May 15, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
It’s relatively easy for us these days to read a passage like John 14 and to read it with a sense of detachment. Jesus packs a lot of theology into these discourses across John 13-17 and it can be a little tough sledding to get through it all. Thus, it is tempting to be a little cut-and-dried, a little analytical, a little academic in our approach to these words. Alas, I don’t doubt that many arid sermons have been preached on these words in which preachers were about as passionate as a CPA doing a dreary tax audit.
But sunk right into the middle of the verses in this Year A Lectionary text is something that ought to pump some blood back into the text: “I will not leave you as orphans.”
I will not leave you as orphans.
What do you think prompted Jesus to say that? Again, it’s too easy to treat this whole incident very antiseptically and clinically. We picture Jesus at a lectern almost, delivering prepared remarks even as the disciples sat quietly taking notes, nodding in agreement and just generally behaving like the good little students they were. But I suspect it was otherwise.
This was an evening of significant disorientation for the disciples. Their little world was falling apart. Even Jesus was no doubt one sad figure, tears forming in the corners of his eyes perhaps, chin and lips quivering.
What had started out as a normal Passover meal had become something quite startling. One of their number had slinked out of the room only minutes earlier with dark clouds of betrayal following him out the door. The leader among their little band of followers had just been informed that soon and very soon the main thing he would be the leader of was being the lead rat to jump off Jesus’ sinking ship. And in and through it all Jesus kept lacing his speech with dark intimations of death and a sudden departure.
Thus, I picture the scene as looking less like a lecture hall with attentive students taking notes on what the wise professor was saying from the lectern and more like a Christmas Eve dinner party that had started out fine but that exploded into something quite different when suddenly Dad used the occasion to inform his children that he was having an affair, that he was in love with another woman, and that he and Mom would soon be getting a divorce for the good of all. At that Christmas dinner table there would be tears, there would be glassy-eyed stares, there would be a confusion and disorientation almost too great for many to bear.
The upper room that night must have been like that.
And so as Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit and all the other things he talks about, he was staring into moist eyes, he was looking at Peter who could not keep his own chin from quivering with emotion, he was looking at Philip who looked about as befuddled as a human being can look. There was fear in the room. Very nearly panic.
And out of that atmosphere—and also into that taut atmosphere—Jesus was motivated in love and compassion to say, “My friends, I will not abandon you. I will not leave you as orphans. Please stop crying, please stop being so afraid as I know you are. It’s going to be OK. Really! I know this looks and sounds bad—and parts of what is to come will be bad, too, I admit—but in the end I will be with you in a way you cannot imagine right now. This Holy Spirit, he really will help. Through him you really will understand and you really will still be connected in a living way to me. It’s gonna be OK, my friends!”
Sometimes certain Christian traditions are accused of being a little “light” when it comes to having a robust theology of the Holy Spirit. Maybe understanding the real dynamics (and the original acoustics) of John 14 can help to remind us how vital the Holy Spirit is in our lives and precisely why we need that Spirit. Jesus spoke these words into hurting, confused, and disoriented hearts. For us to avoid a similar hurt and confusion, we need the Spirit now as much as ever!
Even all these centuries and, indeed, two whole millennia later, we are not orphans. We are not alone.
Jesus has been as good as his word.
Thanks be to God.
Whenever I use the word “Paraclete” in a sermon or paper that I am writing, the Spell Checker on my computer tries to change it to “Parakeet.” It’s a curious possible substitution! Maybe it’s not even too far a cry from the Spirit as a dove! In truth, of course, the word “Paraclete” is from the Greek “para” and “kletos/kaleo” and so means “the one called alongside” of another. It has been variously translated over time as “Counselor, Comforter, Advocate, Helper.” It crops up 4 times in John in chapters 14-16 and has only one other New Testament occurrence in First John 2:1. It is, in short, a uniquely Johannine term. Since Jesus says the Spirit is “another” helper, this seems to indicate that the Spirit comes in addition to Jesus himself, who would presumably be, therefore, our original Paraclete. The Spirit as Paraclete thus continues the work of Jesus. And according to John, although the Paraclete does have the connotation of the attorney in court who stands alongside the accused, the main jobs of the Paraclete according to Jesus in John 14-16 is to lead the believer into all truth and to convict the world of its sin. The truth-dimension of the Spirit’s work is, therefore, key. Both believers and the world need to know the truth about life. The Paraclete comes alongside us to point the way. (My thanks to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume Three, pp. 659-660, for some of this information.)
Playwright Arthur Miller once wrote that his one-time wife, Marilyn Monroe, knew what it was like to be an orphan, to be abandoned. And her experience with that gave her an uncanny ability: according to Miller, whenever Marilyn entered a room, she was always able to pick out from the crowd those who had been orphans. There was just a certain look in the eyes of orphans that a fellow orphan could always detect at a glance. It was a glint of loneliness, perhaps, of fear, of wariness. Whatever it was, fellow orphans were able to look at one another and share a common bond of knowing and understanding.
I wonder what Jesus saw in the eyes of the disciples that night. Perhaps they had not yet been orphans but spiritually speaking, they sensed they were maybe on the cusp of being orphaned by no less than God. It was something that Jesus quite simply had to address.
And so he did.
Author: Doug Bratt
How do Acts 17’s preachers, teachers and those who listen to us share our faith with those who know little or nothing about what it means to be a Christian? How do God’s adopted sons and daughters speak the gospel to people for whom words like “grace” and even “sin” may sound like so much gibberish?
Paul’s didn’t have to deal with that issue in his first sermon that Acts records. After all, he stands on theologically familiar ground in Antioch of Pisidia’s synagogue when he preaches to people who know the Old Testament well. Paul can summarize Israel’s history and then describe Jesus and his resurrection as the fulfillment of God’s promises to her because his audience understands at least its basic context.
In Athens, however, Paul speaks to completely different audiences. When he arrives there, the city is past its heyday as the center of the Western world. The Athens the apostle visits, however, still excels at philosophy. It still has two famous schools of philosophy, the Epicureans and the Stoics. Athens also has the Areopagus, an outcrop of rocks in the center of the city where philosophers gather daily to debate.
Athens’ philosophically savvy citizens sample from a huge buffet of gods and goddesses. Those meddlesome deities, however, flit in and out of peoples’ lives, sometimes helpfully, but often destructively. What’s more, Athens’ panoply of gods and goddesses can be just as mean and vindictive as any human being. So the Athenians built many, many shrines, hoping they would appease their fickle gods.
However, by the time Paul visits Athens, this belief in a multitude of different gods is beginning to shrink. Many Athenians view it all as more myth than religion. Skepticism is rapidly replacing religion as the chief Athenian virtue.
Doesn’t this sound familiar? North America’s preachers and teachers live and work in a culture that’s skeptical about virtually everything except that which it can scientifically prove. All values, it insists, are relative, because you can’t prove any of them.
When Paul looks over the similar moral wasteland that is Athens, its splendor doesn’t impress him. When he looks at famous things like the Parthenon, the Apollo Belvedere and the Elgin Marbles, he simply sees a “city . . . full of idols” (16). So Paul goes from the synagogue to the Athenian marketplace “reasoning” (17), perhaps arguing with people.
That tactic, however, doesn’t convince everyone. Some of Athens’ philosophers, after all, call him a “babbler” (18), the Greek word for anyone who didn’t speak Greek. Essentially they call the apostle a barbarian, a country bumpkin who doesn’t know his right hand from his left.
Other Athenians, however, seem slightly more open-minded, spiritually liberal. They say, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods” (18). These people seem to be a lot like some of our contemporaries who are vaguely “spiritual.”
These philosophers invite Paul to speak further at the Areopagus, Athens’ philosophical heart. It’s the place where many Athenians and tourists spent all their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the newest ideas.
So does Paul try to soothe the Athenians’ skeptical minds and hearts there? Or does he condemn their whole religious tradition of a smorgasbord of gods and religions? After all, this notion of fickle gods and goddesses was the dialectic opposite of the faith of the young Christian church.
Apparently Paul recognizes that denunciation seldom convinces people. He grasps the fact that he needs some kind of entry into his audience’s thinking. The apostle realizes that he needs a foothold from which he can open new ways of thinking for his listeners. So it seems that Paul builds a kind of bridge to his audience. It’s an example of what some seminaries approvingly like to call “contextualization.”
Paul “contextualizes” his witnessing in Athens’ Areopagus. He notes that some craftsman had wished to cover all his theological bases. Not wanting to neglectfully anger a god who had anonymously helped Athens, he had erected a shrine to this “unknown god.”
Pointing to this altar, Paul compliments the Athenians on their spirituality. He applauds their search for something more meaningful in their lives. The apostle then, however, notes that he has found the One for whom they’ve been searching.
First, as Will Willimon, from whom I borrowed some of this Sermon Starter’s structure, suggests, Paul engages the Athenians in a bit of what we might call “natural theology.” He points to creation’s beauty and order, suggesting that they point to some kind of higher power. This higher power, Paul, quoting an Athenian poet, continues, is the Source, the Creator of all humanity. People can’t, however, insists the apostle, contain such a magnificent God in something they build with their hands. They can’t even make some kind of image of him.
Acts 17’s preachers, teachers and our hearers might want to think about somehow similarly relating to those who don’t yet know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. We might ask ourselves about the unknown gods whom they worship, even if they don’t realize it.
For some people the twentieth century’s two world wars, Holocaust and atomic bomb mortally wounded, if not killed, their god. So what are the twenty-first century’s surviving “unknown” gods?
For some, it’s just the matter of faith itself. It doesn’t matter what you believe, many of our contemporaries reason, as long as you really believe in something. Some of our co-workers, friends and neighbors have made faith itself as the object of their religion.
Another of those unknown gods might be the “spirituality” that is the subject of so many modern conversations. Though it’s hard to define, spirituality seems to be a vague notion that there’s something intangible beyond us, that material reality isn’t the only reality. Instead, however, of relating to the living God, people engage in meditation and other relaxation techniques to connect with this higher power.
We preachers and teachers understand the longings of people whose gods are unknown. We, after all, recognize that God created us with those longings. So when we share our faith, we try to understand those longings even more deeply. You and I try to build bridges, to form relationships with these people who worship their own gods.
But!!! To use the bridge analogy, we can build bridges to connect with those who don’t yet believe. But even our eloquence, even our relationships with them can’t alone convince people to cross that bridge to faith in Jesus Christ.
Look, after all, at what happens to Paul in our text. After so eloquently relating to things the Athenians understand, he says, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance” (30). Now, however, God, the apostle adds, has set a day when God will judge us by something higher than our own thinking. God has proved this just judgment by raising Jesus Christ from the dead.
At this point we can almost hear his audience gasp. “Whoa!! You hold on there just a minute, young whippersnapper,” the philosophically savvy Athenians may have snorted. After all, Paul’s sophisticated Greek audience was right with him while he talked about creation’s beauty and order. But when his talk turns to this Jesus, a Jew whom people crucified but God raised from the dead, he leaves part of his audience behind.
“When,” after all, “they heard about the resurrection of the dead,” as verse 32 reports, “some sneered.” Earlier some Athenians had referred to Paul as a country bumpkin.
Now other members of his audience jeer him for talking about a resurrection of the dead. So, as one biblical scholar notes, one of the greatest speeches in all of the Scriptures ends in mockery.
Paul has spoken to the Athenians about something they can’t naturally even begin to comprehend. They like to think of themselves as open-minded intellectuals. Yet the apostle’s audience can’t get beyond what it has experienced and already knows. It judges his new ideas on the basis of its old ideas.
Here Paul challenges skeptics of all ages to think beyond what Willimon calls “our flattened world.” Many of our contemporaries believe that only that which we can prove exists. Since we can only prove that whatever lives eventually dies, talk of resurrection is shear nonsense to them.
What Acts 17’s teachers, preachers and those who listen to us have to say to the world, our witnessing, and our confession of Jesus’ name goes beyond our cause-and-effect thinking. We work hard to relate to, to build bridges with those with whom we share our faith. Yet you and I must always remember that what we say about Jesus Christ goes beyond common sense.
Our culture tends to caricature Christians as narrow-minded, bigoted ignoramuses who can’t think in complex ways. That assumption, however, more accurately reflects not the church, but our world. The gospel, after all, invites us to think about things in a deeper way.
That doesn’t mean that Christianity is irrational, illogical or anti-scientific. It does mean that our faith doesn’t rely on rationality, logic or scientific proof. It relies, instead, on God’s revelation of himself to us through his Word and the work of his Holy Spirit. Only God’s Holy Spirit can graciously convince us of the gospel’s truth.
So Acts 17’s preachers, teachers and those who hear us go out into our world, sharing our faith, just as Jesus calls us to do. You and I go out into our society confessing Jesus’ name, just as we profess. Christians build relationships with unbelievers, building bridges of trust and common ground.
Yet we always remember that this opens us up to the same kind of mockery Paul experienced. Our witnessing always makes us vulnerable to the possibility of experiencing the kind of rejection Jesus endured.
What’s more, even the most eloquent preachers and teachers never rely on our eloquence to draw people to the Lord. You and I never even rely on the bridges and relationships we build with those who don’t yet believe. We’re faithful in sharing our faith, but rely on the work of the Holy Spirit to turn our conversations into faith.
Illustration Idea When my wife and lived in Utah I had a good friend and mentor named Marv. By God’s grace and the work of the Spirit, he could eventually turn nearly any ordinary conversation into a discussion of faith.
He always told me a key to that was understanding that most men read three sections of the newspaper first: the comics, the business section and the sports section. By reading those sections first, my friend could talk to nearly any man about something that interested him. That then provided a good bridge to eventually talking with him about the Christian faith.
Author: Stan Mast
On this Sixth Sunday of the Easter season, Easter is frankly fading from our minds. The trumpets are stored away, the lilies have long been consigned to the trash, and we’re moving on to Ascension Day and Pentecost. So it’s a good thing to preach on Psalm 66 today, because it reminds us that every Sunday, indeed, every day is a celebration of Easter. “Come and see what God has done (verse 5).” “Come and listen … let me tell you what he has done for me (verse 16).” God has done “awesome deeds (verse 3).”
What awesome deeds has God done for us? “Praise our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard; he has preserved our lives and kept our feet from slipping (verse 9).” After a time of terrible testing, God has “brought us to a place of abundance (verse 12).” The early church recognized this as a Psalm about the passage from death to life. That’s why some very early Greek and Latin manuscripts have inserted the word “Resurrection” into the superscription.
Psalm 66 is a Psalm of resurrection—not just Christ’s once for all Resurrection, but also the previous world changing resurrections in the salvation history of God’s people and the smaller but personally important resurrections we experience day after day. The first half of the Psalm (verses 1-12) praises God for those nation making resurrections (the whole Exodus event from the Red Sea to the Jordan and perhaps the return from Exile), while the second half (verses 13-20) celebrates the life changing resurrection of one person whose prayers God answered.
Scholars make a big deal of the move from all the “we’s” of that first half to the “I’s” of the second, from the corporate to the individual. Many claim that this points to the priority of the gathered people over the lone individual. Psalm 66 is the corporate praise of the people of God in which the individual has a place. Others assert, on the other hand, that the occasion for this Psalm was not first of all a regular time of worship, but a special occasion of personal salvation.
Either interpretation captures the genius of biblical religion; it is both intensely personal and inveterately corporate. God does act in individual lives, but the ancient child of God would never think of keeping her experience to herself. She would always join with the rest of the saints and tell them/show them what God had done for her, so that all could praise God.
There is no place in biblical religion for the “spiritual but not religious” mentality of today’s “nones.” Nor is there any place for my generation’s “religious but not spiritual.” People with deeply spiritual experiences of God must gather with God’s people for worship, and people who regularly gather for worship must do so with a deeply personal spiritual focus. “Come and listen… let me tell you what he has done for me.”
Though the first part of our reading for today (verses 8-12) is about the corporate resurrection of God’s people in the Exodus or (more likely) the return from Exile, I’m going to focus on the Psalmist’s personal experience (as explained in verses 13-20). “I was in trouble… I cried to him with my mouth… the Lord surely listened and heard my voice in prayer. Praise be to God who has not rejected my prayer or withheld his love from me!”
We have many prayer services in the church—National Days of Prayer, special services of prayer in times of national crisis, times when the local church gathers because of a big problem in the life of that church. How many times do we have an “Answered Prayer” service? Psalm 66 is a perfect text for such a service, because it celebrates the way life begins anew when God answers prayer. Whenever prayer is answered, we experience our own little Easter.
How should we celebrate those personal Easters when God answers our prayer with the miracle of new life? We should speak directly to God with specific words of praise. Verses 10-12 remind God of what God did for us. Then verse 20 cries out, “Praise be to God….” In other words, we must not forget to return to God with our praise and thanks. How often have we been like those 9 lepers who did not return to Jesus to thank him for their personal resurrections? Before we walk off into the rest of our life, we must return to the God who has given us new life. That’s a very personal thing.
But, according to the pattern of Psalm 66, we should not return alone. We should “come to the temple” to offer a sacrifice of praise. In this Psalm the Jewish writer expresses his praise and thanks in the form of burnt offerings. The number of offerings listed in verse 15 indicates both the level of the Psalmist’s wealth and the magnitude of his gratitude. He wants to “give of his best to the Master,” as the old Gospel song put it. In the Old Testament those offerings were designed to purify the praise. They were a God-ordered acknowledgment of the sinfulness of even the most sincere worshipper.
This side of the cross, of course, we don’t offer such sacrifices, because the sacrifice of Christ has washed us clean from all our sins. But we still come to the Temple, the place where God’s people meet in the presence of the Lord, so that we can offer our sacrifice of thanksgiving in the presence of God’s people.
We do that, because we need the support and, perhaps even more, because they need to know what God has done. Many people live with unanswered prayers a good deal of the time. They wonder if prayer works, if God really answers. They need to hear that he does. If we don’t tell people that God actually gives new life in answer to prayers, how will they ever know (cf. Romans 10:14-17).
We need to be careful how we tell our story. Such times of personal testimony can be triumphalistic and self-promoting and discouraging to those whose prayers are apparently unanswered. So we must be sure to focus on God and God’s grace alone. Most churches don’t actually allow time in worship for such testimony, so we’ll need to wrestle with how we would shape such an “Answered Prayer” service.
If you preach on Psalm 66 on this Sixth Sunday of Easter or at the kind of service I’ve suggested above, I urge you to give your sermon texture so that people can get a grip on it. I found three things in the Psalm that are gnarly enough to keep people’s attention.
First, that business of testing in verses 10-12 is troubling and helpful. That, as I’ve said before, is probably a reminder of the Egyptian bondage or the wilderness wandering or the Babylonian exile. While human beings did terrible things to God’s people and natural forces added to their suffering, God was at work in those hard times purifying his people in the same way that a metallurgist makes gold and silver more precious by applying fire.
That is reminder to us in our individual lives. When we pray to be delivered from hard situations, God may finally deliver us from them. But in the meantime, he will use those situations to test us, so that in the end we will be better, purer, more able to enjoy the resurrections.
We need to be careful with this theme, but it is a very helpful ramification of the good news that God hears our prayers. The theme of testing assures us that bad times are not merely an accident, totally out of God’s control. Nor are they punishment by God for some sin we have committed; indeed, all our punishment has been poured out on Christ. And such hard times should not lead us to reject God, because he only intends us good. After he has tested us, he will release and restore and resurrect. (Cf. I Peter 1:6-9 for the classic New Testament teaching on testing.)
Second, the Psalmist talks in verses 13 and 14 about fulfilling his vows. Making vows is not something we talk about much today, aside from weddings. Indeed, most of us would be hesitant to promise anything to God as we pray for resurrection. That feels like bargaining at least and bribery at worst. But we often read about making vows in the Old Testament. So we might challenge our listeners to think about that today.
What is the purpose of vows? At the very least they are an indication that we are deadly serious about our prayers. How often are our prayers the rote recitation of the same old things? Making a vow ratchets things up. We care enough about our prayers to promise God something when he answers. We’ll make a sacrifice when he answers. At least that is what the Psalmist’s vows amounted to: “I will sacrifice….”
What kind of sacrifice is fitting? John Calvin said that we should never vow anything except what we know is God’s will. Think of that tragic Old Testament story about the king who vowed to sacrifice the next thing he saw, and what he saw next was his daughter. So he fulfilled his vow, contrary to God’s will. Further, said Calvin, make sure that the only purpose of your vow is to show gratitude to God for his gracious answer. Never use a vow to try to manipulate God.
Use this vow idea to challenge people to take their prayer seriously. Expect God to answer. And expect that you will respond with gratitude. Indeed, promise yourself and God that you will. This emphasis may help your listeners be more fervent and intentional about their prayers.
Finally, the Psalmist says a startling thing in verse 18. “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” Can that be? Not only would the Lord not have answered, but he also would not have listened to begin with. Is this an often forgotten reason for unanswered prayer? If so, we’d better figure out what it means to “cherish sin in my heart.”
This is surely not a warning that God doesn’t listen to sinners, because then all of us might as well forget about praying. As Calvin so wisely put it, “In one sense God hears none but sinners; for we must all apply to him for the remission of our sins.” That’s what verse 18 is talking about— clinging to our sins, clutching them close to our heart, rather than “applying to God for remission of our sins.”.
Calvin continues: “to ‘regard iniquity [his translation]’ does not mean to be conscious of sin—for all the Lord’s people must see their sins and be grieved for them, and this is rather praiseworthy than condemnable—but to be bent on the practice of iniquity.” If we are bent on holding onto our sins, if sin is at the center of our hearts, if, in other words, we are not open to the grace of God, God will not listen to our prayers. Except the prayer that changes everything, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Again, this does not mean that God only hears the prayers of perfect people. It only points to the centrality of repentance and faith in our prayer life. If we want to be raised from the dead, we must be willing to let go of the sin that kills us and cling to the Risen Christ.
From Tolkien’s Trilogy of the Rings comes the tragic figure of Gollum, the former Hobbit-like creature (called one of the “River People”) transformed into a miserable little monster by his fixation on the Ring of Power. Can you see him huddled over the Ring, muttering, “My Precious, my Precious.” That precious ring had ruined his life.
That’s what verse 18 is getting at. When we huddle over our sin, treasuring it as something precious, holding it close to our heart, it will ruin our lives. We need resurrection, but it won’t happen until we let go of the Ring.
Replace that picture of Gollum with Jesus’ picture of the Tax Collector in the far corner of the Temple, beating his breast in penitence. He is crying for one simple thing, one precious thing. “God be merciful to me a sinner.” That very day he went down to his house justified. It was a new beginning for him, his own little Easter.
1 Peter 3:13-22
Author: Scott Hoezee
Back in the 19th century the Know-Nothing political party came into existence at least partly to demand that the government curb what many American Protestants perceived at the time to be an alarming increase in Roman Catholic immigration to this country. And fifty-seven years ago Senator John F. Kennedy had to appear before a convention of Protestant clergy in Houston to assure them that if elected president, he as a Catholic would not be taking orders from the Pope in Rome.
So it goes in American politics and its various dances with religion. There has been plenty of conversation on related topics recently too. Yet in and through all of this chatter and talk, the one thing that is seldom if ever asked by newspaper reporters or talk show hosts is the question, “Why exactly are you a Christian? What accounts for your hope?” Maybe the reason this question does not get asked is that everyone assumes they already know the answer. Maybe many people figure they already have enough information about what Christians believe. They may be wrong but they don’t know that and so feel no need to acquire further information.
To a certain extent we can understand that. After all, if I were to mention Islam or Hinduism sometime in a conversation with a group of people, many would probably know at least a few things about those other religious faiths. Even if the average Muslim or Hindu would deem such knowledge of their faith to be paltry if not inaccurate, I doubt that many folks would feel the burning need to go out tomorrow morning and read some books to deepen knowledge of Hinduism and Islam.
That’s simply the way a lot of people treat Christianity: it is such a familiar part of the landscape it’s easy to assume they already know enough. But the result is that most of us are unaccustomed to encountering the question, “Why are you a Christian? In this often terrible world, what makes you think you can realistically have any hope?”
We don’t get asked that very often. Yet the apostle Peter urged his readers long ago to always be ready to give an answer to those who inquire about the hope in their hearts. In the original Greek what Peter urges is that we be ready with an apologia, an “apology” for our faith. The original meaning of the word “apology” does not mean saying you’re sorry but rather in classic Greek an apology is a reasoned, well-thought-out explanation. Mostly this word was reserved for use in courtroom settings in which attorneys were expected to produce carefully reasoned and thoughtfully presented evidence by which to build a convincing case for a judge or jury.
Peter imports this word from the legal world into the world of the everyday, saying that as Christians we need to be ready with a solid apology for our hope in case anyone asks. Even as a lawyer would not walk into court without having done his homework, so we should not walk out into the marketplaces, factories, or offices of life without having devoted some time to thinking through our faith.
Of course, people’s ability to do this well requires that we be creative enough to tailor that apology for different people in varying situations. And that is not easy either. But for a sermon on this part of 1 Peter 3, it may be enough to highlight the overarching principle that needs to inform all apologetic explanations. Peter wants us to be thoughtful presenters of the faith. But he also knows that in some ways how we present our hope’s apology is just as important as what we say.
That would certainly have been important in Peter’s day when, near as we can tell, a lot of his readers were enduring varying degrees of state sponsored persecution (some of it quite deadly). But it was not just physical persecutions that concerned Peter but also verbal persecution, the ways by which people were poking fun of Christians and their beliefs. Not everyone to whom Peter wrote was in danger of being fed to the lions. Some of Peter’s readers were facing no more than snickering laughter and criticisms. How silly it seemed to some people to claim as Lord some obscure, long-dead carpenter’s son from the backwaters of the Roman Empire out in a place called Nazareth.
Peter knew that this kind of persecution could also be very hard to take. He knew that the temptation in such situations would be for Christians to respond in kind by being cynical, sneering, and harsh also in their own speech and demeanor. So it’s not enough to suggest that Christians always have an apology ready. Peter also has to tack on this vital advice: “Present your apologetic explanation with gentleness, humility, and respect.” In our decidedly non-gentle, disrespectful age of public shouting matches in which verbal brawls are held up as a way to get your point across, Peter’s advice ought to have great resonance.
Part of the reason Peter gives this advice is stated in verse 16: he does not want believers to give people legitimate grounds to criticize Christians as unpleasant folks to be around. “Let them criticize us as foolish or whatever,” Peter says, “but don’t give them further cause to criticize the church by being nasty yourselves.” Then, as now, there were plenty of people who believed that Christians are really just thinly disguised hypocrites. “Don’t add fuel to that fire,” Peter advises. “Even when other people are disrespectful of you, don’t return the disfavor.”
That is a very practical reason to be gentle in our speech with others. But there is another, larger reason for being humble and respectful toward even our fiercest critics. This other reason is not as obvious but in some ways it is even more important. The second reason is this: the hope that is within us is centered on the cross of Jesus. We have a cross-shaped hope. Our hope is based on the fact that the worst thing that could ever happen in history has already taken place: namely, God’s own Son got killed. Yet our hope emerges through the gloom of Good Friday onto the other side in the shining resplendence of Easter. God has brought victory out of this world’s worst event, and if God could do that, then there really is hope for the whole blessed kit-and-caboodle!
Jesus’ sacrifice is the source of our hope. Given who Jesus is and what he suffered for us, of course we have to present our faith in gentle, humble, respectful ways. How else could you possibly talk about Jesus! To be rude, to be proud or arrogant, to pose yourself over against others in finger-wagging, shrill ways that turn your encounters with the world into ugly shouting matches would betray the very hope you are supposed to be explaining!
You cannot promote chastity by paying a prostitute for sex. You cannot promote racial harmony by becoming a dues-paying member of the Ku Klux Klan. You cannot lecture people on the merits of sobriety while knocking back your fifth Martini at a cocktail party. And you cannot present a gentle, suffering servant like Jesus while acting in decidedly non-gentle, disrespectful ways. We need always to be ready to give an explanation for the hope that is within us, but we need to give that apology in ways that will be transparent to the Jesus who is the Author of this hope.
Of course, as Jesus himself demonstrates, being humble gets you nowhere with some people. Especially these days taking a quiet, respectful approach as we gently try to make the case for our Christian faith may be a sure ticket to not being heard. A thoughtful, careful, gentle explanation of the faith does not make for gripping television! It also is likely to be dismissed by many people as boring. You can’t grab people’s attention by taking the low verbal road. And it is precisely for this reason that all through history the church has faced, and too-often fallen prey to, the temptation to exchange humility for power, conversion at the tip of a gentle, respectful tongue for conversion at the tip of a sword. It’s frustrating to be ignored.
But as Peter would no doubt agree, it would be better to not reach certain people than to adopt tactics of communication that undermine your message. Jesus’ way of doing things has become our way through baptism. As people who now have resurrection life, we need to find gentle ways to communicate and live out the gospel.
We need to be gentle, humble, kind, and respectful when presenting the gospel because we don’t want anything to get in the way of people’s sensing how much compassion Jesus has for them–yes, Jesus even has compassion on the sinful cluelessness that might make our conversation partners become sneering sometimes. Jesus sees the hurt and disorientation that makes people act badly. Those are the very things that need healing. That’s why we cannot use bad behavior in others as an excuse to act badly or speak harshly ourselves. That won’t help anyone!
We must never say or do things that will obscure the fact that God so loved the world, with all its jagged edges and rotten people, God so loved the world, that he sent his only begotten Son to die for it. Love is where the gospel begins. Love is where it ends. Love must set the tone when we present our apology for the hope that is within us.
In a book some years ago Roger Van Harn told a story that conveys two things: it can remind us of the God who refuses to brush aside suffering but who made suffering his way to reach a lost creation. This story can also remind us of how we should act when explaining gospel hope to the lost and suffering folks around us.
It seems that one December afternoon just before Christmas vacation was to begin a group of parents stood in the lobby of a preschool, waiting to claim their children. When the bell rang, the youngsters ran from the classroom, each child carrying in his or her hands a special “surprise”–a brightly wrapped package containing a project that each child had diligently been working on for weeks to give Mom and Dad for Christmas. One little boy was trying to run, put on his coat, and wave all at the same time. He slipped and fell, the “surprise” flying out of his hands and landing on the tile floor with an obvious ceramic crash. There was a moment of stunned silence which was immediately followed by the little one’s inconsolable wail of tears. The boy’s father immediately tried to comfort the little guy, kneeling down and saying, “It’s OK, son. It really doesn’t matter. It’s OK.” But the boy’s mother was wiser about such things. She swept the little boy into her arms and said, “Oh, but it does matter. It matters a very, very great deal!” And she wept with her son.