Sermon 05/17/2020: “Offering to Others the Reason for Your Hope”

May 18, 2020

Scripture: 1 Peter 3:13-22

When I was young, I was not a graceful or confident swimmer. In fact, I didn’t learn to swim properly until I was in my 20s—when Lisa, my wife, taught me to swim. Until then, I was mostly a scaredy cat when it came to the water. 

So imagine how I felt, then, when, in 1988, I found out I got accepted into Georgia Tech. I was happy. I told a friend of mine at church, and the very first thing he said to me was this: “Oh… You’ll have to take drown-proofing. It’s a requirement for all male students. Goes back to World War II. And oh, by the way, if you don’t pass drown-proofing, you can’t graduate.” 

“What’s drown-proofing?” I asked… innocently. “Well… Let me put it this way: for the final exam, they tie your arms and legs together and throw you into the deep end of the pool. And if you don’t drown, you pass the class!” Suddenly, the prospect of going to Georgia Tech, which seemed hard enough already, now seemed like a death wish. I was reasonably certain I would not survive drown-proofing. 

“Don’t worry,” my friend said, “If you drown, they’ll award you your degree posthumously. They’ll give it to your parents.” Gee, thanks!

To my relief, Tech had—mercifully—dropped the drown-proofing requirement a couple of years before I got there, so I didn’t have to take it. But I didn’t know that for at least a few weeks after I got accepted. So for me it felt like, “Congratulations! The good news is, you got into the college you’ve always wanted to go to! The bad news is, you’re going to risk dying this horrible death as a result. Hey! But the good news is… You got into Tech!”

In verses 13 to 17, when Peter tells persecuted Christians in Asia Minor to “have no fear” of people who would harm them because of their faith, the message is similar: “Congratulations! The good news is, through your faith in Jesus, God has given you this completely free gift of eternal life! Your sins are forgiven. You’ve been adopted into God’s family. The bad news is, being a Christian may cost you your social standing, your good name, your reputation; it may cost you your friends and family; it may cost you your job, your livelihood, your future financial prospects. You may suffer beatings. You may go to prison. Indeed, you may even have to sacrifice your life because of your faith. But the good news is… you’re saved.”

And these Christians to whom Peter was writing, no matter how afraid they might have been, were willing to say, “Okay… I accept these terms. I’m okay with suffering if it means I have Jesus! If I have Jesus, my enemies can kill me—because even if they take everything, including my life,what have I really lost? Nothing! In fact, I’ve gained everything!” 

This was their attitude!

And this was the attitude of Peter, who, as I said last week knew he had an appointment to keep with the executioner; Jesus warned him about that in John chapter 21. And Peter says later in this letter, “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” This was the attitude of Paul—“that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” This was the attitude of the author of Hebrews: “Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.”

And of course it is the attitude that Jesus demands that all of us disciples have: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross”—that is, “take up his or her instrument of shame, humiliation, torture, and death”—“and follow me.” Matthew 16:24. This teaching is not optional for disciples of Christ. If we treat our relationship with Christ so lightly, if we treat it like cross-bearing is some optional extra feature for more advanced Christians, but not for us normal, average, every-day American middle-class Christians, then we might be surprised on Judgment Day, when we hear our Lord say to us, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”

A few years ago, the former megachurch pastor and best-selling Christian author Francis Chan, who wrote Crazy Love, talked to a group of Facebook employees about why he stepped down from pastoring the 5,000-plus member San Francisco church that he started. He said he stepped down in part because he had grown “comfortable” pastoring this church. He didn’t think that God had called him to be “comfortable”—he doesn’t think that God calls any of us Christians to a life of comfort. And he said something that struck a chord with me: he said he missed the “old Francis Chan”—“that stupid kid who fell in love with Jesus in high school and starts calling everyone in the yearbook that he knew to tell them about Jesus because he was so concerned about their eternal destiny.”

That touches something within me—because I remember being a kid like that. Do any of you remember being a kid like that? Are any of you like that today? I hope so!

I worked at Kroger for a couple of years in high school. One summer our manager tried something new to improve our customer service: He insisted that we take customers’ bags out to their cars. And for the whole summer we did this. And I promise you, when we started doing it, the 16-year-old version of Brent used to pray, “God, show me how I can use the two or three minutes that I have between bagging the groceries and loading them in the trunk to share the good news of Jesus Christ with this person.” And I had gospel tracts in my pocket, which I would hand to them if I thought it appropriate.

Why did I do that? For the same reason Francis Chan called all those people in his yearbook: Because I was in love with Jesus, and I loved these Kroger customers enough to care about whether or not they spent eternity in heaven or hell. I loved them enough to want them to love Jesus like I loved Jesus!

Was I wrong back then to do that? To be so concerned about people’s souls that I would risk having an embarrassing or awkward conversation to tell them about Jesus?

I wasn’t wrong!

And Francis Chan wasn’t wrong. Jesus does not call us Christians to be comfortable. And given that the time we spend in this life on this earth is the tiniest fraction of a second in comparison to the time that we will spend in eternity, it’s crazy—it’s irrational—that we wouldn’t sacrifice some of our very temporary, very short-term comfort in order to win people to Christ, to save them from their sins, to offer them eternal life!

Jesus said, “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” John 15:20. Jesus is not qualifying these words! They’re not merely for those first-generation disciples!

I’m not saying we should seek out persecution—to look for trouble, to be obnoxious about your faith, or to have a persecution complex—but I have to ask: Have you experienced any persecution in your life because of your faith?

If not, I think I know why… 

Because you have not been faithful doing what United Methodists promise God and the church that we’re going to do when we become members of this church: We promise to be witnesses. It’s what Jesus commands us to do when he tells us to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” and our own United Methodist mission statement reflects this when it says that our mission is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Our own United Methodist Book of Discipline elaborates on this mission, saying, that the church “must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced. There can be no evasion or delegation of this responsibility; the church is either faithful as a witnessing and serving community, or it loses its vitality and its impact on an unbelieving world” (¶ 129).

Several years ago, at a previous church I served, I was interviewing a young man for the position of worship leader in our contemporary service. He was an evangelical Christian, a Spirit-filled man of God, but he wasn’t very familiar with Methodist churches in general, or our church in particular. So he wanted to find out about our church—like anyone interviewing for a church job—and nearly the first question out of his mouth was this: “So how many people got saved at this church last year?”

I had been in pastoral ministry for ten years at that point. And I promise you, this was the first time anyone had ever asked me that question. How many people got saved last year? I was embarrassed that I didn’t know the answer… I mean, sure, I could talk about worship attendance, transfers of membership, confirmation participants… But salvation…? “I think the Baptists worry about that. Do we Methodists do that?”

How is it possible that no one in our United Methodist Church asks that question… if… if… if… what we say about our church’s urgent mission is really true? 

A few years ago, at our North Georgia Annual Conference, a clergy couple was speaking to this gathering of a couple thousand Methodists in Athens. I don’t know their names, and I wouldn’t embarrass them if I did—but they were talking about how important it is for churches to do outreach. And I’m like, “Amen.” Outreach is important. And one of them said, “We make a point of getting out in our community, getting to know our neighbors—not to somehow save them but to show them how much we love them.”

Listen, I would be a hypocrite to be too hard on these pastors. I’m not so different. I went to the same seminary they went to; and for a while, at least, I drank the same Kool-Aid they drank; I know the propaganda; I know what they were all taught about witnessing and evangelism. But what drove me crazy was the way this pastor said those words, “not to somehow save them.” I promise you, she even used air quotes when she said the word “save.” I wanted to say, “Wait… Are we not trying to somehow save lost people? If not, what are we doing here? What did Paul say? ‘I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.’” 

That by all means I might save some. Oh, Lord, let that be my attitude! Let that be my urgent and holy desire… that through my ministry, through my witness, through my actions—by all means—but also through my words, I might save some

So my point is, I disagree with my clergy colleagues: Whatever we do to reach out to our community, we are doing so for one overarching reason: to somehow save them! We’re going to do what Peter tells his readers to do in verse 15: to always be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” 

And just so you know, like Rick Gillian, our incoming associate pastor, April Briant, not only shares my convictions about our church’s urgent mission to save the lost, she and I have already talked about some specific things we can do—plans for training and equipping y’all—to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We have a plan, and she’s already implemented it at a previous church. So you’ll be hearing more about that.

I have to now deal with a few verses that Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation and a great Bible scholar, called the most hard to understand scripture in the entire Bible: Verses 18 to 20. 

If you have your Bibles—and you should—look with me at verses 18 to 20. What is this about Jesus’ preaching to the “spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.”

What is Peter talking about? There is much disagreement in scholarly circles. Here is one interpretation that enjoys wide support: During the time before the Flood, Noah was preaching to the people, warning them about the coming flood and how the flood was God’s judgment against their sin. Through they Ark, however, they had an opportunity to be saved from this judgment and wrath. Noah was preaching this message, but of course it was really the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of Jesus Christ, who was preaching through Noah, just as this same Spirit preaches through  the Christians to whom Peter is writing, and preaches through us today, as well. You can imagine how crazy people thought Noah was during those decades of building the Ark. “What is he doing? He’s nuts!”

And Noah was persecuted by people because of his faithfulness to God, just as these Christians to whom Peter is writing are being persecuted because of their faithfulness. And Peter is comparing the waters of Noah’s flood to the waters of baptism. Noah and his family were saved through the flood; Christians are saved through baptism—not by the mere ritual of baptism—the mere act of getting water sprinkled on you can’t save anyone—but through what baptism represents: that through our faith in Christ, we have died to sin—the penalty for our sins has been paid by Christ and we are now counted as righteous before God—and we have new life through Christ’s resurrection, both now and eternally.

So this is Peter’s message: He’s encouraging these Christians in Asia Minor. “The situation you’re facing,” he says, “isn’t so different from the one that Noah faced; but God will surely deliver you, just as he delivered Noah—through the ‘ark’ of God’s Son Jesus. No matter what happens to you, no matter what other people do to you, you’re going to be safe—eternally.”

I hope that makes sense. Email me at brent@fumctoccoa.org if you have questions…

But there’s another message here that we need to hear…

Jesus: “For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Do you sense the urgency? Time is running out. And we don’t know how many people need to hear this gospel message, so that they can repent and be saved. God knows. But he is calling us, as individuals and as the church, to use our words, our actions, our resources to share this message while there is still time!

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