1 Peter 3:13-22
May 29, 2011
William G. Carter
Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.
The word for today is hope. That's a word we know something about. All of us know something about hope.
The young child starts her day at the day care center. Her father walks her to her room. Together they take off her coat and hang it up. They put her lunch bag in the space where her name is written on construction paper. A big hug, a soggy kiss. "See you later!" The father turns to go. She says, "Daddy, wait!" She runs to him, stands tall, and measures herself against the tallest man in her world. "Look how big I am, Daddy. I'm up to that next button." That's hope.
Picture the last wedding you attended. The bride shined bright. The groom was shaking in his rented shoes. The promises were spoken. The rings were given and received. "Now I pronounce you husband and wife . . ." Off they go, cameras flashing. They head out the door, showered with rice and best wishes. As they head down the road with tin cans tied to the tailpipe, they head off in hope. We know what that's like.
The winter was brutal. I moved the snow blower out of the garage on Friday. Seemed safe to do. The floor of the hall closet is still stacked with caps, mittens, and wool scarves. I remember one particular winter when everything looked endlessly bleak. I looked out back to see a dull grey blanket of snow. But right over there, not far from the septic tank, I saw the first green blades of grass poking their heads through the snow. Then I knew that spring was on the way. I had hope.
There's something universally human about hope. It seems to be a gift from God to every person under heaven, regardless of whether or not they are religiously inclined. Like faith and love, hope abides. Hope is a possibility for every child of God. From the infant reaching for a sunbeam to great-grandma in her rocking chair, every moment is pregnant with the opportunity for hope.
This week’s cover story on Time Magazine says hope comes from the chemistry in our brains. In Barbara Ehrenreich’s last book, Bright Sided, she claims optimism is an additive in America’s drinking water. Most of the time, it's easy to account for this.The little girl stands next to her Daddy, and catches a glimpse of her own future. When the newlyweds climb into their rattling Chevrolet, they are still writing the script as they go, and the possibilities are endless.When winter seems eternal, the calendar says otherwise. January always gives way to May. As we know,
if you don’t like the weather in northeastern Pennsylvania, wait ten minutes.
When the writer of First Peter talks about hope, some part of us is awake to hear it.
A few minutes ago, we heard him give us a piece of advice. It goes like this: "Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you."
"Give an account for your hope," he says. It doesn't sound so difficult. Someone hopes the stock market goes through the roof; we can account for that. Someone hopes her teenage son will be home by midnight; we can account for that, too. Me? I hope the Chicago Cubs win the World Series this year. I know their track record, but that doesn't keep me from hoping. We can account for hopes like these. Anybody who is alive hopes for something.
But if we pay attention to the First Letter of Peter, we begin to realize that he is speaking to those occasions when hope goes on trial. Specifically he reminds us that good Christian people are put to the test. Maybe they face hardship due to circumstances beyond their control. Perhaps they are attacked precisely because they are good Christian people. Whatever the case, the world out there can seem strangely indifferent to the hope in here.
And whoever wrote this letter is calling on us to stand up and account for our hope. It's as if he knows that there are going to be days when the world will smack us around. When that happens, the church is called to stand and announce, "We are a people of hope!" And then we must be ready to account for it.
That may be easier said than done. As a friend of mine recently admitted, "It has always been easy for me to give an account for the complaints within me, the snarls within me, or the motives within me . . . but the hopes? That's another story."
That is the challenge laid upon us as people of faith. It is what we look for in church leaders. We want them to lead us into hope, into Christian hope. So what should they say?
Years ago, when Marj Carpenter moderated the Presbyterian denomination, she got to go on a trip anywhere in the world. So she went to Korea --- North Korea. On Easter, she worshiped in a church in P'yongyang. North Korea is still rigidly controlled by the communist party. For years, the church has lived underground to avoid persecution. But when Marj landed at the airport, Christians greeted her like a queen. The church building was packed. As military soldiers stood by, throngs of people descended on that church for worship. Not merely for Marj, you understand, but because it was Easter. She was speechless (for Marj, no small feat!).
Later she found her voice and said, "The border between the Koreas was tense, but you couldn't tell it where we were. The highlight was the church -- the faces of those faithful Christians -- their applause -- their joy at Easter -- their singing and their tears." In a repressed and anxious country, the Christians rejoice with hope! Now how do you account for that?
I remember when a Presbyterian missionary was shot in the country of El Salvador.
The Rev. Alejandro Hernandez was driving a car full of teenagers to a youth group meeting. Two men stopped the car and said, "Are you the Rev. Hernandez?" When he said yes, they shot him twice in the jaw. Hernandez survived the attack. He is deaf in one ear and needed reconstructive surgery on his jaw. Such attacks happen in a place where the homicide rate is 10 times higher than ours. Anybody who preaches the gospel and cares for the poor is liable to be shot there. Yet what did he say? “I can't wait to get back to work and tell others about Jesus.” A mission worker recovers from a brutal attack, ready to begin again. Now how do you account for that?
Maybe it’s true, generally speaking, that hope is a human trait. But the writer of First Peter declares hope can also be a way of life.
Surely that's what Peter was saying to the people who first received this letter. True Christian hope is more than hoping for rain or sunshine. It's more than hoping for your favorite sports team. It's more than wishing tomorrow will be a gradual improvement over today. Christian hope is a way of life based in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our lives are shaped by his. He gave his life for doing what was right and necessary. God gave him life again to keep doing what is right and necessary.
The preacher knows it’s tough. Remember how our text begins? “If we suffer because we do what's right, we remember that Jesus suffered in the same way. His suffering on the cross canceled the power of all sins, and brought us into God's presence.
As God raised Jesus from the dead, he raised us out of the clutches of everything that kills us.
As the writer says in the first chapter, "God has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus. We have an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading (1:3-4)
How do we account for our good Christian hope? We don't point to ourselves - - but to God. In sending Jesus, God has made hope possible. And so we don't have to be afraid of what the rest of the world fears. We don't have to be intimidated by the powers of suffering and death. We belong to God; therefore, the only appropriate fear is our reverence for God.
Barbara Lundblad teaches preaching at a seminary in New York City. She likes to take her students on a field trip. They go to Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the South Bronx. A pastor named Heidi Neumark introduced the neighborhood by giving a slide show. There were pictures of abandoned apartment buildings gutted by fires flashed on the sanctuary wall. They saw pictures of rubble and broken glass, crack vials and trash.
The newest building in the neighborhood is a shiny prison topped with razor wire. It was built for juvenile offenders, aged 10 to 16, right across from the junior high.
The striking thing, says Barbara, is that mingled with these scenes were pictures of children, their faces alive with hope, laughing, lighting candles, gathered at the baptismal font, learning to read in the church's after-school program. Here was one of the roughest neighborhoods in our country, where tennagers pack pistols as a survival measure. Yet there is something in that church which will not give in to the violence.
As the students prepared to leave, the pastor said, "Follow me through these doors over here, and then stop and turn around." The doors have been painted by teenage boys from the congregation. Once kids like them covered those doors with graffiti. Now the pastor gives them colored paints, reads to those teenagers the scripture lessons for the upcoming week, and then the kids paint pictures of one of those Bible passages on the doors.
Barbara said, "We were in the Bronx. The sign on the corner said Prospect Avenue and 164th Street, but it seemed like we had come to Galilee. Jesus was standing there in the doorway very much alive. As usual, he had gotten there ahead of us. And off to the side I thought I saw an angel sitting on the stone."
My point is simply this: we live after Easter. The world doesn't call all the shots any more. Flip on the evening news, and we see plenty of danger or destruction. And it's real. Those tornados in Joplin were not created in some special effects studio, any more than the meltdown in Japan or the floods from the endless rain.
But God says, "There's something more than all of that destruction and damage." And that is what shapes our lives. That is what forms our ministry as Christian people.
Today we remember how we are baptized to do Christ’s work. We have before us people that you have elected to serve as our elders and deacons. We expect a great many things of them: show up at meetings, make good decisions, and give direction to our shared work. We expect them to worship regularly, to live faithfully, to offer time and talents freely.
But if there is one thing we need them to do, I think it is this. We need them to live as if Easter has really happened. We need them to testify in words and actions that God is stronger than the powers of death.
For this is our Christian hope. And we call on God to keep this hope alive in us.
(c) William G. Carter
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