6 Easter A St. Patrick’s May 25, 2014 Fr. Ray Kasch
Lessons – Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 148:7-14; I Peter 3:8-18; St. John 15:1-8
If you knew that you were about to die, and could gather your loved ones around you, what would you tell them? What advice would you leave with them? I ask that question because I believe this to be the context of this letter from Peter. Jesus prophesied that when he was old Peter would be bound and taken where he did not want to go. This was coming true. Peter is writing this letter from Rome, telling the Church how to act during persecution and he will soon be crucified on an upside down cross somewhere around 68AD. It makes sense therefore that if these are among the Apostles’ final words to help the Church get through a period of persecution, then surely his words could help us get through our day-to-day challenges. He says a lot in this passage but I want to focus your attention on four salient points.
First he gives the Church advice about how to treat one another. “Have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” This counsel makes great sense because the last thing a Church that is being persecuted from without needs is fighting within. Simply put division is not of God, because we are all a part of Christ’s Body and therefore need to be working together. In our natural bodies, when one part of it wars against another part, we call that cancer. We should have the same opinion about fighting within the Church.
But Peter’s imperative is more than an appeal to just get along. His is a call to like-mindedness and love. This call requires us to be more intentional in our relationships with one another. Just as a marriage takes work to be healthy so we have to work on our relationships to be a healthy Church. If we are only together one hour a week for worship and then go our separate ways, we will never develop the like mindedness and love to which the Apostle calls us. In turn we will be unprepared to face opposition should it come our way as it did in the first century. But as we seek out ways to be with one another, to serve with one another, to serve one another, we will reap the rewards of unity and the Church will be strengthened.
It is significant that the Apostle adds a critical ingredient to this mix of like-mindedness and love. That ingredient is humility. Have you ever walked away from an egomaniac and think to yourself, “That is one of the most loving individuals that I have ever met.” Of course not because all they love is themselves. It takes humility to put the other first. Jesus certainly modeled this for us in taking on flesh and coming not to be served but to serve as Paul so beautifully put it in the Book of Philippians.
On this Memorial Day weekend I cannot help but think about those who gave their lives for us to be able to worship freely. They did not seek fame or fortune. They sought only to be faithful and we honor their memories when we seek to do the same and follow their example. I also appreciate in looking at their example that we could never confuse humility with weakness. In fact they show us it is just the opposite.
The next important point that St. Peter counsels is, “Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.” St. Peter is addressing what is in our hearts and minds, perhaps when we are alone in the wee hours of the morning. If we want to stand strong we have to address our fears and anxieties. “Do not fear what they fear and do not be intimidated.” How are we to do this? Just saying “don’t be afraid or intimidated” doesn’t make it go away any more than telling someone who is depressed, “don’t worry be happy.”
The antidote to fear and intimidation is found in the rest of the sentence,” but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.” To make it clearer, the New Living Translation has this passage read, “Don’t be afraid and don’t worry. Instead you must worship Christ as Lord of your life.” So it is the LORDSHIP of Christ that replaces our fears and anxieties. It is so because his Lordship puts things in their proper perspective. Much of our fears and anxieties are caused because we wrongly think that we are in charge and it all depends on us. But then we hear from Jesus “I am the Vine and you are the branches…apart from me you can to nothing.” Or we hear in the Acts reading today, “In him we live and move and have our being.” Jesus is Lord and because He is Lord then He is our environment. In him we live and move and have our being. Jesus is Lord and because He is Lord we can do nothing without him. Thus He is in charge and it does not all depend upon us and thanks be to God for that!
When we first moved here in ‘96s to plant a church I found that there was so much to do and so many chances to do it wrongly that I struggled with anxiety and had difficulty sleeping at night. Weighing on me was more than just a fear of failure but also the responsibility of the few souls in my care. One day it occurred to me to talk to the Bishop about it since he had responsibility for 50 odd churches (and some of them were quite odd). So I asked him, “Bishop how do you sleep at night with so much responsibility?” He said, “I do what the Pope does.” “What is that?” He says, “Lord, its your Church after all so I am going to bed.” I don’t know where the Bishop got that information but it worked for me. When we remember who is the Lord and who is the servant or who is the Shepherd and who is the sheep, burdens are lifted from us.
There is a wonderful collect in the Book of Common Prayer that picks up this theme. I find it helpful in telling us how we sanctify Christ in our hearts. Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being; We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of this our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” This is a prayer that highlights our dependence upon God in every facet of our life and we ask to be made continually aware of God’s oversight. This is not in a fearful sense, like God as a state trooper watching to see if we break the law, but it is oversight like that of a loving father or mother who watches over their children at play and at sleep. Thus we should live our lives by constantly and continually following his leadership. That is how we sanctify Christ as Lord.
Additionally sanctifying Christ in our hearts is how we find true freedom. If you are utterly dependent upon Him then you are not dependent in an unhealthy fashion upon anyone or anything. You don’t need to be fearful of what others can do to you or be intimidated by so called important people because you know that you serve a Sovereign God.
When I was going through the ordination process, which I call ecclesiastical hazing, this was an important truth to keep in perspective. I had to get approval from my Rector then the Bishop, then in seminary the professors vote on my acceptability or not. I also have to go through psychological evaluations and also pass through the Commission on Ministry and the Standing Committee. It can be very frustrating because here you are trying to answer a call from God and all these strangers are voting on you like it is the American Idol show with Simon telling you how dreadful your sermon was. That is why I had to constantly remind myself that God is in control and like it says in the Book of the Revelation, “what he opens no one can shut and what he shuts no one can open.” (Rev 3:8).
It is no different for whatever calling you have received. It is all too easy to believe that your life is in the hands of your boss or your customer base or under the control of family members, but that is not the case. If you are under the Lordship of Christ, then your life is in His hands and while others may try to cause you to be afraid or be intimidated, you know that they only have the authority over you that He and you allow. As Sovereign Lord He is even able to work things for your good when others mean you harm. I was reminded last week that the best thing that has happened to us as a church was getting kicked out of our previous building. (Actually we chose to walk away). It sure didn’t feel like a good thing at the time but I can tell you now when I round that corner and see our new chapel I drive in with a smile on my face.
St. Peter’s third piece of counsel moves us from shaping up our priorities into taking action. He says, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands and accounting for the hope that is in you.” Again I prefer the New Living Translation, “And if you are asked about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it.” I find it inspiring that Peter’s advice to a Church under persecution is to be evangelistic. Rather than going under ground they are told to stand their ground and to share their faith. We know from Church history that this advice was followed and there are many great accounts of testimonies given by Christians facing execution for their beliefs. And as you know, rather than Christianity being stamped out by persecution, it flourished under it. The Church in Africa is having that same experience today as it faces persecution by the Muslims. I have been told that they are not able to produce priests and bishops fast enough to keep up with the explosive growth.
I want to be quick to point out that St. Peter tells us how we are to stand our ground and defend our position. He says “But you must do this in a gentle and respectful way.” Isn’t that how Paul makes his defense in our Acts passage? Rather than condemning them as idol worshippers he sees all of their idols and says, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” Then of course he goes on to tell them about Jesus. There are way too many Christians who have gone to the Yosemite Sam School of Evangelism. Their idea of sharing the faith is to yell, “Say our prayers sinner” and to hand out tracts that entitled “Turn or Burn.” But Peter tells us that this pugnacious actively is not true evangelism. We are to tell others why we believe but tell it with gentleness and respect. We are not out to win arguments we are out to tell people some good news. As you have heard others and me say before, evangelism is simply one beggar telling another beggar where to get a free meal.
Lastly, Peter tells us to face difficulty by “keeping our consciences clear”. This is very important advice because if and when we do get into trouble, or face opposition, we need to be sure that it is not due to our own sin. There are plenty of people who do not like Billy Graham, but it is not because he bilked a bunch of people out of their money or because he got caught in a motel room with a woman other than his wife. He has been so careful to govern his life in such a manner that people’s problem with Uncle Billy can only be with his message, and because he is God’s Messenger, their problem is ultimately with God. If we will do likewise then when we face opposition, as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, we can expect to be blessed. There is no blessing for suffering for our sins, but there is great blessing in suffering for His Name.
The truth is that it takes a great deal of inner strength to be a disciple and face opposition and nothing saps inner strength like a guilty conscience. You can’t look your enemy in the eye when you are so filled with shame that you can only look at the ground. The immediate rewards of sin never outweigh the toll they take on your inner life. Keeping our consciences clear means taking a long-range look and reminding ourselves to stand our ground.
These were just a few of St. Peter’s last words to the Church. I appreciate how he cuts to the chase and give such practical advice. Love one another in humility. Sanctify Christ in our hearts as Lord. Be evangelistic with gentleness and respect and keep our consciences clear. I would submit to you that this not only great advice for a time of persecution but they are a good recipe for individual mental health. If we will heed his advice then we will be a Church family that glorifies our heavenly Father and isn’t that the kind of Church that we long to be? Amen.