1 Peter 3:8-18 – How to Live in a Messed-Up World

Stations of the Cross at Holy Hill, Hubertus, Wisconsin

Finally, all of you be of one mind, sympathetic, lovers of your fellow believers, compassionate, and modest in your opinion of yourselves. Do not pay back evil for evil or insult for insult. Instead, give blessing in return. You were called to do this so that you might inherit a blessing.

For those who want to love life
    and see good days
should keep their tongue from evil speaking
    and their lips from speaking lies.
They should shun evil and do good;
    seek peace and chase after it.
The Lord’s eyes are on the righteous
    and his ears are open to their prayers.
But the Lord cannot tolerate those who do evil.

Who will harm you if you are zealous for good? But happy are you, even if you suffer because of righteousness! Do not be terrified or upset by them. Instead, regard Christ the Lord as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. Yet do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience. Act in this way so that those who malign your good lifestyle in Christ may be ashamed when they slander you. It is better to suffer for doing good (if this could possibly be God’s will) than for doing evil.

Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous. He did this to bring you into the presence of God. Christ was put to death as a human but made alive by the Spirit. (CEB)

If there were a sign-up sheet for suffering, I am confident no one put their name to it. We like to avoid suffering. After all, it hurts! I would make a terrible masochist. I am not a high tolerance for pain kind of guy. I have no problem taking a Tylenol at the first sign of discomfort. Yet, I know there will be times when I am going to have to experience pain – physical, emotional, and spiritual – and there is no way around it. To live in this broken world is to experience suffering. To suffer as a Christian, however, is different because we are following the way of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The stark reality of the New Testament is that there must be suffering before glory. Just as Christ suffered, we ought to expect we will suffer as his followers. As Christians walk with Jesus during the season of Lent, they journey through the desert full of temptation and hard circumstances. At the end of the journey will be the glory of Easter, a celebration of the resurrection. Christian theology confidently practices hope based on the redemptive events of Christ’s cross and resurrection, suffering and glory.

Stations of the Cross at Holy Hill, Hubertus, Wisconsin

We are not above our Master. We, too, will suffer. The real question is whether we will suffer because of our own foolishness and selfishness, or because of our devotion to Christ in being kind, humble, and gracious.  When insults come our way, we avoid responding with insults of our own. Verbal cruelty is not the way of Christ. Anger, slander, gossip, lies, manipulative words, and belligerent bullying have absolutely no place in the kingdom of God for any reason. God takes a zero-tolerance policy toward hate speech.

Christians are to us their tongues exclusively for blessing, not cursing; for love, not hate; for truth, not lies; for building-up, not tearing-down; for proclaiming good news, not shame-laced bad news. If we suffer for being Christians in solidarity with our Lord, we shall receive blessing from God. But if we suffer for giving-in to retaliation and our base desires for revenge, then we will suffer the consequences of our own stupidity.

God has called us to bless the world, not condemn it. Christians are to be on the frontlines of the mobilizing others for mercy, leading the charge of spreading respect, civility, kindness, and the gospel. Jesus said that it is no problem to show love and respect to people we like. However, it is a whole other ballgame to do the same for those who treat us with disrespect and hate. Yet, God watches over all who obey him, and he listens to their prayers. God will handle the hate-filled person; judgment is for neither you nor me to dish out. Our task is to have a deep concern for humanity, both the ones we like and the ones we do not.

I encourage you to take some time today or in the next few days to read the epistle of 1 Peter slowly and carefully in one sitting. It is a short book. Pay attention to how the adversity of living in this fallen world gives Christians the opportunity, hope, and encouragement to live well. 

May it be so, to the glory of God.

Loving Lord Jesus, you suffered and died on my behalf.  It is a small thing for me to follow you and walk in the way of suffering. I know and have the confident expectation that blessing awaits. Keep me true to following you through all the adversity I must face in this fallen broken world. Even so, come Lord Jesus. Amen.

Acts 2:36-42 – From Sorrow to Salvation

Baptism by American artist Ivey Hayes (1948-2012)

“Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (NIV)

Imagine we are all standing around in a huge modern-day lobby, ready to listen to Peter. We understand big events like this must be well-organized, so everyone is getting a name tag.  But the name tags are given to us with not only our first names; they also include our hidden guilt and shame.  People walk up to the registration table. “Name?” “Bob.”  “What are you ashamed of, Bob?”  “I stole some money from my boss once, and he never found out.” The person takes a marker and writes, Bill: Embezzler. 

Next person: “Name?” “Jill.” “Jill, what are you guilty of?” “I deliberately slandered a group of people. I said things that were not true about them because I did not like them.” So, the person writes on Jill’s nametag, Jill: Slanderer. “Name?” “George.” “What kind of guilt and shame are you carrying?” “I’ve been coveting my neighbor’s Corvette… and his wife.” George: Coveter. Person after person comes. 

Then, up to the table comes Jesus. “What is your shame, Jesus?” Well, in truth, none. So, Jesus starts walking down the line. He comes to Bob and says, “Bob, give me your name tag,” and puts it on himself. “Jill, give me your name tag.” He puts it on himself. “George, give me your name tag.” It goes on himself.

Soon Jesus is covered with name tags and a bunch of icky shame and awful guilt. Apart from Jesus, we cannot take the name tags off because we cannot shed the labels of who we really are. Christ bore the cross covered with all our guilt and shame attached to him. It was all crucified with him.

When the people of the Apostle Peter’s day understood who Jesus was and what he had done for them, they were deeply troubled in their spirits and their souls were horribly upset. They were cut to the heart with the things they had done which sent Christ to the cross. The crowd’s remorse was so deep and profound that they were beside themselves with spiritual pain and asked Peter,

“What shall we do!?”

Peter called them to “repent and be baptized.” To repent is to have a complete change of mind and heart; it is to express a courageous naming of shame, guilt, and sin. Repentance, then, leads to a 180 degree turn of direction to our lives. Repentance is realizing what we have become, and seeing it is not a good place to be.

Sometimes we lack awareness of how serious our situation really is and how at risk we really are. It may be hard to imagine our offense is bad enough to crucify Jesus. Perhaps we have self-justified our morsels of gossip or our lack of attention to the poor, only choosing to see our hard work and sincere efforts to do good.

For others, the problem with repentance runs deeper, having been raised in a legalistic environment. These folks lug around a guilt-laden backpack that would bend the knees of a mule. And most of the guilt, they realize, is neurotic—not based on any real transgression.  Every bad thought and each failure of faith is obsessed over to the point that they cannot shake the pangs of constant shame.

The good news is that the kingdom of God is near. In the name of Jesus Christ there is forgiveness, healing, and new life. If today there is a realization of being in a bad place in your life, whatever that place is, the cross of Christ addresses the deepest needs of your life. What shall we do?  Repent and be baptized.

Repentance, baptism, forgiveness of sins, and receiving the Spirit are all linked together in today’s New Testament lesson. Baptism is the sign and seal of God’s promise of forgiveness in Jesus; it visually shows us that God washes away our guilt and shame in the name of Jesus.

Baptism is a different kind of nametag, identifying that we belong to God. One who repents and embraces new life in Jesus Christ de-thrones all other competing lords and identifies as a beloved child of God.

The result of that ancient mass repentance and baptism was that three-thousand people were added to a small church of one-hundred-twenty persons! Since repentance leads to action, the new believers went to work devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and orienting their lives completely around Jesus through their constant fellowship together.

Allow me to be a bit more specific about what repentance looks like and does not look like. The prayers of the mildly repentant sound something like this:

“Easy-going God: We have occasionally had some minor errors of judgment, but they’re not really our fault. Due to forces beyond our control, we have sometimes failed to act in accordance with our own best interests. Under the circumstances, we did the best we could. We are glad to say that we’re doing okay, perhaps even slightly above average. Be your own sweet Self with those who know they are not perfect. Grant us that we may continue to live a harmless and happy life and keep our self-respect. And we ask all these things according to the unlimited tolerances which we have a right to expect from you. Amen.”

I like eggs.  I eat them nearly every day.  Fresh eggs are the best.  Sometimes I make an omelet, with, of course, bacon, green pepper, and cheese.  When I am making my omelet, if I crack open a rotten egg, I do not go ahead and mix it in with the others in the hope that the other good eggs will overwhelm the rotten one.

Grace can only be grace when we have a true realization of our guilt and shame. Grace is radical. It throws out the rotten omelet altogether and makes a new one so incredibly delicious that we never want to go back to the old way of making them. And it is for everyone who calls on the name of the Lord.

Godly sorrow, like the kind in today’s story, leads to repentance. In the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, he called them out and insisted they turn from their old way of life.  In his second letter, he followed up with this: 

I know I distressed you greatly with my letter. Although I felt awful at the time, I don’t feel at all bad now that I see how it turned out. The letter upset you, but only for a while. Now I’m glad—not that you were upset, but that you were jarred into turning things around. You let the distress bring you to God, not drive you from him. The result was all gain, no loss.

Distress that drives us to God does that. It turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain. But those who let distress drive them away from God are full of regrets, end up on a deathbed of regrets.

And now, isn’t it wonderful all the ways in which this distress has goaded you closer to God? You’re more alive, more concerned, more sensitive, more reverent, more human, more passionate, more responsible. Looked at from any angle, you’ve come out of this with purity of heart. And that is what I was hoping for in the first place when I wrote the letter. (2 Corinthians 7:8-11, MSG)

There are (many) times we need to feel awful before we feel wonderful – awful concerning how much we have hidden our shame and never let it see the purifying light of the gospel – but wonderful of how over-the-top good grace really is, once we have exposed the guilt and let Jesus replace it with God’s mercy.

O merciful God, we bring long-held grudges and recent grievances, and we chew them over, even at the foot of your cross. We tiptoe around chasms of misunderstanding, we pick our way anxiously among stumbling-blocks of language and culture, and blame each other for every misstep, even while singing of your Spirit. We tremble to name the troubles we see in the Church and the world, for fear of our own sins finding us out, for fear that we will become easy targets for everyone’s hostility. Have pity on us, for our hands are not strong enough and our hearts are not big enough to hold all together in love. We beg you to come to us, foolish as we are, downcast and despairing. We beg you to send us a breath of your Spirit with the perfume of resurrection and hope, through Jesus Christ, the Light of the world. Amen.

Matthew 8:14-17 – A Changed Life

Jesus Heals Peters Mother In Law
A mosaic of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law, from a Byzantine Church, c.1100 C.E.

When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.

When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“He took up our infirmities
    and bore our diseases.” (NIV)

One of the great realities we run headlong into with the New Testament Gospels is that Jesus has the authority to heal and transform the world… and me. Forty-one years ago, today, I experienced the reviving and revolutionizing work of Jesus Christ. I realize not everyone has a specific time they can point to when God does something miraculous, and I also do not expect that everyone’s experience of the divine must conform or be like my own. No, my encounter with God was just that, mine alone. Yet, I hope you find some encouragement and solace in my brief story.

I was probably the least likely person to become a follower of Jesus, let alone to have shown any promise toward the pastoral and religious life. I had serious reservations about the veracity of faith, the relevance of church, and the importance of religion. Although, outwardly, my family made attending our local church mandatory, inwardly, I felt the entire Christianity thing to be boring, irrelevant, and contrived. I was much more likely to behave passive-aggressively than piously.

But I began to rethink and revisit my doubts and epistemic assumptions about all things God and Christianity. The love of Christians around me stirred the internal upheaval. I had come to view the world as a cruel place and saw other people through jaded lenses. Relationships were for me a necessary evil. So, when love and grace entered my orbit, it threw me into sort of an existential angst. Having come to settled-thinking in my understanding of a dark world and having learned to navigate it with the tools of sarcasm and skepticism, genuineness and authenticity were a complete monkey wrench in my cosmology.

To put the whole matter succinctly, Jesus touched me. My small sin-sick heart was healed and enlarged. I walked away completely changed. I cannot accurately say what happened any more than I could tell you how a transplant doctor puts a new heart into the chest of a person. I can only speak to the results: newfound joy instead of nihilism; new desires to bless others and the world instead of looking for ways to disengage from people; new speech and wanting to edify and encourage people instead of sly words of putting others down; and, perhaps most surprising of all (to me) a thoroughly new desire to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Pastor Tim

The love of God in Christ made all the difference for me – and still does, all these years later. I stand in a long Christian tradition of outsiders and misfits entering the kingdom of God through spiritual metamorphosis – going all the way back to today’s story of Jesus healing and transforming.

In the first century, Jewish women were not allowed as far inside the temple as Jewish men.  Lepers could not go in, at all.  Centurions and Gentiles could only get into the outer court, emphasizing that they were outsiders.  In the synagogue service, women sat in the back, under the balcony. There were pious men who would pray, not in a spirit of humility, but thanking God they were not women.  In this healing account of a woman, no one asks Jesus for healing; he just walks into a house and heals Peter’s mother-in-law just because he wants to!

Christ’s authority, concern, and healing power even extended to the demonic realm. It perhaps goes without saying that most people would not want to hang-out with demonized people who carry a load of problems and sickness with them; they are yet another example of the classic outsiders.  If we take seriously that Jesus is our model for ministry, then we need to take passages like this seriously and connect with outsiders and bring them to Jesus.

The Old Testament quote comes from Isaiah 53:4. Sickness relates to sin – not always personal sin, but from living in a fallen and fundamentally broken world.  In other words, when the biblical text says that Jesus took up our infirmities and carried our diseases, it is saying that Christ takes our sin upon himself. His healing acts are tied to the cross.  There is new life and spiritual health in the cross of Jesus Christ.  We come to the foot of the cross as spiritual beggars, looking for grace and mercy in our time of need because Jesus has the authority to extend healing and deliverance from every sin and every sickness and every problem known to people.

Through Jesus Christ there is and can be healing for damaged emotions, broken hearts, pain-ridden bodies, and sin-sick souls. There shall be joy through mourning. There is life through death. A new day will dawn, carrying fresh grace and unique mercies for the journey ahead. Behind it all is the God who is still in the business of renewing minds and hearts, and reforming attitudes and actions through extravagant and inexhaustible love.

God of all creation forgive my foolish thoughts and errant ways; clothe me in my right mind; and, calm my troubled heart. My soul is off, and I cannot seem to find my balance, so I stumble and worry constantly. Give me the strength and clarity of mind to find my purpose and walk the path you have laid out for me. I trust your love, God, and know that you will heal this stress, and mend my spirit. Just as the sun rises each day against the dark of night, bring me clarity with the light of God, through Jesus Christ, Savior and Lord, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Hebrews 2:5-9 – For Everyone

Holy Hill Jesus
Jesus carrying his cross, from the Stations of the Cross at Holy Hill in Hubertus, Wisconsin.

It is not to angels that he [God] has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
a son of man that you care for him?
 You made them a little lower than the angels;
you crowned them with glory and honor
     and put everything under their feet.”

In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (NIV)

By Christmas eve of 1914, World War I had come to the point of trench warfare. On one point along the miles of trenches, there were the allied troops of French and Scots, and on the other side, the Germans. That night one Frenchman began singing Nuit Silencieuse (Silent Night). Eventually his comrades joined in. Much to their surprise, the Germans on the other side of the trench, recognizing the familiar tune, began singing in their native tongue, Stille Nacht, along with them. The Scots then joined in with their bagpipes. After the song, heads began to stick out from the trenches as both sides realized they had a common celebration in song.  This led to the white flags going up on both sides, and then the unthinkable happened. Both trenches, allied and axis powers, enemies of one another, left their holes in the ground and met in the middle, exchanging pictures, and communicating with each other.  The evening was capped off with the Scottish chaplain leading all the men together in a celebration of communion. The 2006 movie, Joyeux Noel, recounts the actual events.

Whenever we come together, expressed most highly for the Christian through the sacrament of communion, it puts our differences in their proper perspective – we all come together as one, not seeing each other as rich or poor, black or white, American or Asian, or anything else. The events of that Christmas eve in 1914, however, did not have a happy ending. The two sides found that, once the holiday had passed, they did not have the will to fight their new brothers. The top brass on each side were very upset and sent the Germans to the Russian front (and certain death); and, the Scottish chaplain was defrocked for his actions and sent home never to pastor again, letting us see in dramatic fashion that unity has a price.

Joyeux Noel
Scene from Joyeux Noel, 2006. A Scot, German, and Frenchman together on Christmas Eve on the western front of World War I.

The book of Hebrews was originally written (or preached) to encourage and exhort struggling Jewish Christians. The way the author of Hebrews did that was to point them squarely at Jesus. They were in danger of forgetting what the pioneer and champion of their salvation had done for them, and, what is more, they were in danger of reneging on their commitment to Christ. So, the entire book is dedicated to demonstrating and reminding discouraged believers that Jesus Christ is superior to everything, both in heaven and on earth.  Because of that truth, Jesus is worthy of our eternal devotion and remembrance.

Jesus is qualified to be our Savior and Lord. Every day and each minute of our lives are an opportunity for a fresh commitment to Jesus. The regular practice of Christian communion and consistent spiritual practices are meant to lead us into celebrating our Savior’s work. The worldwide communion of saints is celebrating with us in remembering and committing ourselves afresh to the lordship of Jesus Christ. A great victory has been won, not just in the trenches of human wars, but on the cross of Christ. This singular death on our behalf qualified Jesus to be our Savior from sin, once and for all.

Christ’s suffering qualified him to be our Savior.

Jesus suffered an inglorious and ignominious death. Yet, paradoxically, glory came through suffering. Jesus did not only suffer at his crucifixion; he experienced the full range of human suffering throughout his life.  He knew what it was like to face adversity and hardship. It is Christ’s suffering that helps us make sense of our own suffering. We can only truly be free from all that binds us by embracing that which makes us suffer. And because we live in a fallen world, we all personally suffer in some way. In addition, entire groups of people suffer – whether it is religious persecution, racial profiling, class warfare, or government oppression. This suffering is very much real, damaging, and dehumanizing which results in terrible living conditions and even death.

Maybe because of this reality, some tend to minimize their own suffering. After all, what is a harshly worded e-mail, trying to lose a few extra pounds, or an unexpected car repair compared to families devastated by COVID-19 and entire black neighborhoods in deathly peril?  It is all suffering none-the-less. It is good to keep our life situations in proper perspective; and, we must be careful to not tell God what he should and shouldn’t care about in this world.  If the only things that matter and qualify as hardship and difficulty is human trafficking, the terrors of war, or grinding poverty, then you will soon find yourself plastering a smile on your face and nodding over-enthusiastically whenever someone asks you how you are doing. Happy with-it Christians are insufferable, (pun intended).

Christ Carrying the Cross
Christ Carrying the Cross by Elijah Pierce, 1892-1984.

It is our task to find commonality and solidarity with Jesus in our own personal and corporate suffering. An admission of weakness, trouble, hardship, or suffering is neither a lack of faith nor the unpardonable sin. We know there must be a Good Friday before there is an Easter. Identifying with the adversity of our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout this nation and the world can be transformed into suffering that has meaning and significance. Our temporary sufferings now will someday result in the glory of being with Christ forever.

Christ’s suffering qualified him to be our compassionate helper.

Through the death of Jesus on the cross we have victory over Satan and all his wicked spirits. I have heard more than one motivational speaker say: “If you could do one thing in your life and not be able to fail, what would it be?” The truth is, because of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, we have victory and can live our lives in confidence and commitment to Jesus. What is more, we know that temporary failures and failings are not the end of the story. We possess a union with Christ because of the cross. Jesus is our champion. He stands with us in our suffering and temptations.

Christian speaker, author, and professor emeritus, Tony Campolo, told a story about observing communion when he was a child: “Sitting with my parents at a Communion service when I was very young, perhaps six or seven years old, I became aware of a young woman in the pew in front of us who was sobbing and shaking. The minister had just finished reading the passage of Scripture written by Paul that says, ‘Whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 11:27). As the Communion plate with its small pieces of bread was passed to the crying woman before me, she waved it away and then lowered her head in despair. It was then that my Sicilian father leaned over her shoulder and, in his broken English, said sternly, ‘Take it, girl! It was meant for you. Do you hear me?’ She raised her head and nodded—and then she took the bread and ate it. I knew that at that moment a heavy burden was lifted from her heart and mind. Since then, I have always known that a church that could offer communion to hurting people was a special gift from God.”

In solidarity with all who suffer, along with your brothers and sisters who agonize throughout the world, we have the blessed opportunity of bringing our troubles to a gracious God – thus finding forgiveness and hope.  May your burdens be lifted, and may you know Christ, and him crucified, died, buried, risen, ascended, and coming again. For, precious one, he knows you because he tasted death for you – for everyone.

Merciful Lord help me to remember in these troubled times the cross you carried for my sake so that I may better carry mine and help others do the same. Since you tasted death that I might taste life, I forever belong to you and offer up all that I am and all I hope to be to the glory of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.