(Click here to listen.)
As we look over this week’s and the next few weeks’ texts, I want us to keep in mind that Peter is writing to some people that are experiencing some very scary things. Fear was the main tool that the Roman Empire used to keep its subject peoples in line, and they were brutally effective at instilling fear in conquered territories. Fear was a part of daily life in the Roman Empire, and fear is still used by entities in our time to control others for power and profit. The sad thing is that fear mongering is effective. We see people from all walks of life driven by fear of others who are different from them, or who live by different principles, or who they think might want what they have. This fear creeps its way into my life, and I am sure yours as well, until suddenly God opens my eyes to the fact that I have been operating from fear. When I began the recording process for Friends ministers there was a fear that I hadn’t recognized until someone said that they thought I should go to seminary before I was recorded. I kind of lashed out a bit because I was afraid of those snobby educated types. I was afraid that my lack of education would make me look foolish and that I would be looked down on. These were fears based on the experience of watching others with access to education look down on the folks from my neighborhood. These fears of our neighbors are used to manipulate us and to generate conflict that draws our attention away from what is important. It almost drew me away from God’s call on my life to be a pastor. Into our fearful society Peter’s words speak with surprising relevance:
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[or what they fear]; 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. (1 Peter 2:13-17 NIV)
Peter starts out with what might first be considered a rhetorical question, “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” Well, the Wednesday night bible study came up with a fairly depressing list of all sorts of people that could fit into that category. Needless to say what all of the categories had in common was that there are some people who stand to gain in one way or another from others who are not eager to do what is good. Kathy pointed out last week that some of those who benefit from our accepting a broken role in our families will lash out at us when we reject a bad relationship and enforce boundaries that are healthy and good. Peter doesn’t gloss over the brokenness of the world or of the various institutional and personal relationships we have to navigate. I would say that every culture, nation or relationship has some form of brokenness built into it, so when we go about our daily lives maybe we can keep our eyes open for the opportunities to repair things. The good work of repairing what is broken exposes us to the jagged edges of raw emotion and occasionally we will get hurt by those edges, occasionally we will suffer for our repair efforts. Peter reminds us to not let our fear of pain, rejection, and loss stop us from doing the good work we have been given. The work of healing broken relationships is worth a little pain and suffering, isn’t it? Especially when we get the blessing of seeing a broken relationship with God healed.
This section of the letter is about witness, and Peter’s instruction is even more relevant to us than those to whom he wrote. Christianity has a bit of a PR problem. There are people who claim to follow Jesus as their Lord that picket funerals and attack people who are hurting rather than extending healing hands. There are people who claim the name of Jesus that do not act lovingly at all times, and to my great sadness I have to admit to being one of them. God has chosen to reveal himself through broken people like me who still have large imperfections and flaws that in their clumsy attempts to bring healing instead cause harm. When I was in my discernment process for coming here and was feeling unsure about the call, one of the elders of my church asked me what I was afraid of. I thought about it for a minute and said that I was afraid that my mouth would move ahead of my brain and I would hurt someone and not realize it until it was too late. My elder looked over at me with a chuckle and said “Don’t worry about that Gil. I guarantee you that it will happen, the only question you need to keep asking yourself is will you keep yourself ready to do what you must to make things right.” Following Jesus and revering him as Lord means paying attention to the fact that some of the brokenness I have to work on is in me, that some of the broken relationships I am called to repair were broken by me.
This is what I think Peter is referring to when he speaks about being prepared to give an answer to the hope we have with gentleness and respect: we must acknowledge our brokenness in order for others to ask us why on earth we would have any hope, and we must be sympathetic to the brokenness in others, not passing judgment, but carrying the fragile light of hope into someone’s personal darkness. We as the church and me personally have gotten this dead wrong all too often, and I can only speak to my own condition here, but I mostly get it wrong when I allow fear to set my agenda. It is a natural thing for us to be afraid of what is different from us. We have had thousands of years to set up mental structures that tell us who to be near and who to avoid, and the people who are most like us fall into the category of people to be around. Unfortunately for this tribal imperative Jesus teaches that the people who God loves tends to not fit into those neat categories. Keeping a clear conscience in God’s sight then leads us to look beyond the surface impressions and false identities and see the beloved child of God in each face we encounter no matter how unlike us that face appears to be. Jesus taught about this in a parable:
25Just then a scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures tried to trap Jesus.
Scholar: Teacher, what must I do to experience the eternal life?
Jesus (answering with a question): 26What is written in the Hebrew Scriptures? How do you interpret their answer to your question?
Scholar: 27You shall love—“love the Eternal One your God with everything you have: all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind”* —and “love your neighbor as yourself.”*
Jesus: 28Perfect. Your answer is correct. Follow these commands and you will live. 29The scholar was frustrated by this response because he was hoping to make himself appear smarter than Jesus.
Scholar: Ah, but who is my neighbor?
Jesus: 30This fellow was traveling down from Jerusalem to Jericho when some robbers mugged him. They took his clothes, beat him to a pulp, and left him naked and bleeding and in critical condition. 31By chance, a priest was going down that same road, and when he saw the wounded man, he crossed over to the other side and passed by. 32Then a Levite who was on his way to assist in the temple also came and saw the victim lying there, and he too kept his distance. 33Then a despised Samaritan journeyed by. When he saw the fellow, he felt compassion for him. 34The Samaritan went over to him, stopped the bleeding, applied some first aid, and put the poor fellow on his donkey. He brought the man to an inn and cared for him through the night. 35The next day, the Samaritan took out some money—two days’ wages* to be exact—and paid the innkeeper, saying, “Please take care of this fellow, and if this isn’t enough, I’ll repay you next time I pass through.” 36Which of these three proved himself a neighbor to the man who had been mugged by the robbers?
Scholar: 37The one who showed mercy to him.
Jesus: Well then, go and behave like that Samaritan. (Luke 11:25-37 The Voice)
The Samaritan in Jesus’ parable proved himself to be a friend to the victim of the robbers, and Jesus tells this scholar, a Jew raised to despise the Samaritans as half-breeds who taught all kinds of wrong things about God, to emulate the Samaritan in this story. If we would persuade the world around us of the truth of the hope we bear, we also must behave like the Samaritan. The Samaritan didn’t check to see what faith the wounded man was, what class, race or anything else. The Samaritan simply saw someone who was wounded and dying.
Our culture is mired in a culture war that is creating scores of wounded and dying and I wonder if God may not be calling us to lay down any arms and jagged edges that we may be carrying and minister to the wounded rather than fight. As a pastor I have felt pressured to take sides in the culture wars and I will say this: my job is to minister to the wounded not to create more wounds. I will fail at this, but by the grace and mercy of God I will try my hardest to bind up every wound that God brings before me no matter what. It cannot matter to me whether someone agrees or disagrees with what I believe the only thing that can matter is that there is a beloved child of God in front of me that has been wounded and may be in danger of dying. That must be my top priority, not making sure everyone is saying the right words or doing the right things, but that the sick, wounded and dying are being healed, that by my friendship, compassion, and care I might witness to the hope that comes from knowing Jesus as my king. If we are to imitate Jesus we must remember that it was by his wounds that we could be healed and be ready to stand in the gap for others so they might be healed. There will be a price for being conscientious objectors in the culture wars but if we truly befriend the wounded and become as a body a “hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints” the good of planting those seeds of God’s kingdom is, and will be, worth the cost. As we enter into open worship let us listen for the direction of the Holy Spirit, giving him the space to speak to each of our souls. Let us ask that God open our eyes to how we can be Jesus’ hands and feet, binding up the wounds of the fallen and persuading people by our friendship that they not only have a good friend in us, but the best possible friend in Jesus.