Welcome and call to worship
Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! Because of his great mercy he gave us new life by raising Jesus Christ from death. This fills us with a living hope, and so we look forward to possessing the rich blessings that God keeps for his people. (1 Peter 1:3-4a)
Prayers of adoration and confession
Let us pray:
Creator of all,
Sustainer of all,
Saviour of all,
Your glory and majesty are beyond our understanding,
Your power too awesome for us to behold.
And yet your love enfolds us as a gentle breeze.
Saviour of all,
Sustainer of all,
Creator of all,
We praise you and bless your holy name.
We confess all the times that we have failed to do the right thing.
When we have chosen to do the wrong thing, out of greed or maliciousness,
When we have acted recklessly,
When we have acted out of laziness,
When we have acted out of negligence,
When we’ve had to choose between two wrong things,
When we have unknowingly done the wrong thing,
Or not understood what the right thing to do was.
We confess that we have failed to be your people, we have failed to be disciples of Christ, we have failed to be witnesses to the love of Jesus.
So we offer you this confession, and lay the burden of our sins at the foot of the cross.
We ask you to be merciful to us: To forgive us all those times we have not done the right thing.
We ask you to be merciful to us: To lift the burden of our wrongdoings from our lives.
We ask you to be merciful to us: To change us, to inspire us, so that we can give you the glory in all things.
And we pray this in the name of your son and our saviour, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Assurance of forgiveness
The Apostle Peter tells us:
[…You] are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.
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.
(1 Peter 2:9-10)
Remember Christ’s word of grace to us:
‘Your sins are forgiven.’ (Mark 2:5)
Thanks be to God.
Bless your people, O God of light and glory.
Bless your people across land and sea, from north to south,
with your healing and peace.
No matter the names and nationalities
and races and religions by which we call ourselves,
we are yours.
Work out a reconciliation among us that extends to the heavens
and draws together all creation.
We pray for those in anguish,
whose hearts are broken and weary with weeping.
We pray for those overwhelmed by despair,
struggling for hope, desperate for life.
We pray for shelter to those who need a hiding place,
and relief to those who are weighed down by burdens.
We pray for our brothers and sisters in this city and around the world.
With the strength of your rock beneath our feet
and the joy of your call giving wings to our spirits,
we set our faces to follow you through all of life.
Make us yearn for you and for the work of the cross.
We pray in the name of our Light and our Salvation. Amen.
Adapted from a prayer by Rachel Hackenberg
1 Peter 3:13-22
13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 17 For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.
Jesus Promises the Holy Spirit
15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”
Message: Do the right thing
Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?
Think about it for a moment: who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?
It seems like the answer should be “No one!” and that’s what we might think in our hearts, but our heads tell us something quite different. Who would harm Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Who would harm Martin Luther King Junior? They both were eager to do what was good, and they were doing good, weren’t they?
So why does Peter ask us who will harm us if we’re eager to do good?
A good question.
I’m a fan of Top Gear. The old Top Gear anyway. From time to time Jeremy, James and Richard were given challenges. Things like turn a car into a space shuttle, drive across Ukraine, or modify a commercial van into a functioning hovercraft. Their standard responses were questions to the audience “How hard could it be?” and “What could possibly go wrong?”
At one level these things were theoretically possible and technically achievable too, but at another level, they were crazy things to do. And after all, if these things were easy, they wouldn’t have made entertaining television.
“How hard could it be?”
“What could possibly go wrong?”
They didn’t give answers. But we know what the outcome was likely to be.
And similarly, Peter asks: “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?”
In today’s reading from the first letter of Peter, just like last week’s reading from the same letter, there’s lots of ideas: being blessed even if we suffer, sanctifying Christ in our hearts, defending our faith, keeping our conscience clear, being made alive in the spirit, proclamation to the spirits in prison, Noah, baptism, angels, authorities and powers!
There’s lots of ideas, some of them seem beyond understanding. And yet, here it is as part of the canon of the New Testament. The inspired word of God.
And again, amongst the rush of ideas from Peter in today’s reading, there are gems “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (3:18). Isn’t that the heart of the gospel? What Jesus did – suffering once for all – who he is – the righteous for the unrighteous and why he did it – to bring us to God. This is way up there with John 3:16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only son… – as a concise expression of the gospel.
But as I say, it’s packed in amongst a rush of ideas. It pays to slow down, to open up Peter’s writing and really appreciate Peter’s faith and passion.
In today’s reading, Peter starts by asking the question: “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?”
Peter doesn’t directly answer the question… but what he writes next acknowledges that people will be harmed, even if they are eager to do good. “But even if you suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed”.
Lucky us. It reflects Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5) when he said “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account”.
And that similarity should not be surprising to us. Peter was there, with Jesus, when Jesus preached that sermon. We, as followers of Christ are blessed, even though we suffer.
And I should take a moment to say it’s not because we suffer that we are blessed – because that sort of thinking can lead to some terrible consequences, and the idea that if we make ourselves suffer, we can become closer to God is not consistent with what we learn from the scriptures.
Rather, we are blessed even though we suffer. Despite the suffering that we and Christians throughout the ages have experienced, we are blessed.
Peter tells us that in the face of suffering, in the face of people trying to do us harm because we are eager to do what is good, we shouldn’t fear and we shouldn’t be intimidated. Rather than being afraid of what others may try to do to us because of our faith, we should focus on Jesus – or as Peter says, “in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord”. (3:15).
And that’s a nice Christian catchphrase – “in your hearts, sanctify Christ as Lord”. But in practical terms, what does it mean to do that? It is not simply to acknowledge that Jesus is the son of God, but rather to put our trust in him, to put our faith in him. To love him with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind. (Matt 22:37)
And not only must we focus on Christ, we must make our defense from anyone who demands an accounting for the hope that is in us (3:15b). It’s easy enough to keep our Christian life more or less secret. It’s easy to be a Christian on Sunday mornings, attending church and enjoying fellowship over morning tea afterward (remember that?). But if we are truly sanctifying Christ as lord in our hearts, it should show through in our lives, and if our faith shows through in our lives then people will notice.
And if people notice, they will ask or comment, and much of the time it will be loaded questions and mockery.
When I was in the process of leaving Meat and Livestock Australia after nearly twenty years, someone I knew well enough to have a chat with over coffee asked me if I had any short term plans. I said “Well I’m preaching for the next three weeks”, and they asked “Oh, do you go to church?”
I’m sure I had many conversations about what I did on the weekend, that failed to include that I’d been to church. I realise I should have done better. I should have been a better witness.
Sure enough: Other people’s responses to admissions of faith can range from bemusement to antagonism. If someone asks me about my imaginary friend in the sky, then there’s not much I can say with, as Peter calls it, ‘gentleness and reverence’ but other responses can be – or should be – openings for sharing faith. To explain that going to church isn’t simply a way to fill in Sunday mornings.
But no matter what they may do, there is nothing that they can do - if we keep our focus on Jesus - that can separate us from God. They may offend and abuse and even physically harm us – but none of those things can overcome what God has done for us in Jesus. Do you think that the killings of Deitrich Boenhoffer and Martin Luther King Junior would have stopped the hope of people in Christ? Or would have made the sacrifice of Christ in any way less meaningful? Of course not.
But in the face of criticism or attack or even persecution, we need to, as Peter says, “Always be ready to make [our] defense to anyone who demands from [us] an accounting for the hope that is in you;” and not just give an ‘accounting’, but he tells us “yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”
We need to respect the people we’re talking to. We need to share our faith in Christ with gentleness and reverence, and we need to be honest when we do:
“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.” (3:16b).
One of the things I keep coming back to is what the biggest criticism of Christians is - Not of the Christian faith, but of Christians individually and collectively? I’m sure it’s that we’re hypocrites.
Famously, Mahatma Gandhi is reputed to have said “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Whether Gandhi actually said that or not, it does ring true, doesn’t it?
Think about the televangelist who preaches generosity, but practices greed. The abuse of children in Christian facilities. The gossiping that goes on in some congregations…
And while we should all acknowledge that we are all sinners, and as the old bumper sticker reminds us – “Christians aren’t perfect just forgiven”. We need to take such observations to heart.
We can’t win converts for Christ by tricking people or badgering them or hounding them or for that matter terrifying them. And neither should we be hiding things or misrepresenting our faith to make it seem more appealing to them. Christ died for our sins! We need to acknowledge that all people are sinful, not least ourselves.
And whatever we say, it must be backed up by how we act.
If our actions don’t back up our words, then those who criticise us will certainly have a point. But if our conscience is clear, if we have done the right thing and lived up to our words, then those who choose to abuse us and our faith in Christ will have no genuine complaint – they will, as Peter says, be put to shame.
Our good conduct might take away any rational basis for attacks, but it will never stop them. In fact, good conduct may antagonise those who seek to attack us. To harden hearts against God and against his people. We just need to look to the Easter story to see that in action.
“For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.” (3:17) says Peter.
So, if we suffer for doing good, because of our faith in Christ, then we serve as an example. In the face of suffering, if we are still motivated to do what is good – to do the right thing, then we are being faithful witnesses of Jesus.
And in doing the right thing in the face of suffering, we are following the example of our saviour:
“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” (3:18)
And it would be great if today’s reading ended there. Because as we read on, from the second part of verse 18, things become very strange.
“He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water”. (3:18b-20)
What on earth does that mean?
The reaction to parts of the bible that are difficult to understand, is generally to skip over and ignore them, or the opposite – to dwell on them. To try and force some meaning from them, or force some meaning into them. I’ve read quite a bit on 1 Peter, and it seems that just about everyone quotes Martin Luther’s thoughts on it. And Martin Luther said this: “a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means.”
Martin Luther was no lightweight theologian, and while many people have ideas on what this passage might mean, who the spirits in prison might be and so on, there is no clear consensus; not even a weight of opinion. It is a mystery. I think that we simply have lost the context that would have helped Peter’s original readers understand what he meant.
I don’t think we should ignore it, but I don’t think we should twist things to try an extract meaning either. Instead we can see it in the context that we have. The death and resurrection of Christ, God’s patience, God’s salvation – the few through the ark, the many through Jesus.
Just as those few were saved through water aboard the ark, so it is the water of baptism that saves us now… but it is not the water itself that saves us – and Peter makes that clear – it is not about the removal of dirt, not about the ritual, but rather the saving power of Jesus which is acknowledged publically through baptism.
And that saving power is guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus. In his rising from the dead, the power of sin and death, the very power of evil was broken. Once and for all.
Peter reminds us of the power of the risen Christ, by telling us of Jesus’ ascension – Jesus who “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” (3:22)
And that is our hope. That is our sure and certain hope.
This morning’s reading began by asking “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?” (3:13)
The truth is, at one level, that people will harm us.
But at another level, that there is nothing that people can do to us that will inflict everlasting harm. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
So, remembering that assurance, let’s always do the right thing. Let’s take away the hypocrisy that people criticise us for. Let’s live as Jesus would have us live. Live as Peter implores us to live. Let’s live so that those opposed to Christ cannot criticise us on any reasonable ground:
Let’s be generous with our time, let others go first, say thank you to the checkout people at the supermarket, let’s cheerfully talk to our neighbours (from a socially isolated distance), let’s be honest in our dealings, pray for our enemies, give to the poor, read and meditate on the scriptures, fill in our tax returns honestly, take a stand against injustice and exploitation, proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth or even just to the end of the street when we can, let’s write to our elected representatives when they go astray, contact our families and friends we haven’t spoken to in a while, give thanks, be gracious when we are thanked, stop at stop signs, stand behind the yellow line at the train station, ask forgiveness when we have sinned, and grant forgiveness to people who sin against us. Let’s do the right thing.
And we don’t do the right thing to earn favour with God, because we have favour with God because of the sacrifice of Christ once and for all, we do the right thing so that we can be ambassadors of Christ in this world. To be Christ-like in a fallen world.
Remembering always that we are saved by Christ’s resurrection, Jesus who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Hymns for this week:
Looking Out: God has good plans
Readings for next week (24 May 2020):
Lectionary: Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35, Acts 1:6-14, 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11, John 17:1-11
For worship: Psalm 68:1-10, 1 Peter 4:12-14 and 5:6-11
Theme: “Hang on!”