Back in the 19th century the Know-Nothing political party came into existence at least partly to demand that the government curb what many American Protestants perceived at the time to be an alarming increase in Roman Catholic immigration to this country. And fifty-seven years ago Senator John F. Kennedy had to appear before a convention of Protestant clergy in Houston to assure them that if elected president, he as a Catholic would not be taking orders from the Pope in Rome.
So it goes in American politics and its various dances with religion. There has been plenty of conversation on related topics recently too. Yet in and through all of this chatter and talk, the one thing that is seldom if ever asked by newspaper reporters or talk show hosts is the question, “Why exactly are you a Christian? What accounts for your hope?” Maybe the reason this question does not get asked is that everyone assumes they already know the answer. Maybe many people figure they already have enough information about what Christians believe. They may be wrong but they don’t know that and so feel no need to acquire further information.
To a certain extent we can understand that. After all, if I were to mention Islam or Hinduism sometime in a conversation with a group of people, many would probably know at least a few things about those other religious faiths. Even if the average Muslim or Hindu would deem such knowledge of their faith to be paltry if not inaccurate, I doubt that many folks would feel the burning need to go out tomorrow morning and read some books to deepen knowledge of Hinduism and Islam.
That’s simply the way a lot of people treat Christianity: it is such a familiar part of the landscape it’s easy to assume they already know enough. But the result is that most of us are unaccustomed to encountering the question, “Why are you a Christian? In this often terrible world, what makes you think you can realistically have any hope?”
We don’t get asked that very often. Yet the apostle Peter urged his readers long ago to always be ready to give an answer to those who inquire about the hope in their hearts. In the original Greek what Peter urges is that we be ready with an apologia, an “apology” for our faith. The original meaning of the word “apology” does not mean saying you’re sorry but rather in classic Greek an apology is a reasoned, well-thought-out explanation. Mostly this word was reserved for use in courtroom settings in which attorneys were expected to produce carefully reasoned and thoughtfully presented evidence by which to build a convincing case for a judge or jury.
Peter imports this word from the legal world into the world of the everyday, saying that as Christians we need to be ready with a solid apology for our hope in case anyone asks. Even as a lawyer would not walk into court without having done his homework, so we should not walk out into the marketplaces, factories, or offices of life without having devoted some time to thinking through our faith.
Of course, people’s ability to do this well requires that we be creative enough to tailor that apology for different people in varying situations. And that is not easy either. But for a sermon on this part of 1 Peter 3, it may be enough to highlight the overarching principle that needs to inform all apologetic explanations. Peter wants us to be thoughtful presenters of the faith. But he also knows that in some ways how we present our hope’s apology is just as important as what we say.
That would certainly have been important in Peter’s day when, near as we can tell, a lot of his readers were enduring varying degrees of state sponsored persecution (some of it quite deadly). But it was not just physical persecutions that concerned Peter but also verbal persecution, the ways by which people were poking fun of Christians and their beliefs. Not everyone to whom Peter wrote was in danger of being fed to the lions. Some of Peter’s readers were facing no more than snickering laughter and criticisms. How silly it seemed to some people to claim as Lord some obscure, long-dead carpenter’s son from the backwaters of the Roman Empire out in a place called Nazareth.
Peter knew that this kind of persecution could also be very hard to take. He knew that the temptation in such situations would be for Christians to respond in kind by being cynical, sneering, and harsh also in their own speech and demeanor. So it’s not enough to suggest that Christians always have an apology ready. Peter also has to tack on this vital advice: “Present your apologetic explanation with gentleness, humility, and respect.” In our decidedly non-gentle, disrespectful age of public shouting matches in which verbal brawls are held up as a way to get your point across, Peter’s advice ought to have great resonance.
Part of the reason Peter gives this advice is stated in verse 16: he does not want believers to give people legitimate grounds to criticize Christians as unpleasant folks to be around. “Let them criticize us as foolish or whatever,” Peter says, “but don’t give them further cause to criticize the church by being nasty yourselves.” Then, as now, there were plenty of people who believed that Christians are really just thinly disguised hypocrites. “Don’t add fuel to that fire,” Peter advises. “Even when other people are disrespectful of you, don’t return the disfavor.”
That is a very practical reason to be gentle in our speech with others. But there is another, larger reason for being humble and respectful toward even our fiercest critics. This other reason is not as obvious but in some ways it is even more important. The second reason is this: the hope that is within us is centered on the cross of Jesus. We have a cross-shaped hope. Our hope is based on the fact that the worst thing that could ever happen in history has already taken place: namely, God’s own Son got killed. Yet our hope emerges through the gloom of Good Friday onto the other side in the shining resplendence of Easter. God has brought victory out of this world’s worst event, and if God could do that, then there really is hope for the whole blessed kit-and-caboodle!
Jesus’ sacrifice is the source of our hope. Given who Jesus is and what he suffered for us, of course we have to present our faith in gentle, humble, respectful ways. How else could you possibly talk about Jesus! To be rude, to be proud or arrogant, to pose yourself over against others in finger-wagging, shrill ways that turn your encounters with the world into ugly shouting matches would betray the very hope you are supposed to be explaining!
You cannot promote chastity by paying a prostitute for sex. You cannot promote racial harmony by becoming a dues-paying member of the Ku Klux Klan. You cannot lecture people on the merits of sobriety while knocking back your fifth Martini at a cocktail party. And you cannot present a gentle, suffering servant like Jesus while acting in decidedly non-gentle, disrespectful ways. We need always to be ready to give an explanation for the hope that is within us, but we need to give that apology in ways that will be transparent to the Jesus who is the Author of this hope.
Of course, as Jesus himself demonstrates, being humble gets you nowhere with some people. Especially these days taking a quiet, respectful approach as we gently try to make the case for our Christian faith may be a sure ticket to not being heard. A thoughtful, careful, gentle explanation of the faith does not make for gripping television! It also is likely to be dismissed by many people as boring. You can’t grab people’s attention by taking the low verbal road. And it is precisely for this reason that all through history the church has faced, and too-often fallen prey to, the temptation to exchange humility for power, conversion at the tip of a gentle, respectful tongue for conversion at the tip of a sword. It’s frustrating to be ignored.
But as Peter would no doubt agree, it would be better to not reach certain people than to adopt tactics of communication that undermine your message. Jesus’ way of doing things has become our way through baptism. As people who now have resurrection life, we need to find gentle ways to communicate and live out the gospel.
We need to be gentle, humble, kind, and respectful when presenting the gospel because we don’t want anything to get in the way of people’s sensing how much compassion Jesus has for them–yes, Jesus even has compassion on the sinful cluelessness that might make our conversation partners become sneering sometimes. Jesus sees the hurt and disorientation that makes people act badly. Those are the very things that need healing. That’s why we cannot use bad behavior in others as an excuse to act badly or speak harshly ourselves. That won’t help anyone!
We must never say or do things that will obscure the fact that God so loved the world, with all its jagged edges and rotten people, God so loved the world, that he sent his only begotten Son to die for it. Love is where the gospel begins. Love is where it ends. Love must set the tone when we present our apology for the hope that is within us.
In a book some years ago Roger Van Harn told a story that conveys two things: it can remind us of the God who refuses to brush aside suffering but who made suffering his way to reach a lost creation. This story can also remind us of how we should act when explaining gospel hope to the lost and suffering folks around us.
It seems that one December afternoon just before Christmas vacation was to begin a group of parents stood in the lobby of a preschool, waiting to claim their children. When the bell rang, the youngsters ran from the classroom, each child carrying in his or her hands a special “surprise”–a brightly wrapped package containing a project that each child had diligently been working on for weeks to give Mom and Dad for Christmas. One little boy was trying to run, put on his coat, and wave all at the same time. He slipped and fell, the “surprise” flying out of his hands and landing on the tile floor with an obvious ceramic crash. There was a moment of stunned silence which was immediately followed by the little one’s inconsolable wail of tears. The boy’s father immediately tried to comfort the little guy, kneeling down and saying, “It’s OK, son. It really doesn’t matter. It’s OK.” But the boy’s mother was wiser about such things. She swept the little boy into her arms and said, “Oh, but it does matter. It matters a very, very great deal!” And she wept with her son.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 21, 2017
1 Peter 3:13-22 Commentary