A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.

The Sixth Sunday after Easter

I Peter 3:13-22

May 25, 2014

Psalm 66; John 14:15-21; Acts 17:22-31

A century ago the Reverend Daniel Poling, the pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church in NYC, told of a visit he made to China during which a Chinese Christian gave him a small white card that had on one side a picture of a cross and on the other side the words of the Christian Endeavor Pledge. The pledge begins with this commitment:  “Trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ for strength, I promise him I shall always do whatsoever he would have me do.”

What interested Dr. Poling, however, was that the card bore also a dark red splotch as if it were stained by a drop of blood. The story behind the card was that at the turn of the century during the Boxer rebellion in China, a young Chinese Christian was called upon to renounce his faith in Christ or be shot. He refused and paid for it with his life.

When I became a follower of Jesus at the age of 9 in the Miller Road Baptist Church of Garland, Texas, all I wanted to do was say “Yes” to Jesus and invite him into my heart. I wanted God to forgive me of my sins. I wanted to go to heaven, for goodness sake, but I surely didn’t expect to go to heaven because I was killed for being a Christian! No one told me when I asked Jesus into my heart that I might be killed for my faith. In the best of conversionist Baptist fervor and piety, I was being urged to save my soul from eternal damnation. I was not being prepared to live out the faith should persecution come.

But in dangerous places all over the world, one who is a follower of Jesus stands a chance of suffering immeasurably for their faith. On occasion, such believers in these troubled countries suffer and die because they are Christians.

These are places and circumstances we don’t want to know about, such as in Sierra Leone, Laos, Malaysia, North Korea, Nepal, China, Iran, Nigeria or Somalia. They are places unsettled by the forces of hunger and poverty, where terrorism and powerful political despots rule by force and with little regard to the common citizens.

This month in Somalia, yet another Christian was murdered. “Sufia” was killed in Mogadishu by a group of armed men who burst into her home and dragged her outside, shooting at neighbors who tried to rescue her. After killing the young woman, the men fled. Her parents were unharmed, but they are devastated by the loss of their daughter. Police are still searching for the suspects.

Somalia is second only to North Korea as the world’s worst persecutor of Christians. Somalis who are discovered to be Christians face almost certain death, not only in their own country but also in the neighboring countries where many Somalis flee as refugees.[1]

Biblical scholars debate whether Peter was the actual author of this letter or not. But that question of scholarship doesn’t matter to me when I remember Simon Peter was eventually crucified for being a follower of Jesus. In other words, if he didn’t write this letter, he certainly could have.

It is understood he traveled to Rome, the heart of the Roman Empire, and founded the church there. In Rome, he supposedly served as the first bishop and died a martyr’s death in 64 or 65 C.E. during the horrible persecution of Emperor Nero. Origen writes that Peter went to Rome and was crucified upside down. It must have been a terrible time of terror and suffering.

The early church loved its martyrs and honored them tenderly. Gaius, a 2nd century writer, respectfully refers to the martyrs as God’s “trophies.”

Because of the occasional deaths of Christians in the world today, Peter’s letter speaks painfully across the centuries to those of us who live seemingly protected lives about how we are to be ready for our time of suffering if it should come our way.

Aleksandr Kulakov, a Baptist pastor in Grozny, Chechnya, was beheaded a few years ago by radical Islamic forces in the area. His head was put on display in an open market and the members of the church were forced to go to the city morgue to identify his headless corpse in order to claim it for burial. It was reported that Kulakov was pastoring this struggling little church after its previous minister had been kidnaped and had not been seen since.

Peter’s letter reminds us that following Jesus is the right thing to do. In following Jesus, we are expected to live right. We can’t revert to our old ways of living. We are to live courageously and faithfully doing the right thing day in and day out.

It’s important that we find ways to live the faith in our world. Jesus tells us we are the light of the world and we are to shine our lights in the darkness. Earlier in this same letter, Peter cautions us against doing wrong. There’s more to it than just a list of “thou shalt nots.”

In this letter and in places all across the New Testament, we are encouraged “to live right.” This is not a moral prescription for the sake of good behavior. We are to be people of integrity. We are to be true to what we say. We are to do the right things in the world. We do it simply because it’s right; we do it because it’s the way of Jesus to live that way. It’s got to be more than mere goodness for goodness’ sake. It’s got to be a deep commitment of seeing that our lives reflect the inner reality of “Christ in me, the hope of glory.”

Peter speaks about living without fear. He draws his inspiration from the writings of the prophet Isaiah who urges his hearers to not be intimidated by leaders who act out of fear. They are encouraged to not let fear rule in their hearts. Peter reminds them to “sanctify Christ in your hearts.”

The antidote to fear is to make a sacred place in your heart where Christ can rule and reign. Let this place be your confidence that you have placed your complete trust and allegiance in Christ.

In truth, this word from Isaiah about living beyond your fear is an insightful word about idolatry. It’s not only idolatrous to worship the wrong god, but it’s also wrong to fear the wrong power. Our fear of this world’s powers is to give to those fears a power that should only belong to God. The antidote is right worship. It is “to set Christ as Lord in our hearts.”[2]

Peter looks deep into the experience of suffering and lets us know that when the words of defense for our faith are demanded of us, they will be there. Maybe if one of the martyrs was here this morning that might be their testimony to us. Perhaps they would tell us, “I was able to do it! When that awful moment came my way and I needed an answer, the words came to me and I spoke them!”

The word Peter uses here is the word, “defense.” In Greek, it is the word, apologia, which is the same word used in the second century as a technical term describing the case Christians made for themselves against their accusers. From it, we still use the word apologetics in biblical studies to describe the reasoned defense of the Christian faith against intellectual inquiry. In the second century it was the word that described articulating the faith intelligently and faithfully under the strain of trials.

Finally, we are told to make the connection of our time of suffering to that of Christ’s own suffering. Jesus was brought before Pilate and answers were demanded of him. He had his own trial and then was tortured and was killed. In the time of trial we are asked to make the connection between what we are experiencing and what Jesus experienced. We are to lean on Jesus for our example. The book of Hebrews tells us, “for we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect was tested as we, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

[1] From Voice of the Martyrs, http://www.persecution.com/public/newsroom.aspx?story_ID=%3d363734

[2] David Bartlett, The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary on I Peter, Abingdon Press, 1998, 296-7

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