Thursday, March 11, 2010

Sermon on 1 Peter 4:7-11, for Lent 4, "Who am I?"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Last week we talked about the overarching story of life that defines us. The story of our repentance over sin, receiving forgiveness from Jesus, and the promise of eternal life. Today I want you to reflect on who we’re called to be in this lifetime, as we wait for the coming end. Since this is our future and this is our story, who are we to be and what are we to do? Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

When the apostle Peter declares to us from the pages of Scripture that the “end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded, for the sake of your prayers”—what’s our reaction? Being that his warning was written nearly 2,000 years ago, do begin to doubt the urgency of his admonition? Do we scoff and say: “Where is the promise of [Christ’s] coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Pet. 3:4)? Do we take it seriously enough that the end is near? Perhaps you do take it seriously, and live with a readiness of repentance and a confidence born in Christ. Or maybe you realize that even if Jesus doesn’t return in your lifetime, and if we’re blessed to live maybe 70-80 years in this life—whether or not the end of the whole world is near to us, at least our own individual days are numbered, and we ought to live ready for the judgment.

As we watch for this return we should be self-controlled and sober-minded. But we’re not to be idle—there’s work to be done. Thinking of the end of the world for a moment, try to relate it to a ship loaded with passengers, beginning to sink in the deep waters, far from land. The ship being the world, and the passengers symbolizing all humanity. As the great ship begins to list and sink beneath the perilous waters, the cry goes out: “Abandon ship! Every man for himself!” In that moment, how would you respond?

A real life account of this was when the British warship HMS Birkenhead struck a rock off the coast of Africa in 1852, and began to sink. As the crew that survived the crash and efforts to save the ship assembled on deck, the ship was clearly lost, and the lifeboats were already full. Twenty women and children were aboard, in addition to the soldiers. When the captain knew the ship was lost, he cried out that every man who could swim must save himself and swim for the lifeboats. And why not? At a time like this, “you gotta do what you gotta do” to save yourself. Right? However, chaos did not ensue with each one pushing past another to make it to the lifeboats. Instead the commanding officer of the British soldiers aboard the ship refused to heed the sentiment, “Every man for himself!” They knew that if they rushed the life boats the women and children would be swamped. With valiant self-control the soldiers stood their ground and sank with the ship—those who could swim then clinging to wreckage, for the sake of letting the precious cargo of the lifeboats get to safety. Only 193 of the 634 people on board survived. My point isn’t to point out the virtues of chivalry, as they may be—but rather that in the moment of peril, they considered the lives of others more important than their own.

So if the end was near and our ship was sinking, which of the two would we be? Would we look out only for ourselves and leave the others to their own fate? Or would we recognize that we owe something to those around us? Thinking of the world as a ship that’s sinking, and not knowing how long it will stay afloat, what will we do to warn our fellow passengers of the danger? The natural thing for us to do would be to look out for ourselves. But when Peter writes about the end of time to us, he said, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, because love covers a multitude of sins.” Paul echoes this sentiment of loving one another by saying: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). Christian love calls us to have concern not only for our own well-being, but also that of others.

Our present-day thinking is so contrary to that, however. Our Christian faith is so individualized, that many would have a difficult time explaining what we need the church for. It’s become so commonplace to talk about “my personal relationship with Jesus,” and thinking about having our “felt needs” met. So is the church something more than just a place for individuals who have a private relationship with God to gather? Peter called on them not only to love one another fervently, but also to “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” To show hospitality to one another obviously reflects that they are to be a community. A community in gracious and compassionate service to one another without grumbling. The gifts that God has given us are to be used also in service to one another. Life together; community—not individualism and disconnectedness are the picture of the church.

Remember that it was not self-interest that guided Jesus as He set out to achieve the world’s redemption at the cross. Sinful humans had sabotaged our own “ship,” the world, causing it to sink. We even mutinied against God, our captain, and rejected His Son, sent to rescue us. He could’ve left us to ourselves, to sink in the sea of our own destruction, but he didn’t seek to save His own life. Rather He sacrificed His life so that our sins wouldn’t be held against us. The one we crucified with our sins, pleaded to God for our pardon. He died so that we might be buoyed up to life and safety by the hope of His resurrection. Baptized into His church we’ve boarded lifeboats and are being rescued. And there’s more than enough room aboard the lifeboats for everyone! But having been rescued—the end is not yet here…the ship has not yet sunk. So are we simply to drift aimlessly in the lifeboats until Jesus returns to take us into the good harbor of heaven? Are Christians to float safely in our churches while ignoring those who are sinking in the sea around us? No, rather the church is created to be a caring community that extends love and hospitality not only among ourselves, but to others.

Even on the cross, as He gave up His life for us, Jesus knew that we would need each other. He had taught His disciples to depend on one another and He urged them to go out and make disciples, to spread the good news of forgiveness and hope, and to build the church to be a refuge for the community of believers. On the cross, when Jesus said to Mary, “Woman, here is your son,” and to John, “Here is your mother,” He gave us a purpose for caring for one another.

So in answer to the question we began with, “Who am I?” we find the answer that God has called us to be a caring community in Christ. We’re brought together by God to use His gifts in love and service to one another. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about how service to one another can often be inconvenient. He said that no one was too good for the meanest and lowest service. “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks, as the priest passed by the man who had fallen among thieves, perhaps—reading the Bible. When we do that we pass by the visible sign of the Cross raised [across] our path to show us that, not our way, but God’s way must be done.” As followers of Christ, following the banner of His cross, be prepared to have our plans interrupted for the need of serving someone else. We exist as this caring community, because we are to bring help and hope to those who are in danger or despair—so lend your arms and voices, and bring them to rescue and safety! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

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