Sunday, August 27, 2017

Living Witness to Living Hope: Sermon on 1 Peter 3:8-22

“Let those who have refused to sacrifice to the gods and to yield to the command of the emperor be scourged, and led away to suffer the punishment of decapitation, according to the laws!” Those were the words the judge yelled. And in response, seven Christians celebrated the goodness of God. For his part, Justin turned to reflect on his life's story. He'd been born and raised in pagan Samaria, the son of Priscus, grandson of Bacchios. His hometown was full of veterans and idols and a massive theater – and a well where some man named Jesus once talked to a Samaritan woman. Justin was unsatisfied with his education, so when he grew up, he sampled the schools of philosophy, one by one – he was a Stoic, an Aristotelian, a Pythagorean, a Platonist. But as he journeyed to Rome along the seashore, he'd encountered a mysterious old man who was following him. The old man questioned him and introduced him to a Teacher far wiser than Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, or Epictetus – a Teacher called the Christ, whose philosophy outshone the rest. And so Justin had been converted.

Coming to Rome as a worshipper of Christ as the Reason and Wisdom of God, he set himself up as one of the city's teachers of philosophy. It was not easy to be a Christian in Rome. He remembered his debates with the Cynic philosopher Crescens, who hated Christians and called them “the most godless ones.” Over the last ten years, he'd written long books to the emperor and the senate, defending the Christian life and teaching against the ridiculous charges that had been circulating, making the case for the philosophy of Christ. “Reason directs those who are truly pious and philosophical to honor and love only what is true,” he wrote, and “we forewarn you that you shall not escape the coming judgment of God if you continue in your injustice; and we ourselves will invite you to do that which is pleasing to God.” But now Justin had been denounced. And now he'd been put on trial before the mayor of Rome, his judge, a renowned Stoic philosopher named Junius Rusticus, the mentor of the new emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Rusticus from the judgment-seat had demanded that he “obey the gods at once,” but Justin had refused, citing his allegiance to one God, “the Maker and Fashioner of the whole creation, visible and invisible; and the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Rusticus ridiculed his expectation of an afterlife; Justin retorted, “I hope that, if I endure these things, I shall have his gifts.” Threatened with death, Justin replied, “Through prayer we can be saved on account of our Lord Jesus Christ, even when we have been punished, because this shall become to us salvation and confidence at the more fearful and universal judgment-seat of our Lord and Savior.” And so the earthly sentence was passed. And, marching toward his place of execution, Justin knew that he was really marching toward Jesus, the Reason of God, who had “gone” before him “into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subjected to him” (1 Peter 3:22).

That's how Peter put it, in his letter to the Christians in Asia Minor a century earlier. Peter looks to Jesus, but he also looks back to the story of a man not so unlike Justin, who forcefully made his case to a wicked society. The man's name, long before Justin, was Noah – and his was a popular story in Asia Minor; there are even Roman coins with his picture on them. Faced with the corruption of society, Noah preached and reasoned with his neighbors; but he was in the minority and mistreated, like the believers to whom Peter wrote. Like Justin, Noah defended his peculiar hope, his ark-building project; and he warned of the need to be saved in the face of a more fearful judgment than any local judge could mete out. Peter writes, “God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared” (1 Peter 3:20). And during the days of God's patience, Noah built. Noah preached. Noah reasoned.

But disobedience abounded – and not, as it turns out, just among Noah's human neighbors. Peter writes some cryptic words here about “the spirits in prison [who] formerly did not obey” during Noah's time. And a lot of ink has been spilled over the years trying to figure out what on earth Peter's getting at. And that's because we keep forgetting to read old books. In Peter's day, some popular Jewish books about Noah's great-grandfather Enoch were coming out. They imagine how, in the days of Noah, some angels called “the Watchers” had, in disobedience, abandoned heaven because of lust – that's how some people interpreted the verse in Genesis: “The sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive, and they took as their wives any they chose” (Genesis 6:2). One book about Enoch described a tour between heaven and earth, and seven stars like burning mountains over a pit, which is called “the prison house for the stars and the powers of heaven” (1 Enoch 18:14), beyond which he saw “the prison house of the angels [who] are detained here forever” (1 Enoch 21:20). And in that book, after Enoch had been taken up to a heavenly place, he was commanded to go to the disobedient Watchers and preach judgment to them (1 Enoch 12:5—13:3).

Well, whatever happened, the Bible observes that the Flood came – the earth was cleansed from its corruption, and Noah's little group was saved through the watery judgment. And millennia later, God sent his eternal Reason into our world to express itself with a human face; we know him as Jesus. And Peter reminds us that Jesus preached like Noah, and that Jesus “suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh and alive in the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18). Peter doesn't shy away from the truth. Jesus was put to death – for us. For me. For you. He suffered for your sins. He was righteous; you were unrighteous. But he went through it anyway so that he could bring us to God – whom we can approach no other way. Christ alone is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). But death couldn't have the last word – not while God's Word yet speaks, as he always will. Through the Spirit of God, Jesus was raised from the dead – his resurrection is his victory!

And after he was raised, we know from Luke and Acts, Jesus ascended – he has “gone into heaven [to be] at the right hand of God” (1 Peter 3:22). But Peter, thinking back on the stories about Enoch, adds that Jesus, in his ascension, preached like Enoch to “the spirits in prison [who] formerly did not obey” during the time of Noah (1 Peter 3:19). Jesus confronted the fallen angels and announced their sentence. He announced their sentence because he announced his triumph, his resurrection-victory. So Jesus went to the “prison-house of the angels” and proclaimed his victory over them, which meant their judgment, their penalty for disobedience. And in so doing, the risen Jesus exercised what was rightfully his: authority over “angels, authorities, and powers,” all of which have been “subjected to him” (1 Peter 3:22).

And that's important news for Peter to share, because it means that every authority has been put under Jesus, every angel (fallen or unfallen) put under Jesus, every power and every spirit made subject to him. And that includes the pointless gods of Rome – Justin couldn't sacrifice to them because they were made subject to Jesus. It includes the misbegotten philosophies of the day – they're made subject to Jesus. It includes the authority of Roman government – it's made subject to Jesus. And it includes all the dark whispers in the spiritual realm that prod and prompt the hostility of Peter's audience's pagan neighbors – the very things that motivate anti-Christian hostility, those dark spirits, are all made subject to Jesus. He is Lord! Amen?

And best of all, we can share that victory. Thanks to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can be saved. In days long past, Peter said, God sent a watery judgment, but those who passed through it in faith were saved – that is, those in the ark. (I fear our friends in Texas might be in need of an ark right now, thanks to Hurricane Harvey.) During that ancient flood of judgment, “a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water” (1 Peter 3:20). But we can also pass through the waters of judgment in safety. The Flood and the Ark – those were symbols, Peter says, of baptism: “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). Baptism is a parable of salvation. It doesn't just rinse our skin like a mundane bath; but it turns our lives and souls into a living prayer of faith for God to wipe our conscience clean and make it good. And God will always answer that prayer given in faith. And when we've been “brought safely through water,” we share Jesus' victory over every power made subject to him.

That's good news right there! It's the good news we too easily miss. It's the good news that let Justin face his accusers, his detractors, his judge, with such confidence – because he shared the victory of a Christ to whom all their undergirding authorities and influences and philosophies are subject. And the same is true for us. We have nothing to fear, because we share that same victory. Whatever lurks behind the scenes we see, it's made subject to Jesus, and we share his victory. That's the blessed message he announced to the spirits in prison – that they and their ilk could not ruin our good conscience.

And Peter goes on to explain how to live with a good conscience. First, he tells us, “all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). That's a tall order of ethics. And it's pretty countercultural. People who share Jesus' victory are not supposed to be at each others' throats. We are not supposed to snipe at each other. We are not supposed to concoct our endless variations on, much less deviations from, the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We're told to be like-minded, agreeing to see all things in light of Jesus' victory. We're told to be sympathetic to one another – suffering in one another's suffering. We're told to love one another like family. And if we did that, would we see the divides we see in American society today? Friends, we have plenty of fellow Christians who have experienced the long shadow of racism – motivated by some of those dark whispers in the spiritual realm – in ways that lead to their suffering, physical and social and emotional; they may well experience many features of American life in ways we don't. But are we willing to enter into their suffering, to listen to their stories, to love them as our family, and to put Jesus' victory ahead of our politics and 'common sense'? All too often, we haven't been. And when that's the case, it's to our discredit. But Peter tells us we have to. It's important. Anything less sullies our good conscience that we prayed for when we were all baptized into one body by one Spirit.

We're supposed to be tender-hearted – literally, Peter tells us to have “good guts.” That's where people those days put the seat of the emotions – you feel it in your guts. We should be ready to feel the pain of others, to put our emotional stake in their baskets. And we're supposed to have a humble mind – literally, a lowly mind. To pagan Greeks, that word was seldom a good word. It connoted the way that slaves think, the way the poor think – habits of thinking for the low end of the totem-pole. But to Peter, it's a virtue: recognizing how high the totem-pole goes above us, all the way up to heaven's throne. Peter calls us to live with that perspective, to live like a servant, to be humble-minded. That's different from how people lived in ancient Rome, and it's different from how people live in twenty-first-century America.

Peter goes on to remind us of the wisdom of Jesus: “Do not repay evil for evil or insult for insult; but on the contrary, bless – for to this you were called, so that you may obtain a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9). Peter goes on to add, “Even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you will be blessed” (1 Peter 3:14) – that's straight from the Beatitudes. That's a hard thing to do. Our first instinct when insulted, sometimes, is to insult right back – to put the person in their place. Maybe it's the passive-aggressive remarks of family members who have very definite ideas of how we should be living. Maybe it's unreasonable bosses or co-workers in the workplace. Maybe it's nasty, gossip-spreading neighbors. Don't be surprised if, at some point, you get some evil and insult tossed your way. But Peter warns us not to fight fire with fire. All that leads to is a worse fire, and the forest burns down. Extinguish the fire with blessing – that's our mission. Bless those who insult you.

Peter goes on to quote from Psalm 34: “Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from seeking deceit; let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (1 Peter 3:10-12; cf. Psalm 34:12-16). What if we actually lived like that? What if we kept a close watch on our tongue, restraining it from insults, gossip, unfair criticism, and thoughtless words in the heat of the moment? What if we cautiously steered our lips away from spreading rumors, conspiracy theories, and what today they're calling 'fake news'? What if we refused to make things worse by saying, “Well, I heard...”? What if, when faced with criticism and insult, we made the extra effort to do good to our detractors? What if we worked to 'seek peace and pursue it,' to be a force for reconciliation? And what if we entrusted ourselves to God and poured out our concerns in prayer instead of our usual unsavory outlets, and let him take care of it? Wow – wouldn't that lead to some pretty good days, and a life to be loved?

But it goes deeper than just personal. See, Peter knew good and well that believers would be maligned, insulted, persecuted for their faith. Peter's audience knew it from personal experience. And so did Justin – he was, after all, denounced to the authorities. But Justin didn't return insult for insult. He gave straight answers, always looking to defend the reasonableness of his faith and to win over his critics. And that's relevant for today, too. Two years ago, some sociologists did a survey to see what people in America really think of us – of Christians. And some of the answers they got were disturbing. One respondent said, “I wish we could start feeding them to lions again or burn them at the stake.” Another said, “I abhor them and I wish we could do away with them.” A third said, “They're not dying fast enough.” One said, “I want them all to die in a fire.” And yet another said, “The only good Christian is a dead Christian.” These are real answers from real educated, professionally successful people functioning in American society today.

Is there such a thing as anti-Christian hostility in twenty-first-century America? You better believe it. But how will we respond? “Do not repay evil for evil or insult for insult, but on the contrary, bless … Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy” (1 Peter 3:9, 14-15). That's Peter's counsel to us. We aren't supposed to wish ill on them. We aren't supposed to insult or mock them. We're meant to bless them, right in the face of their hostility. When others desire to marginalize us, we bless. When they want to push 'religion' out of the public square, we bless. When they want to sue us, we bless. When they call us names and denounce us, we bless.

It's easy to get caught up in concern for the future of our country – the society our kids and grandkids are being raised in. It's easy, it's natural, to fear for their sakes. But Peter tells us not to be afraid, not even to be troubled. He's quoting from the prophet Isaiah here. Isaiah lived in a politically unstable time, with lots of hostility and a king trying ineptly to navigate the rivalry between Assyria and Egypt. And when everyone around him was in a tizzy, Isaiah says, the LORD warned him “not to walk in the way of this people” (Isaiah 8:11). What God said to him was this: “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of Hosts – him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel...” (Isaiah 8:12-14).

Take all of that, and turn it over to God. Set it on the Living Stone – who is Christ the Lord. Peter casts him in the role of Yahweh, the God of Israel, because that's the role Christ was born from eternity past to play. Instead of worrying about our country, turn your hearts into temples; cleanse it of fear and dread and all that troubles you, and set Jesus apart as your holy Lord. Turn everything over to him. Let him take it on. You don't have to get upset. You don't have to be fearful. You don't have to worry. You don't have to be in a tizzy. On a personal level, you've got nothing to prove. Jesus has all angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him; so clear out all the junk from your heart, and set him apart as Lord there.

All of that adds up, if we actually put it into practice, to a very distinctive Christian way of life and thought – or what Justin would have called Christ's true philosophy. Living and thinking and talking that way might well draw some attention – some of it curious, some of it hostile. Live that way, and people will ask you, “What's up with that? Why do you do that? How could you believe that? What's this Jesus thing all about? Why don't you worship all that we worship? What's wrong with you?” – or, maybe, “What's right with you?” Some of the questions they might ask you can be tough ones. Will you have an answer? Justin did: he spent his whole Christian life answering the questions and accusations, making the case for the philosophy of Christ. But how about you?

Peter tells us, “In your hearts, honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you” – or demands from you – “a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). The hope that is in you is the very lifestyle of the philosophy of Christ; it's your living hope, to which your lifestyle in Jesus is a living witness. When people see it, they may be intrigued or inspired, and want to know the source of that power. They may be curious and mystified by how bizarre are the things you do and the things you say. Or they may press you to justify it, to explain why it isn't all a stupid hoax for stupid people. Peter tells us to be ready to make a defense to anybody – neighbors, friends, family, co-workers, judges, anybody – and to answer those tough questions and make the case for the philosophy of Christ.

Are you ready to do that? If someone asks you why they should believe that God exists, are you ready for that question? If someone asks you why they should believe that God is good, given all the suffering and evil in the world, are you prepared? If somebody asks how you can be so arrogant to think there's just one true religion, do you have an answer for them? If somebody wants to know what's so important about Jesus, and why you think he rose from the dead, and why they should think it, too – are you equipped to handle that? If they interrogate you about the Christian view on money or sex or diversity or society, or if they express misconceptions of what Christians actually believe and do – what will you say? When push comes to shove, are you ready to give a defense and make the case?

If we're being honest, all too often, Christians aren't ready. Indeed, a lot of Christians are proud of being unprepared – of cherishing a simple faith, not making it too 'complicated,' just wanting to recite a testimony and have that be the end of it. This verse may well be one of the Bible verses today's Christians are proudest to disobey. And yet for all that, unless you pull a Thomas Jefferson and reach for the scissors, there it sits in black and white in your Bible, same as in mine: “Always being prepared to make a defense” (1 Peter 3:15). Yet many of us aren't ready. That's a problem. That's why our church newsletter is going to start running a new column, a column on equipping you to make that defense. I hope you read it as it makes the case for different points of Christian teaching. I hope you listen widely, and think long and hard, about the questions our culture is asking us. But I especially hope you read the Scriptures, which reveal the power of God and tell us the gospel in the first place. Without that, you've got nothing worth defending.

And finally, Peter tells us to be ready to make our defense, “yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame; for it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:15-17). You can't defend the philosophy of Christ with the debate style of Satan. You can't make the case for unity with divisive rhetoric; you can't argue for peace with verbal violence; you can't prove the worth of humility by being arrogant; you can't demonstrate that God is Love by being unloving. When the time comes to explain the reason for the hope that's within us, we need to be gentle and respectful. We need to sanctify Christ, the God of Love and Peace, as the Lord in our hearts. We need to retain the good conscience for which we appealed to God in our baptism. And if we do all that, instead of shrinking back or getting hot under the collar, then even those who insult us now will have no excuse; and we will have the promise of honor in God's kingdom.

Friends, God really is real. He really does love us. He really sent his Eternal Reason, his very own Wisdom, to our world to suffer for our sins. He really did raise Christ from the dead in victory. And Jesus Christ really does have all angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him – he announced as much right to their faces (1 Peter 3:18-22). No philosophy, no objection, no hostility, no oppression, no divisiveness, no cultural trend in this world can get out from beneath his feet. “Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation,” can do a darn thing to obstruct the Way, delete the Truth, or kill the Life – and neither can they “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39; cf. John 14:6). So you who are “more than conquerors through him who loved us” have nothing to fear (Romans 8:37; 1 Peter 3:14). So like Noah and like Justin Martyr, let us bear living witness to the one living hope into which we were all baptized as one, and keep a good conscience in all things, to the glory and honor of God! Amen.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Living Hope for Family Life: Sermon on 1 Peter 3:1-7

Almost every day, the woman wept. This hadn't been the direction she wanted her life to take. This wasn't how she wanted her family to look. She'd married young – she was just a teenager then. She'd been raised as a Christian. But her husband Patricius had not. He was a town councilor and a pagan – not an especially devout pagan, but a pagan all the same. He was skeptical of her faith, resisted her pleas to baptize their children – she almost won that one when her son seemed deathly ill and he gave way, but his recovery put an end to that. And now, while that son was off at school in pagan-dominated Madauros, sliding away from the faith and into the clutches of his pubescent lusts, she was left at home in forest-bedecked Thagaste with her husband Patricius – dealing with his lusts. His constant affairs with one mistress or slave girl after another. It took all the grace God gave her to keep silence over it, both to him and to town gossips.

And his temper! He was a very enthusiastic man. Impulsive. It was his impulsiveness that led him to shower more than they had on their son's education – most men in his tax bracket wouldn't, she knew. But that same impulsiveness gave way to furious outbursts – he was intensely hot-tempered. She knew she was the only one among her friends who avoided domestic violence, but he still was verbally abusive and foul, and he beat the slave-girls. A hot-headed, adulterous pagan husband, perhaps a tad overly fond of wine... a son set adrift and with his faith in peril... and so Monica, the long-suffering wife and mother, saw nothing to do but weep in her room in Thagaste, lift up holy hands to her Father, and pray, and be patient, and strive to preach her God to them through her behavior. What else was a lady to do?

It would be nice, Monica surely thought, to all have harmonious families – to plant the flowers of Eden around every hearth. It would be a beautiful thing for the family to be all united in worshipping God and God alone, through Jesus Christ our Lord. It would be wonderful for all faults to be stripped away – for nothing to infringe on the marriage bed, for no storms of temper to roil the household peace, for no demons of criticism and fault-finding to find a place to nest, for the channels of communication to remain clear and sweet with love and forgiveness. But it's not always so. Sometimes we're not so equally yoked. Sometimes our family life seems a counsel of despair. Throughout human history, how many really happy homes have there been? And how many have seemed to be eaten up by moths until the fabric is on the verge of unraveling? It was God's plan for every home's hearth to be surrounded by the sweet flowers of Eden. But east of Eden, our families so often play host to thorn and thistle.

A few centuries before Monica was born, one of her favorite authors – the Apostle Peter – knew that all too well when he wrote his letter to the churches in Anatolia, a land far away from Monica's home forty miles inland from the north African coast. Too many of the believers in first-century Anatolia were in situations not so very unlike hers. And so for Peter, it wasn't enough to give them counsel on how to relate to governing powers, or to society at large, or to their workplaces – we covered all those last Sunday. Peter would also need to address one last locus of human living: the family. He spends only seven verses on it, but his advice has been controversial – his words can be hard to hear, hard to understand. There are a few things we should keep in mind as we read.

First, at the time when Peter wrote, women in Anatolia – Asia Minor – were relatively free, as far as the Roman world goes. Many of these women had educations, they could hold political office, they had more authority to run a household, they had rights. If you had to be a woman in the Roman Empire, well, that was one place to do it. So when Peter advises Christian wives how to behave, this is the baseline.

Second, the local Christian communities Peter was writing to – they included a significant number of female converts who, like Monica, were married to husbands like Patricius who had not converted but were pagans. And so a disproportionate number of Christian women in Peter's audience were in mixed-faith marriage situations – married to unbelievers. This was a social setting where the husband legally had life-and-death authority over all members of his household – that was the ideal of the Roman paterfamilias. And prevailing philosophy convinced men and women alike that women were inferior creatures – Aristotle said they were like deformed men – whose interests could be disregarded and who could be, to a certain extent, controlled. Things weren't quite as bad in Asia Minor as in some places, but still, domestic violence was common and abusive language, adultery, and other offenses against marriage were even more so.

Third, in the Roman world, women were expected to follow their husband's lead in religious matters. The idea of a woman adopting a foreign religion right under her husband's nose was a troublesome one to the Roman mind. One author, Plutarch, said that a woman should befriend her husband's friends, and his best friends were obviously his gods; and therefore it was necessary for every household to be united under a husband's gods and for him to take whatever measures were needed to protect that unity from any cult or superstition – which is exactly how the Romans tended to classify Christianity. So you can imagine what a problem that presented for Christian women who converted after marriage! Their faith itself was seen as a rebellion by their husbands, who would be mocked by their friends and neighbors for inability to control his household's religion.

And so when Peter writes, he has an eye firmly fixed on their situation – one where the gospel is viewed as a home-wrecker and an embarrassment. So Peter encourages the women to live up to Roman gender roles in every other way, so as to counteract the suspicion of rebelliousness their pagan husbands, or pagan onlookers at Christian marriages, might have. The things Peter writes on marriage here, he would have written differently if addressing Adam and Eve on Day Six. But Peter has to keep an eye on preserving peace, calming tensions, and evangelizing the pagan marriage partners in a non-offensive way.

So Peter says, “Likewise, wives, be subject” – that is, defer to – “your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives when they see your respectful and pure conduct” (1 Peter 3:1-2). That's exactly it. That's the goal. Even if they're in a mixed marriage with an unbeliever who doesn't obey the gospel word, the wife's respectful and pure conduct – faithful, true, without critical harping or defiance, according to Roman standards – may have the best chance to illustrate to their skeptical husbands the value of the gospel, the beauty of Christ. They're to illustrate that, while the gospel may trump their husbands' legal right to control the wife's religion, nevertheless the gospel makes them better wives than ever – so they strategically 'out-Roman' the Romans at it. And the hope is that this kind of peaceful, respectful, pure conduct will quell the storms of marriage, defuse the ticking time bombs of conflict, and perhaps even pave the way to attract their husbands to the gospel – which, as a matter of historical fact, is exactly how Christianity spread in its earliest centuries, often with women converting and then leading their households to Christ.

Again, you might remember from last week: in Peter's mind, the believers at the greatest social disadvantage are actually the ones best positioned to imitate Christ and be rewarded for it. These women, who might be mightily discouraged by their situation, should actually, Peter says, be encouraged – they have a radical opportunity to be united with their Savior, and his whole life on earth was lived to dignify their indignities. These women Peter addresses have a unique opportunity to bear witness to Christ in a non-confrontational way, and to live out what Christ's calling looks like in their difficult station in life. The wives submit to their husbands – again, that was the Roman model for marriage relationships – but not in fulfilling the expectation to worship their husbands' gods or participate in pagan rituals. These women are not to be bullied into that; they are not to be intimidated by however their husbands may react to their faith. Peter urges them to obey, not so much their husbands, but the word of God – and, as spiritual servant-leaders, to perform the priestly duty of inspiring their husbands to do the same.

Peter goes on to add, “Do not let your adorning be external – the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear – but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:3-4). A gentle and quiet spirit certainly is very precious in God's sight – and that goes for both men and women. It's the total opposite of being quarrelsome – a gentle and quiet spirit doesn't stir up trouble. But a gentle and quiet spirit also doesn't nurse resentment within, letting it build up and disturb the spirit until it finally is unleashed on the spouse. A gentle and quiet spirit turns things over to God's own gentle and quiet Spirit to deal with, and then is able to calmly address marriage and family issues at the right time, without a sense of pressure. A marriage involving truly gentle and quiet spirits is a marriage less likely to be pierced by conflicts about money, about behavioral quirks, about one another's faults and flaws.

As for what Peter says about adornment: It was trendy then for well-to-do women to imitate the latest fashions in the street, and elaborate braided hairstyles and exquisite clothes and mounds of gold baubles and jewelry were part and parcel of that. Even some pagan moralists were troubled by it – it seemed like women were in rebellion against their husbands, consuming untold household resources just to look the part of being rich and fashionable. And, truth be told, it's a common temptation today, sometimes for men and women alike: How we dress communicates something, and we might dress in a way that communicates wealth, social status, elegance, glamor, or freedom from social ties. Any fashion magazine is rife with those messages, to say nothing of our cinema and our network TV. Minus the technology, it was no different in Peter's day.

The point is, investing in those messages is a waste of God's resources. Gold, jewels, stylish clothes, fancy hair – that's not what makes someone beautiful. Real beauty radiates internally, and can last far after the clothes have been eaten by moths and the hair has fallen apart and the gold and jewels have been lost or stolen. Peter's talking about an “imperishable beauty,” the kind that radiates out from “the hidden person of the heart” where a “gentle and quiet spirit” makes its home. Instead of a wasteful message of conspicuous consumption, Peter's advice is to communicate something more human – a message of inner strength and inner beauty, which shuns the outward trappings of wealth and status and reclaims the dignity of simplicity. That's good advice for both men and women – but in Peter's day, it also was advice that would reduce marriage friction by taking away one major source of conflict. A Christian wife following this advice would be likely to make an impression for faithfulness and good sense – one that might elicit admiration for the faith that led her to it.

Peter goes on to give an example: “This is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him 'lord.' And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear any terror” (1 Peter 3:5-6). Looking back through scripture, Peter finds a precedent for the behavior he's asking of these women: it's like Sarah, the mother of the faithful. But there's actually some irony in what Peter's saying. On several of the occasions when Sarah submitted to what Abraham asked, it was precisely when Abraham was being most disobedient and skeptical toward God's word of promise: It was when Sarah was told to say she was Abraham's sister, for his protection against those who lusted after her beauty (cf. Genesis 12:11-13; 20:2). There is one occasion when Sarah refers to Abraham as 'lord,' which was a common word for husbands at that time – but when she says it, she's being sarcastic! It's when she overhears God say she'll bear a son, and she laughs while eavesdropping and scoffs at how “my lord is old” (Genesis 18:12). The only obedience Abraham asks of her there is baking some bread for the heavenly guests (Genesis 18:6). Not only does Genesis depict her obeying him, it flat-out says that “Abram obeyed the voice of Sarai” (Genesis 16:2).

Unquestioning, one-directional obedience is not Peter's vision for the ideal marriage. It can't be, because Peter knows how to read, and that's not what the relationship between Abraham and Sarah was like. Sarah submitted to Abraham, treated him with all the deference due to a husband in her culture; she was loyal and faithful to him whatever happened, even when he wasn't being terribly bright; she did as he asked, but also gave him advice and received his obedience in return.

She never let Abraham's authority intimidate her, nor did she let herself be cowed by the perilous situations they got into. But instead, her faith grew alongside his, so that from her former state of scoffing, she learned how to entrust herself totally to God. The both of them did – and so Sarah is described as a holy woman who “hoped in God” – her lifestyle, her conduct in marriage, were a display of her living hope in a living God. And to the Christian women who similarly respected and deferred to their husbands without being intimidated or fearful, but who instead persisted in good conduct and good faith, Peter holds out the majestic title of being Sarah's children, Sarah's heirs – the daughters of the divine promise. Now that's an adornment far richer than any display of jewelry, diamonds, or glamorous gowns.

After Peter's said all this – and it's noteworthy that he addresses these women directly, which was uncommon, since moralists of the time tended to talk about women a lot more than to women in their works – only after he's said all this does Peter turn his attention firmly to the men, the husbands, who have converted and thus likely belong to united Christian households. (That's not necessarily a sure thing – Paul mentions some households in Corinth where husbands believe but their wives don't [1 Corinthians 7:13]. But in Peter's setting, if the husband was a believer, odds are strong the wife and kids followed.)

And Peter tells them: “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives with knowledge, honoring her as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7). That language – 'weaker vessel' – has been a big sticking point for a lot of people in recent years. But Peter just means that, on average, the women he's been talking to were less physically strong than their husbands. And that's why they were so vulnerable to domestic abuse – which is exactly what Peter is ruling out here.

See, to many pagan husbands, the fact that the woman was “the weaker vessel” was a license to bully them – since the woman was weaker, she mattered less and deserved less respect than his male peers. Peter's turning it on its head: If a man's wife is “the weaker vessel,” as they used to say, then she deserves greater respect and greater honor. There's no license to bully here; Peter is explicitly revoking that license in his commands to the men. Once, they treated their wives callously and disrespectfully in ignorance, regarding them as little better than servants. But now that they've encountered Jesus in their lives, now that the light of God has fallen on them, they have an obligation to live with their wives with knowledge – knowledge of God, and knowledge of their wives as God's image-bearers and, as Peter says, “heirs with you of the grace of life.”

That may be one of the most exalted things anybody had said about women up to that point in time. Peter is pointedly reminding Christian husbands that their wives are their spiritual equals, fellow recipients of unearned grace that yields life and living hope. These husbands are obligated by God to treat their wives respectfully as equal partners. Peter tells the husbands to 'honor' their wives – just as they have to honor the king and governor and municipal authorities. Anything less will hinder their prayers, detain them short of heaven, tie them to earth (or lower) with a short leash. Those who ignore their wives and disregard them will find, in short, that their prayers are similarly ignored and disregarded by God. And that's serious business! There's no excuse here for domineering behavior, or an “I'm the boss” mentality, or any of the similar ways Peter's language has been sadly perverted over the years. The simple fact is that these husbands are to illustrate to their wives how Christ cherishes his church, like Paul says (cf. Ephesians 5:21-33).

All good for Peter's time. But what does it mean for ours? Peter's advice is so thoroughly tailored to the lives of families in his world; does he have anything to say to ours? I would say yes, he does. He shows that there is a clear and definite way to display living hope for our family lives. There is a way to plant a few flowers of Eden around your family hearth. But it requires mutual respect and consideration: Wives and husbands putting one another's needs, and the family's needs, before their own; wives and husbands deferring to each other where they can, being reasonable toward each other, speaking kindly to one another, exhibiting gentleness and a quiet spirit toward each other. Try it – you might find it nips a lot of arguments in the bud.

Peter encourages us to focus less on accessories – less on material goods, on things to buy, things to own, less on our building projects or on our income – and more on one another. Less time at work, more time with the family. Less expenditure on flashy things, and more focus on character formation. We're to build one another up, encourage each other, praise the good in each other. But our focus is on correcting ourselves, not each other, in a marriage. Peter never says to the men, “Husbands, make your wife submit.” Nor does he tell the women, “Wives, criticize your husband until he honors you.” Peter's words are not weapons to be employed against each other; they're a way to heal, not to destroy.

Peter urges us to win one another over with love, not with arguing, and with an ultimate focus on winning one another, not to our 'side,' but to Christ. If you're wondering how things turned out with Monica, it went well. The surviving description of her life says “she busied herself to gain him to [God], preaching [God] unto [Patricius] by her behavior” – and she did. She offered “the witness of the fruits of a holy life.” As a result, a year before his death, her husband Patricius was baptized into the faith and changed from his former adulterous and violent ways. Having submitted to her husband, Monica's patience “brought forth fruit unto God” and won him for the kingdom.

As for her wayward son, who did abandon his Christian upbringing for years, her prayers prevailed there, too. Monica was certainly diligent – not just praying at home, not just going to church every Sunday, but going twice every day, and praying for her wayward son with many tears. She eventually pursued him across the sea to Italy to minister to him. As a result, he became, not only a Christian, but a bishop; and not only a bishop, but one of the greatest Christian thinkers in history, St. Augustine of Hippo. And he always gave ample credit to the prayerful witness of his mother, St. Monica, whose obedience to Peter's words changed not just his life, but the whole world, long after she fell ill and died at the age of fifty-six.

That's the power of living hope for family life. In the end, Patricius became, like Monica, an heir of the grace of life. And for his final year, they were a model Christian couple – surely not perfect, but a breath of fresh air for all their neighbors, no doubt, who were accustomed to something so much less in their own lives. What Peter advises for us today, in the end, is this: If your spouse isn't an active believer, isn't committed to the God of the church, then don't draw back. Be the marriage partner in whose conduct your spouse can see the life-changing beauty of Jesus Christ. Submit as Jesus submitted in this world; display a gentle and quiet spirit like his; give honor to all, including your spouse – especially your spouse.

And if your spouse is an active believer, then together, be a couple who strive to recapture the harmony of Eden, by God's grace. Build a marriage, build a family, where others can see the beauty of Jesus in your relationship. Aim for a marriage and a family that can unite in common prayer, with no impediments to your love for one another or for God – nothing holding you or your prayers back. This isn't my marriage wisdom, of which I, a bachelor, have none. No, more to the point, this is God's marriage wisdom – so, unlike opinions mine or yours, it matters. Apply it in faith and in living hope.

And if you aren't in a marriage, then devote yourself to Christ and to the encouragement and support of the marriages around you – they might need it. But whatever situation you're in, live as an heir of the grace of life. Invest your singleness, your widowhood, or your marriage into the Greater Marriage: the impending nuptials of Christ and his Church. For “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” on the cross (Ephesians 5:25), and the Church in turn honors and loves the risen Christ in godly submission (Ephesians 5:24). He died for her and rose again for her, and the Church is waiting for the day when her Bridegroom returns for her. She waits – we wait – with living hope, and any marriage here is meant to be a living parable of Christ and his Church. “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb [will soon] come, and his Bride [is making] herself ready” (Revelation 19:6-7). Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Living Hope for Social Life: Sermon on 1 Peter 2:13-25

Fr. Alexandros knew he didn't have much longer. In this second week of February, Alexandros was terminally ill. And Alexandros was extremely relieved by that fact. You see, Fr. Alexandros' last twenty-four or twenty-five years of ministry had been a very trying time. In the year 704, he was hauled from his monastery to be acclaimed patriarch – as a successor, he and his fellow Copts believed, of St. Mark the Evangelist. But by the 700s, Alexandria and all Egypt were not under Coptic rule. No, they were subject to governors sent by the Umayyad caliphs, the rulers of the vast Islamic empire that had conquered Egypt over sixty years before. And in the wake of rebellions and some failed expeditions, that empire was desperate for extra revenue streams. So why not go after the churches in Egypt? That's how it was that, during the reign of one caliph after another, one governor after another, taxes on Christians, especially on monks and bishops, began to skyrocket.

On his deathbed, Fr. Alexandros remembered how one governor demanded each bishop to cough up two thousand dinars and more, every year; how that governor had spat on images of the Virgin Mary and mocked the name of Christ. But still he paid what he could. He remembered how the next governor taxed him an extra three thousand dinars, and to be tortured 'til he came up with it, though he was under a vow of poverty. And when he went to greet and honor the next governor, that man demanded the same – even though, after going through the land like a beggar, Alexandros still had five hundred dinars left to go on his last tax debt!

Fr. Alexandros recalled being thrown in prison, seeing the churches be robbed, watching his associates tortured in the streets. But through it all, he submitted, he patiently endured, he prayed. The next governor was worse still, and things didn't look up until they'd actually started branding the hands of Christians with the mark of a beast, so that if they were caught doing business without it, the Christian was fined and had his hand cut off. It was at that point that Alexandros prayed God to make him deathly ill and spare him from being branded – and God answered him. But in the meantime, up until that last straws of the mark and of forced labor provoked some bloody Coptic revolts here and there (which Alexandros didn't endorse), the History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria tells us this:

The Christians gave [the caliph] all the money they could, and trusted in God, and rendered service to the Muslims, and became an example to many.

That sums up Fr. Alexandros' approach to the government under which, the society in which, he ministered and lived. But a few centuries earlier, his predecessor Mark's mentor, a man named Peter, felt a burden to advise a band of Christian communities throughout several Roman provinces on how they should approach their society and their government. They were in tight straits. Some of those believers had been wealthy, had been doers of good and indeed benefactors to their cities and regions. But was there a point to it, if society would be this hostile? And many believers wondered: Can we really remain subject to a pagan government, in a world where all around us, temples are being built to the emperor as a god? Should we just give in and go with the flow? Should we take a stand and revolt? Peter tells us we ourselves are a “holy nation” all on our own (1 Peter 2:9). So in light of that, should we denounce the emperor, condemn his governors, mock municipal officials, withhold taxes, make up our own laws, separate ourselves from surrounding society, form Christian ghettos in our towns? What should we do, Peter? What should we do?

Peter doesn't outright say it, but by way of analogy with what he does say later on, he might well have started off his reply by saying this: “Do you not know that to this you have been called, because Christ left an example for you, so that you might follow in his steps? Didn't Christ live on this earth under a pagan government? And yet he didn't withdraw from society. When I walked with him, we did not live unto ourselves, nor live by ourselves. Christ didn't angrily denounce Caesar. He didn't revile Pontius Pilate with disrespect. Nor did he urge violence against that fox Herod. Nor did he despise their centurions, but readily offered them aid in their hour of need (Matthew 8:13); nor did he shun their tax collectors, but made one his disciple alongside me (Mark 2:14). No, Christ paid his taxes – and mine (Matthew 17:27)! 'Render to Caesar what is Caesar's,' he said, 'and render to God what is God's' (Mark 12:17). So as not to give needless offense (Matthew 17:26), he submitted to the laws of Rome and Jerusalem in all that didn't infringe on his mission and conscience, though he was Son of God, and King of a higher kingdom than theirs.”

So might Peter well have said. But what Peter goes on to actually say is just as helpful in guiding them – and us – on how to deal with government and society. Peter hints, first, at what government actually is. He tells them to consider the governing authorities as a subset of “every human creature,” or perhaps we should read, “every human creation” (1 Peter 2:13). Caesar may claim to be a god on all his coins, and he may have temples to him scattered throughout these cities – actually, imperial cults were the fastest-growing religion in the first century – but he merely stands alongside other human creatures. His whole authority structure is man-made, though by these conventions, he does wield the highest authority. And into his provinces, Caesar sends out his governors to wield an accountable authority. And they have two purposes: first, they are to punish evildoers. That's their job – that when people violate any of Rome's just laws, a penalty should be imposed. But the second function is to praise those who do good – Peter's language suggests he has his eye on civic benefactors, those who perform notable services like buying grain to feed the people, or sponsoring construction projects, or representing the city on a diplomatic mission, or things like that – things the governor, or the town council, would invariably notice and set up a monument or plaque in commemoration (1 Peter 2:13-14).

So that's who the government is: not a divine power on earth, but simply a human creature with some valuable purposes. That's what they're for. But who are we in relation to it? Peter says, “People who are free” (1 Peter 2:16). Maybe he remembers the time he asked Jesus about taxes, and Jesus pointed out to him that even in this world, the children of the kings of the earth are, by right, exempt: “Then the sons are free” (Matthew 17:26). The rightful authority of “the kings of the earth” doesn't touch the royal sons in the same way, because the royal sons are free. And that, Peter is saying, is who we are. We relate to the powers and authorities of this world in a unique and special way, because we are free. And we are free because we are royal sons and daughters, or as Peter says here, “God's servants” (1 Peter 2:16). In that way, we are not under this world's jurisdiction.

And yet... And yet, Peter says, it matters how we use that freedom. We dare not use it as “a cover-up for evil.” Our status as royal sons and daughters isn't meant to free us up to be lawless, to spread anarchy in the land, to mindlessly defy Caesar and his governors over every little thing. Instead, we are to live as God's servants – our relationship is to his authority, which we really are under. And God's will, Peter tells us, is that “by doing good you should silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 1:15). He tells us, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 1:12). The way we treat governing powers, the way we treat society, the way we treat our neighbors and our neighborhoods, is meant to be a witness. It's meant to be a refutation of all the accusations they bring against Jesus and his people. Lawless living, tax evasion, withdrawing from society – those behaviors don't silence the ignorance of foolish people. Instead, they're bound to occasion a lot more speaking against us as evildoers! But conscientious living, willful contributions, positive engagement with society – those behaviors are a good witness. And that's what our freedom is for.

And so, Peter encourages us, “be subject to” – submit to, defer to, show respect to – “every human creature” – yes, even the emperor, even his governors – but do it “for the Lord's sake” (1 Peter 1:13). Even though we are free, even though in a sense we aren't under their jurisdiction, yet we submit to them... because we don't do it for them. We don't obey their laws because those laws are binding on us; we don't obey their laws because we fear the consequences that might befall us if we don't; no, we obey their laws for the Lord's sake, as an act of worship. Paying the taxes they demand – that's an act of worship, because we, as sons and daughters of God, offer it as voluntary contributions. Following the speed limit, give or take – that's an act of worship, because we do it out of honor for God's other image-bearers on the road and as a witness. The same for all other laws that don't step beyond what pertains to Caesar. We voluntarily submit to those human authorities, for the sake of worship and witness. No one has to pry this submission from our cold, dead hands, as they say; we give it for the Lord's sake.

And so Peter presents us with a set of exhortations – tells us how we should treat the various relevant parties. First, he says, “Honor everyone.” There's a basic level of honor and dignity that every fellow human deserves from you, by God's command. Honor the janitor.  Honor the tax collector. Honor the banker. Honor the crook. Honor the rioter and protestor. Honor them regardless of their gender, regardless of their sexual ethic, regardless of their skin color – I trust I don't have to mention this weekend's events in Charlottesville, Virginia, to those of you who pay close attention to the news. But it'd be an understatement to say that the ugliness observed there was in no way obedient to this command: to “honor everyone.” How we speak of those of different ethnicities, or (for that matter) of different social classes and subcultures, is directly relevant to this command. White, black, Asian, Hispanic – honor everyone. Speakers of English, Spanish, Pennsylvania Dutch, Arabic, Farsi – honor everyone. Man or woman, young or old, immigrant or native-born, inner-city dweller or suburbanite or country dweller, Republican or Democrat – honor everyone. Do good to them, treat them with respect, speak about them with respect. Yes, that's a challenge. It's a challenge because we don't always do that. We harbor prejudices, we speak before we think, we pass along malicious rumors and stereotypes, we fail to see our actions through their eyes or hear our words through their ears. And that's a violation of this commandment. Peter calls us to repent, and to honor everyone.

Next, he tells us: “Love the brotherhood.” That's the next step beyond honoring everyone. When it comes to our fellow believers, we owe them a loyalty, a fidelity, a solidarity, that goes even beyond the universal honor we give to God's creatures. When it comes to the church, Peter tells us to love her. When it comes to Christian fellowship, Peter tells us to love it – be loyal, be faithful, to the active gathering of believers. Is that compatible with avoiding church and trying to lead a do-it-yourself 'Christian' life? Not even close. A solitary rendition of the so-called Christian life, one that doesn't intertwine with other believers as much as possible, is a blatant violation of this command to love the brotherhood. And so, for that matter, is our sad neglect of Christians who don't look like us, don't speak like us, don't live in the same place as us – we need to be more active in showing love to the believing 'brotherhood' in countries of persecution.

And at the climax, Peter tells us: “Fear God.” As in, give God your absolute devotion, your utter reverence, your total obedience. God, and God alone, is the one with an ultimate claim on you. He's your Father, your Maker, your true King. If God says it, that settles it. Your life, Peter's telling us, should be one oriented and shaped around this reverence and devotion to God, and God alone. So what, then, about the king – the governing authority, like Caesar? Where does he fit in this ranking? Peter saves him for the end: “Honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17). Note the choice of word. It's not 'fear the king,' as if the king were on the same level as God. No, it's “honor the king” – because the king (or in our days, the President and the Congress and the Supreme Court) is part of the 'everyone' mentioned earlier. And that's true if his or her last name is Reagan, or if it's Clinton, or if it's Bush, or if it's Obama, or if it's Trump – honor the king.

Don't view him as a God-substitute, don't render your conscience to him, don't obey his example or edict when it contravenes God's will; but at the same time, show appropriate honor and respect. And I have to admit, that's hard sometimes, especially when presidents, legislators, and judges leave themselves open to fair criticism. And yet we're to honor them even when we rebuke them, and to do it from an attitude of submission to every human creature. The way we talk about our political leaders – does it reflect that command to honor the king? Or do we prefer talk-radio shock-jocks and loudmouthed pundits who 'tell it like it is'? Instead, Peter tells us, honor the king, just as we honor everyone else; love the brotherhood; and fear God, out of which we fulfill God's will by offering the worshipful witness of our productive citizenship, even in a society that's looking for an excuse to accuse us. And in doing so, we are in a perfect position to imitate Christ. That's how we live out our living hope with respect to government and society.

But that's not the end of Peter's counsel for our social life. He goes on, in the next paragraph, to address slaves directly – specifically, domestic slaves in a Roman household. Their situation was a lot better than what our country put many people through in times past, but still, it's a perilous position for them to be in – especially if they're bound to serve a pagan master, as some of the believers in Peter's audience were. They were attached to pagan households, and pressed into service to sometimes cruel masters. And you can just imagine the difficult situation that was – especially now that, in Peter's letter, they've heard that they're living stones in God's temple. Maybe they wondered if they should rebel. Maybe they wondered if they should despair. What is God's will for them, in that situation?

Peter turns here to the life of Jesus, who innocently suffered injustice during his earthly ministry and especially as he neared the cross: “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to the One who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:21-25). Peter's telling these Christian slaves: You better than anyone are positioned to imitate Jesus! When he came, he came to be like you! He suffered injustice for your sake – and look how he reacted. Be like that.

And so Peter tells these slaves that, out of their fear for God, they should “be subject to [their] masters..., not only to the good and gentle, but also to the crooked” (1 Peter 2:18). It would be one thing if their masters, their supposed owners, would consistently be easy to work for. But some of them are out-and-out crooked, ready to dole out beatings without just cause. How should the Christian slave respond? Like Jesus did: submitting and being voluntarily subject anyway, as a witness to what Jesus does when a heart is fully his. Jesus didn't return insult for insult. Jesus never threw a punch at the soldiers who whipped him. When the nails went in, Jesus did not say, “You'll get your just desserts, just you wait.” No, he looked past the human injustice to the God who judges justly, and so he was innocent in death as he had been in life; and now, praise God, he's innocent in life that's too indestructible to ever end!

And so in imitation of him, Peter tells Christians who are enslaved in Roman households that, if they suffer as Jesus did, they should be mindful of God and receive it as actually being an expression of grace, that he counts them worthy of being like Christ (1 Peter 2:19). That's a totally separate thing than if they were to suffer justly for something like stealing silverware. “For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if, when you do good and suffer for it, you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God” (1 Peter 2:20). Buried in the pain is the grace of God in a broken world.

For us today, it might be difficult to see how this matters to us. The Roman slave-system has been dismantled. Its more brutal and racist cousin on our shores was abolished in the Civil War. And while human trafficking and slavery are still a real problem, even in twenty-first-century America, none of us are among its victims, so far as I'm aware. So does Peter have a message for us, or should I have skipped these verses? Well, I'm not convinced I should have skipped them – as much as some of you may be eager for me to get to 'Amen'! Because while we don't have Roman slavery, the closest analogy we have – imperfect though it is – is still relevant to some of our lives here. Everywhere Peter writes 'servants,' read 'employees.' And where he writes 'master,' read 'boss.' “Employees, be subject to your bosses with all fear [toward God], not only to the good and gentle ones, but also to the crooked. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while being penalized unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you do wrong and are penalized for it, you endure? But if, when you do the right thing and are penalized for it, you endure, this is a gracious thing in God's sight” (cf. 1 Peter 2:18-20).

Now that hits home! I know many of you here this morning are out of the workforce – just as many of those who heard Peter's letter the first time weren't Roman domestic slaves. But for those who are employees, or have been employees, here's the message. Maybe you're prone to resent your boss, your supervisor, the manager, the owner. Maybe their policies are ridiculous and unfair. Maybe they're giving credit to absurd complaints against you. Maybe you feel like you're doing good work and not getting ahead, while co-workers are bilking the company and getting away with it. And you wonder if there's a point to being a good worker in a situation like that – why not take advantage, why not complain, why not goof around on company time, why not swipe some meaningless supplies, why not call in sick, why not protest and resist?

And here's Peter's answer. Suffering justly is not a credit. If you do those things and get caught, well, he says, you deserve it – you get no credit for it, you've done nothing valuable, and you've pointed nobody to Jesus. But on the other hand, if you put up with an overbearing boss and crummy co-workers and crazy complaints and dreadful demands – if you do all that, and you suffer for doing good, that's grace! That's grace, because that's exactly what Jesus did for you – he put up with the crazy complaints lodged against him, and the dreadful demands of the soldiers, and the crummy co-workers his defective disciples were, and the overbearing tyranny of Pilate, and he was censured and penalized in the heftiest way and, though he was innocent, was fired from the land of the living. But his Father hired him to a new and better life.

So when you go to work, be subject to your employers and supervisors, even the crooked ones, out of the fear of God – do your work with an eye to him, and not to the rest. Those employers and co-workers are part of the 'everyone' we're told to honor, anyway. Only entrust yourself to the Boss Above who judges justly the work you do in his name – even if that work is wiring a house, or selling wares, or cutting hair, or running a copier, or living wisely and honorably in retirement. That's what grace looks like in the workplace. If Peter can say these things even to Roman domestic slaves in danger of real abuse and physical beatings, how much more does it go to those of us who are in no bodily danger from our supervisors on the job? And if Peter can say these things even to those who live under pagan Roman rule, how much more does it apply to us who live under a pluralistic, Christian-leavened-but-sadly-secular-leaning government with the structures put in place by the United States Constitution?

We've talked over these past few weeks about the living hope we have – how the word of God, the gospel which announces the death and resurrection of Jesus, has made us born again, made out of gospel stuff, with a new-creation inheritance in store behind the veil. We have a new relationship to a trustworthy God – Peter calls that our 'living hope.' We are the living stones in his temple; we are the royal priesthood who minister to him; we are the holy nation and treasured possession set aside as God's special portion; we are, in Christ, chosen and precious to our Father. And yet as we sojourn in this world as exiles, resisting the aggression of fleshly desires that still wage their war against our souls, we live out our living hope in our social life – our relation to the workplace, our relation to the public square, our relation to the governing authorities, to societal institutions, to our neighbors and our neighborhoods.

And Peter's message to us is this: Living out your living hope here looks like living out the life of Jesus here; and living out the life of Jesus here means submitting for the Lord's sake, even to man-made authority; it means looking past the suffering to the God who judges justly; it means giving honor to everyone; it means seeing every situation, every mundane social act, not as a chance to voice our personal opinions but as a God-given opportunity to serve the Lord and bear witness to his kingdom and its King, Jesus Christ, “the Shepherd and Overseer of [our] souls” (1 Peter 2:25).

We're no different in that respect from Fr. Alexandros and his fellow Copts under Umayyad rule: Our living hope for social life involves voluntarily giving whatever we can from what authorities ask of us; entrusting ourselves to the God who judges justly; rendering honor and service to everyone; and, God willing, acting as an example to many. We are not property of the state, or the courts, or our employers (however much they sometimes think we are); no, we belong to God, we live as his servants and as the free children of the King; but this is how we serve God with our freedom. This is our opportunity for worship and witness, here and now. Thanks be to God – our living hope is hope for the world! Amen.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Living Hope, Living Priesthood, Living Temple: Sermon on 1 Peter 2:1-12

I remember it almost like it was yesterday. With deep solemnity, on October 24, 2009, we walked into the main hall. And as sheer grandeur washed over my friend, his otherwise-unceasing voice trailed off, his eyes grew wide, his head tilted back... and so did mine. Had we been the only ones there, we would have been too mesmerized to make a sound. High overhead soared a dome, hanging seemingly from midair, where once there gazed down a massive image of Christ the Almighty on his heavenly throne; flanking him, above the four columns supporting the dome, hovered four six-winged seraphim, “living creatures” seen by prophets and seers of old; and all around once sat sainted elders in gold-rich mosaics. Ballooning with half-dome after half-dome, the cavernous space stretched out in all directions, as if beneath an open heaven as Stephen saw. And in my mind's eye, I was transported not only to heaven, but back through time, over 1400 years.

In those days, Constantinople, capital city of the great Roman Empire, was torn by riots surrounding politicized sports teams, which soon united against the emperor. Running rampant, they torched much of the city, not even sparing the great cathedral church dedicated to God's Holy Wisdom. When the revolt was quelled – though at the cost of over thirty thousand lives – the emperor set his heart on rebuilding. In years past, his great rival, the noblewoman Anicia Juliana, had overseen construction of the largest church in the city – and acclaimed herself as greater than emperors of old and even than Solomon. Not one to be outmatched, the Emperor Justinian saw his opportunity. On the ruins of the cathedral church, he hired two great masters of mechanics, Anthemius and Isidore, to design a church larger than had ever been built. Sparing no expense and bringing materials from all over the empire, the work took nearly six years, stone upon stone, brick upon brick, tile next to tile, until in the year 537 it was at last ready. In late December, close to Christmas, the emperor was led into his completed masterpiece, the famed Hagia Sophia – and his reaction to the soaring heights and elegant curves was not so unlike mine. As he surveyed the magnificence from a balcony, rumor has it that he shouted out, “Glory to God who considered me worthy of this task! O Solomon, I have outdone thee!” – not an uncommon sentiment among those who saw it.

What was on his mind was the Bible's story of King Solomon, son of David, overseeing the construction of a temple in the heart of Jerusalem. Hiring a half-Israelite architect from Tyre and bringing timber from the forests of Lebanon, Solomon had a grand temple built. The foundation was made of “great, costly stones,” “dressed stones” (1 Kings 5:17), all quarried by thousands upon thousands of stonecutters out in the hill country (1 Kings 5:15). All the stones were carefully chiseled in the quarry and cut into shape there, so that the site of the temple would be quiet and peaceful (1 Kings 6:7). The temple he built was long and wide and high; had it covered inside and out with pound after pound of fine gold; decorated it with a rich veil and heavenly sculptures and mighty pillars and images of trees and flowers like in the garden of God. It took over seven years to build, with all its great furnishings; and when it was finished, Solomon had the ark of the covenant brought, and the cloud of the glory of the LORD filled the temple, and priests sang and celebrated with trumpets, and by much sacrifice was the house dedicated (1 Kings 8). And Solomon prayed that the temple would mean the presence of God to answer even a foreigner's prayers (1 Kings 8:41-43), so that “all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God, and there is no other” (1 Kings 8:60). And that was what the temple was all about.

Centuries passed. A somewhat wicked and conniving descendant of Solomon named Ahaz lived in the palace built alongside the temple; a young man, he'd freshly been appointed co-regent with his father Jotham. But Ahaz held the real power. Troubled by his boldness and vigor, the Arameans and northern Israelites sought to pressure him to join their rebellion against Assyria; they harassed his armies, took his men prisoner, and now laid siege to Jerusalem itself – leaving Ahaz in quite the tizzy. The prophet Isaiah warned him not to give in to them, but also not to seek an alliance with Assyria, either. What Ahaz needed to do, Isaiah told him, was to ignore the conspiracy and focus on God, who could be “a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel. … And many shall stumble on it; they shall fall and be broken” (Isaiah 8:14-15). The LORD himself was this Foundation Stone, which could save or could break the kingdom.

Ahaz didn't much care to listen to Isaiah. He offered tribute to Assyria, reshaped features of the temple to be more pleasing to them, and made a covenant with them. Isaiah retorted that it was a covenant with death itself (Isaiah 28:15). Did they really think that Assyria would flood into the region and leave them untouched and unchanged? But they thought that Assyria's promises would make a fine shelter; Ahaz and his counselors had no trust in the God who lived among them. And so God said, “Behold, I am laying a foundation stone in Zion, a stone of testing, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation; and whoever believes will not be put to shame” (Isaiah 28:16). Built on the Stone would be the true house of refuge; and this Stone would be the one against which all others are tested. God's sanctuary would stand firm against the flood; those who trusted this Stone's firmness would be safe, and all others would be judged.

Ahaz didn't listen. The Assyrians came and went. But worship in the temple continued, on the very site where Solomon had built. Even today, we can hear their songs of deliverance – like the last Hallel psalm, where a worshipper approaches the temple, having been saved by God from affliction; he bids the priests open the gates of righteousness to him (Psalm 118:19-20). And once inside, standing firm on the temple's foundation near the altar, he cries out, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone! This is the LORD's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:22-23). The suffering saint, once rejected, is now honored like the stone undergirding the temple. Israel itself, rejected by the empire-building powers like Assyria, is chosen by God for his kingdom. And those who gather in this temple bask in God's light (Psalm 118:27). That's what the temple was for.

Hundreds of years later, a chain of Christian communities lived under great pressure and rejection, far from the temple that still stood in Jerusalem. And far from them and Jerusalem alike, the Apostle Peter was living out his closing years in Rome. Faced with their predicament, he mulled over the Psalms and Prophets and his Master's own words, where Jesus identified himself with that very Stone. And so Peter wrote to the Christians then – and to us today – words of encouragement and exhortation.

Peter stressed to them – to us – that we have been born again to a living hope (1 Peter 1:3). We aren't who we once were. We're made out of new stuff now – we're built of gospel-stuff, the very word of God that lives and persists and abides (1 Peter 1:23-25). So we can't live the way we used to; we can't be tangled up in malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, or slander (1 Peter 2:1), or in any of the passions of our flesh that wage war against our souls (1 Peter 2:11). If we're born again, it means that what we need is what Martin Luther called “sweet, fat grace” – and what Peter calls “pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). The basic, simple nutrition of the gospel. We know from firsthand experience how that tastes, if indeed you've tasted that the Lord really is good (1 Peter 2:3).

And so in our times of distress and weariness, Peter urges us to turn again to that “sweet, fat grace” – to go back to Jesus, who so tenderly feeds us. And this Lord, Peter says, is a “Living Stone” – the very stone from the psalm and from Isaiah's prophecies. Jesus is the Lord GOD who offered himself to Ahaz instead of the Assyrian Empire, to be a sanctuary or a breaking-point depending on whether they trusted him. Jesus is the Stone whom his Father placed in Zion as a foundation, a standard against which all else would be measured, and the basis for the only refuge there is in this world or any other. And Jesus is the Stone whom the builders overlooked – the One who, like the believers Peter writes to, was judged unfit and unworthy by the authorities of this age. Peter quotes all those prophecies, applying them to Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:6-8).

But whereas the human builders rejected Jesus, much to their discredit, he is nevertheless chosen by God – “a Living Stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious,” now a foundation and capstone and cornerstone in God's Zion (1 Peter 2:4). That's who Jesus is. Don't be surprised when people reject Jesus. That is just what people tend to do. They overlook him. When they meet him in the quarry, they judge him by unjust standards and decide he isn't worth the trouble; that he isn't fit for building on; that he has no place in the work they've set out to do; that he stretches their vision of God and of themselves in all the wrong ways, and so he has to go. They don't esteem him. They may profess some measure of mild respect for him, maybe, but when push comes to shove, they overlook him and discount him. He is a rejected stone to them, unfit for building. So say most humans, even today. And as a result, they don't find sanctuary in him; instead, they take offense at what he really teaches and stumble over him. “They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do,” Peter writes (1 Peter 2:8).

When all is said and done, their stumbling over Jesus will be their undoing. Because there's simply no other way to God. We can't get around that. We can't deny that. We can't afford to compromise on that truth. There is no other foundation worth building on. Nothing else can survive the flood. There is no other refuge – and we so desperately need a house of refuge. Countless religions and ideologies stumble over Jesus – they have to try to domesticate him somehow to fit him into their scheme, but it just doesn't work. And the end result of this kind of offense-taking and stumbling and falling and being broken is that it ends up in permanent shame when the story gets wrapped up on Judgment Day.

On the other hand, Peter says, Jesus is “chosen and precious” in God's sight. Human ways of thinking may not respect Jesus, they may not honor Jesus, they may not be willing to reorganize themselves around Jesus and build on Jesus – but to God, Jesus is what it's all about! In God's sight, Jesus has infinite value – because Jesus is what God sees when he looks in the mirror. Jesus is his perfect eternal reflection; and, after the Word became flesh, also the perfect worshipper and the perfect human life. Humanity – Jews and Gentiles alike – rejected Jesus to the point of crucifying the Lord of glory. But their act of rejection paved the way for God's act of choosing and honoring. God raised Jesus from the bonds of death and exalted him to glory, displaying his real preciousness forever.

And the words spoken by Isaiah and now quoted by Peter are true: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (1 Peter 2:6). It may be the case, as Peter's audience knew firsthand, that some of our neighbors, our family members, our workmates and associates, our fellow citizens, and others will mock us. They'll think it weird that we follow Jesus. I mean, don't we know that it's 2017, which I guess is supposed to mean something? Don't we know that religion is toxic and outdated and bad for you and bad for society? If we believe in Jesus, if we trust and follow him, then we don't quite fit in. Oh, sure, American society, Lancaster County society, is still ready to tolerate the general forms of piety. But if you actually take him seriously, if you actually treat him as your entire foundation, if you wrap your life up in his preciousness and make him the standard for all your deeds and all your words? Well, in the eyes of many, that's pretty freaky.

And yet, Peter says, “whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” – not when the story gets wrapped up, and the veil is torn away, and the flood comes in full, and everything else is washed away, and nothing matters except how things are in God's sight on Judgment Day. And when that day comes, then the only place to stand unashamed is on a foundation God deems “chosen and precious.” That's the only place left to stand. Peter adds, “So the honor is for you who believe” (1 Peter 2:7). Not only will you stand unashamed, but if you're standing on the only chosen and precious foundation, which is Jesus Christ, you will be honored. If people don't respect you now, you'll sure see God's respect for you then – and if you could only see it, you're already honored in his sight. It's behind the veil; all that waits is the unveiling, and the final rescue operation, and the coming together of us and our imperishable and undefiled and unfading inheritance (1 Peter 1:4-5).

What's more, Peter says that, as we approach Jesus as the Living Stone that's foundational, we too are “living stones” – we're conformed to his image. We are hardy building-blocks, and we're connected to his invincible life. But what's God building? Peter tells us: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5). And in light of all the verses he's quoting, it doesn't take a genius to realize: when Peter says 'spiritual house,' he's talking about a temple! That temple, that house of refuge, built on the foundation – we are that! You are a stone being installed in a temple that's undergoing an expansion. Like Jesus, the powers-that-be in this world may look at you and think you're unfit. You may have internalized that perspective, maybe – you might wonder if you're good for anything, if you're useful, if you matter. And God's answer is, “Yes!” It is as plain as that: you matter, because you are one of the gilded, beautiful stones being cut for God's temple. You belong to God's grand construction project.

More on that shortly. Peter adds that, unlike those who stumble over Jesus, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9) – these are all phrases referencing Israel's mission in the Old Testament, which in the end took the one Faithful Israelite named Jesus to really carry out. God said to Israel at Mount Sinai, “If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). Peter is casting us in that role! We are God's holy nation. We are God's treasured possession among all peoples – and, in these days of the new covenant, drawn from all peoples.

Peter adds that, just like Israel at Sinai had been delivered from Egypt “on eagles' wings” to be brought to God, so we – like the afflicted worshipper running to the temple for safety in Psalm 118 – have received mercy and have been called “out of darkness into [God's] marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Now that's redemption! You once were in darkness; you once were afflicted; you once were far-off. Now you live near to God, seeing his marvelous doings; and the LORD's light shines on you. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:10).

And so, as God's mercy-receiving, light-basking people, he asks a few things of us. First, to “abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Those things – things like malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander, and other vices – have to be put away, because they weigh us down for our journey, and they clutter up the temple with dirty nonsense. Avoid them, abstain from them, because they are the real enemy – not a politician, not a pundit, not a professor, not a persecutor, but perilous passions.

Second, “keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). Peter's a realist: he knows that people are going to speak against us as evildoers. Think of today's trendy words: 'Intolerant,' 'deluded,' 'wicked,' 'hateful,' 'bigoted.' Follow Jesus, and people will speak against you as evildoers. But don't give them any unnecessary ammo! Do good deeds, and behave honorably, so that they've got no excuse for their accusations. Be a living witness to your living hope.

Third, “proclaim the excellencies of the One who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). That is, after all, why you, just like Jesus, were chosen in him. You were chosen to proclaim how very excellent God is! And that's not something you can do by keeping quiet. Proclaim it, not just when singing between the stained glass, but in daily conversation in daily life. The psalmist said, “You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God; I will extol you” (Psalm 118:28). Be that!

And fourth, offer yourselves to God. He calls you his “holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). We're to present ourselves as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1), and to “continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Hebrews 13:15). Each and every one of you, if you believe, belongs to a holy priesthood. As the guy behind the pulpit, I don't have a monopoly on that word, 'priest.' You are a priesthood. You are a holy priesthood. And your purpose is to offer spiritual sacrifices through Jesus, the kind that God will accept, of lips and lives.

That's what we're built up as a living temple for. You may seem like a worldly misfit sometimes, but all the more reason you belong here. Like Solomon's Temple, even 'foreigners' – strangers to country and strangers to God – should be able to come and meet God in our midst, and have their prayers heard when they face us. We are built as a house of refuge, a sanctuary, firmly fixed to our Foundation. We should be filled with God's light. But are we? Are we firmly built on this one foundation? Are we living as an organic outgrowth of Christ the Living Stone? Do we offer refuge to all who might wander into our midst – not just on a Sunday morning, but all week long? And can 'foreigners' encounter God and his “sweet, fat grace” among us? Are we offering those spiritual sacrifices and proclaiming the excellencies of the Light-Bringer and Temple-Builder? Because, make no mistake: however small in number the stones here may be, we here at Pequea are part of God's construction project. May we be what can make our Temple-Builder, the God of Holy Wisdom, honestly look down at us and say: “O Solomon, O Justinian, I have outdone you!” Amen.