Pastoral Prayer: Holy One, we fear for our lives and so we arm ourselves, we fear others and so make rules against them, we fear you and receive the experiences of suffering as your displeasure with us. We need again the Good News that Jesus, the Suffering One, suffered once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to you. We no longer need to fear in the light of your love. And all God’s people say . . . Amen
1 Peter 3:13-22
We made our way to one of the old wood structures, a pavilion that could hold 50-75 young people. Old wood benches bearing the carved initials of those who sat in them over the years. A feeble wood podium stood at the front where pastors, youth ministers, or others would lead in Bible Study during hot, humid summer mornings. On this evening, on this occasion, it served as a meeting place for Christians to worship at night away form the watchful eye of authorities who might arrest us for doing so.
Once we assembled to worship and began we were suddenly interrupted by familiar faces that had stilled themselves to perform as authorities threatening us for our faith. We knew it was pretend, we had been prepared to consider it a future possibility. What would we say should this happen to us? How would we be prepared?
Most of us played along with gusto. I don’t recall all that I said. I may have said things I shouldn’t. What I do remember is beings so aggressive in my reaction that had this been real, had it not been staged, I would likely have been treated harshly, if not shot.
Today it seems an odd rehearsal. It’s not that it couldn’t happen to Christians one day in America. It did, and does, happen in other parts of the world today. Stirring up young people aged 13-18, by leading them in an a theater where faced with persecution seems an odd form of catechesis, of teaching the faith. Why? Well, primarily, because while America is not considered as Christian as it may have been, or appeared to be, in the 1970s, it seems some look for occasions to suffer for their faith. And, that is not the context of any New Testament instruction. Not one.
Nicolas Kriistof offered an op-ed piece earlier this year where he wrote,
“Christians and Christianity are mocked, belittled, smeared and attacked,” declared an essay on Fox News’s website, plaintively titled, “How Long Will I Be Allowed to Remain a Christian?”
This mockery of Christians is, as I’ve written many times, both real and wrong. But a far bigger threat to the “brand” of Christianity comes, I think, from religious blowhards who have entangled faith with bigotry, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. For some young people, Christianity is associated less with love than with hate.
And there he stood facing Mars Hill, what the book of Acts labels the Areopagus, or the Hill of Aries, in Athens. The god Mars, the god of war, was only second to Jupiter in the Roman pantheon of gods. Aries was the name for the Greek god of war. But, the Romans had co-opted Greek mythology and renamed most all of the mythical gods. Mars, according to some, was a more stable god than Aries. What made Mars so popular for Romans is that Mars was said to have had sons Romulus and Remus, whose myth was said to have led to the founding of Rome.
Don’t miss the thread. Greek dominance gave way to Rome. This meant that the Greek gods, the ones who had presided over Greek culture, were replaced by the same gods with different names in order to provide a story of Rome’s history and give divine justification for its existence. The character of the gods did not change, even if Mars was considered more stable than Aries. War was given high status. And, honoring Mars meant avoiding war with the gods for human beings. The angry deity needed homage, worship or else the gods might be angry and come down from their high places full of vengeance.
There, facing Mars Hill, Paul, once named Saul, approached those gathered and noted their religiosity. He came not to round up the pagans for their false worship, offering screeds against their unrighteousness. What Paul observed was fearful bunch of folks. So fearful that they might miss one of the gods to be worshipped, and therefore punished for their oversight, they constructed an altar to the Unknown God. Paul took their fear and revealed to them the God they worshipped as Unknown was in fact Jesus, the Christ, who was not like any god they knew anything about.
Keep in mind the stark contrast in Paul’s demeanor when compared to the portrayal of Saul we find earlier in the Acts of the Apostles. Saul is portrayed as an aggressive defender of the deity he believes rules the world. His approach is vengeful, vindictive. Saul had been so convinced of the god he served that he was willing to have all others imprisoned if not stoned. He did so with the full conviction that he was representing his god, his god’s way.
Ten chapters later in the Acts of the Apostles, the one at who’s feet the killer crowd laid their cloaks, who approved of Stephen’s murder, is now approaching these pagans that worship a pantheon of mythical deities with gentleness and humility. Gone is his vengeful, vindictive tone. Here, Paul attempts to seize on the fearful nature of pagan worship. No longer a blowhard, Paul appeals with gentleness and humility.
Here, in our Text for this morning, we find Peter, insisting that suffering Christians in Asia Minor be prepared to give a defense for the hope that is within them with gentleness and humility. Peter gave instructions not to blowhards picking a fight so as to make war with the prevailing culture. There were no popular preachers become media figures among those living in Asia Minor working for political protection with corrosive rhetoric. No not one.
These were exiles, those whose faith in Jesus left them outside the prevailing social and religious streams built on mystery religions, mythologies, and emperor worship. Their financial stability could be threatened by their commitment to Christ. Suffering may not have been constant but it was consistent. We imagine that later, as Peter’s letter was preserved for future readers, suffering would turn to pervasive persecution under more indignant emperors like Domitian and Trajan. How were they to bear up under the suffering they were enduring? What sort of people would they be?
What sort of people they would be may follow the former blowhards, Paul and Peter, who now himself frames suffering in the context of Jesus’ own suffering. That is, they were already reminded of Jesus’ manner when he suffered.
When he was reviled, [insulted angrily], he did not revile [insult angrily], when he suffered, he did not threaten, but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.
Here, Peter points out that Jesus’ suffering brought them to God. Suffering here is understood as death.
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.
It is not as if Peter is saying, “You should look forward to suffering and death.” Instead, Peter is pointing out that if suffering comes for their faith, should we suffer for our faith, it should not be viewed as divine punishment. Instead Peter wants those who are suffering for doing good to know that these times may come to those who follow Jesus. Their ultimate allegiance to Jesus will be challenged by those whose ultimate allegiance is different.
For Peter, who had aggressively denied Jesus, he now becomes the pastor whose experience of the risen Jesus prompted him to promote Jesus above all others. The things we give ultimate allegiance to are the things we worship. Let me say that again. Those things, or persons, or ideas to which we give ultimate allegiance defines what we worship. We may learn what we worship when all our energies are given to preserve that thing, person or idea.
Suffering Christians had already lost their social status, their political voice and their economic security. Threaten those today and we may see where ultimate allegiance lay. Peter wants those whose lives have been met by God in Jesus Christ to entrust themselves, as Jesus did, to the one who judges justly. What does this look like?
First, Peter tells suffering Christians to give their ultimate allegiance to Christ, as Lord. It may sound strange, but suffering creates all sorts of questions when it comes to our commitment. Is it worth it? What have I done? This is too hard? I have lost too much?
Peter wants to override the long held conviction that suffering equals divine displeasure. The young mother took the news like any of us would. Shocked. No prenatal tests were done to reveal that something might be wrong. So when the doctor gave the news that the child would be different, the young mother wondered, “What did I do?”
Some wrong ideas about God may be traced to a view of the divine that exacts vengeance by causing suffering. It is not unlike those who worshipped Mars in hopes the god would not get angry and punish less than faithful worshippers. Let’s not pretend that this has not persisted. The Good News is that God revealed in Jesus took upon himself the sins of all people whose ultimate allegiance to their self-interests left a wake of death and destruction, shattered and broken relationships in order to put an end the cycle of violence by suffering violence himself on the tree.
Jesus, the suffering God, absorbed in himself, all our sins, in order to bring us to himself. When our ultimate allegiances had left us divided and angry, Jesus the suffering God, suffered for us. Rather than viewing our suffering as a means to God, climbing the ladder to God, Jesus, the suffering God, came to us, for us, to bring us to himself. For Peter Christ, as Lord, deserves our ultimate allegiance.
Brought near to God, we have hope in both our present circumstances and future possibilities.
Do not fear what they fear, do not be intimidated.
With our ultimate allegiance, our worship, given to Christ as Lord, Peter insists Christians to be prepared. Here Peter is not suggesting, he is imploring, Be prepared – be ready. Someone will ask about the hope that undergirds our endurance when suffering.
Second, when we suffer we have occasion to reveal the character of the One who suffered for us all, the One in whom we now are.
The word Peter uses to describe our bearing witness to the hope we have in Jesus is translated defense. This in no wise is a call to be defensive. Instead, it is the word from which we get our word apology. However, in this instance it does not mean to express regret. It is a way to talk about what drives us to endure. It is here that we take our title for the sermon, former blowhards only. Once Saul was a blowhard. He ranted at those whose lives had been changed by Jesus when he was met on the road to Damascus.
There, the voice that spoke to Saul, did not rail at him but instead asked a probing question.
Saul, why are you persecuting me.
Not realizing that those he was persecuting were in fact the Body of Christ, he was struck to the core. His projecting on to God his own desire for the demise of all others left him less than gentleness than humble. The event altered his present and his future. That is what we see in Acts 17 as he calls attention to the hope he has in Jesus by addressing the fears held by those listening.
Finally, turn the other cheek. No, it’s not literally what Peter said. But somewhere the Spirit brought to mind the Sermon he heard Jesus give on the Mount of Olives. There, Jesus called his followers not to retaliate but that by their actions bring shame to the offender. Anyone may retaliate. But, one who has set apart Christ as Lord, worthy of our ultimate allegiance need not return insult with insult. Instead, with a clear conscience we respond with doing good and those actions flip the script bringing shame on the one causing the suffering.
There is no way to miss the fear that others fear in our world today, in our Country and in our own area. Peter insists that Christians address these fears with gentleness and humbly risking whatever suffering may come for bearing witness to the Good News.
I generally take a manuscript with me to preach each week. However, the preached message is often a bit different than what you will find here. You may listen or watch here.