Sunday, May 25, 2014

FIRST PETER: “Good Reasons to Hope”

A Sermon Based Upon 1 Peter 3: 13-22
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 25, 2014

 There is a story about an illegal Bible study group meeting in a Russian Apartment building in Moscow back during the Cold War.   At that time Russia was officially ‘atheists’ and taking part in secret Bible studies was against the law and would be punished by death, or worse, a free ticket to a prison camp in Siberia.    On one occasion, as the Bible study group was meeting, there was a knock at the door.  A voice on the other side announced they were from the KGB and demanded the door opened immediately.  As the KGB agent entered, he closed the door behind himself, then told everyone to line up to declare themselves guilty of involvement in the Bible study so they could be arrested.  He gave them only one option.  They could renounce their faith and leave but never come back.  After each one answered they were guilty and ready to be charged, the KGB man answered “good”.  Then the told them to sit back down.  “I’m a Christian too” he said to their surprise.  I want to study with you, but just wanted to make sure you were sincere in your faith and would not turn me in.”

How would you prove your faith if your life was on the line?  Is there enough evidence of living faith to convict you?   This legendary incident, based on a very true events, reminds us of the situation for faithful believers when Peter once challenged his readers to  ‘be ready’ to ‘make a defense to anyone who demands it’.    Notice that the word here is not ‘anyone who asks’, but ‘anyone who demands’.   We’re not talking sharing your faith, but we are talking exposing or even defending your faith not just to skeptics, but also to accusers.   The situation facing the Christians Peter writes to is not simply one that demands them to explain ‘why’ they are believers, but it is more reflected in the question, “Are you prepared to die for what you believe?”  Would you put your reputation, your job, or even your life ‘on the line’ because of your faith?  “Always be ready,” says Peter, “to make your defense” (in court, he implies), for the hope that is in you.”  Are you ready?

HOPE IS NOT BEING INTIMIDATED
I don’t think many of us could have ever imagined the post Christian world we now live in, where churches are struggling to survive, and some are even dying?   You can see the loss of the privileged place Christianity once knew in our life, most everywhere.   In fact, as one Christian professor on one college campus said a couple of years back, “On our campus most every form of religion is treated with respect, except for those who say Jesus is the only hope.  If you make a claim like that, either you will be laughed at, ridiculed or most likely, completely ignored.”   But it’s not just in academics or politics, but also in local communities where faith is losing ground.  Now seminaries who train young people for ministry are advising students to get two degrees, not one.  They need one degree in a field where they can prepare for their calling in ministry, and another for prepare working to make a living.   The church of the very near future will probably not be able to pay them full-time salaries because the community and the church cannot afford to.

We all know this is true, but we don’t like to talk about it.  The church, as most of us have known it, is on the way out.  “Being a pastor on the old “ship of Zion” is like being the captain of the titanic,” one pastor has noted.   Churches that are surviving, at least for now, have to work with smaller budgets, fewer ministries, and smaller congregations.   A woman in the dentist office, recently shared her exasperation about her church just the other day: “We have a wonderful pastor, a great choir, and a loving church, but we just can’t grow.”   A denominational executive also told me he was using our ‘partnership’ as a model for other churches to consider, if they and their pastors are willing to ‘face the music’ of what’s really happening.  

What is happening is that the world we used to know has been pulled out from under us like ‘a rug from under out feet.’   The nice, safe, comforting, steady and promising world of the Christian Church has disappeared and now we are entering a ‘brave new world’ that dares to live without church, or perhaps is trying a whole new type of church, where those who attend demand that the church entertain them, razzle dazzle them, all to meet their needs.  If it doesn’t, they will take their children and go elsewhere, or if they don’t have children, maybe they will not go anywhere.   In this ‘new world’ many, if not most, younger people have already left or are leaving, and some of them wonder why are we still here, how can we still have hope.  It just could be that some of you might be secretly wondering that too.

Before we lapse into despair over the situation, we need to realize that it could be worse, as it is in other parts of the world where Christianity is still illegal or persecuted.  It might also get worse, because traditional forms of churches like ours are struggling everywhere.  And of course, it has been worse in the past and that’s what this text in Peter reminds us.   There have been times in Christian history, when it was not only unpopular, but it has been illegal and threatening to be a Christian. 

In places like this, Christians were and still are falsely accused and sometimes, even wrongly abused, for having faith.  This is part of the background behind today’s Bible passage from First Peter.   Surprisingly, as NT scholar Fred Craddock says in his commentary on 1 Peter, “We do know that because the Christians did not believe in and worship the array of Roman gods, they were called “atheists.”  That term carried with it a cluster of prejudices against Christians that questioned their character, citizenship, patriotism, and social responsibility.(See First and Second Peter and Jude, by Fred B. Craddock, Westminster Bible Companion, 1995, p. 58).

Some of us wrongly picture that the ancient world was made up of pagan people who wanted to kill Christians because Christians had faith in Jesus Christ.   The larger truth is that the ancient world was made up of many good, religious people who simply misunderstood the claims the Christian faith and looked down upon Christians as a negative influence for their world.  When Christians would not bow down to the emperor, they were considered ‘unpatriotic’.  When Christians would not eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, they were believed to be boycotting and hurting the economy.  When Christians participated in worship and celebrated the sacrifice of the body and blood of Jesus or shared in a ‘love feast’, they were imagined as taking part in cannibalistic ceremonies, or communal and immoral orgies.   When Christians insisted on telling the truth and showing love and generosity, even showing hospitality to strangers and enemies while they also refused to in support of the war effort or fight in the army, they were seen as being a threat to the status quo because they did not join with the majority opinions or go the way of the crowd.   People saw Christians as being an insult, an affront, or an offense to their own political viewpoints, their own traditional religion, and their very well-established way of life.  As Dr. Craddock goes on to say, “love seems to stir hatred in those who refuse to love.” 

Has the Christian life become unpopular, or has it become undesirable, or maybe just impossible for most people?   Has the Christian hope or the Christian way of life become so offensive to our own American ‘way of life’ freedom and the pleasure of getting what we want, when we want it?   Maybe, there are those who still respect the Christian way as good for some, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of what I ‘want to do’, what ‘I want to be’ or what ‘I want to believe’?   This is more like the situation of why Christians were first asked to ‘give an account for the hope’ that was in them.  It wasn’t so much that there was great interest from others about becoming believers, but people were looking for some “reason” not to hate Christians, not to haul them to court or even worse, not to demand for their elimination and annihilation in society.  The point is that people were simply afraid of real Christians, and they still are.  They did not understand them then, and many do not understand the claims of true Christianity now.  Many still see the claims and teachings of true Christianity as a threat to their own way of life. 

The first thing Peter is saying to the Church of is day is that: Hope is not being intimidated by what other’s fear.     “Do not fear what they fear!”  Peter says.   Fear motivates so much of what humans did then, and still do now.  Fear controls how most people react to life and to each other, especially to anything that is different from what they know.   But what is it that people fear about Christians and Christianity?   

Back in my High School years, I was part of the Bible Club which met in a classroom of a ‘believing’ Biology Teacher.  I’ll never forget studying the Bible and praying in a room where there was a large image of a monkey becoming a human on the wall.   I once asked our teacher-sponsor, who taught Biology, how she could keep that poster on the wall, which represented Darwin’s theory of evolution which she taught, and yet, as she said, she also believed that God created the world.   Her answer was: “At school I teach Science and theories, but at Church and in Life, I live by faith.”   That settled it for me.  Here was a woman who didn’t let the ‘theories’ nor ‘science’ intimidate her faith.  She did not have it all figured out, but she didn’t have to.   As she also told us, “Everyone lives by faith…even Biology teachers and many Scientists.  She was an inspiring person who didn’t let anything, intimidate her faith.  She was also not afraid of the theories nor the facts,  because faith is not a theory and faith will always be more than ‘just the facts ma’am’, as Sargent Friday used to say on Dragnet.

The reason I’m telling you about that Biology teacher, is because of what happened one day, while we are all in our Bible Club meeting.   While we were sharing and praying with the door open, as a testimony to our faith, one of the popular, most intelligent students in the school, put his head in the door and shouted out, “There is no God!”  I’ve always wondered why he had to do that.   Later, I got to know him as we worked together on the Yearbook.   When I was injured in that terrible car accident, he came along with the student body president to visit me while I was in the hospital.   I was cautious not to impose my faith on him, but I did not let his ‘unbelieving’ intimidate me.  I was bound and determined not shout out to him that ‘there is a God’ like he shouted out to us, ‘there is no God’!   I didn’t want to tell him the difference between us, but I wanted him to see the difference.  Interestingly, he never personally questioned my faith nor did he ever ridicule me.  

As we might imagine it, Peter says to his readers and to us, “Don’t be afraid of what other people say or think!”  “Don’t let other people or never let life intimidate the faith and hope you have in Jesus Christ.   Don’t be afraid to learn all you can.  Don’t be afraid to live all you can.  Most of all, never be afraid of loving all you can.    As someone has said, “The truth is always the truth, and a Christian should seek, learn and serve the truth no matter how the truth turns out.”    We will never understand everything about faith, nor will we fully understand all people, nor will we ever fully know why people do some of the stupid things we do, but as Christians, we must remain courageously unafraid and ‘always ready to give an account for the hope that is in you’, as Peter puts it.    Peter says the ‘accounting’ of faith comes directly from the ‘the hope that is in you”.   This means that we show why we believe out of our own accounting of how ‘hope’ remains in us’ in spite of what happens in life.    Our confidence does not come from clever arguments, but from hope-filled and heart felt experience that we share with others who have no true hope.  As we have been made ‘confident’ in our hope, because we have been faced with the option of hopelessness, we will become fearless in the face of the all the opinions, the viewpoints, or even the actions of others. 

HOPE IS KEEPING YOUR CONSCIENCE CLEAR
Besides not being afraid of what others say, or what happens in life,  Peter speaks about “sanctifying Christ as Lord…in your hearts”.   He explains what he means as he goes on to tell his readers to share their hope with all ‘gentleness and reverence’, and then he says that by doing this, Christians will “Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.” (3.16). 
            There is a lot that could be said about what Peter means by “keeping your conscience clear”.   Perhaps the best interpretation for us would be, that when we have an opportunity our best ‘defense’ of faith is not to become ‘offensive’, not to put our own foot in our mouths , and not to argue or try to prove our hope in ways we may come to regret later.  So often, the reason people don’t believe like we believe, is because they don’t have the same upbringing, experience, or knowledge that we do.   And the best way to get them to listen to us, is for us to first learn how to listen to them and their own story.   When you care and listen, you can ‘keep your conscience clear.”

This is very important to learn today, for when a church or people come under stress, either because we are being attacked by others, or when things are not going well for us, our greatest enemy is normally not those who are attacking us, but how we might respond to those attacks or how we start attacking each other.   When life becomes uncertain, because we are human, we Christians can be our own worst enemy. We can destroy our opportunity in how we share our faith, in how we show our faithlessness.   Pastor Adam Hamilton illustrates how this can happen in in a book he wrote entitled, “When Christians get it Wrong.”   And I think he answered very well how this can happen another book, “Seeing Gray In a World of Black and White”.    I believe Pastor Hamilton’s book title remind of exactly what Peter means when he say,  “Keep your conscience clear” when we witness to our faith.   Because we are people who believe in right and wrong, or ‘black and white’, it is very easy for us to fail to understand the ‘gray’ area where most of life happens.   Because we have hope and are eager to share it, if we are not careful we can become aggressive zealots who fail to represent the very heart of what our faith is about: love.   When we show love first and foremost, we can ‘keep our conscience clear’.   

I’ve share with you before about the Sunday School class in a church that was eager to express their disdain and disapproval of abortion.  On this Sunday the teacher lead their discussion on how to stand for their faith and that they should oppose and challenge those who would consider such a terrible thing.  There was nothing wrong with their belief and ethics, which were commendable, except for how they approached it.  For in the class that day, unknown to them, was a woman who was struggling with the fact that she had and abortion many years before.  When she broke down in tears, the class asked what was wrong and then she confessed to them.   She felt so horrible and so guilty, although she had already found forgiveness in a loving God who gave her a new start in life and faith.   Fortunately, the class no longer took such an aggressive stance against an issue, but now they saw a person, like them, who was troubled and was going through a difficult time.  I believe that that class learned the importance of being a witness in a way that they were not the judge of her as a person, but now trusted and allowed God to be the merciful and forgiving judge of us all.   That was the day they learned that few things are ‘black and white’, and most everything, if we will take long enough to understand, can be understood in some form of gray that will demand ‘gentleness and reverence’ even the worst situations.  

HOPE IS TRUSTING IN THE SPIRIT OF CHRIST
That last word ‘reverence’ means that we trust and hope in God, not in ourselves, not in our own opinions or our own viewpoints, no matter how ‘right’ we think we are.   We must show our hope in ‘gentle’ and ‘reverent’ ways that respects not only God, but also the respects the believes of the other person even the person we don’t agree with or doesn’t agree with us.   We do this because, as Paul said, “we only preach in part because we only know in part”.  This means that all of us live by faith and hope, and we because of this we need to show love because there is a sense that we are all in the same human situation.  But,  how do we share our hope to someone who does not understand us,  and how do we keep a clear conscience in our sharing, if think that if they don’t not believe, as John 3:16 suggests, after it says that God ‘so loved the world’ that they might ‘perish’ and not have ‘everlasting life’?   How can we let God do the very hard work of convincing people that our faith is true, especially when others don’t trust or believe in the hope we have, which we believe is the ‘only’ true hope.      I love where Peter takes us as he closes out this conversation.  It’s one of those places most of us would not dare to go, where even ‘angels fear to tread’ because it opens up all kinds of ideas that the Bible tells us nothing, if very little about.   But the direction Peter goes with his argument is clear.   Peter tells his readers they should ‘not fear what others fear” and should “keep a clear conscience” and even be willing to ‘suffer for doing good’ and doing “God’s will” so that they do not get lost in their own agenda in being a witness, or in sharing their hope, because, he continues, ‘after Christ also suffered’ he was ‘made alive in the spirit’ (v. 18).   In other words, because the Spirit is at work in Christ, we don’t have to do the winning, convincing, or the changing of human hearts.  

But it gets more complicated than that.   Now Peter goes on to open us up to the reality all of us Christian teenagers used to discuss in youth group.   Peter goes then on to suggest that after Jesus became ‘alive in the spirit’, then he “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey…..”  (3.19).   However you want to interpret what Peter is saying here, because it is still up for interpretation, but the general consensus of what is being said here is that that Peter, in his faith, is dealing with some of the same problems we all have, when we say “Jesus is the way, truth and life, and that no one goes to the Father, except through him.” We all know that there are all kinds of people in this world who have either never heard, or never fully understood the truth about Jesus.  What will happen to those ‘good’ people?   If everything depends on Jesus, shouldn’t we ‘get in the face’ of others and force the truth on them?    And not only that, but Peter is wondering perhaps more about all those other people, who lived before Christ, especially those who ‘disobeyed’ God’s warning just like they did in the times of Noah?  What will happen to people who disobeyed then, and to people who disobey now?   


Some say that Peter opens up the door for belief in purgatory, where all will be given another chance after death as they face the final judgment of God.   I can’t go that far.  I can only tell you one thing that fits what he’s be saying all along.  Fairness of judgment, justice, as well as, forgiveness, grace and mercy belong to our God, and we can be very sure that this does not after death.  The God of Jesus is always the Father ‘is not willing that any should perish, but that all will come to repentance.”    I   can’t still can’t imagine how everyone will get the chance to have the gospel of Jesus proclaimed to them, but I am sure that this is a job that only God can do through the ‘spirit of Christ’ ‘made alive’ to speak to spirits, here and now, and also there and then, as Jesus does here, proclaiming the truth in a way that not one person will have any excuse to say, “I didn’t hear!” or “I didn’t understand”.   I don’t trust in our human ability to understand, but I do trust in Christ’s ability to get his point across, then, and now.   Amen.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

FIRST PETER: “Wounded Healers”

A Sermon Based Upon 1 Peter 2: 19-25
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Fifth Sunday of Easter,  May 18th, 2014

We hurt.  We suffer.  We have pain, heartache and heartbreak in life.  Why?   This is the unanswerable question we have to live with, rather than will ever have an answer for.  We will have to live with it, die with it, and have faith without it being answered.  We all know, or will what it means to ‘hurt’, but we will never have a final solution or learn a full reason ‘why’ that can answer this unanswerable “problem of pain” once and for all.

What we do have, or should I say, “who” we have, as both the question and our answer, is Jesus Christ.  He is the one, as Peter says in today’s text, “also suffered for (us), leaving (us) an example, so that (we) should follow in his steps” (2.21).   Those are certainly some big “shoes” to fill, aren’t they?  Who of us can, or ever would want to really “walk” in these suffering “footsteps of Jesus” that might “glow” but not “sweet” in the way the gospel song might imply?   Can we indeed see ourselves walking in the way of suffering, which Peter says, can make us feel like “slaves,” can be “unjust,  or might mean either emotionally or physically being “wounded” for the sake of Christ?   And what if, we cannot be completely ‘healed’ without the wounds?   What if it is not only “by his strips that we are healed”, but Jesus really does serve as an “example” of who we should be and how when we should live and suffer, and how we are also to be fully and finally “healed” or “saved” not only through his own “wounds” but we are also to be healed and made complete through the marks, the stripes, and the wounds we ourselves ‘bear’ in our own body and in our very life. 

Is this not also what did Paul meant when he said, “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6.17), and when he claimed even to find “joy” (Phil. 2.17) in “fellowship of his sufferings (Phil. 3.10)?” Along with Peter, these are indeed, some very strange words, as well as, unwanted examples, but could there not be some ‘healing’ and ‘saving’ in this message for us?

YOU HAVE GOD’S APPROVAL
These words from Peter start out with some very negative language about “slaves accepting the authority of… both “gentle” or “harsh” “masters”.  It also challenging because it tells us we gain “credit” by “enduring pain” or by “suffering unjustly”.  Who wants to get that kind of credit in their life account?  Who would want to have life as that kind of cruel “master”?   These are ‘demanding’ images, but not the most demanding.  It comes as Peter suggests that “if (we) endure when we do right and suffer for it, (we) have God’s approval.” (2.20).  God’s approval?  This makes me think of the person who said, “If God does this to his friends, I’d rather be his enemy!” Does this mean that God approves of you or I having to hurt or suffer when I am doing what is right?  What kind of God “approves” of that?  Can it make any sense that the God who is Almighty God, and who is over all, not only allows, but also “approves” of our suffering, even if it for the sake of doing the right thing? 

This does not and will not make any sense, if we do not also understand where Peter is coming from.  As a Jewish Christian, Peter lived in a world, where it was believed and taught that if you are good, you will be rewarded, and if you are bad, you will have to suffer for it.  My parents tried to teach me the same thing.  It is true to a point, but it only goes so far, and it doesn’t go far enough in helping us get through life. 

And that’s was what the book of Job was about.  Job’s friends sincerely believed that Job must have done something wrong, because they understood that God would not allow him to “suffer” evil, unless he had sinned and done something wrong.   Yet, in the Bible story, Job keeps protesting to his friends and taking his clear conscience to God, declaring that he had done nothing wrong and he simply can’t understand why God would put him through all this suffering.  Why me? Why me? Why me? He keeps asking, and God never really gives him an answer, except to say that he has done nothing to deserve what he is going through. 

Furthermore, in the end God declares that Job wouldn’t understand what is going on, even if God told him because he is a mortal human being, and Job is not God.   This is the only answer God gives, comes right out of the whirlwind of Job’s on pain and suffering.  Job never fully understand “why” he has to suffer, but he can only trust God and keep going through it, never fully knowing ‘why’ but only realizing that he does not ‘suffer’ because of his own sin, because God is not against him, no matter how much it hurts. 

Again, the main point in Job goes against what general, conventional Jewish wisdom taught; that a person always suffered for doing something wrong.  Job’s experience with pain and suffering now opened the door for a new, even greater truth about pain; that sometimes, in this world of sin, evil and pain, even a righteous person will suffer, and maybe will have to suffer even when they are doing what is right. 

What the book of Job hints at, become fully true in the suffering of  Jesus Christ, who was the most righteous; but still suffers, not because he sinned, but Jesus suffers because he is righteous.  This was something never made clear in the Law of Moses, neither in the words of the Prophets, nor in the writings and wisdom of Solomon.  It is a reality that was only fully revealed and realized in the suffering and pain of Jesus on the cross.

YOU ALSO HAVE CHRIST’S EXAMPLE
Now that we can see how ‘suffering’ can have God’s approval, not because we deserve it, or because God desires our pain, but we can suffer because this is how life is, even when we are good and faithful people, not because we are bad or deserve it.   With this kind of understanding of what it means to have “God’s approval” in our suffering,  perhaps we can better hear (even if we don’t want to) the next thing Peter says, when he surprisingly writes to them, and perhaps also to us, “For this you have been called…” (2.21). Can we dare hear a call to suffering, a call to endure pain, hardship and even to have heartbreak in our lives, for the sake of the “calling” of God in Jesus Christ?  Why would God call us to that?

Of course, if we are in our right mind, none of us should want to suffer, even for doing good, let alone for doing evil.   But before we can fully understand what “suffering” might mean “for us” and as we remember God is not “against us, ” Peter wants his readers to understand how Jesus is the “example” we can “follow,” even in our own moments of pain and suffering.   Christ is the one who is our example because he “committed no sin and no deceit was found in his mouth” (v.22).  Christ is also our example because “when he was abused, he did not return abuse” and “when he suffered, he did not threaten, but entrusted himself to the one who judges rightly (v. 23a).” 
That’s a lot to digest, as Peter calls us to consider bearing the weight of ‘suffering’ without responding in negative ways that makes matters worse.  But perhaps the main point Peter makes comes when at the end, as he suggests that Jesus is our example because he “entrusted himself to the one who judges rightly (v. 23b).”  Trusting God, even when life can’t be trusted, is the example Jesus sets for all who suffer.  Trust is the only thing that can get us through our pain and our suffering, and this kind of ultimate ‘trust’ is the kind that only God can give.

A few years ago, the British philosopher, Onora O’Neill, argued that our society is suffering from a crisis of trust (As cited by Rowan Williams in “Tokens of Trust”, WJK, 2007, p. 3).  Who needs a professional to tell us what we know already?   But why is this happening?  Why are we becoming less trusting of professionals and more cynical about government, about the educational system, about established institutions, about health care, about churches, and even less trusting of each other?   Do you realize that more Americans believe in UFO’s (48%) and in ghosts (45%), than go to church (20%).   What in the world is going on?   Perhaps a clue comes from the work of American Philosopher Charles Taylor.  In his book “A Secular Age”, Taylor writes to demonstrate how society today has become less religious and much less trusting of traditional faith and much more secular, skeptical, and suspicious, if not also superstitious.   We live in a world that has a much more difficult time, “trusting” or believing in God, or participating in worship, and but is still, if not more preoccupied with fetishes, fantasies, fairies, and fiction.  However, Taylor goes on to show that even though humans are caring less about faith or trusting in a supreme divine power,  our ‘secular age’ is also “very far from settling in on unbelief”.   As some has rightly suggested,  it appears we’re going backward to the times when people lived in fear of multiply unknown powers.  We’ve moved from believing in the one true God we can trust, to believing in the powers we can’t trust for anything.   

Even if the majority of people don’t trust God, we still need God; perhaps now, more than ever before.  Even some of the most elite thinkers among us are coming to understand just how little we can believe and trust in life by itself.  In other words, Taylor implies, that less religion does not necessarily mean less faith.  Since we will always live in a world filled with unspeakable suffering, which will continue to be filled with more unanswerable question, than answered ones, we have no less need to trust God.  We definitely don’t want all these ‘unanswered’ questions to cave in on us and keep us from doing the good we can, sharing the love we have, and having the trust and hope we need for life.  Trust in God, as our Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer , even for secular people, could still prove to be the only way to keep trusting, loving, and doing good, especially when life hurts or goes against us.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Secular_Age).

This is exactly why Christ is our example, isn’t it?  Jesus is our example in suffering because right at the center of the most mysterious, unsettling darkness, sin and suffering, is the God who loves us and is at work reconciling all things through Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5.19).  Because Jesus trusted God, when everything seemed to turn against him, Jesus did not give in or give up to the evil around him.  As the clearest example, Jesus trusted God and we too are called to trust God and we can know know that God can be trusted because God raised Jesus from the dead giving Jesus, the one who trusted to the end, the keys to life and the keys to the kingdom.  Thus, as Jesus lived and died in trust, we can know that God can be trusted, even when it hurts. 

BY HIS WOUNDS YOU HAVE BEEN HEALED
As we suffer, because we are human, we can know that when Christ put has on “human flesh’ and “dwelt among us” he suffered and trusted God, and nothing less than this same kind of ‘trust’ will be demanded from us when we suffer.  But at the same time, we also need to realize Christ is the example in suffering who gives us hope in our pain, rather than dread.  Just as no less than ‘trust’ will be demanded of us when we suffer, as we suffer in this world, no less will be given to us in hope than was also given to Jesus Christ. 

Our hope beyond the pain begins with Peter’s very next words, declaring that “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness….” (v.24). Because of what Christ’s suffering accomplished, we can now know that our own suffering is never meaningless.   Christ’s suffering “bore our sins” and “frees us from sins” so that we “might live for righteousness” and never have to be afraid to suffer for the sake of doing right.  In other words, we can even endure even the ‘unjust’ pains and hurts of life, because God can be trusted to make any and all of our suffering worth the pain.  Just as God turned Jesus’ tragic suffering and death into forgiveness and grace, God can and will turn our own suffering into something more than the hurt we now feel.  When Peter says, ‘By his wounds we have been healed’ through Jesus’ pain, God promises us that we are ‘healed’ not just in a hurting world, but we can be ‘healed” through the hurts of life, if we will follow Christ’s example.  Since God is the “guardian” of our soul, God is able to ‘heal’ through hurt that comes from doing what is right.  

Most of us reflect on how Jesus saves us “by his wounds”, but we think too little on how Jesus is also our ‘example’ in suffering and how God still heals through “wounds”, whether they are the wounds of Jesus on the cross, or whether they are ours as we bear the cross.   Henri Nouwen, reminded me how God’s healing comes by moving toward the pain and hurt, rather than running away from it.  In this book, “The Wounded Healer” he through an old Jewish legend, Nouwen shows us , as Peter does, that there is no healing in life or death without the wounds.   
“A Rabbi came upon Elijah the prophet, and asked him, “When will the Messiah come?” 
“Why don’t you go and ask him yourself,” Elijah answered. 
“Where is he, and how will I know him?” 
“He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds, and he is binding up his own wounds one at a time, so he has time to stop and take care of the others who are also wounded.”  
So, the Rabbi goes to the Messiah and asked him, “When are you coming?” 
“Today”, the Messiah answered.  I am coming to you today.” 
So the Rabbi goes back to Elijah the Prophet, who asks:  “What did the Messiah tell you?” 
“He indeed has deceived me, the Rabbi said, for he told me that he is coming today. 
Then Elijah reminded the Rabbi, “Did you not find him “today”?  And will you not find him again, and again, today, or any time, if you listen to his word and if you go and look for him among the wounded, binding up his wounds one at a time, so he can stop and take care of the wounded?” (Adapted and Paraphrased from “The Wounded Healer”, by Henri J.M. Nouwen, Doubleday, 1972, p. 81, 94-95).  

Not, long ago, I hear about a woman who went to retire in Florida, but she said she would have gone crazy being retired, if she had not become involved in reaching out to the needs of others. 

In another incident, a couple lost their daughter in terrible accident, but after her death, they found healing by putting all their dreams and hopes for their daughter into establishing a non-profit so that other young people might be better warned about such dangers.  

Who does not know about some movie star, or some other wealthy person, who rose to the top, but now spends much of their time, stooping back down to the help the people at the bottom, so they can keep their sanity and find a real purpose for living? 

And finally, where is the person who loses a spouse, endures an debilitating injury, and finds themselves wounded and hurt, who then, decided to get involved in binding the wounds of others, and caring about the brokenness of the world, and then, amazingly, if not miraculously, found that the wound they were carrying themselves, had new hope of healing? 

We all know stories like this and what they tell us is true:  Only those who find trust, follow Christ’s example, and then move straight into the pain and wounds others can expect God’s healing.  As Peter says, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example…” (v. 21).   Christ left us an ‘example’ not only so that “by his wounds” we will be healed, but when you follow Christ’s example, and when you follow him, and bear your cross, by binding your own wounds and by bearing the “wounds” of others, you will be healed again and again, because you really do trust God as the “guardian of your soul”.  Amen.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

FIRST PETER: “WHO AM I?”

A Sermon Based Upon 1 Peter 2: 1-10
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Fourth Sunday of Easter, 
Mother’s Day, May  11th, 2014

Who are you?  Who am I?  We are, first and foremost, very much our mother’s child.   And we should never forget the one who made us who we are.   Mother’s Day is a special time in our Churches as we honor, thank, appreciate, recognize and remember the mother who carried us, gave us life, nursed us, fed us, loved us, and in more ways that we can remember or recall, is largely responsible for making us who we are?   But it doesn’t end there, does it?  We are our Mother’s child, but we are also our own person.  We are who we choose to become.   Our mothers and fathers gave us life, raised us, but they also set us free to grow up and to determine our own destiny and life’s purpose.  The best mothers give us roots, but they don’t hold on to us too tightly, but they give us wings, and they let us go so that we can fly, soar, and become all that we can be, should be, and want to be.   

Today I want us to think about this unending question: Who am I?  I want to begin with a poem with that very title.  Poems are not as well received today, but I beg you to consider this one from a man unjustly put in prison for 18 months, now writing this poem as the final lines only a couple of weeks before he was wrongfully hanged the Sunday after Easter.  If you listen well, you will hear him, not only asking himself the most important question (which we all would do in that situation), but if you listen to the end, you will also hear him declaring the only final answer of who we could ever hope to be as human beings:  

Who am I? They often tell me I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,  Like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly, As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,  Like one accustomed to win.
 Am I then really all that which other men tell of?  Or am I only what I myself know of myself?  Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were  compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectation of great events, Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,  Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
 Who am I? This or the other?  Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once?  A hypocrite before others,  And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army, Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved? Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.   Whoever I am, Thou knowest, 0 God, I am Thine!
 (Written by Deitrich Bonhoeffer, March 28th, as quoted at: http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=385") .

FROM NOBODY TO SOMEBODY
This poem is appropriate to introduce our Scripture today, which is from 1 Peter, chapter 2, and is also about our true identity in Jesus Christ.   Very much like a mother, or like that prisoner, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Peter is concerned that his readers know who they are, as God’s people.  He writes out of his concern for God’s children, like a caring mother, saying that since they have been nurtured as “newborn infants” on God’s “spiritual milk”, they should keep “growing into (their) salvation”,  and he dares to add,  “if they have tasted that the Lord is good.”  That’s a big “if”, isn’t it?  “If” we taste and believe the Lord’s “spiritual milk” is good for us, then we should continue on the great discovery of learning and living out the truth of “who we are” in our unique Christian identity.   “Who are we” is the question Peter is trying to answer, but he also reminds us it is a question we must also answer.

Perhaps the most important way Peter expresses “who they are” and “who we are” comes at the end, where he says, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”   He wants them to know, more than anything else, that God has chosen them, God desires to mold and to make them into someone they could never be or become on their own.  “Once you were not a people” can simply mean that you and I are nobodies unless or until God knows and choses us. 

Of course, how God choses and who God choses is very much a mystery from our side.  If we happen to try to “know” exactly who is “in” and who is “out” of God’s choosing, we will be out of luck.  Because if this “choosing” is truly from and of God, it is a choice only God does and only God knows.   And because God is God, there is nothing we can do to alter, nullify, or  reverse God’s choice.  In theological terms, we call God’s choosing “election” and it always remains God’s, and is never ours.  We can never determine or delete God’s choices, except in the way God has allowed: we can deny it by our own freedom to reject God’s choosing through our unbelief.   Peter acknowledges the possibility of rejecting who we are in Christ and who Christ is to us, as he calls God’s people to “Come to him, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight….” (v.4).  The point is this: You can’t undo God’s choice, but you can refuse to participate in God’s choice.  And Peter addresses this freedom to reject the “cornerstone”, but the cornerstone has already been put in place, and can’t be undone: “To you who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner…” (v. 7).

I know most of us are so busy making and living our own choices in life, that we think we have less or too little time to consider God’s choice of us.  But I want you to think about who you could be in God, just as much as you might think about who you are because of your mother or father.  In this life there are things we can’t choose, like where we are born, who are our parents, or where we grew up or how we grew up; but there are also some things we have to choose, like what work you will do, what kind of person you will become and what you will do with the rest of your life.  But although life is made up of a few things we can’t choose, overall our lives are about the many things we can and must choose.  You can’t be a human being without making and living out the choices we must make, because to choose not to choose is a choice to be nothing, and that is exactly what God has chosen us from, from being “not a people” to becoming “God’s people”.   In this way, God has chosen us to be people who are now capable to choices that not only make us who we are today, but who we are and will be in eternity, before the eternal God.  God has chosen us, but you and I still have to choose, we have to make choices and live them, and more than anything else, we have to choose to be chosen or we end up just like we were, nobody.   

One of the most dramatic moments of choosing and being chosen, comes during adolescence.  Eric Erikson labeled it our “Identity Crisis” when we start getting serious (or anxious) about who we can choose to become.  This “crisis” is so wonderfully illustrated in the story Tony Campolo tells, when as a college sociology professor, a student comes up to him and declares, “Prof.  I’m dropping out of school.”  When Dr. Campolo asked the student a reason, the answer came: “I’ve got to have time to peel back all these expectations people keep putting on me and go out and find myself”.  Dr. Campolo then challenged the student with the rather strange question:  “What if you peel off all these “expectations” and discover you are an onion?”  The professor went on to explain: “If you peel away the layers of an onion all you get is layers all the way down to the end.  If you peel back who we are as people, all you get is the commitments and the promises we make and keep.”  There is no ‘self’ to discover except for the self we decide to be as we commit ourselves.  If we commit ourselves to nothing, this is who we become.  This is who God has come to save us from---becoming nothing.  (http://65583.netministry.com/Articles-and-Prophetic-Words?blogid=2093&view=post&articleid=74195).

FROM A PERSON TO A PEOPLE
The question about our identity of “Who are we?” is so huge a question that it can’t be answered by ourselves and once for all, but it is a question that  includes other people and it is a question that will stay with us, and even sometimes haunt us, all the days of our lives.  Notice how Peter himself addresses God’s people who still need to “grow” and still need to learn, and still need to “rid (themselves)….of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.”   God’s people are not robots or puppets programed to do God’s will, but God’s children must choose who they will are every day of their lives, and that ‘choice” must include how we relate to others.  

In this way, our identity in Christ is both a promise and a process.  As we choose Christ, Christ chooses us.  As we follow Christ, we become Christian.  As we live in community with other Christians, we must be more than who we say we are.   For only by being a people are we fully the person God made us to be.   This is the direction Peter’s description goes, as Peter moves from telling us who we are as persons, given new birth in Christ, to who now become as a people: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people….”  (vs. 9).  God has not just chosen us to be who we want to be, but God has chosen us to be live as a people, living in communion with God an in community with others.  

Carlyle Marney, a great Baptist pastor and leader, once said that as Baptists, our great gift to the world is our freedom, our “soul liberty,” freedom of conscience and “self-autonomy”.   He also said that our great failure in the world is that we failed to understand we have this freedom to become “a people” of faith, not just “persons” who believe.  In his last book, Marney complained that we Baptists have “ignored” understanding that our Baptism is an entry into a community of faith and instead, we made it the display of a personal, almost private decision to follow Christ on our own.   How do we repair what he called the “leaky bucket” of self-centered Christianity?  He claimed that we need to renew our commitment to being a “people” who live together in fellowship, sharing and strengthening each other in our faith journey  (Based on an article “Carlyle Marney on Pilgrim Priesthood” by Curtis W. Freeman, in Baptists Today, June 2002, p. 28-29).    

This is certainly what Peter means, when he says we are to be “living stones”,… a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s on people” (2.5,9).  The “you are….” (2.9), is plural, not singular.   We don’t become who we can be in Christ by being saved, but we are saved as we become part of loving, serving, caring “people” of God.  And right at the center of  becoming a “people” is that God saves us, choses us, and sets us apart, to become “a royal priesthood” (2.9).   We live in a time when the whole concept of “priesthood” has a very negative connotation, even in the mind of Roman Catholics.   But the kind of “priesthood” Peter means is not a class of special, superior, or elite persons who serve God on behalf of the rest of us, but Peter means that because Jesus has become our one and only Great High Priest, we have been made into a “priesthood” ourselves.   Because Christ has forgiven, freed to become his chosen people, we can and should become, as Dr. Marney said, “Priests to Each Other”.  This means “who we are” is always connected to who become together, with and for each other. 

Most of us realize that our Amish brothers and sisters around us do a much better job at living in community with each other than we do.  And we can learn from them.  We don’t have to be just like them, or even to live as they do, to learn a great spiritual lesson from them.  Just the other day, my Amish neighbor came to me wanting me to look up and help him purchase a used set of Encyclopedia’s on the Internet.   He did not have “Internet” or a “Computer”, not because it was considered evil or bad, but because he lived in community with others who had decided together they would not have internet.  When we learned that the set of books were going to cost him up to $500 dollars, but that he could purchase a computer and a CD much cheaper, I suggested to him this would be better.  I reminded him this a couple of times, but each time he said “No” he could not do this.  He could not do this because he was more than a “person” but he was a part of a “people” living in community, being priests to each other.

Is there anything to be gained by living in “community” as a “people” and a “priesthood” who share their spiritual lives rather than living individually and all alone?   The Amish believe there is.   Baptist used to believer there was.  Christian are still called to live that way--in community, and not as ‘long rangers’.  But why submit ourselves to God and to each other, in a covenant or as a family, when we think we can do just as well by ourselves and on our own?

FROM BEING TO BECOMING
So what is the advantage of becoming a “people” over deciding to be your own “person”?   And what is the advantage of becoming a part of the “people” who are “God’s own people”? 

In the original King James Version, it is translated that Peter says that we are a “peculiar” people and in our English language today, that sounds like we are to be “weird”, “odd” or “strange” or “abnormal”.  But the original language does not mean that at all.  In 1611 the word “peculiar” didn’t mean that either, but “peculiar” referred to something that is “peculiar” in that it belongs to someone.   This is why the newer translations are even more correct, saying that God’s “peculiar” people are “God’s own people.” 

So, again, how important is it that we become “God’s own people” together and not to settle for being our own person, even if we do it in the name of Christ?   I think the answer comes in seeing how important Peter’s language is as he identifies us as “chosen race,” a “priesthood”, a “nation” and a “people”.  We should see these words as not simple who are, but who we are “chosen” to “become”.   On this Mother’s day we can most easily understand that our Mothers love us ‘as we are’ because of ‘who we are’, and not because we make anything of ourselves.  But we also can understand that a good mother, a loving and wise mother, one who loves us more than she loves herself, will also try to love us into “becoming” who we can be and she never settles for just having us just as we are (I still remember how my mother thumped me on the ear lobe as I misbehaved in church want to be my own person, rather than being part of a people, respecting others need to hear, even if I didn’t want to).  For you see, love never settles for who we are, but love wants us to drink our “milk”,  eat the right “food”, “grow” to become the “strongest”, “healthiest” and “best” person we can be, even being that “person” means we will no longer a child, but will become an adult.  Of course, it take “courage” to ‘become’ for it is hard for a mother to stop mothering as it can be difficult for us to stop being children, but we all know that to stop “growing” and not to stop being ‘children’ or to try to make it on our own and all “alone” is not realistic and not really an option.  It is not an option, because, as Peter reminds us, he is not simply telling us who we are, but he is us of who we are ‘chosen’ to become and who we must ‘chose’ to become to fulfill our destiny in Jesus Christ.   

And although we are ‘free’ to choose our identity and to determine our own destiny, and as the poet said, “We are captains of our souls, and masters of our fate”, but as a child really can’t choose not to grow up, neither can a person reject God’s own choosing, that is, if we want to have the ‘future’ and ‘fulfillment’ only God has to give.  This is why Peter not only tells us who we should be, but he is choosing, calling and declaring us to becomeGod’s own people, in order that (we) may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called (us) out of darkness into his marvelous light’ (v. 9).  The “darkness” God choses us “out of” is the same darkness of being “nothing” and going back to being a nobody as “not a people” and “not receiving mercy” (vs. 10).   

Isn’t it most instructive, that in the Hebrew Bible, God names himself “I Am?”  Today we understand better that the Hebrew verb is not simply, “I am, who I am”, but the Hebrew should read “I am becoming who I will become” meaning that God is “eternal” (Ex 3.14).  God announces who he is by declaring he is eternal.  In the Christian Bible, this same “eternal’ God calls ‘becoming’ not just being.  We should not settle for who we are, but we are to become partake in the divine nature, like God is “becoming”.  I know this is heavy talk, but to realize that the eternal God has created, called and chosen us to join in his eternal nature, and to not be a ‘has been’, or to become "nothing" should be heavy, if it is the most important person or people could ever become.  Amen.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

FIRST PETER: “The Precious Blood of Christ”

A Sermon Based Upon 1 Peter 1: 17-25
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
The Third Sunday of Easter,  May 4th, 2014

  "You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways…, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ…”  (1Peter 1:18-19 NRS).

After watching the trilogy of  J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” I have a hard time getting out of my head the image and sounds of that small, creepy little creature named Gollum, who called the ring’ that powerfully extended his life beyond the its natural human limits, “my precious!”   If something would save or extend your life like that, you probably would call it ‘my precious’ too.

What is most “precious” to you?   Life itself is precious.  So are our children, our spouse, our family and our friends.  Meaningful work can also be precious, especially when it gives us purpose and income.  Even material things can become precious when they give us memories, keep us from poverty, or give us the prosperity we could never have without them.  Recently, I heard a chicken farmer say, he wanted to do whatever he could to manage his debt so that he could keep his family farm,  That farm was very special, or ‘precious’.  

In today’s text, Peter strangely declares ‘the blood of Christ’ as ‘precious’ because it is “like that of (sacrificial) lamb, without defect or blemish.”  Such an image of ‘blood’ being precious can mean something to us, especially if we’ve ever given blood or had to have a blood transfusion to sustain our lives.  (When I was in an auto accident at the age of 17, 7-8 pints of blood saved my life).  But still, to refer to the sacrificial “blood” of Jesus as “precious” is still very strange to most people’s ears today.  I recall particularly, one professor in college who suggested we Baptists ought remove such violent, harsh imagery completely from our hymnbooks, not because it had no real meaning in the past, but because the meaning has been lost today, and has become an insult to people who abhor violence and bloodshed.  More recently, other biblical scholars warn that the violent, bloody imagery in the Bible should be no less than “R” rated, because it can lead to the dangerous misunderstandings that God demands bloodshed and ‘violence’ to save us.  Can we understand or attempt to proclaim that there is “power” in the “precious blood of the lamb” in a world that knows little about animal sacrifice, or might think God likes demands “blood” to be satisfied?   

THE TIME OF EXILE
Back in the 1970’s, when my professor was protesting the very “violent imagery” of the New Testament, I disagreed with him, but I also did not realize just how right he was.  I don’t think he was right about taking the “blood” out of the hymnbook, but I do think he was right about the fact that we are in a time when the ‘language of Zion’ unique to the church is much less accessible to the world in which we live.  Ours is a time of spiritual ‘exile, when the majority no longer understand what we mean by calling Jesus’ blood ‘precious’ and we cannot assume their understanding them or take such ‘bloody’ biblical terms for granted.   So how do we evangelize, share our faith in Jesus and put the language of the cross in understandable terms?  

Peter’s letter addresses this question in an instructive way.  First of all, it helps us to realize our own experience of spiritual exile is not unknown by the people of God.  Exile was not only a part of the story of Israel in both Egypt and Babylon, it was also a part of the story of the early church.  After Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, the church was scattered and had to survive in separate, lonely places of the pagan, Roman world.  These churches often survived without the support of a culture having little in common with their neighbors.   In that ‘pagan’ Roman environment there was history, there was heritage and traditions, and there was a culture which included religious faith, but it was a way of life which was 'light years’ away from what Israel or the early Church had known.  

This “strange” world the church was thrust into was an ‘exile’ just as real as Babylon had been for Israel.  They had a similar experience to what we have when we turn on our television sets, visit the internet, take our children to ball games, or when we try to express our faith in public. Our faith-filled speech has less impact because what we understand is seldom fully understood and less trusted.  Like Jews of old, we too can find ourselves living “by the rivers of Babylon” (Psalm 137.1ff) even when living along Hunting Creek in Union Grove or in Hamptonville, or wherever we might travel as we remember a world that used to be, but will be no more.

I find it interesting, that in England, a BBC Radio Program called “Talking Points” asked about the importance of faith in people’s lives.  The question was asked, “Easter is Fast Approaching, Does Anyone Care?”  Here in the U.S., less than half of us will go to church on Easter, but after that, what does it matter for our daily lives?  Does faith still matter?  Some will go far enough as to suggest that “religion” is not only senseless for people today, it is dangerous.  Just look at what religion did at World Trade Towers on 911.  The point is made that since religion wreaks havoc on society and keeps us from moving forward, then perhaps we should abandon all religious traditions, and settle for believing in Science.  In others words, only “human knowledge” can be trusted.  Of course, my question is “which human” and “whose knowledge” will we trust?  If people think “knowledge of God” has a bad track record of being believable or trustworthy, think what history records that “humans” have done to others and even to themselves in the name of God and in the name of Science?  In this age when most all institutions are under suspicion and in decline, the question is, “Does it really matter?”  Is the question of faith really that important?

So, this is my question to us, in this very strange kind of spiritual exile we find ourselves in.   Just how precious can Christ’s blood be to us in a world that does not know how to appreciate it, even when our own children or loved ones don’t feel it’s importance or maybe we too don’t feel what was once felt, or are unable to articulate what is so precious about Christ’s “blood” shed for us?   How can we sing, ‘the precious blood of the lamb’ and feel the joy, when and more are clueless to what we are talking about, could careless to know, or when it matters not to public, daily, life? 

FREED FROM FUTILE WAYS
When Mel Gibson’s depiction of Jesus’ death was released back in 2004, it made a huge impact on Christians and was marketed as a powerful evangelistic tool.   Many Christians wanted the world to see just how much Jesus suffered, just how much Jesus was beaten, and just how big a price Jesus paid to save us.  As the movie was released, Jody Dean, a CBS News anchor, shared his own perspective of the movie:
 "The film grabs you in the first five seconds, and never lets go. The brutality, humiliation, and gore are almost inconceivable - and still probably does not go far enough. The scourging alone seems to never end, and you cringe at the sound and splatter of every blow - no matter how steely your nerves. Even those who have known combat or prison will have trouble, no matter their experience.... 
 "What you've heard about how audiences have reacted is true. There was no sound after the film's conclusion. No noise at all. No one got up. No one moved. The only sound one could hear was sobbing....  (Jody Dean, "Perspective on 'The Passion of the Christ," Religion Today at http://www.religiontoday.com /faith/1242963.html).

As the movie became insanely popular, there were as many critics of the film as proponents.  One very important question that was raised was about how children might be impacted by the film’s relentless, violent images.  For this reason, the movie was given an “R” rating, even though there was no foul language or sexual content.   The other major problem with the film was that many exposed it to be more of about the ‘gospel according to Mel Gibson’ than about the gospel of the Bible. Gibson’s own anti-Semitic views were obvious as he put Jewish leaders in a bad light, while making Pilate and other Romans look innocent.   Instead of promoting what the Bible is really about, healing, redemption, and reconciliation, Mel Gibson’s overt violent depictions of the crucifixion promoted feelings of hatred, prejudice and more violent behavior.   After seeing the movie, a church in Denver posted a marquee reading “Jews Killed the Lord Jesus.”  A Georgia couple got into a violent theological dispute after seeing the film, police were called, and the couple spent the night in jail, each charged with battery.  In Texas, someone murdered their pregnant girlfriend, because of the guilt  of sin they felt after seeing the movie. (http://pages.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/ essays/gibsonspassion.pdf).  

Thinking about that movie again, ought to remind us that the big problem with Hollywood depictions about Jesus, no matter how good they seem in the moment, even as they are getting better and depicting the ‘moment’ of  ‘how’ something might have happened, they can still miss the real reason of ‘why’ something happened for the sake of making it look realistic on camera.   Gibson wanted to show how Jesus died at the hands of “The Jews”, but he failed see the bigger picture the New Testament paints, claiming that all human sin, not just 'Jewish' sin put Jesus on the cross.   The same kind of thing can happen, even in reading the New Testament, if we read the gospel story only from one angle.   When we say, even rightly, that “sin” put Jesus on the cross, we could also miss the main point, namely that 'love' put Jesus on the cross because Jesus did not come to condemn us, but to save us.  When we focus primarily on the “ugly” of the cross, we could miss the beauty within the cross, the beauty which points to the heart of God, the biggest point of all which claims that on the cross, as Paul says, …in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them,  (2Co 5:19 NRS).  It is God’s love that makes the cross and the “blood” “precious,” not how much Jesus suffered. 

But even trying to understand and communicate how we are saved by God’s love through the cross can be difficult, if not impossible unless the Spirit is at work.   Throughout Christian history various theories of atonement have been put forward, using the Bible’s own words to try and get a handle on the mystery of God’s reconciling love.   But do we really have to understand the mystery of love?  It’s kind of like giving your lover a definition of love verses telling them ‘why’ you love them?   Recall Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem:  “How much do I love thee, let me count the ways?”  There is much more love in counting the ways love acts, than there will ever be in defining preciously what love is.   It’s the same way with theories of atonement or even in preaching great words of salvation, like justification, redemption, sanctification or glorification.   These are good, necessary words to teach us about the cross, but no matter how good they are, they always come up short in sharing or showing what our faith is about.  What matters most is not that we understand exactly “how” Jesus died, or even to finally understand everything about ‘why’ Jesus had to die, but what matters most is can we show what difference God’s great love for us makes in our everyday life.

So, again, just how ‘precious’ is ‘the blood of the lamb’?  When Jesus ’ life, death and sacrifice seem so far away from life in our ‘world’ we need to remind ourselves of what Christ’s undying love can do for us.   This is what Peter was getting at when he says, “…you were ransomed from…futile ways…” (1 Pet. 1.18).  Peter is suggesting that the “blood of Christ” is ‘precious,’ not because it was “bloody” or “violent” or that it “satisfied” God’s anger or wrath.   As Derek Flood has bluntly stated: Jesus did not die to save us from God (See Derek Flood’s, The Healing Gospel)!  In Jesus, God was saving us from sin.  Peter wants his readers to get to this main point for living: that Jesus’ blood is most “precious” because of the ‘futile’ and ‘fruitless’ living Jesus can save us from.   

So what has God saved you from?  Can you “count the ways” God has saved you or is saving you right now?   What kind of “futile” or “fruitless” lifestyle has Jesus prevented you from falling into?   Interestingly, the word “futile ways” in the NRSV of the Bible, is translated “corruptible ways” in the King James.   Put the image of staring into an open grave and seeing your own body in decay and ‘corruption’.  Now you’ve got the picture!  When you face your mortality or impending death, you start asking yourself different questions.  Instead of wondering “How can I have fun” or “What will make me happy?” you start asking things like, “What can I do that matters” or “What kind of living will help me look back on my life and hear, “well done”.   When you apply this to the cross, which Peter does, the big message of the cross is much less about “bloodshed” and dying as it is about living, loving, having “purpose” and “hope” which aims us toward living a life we will not regret having lived, or having not lived as we could have or should have.   Peter says, that to discover such a higher quality of life and living is what makes the blood of Christ is most “precious.”  When we find in Jesus the truth and the way to get life back on the right track in Christ, we will have a life with no regrets.

In the Huffington Post online magazine, I came across an article about a nurse worker who, out of a career of working with dying patients in Hospice, wrote about, “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying”.  When I read the list, it was not what I thought.  Let me share them with you:
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice and they stayed stuck in old patterns and habits.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
“Many people settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming and developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
“Every male patient said they missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship and deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
And the number one regret?  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not just what others expected.  “The most common regret was people realizing they had left so many dreams unfulfilled.  The life they’d settled for was either based poor choices or no choices until their chance was gone.  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/03/top-5-regrets-of-the-dying_n_3640593.html#es_share_ended).
I guess you might interpret these ‘regrets’ in various ways, but from Peter’s perspective, taking the “blood” and the “cross” more seriously, still today, can prevent the the futility of a life half-lived made up of wrong, poor or lesser choices.  However you might interpret it, the cross of Jesus Christ, is a call to a more serious, more intentional, and more productive life.   What we should be saying about “blood of Christ” in our witness is is showing “precious” it is to follow a Christ has also “ransomed” or made us “free” from ‘futile ways’ and “perishable things” (vs. 18b).  (Just a note, everything is ‘perishable’ unless it is connected to hope in God).

REVEALED….FOR YOUR SAKES 
In a day when the word “selfie” has become more than a word, but a philosophy of life, I guess you would think that Peter would conclude this section, saying that when Jesus died, he did it for some other reason, than ‘for us”.  But that is not the case.  Listen to how Peter makes such a grand theological statement in verse 20, when he says, “He (Jesus) was destined (to die) before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake.” 

When you reflect and think about it, this is an incredible statement.   Before the world was created, Jesus’ destiny was already set, that he would die and it would also be ‘revealed’ that Jesus came to die “for (y)our sake”.   It might sound really difficult to some minds to believe that God intended for Jesus to die before the world came into being.  My teen-age mind read this and wondered—“If God knew beforehand that Jesus would have to die, then why in the world did he create the world the way he did?  Why didn’t God correct the “flaw” that would allow sin to come into the world and bring about Jesus’ death on the cross?  After all these years, I’ve come to only one answer:  Love.   Without the fall of creation and the sin human sin, God's love could not have been fully revealed.  

Why this revelation of God’s love matters is what Peter speaks of in verse 22, when he says, “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.  You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed…”   It is God's 'love' that gives us the chance to be “born anew” of “imperishable seed” that both creation and redemption are about.  God’s work and will is “for our sake” because God wants to give us the eternal spirit God has and that eternal spirit, Scripture says, is love.   We cannot become love until we know love.  And we cannot know love until we have received love.  And when we receive God's love into our hearts, we receive a love that is stronger than death so that what we have and who we become is eternal love. 

Receiving the gift of God’s eternal love, which comes ‘deeply’ from God’s heart to our hearts, is what this creation and the cross are all about.  And your life will never be what it can be, or what it might be, until this same love is allowed to transform your  heart and your life.  Peter’s concludes that everything is ‘fading away’ except for what is revealed in the eternal and enduring Word of the Lord (24-25).  That ‘eternal word’ is but one word: Love!  This 'love is what still makes the blood precious.  Such love makes our lives just as precious, when we love, as God loves us.   Amen.