1 Peter 3:13-22 (NIV)
Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. 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. 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. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. 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. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you – not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
There is an old saying: “No good deed goes unpunished.” The underlying thought is: Good deeds are often unappreciated or are met with open hostility; OR, if they are appreciated, they lead to more requests. So, if our good deeds are unappreciated or result in punishment, why do we keep doing them? This seems to be the question that Peter addresses in this portion of his letter as he sets Jesus up as the standard for behavior. If being a Christian is going to cause us such pain, why should we continue?
It does seem like Peter is setting an impossible standard for us to live up to. Jesus maintained his integrity even unto his death; cannot we do the same? Are we strong enough? Do we have the will to live our lives like Jesus…No matter what? This letter aims to encourage believers to stand firm in their faith in the face of whatever persecution may come their way. The result of this faithfulness will be the realization of God’s promises through Jesus that we are saved for eternal life. What I want us to think about today is a more immediate concept of doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do.
Peter’s original audience were either suffering persecution or anticipating it, simply because they professed their belief in Jesus. We have a hard time understanding this concept because most of us will never be persecuted for our faith. But remember last week we prayed for a young woman in Sudan who has been sentenced to death solely because she refuses to denounce her Christian faith. I heard an interview on the radio the other day with a young girl in Nigeria where Christians are being persecuted by the Boko Haram. She told of the day they came into her home and shot her father, a Christian pastor, because he refused to renounce his faith. The terrorists then turned and shot her younger brother in the face. These examples are extreme, but they are reality for many Christians around the world. While we may not be in danger of similar threats, there are other dangers that may arise when we profess our faith and truly act like Jesus. Let’s talk a bit about what that might look like.
One example comes from the field of Liberation Theology that seeks to apply Christian ideals to the plight of the under-served around the world. Many Christians question and refuse to submit to the idea of a global economic policy that creates poverty in third world and emerging nations so that a small group of Western industrialized nations can use and abuse a large portion of the earth’s resources. The result of this resistance is hostility from the dominant culture. Any attempt to radically change the structures that create this injustice so that they more closely reflect the Gospel message ensures persecution. Greed trumps Gospel every time.
In his latest book, Making Sense of Scripture, Adam Hamilton writes: I’m reminded of President Eisenhower’s famous speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in April 1953, shortly after the death of Joseph Stalin. It was a gutsy speech calling for reining-in the Cold War: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.” (Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible, New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2014, page 204) (By the way, we will have a Bible Study on this text beginning September 8th.) Remember, Eisenhower delivered that speech in 1953. The economic impact he talks about is even greater in today’s reality.
The looming question is: How do we balance our Christianity with the politics of war? How do we live in this “modern empire” while resisting the evils of imperialism? Would Jesus choose either “side of the aisle” or would he simply choose humanity? Christians are called to follow Christ’s example by living a life of integrity in the face of opposition. Integrity is about living according to a consistently high standard of behavior. This really means doing the right thing even when no one is watching. It means doing the right thing even if the right thing is unpopular. It means doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do.
I think it is important for us to notice the reference to Baptism in this text. Peter compares the Great Flood that washed away the evil in the world, to Baptism, which washes away our sins. He says that this is not for the removal of dirt from our body; it is, “an appeal to God for a good conscience.” Baptism is an invitation for us to view our lives through the lens of Jesus Christ. It challenges us to realize that our life is much bigger than our limited assessment of self. God perceives us as eternally valued; so valuable that Jesus was willing to die for us. If we can begin to perceive our lives, our value from God’s perspective, then whatever suffering comes from our commitment to Christ is minor. It may be unpopular to be against the death penalty…but that is precisely where Jesus would stand. It is probably controversial to advocate for taking care of the poor and disadvantaged…but that is what Jesus would do. Some people may not agree that faithful stewardship includes caring for our environment, which might lead to resisting hydraulic fracturing. There might well be a long discussion about what being a Christian has to do with using Styrofoam coffee cups and plastic tableware. I truly believe that many Christians would be surprised by Jesus’ positions on some of the issues that face our culture today.
The more able we are to reveal our confidence in God through behavior choices, the more closely we grow to living like Jesus, whose entire life was a picture of living confidently in God. I think that Peter is telling us that we are supposed to reveal Jesus through the way we behave and engage the world. We reveal Jesus when we understand what it means to obey as Christ obeyed. We reveal something else entirely when we do not.
In this letter Peter talks about those who did not obey God as the ones swept away in the Great Flood. The concept of obedience goes all the way back to Adam and Eve in Genesis. The great sin that caused humanity to be driven out of paradise was not about eating a piece of fruit; it was about our failure to obey God. In our culture this word “obey” often gets some bad publicity…People find the word to be oppressive, confining, and offensive. In Hebrew and Greek, the word for “obey” means: “listen closely.” The example that Jesus sets for us is that he listened so closely to God, which led him to serve and to love humanity in radical and selfless ways. I don’t think that Peter mentions Noah and this idea of obedience to threaten his readers. I think his point is for us to learn to listen closely to God. I believe he wants us to desire this so much that it reveals our absolute confidence in God and our willingness to act based on what we hear. When we obey – really listen closely to God – we avoid the paths of destruction followed by those who did not listen in Noah’s day.
With all of that said, I wonder if part of our problem is actually defining “the right thing.” How is it that sincere Christians can disagree on so many issues – some large, some small? Can we really know with certainty what Jesus would do in any given situation? I believe that our only hope of understanding “the right thing to do” is to constantly remind ourselves of Jesus own words. In Matthew 22:36-40 we read: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” “This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
If we believe what Jesus says here and we agree to “obey” – or listen closely to God, then we realize that everything we do, every choice we make hinges on love – the kind of love that God shows us. The right thing to do is to show love for God and love for neighbor even when showing love gets us criticized. When thinking Christians disagree and the disagreement brews into hatred or violence, then love is no longer the focus. When following the crowd or getting along in the culture includes injustice toward another person, then you can bet Jesus is not part of it. Earlier I said that integrity means doing the right thing even when no one is watching. It might also mean: doing the right thing when everyone is watching. It is often hardest to do the right thing when you are aware that others disagree with you about what the right thing is and they “hide and watch.” We must have the courage to listen and obey, to love even when it is unpopular, and to follow Jesus’ leadership when the crowd moves in a different direction. To modify Nike’s tag line: “Just Do It – The Right Thing”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.