Relating in the world – May 21, 2017
1 Peter 3:13-22 Late last week I made the mistake of getting sucked in to a Facebook “conversation” that related to churches. The discussion was in response to a news article about the city of Montreal starting to tax churches. I don’t know the details of the various tax laws across the country, but in a nutshell it has to do with an exemption from paying municipal property taxes. The potential implications of removing that exemption could be significant. At any rate, I entered the fray, particularly with 2 people I don’t know, who both clearly had strong negative feelings towards church. After some to-ing and fro-ing, both conversations ended when each of them acknowledged that mostly, they just really, really didn’t like church, religion, Christianity… One finally admitting, though I think unwittingly, that “I will attack religion… every day, every second, and people who feel religion is real or that prayer is the best cure…” I thanked him for admitting that his intent was to attack and that was that. For a short while, the other seemed more interested in a reasonable consideration of facts, until she finally wrote… “but I’m also anti-religion…” and again that was that.
To state the obvious, we live in a primarily secular society. It is a shift that has happened over the past century or so, with Christianity and Christian churches losing much our dominance in society. With a few exceptions, like some historic tax exemptions, we have mostly lost the privilege we enjoyed for many centuries… a millennia or more. With this loss of privilege and dominance, I have heard Christians complain at times about being persecuted. At its most extreme, we hear of “culture wars” from the Religious Right. More benign versions are expressed when we point to Sunday shopping or children’s sports as what is to blame for a drop in church attendance. This loss of privilege sometimes feels like persecution, but it is a far cry from the deadly persecution Christians have faced at other times or in other places in our history.
Our epistle reading from Peter first letter comes from the early days of Christianity when believers were finding themselves increasingly at odds with the Roman society around them and suffered as a result. We know that Christians experienced periods of serious persecution at the hands of Roman emperors who were threatened by this new and quickly growing religion. While we can’t know the exact circumstances, First Peter was “written for a community that was suffering slander, if not persecution, from an unbelieving world.” And it addresses the question of how Christians can “hold fast to the promise of God’s blessing and at the same time act appropriately toward those who are hostile to the faith.” (NIB, 290) Our circumstances are very different today because our loss of privilege isn’t persecution but nevertheless, the question of how we hold fast to a faith that is no longer assumed to be true by a majority of people in society offers real challenge. With the rise of secularism, how we are to act towards those who do not share our faith, or who are even hostile to it, is an increasingly acute question.
Today’s passage begins with a question: “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?” and then immediately addresses the possibility that such a circumstance may, in fact, arise, saying: “But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.” It is a reminder, right up front, that as Christian people, our identity first and foremost is as beloved children of God. We are blessed because we know the grace, mercy and love of God… first and always. And it is out of that basic experience and understanding that we are called to relate to the world around us. We are blessed and if we act out of that, we won’t get sucked in to play by the rules of the world, so to speak.
The passage continues by describing a course of action: “Do not fear what they fear…” This injunction “do not fear…” is a familiar one. It is the first thing said by every messenger of God and by the resurrected Jesus. The first call of our faith is to not fear but to trust. Further, a note in the text indicates that the Greek could also be translated: “do not fear their fear…” Whatever we might experience at the hands of another may well be because of their own fear, and that realization can help shift how we see them and therefore how we might respond. The passage continues with more words of encouragement: “do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.” Do not fear. Do not be intimidated. Rather, remember Christ and how he behaved in life and in death. Be of good courage in the knowledge that the power of the love of God through Christ is our rock of faith.
The passage continues in the vein of encouragement and instruction: “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” At first glance, it sounds so simple… and yet it is an instruction and an injunction that is oh so difficult to fulfill. First is the command to readiness to express “an account of the hope that is in you…” This means that we have to know what we believe, how we hope, and be willing to talk about it. Whew. Maybe there was a time when this was easier than it is today… but then again, maybe it has always been exceedingly challenging! It can be a challenge to know what we believe – in what we hope. For many of us, our beliefs have shifted and changed over our lifetimes as our Sunday school faith has broken down and we haven’t always known how to replace it. Doubt and questions and new learning is a good and necessary part of developing an adult faith but that doesn’t make the process any easier. Moreover, defending our hope can seem hopeless given the serious hits it takes when we experience struggles in our personal lives and with difficult circumstances all around the world. We can only defend “the hope that is in us” if it actually is.
The second part of the command: “yet do it with gentleness and reverence…” is equally challenging. How easy… how tempting… it is to retreat into arrogance and superiority. Especially on social media where there is a measure of anonymity and the protection of impersonal distance. If we can forget that someone with whom we’re face-to-face is also a beloved child of God… however unknowingly, however demanding or annoying… then how much easier it is to forget or ignore it when you’re looking at words on a screen. It is one of the demons of our time. But today we are reminded to defend the hope that is in us with gentleness and reverence. A note on the text again suggests the alternative translation of “respect” for reverence. In other words, we are to treat those making demands on or of our faith with respect and with gentleness. Not because they are doing likewise, but because of who we are.
The writer goes on: “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.” It strikes me that the earlier verses appeal to our faith, our courage, our kind-heartedness… all in Christ, to behave well towards those who not only don’t share our faith but may even be hostile to it. And finally here we are given the proverbial carrot… the “oh and by the way… your good behaviour will put others to shame.” Just a little promise of a little vengeance to sweeten the pot of encouragement. A nicer way of saying it might be to quote former First Lady Michelle Obama: “They go low, we go high…” Either way, the point is that we are responsible to our own consciences and more importantly, to the God in whom we put our faith and in whom we know hope. If others sink to a troubling level of discourse, then so be it, but we are still called to respond with grace and compassion, gentleness and respect, as we remain steadfast, uncompromising, in our beliefs and our commitments.
I’d like to say that I fully met the standards set out in this passage in my Facebook interaction this week. I’d like to say it, but I’m not sure I can. I’d ask for your opinion but the truth is, I’d rather you didn’t see it at all! I didn’t take a flying leap over the line… but at best I danced pretty close to it. It can be hard, especially online, to remember not only that we are beloved children of God, but so are those with whom we disagree. Moreover, the negative emotion that so many feel towards God, the church, Christianity today is, in many cases, well earned. As a church, we have too often done wrong in ways large and small, and our actions can leave deep scars. And so as church people, along with all that we hear in First Peter today, we also often need to have a stance of repentance for hurts we may not have caused personally but that have nevertheless been done in the name of God.
How are we to relate to a world that is indifferent or even hostile to our beliefs, our presence, our community? Today First Peter reminds us…
To remember who we are as blessed, beloved children of God… forgiven, accepted, loved. To refuse to give in to fear. To be of good courage. To know what we believe, in our hearts and in our heads. To hold on to our hope in Christ. To act with gentleness and respect. It is not an easy list and so today and always, we seek the grace to follow it as best we can, and when we falter, we simply start again.