Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Hope That Is In You: sermon from 5-29-11

The Hope That Is In You
May 28-29, 2011

When I was a high school senior, I took Advanced Placement English from Mrs. Wolford at Bellevue West High School. Mrs. Wolford was one of the best teachers I ever had in school—she had a way of opening up literature that helped us better understand the world around us, and pushed and prodded us to become the best writers we could be. Throughout the year, we learned about all the various literary devices, major literary themes, symbolism—you name it, we covered it in detail. By the end of the year, when we had this box of tools at our disposal, an assignment would consist of reading a poem or short passage of prose, with the instructions, “explicate and analyze.” That was it. We were then responsible for closely reading and analyzing whatever the assigned passage had been, and discerning both its meaning and relevance.

Today, I want to do something similar with one sentence from our second reading. 1 Peter 3:15-16 says, “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.” This single, simple sentence from 1 Peter really gets to the heart of our calling to be bearers of the good news of God in Christ to the world, and deserves our attention, especially in a world that increasingly is convinced that the church has very little to say to it anymore. So, in honor of Mrs. Wolford, let’s explicate and analyze.

First, it begins with “always be ready.” Think for a moment—if someone were to walk up to you and say, “I noticed you went to church. What do you believe, why do you believe it, and what difference does it make in the world?” what would your answer be? What DO we believe? Well, we have these creeds that we say most weeks in church—a creed is a statement of belief. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and so forth. That’s a good start…but what do we mean exactly when we say these things, when we recite these words. Are they just words, or have we spent time studying them, wrestling with them, thinking about what they say and what we mean when we recite them? That was a concern Martin Luther shared, and is why he wrote the Small Catechism, which has short, clear explanations of the 10 commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. His idea behind writing it was to provide parents a way to help their children learn about their faith at home. What would happen if families looked at the small Catechism together, and asked themselves together, “what does this mean?” One exercise I’ve seen suggested, and I’ve seen done sometimes in Confirmation programs, is to write your own creed. What’s important to you about your faith? How would you articulate that?

The second part of always being ready is to consider the question “why do I believe what I believe?” Is this something the Bible tells me? Is it something society tells me? Have I learned this through experience? Was it some combination of factors? How did I come to these conclusions? As Lutherans, while we value personal experience and traditions, ultimately it is the Word of God that is our basis. We also believe, though, that the Word of God first and foremost is the Living Word—Jesus Christ. You remember the beginning of the Gospel according to John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was WITH God, and the Word WAS God.” Jesus himself is the living Word who speaks to us in our situation today, and so when we approach the written word, the Bible, we do so through Jesus-colored and cross-shaped glasses. We filter, we interpret, through the lens of Christ crucified and risen. And so it is in our confrontation with the Living Word through the written word that we wrestle with why we believe what we believe.

“Hold on a second. This sounds like work!” You’d better believe it is…but if we’re going to address the third part of always being ready, our faith making a difference in the world, then we need to personally spend time wrestling in the messiness of those first two questions. Only when we have an idea of what we believe and why we believe it can it make any difference in the world—either in our lives or in anyone else’s. Wrestling with our faith in this way is a messy process, but then again, isn’t life messy? Isn’t the world messy? How can our faith even begin to speak to our lives outside of the four walls of the church building if we haven’t engaged it? So this third part is the “so what.” So you believe certain things about God, and so you have an idea of why you believe those things, but now what? What difference does it make? Is it a matter of factual knowledge that you can file away in your “church compartment” and go on living real life somewhere else? Or does it matter? How does it matter that God created the world and all in it? How does that color how we see creation? How we see others, even those who we disagree with or who hate us? How does it matter that Jesus was fully divine and fully human—that he died on the cross and rose? How does it matter that the Holy Spirit is active and at work in the world today? All of Jesus’ teachings, all of what Paul and others wrote in the New Testament on our Christian life and relationships with God and each other—how do all of those things relate with each other and make a difference in how I see and act in the world?

So we know we’ve got to always be ready to make a defense to someone who demands an accounting for the…what? Hope. All of this study and introspection that we’ve done sort of leads to a forming of our personal theology. Theology comes from two greek words: theos and logos: theos is God and logos is word. So all theology is, is “God-words.” We’ve come up with some words about God, but those words are not there simply for their own sake. These aren’t just intellectual exercises. Our theology, our God –words, point to hope. The writer of 1 Peter understands that we’re Christians because of the “hope that is within us.” The gospel, the good news, the message of Christ is one of hope. God created the world. God loves the world SO much, that Jesus lived, died, and rose so that sin and death might be defeated and all of creation might be reconciled to God. We live in a now-but-not-yet world, where we still experience pain and death and the consequence of sin and our brokenness, but also live in the promise of the hope of the New Jerusalem. God is even now making all things new, and every act of mercy and justice and mission that we undertake is a foretaste of the feast to come of that final time. Every time we gather around the communion table we both remember Christ’s death and resurrection, and anticipate the great feast at the end of time when death and pain and tears will be no more. Our God words are words of hope, and our call is to share that hope with the world around us through what we say and what we do.

How then, do we do this? First of all, with gentleness. The root of the greek word here is the same one Jesus uses in Matthew 5:5 when he says “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” We associate meekness with allowing yourself to be a doormat for whatever anyone else wants to say or do, but what the greek is getting at is more of a sense of a gentleness of spirit. How often over time has the Bible, or the gospel message itself, been used as a weapon to assert power or authority instead of being used to convey the message of hope in Christ? How does this happen?

We forget the double meaning of hope. First, hope is something we want to have happen. Hope is a good thing. And the message of hope we find in the cross is the message that even when there was nothing that we ourselves could do to climb up the ladder to God, God came to us. God still comes to us. I’m sure many of you have seen the diagram showing two cliffs—us on one side, God on the other, and a great chasm representing our sin in the middle. Then a cross is drawn in the middle, showing that through the cross, that gap has been bridged. The problem with that diagram is that even with the cross bridging the gap for us, we’re still powerless to walk across on our own to God. The cross isn’t our pathway to God, the cross is God’s pathway to us. This is good news for the whole world! So then why doesn’t the world hear it as the good news it is? It’s because we often tie up our gift of hope with strings of condemnation and fear. We turn the God who has invited us all to the party into the heavenly bouncer trying to keep out the undesirables.

The other aspect of hope is that we often confuse hope with knowledge. We can be confident in our hope in Christ, we can have a confident faith, and the church is at its best when it’s active in ministry throughout the world, compelled by that confident faith and hope. But faith, hope, by their very definitions are things you can’t prove. We can become so sure of ourselves, so sure that we believe the right things, that our interpretation of the Bible and of who God is, is the right and only way to see it, that we lose the humility that naturally comes with faith. We replace faith and trust with knowledge. One of my favorite sayings is that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt—it’s certainty. Or knowledge. When we confuse ourselves is when mission and the good news both to each other and the outside world is sacrificed on the altar of being right. That’s not to say that what we believe isn’t important—but we must always deliver our message of hope with the gentleness and humility that comes from faith.

Finally, the good news is a message we speak with reverence. We think God’s message of hope is SO important, SO holy, such good news for the world that we do everything in our power to not allow our words and actions to get in the way of that message. If we preach forgiveness, but harbor grudges in our hearts, we are not treating our message with reverence. If we preach grace, but place strings on others, we’re not treating our message with reverence. If we preach Jesus and the cross but live as though there was no empty Easter tomb, then why should the world listen to anything we say? The way we go about loving either fully or with strings attached, disagreeing with one another either with respect or contempt, speaks volumes about what we really think about those things we say are important to us. The gospel is the most important message anyone will ever hear, whether it’s spoken or seen. How many people out there don’t follow Christ because of experiences they’ve had with the church? Or because the message they’ve heard or seen has not been the gospel of hope? Reverence here simply means respecting the gospel so much that we try as hard as we can not to obscure it for others with our own sinfulness.

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. Explicated and analyzed. Mrs. Wolford, I hope you approve.

Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

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