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September 22nd, 2014

If the church had taken Peter seriously for 2000 years, the world would be changed.

1 Peter 3:8-18

September 21, 2014

What would you change?

If you could change the world in three ways today, what would you change?  Whether you are hearing this sermon or reading it, take a moment and write down three changes you would like to see, then share those ideas with your neighbor.

Here are my three.

First, there would be fewer Pittsburgh Steelers fans.  If you were here last week, you heard me say that I couldn’t pull for the Carolina Panthers until they dealt with the Greg Hardy domestic violence situation.  I was given a lot of credit by some of you who noted that almost immediately after I said that the Panthers deactivated Hardy for last week’s game – and since then until his situation is resolved.

Back to the Steelers.  My main reason for mentioning them today is that we have an otherwise mild-mannered psychologist in our congregation who needs a little therapy for his obsession with the Steelers.  He’s been trash-talking the Carolina Panthers to me in advance of tonight’s game, and I told him he was inviting a response from the pulpit.  He said, “I double-dare ya.”  See what I mean?  This man needs help.

Second, on a more serious note, if I could change the world, the church of Jesus Christ would work much more intentionally at balancing truth and grace.  We never seem to get that right, and by “we” I include “me.”  We either proclaim graceless truth or live truthless grace, and neither option sanctifies us or changes the world.

Third, the world would be a safe place for Christians to live peacefully and proclaim the gospel.  Notice my wish for change today is not that everyone instantly becomes instantly a believer in Christ.  First, I know enough about Christians and church history to know that in itself doesn’t necessarily change how they treat people.  In fact, when Christians are in power, we are often as guilty of abuse as others are when we are in the minority.  Second, if everyone instantly became a believer, it would probably be by force – either human coercion or God’s decree.  And we already know that God doesn’t think it’s a good idea to force everyone to believe – or he would already have done it.

No, I don’t want to force anyone to believe.  But I do pray, as Paul instructed in 1 Timothy 2, that “we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” so that all may have the opportunity “to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”

Several of you have forwarded e-mails this week about the desperate situation being reported out of Iraq and Syria, where militant Islamists are giving Christians as well as other religious minorities, even Muslim minorities, the choice to convert to their understanding of Islam or die.  I am grieved for those who face that choice now.  I am grieved in the knowledge that people bearing the name of Christ have done exactly the same thing through the centuries to Jews, Muslims, and Christians who didn’t share their brand of Christianity.  And I am grieved because that religious oppression is happening not only with ISIS, but in places like North Korea, Iran, Sudan, and other places in the world.  We will spend some time in prayer for this situation following the sermon today.

What we need to pray for is for peaceful and quiet lives not just for Christians but for whoever else is there.  I believe on a level playing field truth wins.  The truth of Jesus is compelling when given a chance.

So that’s what I would change.  But today’s question is how.  How do you change the world?  One of Jesus’ closest associates, the unquestioned leader of the early church in Jerusalem, the Apostle Peter, answered that question in 1 Peter 3.  The situation was a darkening storm cloud that would soon become the first of many official persecutions by the Roman government against Christians.  The oppression had not yet become as severe as what would develop soon under Nero, especially in Rome, where Peter was when he wrote this letter.  But signs were growing that Christianity was going to lose its protected status.  What Peter could not have known, but the Holy Spirit did, was that two and a half centuries of brutal harassment would follow.

Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3 how to change the world.  I’m convinced if the church had followed his counsel for 2000 years, the world today would already be changed.

Treat other Christians humbly (8-9)

Peter says, “Live in harmony with one another; by sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.  Do not repay evil for evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.”

Isn’t it interesting that this section of Scripture that Bill Hybels uses (appropriately) to teach on evangelism begins with an exhortation about what happens inside the Christian community?  It doesn’t take too much reading between the lines to see that this is a community – like every community, Christian or otherwise – with problems.  People get sick.  They lose jobs.  They gossip.  They make choices that are “evil.”  They insult each other.  Sometimes the “persecution” happens inside the church.

What Peter doesn’t say is, “Go find another church that is perfect (or even better).”  Instead he teaches, recalling the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, react in a way that can only be explained that Christ has changed your life.  Be compassionate toward those who hurt.  Bless those who insult you.  Love them anyway.  Anybody can pay back an eye for an eye.  You love people who are hurting, even though you didn’t hurt them.  You show kindness to those who hurt you.  That’s step one to change the world.  Be the change within your family and your church.

What’s much easier, and more American, is to distance ourselves from people we think are getting it wrong.  What’s easier from the pulpit is to criticize, directly or indirectly, churches who we think are getting it wrong.  Paul says in Philippians 1 that even when people preach the gospel from wrong motives, rejoice that they’re preaching the gospel.  If Christians had been giving other Christians the benefit of the doubt for 2000 years instead of insulting or harming them, we would have already changed the world.

Read the Bible submissively (10-12)

In this section Peter quotes from Psalm 34, which is an acrostic poem King David wrote after he had been delivered from almost certain death.  He had been running from King Saul, and sought refuge among the Philistines, also Saul’s enemy.  But some of the Philistines learned of his own reputation as an anti-Philistine warrior, and the only way David could escape was to pretend to be crazy – insane.

When he got out of there with his head intact, David carefully crafted this poem with succeeding letters of the alphabet to celebrate God’s deliverance.  It’s a beautiful, hopeful, faith-filled psalm.  Peter borrows it in chapter 3 as a teaching tool.

“If you want to live a long and happy life,” he says (I’m paraphrasing), keep your tongue truthful and your actions peaceful.”  But what if other people don’t treat me that way?  That’s not your concern. What matters to you must be “the eyes of the Lord” (12).  Turn to him with your complaint and trust him to deal with evil.

We think we read the Bible submissively until it tells us to do something we don’t want to do – like refuse to adopt the world’s standards of trying to even the score.  If we allow the Holy Spirit room, he will convict us of our blind spots.  The Bible will not so much be a hammer for others as sandpaper for us.  As we are changed, we change the world.

View suffering differently (13-14)

Psalm 34 serves to switch Peter’s focus from the interior of the community to outsiders, and that, of course, is our evangelism focus this month at Corinth. “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” Peter asks in verse 13.  It’s not exactly a rhetorical question, as we’ll see in a moment.  Even in a hostile environment, the answer is, “Most of the time, nobody.”  If you’re doing the right thing, most people will leave you alone.  Just go about your business quietly and with integrity.

Peter seems quickly to recall that there are exceptions.  David was an exception.  He was “doing good” when he was serving King Saul and had gone to the Philistines only to save his neck.  Still, Saul was trying to kill him.  And these Christians in the Roman empire were also increasingly susceptible to harm for no other crime than being Christian.

So Peter adds in verse 14, “But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed.”  He quotes the Bible again, this time Isaiah 8:12:  “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.”  This is not only counter-cultural, it’s counter-instinctual.  We are wired with a “fight-or-flight” response.  Peter did both in the book of Acts.  There are also times to recall the words of Jesus that suffering is blessing, and neither fight nor flee.

Suffering comes in all forms.  In the midst of others’ suffering, I never say, “Well, aren’t you just blessed!”  That goes back to the compassion in verse 8.  But as believers, we can see that God uses our pain to change the world.  He especially does it when our trust in the Heavenly Father helps us respond differently than the world responds to pain.

Share your story gently (15-16)

The most well-known verse in this passage, the reason why Bill Hybels’ “Walk Across the Room” chooses this text for this week, is verse 15:  “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

It is so wrong, and so counterproductive, to grab that verse out of its context and simply focus on having the right answers.  Peter has written two and a half chapters of his letter before he comes to 3:15.  He has spoken of praise, of holiness, of submission in the workplace and grace in the home.  He’s talked about compassion and humility in the church and a supernatural response to suffering.

Only then he is ready to acknowledge that this way of living is so different that it will create thirst among unbelievers.  If I live my live with their same values of “I’m not submitting to anyone” or “You hurt me so I’ll hurt you” or “I’m in it for my piece of the pie” or “Why do bad things happen to me?” then they have no reason to ask why the hope within us changes our lives.

One aspect of how we change the world is to share our story.  Bill Hybels talks about your “before-and-after” story of faith, a one-minute version of what your life was like before you met Christ and what it’s like now.  Someone said to me this week, “I think they need more than one minute’s worth.”  That’s true, but the first minute is just so you can have a chance for a second minute, then a conversation, then a relationship.

My role in the sermon is not so much to teach how to tell that story.  That’s what we are doing in the Sunday School classes.  Bill Hybels does a good job in his book, Walk Across the Room, which you should read if you’re not attending Sunday School.

Where I would differ a little with Bill Hybels is that I don’t think the stress should be so much on the before-and-after that might have happened thirty years ago – or thirty days ago – when I gave my life to Christ.  Perhaps this is partly my bias, since I grew up in a Christian home and don’t really have a good before-and-after story, except this.  Growing up in a church and missionary context actually gave me a lot of insecurity about faith, because I was taught to always be questioning whether I had really prayed the prayer right or was sincere or was baptized in the proper way and order.  What made the difference for me was the awareness that I didn’t have to question what I did.  I just had to claim what Christ did, and rest in that.

If I tell that story to an unbeliever, it sounds like I’m just being critical of other Christians and denominations.  That harms the gospel as well.  What I want to do is maybe share the before-and-after story of Christ right now.  I might share that recently I suffered from “compassion fatigue.”  It was after Jake Robertson’s funeral and some other crises I won’t go into, but Linda looked at me one night after another text message came and said, “You don’t seem as compassionate as usual.”  I realized she was right.  I had nothing else to give at that moment.  The Christian community, including my wife, a good friend, and someone who really needed my compassionate presence gave me such grace to step back and rest and realize I’m human as well.  That’s a “right now” story of Christ at work.

Whatever story I tell needs to be a story told with what Peter calls “gentleness and respect” (15).  I need to keep a “clear conscience” (16) so that my life gives credibility to my story.  That doesn’t mean I never do anything wrong.  On the contrary it means I am so aware of my own faults that when others point them out, I say, “You’re absolutely right.  I blew that, didn’t I?”  We lose our credibility when we are caught and we make excuses and defenses.  We maintain credibility when we admit we are still being changed.

Grasp the Story firmly (17-18)

If you’re wondering why I stretched this out a fifth bullet in this sermon, I’m going to blame Pastor Paul and Pastor Lori’s Wednesday Bible study group.  I was stopping with verse 16.  Paul said he wanted to include 17, and Lori’s group said we had to include 18.

They are right, of course.  Peter’s point about unjust suffering points him back to the example of Jesus.  He doesn’t even have to give the details.  The comparison is clear.  If you’re going to talk about suffering for doing good (17), Jesus comes to mind.

This leads him to share The Story in one sentence:  “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (18).  It’s amazing how complicated we can make The Story.  We’re all far from God, and we need a bridge.  Jesus did everything necessary to make it happen.  Your story is ultimately his Story.

Rooftop

I invited a friend today to help me wrap up this sermon.  His name is John Whaley, and until recently he served as pastor of Sandy Ridge Baptist Church. His wife, Susan, is with him.  John also serves on the board of Hickory Church Connection, an effort to display the visible unity of the body of Christ in Hickory.

I was surprised a couple of weeks ago to learn that John was no longer at Sandy Ridge, and we met this past Thursday to talk about.  Among other things, I was interested to learn of John’s involvement with a ministry called Rooftop.  John, tell us about it.

John Whaley

The Rooftop was launched three years ago as part of the ministry of Vis-a-Vis Ministries led by Dennis Pethers, an international evangelist in the UK.  Dennis grew up an atheist and came to Christ as the result of his boss giving him a copy of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.

The Rooftop is all about seeing the people around us, the people we are among, the way God sees them.  Based on Peter’s experience in Acts 10, we have come to understand that most of us don’t share our story with others because we are so busy, we fail to see the world around us the way God sees the world.

If you read Acts 10, that is exactly where Peter was.  Up until Acts 10, the gospel was only being shared with the Jews.  The Gentiles had yet to be engaged.  That all changed when Peter encounters God on the rooftop while praying and God reminds him that the gospel is for everyone, Jew and Gentile.  As a result of this encounter, Peter goes to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, shares the story of God’s love and grace, and Cornelius’ entire household trusts Christ as Lord and Savior.

Therefore, one of the key strategies of The Rooftop is to take people on a literal roof where they can overlook their city as we did with several pastors two years ago or out in their community, leading them through a prayer encounter with God where they ask God to give them His eyes and heart for their city.

Out of that experience, we begin talking about how to engage the culture in which we live; a culture that is increasingly becoming more never-churched than unchurched.  We often forget that we are surrounded daily by people who never even think about church.  These are people who don’t know that they don’t know Jesus.  And the best way we engage them is by building relationships with them and sharing our story.

We have made evangelism so complicated…evangelism is simply sharing your story of how God is working in your life right now which opens the door for you to share His story of the grace and love He has shown us through Jesus Christ.

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