Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Good Witness -- A sermon for Easter 6A

1 Peter 3:13-22

What makes for a good witness?  From Perry Mason to Law and Order, a good witness is one who promises to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, usually with the help of God. 

According to Peter, a good witness is one who gives an account “for the hope that is in you,” and to do so with “gentleness and reverence.”  This witness will be given even the face of suffering.  

As is often the case in Scripture, Peter tells his readers not to be afraid or intimidated by those who would oppose them.  Simply do what is right before God and you will be blessed.  Peter then points to Jesus, who endured suffering, died, but then God raised him from the dead and seated him at God’s right hand so that the one who was judged will sit in the judgment seat.  

Few Christians living in the United States have any need to fear suffering for our faith.  We might experience some inconveniences at times.  And, if you’re a pastor, some people believe that you will put a damper on a party.  But, there’s nothing to fear from those who would persecute us.  After all, Christianity still has the upper hand in America.

Why is this?  Well, even though Christendom, which is the merger of Christ and Culture that began in the 4th century with Constantine, is crumbling, there are enough remnants of it to keep us quite safe here in America. 

We might not have much to fear, but we do have a witness to share with the world.  As followers of Jesus, having been baptized into his death and his resurrection, we have a message to share that concerns the realm of God.  This realm that we are called to proclaim extends beyond all loyalties – including to family and to the nation. When we’re baptized, we become part of God’s realm.  We get a new citizenship card, with a certain set of expectations.  Those expectations center on living a life that is in tune with the ways of God. 

1 Peter 3 offers us an incredibly rich text, with many jewels that can be examined closely.  There is the conversation to be had about fear and suffering.  There’s the question of Christ’s death and his resurrection.  There’s that seemingly odd reference to Noah and to Jesus preaching to the spirits in prison.  Then there’s the reference to baptism as well as to the ascension of Jesus.  There are so many sermons packed into this brief passage of scripture – but alas I can’t preach them all this morning.

Therefore, this morning I want to focus on verses 15 and 16.  Peter, or more likely someone writing in his name near the end of the first century, sends a circular letter to congregations in Asian Minor, telling them to “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.”  And, do this “with gentleness and reverence.” 

The word “defense” – in Greek – is apologia.  For those who enjoy studying etymology – here’s the root of our word apology.  Now, when I think of this word “apology,” I usually think of having to say “I’m sorry.”  As a child my mother would say, “Now Bob, apologize to Mark and Paul for waking them up at 11:00 in the morning.”  Of course, I wasn’t sorry.  I wanted to play basketball and they were wasting away the day!

But, that’s not the kind of apology that Peter has in mind!  So, what does he have in mind?  

Some Christians hear this passage as a call for Christians to prove our case for the Christian faith before a skeptical world.  This is called apologetics.  Back in high school, I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Walter Martin, who was known as the “Bible Answer Man.”  He was the king of apologetics, and I hoped that I could be his successor!  If you don’t know who Walter Martin is, perhaps you know the name Cliff Claven – he was the master of all kinds of trivia on Cheers – that’s kind of what a “Bible Answer Man” is like.  But, Peter isn’t asking us to memorize Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict so we can win debates about the truthfulness of the Christian faith.  For one thing – it rarely works.  And for another, Peter has other, more practical things, in mind.

I will say this, however, I’m still concerned about the need to move toward a fuller understanding of the Christian faith.  That is, I do think that theology is important.  In fact, I’ve been trying to make that case this past week on my blog, which means that the “Bible Answer Man” might still be alive in me.  As Disciple theologian Joe Jones puts it:
Friends, it matters what you believe about God.  It matters to your own spiritual formation whether you believe God’s aim for the world is ultimate destruction of the many and the salvation of the few.  It matters whether you believe God called America to be a light to the nations and therefore America is always justified in the purity of its motives and its own going to war against enemies of God.  It matters whether you believe Muslims are included in that category of the neighbor and strangers we are to love. 
Think about it.  It may be that our spirituality is at stake in what we believe or do not believe.  It matters whether we are formed in Christ or malformed by the spirits of the world. [Joe Jones, A Lover's Quarrel: A Theologian and His Beloved Churchp. 36].
Yes, it does matter what we believe about God and about God’s relationship with the creation.  We are called to love our neighbor, but this love flows out of our love for God.  But, I don’t think that Peter is calling here for a theological debate.  No, I do think that he is pointing to the way we live our lives before God in the world.  As Addison Hodges Hart puts it:  
Ours is not an argument, but a life to be promoted – and only in the way that life is lived openly will it be accepted as credible.  This is a point that cannot be stressed enough.  Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are given flesh and blood as “evidence” through the witness of Christian lives. [Hart, Strangers and Pilgrims Once More: Being Disciples of Jesus in a Post-Christendom World, p. 129].
  In this letter, Peter calls us to live faithfully – offering a witness that is gentle and reverent -- even if this means putting our lives in danger.  

This word of encouragement follows a rather controversial section of Peter’s letter, where he encourages the congregation to not buck the system unnecessarily.  He tells wives to obey their husbands and husbands to care for their wives as “weaker vessels.”  That should seem old-fashioned to us, but Peter’s point is this:  fit in where you can, but in the end, do what is right. 

Remember how in the Book of Acts, Peter, James, and John are hauled before the religious leaders and told to stop preaching the gospel.  They responded – who should we obey – God or human authorities?  As far as they were concerned, “we can’t stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:13-20).

How then, should we live before God and in the presence of our neighbors?  How should we express our faith in a way that is gentle and reverent?  How do we provide a witness to the presence of the Spirit of God in our lives?  In other words, what makes us different because we follow Jesus?  

Since this is Memorial Day Weekend – a time when the nation is called to remember those who died in service to the nation, perhaps we can begin answering the question of what this witness looks like, by thinking about the way Jesus would have us relate to our country.  Remember the prayer we prayed earlier in the service – does it not call on us to give our allegiance to God and to God’s kingdom before all other loyalties?   And did not Jesus tell us to give to Caesar what belonged to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God? (Mark 12:17). 

While I’m proud of the country I live in, I know that we must judge it by a higher standard – God’s standard.  Being a dual citizen – I must make my decisions based on my prior loyalty to God’s realm, even if that conflicts with my loyalty to the nation I love.  That is because, as Peter puts it, Jesus sits at the right hand of God, with “angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.”

So, when I’m asked to make my defense of my faith – I don’t have to offer up a complex philosophical explanation for the existence of God.  But, Peter does tell us that we should be able to point to our lives and let that be a witness to the presence of God in our midst.  As we move into the fullness of this reality, it’s good to know that we do so within the amazing grace of God who loves us fully and without qualification.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan 
Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 25, 2014

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