s029e99 Somerton Park 9/5/99 Easter 6
"Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. 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." 1 Peter 3:15-16.
The first part of this text has oft been used to encourage Christians to boldly rebuke vice, following the tradition of John the Baptist who rebuked king Herod for marrying his brother's wife. (Mk 6.18) We have made a Christian virtue of the quick wit, which however so often puts the other person down. The text however encourages us to "do it with gentleness and reverence". It's a bit hard to see John the Baptist as gentle or reverent. He was hardly gentle on himself with his camel hair coats, and it a bit hard to be reverent swimming in the middle of the Jordan river. I have on occasion been the recipient of a put down or two, and I know how irreverent and destructive these are.
As I was walking along the foreshore the other day, some Jehovah's Witnesses offered me a "Watchtower" to read - it was not long after another person solicited me for a donation to support research into emphysema, but rather before I was propositioned by the pregnant parking meter near the jetty wanting to tell me the time in half a dozen languages :-) (I am sorry this reference will be obscure to many of my readers - Glenelg is a tourist town and there is this clever devise which welcomes people of other languages. It attracts attention to itself by saying (in English) "Come over here ..." It is rather delightful, though I could think of more appealing things to be propositioned by ... :-) Actually I was surprised by being solicited twice in one day, when I have done the same walk many times and never been approached - except when the Charity Pole Sitters were there.
But back to the Jehovah's Witnesses and their "Watchtower" - they press upon others their defence of their own faith. They do it gently certainly - but not in response to an enquiry - but proactively - and being "proactive" is one thing that I find I am often encouraged to be. But the reality is that I am not especially interested in listening to or reading the defence of their faith. I might be interested in the details of their faith and I might thoroughly admire their sincerity, but it doesn't touch me as a person. Similarly I wouldn't expect them to be interested if I started telling them what I believe.
For belief, expressed in these terms becomes a hurdle over which either they or I must jump in order to be acceptable or saved or whatever to the other.
Recently I read of the "Vibrational Individuation Program" in our "Advertiser" "based on the use and control of food" of which offal figured prominently ... It would certainly take some spirited defence of this sort of regime to convince me of the usefulness of such a diet - if ever. Of course there are a plethora of similar theories - all of which have little or no connection with the message of the Bible, let alone the ministry of Jesus. Again the suggested diets become little or big hurdles over which people stagger to some mythical "greener grass" on the other side. It is no wonder that people have to be conned into such things, and fortunate that the general populace dismiss these schemes as irrelevant.
But no one took Jesus to be irrelevant. He was opposed, followed, denied and betrayed, but never ignored as irrelevant.
That is because instead of erecting barriers, he bypassed them. Instead of making plain how people were to measure up to be acceptable to him, he accepted them for who they were. Instead of confronting people, he made it easy for them.
And it is through the Cross and Resurrection that Jesus has made it easy for us. Our sins have been forgiven, that which is "unrighteous" has been dealt with and Jesus has brought us "to God" (1 Pet 3.18). Jesus even dealt with the hurdle of death, not that the dead were miraculously able to jump out, but that Jesus jumped in. The "angels, authorities, and powers", being subject to him, no longer have any power to become obstacles for us - or for anyone else.
Jesus has made it easy for us - that is what "grace" must be all about. So we extend God's grace by similarly making it easy for others - by overlooking their sins, negligences and ignorances - as we have learned through Jesus that God has overlooked ours. By being accepting and forgiving rather than by being prescriptive and alienating.
This form of being proactive will similarly not be ignored. People will question how we can be so accepting - and our defence will be simply that Jesus has accepted us - and, in the words of John Bradford say: "there, but for the grace of God, goes" ... I.
The words of John in our gospel reading for today bid us to love, not confront, and they talk about the "Advocate", the "Spirit of truth" abiding in us ... but not in the world ... There is a curiosity here for despite this abiding Spirit, and that the words "I am in the Father, and you in me, and I in you" (Jn 14.20) refer to something already accomplished in its fullness - Jesus also talks about something more for the future. "I am coming to you" he says in verse 18 and "I ... will reveal myself to them" (verse 21). So it is not the reality of our relationship which is somewhat incomplete, but our perception of it which is partial. Or as St Paul eloquently put it: "Now we see in a glass darkly ..." (1 Cor 13)
Jesus tells us "The world ... neither sees nor knows him" - so we as disciples are not much different from those of "the world". It is not black and white, but shades of grey. Only our perception is but a little clearer.
I was interested to revisit the words of the Confirmation service last week, and the lovely prayer before the actual laying on of hands: "Increase in them the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of discernment and inner strength, the spirit of knowledge and true godliness, and fill them with wonder and awe at your presence". Beautiful words indeed - because the awe and wonder comes as we see God in others all around us, and realise that God is playing a bit of "hide and seek" with us in our lives too ... As we persevere we will find God has been present in our lives all the time.
If we don't see the risen Christ in the world - where the risen Christ most surely is, how will any one else be enabled to perceive? Will we make it easier for others to see the risen Christ in themselves, or more difficult? Will we be agents of grace or hindrances to grace?
We can make the "world" into "disciples" by showing them the risen Christ in them - it is really quite easy, if we really have a mind to do it.
For this is surely what our "good conduct in Christ" should lead us to do. If we put little or big hurdles over which the world must jump, then the world may choose to comply or ignore as one of a huge number of hurdles that people suggest to others as being "good for them". Few would bother to "abuse" us - because of the very prevalence of this. But if we show them something of the risen Christ in their lives, they might well be interested to see more - they might see that the grass is indeed a little greener and want to experience more of that lushness. This may well bring abuse, as others want to close their eyes to the risen Jesus in the sinner, and want others to see the risen Jesus only in them.
So we read of St Paul in Athens going "through the city" and looking "carefully at the objects of (their) worship (and) found among them an altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown god.'" and then saying to them: "Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way." (Acts 17:22-23) St Paul could have ridiculed the plethora of images and statues in good Old Testament language, and told them what he believed, till the cows come home, all to no avail. Instead he looks for the good in what he sees and who he meets and starts by communicating that to the other person.
And it should be made plain that St Paul is here in quite alien and rather hostile territory. Paul was of Tarsus in Asia, and Athens was in Europe which was quite alien culturally and religiously. It was only in chapter 16 of Acts that Paul has a vision telling him to cross the rubicon into uncharted territory. Almost immediately he manages to upset the authorities in Philippi so they are put in prison for a night. Soon after he causes uproar in the synagogue in Thessalonica and when he goes to Beroea, they follow him there. So he arrives in Athens when he first argues "in the synagogue ... and also in the market place" about the idols in the city. But finally he sees something in their culture to admire and commend, and he gets his hearing.
As the Bishop said eloquently last week at the confirmation, St Paul's third insight in his letter to the Romans is that our God justifies the ungodly.
We "keep (our) conscience clear" by making sure that we make it easier rather than harder for others to realise that God loves them as they are. We will still be "maligned" and abused by others - for Jesus was crucified for doing this too - but surely this is actually what constitutes our "good conduct in Christ". I suppose a bit of "tripe" occasionally wouldn't do me any harm ...
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