We began our Lenten journey on Wednesday by having our faces marked with ash as a sign of repentance and re-commitment to being Jesus’ disciples. This morning we hear a word from 1 Peter that invites us to share in Jesus’ life and ministry. The letter mentions baptism, making a defense of our faith, the suffering of the cross, and the resurrection. Each of these elements mark the life of Jesus’ followers.
There is a lot going in this brief passage. It’s rich with theological content, which we can’t unpack in one sermon. So, I’m going to focus on the better story, which we have been given, and which Peter calls on us to share with the world.
Before we move into Peter’s message, I would like to share the word from the Gospel of Mark that ushers in the season of Lent. As you’ll hear, Mark doesn’t waste time on details:
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:9-15 NRSV)
Although we don’t know who wrote 1 Peter, or even when it was written, I’m going to use Peter’s name for the sake of simplicity. We believe that this letter was sent to a community of Gentile Christians, who were suffering because of their confession of faith. Peter wanted to encourage them to remain faithful in spite of the many temptations to walk away from the faith.
We face a different set of temptations today. Most of us won’t suffer because we’re Christians like the early Christians or like Christians living today in places like Iraq and Syria and China. In recent years, Christians in certain parts of the world have been caught up in political upheavals, and like many early Christians, their baptism ushers them into a difficult journey of faith that can lead to exile or even death.
We may not face the same odds, but we do face challenges and temptations that affect the way we live out our faith. Peter talks about being ready to give an account of our faith, but many of us struggle with that calling. We may find evangelism difficult and even embarrassing. Several years ago we participated in a congregation-wide study of Martha Grace Reese’s book Unbinding the Gospel. One of the points she makes in that book, and the ones that followed, is that evangelism is often a dirty word among Mainline Protestants. It’s not that we don’t believe that God is important, but many believe that religion is private. So, we don’t say anything about Jesus. Instead, we keep our light hidden under a bushel basket, perhaps singing: “This little light of mine, I’m not gonna let it shine.”
On this first Sunday of Lent, Peter invites us to consider again our baptism. He calls baptism an appeal to God for a good conscience. The purpose of baptism isn’t to wash away dirt from our bodies. Instead, it symbolically cleanses our spirits so w can follow Jesus. Peter connects our baptism with the resurrection of Jesus, much like Paul does in Romans 6, where Paul writes: “we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). In Peter’s vision, we are joined in baptism to the resurrected Jesus who has been seated at the right hand of God, “with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” Jesus faced great suffering, but he remained faithful, and now sits in the seat of power.
So, what does this mean for us? I like what Ron Allen has to say: “Baptism is a sign from God to assure God’s congregation of God’s continuing providence, even amid the suffering that comes from faithfulness” (Feasting on the Word, p. 42). Through our baptism into Christ, we share in his glory.
We began the season of Epiphany by celebrating the baptism of Jesus and by reaffirming our own baptismal vows. We begin the season of Lent with another word about Baptism, which ushers us into a life-changing journey of faith. Yes, it might include trials and temptations, but since we have been baptized into Christ the Spirit of God dwells within us. Therefore, we have a powerful message to share with the world. This message focuses on God’s love and grace and mercy. Our Disciples identity statement declares that we are a “movement of wholeness in a fragmented world.” The mass shooting at a high school in Florida on Ash Wednesday is a good reminder that our world is indeed fragmented. It is broken and hurting and it cries out for healing.
When we gathered on Wednesday evening for our Ash Wednesday service, I shared my own sense of grief at the day’s news. I confessed that I had no words and no prayers to offer, so I invited those who gathered to simply reflect silently on this tragedy, which we seem unable or unwilling to prevent. I don’t have many words to offer, though I grieve for those who suffer this loss to their families and friendship circles. I grieve for those who go to school in fear that they too could be victims of violence. And, I lament our lack of resolve to change the narrative.
The problem in America is not that God is prohibited from entering our schools. God is there sharing in the suffering of the moment. The issue isn’t where God is. The issue is whether we are offering a better word to a world that is crying out in pain and anger for healing and wholeness.
We also see this fragmentation present in the inability of Congress to resolve the status of hundreds of thousands of young adults who came to this country as children, grew up here, and contribute to our society. Most of these young people have known no other country. Unfortunately, they lack legal status and could face deportation in the next few weeks. They live in fear. These young adults include pastors of churches, teachers in our schools, students in our universities, entrepreneurs, and members of the military.
We also see fragmentation in the challenges of racism, sexism, and our current political discourse. God calls us to be a movement of wholeness in a fragmented world, even though we might be broken ourselves.
Alexander Campbell was one of our Disciple founders and he had a fairly optimistic view of reality. He was an immigrant from Scotland, like his father, and he got caught up in the euphoria of this new nation to which he emigrated. He believed that the kingdom of God was already underway here in America. He saw signs of progress all around him, and he passed on that optimistic view of reality to his spiritual descendants. Because of that, Disciples don’t put a lot of emphasis on sin or confession. As Wednesday reminded us, maybe our optimism needs to be tempered with some realism.
Lent gives us an opportunity to reflect on the course of our lives and the realities of our world, and share in a word of confession. Yes, during this season of Lent we will be sharing together in prayers of confession. With our confessions, we also hear a word of grace and healing. We are, I believe, entrusted with that same word.
In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul declares that in Christ all things have been made new. Then he tells us that we have been given the message of reconciliation. We possess a word of grace and mercy; a word of reconciliation and healing, that the world desires to hear. The question is, will we leave that flame hidden under a bushel basket?
Peter encourages us to always be ready to give an account of the hope that is within us. But, he also cautions us to share this message “with gentleness and reverence.” To borrow from Melvin Bray’s book Better, we have a better story to tell. That story involves the creation of the “beloved community.” Here is the invitation:
Whether you want to be a better person of faith, a better parent, a better storyteller, a better justice-seeker, a better writer, a better student, or a better entrepreneur . . . BETTER begins now. (Bray, Better, p. 169).
Picture Attribution: Mesrop of Khizan, active 1605-1651. Baptism of Christ, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56064 [retrieved February 17, 2018]. Original source: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mesrop_of_Khizan_(Armenian,_active_1605_-_1651)_-_The_Baptism_of_Christ_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
February 18, 2018