Sunday, April 27, 2008

(Easter 6) Beautiful fear

Easter 6: 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

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The book of First Peter is an old letter,
written to a church almost 2,000 years ago.
The circumstances facing that church
don’t even remotely resemble
the circumstances at Park View in 2008.
The issues that troubled and divided them are non-existent today.
The horrific persecution they faced every day,
we have never experienced,
and most of us have never seen.
They spoke a different language and lived in a different culture.
Their social customs, rituals and traditions,
to us, would have been utterly strange and foreign.

So, we might well ask,
how does a letter written to that church,
have anything relevant to say to us here today?

The church being addressed in this letter
was under heavy persecution.
And it wasn’t the “no-praying-in-public-school” variety,
or the “no-Ten-Commandments-in-the-courthouse” variety.
I’m sorry, but that’s not even close to persecution.
It was the “stoning-and-burning-and-
kind of persecution.

We don’t know the precise date, and readership,
and situation that prompted this letter.
But based on what the letter contains,
we know the Christians who read it were under great duress.
We also know, from other historical accounts,
the persecution suffered by early Christians was often
public and gruesome and torturous.

So what does 1 Peter have to say
to American Christians living in the 21st century?
More than might imagine.

Take a look in your Bible, 1 Peter chapter 3.
The writer asks the church (v. 13),
“who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?”
He goes on to say in the following verses,
that they will be blessed if they suffer for doing what is right.
That they shouldn’t be afraid, or intimidated,
but should speak up in their own defense,
and do it with gentleness and reverence.
That they should keep their conscience clear.
And find their hope in Christ,
who also suffered for the sake of righteousness.
That’s the basic message.

But there is one particular instruction
that jumped off the page when I read it.
V. 14: “Do not fear what they fear.”
“They,” of course, are those doing the persecuting.
Their opponents. Their enemies.
It seems a bit odd, doesn’t it, that Peter did not say,
“Don’t be afraid of your enemies.”
He said, rather, “Don’t be afraid of what they’re afraid of.”

When I think about oppressors who inflict suffering on others,
I wouldn’t think to describe them as being “afraid” or “fearful.”
Fierce and frightening, maybe. But afraid?
But when I started thinking about it, I thought, “well, of course.”
What drives powerful people and powerful institutions
to abuse their power,
and wield it as a weapon against others?
It’s fear.
Fear causes us humans to do heinous things to each other.
So the word to the church is this:
Do not let the fear that grips your oppressors
get a strangle hold on you, too.
Do not fear what they fear!

It’s not hard to imagine what fears might have caused
those in power to persecute the Christians.

The Great Roman Empire maintained order in society
by perpetuating the belief that Caesar was Divine.
The term “Son of God” was a popular title for kings and emperors.
Caesar Augustus was openly referred to as “Savior.”
Everyone called the imperial rulers “Lord.”
And throughout the empire,
a local community would organize and gather
in a group called an “ekklesia.”
These gatherings appointed “elders” to lead them.

Maybe you know that ekklesia
is the word used throughout the New Testament for “church.”

So how do you think the Empire would view
a rapidly growing movement,
who called their gatherings “ekklesias,” and appointed “elders,”
who refused to worship Caesar, and instead,
worshiped the charismatic founder of their movement,
who earlier was sentenced to death and crucified
for claiming to be a King,
and who they still referred to as “Son of God...Savior...and Lord,”
titles reserved for Caesar.

It’s not hard to imagine the fears the Empire might have
about a fast-growing group like that.
They weren’t literally afraid that these unarmed Christians
were about to overthrow the Empire.
The emperor’s huge armies would crush them.
The throne could never be grabbed by likes of these Jesus people.
But the peace and well-being of the Empire depended upon
the people as a whole accepting its supreme authority.
They could not afford to allow
fanatical and popular groups to go running around
calling themselves “ekklesias”
and calling their leader Lord and Savior.

What if the uneducated and ignorant masses
started believing that stuff?
To maintain control and security and peace,
the Empire had to have complete loyalty,
total allegiance.
The whole imperial military and security system was
designed to address that one underlying fear—
the fear of losing power,
of not being in control.

The Christian confession that Jesus is Lord,
if we take seriously all that it means,
is obviously a threat.
By definition, claiming that Jesus is Lord,
undermines and compromises the authority
of any other person or group or entity or institution or idea,
that tries to exercise god-like power over us,
that thrives on our unquestioning loyalty.

It is a potential threat—no, it is a threat—to any empire,
be it first-century Rome,
or 21st-century America.
Claiming that Jesus is Lord, and none other,
it is a threat to economic systems,
that depend on amassing wealth and capital.
It is a threat to military regimes the world over.

And it is precisely why the powers that be in Colombia
attack and intimidate organizations there
working for peace and justice,
and why in June of last year they broke into the offices
of Mennonite Church of Colombia’s peace and justice ministry,
and stole two particular computers that had information
documenting their peace and justice work,
and a database with names, addresses and personal information
on churches and individuals
actively working on human rights issues.
They took those two computers, leaving nine others behind.
It is why the Mennonite churches and others there,
have had to deal with harassment, attacks, kidnappings,
and even killings.
It is why there have been repeated death threats against
Ricardo Esquivia, a Colombian Mennonite church leader,
lawyer, and advocate for peace and justice,
who is a personal acquaintance of mine, and of some of you.
Ricardo spent some time here in Harrisonburg,
and a number of years ago
I had him preach the sermon here at Park View.

Ricardo is now president of the Peace Commission of the
Colombia Protestant Council of Churches,
and he has a message for us,
which you can read on the bulletin insert.
He is speaking on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Colombia,
and asking us to observe today and tomorrow, April 27 and 28,
as “Days of Prayer and Action for Peace in Colombia.”
The insert gives some background information,
as well as specific ways to pray for the churches there,
for the victims of the war,
for the Colombian government and factions,
and for our own government.
It also gives a practical suggestion of what we might communicate
to our government leaders about the situation.
And a website where you can go for more information.
I urge you, when you get home, to read the insert carefully,
to take their plea seriously.
These are our persecuted brothers and sisters reaching out to us.
We, like them,
claim that Jesus Christ is Lord, and no other.

Today’s scripture speaks to their situation perfectly.
I said at the beginning that we at Park View
have almost nothing in common
with the churches that Peter was addressing.
But the churches in Colombia would have no trouble identifying.
Imagine, if you will, that you are a member
of one of the Mennonite Churches in Colombia,
and that information about your church’s work,
and the activities of your pastor,
were recorded in detail on one of those stolen computers.
From that vantage point, listen again to these words from 1 Peter.

Even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.
Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated,
but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.
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.
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all...
[and] has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God,
with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
When Christ was abused, he did not return abuse...
but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.
If any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace,
but glorify God because you bear this name.

Let us pray that these words might comfort and strengthen
our Christian brothers and sisters in Colombia,
and in other parts of the world.

But having said that, I also claimed that these words
are relevant to us at Park View today.
No, we are not daily threatened of life and limb.

But I would observe,
that if we take seriously our core Christian conviction—
that is, Jesus Christ is Lord, and none other—
then we are a threat to every other power
active in the world around us, every day.
The power that wealth and material possessions have over us,
is undermined by that Christian claim.
The power of our individualistic pleasure-seeking culture,
and its worship of the free and independent,
and self-reliant and self-determined individual,
is threatened when we promise to lay down our lives
for the sake of God’s kingdom.
The spiritual powers of evil
that are at work in the lives of individuals, and systems,
are brought up short, and found weak and wanting,
when we confess Christ as Lord.
Even the power of the United States of America,
our country’s ability to force our will on other countries,
with guns and bombs if necessary,
our determination to protect our own national interests
at all costs,
including the cost of human suffering
in other parts of the world,
that imperial political power
is threatened and undermined,
whenever Christians unite their voices to say,
“Jesus Christ is Lord.
We bow to none other.”

That core Christian confession, “Jesus Christ is Lord,”
has major personal ramifications,
and spiritual ramifications,
and relational ramifications,
and physical ramifications,
and political ramifications.
If we mean what we say,
it altogether, completely, and utterly reorders our lives.

When we do as Peter urges us in 1 Peter 3:14:
“Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated,
but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord,”
then we need to realize that we have taken a stand
that puts us at odds with most of the rest of the world.
And there might be suffering.
Maybe not the kidnapping and killing kind,
suffered by some of our brothers and sisters in Christ,
but maybe losing a job because you
took a stand against a boss’ unethical behavior,
or losing money by getting rid of stock in a company
whose business practices you can’t support,
or losing a friend whose racist or sexist jokes
you finally choose to confront,
or any number of other losses or injuries that might happen.
See, the powers of evil we choose to resist
have a way of pushing back...hard.
We are never promised a life free of suffering.
We are promised God’s presence.

That is the good news in the Gospel reading today from John 14:
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate,
to be with you forever...the Spirit of truth...
I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.

We do not need to be gripped by the fear that grips this world.
The world around us is guided by an intense fear of losing control.
They are consumed by a fearful and feverish grasp for power,
and for self-determination.
We are not to fear what they fear.
We are to fear the Lord our God.
We are to fear, in the biblical sense,
that is, to reverence, to honor, to stand in awe of,
the One who asks us to relinquish control,
to lay down our lives.

The fear that grips this world and its powers,
is an ugly fear.
It causes us to do all kinds of terrible things to each other,
to ourselves,
to other nations,
and to creation.
When fear for my own self and my agenda and my position
and my wealth and my possessions, gets hold of me,
I do ugly things.
When empires act out of fear and self-preservation,
they do ugly things in the world.

But we are not to fear what they fear.
We are to fear the Lord our God.
And the fear of God is a beautiful fear.
It is a fear that centers us, that grounds us,
that aligns us with God’s purposes for our lives.
And it’s a fear that allows us to stand strong and serene,
in the midst of a fearful and frantic world.
And that is a beautiful thing to behold.

It’s a beautiful fear that I see at work in the lives and witness
of our sisters and brothers in Colombia.
They model what Peter means, “Do not fear what they fear.”
They have something to teach us,
even about living in our comfortable and secure empire,
and standing up to the powers of our culture,
with the centered, grounded, and beautiful fear of God.
May God help us.

—Phil Kniss, April 27, 2008

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