Sunday, September 3, 2017

Hopeful Living Toward the End: Sermon on 1 Peter 4:1-11

He was the oldest Christian in the room. And it wasn't a room he especially wanted to be in. He, and not a few of his neighbors and friends, had been summoned there quite against their will. The still-new provincial governor, Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, appointed by the Emperor Trajan himself, had arrived in town a few weeks ago; he'd been making his rounds to inspect all the province's cities, first in Bithynia and now in Pontus. And here in Amisos, a “free and confederate” commercial port town on the southern coast of the Black Sea, he'd granted an exception to his general edict against all clubs and associations. But there remained the question, then, of a more troubling kind of association, in his eyes – a foreign cult called “the Christians.”

The old man, standing to face trial, wasn't wholly sure about the sequence of events that led up to this. He'd heard that the local butchers had been making plenty of noise about how Christians were so bad for business – the more people converted, the fewer animals were being sold for sacrifices, and the less demand there was for their services. The butchers told all sorts of stories, unseemly rumors about what Christians must really do at their secret gatherings in the dark early hours of morning and the dim hours of evening. The local magistrates pressed the issue on Governor Plinius. One band of believers had already been dispatched. And now, more recently, someone – no one knew who – had started passing around a pamphlet accusing a bunch of other people of being members of this nefarious cult. The old man had seen the pamphlet. Halfway down, he'd read his own name, plain as day.

So here he was. And here the rest of the named folks were. The elderly believer listened as Governor Plinius interrogated them all, one by one. A few of those in the crowd insisted they were there by mere accident: they'd never been adherents of this “absurd and extravagant superstition” at all. They denied all charges. The writer of the list had simply been mistaken. There were others in the crowd – some of them the old man recognized – who admitted they had flirted with the cult long before. They'd joined it once, thinking it might be of some use in their lives to try out this Christian thing, to get up before dawn to sing hymns to this newfangled god called 'Christ' and make sacred pledges of virtue, and then join again at night for a harmless meal together. But they'd found it too dull, too demanding, and so dissatisfaction led them to drop out – some as many as 25 years ago!

The governor looked skeptical. He ordered his guards to bring near some statues of Caesar and the gods of Rome, and a bowl of incense. He told them all that anyone who denied the charge of being a Christian would have to demonstrate it by doing the things he'd heard a Christian couldn't do: offer a pinch of incense in sacrifice to the gods, and then curse the name of Christ, and they'd be free to go. Governor Pliny explained, as patiently as he could, that he didn't want to risk the reorganization of this superstitious cult after he left town. And for those who insisted over and over again that they were Christians and refused to obey his command to worship – well, the governor said he'd give them three chances to repent of their Christianity. And those who wouldn't repent – and there were quite a few of those in the crowd – had one clear fate: The Roman citizens would be shipped to the capital for trial, but the rest would be promptly put to death for sheer stubbornness.

One by one, the accused were interrogated. Tears trickled down the old man's cheeks as he watched – he heard some in the room – even a few who'd been by his side just this past Sunday to celebrate Christ – blaspheme the name God set above every other name, the only name that brings salvation. And his heart was warmed – and pounding fast – as he listened to others continue to confess the faith, though faced with deadly threats. And the old man knew, as the governor's attention crept slowly in his direction, that the end had drawn near – the end of his good conscience in Christ, if he gave in, or the end of his earthly sojourn, if he held fast to the faith.

The older Christian closed his eyes, tuning out the voices around him, the back-and-forth of the governor with the rest of the defendants. He turned his attention instead to one of his most cherished memories, almost fifty years before. He'd been in his mid-twenties then, newly married to his now-late bride (whom he missed dearly) and with a bundle of joy just weeks old. The three of them had gathered one Sunday evening into her father's home, alongside the few other Christians in their neighborhood in Amisos, and been surprised to find a guest was welcomed there. The man had traveled with a letter penned in Rome. It had been written to them – written to him, the then-young man had felt – by Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ himself! Oh, what it was like to hear the words of that letter for the very first time, fresh of the boat, while the ink was practically still wet! To know that the apostle had been thinking of him, praying for him and his bride and his little one!

Reminiscing, he meditated on hearing the messenger read the letter aloud to the little church gathered around the table. He recalled how the messenger intoned phrases like “born again to a living hope” – beautiful words! He'd heard freshly about “the precious blood of Christ” – how dear! He'd heard he was a living stone in God's own spiritual house – he was a building block in a holy temple, and he was a member of the priesthood! Wow! He'd heard the messenger explain the apostles advice on being subject to the governors whom the emperor sent out “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:14) – was that why Pliny was here now, in the present autumn of 112 AD? Certainly, he'd unknowingly praised a few Christians when he'd read inscriptions about their benefactions to the city.

The older man opened his eyes – the interrogation was drawing closer. He shut them again and retreated back to that memory. He remembered vividly how he felt, hearing the messenger read the apostle's words to wives and then to husbands – remembered the apostle's directions for him to show honor and respect to his wife as a fellow heir of the grace of life, a spiritual equal. That had made him blush, remembering his first marital spat; he glanced at his bride and mouthed an apology across the room. They listened together to the apostle's counsel to set apart Christ as holy in their hearts, and to give no thought to fear amidst their sufferings.

And then came those next words, floating before his mind in memory – the same words we're here to hear this morning: “Since, therefore, Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same mindset, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:1-2). Those words were every bit as true for the older man in the year 112 as they were when Peter wrote them; and they're equally true in the year of our Lord 2017. And the truth is this: Jesus Christ suffered in the flesh for us. He suffered in the flesh for you. He suffered first of all on every day of his earthly life, no doubt – from hunger, from thirst, from stress, from sickness and pain. He didn't have to be here, didn't have to come down. But he came into a painful world to be with us.

And then he went further – to the cross. And there, the Lord Jesus Christ suffered in the flesh for you, in ways we can't even imagine – not just the pain, not just the bleeding and the strain and the piercing and the suffocating, but the dreadful shame and weakness. What kind of mindset did Jesus have to deploy to face it? What kind of mindset did he confirm himself in when praying in Gethsemane in full knowledge of what the next twenty-four hours would bring? “Not my will, but your will be done,” he prayed (Luke 22:42). And Peter says, “Arm yourselves with the same mindset” (1 Peter 4:1). This life includes plenty of suffering. I know, for my part, I don't much care for those bits. But there they are. And Peter tells us that, when we're suffering, at least we're not out there sinning and committing crimes! So we should focus on the perks of our suffering: they grant us an opportunity to confront our desires, our “human passions,” and to pray like Jesus prayed, adopting God's will in preference to our own: “to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:2). Friends, when you face a difficult situation – when you're pained, when you're tempted, when you're stressed out and at the end of your rope, look at it this way: as you push through, if you arm yourselves with Jesus' mindset, then you're living not for your own desires but for God's will. Do that.

Peter went on to say, in that letter of his: “For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this, they are surprised” – they think it unusual, even a foreign intrusion in your life – “when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they blaspheme you” (1 Peter 4:3-4). That's Peter trying his hand at cultural commentary. It's also the word of God to us. See, Peter is criticizing what, for the rest of society, had become just normal life. Sensuality and desire – normal life. Bubbling over with wine at parties – normal life. Offering a pinch of incense to the spirits in your home, or to Caesar's statue at a civic festival – that was normal life in those days. Those who were baptized into the body of Christ, though, considered “normal life” to be a thing of the past. They withdrew from their involvement in it, stood back from what seemed a matter of course to their neighbors. As a result, they'd have to start turning down their neighbors' and friends' invitations to go to these parties, celebrate these festivals, participate in what Peter calls this “flood of debauchery.” Consequently, people were offended. People were offended because this whole “Jesus thing” exposed their 'normal' as a lesser way. And in their offense, they'd blaspheme their former friend who'd begun living a Christian life. The older man on trial before Governor Pliny knew that all too well.

But we might know it, too. See, in our own time, plenty of these same things have become 're-normalized,' and then some. Spend a day watching the latest sitcoms and dramas, and take some notes on what behaviors are accepted there as 'normal life' – sensuality, passions, drunkenness... it all starts to sound familiar. Or take a look at our culture's taboos: the things it's suddenly socially unacceptable to say, and indeed the other things it's now becoming mandatory to say – about free sexual ethics, or the irrelevance of biology to 'gender identity,' and plenty more. For much of the Western world, that's now the new 'normal,' the new way of the Gentiles.

But that's not all. What else is normal? Working forty, fifty hours a week, draining ourselves of life for the sake of dollars? That's pretty normal. Putting ourselves first – whether us as individuals, our families, or our nation? That's pretty normal. Returning put-down for put-down? That's pretty normal. Worrying about how to make ends meet, running to and fro after food, clothing, bills, vacations? Pretty normal. Priding ourselves on not getting too intellectually deep? In American culture, that's pretty normal. Certain attitudes of extreme reverence, almost religious devotion, toward the banners and emblems of our national religion? In some sections, those are pretty normal. Elevating “common sense” to the fifth Gospel? That's pretty normal around here, too. And individualism – stressing our rights ahead of our obligations – and plenty of other elements of the standard American credo? Again, pretty normal. Maybe a lot of that is normal even for us.

Peter tells us to put 'normal' behind us – to get in on a life that seems absurd, seems abnormal, but is in reality a comprehensive new lifestyle in Christ. But when we don't join in on 'normal,' we stand out. We get called out. We may find ourselves excluded, scoffed at, even insulted, maligned, blasphemed. But Peter points out that it's when people get caught up in the normal, in the here-and-now, in the latest trends and cultural commonplaces, so much so they're unsettled by our intrusions of abnormality – well, the people caught up in the normal are missing out on how they'll be held to account on a day that ain't so far off. Normal isn't normal forever. What seems common sense will fall by the wayside with the changing currents of culture, the upheavals of history – or its conclusion. What people are missing is this: “The end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7).

What exactly Peter means by that has been a long-debated controversy. I'm not really going to get into that in the cosmic sense this morning. But he says it on the heels of making a reference to how Christ is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5). Peter doesn't say that Christ will eventually judge the living and the dead, once he reaches it on his to-do list, once he figures out where he filed those records, once he psyches himself up for it, once he gets around to it. No, Peter says that Christ, who already died and already rose, is ready to judge. The end of all things – their completion, their final turn – is close at hand already. It was then, and it still is. And we just don't know. We don't know when normal will be decisively unmasked.

But here's the thing. Whether “the end” in general is tomorrow or next year or next century, it's still plenty near for us – and you might face it sooner than you think. Some of us here are, statistically speaking, into the latter third of your earthly pilgrimage. And as you deal with the way fleshly bodies react when they've been in continuous use for a while, that provokes a realization: the end may be drawing too near for comfort. Some of our number are in nursing homes – the end is near. Others aren't – the end is still near. Even for a relatively young person like me – the end is still near. Not a one of us here has any guarantees that we'll still be sticking around by next Sunday.

Later this month, we'll mark a year since a young man from one of our church families abruptly found that the end of his earthly pilgrimage had come. He didn't get up that morning and think that it would be his last race in this old creation – but it was. And, as I mentioned, two weeks ago my twenty-year-old niece died on a hike in Colorado. When she and her friends set out that preceding morning, surely none of them realized that the end of her earthly journey had arrived – but it had. Our ignorance of the time of the end, be it the end in general or our personal encounter with the end, is no defense against it, nor does it delay it even one hour.

And that's significant. Peter explains to believers that what their critics, detractors, and accusers – those living in slavery to what's normal – don't realize is that “they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that, although judged according to men in the flesh, they might live according to God in the Spirit” (1 Peter 4:5-6). When we hear of a tragic death, when someone we know passes away, when we confront our own mortality, we might wonder if there's any point to this life, especially if this life happens to be so short. We might wonder if the gospel offers any hope, if those who hear and believe it just go the way of all flesh. Peter wants us to know that the gospel was preached to those who have since then died, and not without fruit: even though they received the same fate common to all Adam's children, they are bound in yet closer unity to God's Spirit, and that's life. But whatever awaits us, it's coming. And when the end comes for any given one of us, we'll stand before a Judge to render an account. So with that in mind, Peter warns us that there's a definite shape that Christian hope takes when it turns toward the end, which all of us should and many of us must keep in mind.

So how exactly are we supposed to prepare for the end? Do we walk around with sandwich boards, ringing our bells, shouting out, “Repent, the end is nigh”? That's not what Peter says. Here's his advice on how to be ready for the One who's ready for you. First, pray. Spend a lot of time in prayer. It's some of the least wasteful time you'll spend. True, praying a lot, praying in all circumstances, praying for everybody – that's not normal. Well, good. Normal doesn't pan out so well in the end anyway. So pray. And to pray well, Peter says, you'll need to be “self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7). “Self-controlled” – that's the opposite of impulsive, the opposite of shooting from the hip, the opposite of indulging in our desires and overly treating ourselves. “Sober-minded” – that's the opposite of the world's parties. It's just not normal. Good. If you want to be well-equipped to live a hopeful life toward the approaching end, that's the first thing you have to do: Put away those things of the past; don't live in the past, in memories of excitement gone by; but instead, live in the present and unto the future by prayer. As the end approaches, make prayer one of your chief activities.

Second, there's hospitality. “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9). Again, that's really not normal. Ours is an individualistic age: you have your space, I have mine, and while we might from time to time have to interact a bit on the edges – or, heaven forbid, intrude into one another's bubbles – it's a temporary imposition to be resented and ended as soon as possible. Hospitality has no place in the new normal. And yet there it is. Hospitality – the word Peter uses for it means loving foreigners, loving strangers, loving guests, loving those abnormal intrusions into our lives – is the abnormal second nature to abnormal people. Can we really learn to love intrusions, love disruptions, love impositions, and not even mutter or grumble or complain about it? Peter says we can – and it's all the more important as we near the end. Many of you have plenty of space and time, and not quite as many people to fill it. Peter might advise you to take initiative, to extend invitations, to offer that extra space and extra time to guests.

Third, there's love. “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since 'love covers a multitude of sins'” (1 Peter 4:8). Again, not normal. In our culture, sure, we talk a lot about love. You've seen the trite sloganeering: “Love trumps hate.” You've heard the songs: “All you need is love, love. Love is all you need.” All well and good, but love is a radical thing. It's not just a kind and warm feeling of acceptance. It's a firm disposition to seek the good welfare of others, even at a high cost – as Jesus illustrated, even at the highest cost. Love like that – love that's fervent, earnest, stretched out – is not people's default setting. It's not normal. But it can win people back from a life of sin. And if the end draws near and your time is short, wouldn't it be all the more precious, all the more pressing, to love like that and gain one or two final victories? Who slows down as they approach the finish line? Don't runners often try to expend all their energy to gain those last added seconds? Why don't we approach life like that? Peter advises that we approach love like that: when the finish line's in sight, pull out all the stops.

Fourth, there's stewardship. That's a funny word: It usually referred to household management, what we used to study in school in that class called “Home Economics.” Peter tells us to give it a whirl when it comes to being skillful administrators of the gifts God has given us. “As each has received a gift,” he says. He doesn't say, “As some have received a gift.” If you're a Christian, you have a spiritual gift. There's no such thing as an ungifted Christian. No matter your personality type, no matter your age, no matter your quality of health or level of mobility, you were given a gift. And it came with instructions that said, “Use this to build up my people.” That's why it's so important to stay plugged in to the Christian community, to the church. Intentionally holding back is bad stewardship. But, it's true, a few of our number are legitimately shut-in – maybe not quite as many as think they are – and that's when hospitality becomes even more important, so you can better exercise your gift. But no matter if you're fit and able-bodied, or if you're a shut-in, or if you're in a nursing home; no matter if you're an extrovert or an introvert; no matter all that – you have a gift.

And Peter says, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). Hey, didn't I tell you it came with instructions? Use it to serve one another. Use it to build up God's people. Peter says nothing about using it for profit, or using it for self-improvement, or using it to help around the house. Peter does say, “Use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace” – his motley grace for a motley crew. No matter how old or young you are, you can do that. Don't embezzle the blessings that were meant to flow through you to other people! You'll be more blessed if you steward your gift wisely. If your gift involves speaking, Peter says, whether that means preaching or offering words of counsel and encouragement, then do it as somebody speaking the very words of God – speak with all the care and panache as if you were dictating a sixty-seventh book of the Bible. And if your gift involves more labor with your hands, then render it as an act of service, “as one who serves by the strength that God supplies” (1 Peter 4:11).

And finally, Peter tells us, we're to “live the rest of the time in the flesh … for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:2), “in order that, in everything, God may be glorified through Jesus Christ: to him belong glory and dominion forever and ever” (1 Peter 4:11). None of us knows how much time he or she's got left before the end catches up to us. It could be years, even decades. It could be months, weeks, hours. Be prepared for the end, and what comes after the end, by living the rest of the time you've got left for God's will, to glorify God through Jesus in all the things you say and do, in all the circumstances of your life. That goes for whether you race motorcycles, hike in the mountains, sit in a nursing home, dine with family, run a business, or stand trial for your faith.

Whatever you do in that time: Is it just normal? Or is it the will of God? Is it mundane? Or does it glorify God through Jesus Christ? Is it routine? Or is it prepping you to face the One who died and rose and is ready to return to judge the living and the dead? Are you ready? Are you living the remainder of your time in a way that will make you ready? The old man who stood before Governor Pliny – men and women like that lived so as to be ready for the end. Don't let the end catch you unprepared. Don't let it catch you caught up in what's normal. Glorify God in Jesus. “To him belong glory and dominion, forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:11).

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