This is a version of the sermon I preached for Sunday, May 17, 2020, for the online-only worship of Broken Bow United Methodist Church (you can also worship online through this site and/or see and hear the preached sermon. Because I preached with only minimal notes, this sermon in its preached form was different, and quite possibly better, for what it’s worth). This is the Sixth Lord’s Day of Easter. A bulletin for worship can be found here.
Today’s sermon is based on 1 Peter 3:13-22.
For families with kids at home, and maybe for teachers, this week’s anthem might be AC/DC’s “School’s Out for Summer.” After all, this week, our Broken Bow kids did their end of the year activities and then returned their school laptops and supplies to the school. Other communities ended school last week. And while this is always a bitter-sweet sort of experience, this year it’s even stranger because in a way, school as we knew it ended a few months ago.
I know that not all of us worshipping have students at home, but the experience of students this spring captures part of the challenge of this season for all of us. Our response to the COVID-19 virus has initiated an abrupt shift to digital and online-everything. This has been technologically challenging. But the shift to online-everything has been even more challenging because we’ve shifted responsibility. Here’s what I mean.
Before COVID, students went to school to learn from what the teachers presented. After COVID, teachers had to quickly shift how they taught. They skillfully created online lessons, plans, practices, and checklists for students to use. They coached them through some of the examples. And then they put the responsibility on the students to do the work, to live into their identity as active learners. If teachers were ever able to spoon-feed students, online learning made this largely a thing of the past. And quite likely, everyone struggled a bit in this from time to time: teachers, students, administrators, tech people, and even parents.
I think a similar thing has happened in the life of the church, in our Christian lives together. Before COVID, it was possible to center our spiritual lives around a community of people and our shared, in-person activities and ministries. If we didn’t have a robust prayer life, or an intentional scripture reading practice, perhaps many of us got along just fine. We knew we’d be able to come back to weekly CRC classes, Sunday School groups, and worship, where we’d be immersed in the story of God’s redemptive work in the world through Jesus in the Spirit. We were a people of communal practices as church. And this was great. We experienced God’s grace and we grew in our knowledge, love, and service to Jesus.
But after COVID, we’ve experienced a shift in responsibility. As a church, we’ve tried to be like the teachers in shifting our methods, but none of the old things are quite the same. As a pastor, this has been a challenging time, because being an online-only church puts much more of the responsibility of discipleship on you as individual followers of Jesus. The church can provide some worship and teaching ministries, but we are all a little bit out there, carrying more of the responsibility of learning, growing, teaching, discovering, and following Jesus than we’re used to.
During all this, I’ve been wondering if Peter and other church leaders felt similarly in the early years of the church – like their flock, their people, their brothers and sisters in Christ, were left dangling out in the big, wide world to do discipleship on their own. After all, Peter wrote from Rome to Christians spread out across what is now modern-day Turkey. Similarly, Paul and a few other apostles traveled here and there, but mostly didn’t stay too long in any one place. I suspect that the Spirit inspired them to write letters, which form much of our New Testament, because they struggled with placing so much responsibility for faith development on separated individuals.
The Spirit inspired Peter to write to encourage these struggling Christians, but he did it in a unique way. He basically sticks to two themes and repeats them throughout the letter. He reminds them about their identity in Christ, and then he calls them live like Jesus, to go high when others around them go low.
That part was easy to see, but over the past few weeks, I’ve struggled with what Peter was saying to me, and to us. I struggled because I got stuck by Peter’s first audience’s literal context. Peter repeatedly mentions that his audience was suffering – they experienced exclusion, teasing, or outright persecution – because of their faith. But honestly, I can think of very few times in my life when I’ve suffered or struggled because I am a follower of Jesus. Growing up and living in communities in which most of the people I know attend one church or another, or generally profess at least a little belief in God and Jesus, suffering because of our faith, doesn’t seem like it fits. In this reading, I struggled to find myself, or us, in 1 Peter’s audience.
But then, after reading the passage with a friend, I began to see what God was doing in this text. Peter writes to a community of Christians who are feeling like everything, all their discipleship and their faith, is placed squarely on their shoulders. We can relate. And Peter tells them the good news first. He tells them and us, “You don’t have to carry all this responsibility.” Instead, from the beginning of the letter, Peter reminds us that we have been given a new birth by God’s grace through Jesus, who lived, died, and was raised to bring us into God’s presence, or, as the NRSV says, “to bring [us] to God” (1 Pet 1:3, 3:18). Peter reminds us, that Jesus took on the suffering and sin of the world “once and for all” (1 Pet 3:18). We don’t have to try to save ourselves.
Every time Peter talks about who Jesus is, what Jesus did, and how we’re united with Jesus, Peter is putting the good news first. He’s proclaiming and reminding us first of who and whose we are. And one of the central ways we talk about who and whose we are is baptism, which is why Peter brings it up. In baptism, we proclaim that God initiates us into Christ’s holy church, incorporates us into God’s mighty acts of salvation, and gives us new birth by water and the Spirit. “All this is God’s gift offered to us without price” (UMH, 33). For Peter’s first audience and us, baptism reminds us that we are God’s people through Jesus. To a people struggling to discern how to live faithfully, Peter’s first word is of God: by God’s grace, through Jesus, you have been and are being saved.
In a way, at their best, I think this is what the schools did: they said, “Remember, students, you are learners. You know how to do this. So just keep up the good work of learning like you know how.” As church, at our best, I think we’ve sought to say a similar thing: “Remember Church, you have been named, claimed, and formed as followers of Jesus. You know how to do this. Just keep up your practices.”
To us, a people called to grow in Christ while being distanced and online, the Spirit’s first word to us through Peter isn’t a to-do list of responsibilities, it’s the good news reminder of our identity: we are God’s people in Christ by grace. Jesus brings us into God’s presence, names us and claims us as God’s own, so that we can live as none other than God’s people in the world.
Only after proclaiming this good news does Peter tell his first audience, and us, what it looks like to live as God’s people. And Peter keeps his instructions for how to live simple and general: live like Jesus. Of course, there’s a lot rolled into “living like Jesus.” It takes a lifetime of thought and practice. To live like Jesus, we have to get to know Jesus through our spiritual practices. And these practices, through which we know and grow like Jesus, are our responsibility, or calling, also. But, they are always second to the great, great love of Jesus, who brings us into God’s presence, for it’s in God’s presence that we’re formed as his followers and witnesses. Jesus has brought us into God’s presence; so let’s just live like it.
- Preaching should illuminate a particular text for a particular people at a particular time; however, it differs from a Bible study, especially in the way it doesn’t seek to answer every question of the text. What questions of the text (1 Peter 3:13-22) does this sermon leave unanswered for you? Explore those questions.
- The sermon included how I was initially stuck in the text, particularly in not finding Peter’s first audience relatable to my/our own experience(s). How, when, and where have you experienced suffering or struggle because of your faith?
- Others in our world, past and present, do experience individual and/or widespread suffering and/or persecution because of their faith. What people and stories do you know that can relate more literally to Peter’s first audience? What can you learn from their stories?
- The sermon (and arguably 1 Peter, and this particular pericope) claims that our identity as Christians – that we are named and claimed as God’s own in Christ through faith – is our foundational identity, out of which flows our calling to faithful, Christ-like living. In what ways does remembering that we are God’s help in times of struggle and hardship? Are there ways in which this fact of faith feels insufficient to give you hope, courage, and guidance for everyday living?
- The sermon doesn’t probably deal enough with the practical, nuts and bolts, ways that we are called to live. We might argue that it is more about thinking and feeling that doing (or, orthodoxy over orthopraxy – this article’s forward sets up the distinction nicely). What tools or ideas for faithful living do you see as extensions of this sermon? What are we called to do, because of who we are in Christ? And, what more explicit and practical instructions does Peter give his readers?
- The sermon links the United Methodist language and theology of baptism with 1 Peter. In what ways do you find that this works, and in what ways do you sense that Peter speaks differently about baptism? What can you learn from this?