Here is one example of what I mean. We read in 1 Peter 5 that leaders in the church are to be examples to the flock. But if we imagine that being an example to the flock is primarily about displaying one’s strength and goodness - and inviting others to imitate these - then we have not let the overall meaning of the gospel guide us in our assumptions we bring to the words, “be an example”. Dr. J. Warren Smith, of Duke Divinity School, has a helpful explanation of what leading by example should like in a gospel saturated community. The following is excerpted from a sermon transcript entitled, “The Weakness in Virtue, the Virtue in Weakness”:
“Yes, your virtue matters, and it will make a difference in your ministry. Without such virtues, how can anyone hope to lead God’s people and build up Christ’s body?
In a similar vein, our expectations of what a church community should be for its people will either make it more likely or less likely that its members will grow in their confidence in the gospel. If our expectation of church is that it is a place where we put on a front, wear a mask over our pain and problems, and display only our good behavior then we will be stymied in our growth in the grace of the gospel; moreover, we will make it hard for others in the community to grow in grace as well. The talented writer, Heather Moffitt reflects on her experience of learning what a church should be for its people through the humbling experience of parenting a son with special needs in the context of her church community: “We do not attend a church where ushers ask noisy children to leave the sanctuary. We were never shunned because of our challenging child. Instead, people prayed over him with love. Our pastor would get down on his knees to meet him at eye level every week and talk to him. One lovely couple even offered to keep our son some Sunday afternoons so we could have a break. I slowly realized that this church was a manifestation of God’s grace to us, for it is not a church where everyone arrives with a Sunday-morning mask of perfection over the heartbreaks of life. And I realized that, as much as I wanted my son’s spiritual formation to happen in the church, I had wanted even more to be acknowledged as a good mother based on his model behavior. A challenging child in church forces everyone -- parents and other parishioners -- to confront whether we value compliance over compassion.... Even though I’ve long known how to behave in church, I’ve had to accept how to be broken in church. I wanted to be praised for my parenting instead of healed from my hurt. I thought I was seeking spiritual formation for my son, and discovered I needed it for my own soul.” Here is a link to this essay in its entirety http://www.faithandleadership.com/content/broken-behavior-going-church-challenging-child
Finally, we came back to the passage we have been looking at for a few Sundays now: 1 Peter 5:1-5. In keeping with our theme for the day, our observation that the questions, concerns, and assumptions we bring to a text can either help us get to the heart of the passage or detour us from the heart of the passage, we noted this: many Christians come to the portion of this passage that speaks of submission to elders and become immediately preoccupied with the rationale and mechanics of why and how human beings submit those human beings who have authority over within the context of the local church. I suggest that this line of questioning will take us away from the heart of this passage. It is kind of like meeting someone for the first time and thinking about her primarily with regard to how much money she makes. How much money she makes is part of her story but if it is the first thing you think of it makes you lose sight of what is most important about them as a person. Similarly, if you look at 1 Peter 1:1-5, especially v.5, and think first and foremost about vertical relationships, hierarchy, and the importance of being submissive to those who have authority, you will miss the description of how the gospel is at work within that church community. Why do I say this? Because the whole of this passage is a movement away from the extremely vertical expression of human authority, a product of the culture of the day, and a movement towards mutual submission. In the new community being formed in Christ, everyone is to be desirous of submitting to one another because everyone wears the same garment, humility..
To offer an example of what this might look like in a gospel saturated community I raised one of the harder issues that a church community can face, the tragedy of adultery, an issue which always makes thoughtful Christians concerned about the need for admonition and exhortation to be expressed and hopefully received in the spirit of Christian love. When a member of the community sins deeply against another member - and this could be any sin for the sake of conversation - what norms how the community deals with situations like this (and specifically how leadership acts on behalf of the community) is the desire to love one another deeply from the heart (1 Peter 1:22). In other words, the required admonition and exhortation should not grow out of a commitment to throw down human authority along a vertical axis. It is rather the case that each person is on the same plane, called to love one another deeply from the heart. So, the exhortation, admonition, and mercy required are born from a desire to love deeply the offending party and protect fiercely the injured one. In situations like this sometimes reconciliation is not possible and most of the energy expended will be in support of the injured. But to reiterate - what norms how the community deals with all of this is not a macho demonstration of muscle flexing against the sinner - as if those doing the muscle flexing are without sin and 100 percent pure - but a steadfast commitment to loving deeply from the heart coupled with a steadfast commitment to calling the person, if he is unrepentant, away from sin and back to fullness of life in Christ.
In summary of this Sunday let me offer this: it matters what assumptions, concerns, and questions you bring to a text or to church. If church is primarily a place where human power or virtuous achievement is on display the power of the gospel is harder to see; if church is primarily a place of intellectual challenge and stimulation then..... well one thinks of St. Paul’s remarks about knowledge puffing up. But if the church, to borrow a metaphor from St Augustine, is primarily understood as a hospital for sinners, a place, to use Peter’s language, where people are learning to love one another deeply from the heart..... well that is a place where the gospel can get to work in us in a deep way.... and may our church be this sort of community.... AMEN.