Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter. Based on 1 Peter 3:15-22.
Originally preached on May 25, 2014 at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Citrus Heights, CA.
When Persecution Comes, Look to Christ!
- Be prepared to defend the gospel of Christ
- Find comfort in the resurrection of Christ
Persecution of Christians is on the rise in our country. Perhaps the number one issue that demonstrates this is the very sudden increase in the public promotion of same-sex marriage. A family-owned bakery in Oregon had to close its doors and the business is now run out of the owners’ home because of the heat they took when they would not agree to make a cake for a same-sex wedding ceremony. A photographer in New Mexico was sued and forced to pay a $7,000 fine because she wasn’t comfortable and wouldn’t agree to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony. It seems that practicing your faith is only allowed inside your church building—and I pray God that this right not also be taken from us!
And yet, if we think persecution is ramping up in America, we need only to look at other countries around the world to realize that we really don’t have it that bad. A news story that is gaining attention especially on social media is about a Sudanese woman who has been given the death sentence for leaving Islam and marrying a Christian man. She was raised by her Christian mother and has always been a Christian, but her father was a Muslim, although he left her family when she was young. Her faith in Christ has earned her the death sentence and a brutal, inhumane stay in prison until she gives birth to her child, after which she is to be flogged and then hanged.
Persecution is very real today. It takes different forms at different times in different places, but it appears to be hitting closer to home and increasing in intensity around the world. And that makes today’s Second Lesson that much more significant. The apostle Peter wrote to first century Christians who were scattered around ancient Asia Minor due to persecution. The words Peter wrote for those ancient believers are as applicable to us modern Christians as it was to Peter’s original readers. Today St. Peter encourages you: When persecution comes, look to Christ! Be prepared to defend the gospel of Christ—in other words, direct others to look to Christ. And then also find your comfort in the resurrection of Christ—in other words, look to Christ for yourself and your faith’s comfort.
Our Second Lesson actually begins mid-sentence in the original language and in many translations. We’ll use the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) for our translation today, since there are a few difficult spots in this reading to translate, and I feel the HCSB has done a good job translating them and making those spots a little clearer. Our excerpt begins, “Honor [Christ] as Lord in your hearts.” Peter was just writing about the fact that sometimes Christians suffer for doing the right thing. As the saying goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.” In contrast to their persecutors who denied Christ, Peter told his readers to honor Christ and set him apart as Lord in their hearts and minds. That would show itself in many different ways, but one way Christians do that is when we defend our Christian faith. Peter says, “Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” The word “defense” in the Bible’s original language looks like the word “apology.” In certain contexts, “apology” means “defense. For example, one of the Lutheran Confessions is called the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1530). In that case, the word apology doesn’t mean that our Lutheran forefathers wrote that they were sorry about what they had publicly confessed; rather, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession defended what the first Lutherans said they believed in the Augsburg Confession (also 1530). Peter urges Christians to do something similar. Our faith is built on historic facts, not fiction, and so there is something we can defend and articulate to others. Apologetics is a worthy field of study, but you can hardly defend the facts of your faith if you don’t know them well to begin with. So Peter’s words call for constant study of the Scriptures so that we are prepared to defend the gospel of Christ.
Of course, the way we defend our faith is just as important as defending it in the first place. Peter wrote, “However, do this with gentleness and respect, keeping your conscience clear, so that when you are accused, those who denounce your Christian life will be put to shame.” Peter envisioned that sometimes his readers wouldn’t just be asked about their faith; they would be interrogated about their faith. Natural instincts would be to respond in kind, but Peter urges his readers to respond gently. Then their conscience can be clear, for then they were not engaging in a fight but were confessing the gospel to someone who needs to hear it as much as they did. And then perhaps their detractors would be ashamed that they treated someone so rudely simply on account of not understanding their faith.
What do we do when this happens to us? How do we handle the reality that the fading Christian veneer on our culture has exposed just how many people around us need to hear us provide a clear defense of the facts—not life principles, but historic, concrete facts—of our faith? There’s no question that we need to study the Word more but do our Bibles remain unopened at home and seats in Bible classes remain unfilled? Do we leave the defense of the gospel of Christ to the “professionals”? Have we lost the sense that people we know and love are going to hell and still we act like all is fine because we mute our gospel confession around them? Sports and news and finances and weather and music are all fine topics of conversation and great “ice-breakers,” but when we cannot get around to discussing and defending Christ, have we not failed to give the defense that Peter calls us to give?
Think about the last really good conversation you had with someone. I’m not talking about a religious conversation now—any recent lively discussion will do. Very often when we’re having a good conversation, the main topic moves around quite a bit and quickly shifts from one subject to another before we’ve even realized it. Peter’s discussion about suffering and persecution begins to shift quickly through a number of other Christian matters that ultimately take us to Jesus’ resurrection. Here is where Peter especially reminds us that when persecution comes, we look to Christ by finding our comfort in Christ’s resurrection.
Verse 17 still deals with the matter of suffering for our faith. “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” That’s a hard statement to swallow, but Peter shows us why that statement is entirely correct. Jesus also suffered innocently, yet nothing but blessings came from his unjust suffering. In a verse that might be an early Christian hymn stanza, Peter says, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring you to God, after being put to death in the fleshly realm but made alive in the spiritual realm.” Jesus was persecuted. Jesus suffered unjustly. And look at the good that came from the evil deeds of sinful men! Jesus suffered once on behalf of everyone to pay the penalty of our sins. That suffering brought us close to him, we who were once divided far from God by our sin. This happened through the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus. When Peter says, “After being put to death in the fleshly realm,” he means that Jesus died for our sins in his state of humiliation—the time of his life when he set aside his full power as God. When Peter says, “But [he was] made alive in the spiritual realm,” he means that Jesus was brought back to life at his resurrection in his state of exaltation—the time of Jesus’ life from his resurrection forward, when he took back his full power and glory as true God.
Notice that we have had a shift in the topic. The discussion of persecution led to a discussion of Jesus’ death and resurrection. And that now leads to a discussion of a unique event that we mention in the Creed each week: Jesus’ descent into hell. Peter says, “In that state [of exaltation] [Jesus] also went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison who in the past were disobedient, when God patiently waited in the days of Noah while an ark was being prepared.” Before Jesus visibly appeared to various followers of his on Easter Day, he descended into hell—not to suffer more for sin, for his suffering was complete, but to proclaim his accomplished victory to the souls in hell who had rejected him. Think of this as a championship winning team holding a victory parade in their opponent’s city: Imagine the Seattle Seahawks having a victory parade in Denver after beating the Broncos in the Super Bowl back in February. In a sense, that’s what Jesus did when he descended into hell.
Notice again that Peter has already taken us to another topic: from persecution, to Jesus’ death and resurrection, to the descent into hell, and now to the flood in Noah’s Day. Some of the people that heard Jesus’ victory speech in hell were those disobedient souls who had rejected the faith of Adam and Eve and had filled the world with their wickedness at the time of the Old Testament worldwide flood. Peter moves quickly from the descent into hell to the flood and right onto another topic, Holy Baptism. “[Christ] also went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison who in the past were disobedient, when God patiently waited in the days of Noah while an ark was being prepared. In it a few—that is, eight people—were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
The comparison of the flood to baptism is an interesting one—one that probably wouldn’t come to our minds. The flood waters that killed nearly every living thing on the earth actually saved those who were in the ark. That corresponds to the way baptism saves people who are in the metaphorical “ark” called the Church. Baptism doesn’t save people by washing away dirt from our skin. It saves us by washing away sin’s filthy guilt from our souls. The word “pledge” in our reading could also be understood as a “request” or “appeal”—“Baptism…now saves you (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the [appeal] of a good conscience toward God).” In a sense, we come to God in baptism requesting a clean conscience from him, and he gladly answers “yes” by planting forgiveness-receiving faith in the hearts of that newly baptized believer. Then Peter adds that baptism saves us “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Other Bible verses in the New Testament note how baptism connects us to the resurrection of Jesus, and Peter makes the same point here. Now we have come back to a previous topic—from persecution, to Jesus’ death, to his resurrection, to the descent into hell, to the flood, to baptism, and back again to the resurrected Jesus, with thoughts of his Ascension and ascended power filling out the chapter: “Now that he has gone into heaven, he is at God’s right hand with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.”
It’s interesting to see how quickly Peter could move from the topic of persecution to the gospel—the death and resurrection of Jesus for our salvation from sin. But I suppose that topical move was only natural for a man who knew how badly he needed the gospel for himself. This is the same Peter who failed to defend his Lord or confess his name as Jesus was on trial after he was betrayed. This is the same Peter whom Jesus restored to his apostolic office after his resurrection and gave him the power and privilege to proclaim that comfort to others.
The resurrection is most certainly a historical fact that is worth our study so that we increase our ability to defend the gospel to skeptics and critics. But the resurrection is also the heart and center of the gospel that fills our hurting hearts with comfort and peace. In all times of life, and especially when persecution comes, look to Christ and find comfort in his resurrection.
We need this resurrection gospel just as much as Peter did. When past failures to confess our faith haunt our minds, Jesus cleanses your mind by the cleansing waters of the font. That is where everything he did for you on the cross became your own possession. At the font, the blood Jesus shed for the world now cleanses your hearts in God’s sight. At the font, the victory over death that Jesus won on Easter became your future victory over the grave. At the font, the ultimate cause of death, our sin, lost its eternal power over you. At the font, you received so much more than washed skin. You received a good conscience. You received a gift from God that was the answer to the greatest prayer you could have asked from God and the greatest need God could ever meet for us.
We have basked in the Easter gospel for six weeks with one more Sunday to go, but seven weeks is hardly enough time to bask in the full blessings of Jesus’ resurrection. There is comfort in his resurrection—comfort because it is the rock-solid proof of our forgiveness won, the seal of approval on Jesus’ completed work, the assurance that our present persecution has no permanent power over us, and the comfort of our own heavenly future through faith in Jesus’ resurrection.
The apostle Paul wrote, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). That was reality for Peter’s original readers, and not much has changed for many of Peter’s current readers today. But when persecution comes and the opportunity to stand up for your faith presents itself, remember that nothing has changed when it comes to the promises of God, either! He who forgave you at the font will continue to comfort you with the shed blood and empty tomb of his risen and ascended Son. This Easter season and every day thereafter, it is our privilege to point others to the same truth and comfort. Amen.