Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Sermon on 1 Peter 3:13-22, for the 6th Sunday of Easter, "The Gift of Good Conscience"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Today in our reading from 1 Peter, the phrase “good conscience” appears twice. Once it’s in the context of a Christian living out their faith in Jesus and doing good, while suffering persecution or opposition—yet being able to have a good conscience. The second time it’s about our appeal to God in baptism for a good conscience. Today we’re going to see what this Scripture tells us about the gift of a good conscience, and how to keep our conscience clear.
Have you noticed nowadays how even non-religious people are very aware of guilt? It’s no surprise that they often try to deal with it in a variety of ways that are very different from the Christian answer to guilt—which in short, is forgiveness in Jesus Christ. But it shows that guilt is very troubling for people. Sometimes we perceive that it originates from inside us; while other times we blame others for imposing guilt on us (isn’t that ironic?). But how can people best deal with their guilt? I often see examples in the media of people trying to deny any guilt for their actions, or convincing themselves that there is nothing to feel guilty for. On the one hand, it’s very disturbing  to anticipate the results of people learning to ignore their conscience—it can’t be good. On the other hand, as Christians, we do share the legitimate concern of not having people burdened by false guilt—which is when we feel guilty for something that is not actually wrong. The best way to avoid this, as a Christian, is to have your conscience rightly informed from the Word of God, about what is right and wrong. But in any case, the widespread awareness and sensitivity to issues of guilt betrays a troubled conscience. And today’s Scripture directs us where to find a good conscience.
St. Peter seems to be writing to Christians who are perhaps facing some hesitation, reluctance, or fear to continue doing good, or openly profess their faith in Jesus as Lord—because they were running into persecution and opposition for doing good. He says, “who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?” He doesn’t want them to lose their enthusiasm or to become discouraged just because doing good proved harder than they expected. It’s easy to understand how obstacles and even hostility can persuade someone to give up—even if they are pursuing a good and worthwhile endeavor. The people who have organized the Pregnancy Center have share the many struggles and obstacles they faced, that almost made them want to give up on multiple occasions, but how God kept providing and leading in unexpected ways. People with a longer memory than mine could tell you the same about the struggles and trials that our church and schools inevitably went through in 40 plus years. Both you as families and as individual Christians can recount in your own lives, how God has carried you through difficult times. Or perhaps your are still pressing through them.
But he gives this encouragement:
“Even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being 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, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.”

We are encouraged to know that while we may suffer for a time for doing good, we will nevertheless be blessed. The Beatitudes in Matthew 5, are a good place to reflect on the blessings of living the Christian life, even when it’s not well-received by the world. Not only will those blessings include a present peace and joy, and a good conscience, but they also lead to the greater future joys of heaven.
When Peter tells us to have no fear or be troubled, he is echoing the words of Jesus, who said that the cost of being a disciple included opposition and hatred from the world—but that if we feared God, we have nothing to fear from them, because whatever they can do to our body, our life, and our material possessions, they can do nothing to harm our soul. And everything in this world is worth nothing to us if we forfeit our soul.
But we’re also called to a readiness to speak a defense for the hope that we have in us. Why would we need to do that? If we persist in doing good, if we stand up for our faith with gentleness and respect in our words and conduct, this can be a powerful witness to others. They just might find it surprising to see Christians endure mistreatment with grace and showing love in return, rather than responding with rudeness, anger, bitterness, or anything else that might be expected when someone lies about you or slanders you, or treats you badly. Or they might just find the peace and the joy that a Christian has, to be intriguing, and want to know more. In either case, we should be ready to give an answer, or a defense for the hope that we have.
There are several things involved here: first, being prepared logically means some preparation is involved. Many of us fear that we couldn’t speak if called upon to do so. But prepared doesn’t mean that we individually have to be capable of giving an articulate dissertation on the Christian faith. But we can all simply tell about the love of God in Christ Jesus. The preparation to speak about our faith comes from attending church, hearing sermons, going to Bible class or Sunday school, reading good Christian material that teaches us the faith, or listening to good Christian radio or other resources that can equip us to know why we believe and what we believe, or how to respond to the many challenges we daily encounter.
Second, to give such a witness, or a defense, with gentleness and respect, so that we can have a good conscience, is a difficult task. We have to resist the sinful urge to counter slander with slander of our own, or to give those who mistreat us a “piece of our mind”—this is a difficult thing. Because to respond with animosity or hatred would destroy or deeply compromise our witness. To give a positive witness under the circumstances of being mistreated, mocked, or insulted for doing what is good, or for your faith, is to show strength under pressure. It gives shape and meaning to some of the opening words of Peter’s letter: 1 Peter 1:6–7 (ESV) 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” It is a faith tested by fire and by trials.
We may feel totally inadequate for such a calling. We may already be aware of the times when we responded to mistreatment in an unkindly or disrespectful way. How is the Christian to keep a good conscience in the midst of this? How are we to get a clean conscience in the first place—or to renew our conscience once we have been alerted to our sin?
Thankfully, the second half of the lesson goes right to the heart of this matter. Christ suffered for our sins, once for all—His righteousness for our unrighteousness. He took upon Himself all our guilt and shame, so that He might exchange with us all of His innocence and honor. Jesus is not only the premier example of strength and grace under fire—and of enduring suffering, insult, and opposition for doing what is good—but He also endured all of this to accomplish something positive for us. It wasn’t merely a heroic example we could never follow, but it was His redeeming work, done to save us from any and every sin and guilt that might trouble our conscience. It was no accident or mistake that God gave us a conscience to alert us about right and wrong—and we do well to pay attention to that God-given voice that calls us to repent. And in Jesus we find the One who can give the troubled conscience peace through the forgiveness of our sins, and by bringing us to God.
Peter summarizes Jesus’ righteous suffering, death, resurrection, and descent into hell, as we confess in our Creed, and then he compares the judgment and salvation that God worked in the Old Testament through the Flood, to the corresponding New Testament reality of Baptism, in which we are also judged and saved. How so? Baptism, we are told elsewhere in Scripture, is the death of our old sinful nature, as we are crucified vicariously with Christ through Baptism—but it’s also life and salvation for us as we are raised to new life in Christ Jesus’ resurrection. “Baptism…now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to Him.” More Creed-like language. And the reference to good conscience.
Here we learn that Baptism saves us—not as an ordinary bath or washing—but as an appeal, a request to God for a clean conscience. I titled this sermon, “the gift of a good conscience” to highlight just this point—that a good conscience is a gift from God. We don’t cleanse our own conscience by denial, or by passing the blame, or by ignoring it—but we have appealed to God in baptism for the forgiveness of our sins, so that we might have a clean conscience. And God most certainly delivers in Baptism what we have asked, giving us a clean conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There we see the crucial connection between baptism and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some people get troubled or confused by this verse because they think of baptism as something separate or disconnected from Jesus and His death and resurrection—or as something additional to it. This verse makes it abundantly clear that baptism is delivering to us what Jesus accomplished in His resurrection. So it is no contradiction to say with the scripture that baptism saves, and also that Jesus alone saves—because baptism only delivers to us what Jesus has accomplished on the cross and in His resurrection. Namely the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life! It’s God’s chosen delivery system!
And here the Christian can rest in good conscience. They can find the courage and strength to bear up under difficulty and live a life that zealously pursues what is good, and winsomely gives defense for the hope that we have, with all gentleness and respect. Because the Christian who has died to their old sinful nature in baptism, and has been reborn a new person in the new life of Jesus Christ, can face life with all its many challenges and opportunities with the assurance that “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20). In Him we have the gift of a good conscience, and we have the one who lives in us to guide us to all that is good and right, and who forgives and renews us whenever we stumble or turn away—always patient to lead us and to love us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. When and why might Christians suffer for doing good? Why should they not be afraid? 1 Peter 3:13-17; Matthew 10:26-33. What gives the Christian comfort and cheer in the face of opposition for doing good?
  2. We are always to be prepared to give a defense for the hope we have. The way that Christians give their answer or defense makes a big difference though. How are we to answer and conduct ourselves with unbelievers or outsiders to the church? 1 Peter 3:15-16; Colossians 4:5-6; Mark 9:50.
  3. How does a Christian keep a “good conscience” when being persecuted for their faith or their good deeds? What would give us a guilty conscience with our behavior toward others?
  4. How did Jesus suffer for doing good? What encouragement does that give us toward doing good in spite of opposition? Jesus’ death, resurrection, and His preaching to the “spirits in prison” is the basis of our understanding in the Creed about Jesus’ “descent into hell.” See also Acts 2:25-32, Romans 10:5-10; Ephesians 4:8-10; Colossians 2:9-15.
  5. How was the judgment and salvation that God accomplished through Noah’s flood a type or foreshadowing of what God does in baptism? 1 Peter 3:21 tells us “Baptism…now saves you…”. How does baptism save? v. 21-22.
  6. What gifts that Jesus has won for us through His death and resurrection, does baptism deliver to us? Acts 2:38-39; 22:16; Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:27. How do we get a good conscience from Christ in baptism? How does Christ renew our conscience to be clear from sin and guilt, and to guide us in life? 

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