May 11, 2020
The Easter 6A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 14:15-21 from the Lectionary Gospel; Acts 17:22-31 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 66:8-20 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Peter 3:13-22 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 53 (Lord’s Day 20)
Author: Scott Hoezee
It’s possible I suppose to read a passage like John 14 and do so with a sense of detachment. Jesus packs a lot of theology into these Farewell 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 an arid sermon has been preached on these words in which preachers were about as passionate as a CPA doing a dreary tax audit. That would be an unhappy prospect at any time. But in this time of COVID-19 pandemic, dry sermons on this text would be not just unfortunate but downright tragic. Homiletical malpractice and all that!
Because 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, especially during a time of social distancing and isolation: “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. The Gospels all tell us that on this night of his betrayal Jesus was “troubled.” I’ll say.
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!
In recent weeks we pastors have felt the loneliness ourselves. Yes, some of us have pasted photos of parishioners onto their usual pews so when we pastors preach to empty sanctuaries, they look a little less empty. Others of us have found creative ways to make preaching into a camera lens more personal. But it’s lonely and what’s more, these less-than-optimal worship experiences are getting beamed to people stuck at home, including seniors who are stuck in their rooms, bereft of even close family company, relegated to hands pressed up against the glass of closed windows even just to see someone.
We none of us could have imagined this happening. Not ever. But as in that Upper Room long ago, so now: Jesus understands our loneliness and our fears and our sense of abandonment and not in some omniscient, divine way devoid of personal feelings or experience. Jesus knows this all from the inside out as the loneliest man who lived and who died utterly alone, bereft for a short while from even the presence of his Father and Spirit.
When THIS ONE tells you that you are not abandoned like some orphan, he means it. And here is a word we pastors and all of our people need now more than 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: Stan Mast
On this sixth Sunday of the Easter season, we continue our reflections on the Resurrection of Jesus with this fascinating story which shows us how Paul preached the Risen Christ on the continent of Europe. Directed by the Holy Spirit to leave Asia, Paul worked his way down the coast of the Aegean Sea to the center of Greek culture, the famed city of Athens. There he was invited to address the cultured “seekers” at the Areopagus. That was the public meeting place where the intelligentsia spent their time discussing the newest and greatest ideas. It was the highbrow Facebook of the ancient world. So how did Paul preach the Risen Christ to a sophisticated non-church crowd?
That’s a question we know all too well. At my last church I met periodically with our young people to learn what was on their minds. One obviously intelligent and well-read teenager asked a question directly related to this text. “In Have a Little Faith Mitch Albom raises a question about who should be ministered to. Should we send missionaries to other organized religions? Or should we leave them to their own belief structure and concentrate on those who don’t have a religion?”
She was asking the question that challenges all of us in this post-modern pluralistic world. How should we treat members of other religions? Should we just leave them alone, respecting their choice of faith? Should we have interfaith dialogue so that we understand them better but make no effort to convert them? Or should we witness to them in an effort to make them disciples of Jesus? Should we help them when they are in trouble or should we establish laws that keep them from causing trouble?
In the Sermon the Mount Jesus gave the world a startling new way to deal with people who not only hold different beliefs than we do, but who also oppose us, even violently, people who declare themselves to be our enemies in religion or politics or personal relations. In Matthew 5:43-46 he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemies.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors (the greatest sinners of that day) doing that?”
So according to Jesus, we must love members of other religions and do good to them. But here’s the big question. What does it mean to love a Hindu or a Jew or a Muslim? Specifically, how should we approach them in love on matters of religion?
In Acts 17 the greatest missionary the world has ever seen approaches the pluralistic melting pot of first century Athens, the cultural and intellectual center of the ancient world. The way he deals with members of other religions and those with no religion sets the standard for how we should do it today.
Vs. 16 says, “While Paul was waiting for his friends in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” “Greatly distressed” means that his spirit was stirred by anger or grief when he gazed at the pluralistic religious atmosphere of Athens. He did not see this multiplicity of religious expression as a good thing. How could he? He had been raised a Jew, so he knew the monotheistic texts like this one from Isaiah 45: “There is no god but me, so turn to me all the ends of the earth and be saved.” Paul was greatly distressed by all the religions on display in that cradle of democracy. So, what did he do? Knock down the idols? Insult the members of the other faiths?
Listen to vs. 17. “So, he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and God-fearing Greeks and in the marketplace with those who happened to be there,” which included some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. “He reasoned.” The word means, he conversed with them, engaged in an interfaith dialogue with them. He had the mental toughness to talk face to face with members of other religions, even when they argued vociferously back, which those philosophers did. They came back at Paul because of what he was saying in this dialogue.
He wasn’t just politely inquiring about their faith, seeking to understand them better, though there is obviously merit in that. He was preaching, says verse 18, about Jesus and the resurrection. In other words, he didn’t stop with civil discourse. As he dialogued, he passionately preached the very heart of the Christian faith, the risen Christ. Some of his listeners mocked him, others were confused by him, and all of them wanted to hear more. So, they invited him into the Areopagus, the market place of ideas in Athens.
Listen to the way he speaks to this pluralistic melting pot in vs. 22. “Men of Athens, I see that in every way you are very religious.” Addressing them with respect, he acknowledges their faith, touches down in their spiritual lives, begins where they live religiously. He can do that because rather than jumping to conclusions, he had carefully investigated their religions. “For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription, ‘To an Unknown God.’” They were covering their bases, acknowledging the mystery of the divine, admitting that they didn’t know everything there was to know about God. And Paul uses that admission as the connecting point. Ever since then, that has been the classical missionary strategy—connect with other religions by finding the common ground.
“Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you,” and so he begins his sermon. In the whole first part, verses 24-28, he emphasizes that common ground, while subtly pointing out where they had gone wrong. We are all the creatures of the one God who made everything. He “gives to all men life and breath and everything.” From “one man he made every nation,” and determined times and places. God made us, so that “men would seek after him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each of us.”
Notice how he is affirming their religious impulse; that came from God. All of us are seeking God. Then in verse 28 Paul quotes from two Greek poets to further establish common ground; “we are all children of God.” Clearly, he had studied classical Greek culture, so that he had these quotations on the tip of his tongue. He uses their culture to establish more connecting points for the gospel. Yes, he pretty directly critiques those places where they have gone wrong in their religious impulse. God does not live in temples and is not served by human hands. But as he lovingly approaches these adherents of other religions, he begins with the common ground between Christianity and other religions.
Then in vs. 29 he turns a corner, a very sharp corner. Referring to those Greek poets, he says, “Therefore, since we are God’s offspring, we (note that “we,” not just “you,” including himself in his hard words, “I’m as guilty as you”) should not think that the Divine Being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill.” Hard words to an audience surrounded by idols, but it gets harder. “In the past God overlooked such ignorance….” Ouch! How politically incorrect can you get? “You don’t know the truth about God!” In our day, such talk would be seen as disrespectful at least, maybe even as racist, or exclusionary, as xenophobic, or worst of all as a hate crime. Many of us are very intimidated by those kinds of accusations against Christianity, with good reason.
Paul was not intimidated, because he knew he had a divine mandate to speak the truth to those who didn’t believe it. So, he says in vs. 30. “But God commands all people everywhere to repent.” That is blunt. God commands—not politely invites, but actually commands. Not just a few people, but all people everywhere. No one is exempt. No religion escapes this call to change, to change its mind about God. That kind of talk takes guts. Paul can only do this because he has a mission from God, and more specifically from the risen Christ.
That’s how he ends his sermon—with Christ. “For God has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men (not just to Jews, but to Greeks, not just to Christians but to Hindus and Buddhists) by raising him from the dead.” With great respect, seeking as much common ground as possible, including himself in the call to repent, Paul proclaims the three central ways in which Christianity differs from all other religions, the three most offensive parts of Christianity—Jesus is The One sent by God, Jesus has risen from the dead, and Jesus will preside at the final judgment. Paul calls these members of other religions and of no religion to change their minds about religion. He the Nomakes that call very serious by telling the truth about the risen Jesus who will judge the world. Love for the adherents of other religions must finally lead us to tell them the truth about Jesus– respectfully, but honestly.
That won’t always be well received in North American society, where, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “tolerance always trumps truth.” It didn’t go well in ancient Athens. Vs. 32 reports, “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ And a few men became followers of Paul and believed.” In other words, there was a divided response to the way Paul talked about other religions. The gospel divided the crowd. It does today. That’s one of the main arguments against the exclusive claims of the Gospel. The Gospel is an offense. Well, yes it is. Always has been, because it is the Good News of the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Paul accepted that. Indeed, it cost him his life. It may cost us our popularity, our place in society, even the protection of the law eventually.
I want to end where I began, with the words of Jesus in Matthew 5. Notice in Acts 18 that Paul left Athens soon after that and went to Corinth. He was, after all, a traveling evangelist, a hit and run preacher. That may account for his bluntness. He didn’t have to stick around and live with these folks. We do, so if we’re going to be effective witnesses to members of other religions and to those with no religions, we will have to couch our honest words about Jesus in lavish displays of the love of Jesus.
If we don’t love our enemies, if we don’t pray for them, if we don’t bless them, if we don’t help them and show them hospitality and kindness, our words about the love of God in Jesus Christ will sound pretty hollow. We must be tough minded and tender hearted. We must respectfully acknowledge their faith and forthrightly call them to change their minds. We must love them as we love ourselves and lovingly tell them the Good News that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” That’s what Jesus told us to do, when he said, “Go into all the world and make disciples of every nation….” Interfaith dialogue must be followed by interfaith disciple making.
Several years ago, 3 Christians were arrested for handing out selections of the Gospel of John outside a Muslim festival in Dearborn, MI. A US District Court had banned all groups from distributing such literature because it was deemed disrespectful of Muslims. Witnessing was tantamount to a crime, so these Christians were arrested. Thankfully, the 6th US Court of Appeals ruled in their favor. I mention this old court case because of the commentary on the case by David Harsanyi in the Denver Post. Harsanyi is an atheist, but he thinks that all of us ought to be able to do what Paul does here. “Everyone has the right to proselytize, after all, to try and convince others that their moral, religious, economic, political or ideological notions are best. Isn’t it impolite to claim that your beliefs are superior to or more practical than someone else’s? No. We claim as much every day in our elections, in books, in conversations, in blogs, in columns. Why should anyone be immune?” Respect for other religions doesn’t mean you can’t respectfully witness to them.
Author: Scott Hoezee
What is this COVID-19 season for us? A source of lament? A time of testing? Ten years from now, how will we look back on this time? As one of the worst seasons of our lives that we are so amazingly glad is well behind us, or as a time for which we manage to eke out some level of gratitude that not only did God bring us through this time, he strengthened us through the testing of our faith?
Two months ago had I read Psalm 66, framing this poem in these terms would likely never had occurred to me to do. Now . . . it’s the first thing I thought of.
For reasons unknown the RCL has us skip the first 7 verses of Psalm 66. Mostly they are lovely sentiments of praise and thanksgiving. But as we pick up the action in verse 8, we see a curious conjunction of things. On the one hand there is one of those global statements you often find in the psalms that makes it sound like God never, ever let anyone’s foot slip. It makes it sound as though bad things never happen to God’s people.
But wait. Next thing you know the psalmist is talking about some pretty dark times after all. Times when enemies triumphed, when people were thrown into prison, when they passed through trials of fire and water and had burdens laid on their backs (probably a reference to Egyptian slavery, especially since this psalm also includes references to the Red Sea crossing).
So which is it: our feet never slip because God heads off every bad thing or feet slip left and right sometimes and some really bad stuff befalls even God’s own people? Well and of course it’s BOTH. As I have pointed out repeatedly in my sermon starter articles on the Psalms here on the CEP website, you always have to read any given psalm in the light of the other 149. If something like Psalm 121 makes it sound like it’s blue skies and sunshine every day for the people of God, Psalms of Lament like Psalms 10 and 13 testify that that ain’t necessarily so.
Sometimes you get both sides of this coin within the same psalm and that is what happens here. Yes, ultimately the psalmist can give praise to God for keeping him safe and leading him to better days and to places of abundance. But first came horrible days and places of deep and dire want and scarcity. In the retrospect proffered by Psalm 66, those past bad days are viewed as times of testing. God was not absent even then, but however and whichever way we parse God’s relative initiative in bringing about hardship in our lives, he nevertheless is able to remain present in those times so they become times of testing, of bringing about a stronger faith and a deeper relationship with God himself.
Of course, the other thing that the Psalms of Lament testify to is the fact that in the midst of those hard times of want and suffering, it never feels like something for which one could ever generate the least iota of gratitude. Not then. And in the midst of suffering you are sure you will NEVER find anything in this time for which to be grateful. Not ever. No, when you are in extremis, God feels absent, and the Lament Psalms shout that sense of abandonment loud and clear. When you are suffering at the hands of enemies, you ask God to crush those enemies and end this suffering. As in now. You remind God that it’s pretty hard to sing God’s praises when you are dead and so if God wants to keep you as a member of his choir, then step up your game, O God, and get me the heck out of here!
Sometimes that deliverance comes. And then God brings better days. And then people look back on those bad times and try to parse them. Now it’s true–and let’s be pastorally honest enough to admit this (because if we don’t, we risk blowing some of the members of our congregations clean out of the water)–there will always be people who suffered such enormous and heinous things that they will never make sense out of them in this life. Try though they may, they cannot see that as a time of testing that yielded something good. And they can never say “Thanks” to God for such an alleged good outcome. There can be in some people’s lives a brokenness neither time nor any soothing pastoral word can heal. If we need a reminder of how deeply fractured our fallen world is, these permanently wounded and scarred people provide it.
But thankfully that is not most people. Some can look back and give thanks not just for the obvious things—we got healed, we were spared, things turned out better than we thought—but for other things like spiritual growth, a deeper relationship with God and with other people, a more mature congregation, a more seasoned and sensitive pastor. And then those tough times might be seen as a season of testing after all. Not as punishment. Not as divine abandonment that luckily just turned out OK. But instead as a season of God’s having stayed patiently with us even when we could not see God and somehow, some way God brought about not just deliverance but insight, growth, maturity, deeper faith.
If we are blessed enough to be able to testify to that all one day, then we join the psalmist in bringing sacrifices of praise to God again and again.
But a needed pastoral caution to all of us preaching during this COVID-19 time: we never want to speak these words of future hope too quickly. It is OK for now if Lament is center stage (as it is in many Psalms) even as we hold out the hope that for some of us, by God’s grace alone, maybe, maybe, maybe we will arrive at a Psalm 66 stage of seeing God’s goodness to us through this crisis even so. Maybe we see glimmers of that now. Perhaps some do not or for now cannot see even such glimmers. That’s OK. The main thing is to preach the goodness and presence of God in times of crisis and then let the Holy Spirit lead us along to see what this might all look like in the future when, blessedly enough, we can look back and reflect on it all.
Preaching on Psalm 66 right now does not resolve or remove our present crisis. It does not even per se promise we will understand all this by and by. But it does provide the opportunity—with all due pastoral hedging for the deeply suffering among us—to do the one thing we preachers need always to do:
In this luminous sermon, the late Lewis B. Smedes proclaimed hope in ways honest, true, and deeply inspiring. But the honesty part stands out to me. Because Smedes admits the two-edged-sword nature of hope.
On the one hand, hope empowers and ennobles and provides the energy we need to go on. On the other hand, hope will break your heart, and in this tough world hope will do that with some frequency. This downside of hope always makes us tempted to give up on it. Hope just disappoints us too often.
But don’t abandon hope. As Smedes says in his wonderful preaching voice at the end of this sermon, “Keep on hoping, keep on hoping, keep on hoping.”
1 Peter 3:13-22
Author: Doug Bratt
Many of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers and hearers live in among the freest countries in the history of the world. What’s more, our post post post-modern culture is fascinated with all things spiritual and religious.
Yet at least some of us are nervous about giving free and interested people “the reason for the hope we have” (15).
So it’s hard to imagine how challenging 1 Peter 3’s summons were to his first audience whose suffering for their faith was growing.
Of course, the apostle structures verse 13 so as to expect a negative answer to its question, “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? After all, most people most of the time applaud doing good.
However, good is not always rewarded, in part because Christians have introduced a new claim into the “doing good equation.” We profess that we do good because Christ is Lord not just over our lives, but also over the whole creation. We profess this world belongs not to the strongest, or best armed, but to our God.
However, that claim irritates those who assume they run our world. So how do powerful people and groups respond? They sometimes meet good with evil. Things like the recent slaughter of members of wedding party of Kenyan Christians by religious extremists remind us that some people cause people who do “good” to suffer.
The natural reaction to such unjust suffering is to ask why it happens. Yet we don’t usually ask those who cause the suffering why they do it. Instead we ask God or other Christians why God lets good people suffer.
No one who proclaims this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson will answer that question in the course of a single message or lesson. Yet in calling those who “suffer for what is right” “blessed,” Peter echoes Jesus’ claim that those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake are somehow “blessed.” He also echoes Jesus’ apostles’ rejoicing that “they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace” for Jesus’ sake.
Yet we sometimes struggle to define what it means to be “blessed.” To be “blessed” includes having everything we really need, even in the midst of suffering. However, to blessed is also to realize that God has graciously adopted us as God’s beloved sons and daughters.
Of course, even Jesus’ followers still share some of our neighbors’ fears. We too fear the current pandemic. We too fear its affects on our loved ones, and our nation and world’s well-being, as well as ourselves. We also fear our loved ones losing their emotional and spiritual way. We too fear the degradation our climate seems to experience.
But while we share at least some of others’ fears, Christians don’t have to let those fears control us. Fear doesn’t have to intimidate those who are blessed, who belong to God in body and in soul, in life and in death. Christians don’t have to let fear rule our lives. Lots of people and things join fear in vying for the central place in our hearts and lives. Yet the more we let them rule us, the more we’ll be afraid. They are, after all, endlessly cruel and demanding slaveowners.
So the apostle invites his readers “set apart Christ as Lord” (15), to put Christ in charge of our lives again and again. To acknowledge his supremacy in our kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms. We let him take charge of our work and our play, our waking and sleeping.
In verse 15 Peter suggests that part of letting Christ be Lord is being ready to talk to our neighbors about why we live the way we live. Always be prepared, he says, to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.
That’s stirring invitation’s beating heart is the concept of “hope.” Human hope generally deals in the realm of possibilities and probabilities. By contrast, Christian hope is guaranteed. So when we talk about Christian hope, we talk about God’s promises on which we can completely rely. People may only hope it rains tomorrow. But God’s dearly beloved people can know that God will go with us wherever we go tomorrow.
So those who proclaim I Peter 3 this Sunday might explore “hope” with our hearers. What gives lives meaning? That the best is yet to come? That death will someday die right along with pandemics, sadness, crying and pain? That death is just a doorway to eternal life in the new earth and heaven? And, in the context of the current pandemic, what is Christian hope?
Peter calls his readers to be prepared to talk about that hope to the people who ask. To be ready to talk about our hope to that friend who just doesn’t quite get us or that family member who no longer cares to get us.
Be ready, says the apostle, to talk about your hope to that boss who cares most about the bottom line and the co-worker who cares about nothing but herself. Be ready to talk about your hope at the gym and playground. Be ready to talk about your hope when you enter the delivery room and when you enter hospice care.
But especially, the apostle seems to suggest, be ready to respond to threats and abuse with a loving explanation of why we live the way we live. Tell those who want to harm you, Peter suggests, that it’s all about the hope Jesus Christ has given us.
But what do we say? While to some of us the answer comes easily, to others it comes less naturally. After all, Peter’s talking about making the kind of well-prepared case a lawyer might make in a courtroom.
For most of God’s adopted children, our hope is deeper and richer than just John 3:16 or Psalm 23, for example. So for some of us limiting our expression of our hope to them is a bit like a lawyer walking into a courtroom without having done her homework.
Those who have hope in Jesus Christ think through what God has done and promises to do for us. In other words, those who want to explain the hope God gives us personalize our testimony ahead of time, so that we’re ready when people ask us about our hope.
Originally Peter was asking slaves with cruel masters. Now he asks people in dead-end jobs and dying lives to explain why we have hope. Yet since that’s not easy for some of us to do, perhaps I Peter 3’s readers might take the time to practice with those who share our hope so that we’re more prepared to share it with those who don’t.
Of course, we’ve watched such testimonies shrink into indecent psychological exposure or self-absorbed bluster. But that ought not stop us from talking to each other about what God has done and is doing.
Not long after another doctor diagnosed my cancer, I visited one of my eye doctors. While I suspect he’s not a Christian, he knows I’m a pastor. He asked me, “How do you reconcile your work for God with getting such a serious illness?” In other words, “What’s the reason for your hope in the face of this disease?”
I was prepared to give answers about my disease and prognosis. But I wasn’t yet ready to give an answer to someone who asked for the reason for the hope I have. So I mumbled something like, “I believe my illness is precisely the kind of suffering Jesus came to eventually destroy.”
Many of you can articulate the reasons for the hope you have better than I did. I could now do that better than when I was first diagnosed. But we all share one thing: God has given us hope through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We just need to be ready to talk about it in genuine and pleasant ways.
Since my colleague Marv could talk to almost anyone about the hope God has given him, I once begged him to tell me his secret. He said he always makes sure to read three sections in the newspaper. (Today he probably reads them online). Can you guess what Marv reads? The Sports section. The business section. And the comics.
Marv understood that many guys were at least traditionally interested in at least one of those things. So he used his knowledge of what interests men to tailor his sharing of his hope to those who ask him about it.
But, of course, that requires spending time thinking not just about our family members and friends, but also our hope. We spend time not just thinking about our jobs and futures, but also our hope. What’s more, we spend time not just thinking about our worries and ourselves but also our culture.
The Spirit can use that to prepare us to share the reasons for our hope with “everyone who asks” us. That, however, also at least suggests we need an invitation to share our faith. That may come as a bit of a relief to some of us.
However, it also makes us wonder if our faith is visible enough to provoke such questions. Are we interested enough in others to live in a way that encourages them to be interested in Jesus Christ?
Yet as we prepare to talk about our hope, Peter also calls us to ask ourselves how we can share it with “gentleness and respect.” In a world that often expresses its opinion shrilly, angrily and disrespectfully, Christians learn to share our hope with love not just for the God who gives us hope, but also with love for those who ask about our hope.
God’s adopted sons and daughters don’t want to make it more difficult for the Spirit to do the Spirit’s work by failing to love people. So we’re always ready to gladly share our reasons for the hope we have with gentleness and respect.
Few things make at least some Christians more nervous than the giving what Peter calls “the reason for the hope we have” (15) in appropriate and helpful ways. Surveys once asked volunteers at a training session for a Billy Graham crusade, “What is your greatest hindrance to witnessing?”
9% answered they were too busy to remember to do it. 28% said they felt they lacked the necessary information to share their faith. 12% said the greatest hindrance to their witnessing was the poor quality of their Christian lives. However, 51% of respondents said their biggest problem with sharing their faith was their fear of how those with whom they shared it would react.