’t want to go, because if you’re no different than them, why should they change what they’re doing simply because you think they’re going to Hell?  Let us instead live to create copycats even if they scratch from time to time.  Live to create copycats even if they scratch.

At this point, we need to get Peter’s full picture of why we should live the lifestyle he next commends.  He’s already explained our side of things.  Now jump with me to v. 21 and we’ll see the other: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.  He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.  When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him to who judges justly.  He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.  By his wounds you have been healed.  For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”

Can I just get an “amen” here?  Those are some incredible words.  That’s the whole Gospel in five verses.  Wow!  But look at what Peter says here.  We are to set an example by which others will come to glorify God because that’s what Jesus did for us.  We should live to create copycats even if they scratch because Jesus made it so that we can copy Him and we most definitely scratch from time to time.  He set the example and faced literally Hell for it.  He was cursed, He became a curse, so that we might be freed from one—the curse of sin and death resulting from the Fall.  Because He was wounded, we can be made whole.  Because He submitted with the utmost of respect to those who were in authority over His body, the way back into the fold has been opened.  If we are going to be like Him, then, we’d better take the same approach.  You see, in this world, respect for authority is rooted primarily in power.  Namely, the authorities have more of it than you and aren’t afraid to use it if you don’t respect them.  The more power we can grab, then, the more authority we can have.  For example, money is perceived as power.  This has always been the case.  Because of this, rich people are often looked to as authorities on all kinds of things including many about which they don’t have any real knowledge.  But they’re rich so they must be an authority on it.  Yet Jesus, who had more authority and power than anyone else ever to walk on this earth submitted Himself.  He humbled Himself to death on a cross.  This doesn’t fit the pattern and yet Jesus’ movement has flourished further than any other in history.  People see this, and when they understand this they want to copy it.  Jesus lived to create copycats even when they have scratched Him.  Let us similarly live to create copycats even if they scratch.

This kind of talk provides a natural segue to the heart of the passage here.  We are to live to create copycats even if they scratch.  How do we do it?  Start reading again with me back at v. 13: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.  For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.  Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.  Honor everyone.  Love the brotherhood.  Fear God.  Honor the emperor.  Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.  For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.  For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure?  But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.”

Now, I’ll admit that these verses probably deserve to have a whole sermon or even three devoted just to them.  That means I’m not possibly going to give them all the attention they warrant this morning.  But let’s look at the big idea here.  Submit.  Be subject.  Respect.  Honor.  Whatever your translation there, it’s all saying the same thing: as followers of Christ, put yourself in a posture of humility toward those who have authority over you.  Now, in the abstract, most professed Christ-followers have no problem with this.  Even in the concrete this isn’t so troubling…as long as said authority is sympathetic to your particular political ideology.  This isn’t what Peter says, though.  He says we are to put ourselves in this posture of humility toward all authorities.  Even the bad ones.  The reason for this is that God is the source of all the authority in the world.  All of it comes from Him.  It is meted out at His discretion.  Now, I realize I’m going to leave a huge question unanswered this morning, namely, what about leaders who have led their people on a screaming charge in the opposite direction of God?  That’s a good question, a hard question, and a question for another time.  For now, it’s important to know that if someone has authority in this life, it’s because God for some reason to which we very well may not have access has given it them.  Our call is to submit to this authority.

Now, do people in positions of authority act in ways that dishonor their source?  Of course.  Are laws passed that are unjust?  Absolutely.  Are Christians to respect God’s law even at the expense of man’s law?  Arguably yes, but such an action should be submissive in posture and we should be prepared to face the consequences of our perceived righteous resistance of authority because we have crossed authority set in place by God.  And the great likelihood is that He isn’t going to shield us much from the consequences.  Instead, He’ll honor our submission just like He did that of His Son.  Don’t forget v. 23: “When he was reviled [spoken badly of], he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”  This kind of behavior creates copycats, even ones that scratch.  Copycats like Mahatma Gandhi.  He was drawn to Jesus’ example of nonresistance and transformed the Indian subcontinent through his leadership.  And yet he scratched: by all accounts he never accepted Jesus as Lord.  By his account he refused such a move because he’d seen too many professed Christ-followers not living up to the standards of their Lord as he strove to do and so thought such a change of allegiance unnecessary.  In the same way, we live to create copycats even if they scratch.

More important than what it means to submit to authority for our purposes this morning, however, is why.  The answer: Because it is the will of God that by doing good we silence our critics.  Angry resistance doesn’t change any minds.  It hardens them.  Love does what force never can.  In fact while some might take this passage as a proof-text in favor of civil disobedience on the part of Christians facing ungodly authority, just the opposite is true.  This passage is all about humble, civil obedience.  It’s only about submitting to authorities—even bad ones—not resisting them when they go off the farm.  Indeed, when we are disrespectful of authorities we either don’t like or who are even actively persecuting us, the world takes this in stride.  It does the same thing.  In the world’s eyes, this makes us little different from them.  Let me use a brief example from the political sphere if I might.  The current president isn’t so popular among much of the evangelical Christian right in this country.  There are, thankfully, some notable exceptions to this, but the trend holds all the same.  In the last few years I’ve seen and heard a variety of very much not complementary things written and spoken about him.  Some of it hasn’t been so different from the kinds of things said and written about Bush by the non-Christian left during his years in office.  Unfortunately, some of the harsh words generated by this president have come from the mouths and pens of people confessing Christ as their Lord.  As Americans we are obviously welcomed to disagree, even stridently, with his policies and campaign vigorously against his reelection if we so choose.  But if we are professed followers of Christ then we never have license to be disrespectful.  (And if you need to ask whether or not it’s disrespectful it probably is, but let me direct you to the Golden Rule anyway.)  But, when we are respectful of authority, submissive toward authority in spite of how it treats us, this blows minds because it doesn’t fit the mold.  And when we can demonstrate our experience of the peace of God in such situations, copycats are going to flock.  And yeah, they may not get it all right.  But that’s not our chief concern.  We are to live to create copycats.  Live to create copycats even if they scratch.

Our goal in all of this is righteous living and humble submission to authorities in our lives regardless of how personal and direct they are (Peter’s words here, after all, were originally directed at slaves which is a whole other issue into which we are not going to plunge this morning).  We are to, in short, do what is right.  God will unfailingly reward this.  Perhaps in this life, perhaps in the next, but He will reward it.  When we do what is right and suffer for it in this life, this brings honor to God.  It brings Him honor because it gives Him a chance to demonstrate His greater authority by honoring us where the errant authorities have sought to dishonor us.  When we do what is wrong, though, we’re on our own.  Several months ago now, I got a speeding ticket.   My parents about freaked out because I’m generally such a slow, careful driver in their minds.  I was on my phone, wasn’t paying enough attention to signs, sped up too fast too quickly, and rightly got caught.  I was absolutely wrong.  And do you know what I did?  I was a polite to the officer as I could be, I met my court date and was absolutely respectful to the judge, I followed her instructions to a T, and just finishing wrapping up the whole process this past week.  Now, I’d like to argue that my post-ticket behavior was honoring of God—and I hope it was—but the reality is that I did nothing more than I should have done.  I got caught doing something wrong and rightly paid the price.  There was no great honor in this.  Honor would have come in a situation in which I was driving lawfully, got pulled over for having, say, an evangelistic bumper sticker, and behaved in a similar manner throughout the process (humbly resisting only where constitutionally or morally appropriate).  Such behavior would be more likely to create copycats.  Let us live to create copycats even if they scratch.

Again, the reality is that sometimes copycats scratch.  Someone might mimic us, but in a truncated manner that ends up bringing us dishonor.  So what?  Has our mission changed?  Has our goal wavered any?  Not in the slightest.  A few scratches must not dissuade us from living as we are called to live, from living as our Lord in fact lived.  “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.  When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”  Do you know why more field runners took off after the first one garnered so much attention?  Because the first one was celebrated.  A simple rule of human behavior is that you get more of what you celebrate.  We have lots of celebrities today because we celebrate celebrities.  Let’s change what we celebrate.  We may be strangers, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still have our celebrations.  That doesn’t mean we can’t still lay down patterns worth celebrating.  Because what we celebrate will get copied.  Let us live to create copycats.  Some of the copycats may scratch, but most of them won’t.  And what will happen is that we strangers will begin to not only change, but to create culture.  We’ll change the conversation.  We’ll change the narrative.  The world won’t be quite so strange anymore.  This was the goal of our Lord.  This was the pattern He set.  Let us live to create copycats even if they scratch.