I Peter 2:11-12
Just a few weeks ago I was at the Christmas dinner for Princeton University Press where my wife works. I sat at a table with some of the Princeton professors and the topic came up of my moving to Morocco to be pastor of RPF. The wife of the Comparative English professor said, “The problem with Christians is that they are so pushy, not content with what they believe, but try to force what they believe on others.”
Have you ever heard that before?
James Mitchner wrote a book titled, Hawaii. This book talks about the history of the Hawaiian Islands and as part of that history, tells of the Christian missionaries who came. These missionaries are portrayed in an unfavorable light in Mitchner’s book. When I am in a conversation with people about Christians who go out into the world as missionaries, this book almost inevitably comes up in the conversation. “What right do we have to go to some country and tell them how to live their lives?”
Do you know anyone who thinks that way?
In the United States we are approaching an election for President and the field has been narrowed down to four men, at least at this point. Newsweek, a weekly news magazine, had an article late in December titled: Words From the Heart. After Clinton, voters seem ready for renewal, but do they want their leader to wear religion on his sleeve? And it follows with a quote from Bill Bradley, my high school idol who played basketball at Princeton University and then for the New York Knickerbockers where he won a championship the year I lived in Germany. Since then he has been a Senator from the state of New Jersey. He is a very intelligent man, very thoughtful and this is his reaction to being asked about his religious faith: “I draw the line here. Religion is a matter of personal privacy, and I’m not … going to talk about it with the public.”
Does that reflect the viewpoint of anyone you know?
We live in a world where belief is supposed to be private and where energetic exercise of religion is looked down on.
The difficulty is that Christianity is an evangelistic religion and not to share our faith with others is an act of disobedience. As much as we are commanded by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, to pray, to love our neighbor and to care for those in need, we are commanded to evangelize the world.
There are different levels of authority for what is contained in Scripture. We read that Jesus wept. This was the practice on, at least, two occasions in the life of Jesus. Does this mean all Christians are commanded to weep? Are we be to be a weeping church? Of course not. The most that could be said is that it is OK to weep. But just because Jesus or the apostles did something does not mean we must do what they did. That is the low end of authority in Scripture. But at the high end of authority in Scripture is the command that we are to share our faith with others. Jesus and the disciples practiced it. They practiced it repeatedly, not just once or twice. This is a theme in Scripture from Genesis through Revelation. This was the theme of many of the teachings of Jesus and at his ascension into heaven, this was his last command to us, what we call The Great Commission.
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Evangelizing is not an option for Christians. When a Christian says, “Religion is a private matter. One should not wear his or her religion on his or her sleeve. One should keep his or her religious beliefs to him or her self,” that Christian has chosen the path of disobedience.
We are commanded to evangelize, to share our faith with others. Now, how we evangelize is debatable. Christians, like anyone else, are capable of being insensitive and belligerent. King Haarald of Norway at the beginning of this millennium, evangelized Scandinavia by going to a village and offering them an option: convert to Christianity or face he and his troops in battle. King Haarald was a mighty warrior and so most converted. Those who did not convert were killed. The Crusaders put Jews on the rack and tortured them until they converted and then killed them before they could recant their newfound or newforced faith.
I lived with an older couple my first year of seminary. A Jehovah’s Witness couple came to the door and this sweet lady I lived with went to the door, saw who they were and was about to shut the door. Then she stopped, said to the couple at the door, “Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sins so that you might have new life,” and then shut the door. She turned to me and said, “There, now they can’t say they never heard the Gospel.”
I wondered to myself, what does it mean to hear the Gospel? Was what she said witnessing?
There are appropriate and inappropriate ways in which we evangelize. But we cannot escape the command from Scripture that we are to do so.
Now, how does that apply to us? We live in a country where proselytizing Moroccans is illegal. What is our Christian responsibility in Morocco? One valid answer is that we obey a higher law than the civil law. Our obedience to God is more important than the law of any earthly country. We obey God’s laws when they are at variance with the laws of the land and face the temporal penalties. There is a long history of Christian civil disobedience and we stand in good company when we do so. But Peter presents another way for us to be obedient to God and without violating the law of Morocco that prohibits our proselytizing Moroccans.
Let’s look at the text.
11 Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
Peter starts a new section of thought with these two verses. He has focused on our identity as Christians and our separation from the world. Now he begins to focus on practical implications of our status as God’s holy instruments in this world. As he does so, he picks up on some of the earlier themes of this letter.
“Dear friends”, sometimes translated as “beloved” comes from the root word agape that I talked about last week. This word is not used in non-Christian Greek but is common in Paul’s letters. It is an affectionate term, tied in with God’s sacrificial love expressed for us. This refers back to the text from last week’s sermon where Peter writes about having sincere love for each other and choosing then to sacrificially love each other. We take this greeting “beloved” for granted, but to the readers of this letter, it was an unusual word. As I said, it was not a word used normally. When the early Christians heard this word, it carried significance with it. It carried the significance of their common identity in the new church, the Body of Christ, formed by Jesus who gave his life for the church and made up of those seeking to follow the example of Jesus.
Peter writes, “Dear friends, I urge you.” In the Greek this carries the weight of being strongly urged. Peter is saying, “I’m not writing just to make the letter longer. Listen up! Do this thing I am about to tell you.”
Remember that Peter is writing to Christians who are being persecuted for their faith. He has talked about holding on in the midst of difficulty by remembering that this world is not our home and that our heavenly home is worth waiting for. He moves then to urge us to love one another deeply from the heart, to make costly sacrifices for each other. Now he turns our focus outward to our relationship with others and in doing so he strongly urges us as dear friends, beloved. What is so important to him that he prefaces it by reminding us of Christ’s sacrificial love for us and strongly urging us?
His concern is that the pagans who are persecuting the church be converted. Those that some would call enemies of the church are Peter’s concern. His strong desire is that they become part of the family of God. This is remarkable when you stop to think about it. The natural reaction is to hate those who hate you. If someone hits you, the natural reaction is to hit them back. If someone dislikes you, the natural reaction is to shrug your shoulder and say, “I’ve never been too fond of that person anyway.” If we take a moment to be honest, this is how we very often act. It is not natural to love your enemy, to want your enemy to receive something good. But that is what Jesus called us to do.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, “You have heard it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
This is what Peter strongly urges us to do. He calls us his beloved to remind us that though it may not be easy, it is costly love that saved us and it is costly love that we are called to exercise now toward those who do not have our best interest at heart.
How does Peter envision that we love our enemy and cause them to turn to the truth in Jesus Christ?
The thought process in these couple verses is this:
1. The pagans slander us as evil doers.
2. Our good deeds prove their slander a lie.
3. Our good lives convict them of their sin and slander.
4. The pagans become converted.
The pagans slander us as evil doers. Peter writes, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong.” At the time this letter was written, Tacitus wrote that Christians were “loathed because of their abominations.” Christians were accused of being cannibals, eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking his blood. Christians threatened Roman rule. They refused to offer sacrifices to Caesar. In fact here in North Africa in Carthage in what is modern day Tunisia, Christians were martyred, put to death in the arena, killed by wild animals for the entertainment of the city because of their refusal to offer sacrifices to Caesar. Suetonius approved of Nero’s violent measures against Christians who he described as “a class of people animated by a novel and mischievous superstition.”
Christians continue in our modern day to be slandered by non-Christians. Academics tend to view Christianity in the same way as Suetonius. I’ve met many academics through my wife’s work. Christianity is viewed as primitive superstition like those who worshiped the sun because they didn’t understand the laws of physics. Anyone who is truly enlightened has no need for the primitive beliefs of Christianity.
There is sort of a patronizing attitude toward Christians. But there is also slander of a more crude sort. In this country, Muslims say that Christians buy their converts and any act of generosity is viewed as evidence that this is the case. Christianity is sometimes viewed as decadent because of the TV shows and movies which represent “Christian” lands such as the United States.
In the countries from which we come and in this country, Christians are not understood and are slandered as evil doers.
The next step in Peter’s thought process is that our good deeds prove their slander a lie. “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”
My youngest sister married a man from Somalia – he is a devout Muslim. When he goes to Somalia for a visit, he says he doesn’t fit in any longer. When they discuss the United States, he says, “That’s not true, Americans are not like what you say.” When they slander Christians, he tells them they are mistaken. Not all Christians are like that. Why does he get put in the position of defending Christians? When his family in Somalia was suffering from the fighting between War Lords a few years ago, I organized my family to contribute money and sent him a monthly check to help his family. In this and other ways I’ve demonstrated the love of Christ and his perception of Christians and Christianity has changed. The slanderous accusations made against Christians, he knows are not true.
“though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds.” What about these good deeds? Is my evangelism simply a matter of putting on my “to do” list good deeds I want to do that day? What Peter is writing about is more than just a few external good deeds. He is not writing about something that comes from the surface life of a Christian. He writes about something that comes from deep within. If I realize I need to do good deeds in order to satisfy the requirements of my religion, I think about what I can do and then go do it. That is really not very difficult. That can be done with the mind, it is only a matter of remembering and discipline.
But it is far preferable for the richness of my inner spiritual life to be so abundant, that good deeds spill over into the lives of those around me. This is the approach of Peter.
In verse 11 he writes, “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.” Peter returns again to this truth, that we do not belong to this world. We are only passing through. Therefore, we are to remain as untouched as possible by this world’s abundant sin.
Peter urges us to abstain from sinful desires which wage war against our soul. The tense of the verbs in this phrase in the Greek give the sense that we are to continually abstain from sinful desires which are continually waging war against our souls. It would be so much easier if there was a one time action or even a once a month or once a week action that was required. Go to church once a week or say a certain prayer once a month or whatever. But it is not easy. The battle is never over. Until the day we draw our last breath, we will be engaged in this struggle. Sinful desires continually attack us, tempt us, lure us away from obedience to Christ. This is the ongoing struggle for the Christian. The moment we relax and think we are OK, we are increasing our vulnerability to attack.
I was talking to some people who have been in parts of the world where the possibility of terrorist attack was very high. The defense in this part of the world was to vary the time and route of going to work. Keep bulletproof windows up. Stay alert to what you see around you. Constant vigilance was required. There were incidents where a person was killed and lack of vigilance was largely to blame.
As Christians we are continually at war and continually need to resist the sinful desires that attempt to pull us away from the path of obedience. Exercising this self-discipline, putting effort to continually resist the temptation of sinful desires then naturally results in living good lives that result in good deeds, good deeds that prove the evil slander said about us to be a lie.
The devil has quite an arsenal of weapons for his attacks against us. In Galatians 5:19, Paul lists some of these sinful desires. “19 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.”
This is quite a varied list. It contains things we tend to think of when we hear the words “sinful desires”: sexual immorality, drunkenness and orgies. It also has more subtle desires that are more likely to catch us off guard: discord, jealousy, selfish ambition, dissension, factions and envy.
Resisting these sinful desires naturally results in good deeds.
Last week I used the illustration of a glass filled with rocks. The goal was to put more water in the glass and the children in the church helped me accomplish that goal by taking rocks out of the glass. In this illustration I said the glass was us, the rocks were sin in our lives and the water was God’s love. As we are obedient, we remove rocks from our lives and there is more room for God’s love.
Peter is making the same point here, with different words. When we resist sinful desires which wage war against our souls, we live good lives which result in good deeds.
There is no break between verses 11 and 12. They flow together, are part of one thought. Do you see the importance of putting this emphasis on obeying the truth and abstaining from sinful desires? Living good lives without this emphasis is a superficial, empty existence. It carries no real weight, has no real power.
The quote in the bulletin from St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words,” is a powerful quote. But read the writings of St. Francis and see his emphasis on living a holy life. His impact on the world came not from his head alone, but from the heart.
Let’s return to Peter’s thought process. Peter says that pagans slander us as evil doers. Our good deeds prove their slander a lie. The next step in Peter’s logic is implied. Our good lives convict them of their sin and slander.
Non-Christians watch us. In my company, I had several employees who were self-proclaimed atheists. I was open about my faith and they knew I was a Christian. Over the years I had several opportunities to share with them about what I believed and why. When I had to fire an employee, I was watched like a hawk to see how I did that. Whatever I did was scrutinized by these employees to see if my actions were consistent with my professed beliefs.
We are not perfect and we will sometimes act inconsistently with what we believe, but some of my more powerful conversations with these employees focused on my imperfection. Christians are not perfect people, only sinners saved by grace.
Peter concludes his thought process by saying the non-Christians who observe us will be converted. They will glorify God on the day he visits, a reference to the time when they open their hearts to God.
I’d like to say that my former employees have turned to Christ, but that has not happened. But their lives are not yet over either. We preach the Gospel, as St. Francis put it, in the way we live our lives and it is up to God to use our nonverbal preaching to turn the lives of those around us to him.
You may not always view your life here as having much importance to God. There may be days when it seems you are stuck in a rut, not doing anything terribly important. But I want to let you know this morning that in heaven, part of the glory of your experience will be seeing the way God used your daily life to draw others into the family of God. There are days when it seems little is accomplished, when you feel of little use to God. But your life is sacred, holy. The details of your life are sacred – because your life has been given to God.
Frederick Buechner has this to say about sacraments. “A sacrament is when something holy happens. It is transparent time, time which you can see through to something deep inside time. Generally speaking, Protestants have two official sacraments (the Lord’s Supper, Baptism) and Roman Catholics these two plus five others (Confirmation, Penance, Extreme Unction, Ordination, and Matrimony), In other words, at such milestone moments as seeing a baby baptized or being baptized yourself, confessing your sins, getting married, dying, you are apt to catch a glimpse of the almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life.
Needless to say, church isn’t the only place where the holy happens. Sacramental moments can occur at any moment, any place, and to anybody. Watching something get born, Making love. A high-school graduation. Somebody coming to see you when you’re sick. A meal with people you love. Looking into a stranger’s eyes and finding out he’s not a stranger.
If we weren’t blind as bats, we might see that life itself is sacramental.”
As a Christian, you live a holy life. Every day you preach a fresh sermon. May you be blessed this week in your preaching.