A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Easter
Sermon for the Third Sunday after Easter
1 St. Peter 2:11-17 & St. John 16:16-22
by William Klock
Today’s lessons dovetail off last week’s as we continue on with this look at what it means to live as Easter people—as people of the Resurrection. Last Sunday we heard St. Peter telling us that to follow Jesus means to pursue holiness and to be persecuted for it by the world. And we looked a bit at Peter’s own life so that we could see the amazing change that Jesus had made in his life. Thirty or forty years earlier, people who knew Peter probably would have laughed if you’d told them that he would write these words about enduring suffering with grace. Peter was the big fisherman—rough and tough and always ready to take a stand for himself and his friends. When Jesus said that his mission was the cross, it was Peter who shouted, “No Lord! Not you!” When the soldiers came for Jesus, it was Peter who expected trouble and was wearing a sword. It was Peter who attacked the soldiers rather than let Jesus be taken away to suffering and death. And now, thirty years later, he writes to his fellow Christians that to follow Jesus is to take up our own crosses—to endure our own suffering, and sometimes even death.
What a change! And yet, brothers and sisters, this is the change that distinguishes the early Church from the modern Church in the West—even from the Church here in the Comox Valley and Vancouver Island. In those early centuries of Church history, Christians drew others to Jesus in amazing numbers. They converted an empire to the cross, mostly by being willing to take up their own crosses, by be willing to set aside their own rights and desires and ambitions, and instead, looking out for others—desiring to live by the example of Jesus. They understood the cost of discipleship, but they were willing to pay it because, as Peter puts it, they had put themselves in the hands of “the Shepherd and Bishop” of their souls. They were effective witnesses because they were a people truly, visibly, and dramatically reborn in the likeness of Jesus—people like Peter, the rough and tough fisherman, always ready for a fight, who changed his life and took up the cure of souls and eventually was crucified for his faith.
They were lights shining brightly in the darkness. By contrast, our light is dim. And because our lights are dim, no one comes. Our churches are too often more obsessed with tickling itching ears and attracting people with worldly, man-centred teaching than they are with truly preaching the Gospel and committing themselves to holiness and to selfless sacrifice in the face of the world. As Christians we say we’ve entrusted ourselves to the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls, but for all intents and purposes when the world looks at us it still sees people who look for their security in bank accounts, houses and cars, jobs, and the accumulation of worldly stuff. When they see us, they see people that often aren’t much more holy than they are. And sadly, they see people who, when their rights are stepped on or who when things don’t go our way, fight back—people an awful lot like Peter before he was Saint Peter. And the end result is that the Church looks more and more like the world, her light grows less and less bright, she draws fewer and fewer people.
Friends, the time is short. Don’t let us squander it. In our Gospel this morning we heard those words over and over: “a little while”. Jesus told his disciples that he was leaving, but not for long. In a little while he’d be back. He said these words as part of his farewell address to his disciples, just before he was arrested, and the immediate situation was his death. He would be gone and they would mourn, but in a little while—just three days—he’d be back and they could rejoice with him in the Resurrection. But Jesus words obviously refer to more than just what was going to happen that over the next several days. These words prepared his disciples for his ascension. He was resurrected on that first Easter morning and was with his disciples in resurrected glory for fifty days, and then he ascended—he went to his Father—and was gone again—and again, they might have mourned if it weren’t for the fact that they knew he would come back “in a little while”. And as St. Augustine said when he preached on this passage, these words are for all Christians, because we all live in expectation of our Lord’s return, and if it seems like it’s more than just a “little while”, that’s only because we lack eternal perspective—we don’t understand that our time here, even if we live to be a hundred, is nothing compared to eternity. Even if we wait another thousand or another ten thousands years for Jesus to return, that time is nothing compared to the eternal joys of the New Jerusalem.
St. Peter takes up the same theme in the Epistle as he exhorts us to follow Jesus and live truly transformed lives—to witness the resurrection life of Christ to the world. Jesus encourages us, reminding us that this life, as we struggle with the world, the flesh, and the devil—this life in which we face suffering and persecution, is just for “a little while”. And Peter tells us:
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. (1 Peter 2:11)
“Be different,” he says. “Let your light shine brightly even though it means putting up a fight against all the worldly things that pull you in other directions and that would make your light dim. Just remember that you’re a sojourner, that you’re an exile here in this world. It can pull at you all it wants, but the world’s business is not your own. Heaven is your business.” And friends, that why the early Christians were so effective: they knew that their home was heavenly and they made the things of heaven their business. They focused on the things of the world only so much as they had to. They took care of business here, whether that was work or family or even their recreation, but they didn’t live for those things. No, they lived for Jesus and they lived for eternity. They knew that it’s really his kingdom that matters.
Think of Jesus’ own example. One day a scribe came to him and said, “I want to follow you.” And Jesus knew that this man wasn’t ready to count the cost. He told him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). Even when it came to family—and I think that’s the one thing, even when we’ve put God ahead of everything else in our lives we still often put our families before God—even when it came to family, Jesus knew that his Father’s kingdom was more important. When his mother and brothers wanted to visit him, he instead put his arms around his disciples and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!” (Matthew 12:48).
St. Matthew tells us that on another occasion, one of the disciples asked Jesus to let him go home to bury his father. Jesus said to him, “Follow me and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” Another time he said to Peter, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29). Jesus’ point wasn’t that we should abandon our worldly obligations, but that following him truly means putting him first. Again, in Matthew 10:37-39 he says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” How do we shape up to those words in light of our own commitment to Jesus—or lack thereof? We say, “Well, Jesus didn’t mean those things literally.” And, yes, we might be right to a point, but how often do we say that and use it as an excuse to justify our lack of commitment to Jesus? He’s given us a new citizenship and with that heavenly citizenship comes a new mission. He makes us strangers and sojourners in the world. But so often we choose to live with a dual citizenship. We claim heaven as our home on Sunday mornings, but when we walk out those doors, instead of living like sojourners, we take up our full rights as citizens of the world. We sing praises on Sunday, we commit ourselves to God at his Table, and we go out with that command: “Go forth in peace to love and serve the Lord,” but instead we go out to love and serve the world. And then we wonder why we find it so hard to draw people into the kingdom of God.
Peter goes on in verse 12:
Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
In Peter’s day there were all sorts of false accusations that were made against Christians. Because we worship only one God—something the Greek and the Romans just couldn’t wrap their heads around—Christians were accused of being atheists. People heard that Christians ate the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper and accused them of cannibalism. Because Christians were truly committed to Jesus and refused to declare the emperor as their lord, they were accused of being disloyal. The list goes on and on, and so Peter says to them: Even as the pagans around you accuse you of all sorts of evils, making all sorts of false accusations, and even—as we saw last week—as they persecute you for your righteousness, live “honourably”. Literally, he says, live lives that are good and beautiful. Why? Here’s where Peter takes us back to that idea of cross bearing. I know a lot of Christians—and sometimes you and I are those Christians—who look at sin in the world and who experience persecution for our righteousness and we respond with a self-righteous attitude. It’s like we just can’t wait for judgement day so that all those dirtbags—all those people who laughed at our faith, all those gays and people having sex outside of marriage, all those druggies, all those atheists—they just can’t wait to see the surprised look on their faces when God judges them and they get sucked straight to hell. They forget that they’re sinners too. They forget that at one point they were dirtbag sinners that would be hellbound on Judgement Day too if it hadn’t been for Jesus. So Peter doesn’t tell us: Live good lives so that you can sit at the right hand of the Father on Judgement Day and smugly gloat at all the people going to hell. Live good and beautiful lives so that by your example, the pagans around you will see Jesus at work in you. Shine your lights brightly in the dark so that the men and women will see your light and be drawn to it. You ought to be concerned for their souls. When Jesus was dying on the cross he looked at the people gathered around him—the people who had crucified him and were jeering at him—and he cried out to his Father, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And as we bear our own crosses in the world—as we face the world’s scorn and false accusations—we should have the same attitude that Jesus did, as kingdom people with our eyes set on heaven, our first thought shouldn’t be how our rights are being trampled, but should be on the fact that without our witness, the souls of these people are bound for eternal damnation—eternity apart from God.
Peter goes on and gives us a practical example of what this looks like:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. (1 Peter 2:13-15)
It’s was providential that Peter gave this particular example of submitting to earthly government, because this is exactly where the persecution would be coming from in only a year or two. And yet even before state persecution started, Christians were asking: “Should I submit to the emperor? If I do, how far do I go?” The Roman emperors and governors did some evil things. We think our society is evil and focused on death and violence and sex, but the Greco-Roman world was much, much worse. And so Peter says to these people, that God’s people aren’t going to change the world by revolting against the government. He knew this was a mode of thinking that Christians could easily fall in to. This was what the Jews were stuck on for most of their history: looking for a warlord Messiah who would conquer the Romans and re-establish the old Davidic kingdom. But Peter understood now that God’s kingdom isn’t about an earthly place or an earthly temple—it’s about his people, his body, his Church. And so he reminds these people that change happens—that the kingdom comes—not through revolution, but through revelation—through God’s manifestation of himself to the world through his own people.
So, he says in verse 16:
Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.
Here’s our problem: Jesus died and through his death he bought our freedom. But we take that freedom for granted—we take his sacrifice and too often we claim it as our own and then we just stop at that point. We’re Good Friday people, but we forget that real Good Friday people are alsoEaster people. We forget that true faith always shows itself in works that are good and beautiful, because Jesus didn’t just die to save us from the penalty of our sins—he also died to save us from our actual sins—he died to make us holy.
Peter saw some people who claimed to be followers of Jesus—who claimed to have faith and claimed Jesus as their Saviour—but who weren’t showing that they’d made him their Lord and who weren’t living the new, risen life that true and saving faith brings with it. They were basically using the salvation that Jesus offers at the cross as a “Get Out of Hell Free” card—“I can do whatever I want now and because I’m a Christian I don’t have to pay the eternal consequences.” And Peter reminds us, “No. If that’s how you live, you bring shame on Jesus and his body, you drive people away instead of drawing them in, and ultimately you just prove that your faith isn’t real.”
This is one of the mysteries—one of the paradoxes—of Christianity: Through the shed blood of Jesus at the cross we are made free and yet at the same time we are made servants (literally, Peter says “slaves” in the Greek). Jesus frees us from our sins, but if we’re free from our sins, that means we’re also freed to do what we were never able to do before: to love him, to serve him, and to live a life of truth and beauty, a life of good works pleasing to him. And that kind of life shows itself—and commends itself—to others as we:
Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:17)
“Honour everyone.” That’s the “Golden Rule”—treat others as you would have them treat you. As you deal with other people in the world, remember that Jesus loves them and died for them just as he loves you and died for you. It’s amazing how this works to change our attitudes toward people. Pray for your enemies and do good to them. It’s hard to feel self-righteous toward, or to judge and condemn people for whom you’re praying. Instead, you remember that they’re people who need Jesus in their lives. It reminds you to shine your light brightly—and all the more brightly the more they trouble and persecute you.
“Love the brotherhood”. Love your brothers and sisters in Christ—love the Body. Show the world what it means to be in love and fellowship and communion with each other. Too often people look at the Church and they see fights and splits and people who don’t get along—and that’s shameful. The first place to witness the love of Christ is right here in his Body.
And then Peter says, “Fear God. Honour the emperor.” He brings all this back to where he started. Live in this word as sojourners and exiles. As you live in this world, remember that you’re just passing through—that it isn’t your true home, because your true home and your true citizenship are in heaven. But remember too that God has given you this temporary mission here for a reason—he wants you to be his ambassadors. He wants us to show the world what his kingdom is like and to draw others to it, so he says, “Don’t do anything to deliberately offend the world. Show the people around you respect and honour. Obey the laws and rules. But remember that God is your final authority. If there comes a time when you have to make a decision between obedience to him and obedience to the world, always follow him—but as much as it is possible, be a good ambassador of the kingdom of God and don’t give anyone reason to despise it.
This week we were down in Victoria. It’s tourist season and there are Americans everywhere you go, and as an American I found myself cringing. There were so many bad ambassadors. These days Americans aren’t the most popular people on the planet, and as an American living in Canada I find I want to be a good ambassador—I want to prove people wrong when they say nasty things about Americans. But as I walked around Victoria, an awful lot of people were instead proving those accusation true. Brothers and sisters, as Christians we’re often bad ambassadors in the same way. People accuse us of being self-righteous, holier-than-thou hypocrites. Peter tells us to prove them wrong by being good ambassadors, but too often we actually prove them right. And, brothers and sisters, we prove them right because too often we’re too attached to the things and to the ways of the world.
We need to cut ourselves loose from the world. Again, we need Jesus’ reminder that it’s just “a little while”. When it’s hard to endure suffering, when it’s hard to endure persecution, just remember that this time is only “a little while”—he’ll be back soon. And when it’s hard to turn our focus from earthly thing to heavenly things, we need that reminder that the things of earth are also just for “a little while”—they have nothing to compare with the things of heaven—the things of eternity.
Please pray with me: Father, in our collect this morning we asked you, “grant to all who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ's service that they may renounce those things that are contrary to their profession and follow all such things as are agreeable to it.” We ask that again, and we ask that you would remind us that we are here for just “a little while”. Strengthen us to persevere in the face of suffering and persecution and remind us that because our time here is so short, our best investments are the ones we make in your eternal kingdom. Give us grace that we might shine as bright lights in the darkness of the world and use our lights, we pray, to draw others to you. We ask this in through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.