Monday, May 26, 2008

“No Fear”

Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:8-18; John 14:15-21[1]

It seems these days that security is on everyone’s mind. There are whole industries that offer “security” for various aspects of our lives—whether it’s securing our property from burglars, securing our computer data, or even securing our financial information against identity theft! And we look for security in other areas as well—we try to secure our future by building up as much money as possible in a retirement fund (as if any amount of money could ever do that!). We seem to be intent on securing everything we can in our lives.

I think what drives us in this quest for “security” is fear. Fear is what drove the phenomenon of “urban flight” some thirty or forty years ago—the phenomenon that created suburbs as “bedroom communities” for urban centers—another trend that may be reversing itself in light of the rising cost of commuting. I think at least in some cases fear is behind our obsession with driving bigger and bigger vehicles in the (mistaken?) belief that they are safer, even though they take a small fortune in gasoline!

The problem with fear, especially in the context of the Christian faith, is that we begin to look at others not with sympathy, love, a tender heart, and a humble mind, as Peter instructs us (1 Peter 3:8), but with suspicion. And when fear kicks in we tend to go into “survival mode.” Unfortunately, our “survival instincts” at times aren’t very good at discriminating friends from enemies; in “survival mode” we tend to identify anyone and everyone as an “enemy.” What that leads to is hostility rather than sympathy and respect. It’s awfully hard to sympathize with others when we think they may harm us.

We’ve already seen how Peter addresses the sufferings of the Christians in Asia Minor. They suffered for their faith in a wide variety of ways—ranging from ridicule to hatred, and from ostracism to lynching! Rather than going into “survival mode” and responding in kind to those who were attacking them, Peter urged the Christians to respond with kindness and respect (1 Peter 3:16). We’ve already seen what Peter had to say about the assurance that the good news offered them—that their identity and their destiny were secure in God’s gracious hands. But he also pointed out that the good news constituted a call—a call to bear witness to the one who is at work to bring life and love and freedom and peace to all creation; a call to testify to the power of Jesus’ resurrection over death itself; a call to sing the praises of the one who died for us all to bring us new life and then rose again to secure our hope.[2]

In part they were to do that simply by the quality of the new life they were living. That’s why Peter emphasizes how important it is for them to practice humility, to serve with gentleness, and to “do good” regardless of how others treat them. But they were also called to speak out about their faith.[3] I think Peter must have imagined that there would be times when the people around them noticed that they were not repaying “evil for evil or abuse for abuse” but rather responding to hostility with blessing (1 Peter 3:9). And when they did notice, I think he envisioned them asking Christians why they were living in this strange sort of way. That’s when the believers would have the opportunity to tell them about the one who taught us to live in that strange sort of way by his deeds as well as his words.[4]

That certainly doesn’t mean, however, that everyone would respond positively. When the Apostle Paul spoke about his faith in Jesus Christ to one Roman official he said, “You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!” (Acts 26:24). Not long after Peter wrote this letter to the Christians of Asia Minor, Pliny, the Roman Governor of that province, wrote to the Emperor Trajan about the annoying problem he was having with the Christians.[5] He said that they were good enough in their daily lives—in fact, they made model citizens. But some of them would not renounce their faith and offer the required sacrifices to Roman gods to secure the empire’s good fortunes. Apparently, they would patiently explain their faith to him, and he would have them executed if they refused to renounce it! There were in fact cases when the Christians’ witness in word and deed would lead to suffering for the sake of the Kingdom of God, even possibly suffering death.[6]

Suffering for the Kingdom is still with us today. What happens when we may have to face hardships or even hostility because of our Christian faith? Do we go into “survival mode” and protect ourselves at all costs? That’s not the way Peter taught the Christians of Asia Minor to respond. Peter reminded them and us that our true security rests firmly in God’s hands. He reminded them and us that God will one day validate and confirm all that we do in the service of God’s Kingdom.[7] That promise sets us free from all our futile attempts at “securing” our lives. It enables us instead to overcome fear and the hostility it engenders.[8] It enables us instead to respond to those around us—both those who are hostile and those who are friendly—with sympathy, kindness, humility, and respect. And it enables us to “answer anyone who asks you to explain the hope you have in you” (1 Peter 3:15, TEV).

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached on 4/27/08 by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX

[2] See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3: 622: “The Christian becomes and is … the witness of the great Yes which God has spoken to [the world] in total renewal and definitive liberation.”

[3] See David L. Tiede, “An Easter Catechesis: The Lessons of 1 Peter,” Word and World 4/2 (1984): 200; accessed at Archives/4-2_Working/4-2_Tiede.pdf .

[4] Paul Achtemeier, 1 Peter, 223, reminds us that Peter’s instruction “grows out of the heart of the Christian faith”; i.e., Jesus’ life and teaching.

[5]See Pliny, Letters, 10.96-97; .

[6]This combination of assurance and confidence, of witness and suffering are what one scholar calls the “the Gospel of Good Friday and Easter.” The Christian life is not all suffering and hardship without any joy or hope or new life; but it’s also not all joy and hope with no crosses to bear. See Tiede, “Easter Catechesis,” 200. See further Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 467-69.

[7] See J. Ramsey Michaels, 1 Peter, 185, 193; see also Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3:642-43, where he says that Christian suffering takes place “in the light of the Easter revelation” that we are moving toward a new creation; “that future already determines and shapes the present of the Christian in his affliction.”

[8] Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God, 71, recounts John Donne’s struggle with his questions about suffering, and that he came to the conclusion that the choice he faced was “to fear God or to fear everything else, to trust God or to trust nothing.”

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