August 19, 2012

Giving an Answer

I have been looking forward to this morning ever since Shirley asked if we could have another commissioning service for her Honduras team here several months ago.  Last year Shirley asked the same question for that team and the relevant Sunday was going to fall in the middle of our walk through the book of James.  It really is cool when we get some glimpses behind the curtain of God’s quiet action in the world around us.  James is a book all about putting faith into action.  How appropriate for a service focused on commissioning a mission team as they departed to do their good work!  Moreover as the series took shape it became clear that the commissioning was going to fall on the Sunday I had set aside months before to work through James 2:14-26 which is really the heart of James’ argument.  See what God did there?  And then we come to this year.  This year Shirley asked for the service to be scheduled right in the middle of our journey through 1 Peter.  As we have been jamming on for seven weeks now, 1 Peter is all about how to live as godly strangers in this world which is not terribly open to God’s way of life and the kingdom it proclaims.  Again, how appropriate!  One of the ways we approach our strangeness is to do exactly what Shirley and her team are going to do: bring hope and relief to people who are suffering around the world in the name of Christ.  And of all the parts of the book this service could have fallen into, I think you’ll find that our passage this morning, again, speaks right to the heart of what they are preparing to do.  See what God did there?

Without further ado, then, and with a desire to put the emphasis of the rest of our time this morning on praying over these folks as they leave to do kingdom work in a part of the world sorely in need of tasting a bit of kingdom life, let’s turn to the word this morning and see what Peter next has to say to us.  If you have a Bible handy, open it up to 1 Peter 3:8 and we’ll get started.

“Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.  Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.  For ‘Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips speaking deceit; let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it.  For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer.  But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.’”

What Peter is doing here is wrapping up the point he’s been jamming on for a while now.  Namely, how are we to behave as godly strangers in this world?  His advice: by following after Jesus’ example and humbly submitting to those around us.  We are to submit to those who have real authority over us like government officials or employers.  Wives are to submit to their husbands.  As we are going to see next week, husbands are also to submit to their wives.  Here Peter gives a series of commands aimed at filling in any remaining understanding gaps on what this humble submission should look like when done properly.  We (that is, the body of Christ) are to have unity of mind.  This basically means that we are to be in agreement on the fundamentals of the faith.  We’re to give a thought to the feelings of others, work to see the people around us become fully who God designed them to be, be compassionate for our neighbors, and not think more highly of ourselves than we ought.  As we’ve talked about before we are not to respond in kind to personal attacks, but with kindness.  We are to be a blessing people, helping those around us to experience ultimate joy.  By doing this we ourselves will receive a blessing—the favorable attention of God.  If we are to live rightly as strangers committed to a different power than to which the people of this world are committed this is how we are going to do it successfully.

Well, if all of that was Peter’s advice on how to live as strangers in this world, where he goes next is to answer an important follow-up question.  In doing so, he comes back to the theme of suffering we touched on briefly a few weeks ago.  Yes, following Christ’s example and living life God’s way will put us on a good footing with Him, but what about the rest of the world?  They still don’t like us.  We’re still strangers.  What happens when the world comes after us anyway?  Peter has an answer for us, but before we get there, I want to jump down to v. 18 where he lays the foundation for his response.  Look at the text again with me starting right there.

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.  Baptism ,which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.”

Now if you’ll remember back several weeks ago to when I laid out the basic theological approach we take to the Lord’s Supper and baptism as Baptists, we took a look at this text.  I said then that it is one of the most confusing texts in the whole of the New Testament.  I promised that we would come back to it.  Here we are.  Let me quickly unpack my take on some of the thorniness and land on what I think Peter’s doing here.

First, none of the books of the Bible were written in a vacuum, including this one.  They were written to a people steeped in a cultural tradition very different than our own.  They had different interests.  Different daily patterns.  They read different things.  This last observation is really important.  Their literary worldview was very different from ours.  Just like modern Christian writers today make references to popular works outside of the Bible, the New Testament writers on occasion made reference to things not in the Old Testament.  These things were never cited as Scripture and were themselves only cited to either reinforce the message of Scripture or be countered by Scripture, but they were still cited.  In some cases, without understanding the literary worldview of the original audience, the task of the interpreter is much more difficult than it might otherwise be.  This is perhaps one of those cases.  The story of Noah was easily one of the most popular in the Old Testament, much like it is today.  Noah was popular not only among Jews, though, but among Gentiles.  Popular level treatments of Noah purporting to give a more detailed account of the story were widely passed on as part of the culture’s collective memory.  It is very likely that Peter is drawing on some of this cultural image of Noah as he writes such that his audience understood what he was writing, but we don’t with any kind of certainty.

So what is Peter talking about?  Well, there are lots of ideas, but here’s one I happen to think unpacks the text the best.  After Jesus’ resurrection, sometime either before or during the ascension, Jesus was somehow taken by the Holy Spirit to the spiritual prison in which the fallen angels in and before Noah’s day who had contributed to the irredeemably broken spiritual state of humanity at that point in human history.  Once there He did not preach as some translations have it (a word choice resulting from the translators’ theological understanding of the text), but rather He proclaimed His victory, the final advance of the kingdom of God in this world, and their final defeat as a result of these two.  Peter’s reference to the days of Noah is rooted in the fact that this was historically the era in which these spirits were active and somehow (we don’t know how) intermingling with humans.  It was during that time that God, who by all rights could have simply wiped the slate clean and started completely fresh with creation, instead chose to wait patiently for Noah, the man of righteousness, and his family, to come along historically speaking, respond to His instructions, and build the ark.  By entering the ark in obedience to God’s command, Noah and his family were saved through the waters of the flood.  Baptism corresponds to this not in that the waters save us anymore than they saved Noah and his family.  Instead, Noah’s going through the waters was the result of his prior decision to obediently submit his life to the commands of God.  This act of faith rendered him righteous in God’s sight.  His subsequent travail through the waters was the outplay of the righteousness which had already been granted and thus saved him.  When we are baptized, we are proclaiming a prior decision to obediently submit our life to the commands of Christ through faith made worthwhile by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  In the end on this point, the capstone of the argument rests on the resurrection and Jesus’ post-ascension position of glory.  The resurrection is the glory here, but where did Jesus have to walk to get there?  He had to walk the path of death.  Death preceding life.  This has always been the case.  Well, death comes in many different forms, only one of them physical.  Death is the only answer the world can give to its people when they ask the hard questions.  Without an objection foundation of meaning the cold reality of death is the only thing to live for.  Solomon notes as much with beautiful philosophical acuity in Ecclesiastes.  Life apart from God is utterly meaningless.  This void is the cage in which citizens of this world are kept and when we live as beacons of life, strange though we may seem, the world is going to respond with death because that’s all it has.  So do we handle this?  How do we handle it when righteousness—being rightly related to God and the people around us—gets hard?  How do we respond when we are living as salt and light and the ruler of this world throws suffering or persecution or hardships in our face?  How do we respond when righteousness gets hard?

This takes us at last to the heart of this passage and the center point of the rest of Peter’s argument in the book.  Look back at the text with me starting in v. 13: “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?  But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.”  The answer to Peter’s question there seems like it should be, “No one.”  Who wants to stop someone doing good?  And yet if the good is not understood, many might.  When the world sees us shining light in its dark places it is going to rise up in some way and try to keep the lights off.  It might use direct physical persecution.  But it might also use social or intellectual or relational persecution.  It might send someone to expunge our motives.  It might have someone twist our theology out of a lack of understanding and actually accuse us of doing evil.  Sometimes righteousness is going to get hard.  How do we handle it?  Peter has three responses.

Come back to the text again: “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled…”  Peter’s first advice: don’t be afraid.  Whatever the world throws our way is not worth our fear.  There is nothing to fear in this life for followers of Jesus.  Nothing.  Not a single thing.  Jesus Himself told us to have no fear of any power which can only hurt our body.  Our bodies are important and we should take good care of them, but we’re going to get new ones in the final kingdom so we have no reason to fear attacks on our bodies.  Indeed, we need not even fear the unknown which terrorizes so many in this world because we live by certainty.  We know that tomorrow God is still going to be good, that Jesus is still raised from the dead, and that the kingdom is coming in which all sin and its effects will be washed away.  What can tomorrow threaten that is more powerful than that?  Nothing.

For the second one look down at v. 16: “[Have] a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”  You will be slandered, Peter says.  Think about that.  There’s no uncertainty here.  If you are doing good in the name of Christ someone is going to come along and find something to criticize and the criticism will probably be false, misleading, and unfair.  They’ll examine our actions through the lens of worldly cynicism and think, “Well there must be at least something self-serving or otherwise unseemly about their motives because people just don’t do things like that,” and will criticize us on these misleading merits.  In order for that to be the case, though, we have to be living in such a way that it is false, misleading, and unfair.  If our behavior falls short of the example of Christ, we’ll give a footing for our critics.  What does that do for us?  Nothing helpful.  But, when the slander is baseless, when we have a clear conscience, the critics will be the ones looking foolish in the end.

Third thing and then we’ll finally put a clear answer together: With your commitment to Christ at the forefront of your heart and mind, defend yourself.  Look at v. 15: “…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”  When you are criticized or questioned, be prepared to offer a defense for why you believe what you believe and why you do what you do.  (This means, by the way, that it’s really important to know what you believe and be able to verbalize it in a winsome manner.)  The how as far as this response goes, though, is really important.  Do it with gentleness and respect.  You see, we forget this far too often, but our opponents in this world are never people.  Our opponents are always ideas.  Bad ideas should be dissected with ruthless precision.  Toward people with whom we disagree, however, we should be absolutely loving and respectful remembering that not only was Jesus’ death on their behalf as well, but also that they are bearers of the image of God no less than we are.  In other words, when righteousness gets hard, we are to defend it righteously.  When righteousness gets hard, defend it righteously.

But how do we do that?  How about by going to another country without pretty much any of the cultural advantages we enjoy here, a country that only sent 9 athletes to the recently wrapped up London Olympics who weren’t on the soccer team (31 total as opposed to our 539), in order to perform basic preventative medical care procedures and if necessary to organize much more complex procedures.  Honduras Team: you are going out to defend the power and worth of the Christian faith.  You may not have thought about it in those terms before, but this is exactly what you’re doing.  And you’re doing it in one of the most winsome ways possible: showing love at great personal cost for someone who has no way to repay you without expecting anything in return.  That’s a hard testimony to oppose.  The various other worldviews in this world don’t have any place for something like that.  They can’t understand it.  It doesn’t make any sense.  For several of you, you’ve been doing this for a long time.  You know the challenges ahead of you and are as prepared for them as you can be.  I know, though, for at least three of you this will be a first time experience.  Let me tell you something you already knew: there are challenges ahead of you.  In addition to the ones you can anticipate, there will be ones you can’t.  You are shining light in a dark place in this world, a nation where the power of the world rules with a fair amount of impunity.  There will be times on this trip when righteousness is going to get hard.  Defend it righteously.  Be prepared to answer with gentleness and respect.  When we are doing the work of God like this, we are on Satan’s radar.  He is going to oppose us.  It’s not a question of whether, but of how.  When righteousness gets hard, defend it righteously.  Lovingly do good.  Actively seek to make the kingdom of God manifest in the lives of people who very much are in need of the kingdom’s lifestyle.  And if you want to know what life in the kingdom is going to be like take a minute and read Revelation 21 before you go.  Friends you are doing good work.  You are doing God’s work.  The world doesn’t like this.  It’s going to oppose you.  But the power at work within you is greater than the power at work in this world.  Go without fear.  Go with a clear conscience.  And go ready to defend why you’ve gone.  When righteousness gets hard, defend it righteously.