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.

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