In 1984, a Nigerian man named Umaru Dikko found himself in a bit of trouble. He had been his country’s Minister for Transportation from 1979-83, but then a coup took down his government and he fled to exile in London. Once there, understandably enough, he took every opportunity to attack the new government back in Lagos. He also became a vocal critic of Israel, perhaps because the Israeli government bought a lot of Nigerian oil and sold the Nigerian government a lot of weapons. That may have been understandable too, but it wasn’t wise, because Israel has the Mossad, and you never want to get on their bad side.
In July of 1984, a joint Nigerian-Israeli operation kidnapped Dikko, drugged him, and stuck him in a wooden crate (together with the Israeli anaesthesiologist whose job it was to keep him unconscious). Crazy? Not exactly. Legally, any sort of bag, box, or other container which is properly labeled as a diplomatic bag is protected under the Vienna Convention and completely untouchable by local law enforcement. It wouldn’t have mattered if Dikko had woken up and started yelling—there would have been nothing anyone could do.
Except for one thing: that bit about “properly labeled.” As it happened, someone in the Nigerian embassy forgot to do the paperwork. Customs officials at Heathrow received word of the kidnapping while the crate was being processed; understandably, they thought it might be a good idea to check out that crate that was headed for a Nigerian airliner. Since the crate lacked the necessary documentation, there was no label to keep them from searching it. Dikko was freed, and four of his kidnappers ended up in a British prison.
As abuses of diplomatic immunity go, that one’s pretty extreme; we tend to associate it more with such things as the $17.2 million owed to New York City as of 2011 in unpaid parking tickets by members of the various UN delegations. Still, the extreme case makes the point well: if you tell a group of people they aren’t bound by the government of the nation in which they live, some of them will take advantage of that. It doesn’t take many bad actors before the group as a whole develops a reputation for antisocial behavior.
Now, when you’re talking about recognized diplomats under international law, that reputation might not cause any real problems. Being unpopular won’t hurt them, and they’re protected by treaty from anything worse. The early church, however, was a small minority with no legal recognition or protection, and their mission was to be a witness for the gospel to the communities in which they lived. A bad reputation could cripple their efforts, and if the government decided to go after them, they were defenseless. Peter’s been very clear that Christians need to see ourselves as citizens of the kingdom of God who live among the nations of this world; but that doesn’t give us the right to misbehave, much less any protection if we do. It means we’re held to a higher standard than the laws of this world, not an easier one.
This is the issue Peter begins to lay out in our passage this morning. The crux of his argument, and the key point for this whole section of the book that extends through 3:7, is found in verse 16: “As those who are free . . . yet as God’s slaves.” The world defines being free as having freedom forthis world—freedom to do what the world teaches us to want to do. It’s freedom to be ruled by our desires without anyone telling us “no.” What Peter’s talking about, what God offers us, is freedom from this world. It’s the freedom to step outside our desires and outside the roles and expectations the world lays on us, and to choose to do and to be something else.
Which is to say, the world thinks freedom is being able to do what we want with nobody stopping us. The freedom of God is the freedom to stop ourselves. It’s the ability to pull free of our desires and fears and think clearly rather than just reacting to them. It’s the liberty to choose not to do what we want because we understand that what we want to do isn’t what we ought to do or what’s best for us. It’s freedom from the world, from ourselves, for God.
Peter invites us to act as free people by turning away from that slavery which the world mistakes for freedom. He summons us to freely choose to live as what we already are in Christ, as slaves to God. If that doesn’t sound like freedom to you, consider this: the way of the world is the way of anxiety. No matter what, there’s always that crawling uncertainty, doubt, and fear at the heart of life. The most you can ever do is bury it. If you’re really good at what you do, you may be able to keep it buried for a long time, but you can’t change this fact: much of what’s good in your life and your world is utterly dependent on things you can’t even understand, much less control. That’s even true for the most powerful people on this planet. Eventually, things will go wrong, and you won’t know until they happen, and you won’t be able to do anything about it—but it will all be on your head anyway.
Not so for the people of God. Our dependence is no less, but we know the one who controls all the forces and events no human can even understand; we know the one on whom we depend, and we love him, and we know he loves us and takes care of us. That’s why the word of God tells us over and over again not to worry and not to fear, and why Jesus promised us a peace that passes all human understanding—it’s the peace of not having to fear those things which pass all human understanding. Being slaves to God means freedom from the anxiety that comes with being slaves to ourselves, and thus being free to live as people who are whole and well.
Of course, as we’ve already noted, Peter isn’t just talking about this to make his readers feel good, or to give them a theological education: he wants to apply it in a particular way. If we live as slaves to God and owe our allegiance to him above any human authority, how then do we relate to those human authorities? Is this an excuse to assert our independence from them and do whatever we want? Peter says, firmly, no. We are not to use our freedom as an excuse to cause trouble. That’s not what it’s for, and not what we’re for.
Instead, because we revere God and love his people, we are to treat everyone else (and especially those in authority) with respect and consideration, so that those who attack the church will only make themselves look foolish and ignorant for their efforts. Peter tells us to defer to our fellow human beings, because they are God’s creations just as much as we are. Here again we could look to Philippians, this time chapter 2: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility put others first, ahead of yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interest, but also to the interests of others.” Like the Jewish exiles in Babylon to whom Jeremiah wrote, our job is to pray for the community and the nation to which God has sent us, and to do whatever we can do to bless it, and partly for the same pragmatic reason.
As part of that responsibility, Peter emphasizes something which I think we really need to hear: he commands respect and deference for the emperor and the other ruling authorities. I don’t hear much of that in this country these days. I hear a lot of disrespect, contempt, and abuse directed at the President, at Congress, and at politicians and government figures all down the line, and it’s just wrong and ungodly. There’s no excuse for it, and don’t try to tell me there is.
Peter wrote during the later years of Nero’s reign, when he’d already started executing anyone who displeased him. Nero had had Paul put to death in AD 62, and would ultimately have Peter crucified. In 64 AD, he made Christians the scapegoat for the Great Fire of Rome and had them burned as torches in his gardens to provide light for his parties. This is the emperor for whom Peter commands respect. Nero’s uncle and predecessor, Caligula, once had an entire section of the stands in the arena thrown to the lions because he was bored. Peter commands respect for the emperor anyway, and doesn’t offer exceptions.
We need to listen to him, because quite frankly, we’re spoiled. We have yet to see the President burning Christians as torches on the White House lawn; if we did, Peter would still tell us to treat him with respect. Anything else dishonors God. Anything else is a sign that we’re still too caught up in this world, and pinning too many of our hopes on it.