by Jason Micheli
1 Peter 3.13-17 (click to see Scripture text)
When our oldest son was in Kindergarten, my wife and I received an email from his teacher requesting a meeting. In her classroom early one morning before school, sitting across from her on tiny plastic chairs, she explained to us her concern that our otherwise cheerful and compliant child stubbornly refused to put his hand over his heart and recite the pledge of allegiance with his classmates.
“Well, what’s he do?” I asked her.
“He stands next to his desk politely and respectfully,” she said, “but— I’ve insisted several times— he refuses to participate in the pledge.”
“Good,” I said.
“Um, excuse me? Good?””
“That’s what we’ve taught him to do,” my wife explained, “to be polite and respectful, but not to participate in the pledge.”
She looked at us like we were strange.
“We, of course, teach our kids to love their country and to understand what makes it exceptional,” my wife added. “But not to pledge his allegiance.”
“I don’t understand,” his teacher said and, it was clear, she really didn’t understand.
“We’re Christians,” I said, “Jesus is Lord. We’ve taught them that their allegiance is to God alone and that baptism is the only pledge they are to swear to.”
“Uh, okay,” she said, “I just thought you’d want to know.
“Oh no, thanks for telling us” I said. “We’re so proud of him.”
As we pushed back the little plastic chairs and got up to leave, she looked at us like we were the oddest people she’d ever encountered.
Now, I share that story with you not to offend some of you. And, I certainly I don’t share it to make myself appear heroically holy. I divulge it because, to my embarrassment, that’s one of the only few occasions when someone has regarded me as peculiar enough to inquire about the hope that is within me.
Given what God has gone and done, gratis, without asking for your input or opinion. Given what God has done in Jesus Christ, putting an end to sinful humanity in Christ’s death and establishing the new future of humanity in Christ’s resurrection. Given that, because Christ died for all, all have died. Given that your life is hidden now in Christ where you are a new creation upon whom Sin and Death have no claim— Given the Good News that is the Gospel, you have a decision to make.
To be or not to be?
Will you live in a manner that corresponds to who you are, really are?
Or, will you contradict your true identity by refusing to live in a manner that makes no sense if Jesus Christ is not Lord?
“To be or not to be,” that is the question in light of what God has gone and done. Will you become who you already are? Or, will you settle for a life that’s something less meaningful, something unreal even?
The disorienting implications that follow from the Good News is that the perfect and finished work of Jesus Christ, the present-tense Lordship of Jesus Christ, provides the basis for a free and revolutionary life.
This is why the Apostle Peter assumes that those who know they are in Christ are living in a manner sufficiently peculiar, so as to provoke questions from those who are not Christian. “Always be ready,” the Apostle Peter exhorts us today, “to give an account of the hope that is within you.” Go back and read Verses Eight through Twelve from last week. The Apostle Peter’s not talking about our beliefs. The Apostle Peter’s talking about the behavior of the messianic community. In other words, the messianic community proclaims the Gospel when they live the cruciform way of the Messiah. We preach the Gospel by living in a manner that makes no sense if God has not raised Jesus from the dead.
The Lordship of Jesus Christ may be objective reality, but it is not obvious; therefore, such a strange way of life should provoke questions. How can you turn the other cheek? How can you walk another mile? How can you give your shirt as well as your coat? How can you forsake your property and possessions? How can you not desire to wield power the way the world does? How can you forgive her for leaving your son dead on the side of the road?
And when your counter-intuitive, cruciform way of life provokes questions, be prepared to give an apologia of the hope that is within you.
There are two expectations implicit in The Apostle Peter’s exhortation here.
The first expectation is that you are living in a manner odd enough to elicit questions from unbelievers.
The second expectation is that you are equipped to articulate to unbelievers the conviction that can account for such a way of life.
As far as the first expectation goes, perhaps it’s best if we just repent and confess. Most of us live as functional atheists. Neither I nor the Holy Spirit can change that in a single sermon. What I can do, however, is address the other expectation. I can prepare you to give an account of our core, animating conviction, and maybe I can do so in a way that shows why that first expectation is not an impossible ideal, but is absolutely inseparable from the proclamation of the Gospel.
There’s a reason the Apostle Peter can expect everyone in all of his churches to be ready to distill the Gospel down to its essence and give an account of our core conviction as Christians. It’s both straightforward and obvious from the pages of the New Testament. It’s clear enough that Caesar grasped it. It’s simple enough that pagan critics of the first Christians understood it.
Jesus is Lord.
That’s it, the center and the summation of the Gospel. Jesus Christ is Lord. All the other constituent parts of the Gospel— the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection— they narrate the means by which Jesus Christ is established as the Lord who sits at the right hand of the Father and to whom has been granted all authority over heaven and earth.
Jesus Christ is not Secretary of Afterlife Affairs.
Jesus is Lord.
Even the liturgical calendar drives you to confess Jesus is Lord. The Great Fifty Days of Easter, after all, culminates not with another resurrection appearance but with the Ascension, the enthronement of the Prince of Peace as King of kings and Lord of lords.
Jesus is Lord— That’s the marrow of the Gospel message.
The Gospel of John climaxes when Doubting Thomas is the first person in the story to get Jesus by calling Him what exactly?
The Apostle Paul says Jesus is Lord over 250 times in his letters, and when Paul calls Jesus the Lord, Paul refers back to the shema in the Book of Deuteronomy 6, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
It’s now, Hear, O Israel, Jesus Christ, the Lord, is one with God.
Not only is Lord the Apostle Paul’s most frequent appellation for Jesus, Paul is quite clear that it’s the basis by which we participate in salvation. Paul doesn’t say, Whoever believes in God will be saved. Paul doesn’t say, Whoever invites Jesus into their hearts will be saved. He certainly doesn’t say Whoever thinks Jesus had a pretty cool social program will be saved. Paul says, “Whoever confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord will be saved.”
Rome understood the conviction at the heart of our hope. During periods of persecution, Rome would exonerate Christians who recanted their faith on one condition— that they offer an equivalent and invalidating profession, Caesar is Lord. Caesar grasped the core claim at the heart of our Gospel that we so often miss.
Jesus is Lord.
Jesus Christ is— present tense— Lord of heaven and earth.
This the confession of faith that marks us out as participants in the saving work of God. This is the animating conviction that can account for the counter-intuitive lives the Apostle Peter assumes we’re daring to live. It’s simple and straightforward. If someone asks you to give an account for the hope that is within you, if someone wonders what it is that you as a Christian believes, you can answer in only three words. It’s short enough to tweet.
Jesus is Lord.
Why do I give money to that panhandler without needing to control what he does with it? Because Jesus said to do it (and even more) for whomever asks, and Jesus is Lord.
Why do I pray for my enemies despite my natural, stubborn inclination to do the opposite? Because Jesus told us to pray for our enemies, and Jesus is Lord.
But how do we know that Jesus Christ is Lord?
Once you’ve given an apologia for the hope within us— that’s the inevitable next question you should be prepared to negotiate. How do you know that a two thousand-year-old Jew who lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly is Lord of lords? For that matter, how do we know that any of our God-talk as Christians is true?
Everything hinges on this question of epistemology, this question of how we know what we know as Christians. The answer to how we know that Jesus is Lord is— pay attention now, you need to be prepared to give an account— because, God has told us so.
How do we know Jesus is Lord, the full measure of God?
God has told us that Jesus is Lord.
For some, God the Holy Spirit has spoken this directly. When I was young, just before college, I became a convert not because I was persuaded on some independent, external grounds that Christianity makes sense. No, I became a convert, because God spoke the truth about the lordship of Christ to me.
For others— for most— God tells us that Jesus is Lord through the testimony of the apostles, the proclamation of the Church, and the mysterious work of the sacraments. As Paul tells the Corinthians, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe…God is the source of your life in Christ Jesus.”
Translation: They learned about the Lordship of Jesus Christ, because the Living God spoke to them through Paul’s witness to them.
Paul reiterates the same truth claim to the Galatians. “When God, who had set me apart from my mother’s womb, and called me by means of His benefaction, was pleased to reveal His Son to me, so that I might proclaim Him among the pagan nations,” Paul writes, “I did not consult with flesh and blood.”
We know Jesus Christ is Lord because the Lord has told us that He came down and revealed Himself fully in Jesus Christ.
And this answer—
It isn’t a cop-out. It’s less a circular argument than a trinitarian one. But notice, it’s logically necessary. Only God can reveal God. By definition, no matter how hard you might seek after it, you cannot find the truth about God. The truth about God can only find you— that’s the difference between the Tower of Babel and the Burning Bush.
Only God can reveal God, which is but a way of saying that the Gospel is an apocalyptic message. That is, it’s not a discovery; it’s a revelation. Christianity is a revealed religion. It can be known only through the Living God disclosing it to us.
You can’t observe the natural world and conclude anything like the Sermon on the Mount happened. You can’t infer your way from human nature to the fullness of deity dwelling in the suffering and accursed death of Jesus of Nazareth. You can’t reason your way to the justification of the ungodly. The god with whom you connect on the golf course can never be the God who took flesh in Mary’s belly.
Only God can reveal God.
If we could arrive at the true God any other way but through Jesus Christ, then— every damn time— we would avoid the way of Jesus Christ. Why exhaust yourself resisting racism if God can be known independent of the Jesus who has already brought down the dividing walls between us?
If we could arrive at the true God any other way but through Jesus Christ, then we would do our damnedest to avoid the way of Jesus Christ. As Karl Barth said, where the truth of God is a gift, every aspect of our lives is brought under judgment and correction. Where the truth of God is a projection, however, parts of our identity and culture and nation and politics and race will always be permanently reserved from judgment. The latter, Barth said, is how you end up with “believers” who are willing to sacrifice and die in the name of God while defying God’s true nature.
The truth of who God is rests exclusively in the hands of God.
And this is where that second expectation implicit in Peter’s exhortation today (the expectation that you be prepared to give an account of our core conviction) connects back to the first expectation (the expectation that you’re living a life sufficiently odd to provoke questions about your core conviction as a believer).
Because the primary way that Christ our Lord has elected to reveal himself is through his Body, the Church. Only God can reveal God, but Jesus Christ our Lord has elected to keep on revealing himself in the flesh, through the witness of his Church. Notice, this is why the Apostle Peter is so concerned that when you do give an apologia for your faith you do it with all gentleness and reverence. Because Christ our Lord has elected to reveal Himself through His Church, the manner and mode of our witness cannot invalidate our message. You see, the purpose of sanctification— growing in holiness, conforming your life in obedience to the way of Jesus Christ— is not to render you more righteous. You’ve already been given Christ’s perfect righteousness. The purpose of sanctification is not for you to inch your way closer to God. Your life is already hidden in Christ with God. The purpose of sanctification— the purpose of you becoming who you already are, the purpose of you being odd for God— is for you to corroborate, to make visible, to make intelligible the hope that is within us.
That Jesus Christ is Lord.
On October 2, 2006 Charles Carl Roberts carried his guns and his rage into an Amish schoolhouse near Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. He shot ten children. He killed five, and then he killed himself. The Amish community’s impossible display of total and completely gratuitous forgiveness, in the aftermath, became an international story.
Not as well-known is that eight days before the school shooting, in a neighboring Amish community in Georgetown, Pennsylvania, a twelve-year-old boy named Emmanuel King left his home around 5:30, as he did most mornings, to help a neighboring family milk their cows. He rode his scooter out his family’s mile-long farm lane. He turned right onto Georgetown Road. As he rounded a slight turn, an oncoming pickup truck crossed the center line, struck little Emmanuel, and threw him to the far side of the road.
The truck hit a fence post and then the truck sped away.
The next day, a reporter covering the hit-and-run accident went to Emmanuel’s home, but what the reporter found was not what he had expected. Rather than anger and animosity, the reporter discovered a gracious spirit toward the woman whom police considered, and later confirmed, to be the hit-and-run suspect.
Naturally, Emmanuel’s mother was grief-stricken.
Unnaturally, she nevertheless wanted to convey a message to the woman who had killed her son and left him like carrion on the side of the road. “She should come here. We would like to see her,” she told the reporter, “We hold nothing against her. We would like to tell her we forgive her.”
Such grace created an impossible possibility.
When the driver read the newspaper headline, “A Boy’s Death, a Family’s Forgiveness,” she did a surprising thing. She went to the King family home to receive their words of forgiveness and confess her sin. She returned again for Emmanuel’s viewing. She returned again for his funeral. Over the next several weeks, she came back three more times and, later, she bought a new scooter for the children on what would have been Emmanuel’s thirteenth birthday.
The reporter was dumbstruck. “How? Why? Why in the world would you forgive the woman who killed your son and left him dead in the ditch. The reporter was told, “Because Jesus commanded us to forgive and Jesus is Lord.”
Unlike the Nickel Mines shooting, which became an international news story, Emmanuel’s mother and the radical forgiveness of her church community didn’t become a remarkable international news story. To this reporter, it just made them peculiar.
13Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you;
16yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.