April 20, 2020
Author: Scott Hoezee
After his wife died, C.S. Lewis once wrote that he thought that his grief might be less if he intentionally avoided the places he and his wife Joy had frequented and so he limited his travels to only those places where they had never been together. He switched grocery stores, tried different restaurants, walked only along streets and paths that he and Joy had never taken. But it didn’t work. To paraphrase Lewis, “I found out that grief is like the sky above—it is over everything.” A lot of us feel that way right now in this time of pandemic. So much grief. So much grief-laden sky above. No one is spared.
The two travelers in Luke 24 seem to think that by getting out of Dodge maybe they, too, could walk away from their grief, leave the bad memories of the previous Friday behind. Jerusalem had become like an empty house from which all the children had gone. It was haunted with memories. It was haunted by hope deferred. Jerusalem was the place where their dreams had died. It was more than high time to hit the road and see if they could leave their troubles behind.
As Frederick Buechner asked in his classic sermon on this text, where is your “Emmaus?” We all have one.
Maybe it’s the mall where the noise of commerce and the rush of people keep you from thinking about life. Maybe it’s a bar where the booze and the beer nuts help numb you to the more bitter truths that swirl outside the windows of that darkened, smoky room. Maybe it’s a matinee at the movies where you go to take in what Hollywood proudly touts as “escapist fare.” Maybe it’s the TV remote that takes you away from it all as you mindlessly channel surf every single evening. We try to escape our troubles. That’s when we head to Emmaus. Maybe we can escape our grief and troubles.
Of course, it doesn’t work now and it did not work very well then. Grief is like the sky . . .
The two followers of Jesus thought Emmaus maybe would be the place to go but as they trekked that way their conversation kept circling back and back and back again to the death of the One they had loved, the One in whom they had hoped. Had hoped. What a wretched pluperfect that is.
In fact they were talking about all that—failing singularly to forget their troubles, in other words—when the clueless stranger came up to them. “Shalom! What’s up, friends?” The question catches them up short. After all, doesn’t everybody know the latest?! “Where have you been, friend” they ask. “You must be the only one in the whole county who hasn’t heard about the recent disaster!”
It is probably a sign of the enormity of their grief that they reacted like that. In truth, there could have been lots of people who hadn’t heard this. Sure, to the disciples this was headline news, but to some people it may have been noted only in passing. Just another Roman crucifixion. Happens all the time. It was just a side story buried on page 3 of the “Jerusalem Gazette.” Big deal. Pass the Sports section.
Well, this stranger on the road must have been one such clueless tourist because he didn’t seem to know a blessed thing about any of it. So they explain things to the stranger, more or less admitting in the end that the One on whom they had pinned their hopes did not pan out. They had made, it appeared, a rather large mistake.
We all make mistakes, of course, and when the mistake in question is no more significant than burning your breakfast toast or accidentally calling “George” “Harry,” you can pick yourself up and move on. But when the mistake you’ve made is more along the lines of trusting a neighbor who ended up molesting your child or trusting your husband only to find he’s been a serial adulterer for decades, well then you feel not just embarrassed or a bit upset over your mistake but shattered by it. “How could I have gotten things that wrong?” we want to ask ourselves.
But then, suddenly, the stranger, who had appeared so clueless a moment before, changes. He has the audacity first of all to call these two folks foolish, and before they can object to this, the stranger has launched into a quite serious and thorough Bible study. And after that, the rest of the trek to Emmaus just flew by! With breathtaking sweep and exegetical precision, this anonymous fellow traveler re-tells Scripture’s story. It is Israel’s story, all right, but the stranger tells it in a quite new way. The last time they’d heard anyone talk about the Bible in such an invigorating a fashion was . . . well, never mind.
Before they knew it they were standing at their destination. With a slight wave and a nod the stranger says, “Nice talking with you” and then keeps walking. So Cleopas pipes up, “Sir! Look, the sun is setting which means the thieves along the highway will be coming out soon. It’s not safe to travel alone–stay with us at least tonight.” The man agrees. After having washed the dust of the journey off faces, hands, and feet, the three find a place to eat. Before they knew what’s happening, the stranger reaches for the flat bread, lifting it up in a strikingly familiar way. He then gives thanks, breaks it just so, and hands it to Cleopas and his friend. They knew instantly who he was but just as they are ready to cry out, “Jesus!” he was gone.
“I knew it!” Cleopas exclaims. “Didn’t you wonder about this, too! The way he taught us, the way he applied Scripture, wasn’t it eerily familiar all along!” Then, stuffing the bread into their pockets, they sprint back to Jerusalem, covering those seven miles in record time. A little of their thunder is stolen, however, in that before they can spill the beans of their news, the others say, “The Lord appeared to Simon Peter!” They then share the news of their encounter, making special note of the fact that Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Grief is like the sky. It’s over everything.
But so now, apparently, is hope.
If you compare Luke 9:16 with Luke 24:30, you will discover that the verbs are basically identical in the Greek as Jesus takes the bread, eulogizes (or gives thanks) for the bread, breaks the bread, and gives the bread to his disciples.
Even as the words are nearly identical in the Feeding of the 5,000 and the room at the Emmaus Motel, so the actions would have been unmistakable to the disciples. And there can be little doubt that the whole thing is also semaphore for the Lord’s Supper. In fact, if you zoom all the way forward to Acts 27:35, Luke repeats this set of taking, thanking, breaking, and giving as Paul feeds his shipmates just before their boat is wrecked by a storm. Again, there can be no mistaking the sacramental presence of Jesus, the bread of life.
In the ancient Greek myth The Odyssey we read the epic tale of Odysseus. Odysseus was the valiant warrior who fought so bravely in the Trojan War. But, according to legend, his homeward journey after that war was interrupted for many years as the gods had decided to test Odysseus’ true mettle through a series of trials. His journeys carried him far and wide as he encountered mythic beasts and lands, many of which have passed into common parlance: the Cyclops, the Procrustean bed, Scylla and Charybdis, the sirens’ voices.
Meanwhile, back at his home, Odysseus’ wife and family presume he must have died en route back from Troy. Finally, however, the day came when the gods released Odysseus and he arrives back home at last. But instead of simply waltzing through the front door and crying out some Greek equivalent of, “Honey, I’m home!” Odysseus decides that he wants to determine if anything has changed during his long absence. Did his wife still love him? Had she been faithful? In order to find out, Odysseus disguises himself so as to approach his home looking like a stranger in need of temporary lodging.
The housekeeper, Euryclea, welcomes the apparent traveler and performs for him the then-standard practice of foot-washing. As she does so, Euryclea regales the stranger with anecdotes about her long-lost master, Odysseus, whom she had also served as a nurse when he was young. She told the traveler about how long her master has been missing and she noted, too, that by then Odysseus would be about the same age and of about the same build as the man whose feet she was washing. Now when Odysseus had been a young boy, he was once gored by a wild boar, leaving a nasty scar on his leg. As Euryclea went about her servile task, suddenly her hand brushed against that old scar and instantly her eyes were opened and she recognized, with great joy, her beloved friend and master!
Recognition scenes like that have long exercised a strong pull on the human heart. Sometimes this can be used for comedic effect, as in any number of episodes on the old I Love Lucy show when Lucy would disguise herself so as to worm her way into one of her husband, Rickie’s, shows. And you always waited eagerly for that moment when Desi Arnaz’s eyes would widen right before he’d exclaim, “Luuucccy!” But such shocks of recognition are also the stuff of high drama, as in The Odyssey and any number of plays, novels, and films across the centuries.
And, of course, also in Luke 24.
Acts 2:14a- 36-41
Author: Stan Mast
As I said last week, the RCL doesn’t want us to celebrate Easter for one glorious day and then move on to something else. It invites us to spend 7 Sundays reflecting on this world changing event with a leisurely journey through the book of Acts. We began on Easter Sunday with Acts 10, where we saw just how world changing Easter was. Last Sunday, we listened to the first Christian sermon and noted how it focused on the resurrected Christ. Now today our attention is directed to the end of that sermon and the response it elicited from its hearers.
What response do you hope for when you preach? Let’s be honest and admit that the very human side of us is hoping for personal affirmation, maybe even adoration, or at least no trouble (see my Illustration Idea at the end of this piece). “Good sermon, Reverend! You are a great preacher!” Or, the insipid and inscrutable, “Good morning, Rev.” The more spiritual side of us, the Holy Spirit led side, is hoping that God will be glorified, that Christ will be lifted up, that people will be changed as a result of our sermon. But what change do you want? What specific response are you hoping for, aiming at, and praying about?
I want to suggest that even as Peter’s Pentecost sermon shows how to preach the Risen Christ, it also shows us what response we ought to expect, plan for, and pray about. Indeed, one commentator on this text suggests that if we don’t aim for this very response, we are not preaching in the power of the Spirit. “Any preaching that is not aimed at the replication of Pentecost for the blessing of all shortchanges the good news of Acts 2.” (Robert Brawley)
Our text begins with the end of Peter’s sermon. It is a slam bang conclusion in which he pulls together all his exegesis of Old Testament prophesy and all his experience of the Risen Christ. Here’s what all of that comes down to, brothers and sisters. “Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: ‘God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ.’” As Jews, you believe in the Lord with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. And as the Lord’s people, you have been looking for his promised Christ for hundreds of years. Well, this Jesus whom you just crucified is both the Lord and the Christ. The crucified Jesus is the Lord you love and the Christ you long for.
He might as well have dropped a bomb into that assembly of the faithful. Like soldiers in the Middle East staggering around after an IED has demolished their vehicle, they are stunned, dazed, deaf and blind for the moment, not knowing what to do next. “When they heard this,” this combination of what they had done to Jesus and what God had done to Jesus, “they were cut to the heart….” What does that mean? Was this an “Aha” moment for them, or an “Oh no” moment. Are they feeling awe– “what wonders God has done!?” Or are they feeling horror—“what have we done with God?” Probably both.
They don’t know what to do in response, so they simply ask, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Note the word brothers. Some in this crowd had accused the Apostles of being early morning drunks before the sermon began; now they call them “brothers.” Apparently the combination of Gospel preaching and Holy Spirit power has changed their attitude toward the preacher. That was just the beginning of the changes, because Peters reply to their desperate question was “repent and be baptized….”
The word for repent here is the Greek metanoia (or the verb metanoeo), which means to change your mind. The other main word for repent, the Hebrew shuv, has the sense of turn around, stop going one direction and go in the opposite direction. Turn from your sinful ways and turn to God. Picture a U turn. The word metanoia, on the other hand, refers to a change of mind (which must eventually lead to a change of direction). It is not first of all about reformed behavior, expression of remorse or the rectification of wrongs, but about a change of mind or understanding of who Jesus is and an embrace of his authority within God’s new creation. Repent of the idea that he was a mere man, a prophet who spoke for God, and, worse yet, a condemned criminal, damned by God. Accept that he was, indeed, God himself, the Lord of all and the Christ who brings God’s salvation to the world.
If Peter had stopped there, 20 centuries of confusion would not have transpired. But he didn’t stop, because he couldn’t. John the Baptist had insisted on baptism, and so had Jesus in his Great Commission. So Peter had to go on to say, “and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus, for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Those words about baptism have raised many questions and led to controversy that has divided the body of Christ. What is the relationship between baptism and forgiveness? Does baptism “bestow” forgiveness, as one scholar claims, basically summarizing the Catholic position? Or is baptism a sign and seal of God’s covenant faithfulness that will grant forgiveness when the baptized person repents and believes? Does baptism “bestow” the Holy Spirit, as another scholars says, basically summarizing the Lutheran position? Or is baptism only for those who have repented and believed, as Baptist claim, in opposition to those who think that all covenant children must be baptized because the “promise is for you and your children….”
Given 2000 years of theological controversy, it would be presumptuous of me to attempt a resolution of these issues in this short piece. In your sermon, you should emphasize the simple commands and the gospel promises. “What shall we do?” “Repent and be baptized.” In Jesus Christ, you will receive the forgiveness of sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The word for forgiveness means much more than pardon; it has the sense of release, not only from the guilt of sin, but also from its power and ultimately from its presence. In Christ, we shall finally be sinless. That is possible, because Jesus will give his Spirit to you. You will have your own personal Pentecost.
Peter assures his listeners that the “promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God shall call to him.” Once again, an apparently simple word is filled with complexity. To which promise is Peter referring? It could be the promise of the Spirit’s coming made by Jesus in Acts 1:5 and 8, and just reiterated in verse 38.
Or it could be the promise of a restored Israel to which the disciples pointed in Acts 1:6, and alluded to in all of Peter’s references to the Jewish identity of his listeners.
Or it could be the promise to Abraham that God would bless his seed throughout their generations, and that God would bless the Gentiles through that Seed (now identified as Jesus). They are the ones who “are far off,” but whom the Lord “will call.” Whatever the exact meaning, the sense is that the Gospel is for everyone, as verse 21 says. “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Peter had more to say in response to the question of the crowd. “With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’” But all his other words were surely just an elaboration on the basic Gospel message about Jesus and their basic response to that message—repent, call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, be baptized, receive forgiveness and the Spirit, and join the fellowship (next week’s message on Acts 2:42-47).
The conclusion of our text tells us the final response to the preaching of the Risen Christ. It’s the response we all crave—acceptance of the message, conversion, baptism, and the spectacular growth of the fellowship of the saved. There are many things worthy of note here. For example, there was no long process of catechesis here. Just acceptance of the Gospel and then baptism. The catechesis came later as we read in verses 42-47. Further, the number 3000 has missiological import. I mean, it is fairly easy to ignore 120 people in a large city like Jerusalem, even if they were noisy. But 3000 new converts made an impact on the populace; thus, the early church “enjoy[ed] the favor of all the people.”
Pentecost was a one-time event (though the Gentiles had their mini-Pentecost in Acts 10). But this pattern of Pentecost preaching must remain the same—proclaim the crucified, risen and ruling Jesus and then invite people to call on his name, repenting of their wrong ideas about him, and be baptized, accompanied by the promises of forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit. Many things have changed since Pentecost, but that is the kind of preaching we need in “this crooked generation.” And maybe, just maybe, the church will grow miraculously again.
Speaking of how people respond to sermons, I just finished reading another of Kent Haruf’s simple, moving novels set in the high plains of eastern Colorado. In Benediction, the Rev. Lyle has taken a real chance in his sermon on the Sermon on the Mount. He dared to tie Jesus words about forgiving our enemies to the contemporary situation, including terrorism. Half his congregation stomps out in a rage, accusing him of being a traitor and a terrorist himself. After much pain and suffering, he agrees to leave that church and, he decides, the ministry altogether.
Two old women try to talk him out of leaving, but he is thoroughly disillusioned. When they say, “People will get over this,” this is his reply. “Probably they will. But I won’t. People don’t want to be disturbed. They want assurance. They don’t come to church on Sunday mornings to think about new ideas or even old important ones. They want to hear what they’ve been told before, with only some small variations on what they’ve been hearing all their lives, and then they want to go home and eat pot roast and say it was a good service and feel satisfied.”
His bitter words might be a good way to get your church to think about what they expect from and how they respond to Gospel preaching.
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
Author: Scott Hoezee
In a time of global pandemic, of fear, worry, and sorrow, Psalm 116 is at once inspirational and aspirational. It is inspirational in its witness to God’s faithfulness in hearing our cries of distress from places of disorientation and even death. It is aspirational in that we all can but hope that very soon we will be able to join the psalmist in not only crying to God but in thanking God for delivering us from our crisis. When I read this psalm to prepare for this article, I found myself thinking again and again, “Let it be so for all of us, O Lord. Let it be so soon.”
The RCL guts out the middle section of Psalm 116 for no discernible reason and since the poem flows together consistently and well, I will treat the entire psalm here, though these preaching ideas will work just fine if you stick to the lection as stipulated by the Lectionary and scoop up the first four and the final eight verses.
Psalm 116 is a very honest poem. On the one hand it spends a lot of time thanking God for what clearly appears to be deliverance from a potentially fatal situation. On the other hand verse 15 notes that the death of God’s faithful servants is precious in the eyes of the Lord. Obviously, then, the praise of God for his deliverance from death is not to be interpreted as some “Get Out of Death Free” card for any and all who are faithful and ask God for help. At some point, for even the most faithful of believers, the end of this earthly journey does come.
We wish it were not so of course. It is like Jesus telling Martha in John 11 that if you believe on him, “you will never die.” But Jesus said that on his way to the tomb of a friend who had died—and who, despite being raised by Jesus that day, died again one day (Lazarus is not still walking around the Middle East). The Martha who affirmed her belief that Jesus is “the resurrection and the life” came to her life’s end eventually too. Everyone does. And for all of us who manage to not die of COVID-19 (whether we contract the virus and recover or dodge it altogether) we may be able to sing Psalm 116’s praises to God eventually but we will not for that reason never see death.
I suppose that as this is the Psalm assigned for two weeks after Easter in the Year A Lectionary there may be some thought that we could envision Jesus himself reciting this. He did die (and his death was precious to the Father) AND he came back from death (and in Jesus’ case, he did come back never to die again). Or we can put these words on our own lips as thanksgiving for the resurrection. If so, then the paradox of Psalm 116 fits well: we both believe we have been delivered from final death and we also know that we will still have a physical death first somewhere along the line. Whether or not the poet of this psalm could ever have imagined that the tension that exists along these lines would apply to people the way it now does is hard to say but there it is.
But that is just part of this psalm. The gratitude is also important to note here. “What can I give back to God for all this salvation?” the psalmist wonders. Well, he says he will make a sacrifice. He will lift up some kind of cup of thanksgiving. He will fulfill his vows. He will testify to others about God’s goodness (even as he has done so through the composing of this very psalm). And that is all great. But let’s be honest: none of it is really sufficient.
We have all made analogies like this before: if someone slips you $5 so you can buy a slice of pizza and then tells you to not worry about paying him back, a hearty “Thanks, man!” may suffice. But if someone donates a kidney to you so that you can live another 30 years instead of dying when you are 50 or something, well, “Thanks, dude!” will seem powerfully watery as an expression of gratitude for so large a gift. In fact, you will probably never have a day when you don’t want to show thanksgiving to this donor and yet you will also probably never find a way to satisfy your desire for gratitude no matter what you do or say or how often you do it or say it.
Some gifts defy the ability to even things up. It reminds me of the episode of “The Big Bang Theory” in which Sheldon Cooper is going to do a gift exchange with his friend Penny. But Sheldon does not like ever being in anyone’s debt so he buys at least a half-dozen gifts in increasing increments of cost so that once he sees and estimates how much Penny’s gift to him cost, he can give her a gift of slightly higher value (and then return all the others to the stores for a refund). But then Penny pulls a fast one (though she did not intend to): she ended up being the waitress one evening to Sheldon’s hero, the actor Leonard Nimoy or “Mr. Spock” of Star Trek fame and has him autograph a cloth napkin and this is her gift to Sheldon. He is shocked. He cannot put a price tag on this precious gift. To Sheldon this gift is of inestimable value. So he proceeds to give Penny all six of the gifts he bought and realizes it’s still not enough so he does something that this socially awkward man never does: he gives her a heartfelt hug. And he still knew it was not enough . . .
That’s the way it goes with God. We are right, along with the psalmist, to feel overwhelming gratitude. But we are also right it will never suffice. And yet . . . there is every indication in the Bible that by the same grace that saves us, God does regard it as enough. Consider this the gift that comes on top of the gift. God is pleased with our feeble attempts to say Thanks.
And that is grace indeed.
On the idea of God’s accepting whatever thanksgiving we can give him, Billy Collins’s poem “The Lanyard” says it all:
The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
1 Peter 1:17-23
Author: Doug Bratt
A few years ago the University of Maryland’s football team found itself in trouble at halftime of one of the biggest games in its history. It didn’t just trail North Carolina State’s team. Maryland’s team also hadn’t played very well.
Maryland’s head coach Ralph Friedgen knew he had to motivate his team to play better in the second half. So he gave a passionate speech – and threw a few chairs. “I don’t think I hit anyone,” he noted somewhat sheepishly after his motivated team rallied to beat North Carolina State.
One challenge that faces all leaders is how to motivate those whom we lead. How can teachers motivate their students to do as well as they can? How can pastors motivate the members of their church to fully follow Jesus?
These are perhaps especially hard questions in the context of the current pandemic. Even Christians may have higher priorities than holy living. Some of us are mostly thinking about the physical and economic health and survival of our loved ones and ourselves.
Preachers and teachers don’t ignore those challenges or their context. But we also continue to offer God’s gracious words of life. Among them are Peter’s call to his readers not to “conform to … evil desires” (14) but to “be holy in all” (15) we do.
Yet he knew that it was incredibly difficult to do that. How, then, could the apostle motivate his readers to be completely holy? The apostle doesn’t throw any chairs or discipline wrongdoers. He instead first reminds Jesus’ followers that the One to whom we pray as our Father also “judges” each person’s work “impartially.”
He implies that our hope of salvation also brings with it accountability. Yet Peter also knew that such accountability to an impartial Judge might terrify people. To properly address such terror, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s preachers and teachers may first want to explore the nature of God’s judgment.
Some of God’s people deny that they’ll have to stand before God’s judgment seat because God has already forgiven and “forgotten” their sins. Other Christians believe that they’ll stand before God’s judgment seat with their confidence bolstered by our addition of good works to God’s saving grace.
To clear up such misperceptions, those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson can point to the Bible’s teachings about God’s judgment. Certainly, as Peter notes in verse 17, God “judges each man’s work impartially.” That implies that God is already judging the world. “As a just judge,” Reformed Christians profess in the Heidelberg Catechism, God punishes disobedience “now and in eternity.”
However, Peter also at least suggests that those God judges on the Day of Judgment will include members of the Christian community. Judgment, after all, begins with what Peter later calls “the family of God.” Romans 14:10 also insists, “we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.”
Christ himself will be everyone’s “impartial” judge on that last day. After all, in II Corinthians 5:10 Paul writes about “the judgment seat of Christ.” Thankfully, then, as the Heidelberg Catechism insists, the final judge will be “the very One who already stood in” Jesus’ followers’ “place before God.”
God’s standard of judgment of all people will be “impartial.” So the things that often affect our judgment won’t affect God’s judgment. God’s impartial standard of judgment, as Gordon Spykman once wrote, “will be the same then as it is now – whether our life is ‘hid with Christ in God’ or whether we are ‘still in our sins’.”
So Christians’ failures will somehow enter the picture on Judgment Day. However, as Anthony Hoekema once noted, “the important point” of that is that God will reveal those sins and shortcomings as “forgiven sins.”
So while even God’s adopted sons and daughters will have to appear before God on the Judgment Day, we don’t have to worry about that day. After all, then, as now, there is no condemnation for those who faithfully receive God’s salvation. The impartial Judge, after all, is also our Lord and Savior.
Yet knowing that we will someday have to stand before Christ the Judge helps motivate us to live in what Peter calls in verse 17 “reverent fear.” While Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters don’t have to be afraid of God, we do want to cultivate a deep respect for the Lord. After all, at the last day God will reveal everything Christians have done, both good and bad. So we try to live, talk and even think in ways that God will reveal then as good.
Such a lifestyle, however, makes us what Peter repeatedly calls “strangers” (17). After all, the world in which we live cares little about whether God will judge its actions as good or bad. So Christians pattern our lives on God’s holiness, not on the people around us.
To even further motivate his readers to live holy lives, Peter also reminds us that God “redeemed” God’s dearly beloved people (18). I Peter 1’s preachers and teachers might use our biblically shaped imagination to explore redemption with our hearers.
We might invite them to imagine themselves as antebellum American slaves. Their master completely owns them. He tells them when to get up and when to go to bed, as well as when and where to work. Their master also beats them mercilessly when they act as though he isn’t their master.
Your master owns you so completely that he also controls your family. He essentially tells you whom you marry, since he has the power to sell you or your spouse to another master. Your master even has the power to take your children away from you to sell them to another master.
What’s more, you have no hope of changing this. You don’t have enough money to buy your freedom. Even if you succeed in somehow running away, you have little hope of permanent escape. So you have no reason to think that you’ll ever be anything but someone’s property.
By nature, that’s humanity’s spiritual situation. Human beings are naturally slaves to sin, Satan and death. In fact, as Reformed Christians confess, we actually “increase our guilt every day.” We can’t buy our freedom from this slavery. Nor can people somehow escape from this slavery. We naturally, after all, perversely kind of enjoy being slaves to sin and Satan. So we naturally have no reason to think we’ll ever be anything but sin and Satan’s slaves.
But someone wants to buy your freedom, to “redeem” you from slavery. What’s he willing to pay for your freedom? A few dollars? Another slave? No, he’s willing to buy your freedom with his only son.
While sounds preposterous, that’s precisely what God graciously did for God’s dear sons and daughters. God didn’t purchase our freedom from slavery to sin with valuable but perishable things like silver or gold. Nor did God “pay” with any other creature to redeem Jesus’ followers from slavery to sin and Satan.
Only One who is, as Reformed Christians confess, “truly human and truly righteous” could ransom God’s people from slavery to sin and Satan. God has graciously ransomed God’s adopted children from slavery to sin and Satan. However, the ransom God paid was simply astronomical. God paid the price of God’s only natural Son, Jesus Christ’s blood to ransom you and me from death. Jesus gave his blood for our blood.
Christ’s blood doesn’t, however, just free his adopted brothers and sisters from slavery to future destruction. It also breaks us from slavery to a dead past. Christ’s blood redeems his followers from the meaningless way of life of Satan’s slaves. Christ’s blood graciously sweeps away an entire ungodly lifestyle, with its hollow ways of talking, acting and even thinking.
Long before God created anything, God knew that God’s first imagebearers would fall into sin and become slaves to Satan. God knew as well that their descendants would become such slaves. However, God also knew what God would do when God’s precious children needed to be rescued from this slavery. Long before God even created the world, God decided to send God’s only Son, Jesus Christ, to live, die and rise again for the salvation of those God graciously chose to save.
God chose to adopt us as God’s children before God even created the world. God also loved you and me so much that God gave God’s Son to bring us salvation. God also, however, graciously gave Jesus’ followers our salvation.
So while Christ paid the price for his adopted siblings’ ransom from slavery to sin and Satan, he also, by his Spirit, plants that salvation in our hearts. That means that while, by God’s Spirit, we believe “in” him, Christians also believe “through” Jesus Christ. For while God’s Spirit uses the apostles’ witness to bring you and me to faith in Jesus Christ, it’s the Lord himself who actually gifts us with faith.
So faith in Christ isn’t something Christians generate on our own. We don’t hear the gospel and then simply decide to believe that its testimony to Jesus Christ is true. No, the Lord himself, by his Spirit, gives us faith. God’s people can only receive both that gift and the salvation that comes with it.
Human traditions and religions offer only empty lifestyles and meaningless illusions. So the risen Jesus’ followers have hope only through faith in the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. That, along with an awareness of both our accountability to God and the price God paid for our salvation, helps motivate us, by God’s Spirit, to be holy in all we do.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment’s Marmeladov is an alcoholic public official who has a unique but compelling take on the last judgment: “When [the judge] has finished with everyone, then he shall say to us: ‘And ye also,’ he’ll say, ‘come forth! Come forth ye winebibbers, come forth ye weaklings, come forth ye profligates!’ And we will all come forth and stand there unashamed.
“And he shall say: ‘Ye are swine! Ye have the beast’s image and stamp on you; but come ye also!’ And the wise shall say, and the judicious shall say: ‘Lord, why dost thou receive these men?’
“And he shall say: ‘I receive them, O wise men, I receive them, O nes, because not one of them ever considered himself worthy of it . . .’ And he shall stretch forth his hands to us and we shall fall at his feet . . . and weep . . . and understand all! Then we shall understand all!”