Sunday, May 21, 2017

Living and Sharing Christ's Love (a sermon on 1 Peter 3:15-16)

Today I want to talk to you about living and sharing Christ’s love, and I want to begin by telling you a story many of you will remember.

In October 2006 a lone gunman called Charles Roberts entered a single schoolhouse in the Amish community of Nickel Mines in Pennsylvania.  By the time he was finished that morning, five young Amish girls lay dead along with their killer. It was a scenario that has been repeated with frightening regularity in the past few years; a gunman enters a public place and starts shooting, innocent people get killed, everyone bewails the increasing violence of our society - and yet it goes on.

Except that this time, something different was going to happen. Within hours of the shooting, members of the Amish community were reaching out to the killer’s family, giving food and raising money for his wife and children. “We have to forgive,” an Amish woman told the Reuters news service; “We have to forgive him in order for God to forgive us”. Another Amish man said of the family, “I hope they stay around here and they’ll have a lot of friends and a lot of support”. This attitude remained consistent in the days ahead. The media were fascinated with the attitude of the Amish and there was a lot of discussion about whether or not it was a good thing. The Amish themselves were clear about it; they believed their children were in heaven, they believed the perpetrator also had family members who needed care, and they believed faithfulness to Jesus meant doing the hard work of forgiveness and love in action.

Evangelism often gets a bad name in our society today, but when I watched the Amish sharing their faith and living it out with such integrity before the watching world, I saw evangelism in the true sense of the word. And it made me think of three verses from our epistle for today.
‘Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame’ (1 Peter 3:14-16).

In the middle of the most awful grief people could ever face - the senseless murder of their children – the Amish of Nickel Mines were able to hold onto their Christian hope. And when they were called on to give an account of the hope that is in them, they were able to do it with gentleness and respect. That’s a positive Christian witness. And as a result, light came out of darkness and hope replaced despair.

So where do actions like come from? Two things stand out for me in these verses from 1 Peter: ‘Hope’ and ‘Loyalty’.

Right from the beginning, Peter’s first letter has been all about hope. At the beginning of chapter 1 he says,
‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’ (1:3).

What’s this ‘living hope’ all about? It’s about the fulfilment of Jesus’ prayer: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. At the moment we do not always see God’s will being done on earth as in heaven. All too often, we see the forces of evil on the rampage. Yes, there is love and generosity and goodness, but all too often it gets shouted down by cruelty and hate and anger.

This must have been what it felt like to be an Israelite slave in Egypt in the time of Moses - forced by the Egyptians to do hard labour, never getting a rest, never getting a break. And then finally, when the Egyptians let them go free after the tenth plague, they got as far as the Sea of Reeds, and suddenly when they turned around, there was the Egyptian army behind them again! Pharaoh had changed his mind! There was no way out – deserts on either side, sea in front of them, soldiers behind. But then, in a miraculous act of deliverance, God opened the sea up for them and they were able to escape. What was humanly impossible was possible for God, and they were saved.

In later years the Israelites were often tempted to despair, but when they did, they looked back on this Exodus story. “God can do it again!” they thought. “That’s who he is – a God who cares for the downtrodden and delivers them!” So when they were going through their hard times, this story gave them a sense of hope.

Imagine the early disciples the day after Good Friday. They had been so excited about Jesus and his ministry, and they had begun to catch a vision of what he was up to, a vision of the coming kingdom of God. But then he had been arrested and tried and murdered by his enemies, and God had not delivered him. Surely God wouldn’t have abandoned the true Messiah? Like the Israelites coming up against the Sea of Reeds in front and the Egyptian army behind, Jesus had run head on into the immovable force of the power of the Empire, and all his wise and loving words and deeds of power hadn’t saved him. Now he was dead, and the disciples had no hope left.

Until Sunday morning, that is. Then, as the stories began to come in about meetings with the Risen Jesus, they began to grasp the enormity of what God had done. He had done the impossible! Tyranny and death no longer had the last word! And when the disciples were convinced, they went out boldly with the message of Jesus and they were totally unafraid of death. Why should they be? God had shown that he could raise the dead, and Jesus had promised that they would be raised too. So they were not intimidated; they went out with joy to spread the gospel, and when they were persecuted, they thanked God for the privilege of suffering as Jesus had suffered.

This is why the Resurrection matters! This is why we celebrate Easter, and sing Easter hymns and listen to Easter readings for fifty days, from Easter Sunday all the way to the Day of Pentecost. St. Augustine says, ‘We are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!’ Because of Easter we have an indestructible hope of resurrection. And we also have an indestructible hope in the power of God to change things for the better. So when the going gets tough we don’t give up, and we don’t give up on difficult people, either. We have placed our hope in the power of God, and because of that, we can keep on going.

So hope is one of the most important forces shaping our actions as Christians. Loyalty to Christ is another one. Look at verses 14-15:
‘Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord’.

‘Jesus is Lord’ was the basic Christian confession of faith in New Testament times. Today, it rattles off our tongues so easily, but what happens when we actually have to put it into practice? Think of the Amish of Nickel Mines again for a minute. The Amish are Anabaptist Christians, and Anabaptists put a lot of emphasis on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. At the end of that Sermon Jesus says: ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven’ (Matthew 7:21). To sanctify Christ as Lord in your heart means much more than just mouthing words with your lips; it means obedience. It means believing that Jesus truly has taught us the best way to live, and then setting yourself to learn to practice that way day by day.

This is the first issue for Christians: who is the Lord of our lives? Today it seems to me that we sometimes look on Jesus as kind of like a personal butler: his job is to anticipate my needs and meet them. He’s ‘my personal Saviour’, one of my accessories, a convenient aspirin to take my pain away so that I can get on with enjoying myself.

But that kind of religion would never have prompted the Amish to reach out in love to the family of the man who had murdered their children. If they had believed in that kind of religion they would have said something like “How can we even think about reaching out to others? Right now our own pain is just too much!” But because they really believed that ‘Jesus is Lord’ they were able to hear his call to be there for others as well, and as they followed Jesus faithfully they experienced his help along the way.

What’s going to happen as we Christians live out our stubborn hope and our primary loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ? What’s going to happen is that people will notice. The media noticed when the Amish of Nickel Mines didn’t react in the usual way to a gunman who killed their kids. They had noticed the same thing back in 1999, in Taber, Alberta, when the Rev. Dale Lang and his wife lost their son in a high school shooting. They also turned to their Christian faith for the strength to reach out in love and forgiveness to the perpetrator of that awful act.

I hope that you and I never have to go through such horrors to demonstrate our gospel hope and our loyalty to Jesus. But day by day we are called on to live out our hope and our loyalty before the world. Years ago when we lived in Aklavik in the western Arctic, Marci and I had a lot to do with a family in town with a long history of alcohol problems and jail sentences. One day one of the local Mounties said to me, “I think you and your wife are the only people in Aklavik who haven’t given up on that family”. I don’t share this with you to boast. I actually had never thought about giving up on them; it honestly hadn’t entered my mind. I share it with you just as an example of how, when we follow Jesus, people will notice. They might say something, or they might not, but they will notice.

What then? Peter says,
‘Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence’ (15-16a).
This wording in our NRSV pew Bibles actually sounds rather harsh: ‘Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting…’. I like the NIV better:
‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have’.

For most of us, that ‘reason’ will involve some kind of story; you and I are following Jesus today because of a certain series of events. Perhaps it involved parents sharing the Christian faith with us, or the witness of friends, or an experience of God’s help when we were going through a difficult time in our lives.

After the Nickel Mines tragedy, one of the leaders of the Amish Community mentioned the formative effect the Lord’s Prayer had on their life together. He said, ‘We pray it seven times a day!’ He was specifically referring to the words, ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’. But his explanation of the distinctive lifestyle the Amish were demonstrating involved telling a story about their life together and about God’s work among them.

We all have a story of faith – a story about God’s work in our lives. I am a Christian today because of the witness of my parents. They took me to church every Sunday from before the time that I could walk; they had me baptized, prayed with me and taught me the Bible stories. But they didn’t only do that. When I was thirteen my Dad challenged me to make a personal commitment of my life to Jesus Christ. I did that on March 5th 1972, and it was the beginning of my life as a conscious follower of Jesus. That life grew and was nurtured in a lively church in southeast Essex in which I learned to pray, to read scripture, to worship with others and to live as a Christian. That’s my story, and I’m excited about it. I love telling it to others.

But we don’t only tell our story; we also tell God’s story, the story of the good news of Jesus. This is the reason we have hope! We have hope because God loved our world so much that he made himself vulnerable, and came and lived among us as one of us to spread his love and light. By his life and teaching Jesus showed us what God is like and what it means to follow him. By his death he has demonstrated God’s unconditional love for all people: we can kill him, but we can’t stop him loving us. And by his resurrection he has shown us that hate and anger won’t have the final word: love really is stronger than death. God raised Jesus from the dead and so there’s no longer any need for us to be afraid.

As I talk to friends who aren’t Christians, this is one thing that stands out for me: many, many people are afraid of death. I don’t just mean ‘afraid of the act of dying’ – all of us are afraid of that, I think. I mean ‘afraid of the state of death, of the end of our lives, of non-being’. I remember a time when I was afraid of that, too, but I very rarely feel that any more. As my faith has grown, that fear has receded, and I’m very thankful for that.

So what difference does it make to you to be a follower of Jesus? How are you aware of God at work in your life? What makes it worthwhile for you to continue to practice your Christian faith? Our answers to these questions are the story that God wants us to share with others. But we aren’t to tell our stories in an offensive or pushy way. Peter says in verse 16 ‘yet do it with gentleness and reverence’. My brother used to have a humorous poster on his wall that said, “Those of you who think you know everything are annoying those of us who do!” It was a joke, but we all know there are people in the world who actually believe that! That’s not the attitude in which we ought to share our Christian stories.

Let’s go round this one last time. We are an Easter people, and ‘Alleluia!’ is our song. We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and we believe his promise that one day he will raise us too. One day his kingdom will come, and his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. And so we don’t give up on the future of the world, and we don’t give up on ourselves or other people either. We don’t give way to fear; we’re not intimidated. We commit ourselves day by day to Jesus as our Lord, and we ask him to help us each day as we try to obey him in our daily lives. And the more we do this, the more we find it to be a joy to us.

As we live like this, we find that gossiping the Gospel becomes a natural part of our everyday lives. Evangelism isn’t a scary thing; it’s not a program we run in the church or a training course we have to go on. It’s not something we have to make happen by our own efforts. Jesus makes a difference to us, and people notice that difference, and if they trust us, this leads to conversation. And in that conversation we can give ‘the reason for the hope that we have…with gentleness and respect’ (v.15 NIV).

I sometimes enjoy reading Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible that he calls The Message; it’s a bit quirky, but sometimes it has a memorable way of rephrasing the old familiar words in a way that grabs our attention. Let me close with his version of our text for today:
‘Through thick and thin, keep your hearts at attention, in adoration before Christ, your Master. Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy. Keep a clear conscience before God so that when people throw mud at you, none of it will stick’.

May God fill us with the Holy Spirit today and give us strength to put these words into practice. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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