1 Peter 3:13-22
13 Who will harm you if you are zealous for good? 14 But happy are you, even if you suffer because of righteousness! Don’t be terrified or upset by them. 15 Instead, regard Christ as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. 16 Yet do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience. Act in this way so that those who malign your good lifestyle in Christ may be ashamed when they slander you. 17 It is better to suffer for doing good (if this could possibly be God’s will) than for doing evil.
18 Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous. He did this in order to bring you into the presence of God. Christ was put to death as a human, but made alive by the Spirit. 19 And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison. 20 In the past, these spirits were disobedient– when God patiently waited during the time of Noah. Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water. 21 Baptism is like that. It saves you now– not because it removes dirt from your body but because it is the mark of a good conscience toward God. Your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who is at God’s right side. Now that he has gone into heaven, he rules over all angels, authorities, and powers. (CEB)
Once For All
Have you ever read or heard something that makes you wonder what alternate reality the person who wrote or spoke it is living in? This text from 1 Peter goes there immediately. “Who will harm you if you are zealous for good?” The question makes it sound like Peter doesn’t quite grasp reality. Has something slipped in his mind, because the answer is all kinds of people will hurt us and others for no other reason than they want to cause pain. There are people out there who are selfish enough to think our pain is worth their end goal. We’re merely a sacrifice on their way to the top.
The second line acknowledges that, but it only offers us the seemingly ridiculous idea that even if we do suffer for righteousness, we can be happy about it. I mean, I don’t know about you, but the last time I was verbally abused, I was thrilled. Again, we wonder, in what reality is Peter living? It certainly doesn’t seem like ours. This stuff sounds a little backward, a little crazy, a lot outside of acceptable norms. But it gets worse. Peter says, “Don’t be upset or terrified by them” (CEB). Really, Peter? Don’t be upset or scared of the people who want to harm us, who want to stab us in the back, who plot against us? If I had to pick a theme song for Peter, it would be Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy.
It seems like an unrealistic standard. We know this stuff intellectually because Jesus said similar things: “If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well” (Mt. 5:39, CEB). Still, it seems like living out ideas similar to these – actually doing them – is impossible. Instead of drawing us closer to Jesus Christ, it can make us feel like there’s an insurmountable gulf between us. After all, if we can’t do these things, what chance do we have? Jesus is on one level, and we’re somewhere else.
The point of Peter’s words, however, is not to put distance between us and Jesus, but to draw us closer. Peter wants us to grow closer and live like Jesus in our every day. The biggest problem we’ll find isn’t that we can’t live the kind of life Jesus lived, it’s that we might not really want to live that way. Jesus experienced misunderstanding and criticism. The last days of his life were full of scorn, mockery, mistreatment, and violence. He loved people and spoke of God’s love for people, and the people he loved killed him for it. I don’t want my theme song to be Billy Joel’s Only the Good Die Young any more than you do.
Love is really the place where we begin to understand what Peter is saying. If Jesus is, as we Christians believe, the most perfect example of God’s love for us, and if we want to make that love real in our own lives, then Jesus is the example we follow. Following such an example might not be easy, but it’s what we do anyway. That’s why we were baptized.
Why do we practice baptism in the church? Aside from the fact that Jesus was baptized and the disciples baptized people into the faith, why do we do it? I’ve had several conversations, recently, with those who wondered if they were ready for baptism. And I keep saying that baptism isn’t about our choice, it isn’t about how much we understand, it isn’t even what we do. Yes, if we weren’t baptized as infants, we can choose to be baptized, but the meaning of baptism isn’t found in our choice. Baptism is a sacrament, it’s something God does to and for us. In one sense, baptism is a sign that before anything – before we knew anything, thought anything, or recognized anything – God loved us. The one thing that came first in our lives, before our momma even knew we were growing inside of her body, was God’s love for us.
God’s love for us is not affected by our choice to respond to that love or not.
God loves us.
God’s love isn’t diminished by our bad behaviors and wrong choices.
God loves us.
God’s love doesn’t turn away even when we refuse to receive it. In fact, we may not feel it. We may not want it. We might ignore it as best we can, but our response will never change the fact that God loves us. Even when we think we’re unlovable or unworthy of being loved, it’s not the state of our minds or our feelings of self-worth that determines God’s disposition toward us.
God loves us.
God loves us.
God loves us.
God won’t stop loving us. We’re just kind of stuck with it.
Baptism isn’t really about our response. It’s not really about repentance. Nor is it about algebra. Baptism isn’t about bringing balance to the equation: God loves you, therefore you have to love God. In one sense, baptism is an invitation for us to see our lives with the kind of value that God sees us. Baptism is a lens through which we are invited to peer and glimpse ourselves as God sees us all the time. We were baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Jesus died and was raised for us. We are so loved, so valuable to God, that God’s own Son was not too high a price to ransom us from sin and death. Jesus was willing to pay that price for us because we are worth it. We are valuable to God. We are loved. That’s an invitation for us to see ourselves as worth more than our self-doubt and self-pity often allow us to see. It’s an invitation for us to see ourselves as worth more than what other people sometimes say about us. Baptism is an invitation to see how much we are loved. And every baptism we witness, we’re reminded that God sees us through blood-stained glasses. We are reminded that every time God sees us, the God of the Universe sees the broken body of the Son and knows we are worth the pain he endured. We are loved.
When we begin to see ourselves as loved by God, whether we think we deserve it or not, we start to see that others are loved, too. The others who are loved by God even includes those who do us wrong, who hurt and oppress and put down. When we see the world as loved by God, and ourselves loved in spite of the hurts we bear, then we aren’t consumed by the suffering. Instead, as much as getting hurt might stink, we’re enabled to find happiness even in the midst of our sufferings. God’s love undergirds us in those low moments of our lives, too. That’s worthy of joy amid sorrow. That’s when we learn to grow closer to Jesus, to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to pray for those who harass us and want to tear us down.
This view of ourselves as loved allows us to live with confidence in God. When we recognize how much God loves us, what have we to fear from others? Peter encourages us to hold Christ in our hearts as something holy and be ready to defend our hope should anyone ask of it. But when we defend our faith and our hope in God, we do it with kind words. Even if the person asking about our hope is being antagonistic and asking us how we can possibly believe that nonsense, we don’t respond by saying, Well, you’re just an idiot! God is real and you’ll find out when you die and burn in Hell! Not the best technique. That’s why I don’t like those billboards around Evansville that say, “After you die, you will meet God” with the heartbeat flat-lining. Or the one that says, “If you die tonight, heaven or hell?” with the flames.
Be ready to defend your hope, “Yet do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience. Act in this way so that those who malign your good lifestyle in Christ may be ashamed when they slander you” (1 Pet. 3:16 CEB). Now, the shame that Peter mentions here is not about making those who oppose us feel bad. It means we love them despite the ways they might be slandering us.
Paul says as much when he writes: “Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good” (Rom. 12:20-21 CEB). It’s actually a quote from Proverbs 25:21-22. That’s what it means to defend our hope, perhaps even more potently than we could with words. That’s the kind of shame Peter means. We love our enemies until they know we aren’t really their enemies.
Despite the propensity for it in American Evangelical preaching, and the abundance of billboards making the claim, Peter suggests that even death isn’t a barrier to salvation. I know you’ve heard that you have to make a decision for Jesus before you die or you’re going to Hell, but that’s not actually found in the Scriptures. What is found in the Scriptures are Peter’s words that after Jesus died, he went and preached the message of salvation to the dead. Why would Jesus do that if not to invite the dead into eternal life? Now, following Jesus while we’re still living is probably the safer bet, but Jesus did tell a certain parable about the last being first and the first being last (Matt. 20:1-19).
Do you remember that story? A landowner hired people to work in his vineyard throughout the day. Some were hired in the morning and he agreed to pay them a denarion. Others were hired at 9:00 a.m., noon, 3:00 and 5:00. When evening came, he paid the workers he hired last, first. And he gave them a denarion. Then, he paid those hired at 3:00, at noon, and at 9:00. Those the landowner hired first saw that the others were receiving a denarion and they though the would get more since they worked longer. But when they only received a denarion, they grumbled against the landowner because those who only worked one hour got the same wage as they did when they had worked all day long. It doesn’t matter how long we work in the vineyard, what matters is that we came when we were invited.
I don’t know about you, but I find a great deal of comfort in Peter’s words that Jesus preached even to the dead; that he invited the dead to have life. If your family and friends are anything like mine, there are some who have died that I wasn’t too sure about. Peter’s words tell me I don’t have to worry about it because not even death is a barrier to salvation. Isn’t death what Jesus destroyed?
Baptism is an invitation for us to see ourselves as God sees us. Our salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ who now reigns as the ruler over all creation. The death and resurrection of Jesus is what our baptism represents. We are so loved, worth so much to God, that the Son gave himself over to torture and death for us. We don’t have to be afraid.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!