February 21, 2021
Sermon by the Reverend Bob Phelps
1 Peter 3:18-22
Life and Death
We’ll be doing something on the Sundays of Lent this year that we all know we’re not supposed to do. We’re going to be reading other people’s mail this year. I promise we won’t be violating any federal laws. Each week, we’ll read from a different New Testament Letter, so I didn’t steal them out of anybody’s mailboxes, and no checks fell out of them when I opened them. These letters were written to churches and people in them many years ago, and then people decided what they had to say was important enough that they needed to be added to Scripture. Even though they were written to someone else, these letters have things to say that we all need to hear. This morning we hear from the first letter of Peter.
There is a lot about this letter we don’t know. It bears Peter’s name, but it’s doubtful that the Peter we know as a disciple of Jesus actually wrote it. As strange as it sounds to us, it wasn’t unusual or even unacceptable for people to sign someone else’s name to things they wrote in the first century. Remember that these guys didn’t know they were writing Scripture that we’d be reading all these years later. They thought they were writing things that would be helpful to the Church as it came into being and as it figured out how it would tell people about Jesus and the Good News he had come to bring. They did those things. And as the Church grew and expanded its ministry, some of the things that had been written to some of those earliest churches got put together with the stories of Jesus to form what we know as the New Testament. The process of how all that happened is a story for another day, but these letters were important then and they’re important for us now.
This particular letter was written to people for whom being faithful was not easy. The opening of the letter tells us all the places it was addressed to, and that usually meant that someone carried the letter to those places and that someone read it to people when they gathered for worship. When Mark Adams, who works in a border ministry in Arizona and Mexico, was with us as a mission speaker a few years ago, we gave you an opportunity to sign up to receive correspondence from him once in a while. I hope that some of you still read those notes when they come. He and I correspond in addition to those notes he sends around once in a while. I heard from him in the midst of all the events of this week. He always speaks fondly of the weekend he spent with us and expresses gratitude for the ongoing connection between his ministry on the border and ours here. Something like the correspondence between Mark and us happened in these letters we know as Scripture, but people then mostly looked forward to hearing from people they had known and cared about, people with whom they had engaged in ministry, and people who cared about what happened to them. Our tradition doesn’t allow for much conversation between former pastosr and current ministries, so I even though I read newsletters and hear from folks in places I have served before, I don’t send the letters telling them what I think about what they’re doing these days. So letters from people like Mark and the people at Living Water for the World and other ministries with which we partner are about as close as we’ll come to understanding what New Testament letters were all about.
The letter from which we read this morning addresses a topic that’s never easy to talk about. It talks about suffering. We learn from the tone and character of this letter that the people to whom it was addressed faced opposition and maybe even persecution because of their faith. We don’t get a lot of particulars about what kinds of suffering they faced, but it was not uncommon for early Christians to face struggles because of their faith. This is something few of us know much about. Nobody much interferes with our efforts to worship and learn and serve the way we do here. You may argue with people in another church about whether women should be elders or who should receive communion and how often or about who should be baptized and how, but those arguments are probably not going to change either of your minds, and you will probably not lose your job or get run out of town because of whichever side you’re on.
It wasn’t that easy for early Christians. The things we believe cut to the heart of many of the relationships in which people lived. Families divided. Communities divided. It was not easy to be faithful in those days. We never find out exactly how the people who read this letter were suffering, but we know they were. We don’t hear about anyone dying in this letter, but we know that many early Christians did. Christians being fed to the lions is not a myth. It happened. But many more people suffered in other ways for what they believed. Being faithful in that day really was a matter of life and death.
One of the painful truths this letter communicates is that suffering is a part of Christian life. That’s why it’s appropriate for us to hear these words on this the first Sunday in Lent.
Lenten observance is a relatively new thing for Protestants. Lent began as a time of instruction and preparation for baptism and church membership. Most of us
grew up thinking of Lent as something the Catholics did. Within most of our lifetimes, more and more Protestants have decided that spending these weeks before Easter reflecting on our faith and thinking about ways we can strengthen our relationship with God is a helpful thing. Whether you fast or give up something or observe this season in some other way, it is not uncommon for Christians both Protestant and Catholic to find meaning in this season. I’ve told you before that Deanna and I grew up in a community that was about half Catholic. Many of the Catholic kids we knew went to Catholic Schools with names like Blessed Mother and Precious Blood and Saints Peter and Paul and all the others. But there were also many Catholic kids who went to public schools, so we all ate fish sticks on Fridays.
However we observe this season, our discipline or our denial doesn’t really rise to the level of suffering, but that’s the idea—that if we experience some denial in these days, we’ll at least be motivated to pause and remember the suffering of Jesus on our behalf and to be thankful. Our older son, Blake, is not the most outwardly faithful one of us, but Lent is always a meaningful time to him. He called his mother the other day in the middle of all the bad weather—or so we thought, it was 9 degrees where he was when he called with about six inches of snow. But he called to see what we were doing for Lent. This was a day or two before last Wednesday when we would normally have been together for worship to begin the season, but it was in the middle of all that ice and snow and low water pressure and everything else we experienced last week. I told her to tell him that it looked as if we would give us life as we know it for Lent this year. Between the continuing virus issues and wondering when the water would come back and how many pipes might burst, it appeared we were giving up enough, Blake didn’t fall for it. He told us quickly, that he knew it was rough to do winter down here, but that we needed to remember that Jesus died. So whatever we were facing would pale in comparison to that.
Don’t you hate it when what you drilled into your kids comes back to you? Blake’s not eating meat for Lent this year. And that’s a big deal for him, because he can chow down on a burger with the best of them. But he has faced the life and death nature of what this season is all about, and I’m thankful.
Whoever wrote this letter has just finished talking about whatever the suffering his people are facing when we pick up our reading this morning. He speaks sternly when he says that it is better to suffer for doing good, if that’s God’s will for us, than to suffer for doing evil. Apparently, whatever the suffering is that people were facing then came from their insistence on believing that Jesus is Lord when the Empire said that Caesar is and their refusal to bow to any Lord but Jesus.
Again, most of us can identify with this as a part of history, but we have not faced similar things in our own experience. Your in-laws may not be thrilled that you brought their son or daughter to the Presbyterian Church with you, but hopefully the welcome they’ve received here made up for it, and the in-laws are happy you’re in Church!
Whatever suffering we might face because of our faith is grounded in the suffering Jesus endured on our behalf. This letter makes it clear that whatever we face is not a means to salvation, but a consequence of living in a fallen world. Jesus suffered once for all, the righteous for all unrighteousness, and he did it all to bring us to God. For him, it was a literal matter of life and death. He died so that we might live. He died in this life and opened the way for him and for us to everlasting life with God.
It is important to note that the letter moves from that life and death understanding to a conversation about baptism. If there ever was a sign of life and death for all of us to see, that’s it. Every time we gather at that font to celebrate baptism with the family of a newborn or with someone who didn’t have that experience and comes to faith on his own, we are talking about matters of life and death. I know that we have domesticated that celebration to the point that we don’t use nearly enough water to kill anybody, but the symbolism is important. I try to splash enough water around to get the point across even if it means the baby’s going to cry a little. We had a family in another congregation I served who had two granddaughters born within a few weeks of one another. One of those babies was ours and the other one went to another church with her family, a church that doesn’t baptize its children. The grandmother of both those babies came by the church one afternoon with that little Baptist granddaughter and pleaded with me to baptize her and not tell her parents. I didn’t of course. And when we did baptize the little Presbyterian granddaughter, the grandma told me she wanted to sit close enough so that some of my splashing might get on the other one. Years later, I was working church camp when those girls were in middle school, and the granddaughter I knew as a Baptist came to me at registration and told me that her grandma had told her to be sure to tell me that her family had found their way back to the Presbyterian Church and that she had been baptized there! We rejoiced and celebrated together, and when Grandma came to pick those kids up on Friday, we celebrated all over again.
Both those girls are grown and probably have kids of their own by now. Grandma died a few years ago, happy that her family was all where they belonged in the Church. And I’m sure they’ve told the story of those baptisms a hundred times. But it wasn’t the water that either I or my friend, the preacher who followed me there, splashed on those girls’ heads that saved it. It was the relationship with Jesus and his Church that that water brought them to that did that. We talk a lot about his death in this season, but it was his life, both here and the one that came next, and the life he calls us to both live and look forward to that saves us. And somewhere down deep, even Grandma knew that.
We’ve had our share of water issues in these parts this week. We don’t usually think about such things. You go the tap, and water comes out. Usually clean, even if it’s hard water like ours. For a few days this week, we’d have been glad to put up with those hard water stains. That first shower or load of laundry put it all in perspective for us. Like these days between now and Easter put the whole matter of life and death in perspective for us. The past year has not been a picnic for any of us, and even though there are hopeful signs, we’re not through it yet. The weather looks as if we’ll be done with winter before long, but we’re not fools. We know what spring brings. Beauty, of course, but remember the storms of the past two Mays? I thought so. Most of us have insurance for which we’re grateful to help us get through those things.
But it is our faith that will sustain us in the real life and death issues. And these days give us opportunity to strengthen that gift so that it can do the work for which God gave it to us. Pray with me in these days that we will understand and give thanks that God is with us in life, will be with us in death, and has promised us life everlasting. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Prayers of the People
Steadfast, loving God, thank you for sheltering us in both the literal and the figurative storms of life. Thank you for being with us in the times that test us and for ministering to us in ways both seen and unseen. Thank you for those who work to restore power and water and other things we tend to take for granted. Thank you for those who keep grocery shelves stocked and for those who supply them. Comfort those who still face adversity and help us to comfort one another. Thank you, Loving god, for claiming us as a beloved people and for never turning back on that promise. Because of your love and care for us, we trust your promise and the joy it brings.
We thank you for days like these when things settle a bit after times that toss us about. We know that more trouble will come, but we have been reminded that you will be with us. Help us to live as people who know that when all the storms of life are over, the promise of Resurrection hope will be ours, and we will live in sure and certain hope.
Hear our prayers today for the deep needs of our lives, our community, and the world. Where there is violence and war, give us the courage to work for peace, even when it means laying down our security and working for the good of all. Remind us that in life and in death we belong to you. Help us to entrust ourselves into your care as many times as it takes for us to believe that you love us and will not abandon us. We ask for help for all who are confused, lost, or afraid, including us. We ask for healing for our bodies and minds. We give thanks that you are with us whether we are wounded, ill, recovering, or awaiting your call to life beyond death. Make us unceasing in our prayers for one another and for those we love, especially those who are far away from us, physically or spiritually. We pray for comfort, for easing of pain that comes from loss, and for the light of your presence to break through so much darkness that surrounds us.
You have always found ways to break through to us, so we ask that you now tear open all that would divide us from you or hide your presence from us, in our lives and in the life of the Church.
We give you thanks for the gift of precious new life you have entrusted to Kit and Ashley and to all of us who love them. Surround them with your love and help them to share it with Walker, the new source of joy in their lives.
More than anything else, we know that we want to hear your voice of love in the midst of our lives; we want to know the gifts you offer; we want to see you clearly. Grant us these things, we pray; then lead us to serve others faithfully so that they might know your gifts, too. We pray as disciples of Jesus Christ, who taught us all to pray when he said: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever and ever. Amen
Pastor, J J White Memorial Presbyterian Church
110 Third Street McComb, MS 39648
church phone 601.684.4189