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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko

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5th Sunday of Easter

I Peter 3:13-22

Ready to Answer, Anyone, Anytime

At War

The world of journalism has often been accused of rhetorical excess. Inflammatory language attracts attention. Exaggerated claims sell. Driven by the competitive nature of the business, editors and reporters are easily tempted. The objective journalist has been placed on the endangered list requiring readers to use caution even when they casually scan an article. However, even when an editor chooses to employ extreme rhetoric, his or her article may contain a message that is worth considering. Such is the case with two articles published in the May issue of Harper's Magazine under the heading, “The Religious Right's War on America.”

The title is very troubling. It conveys the notion that conservative Christians are trying to attack America's core values and beliefs. One graphic in the magazine even presents a group of shadowy figures approaching a sidewalk, carrying a cross and begin led by an attack dog. It is a very ominous picture. The two featured articles, while slightly less condemning, are consistent with the theme. The lead article describes the life and ministry of the New Life Community Church in Colorado Springs. The church has been very effective in transforming the social and religious life of the city. Every Monday morning, its pastor Ted Haggard, talks to either the President himself or an aide about the political landscape. The second article critiques the most recent convention of the National Religious Broadcasters. This is a group of very conservative believers who not only use TV and radio to witness to the power of Christ to change lives but also to influence the social and political views of their listening audience to a very conservative political agenda.

These articles illustrate the conflict in the political-religious debates. Both the Religious Right and the Secular Left are engaging in a war of words for the heart and soul of America. The intensity of this debate has escalated especially since the last presidential election. Regardless of your political viewpoints, every Christian should be concerned about the divisive tone of these debates because they are producing many residual casualties. In the backlash against the Religious Right, the secular community is subtly persecuting people who attempt to live out their Christian witness. Within the past month

...a history professor at the University of Colorado was let go after 21 years of teaching primarily because of his Christian beliefs;[1]

...a Christian student group at the Hasting Law School in SF was denied official recognition because the group would not admit non-Christians;[2] and

...the Equal Opportunity Commission finally had to threaten the National Education Association, unless the teacher's union would stop discriminating and harassing religious educators.[3]

These believers were not crusading to bring America back to the Bible. They were not engaged in public demonstrations against the hedonistic culture. They were simply trying to be an authentic witness to the faith but that faith clashed with the pluralistic views of secular culture. Unless the Christian community takes heed of Peter's message, it is going to find itself under greater and more severe persecution in the future.


The author of First Peter would have thought that the persecution confronting Christians was nothing more than a minor annoyance compared to the daily threats that believers had to endure 70 years after the resurrection. When the author of First Peter put ink to paper to write this letter, believers were in constant danger for their very lives. Nero was using the faithful as scapegoats. The emperor wanted to remodel the city as a testimony for his own personal greatness but he could not gain the support of the local politicians to raise taxes for his proposed building projects. In 64 AD a suspicious fire leveled the capital city of Rome but miraculously, Nero's own estate was not damaged in the blaze. Most historians, then and now, believe that either the emperor himself, or his supporters began a rumor that this new religious sect was responsible for the fire and the economic carnage.

The general populace believed the rumor for the same reasons that people believe Urban Legends circulating on the Internet. First, Urban Legends nearly always contain a partial truth. Another reason why people believe the strange stories that move through the electronic network of computers is because they contain an absurdity that people want to believe. People hope that the gross exaggeration is true.

Both elements existed in the First Century causing the Church to endure great suffering. First the fire really did exist. That fact could not be disputed. Second, people wanted to believe that Christians were responsible because Christians were very unpopular. The Romans considered Christians atheist for their refusal to sacrifice to the gods of Roman belief. The boycott of sacrificing to the emperor was viewed as treasonous much like we would consider someone who stood with a clenched fist during the singing of the national anthem. Christians were also considered cannibals because they ate the “body” and drank the “blood” of their founding teacher during their secret ceremonies. Only believers were allowed to participate in the communion service. Those who were not baptized in the faith were always asked to leave and the doors were closed before that portion of the worship service began. Finally, Romans wanted to believe that Christians were responsible for the fire because they thought that Christians openly practiced incest with the practice of greeting their “brothers” and “sisters” with a holy kiss. So, the rumor easily spread that Christians were responsible for destroying the capital, because people wanted to believe it. They wanted a reason to punish this strange, new religious group. The citizens of Rome, like the secular community of America, wanted a reason to reject the claims of the Early Church. Confronted by this irrational threat, the author of First Peter offered some instruction to believers on how to respond.

Restoring Our Confidence

He first told them that they should not be afraid. Fear is a very difficult emotion to control. We often do not understand all the reasons behind our fear. I once worked as a Outdoor Adventure Specialist and conducted retreats for church youth groups using high adventure equipment such as a ropes course and climbing tower. Part of my responsibility was serving as a facilitator on one of the 35-foot towers. Before anyone climbed our towers we would take the group through a rather lengthy set of instructions to explain the safety features. We would tell each group that according to our accident reports, they were safer 30-feet up the tower than they were standing with both feet on the ground. However, even with all of this information, even when we would demonstrate the strength of the belay rope, there would always be one teen that would be overcome by a paralyzing fear and freeze about half way up the tower. The facilitator would then have to talk that teen through the situation by replacing his or her fear with something else.  The skilled facilitator learned that the first step of the process was to restore the climber's confidence.

Peter uses the same approach. He directs the believers to set aside Christ in their hearts. What could be more effective in overcoming fear than the reminder of Christ's love for us and his power to save us? John Calvin explains in his commentary on this passage that our fear comes from ascribing to the situation or another person“ more power to injure us than to God to save us.” Consider the reality of the resurrection of Christ. If God has the power to resurrect life from death does he not have the power to salvage our reputation, restore us from financial ruin or heal a broken heart? We may receive undeserved criticism for our beliefs. We may face public ridicule for our “old fashion” ideas. We may be ostracized by other workers for our religious viewpoints. We may even be denied a promotion or a raise but does not God have the power to use whatever situation we must endure for his glory? Can anyone so harm us or so injure us that God cannot deliver us?

This concept will not do us much good if it remains just a whimsical thought. The author of First Peter encourages us to set it apart in our hearts. He hopes that we will make it the focus of our beliefs. He wants us to meditate on that one idea until it consumes the very core of our being. Irrational, knee buckling fear is not overcome with trivial clichés. We can only conqueror our fears by convincing ourselves that we serve a God who is more powerful than the menace that threatens us.

Prepared to Offer a Defense

Once the thought of Christ's love and power consumes our hearts, Peter states that we must be ready to give a defense for what we believe. This defense must be intelligent, logical, and persuasive. The Christian faith contains great mysteries and many unanswered questions. It also contains profound truth that can be explained and understood by the rational mind. The stories of Creation in Genesis do not contradict the explanations of science when properly understood. The moral language of the Law that seeks to preserve celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage offers sound practical advice to a society suffering from an epidemic of sexually transmitted disease. The wisdom from the book of Ecclesiastes warns us of the vanity of materialism and the emptiness of power that could have prevented many shipwrecked lives had they listened to the messages of warning. We do not have to be apologetic for what we believe, as Paul's,

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the saving power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes... (Romans 1:16)

Could you offer a sound, logical explanation of why you believe in the Christian faith to someone who asks? When questioned could you give an intelligent explanation of what you believe to a searching skeptic? Are you prepared to give a reason for the hope that you have anytime someone one would ask?

The Gentleness of Our Methods

Having set aside Christ in our hearts and having prepared ourselves to respond to the questions that people have about their faith, Peter advises us to make sure that in any situation we respond in a spirit of gentleness and respect. On the climbing tower, the skilled facilitator knows that he or she will not bring reassurance to the child by yelling. Sarcasm may evoke laughter from the onlookers but it does not instill trust in the frightened climber. Confidence is restored only through words spoken with a tone of gentleness that respects the dignity of the other person. This is a missing trait in our religious-political debates. Whether the religious leaders or the politicians are advocating a liberal or conservative agenda, the tone of their voices rings with condescending ridicule. Radio shock jocks belittle opponents with half truths. Triumphant strutting never persuades an opponent. A boastful spirit never reconciles enemies. Christian politicians and mega church pastors especially, should reconsider the impression that they have left upon their defeated foes.

The Christian church is engaged in a spiritual warfare but if we treat those with whom we disagree as enemies, if our intent is to conqueror, if our methods devalue the human dignity of others, we will bring disgrace and dishonor to the gospel regardless of our political ideology. We will fail in our ministry to make disciples of all nations. We will not have anyone to baptism and we will deserve the persecution that is inflicted upon us.

While the persecution that we now face is much less than suffering of those early believers, we must be prepared to endure hostile opposition to the gospel by setting apart in hearts the love, grace and power that God offers to us in Christ, by being prepared to defend the hope God offers to anyone at any time and doing it in a spirit of gentleness and respect.




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