Living Witness, 1 Peter 3:13–22, Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 17, 2020
It may seem as if our Easter celebration was months ago, but the season of Easter is still chugging along. Most of the world has forgotten about any Easter glow, particularly this season of Corona. Easter for many of our neighbors, even many who worship in Christian bodies, has long since been forgotten. They have composted Easter sermons with the shells from their Easter eggs by now. But we are still rejoicing in our Easter joy, and contemplating the fact that the Lord of heaven and earth has risen from the grave to do some very important things. We are a living witness of His work in our lives.
In our text this morning, Peter is writing to churches in various cultural settings. While these are different churches, in different cultures, one thing is common among them. They are all struggling. They are all having difficulty with becoming a living witness. As Christians, they struggle with how their faith interacts with the world. And Peter’s letter offers them, and us, some encouragement. He offers a vision of God’s glorious work in Christ that helps them endure.
When our Lord called us to follow Him, He called us to take up our cross. Being a living witness is not easy. Not then, not now, not ever. Satan would tempt us to believe that we are doing something wrong, to believe that the Christian life should be easy, and if it is not, to believe that we should just keep our mouth shut about our faith.
It reminds me of an old Chinese parable about a poor man who lived with his son in an abandoned fort. One day the horse they owned and depended on to haul vegetables to town, which was their sole means of support, ran away. When the neighbors heard about it they went to the old man and expressed their sympathy. “Too bad,” they said.
“How do you know it’s bad?” the old man responded. “The horse returned and brought back with him a dozen wild horses.” The neighbors said, “This is good!”
“How do you know if it’s good?” he: asked. “When my son tried to tame the horses he broke his leg.” “Bad,” they said, “very bad.”
“How do you know that?” the old man replied. “Shortly afterward a war broke out, but my son was laid up and did not have to go to the front.”
It is easy for events by themselves to look like hopeless situations. But no setback, failure, loss, or suffering stands alone. There is always another chapter, to follow. There is always a final word, and that word is God’s! Throughout his epistle Peter calls attention to suffering, but in every instance it has a good consequence.
He urges his readers to be a living witness. “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you;” (15).
This “hope that is in you” is the hope of a living witness, and is given through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Elsewhere Peter reminds us to pay attention to the Word of God “that by it you may grow up into salvation” (2:2).
The hope of a living witness is kept alive as we meditate on that Word. We see again and again in the Bible that God will not give up, even when the situation seems hopeless. Paul in his letter to the Romans tells us: For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope, (15:4).
Some 800 years before Christ, a prophet named Hosea bought his faithless wife from her lovers for the price of a slave. He tried to win her back with love and patience. His way with her typified God’s dealings with the wayward nation Israel: “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. And there I will give her her vineyards and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.” (Hos 2:14–15).
Still, God seems to waver between punishing and forgiving His chosen people: “Ephraim [his name for Israel] is joined to idols; leave him alone!” (4:17). Just when you think it’s all over between God and His chosen people, we hear: “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? …I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” (11:3, 8–9). This is such a clear picture of the heart of God, a God of hope!
Peter exhorts us to be always ready to explain this strange hope that we have, to be a living witness. And we are to “give the reason for the hope… with gentleness and respect.” Peter tells us that, because he had learned that words harshly spoken, even though they are true, often, only turn people off.
When we stop and think about Peter, we often think of what he did. We remember how Peter wanted to walk on water, how he wanted to build booths on the Mount of Transfiguration, how he claimed he would follow Jesus unto death, how he denied Jesus in the courtyard, how he preached of Jesus on Pentecost. Peter’s life is rich and varied, and we might think that Peter could give us some advice from his life of being a living witness.
Yet, Peter does not ask us to consider what he did as a disciple. Instead, he asks us to consider what he saw. Peter wants to be remembered not for what he said and did, but for what he was: a witness of the sufferings of Jesus Christ. And as a witness of the sufferings of Christ, Peter has seen something, something that he shares with us today.
Peter has seen how God enters into suffering and triumphs over it. God is able to use suffering in His kingdom. Suffering is not something insurmountable for God.
As Peter writes to those who are in the mists of that suffering he reminds them that God works salvation through suffering. He says, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (3:18).
Through Christ’s sufferings, sinners were brought to God. Without the sufferings of Christ, we would remain in our sins, separated from God by what we say, think, and do. But because of the sufferings of Christ, because of His death upon the cross, the wrath of God is appeased. The Righteous One has died for the unrighteous, that we might be members and living witnesses of the kingdom of God.
Christ Jesus took suffering head-on. He died that we might be saved, and He rose from the dead that we might know that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and nothing can overcome God’s work of the living witnesses in the world.
Although our situations may be difficult, we can endure them with confidence in the working of God. Our Savior, Jesus Christ, is able to enter into suffering and use it for His purposes. We therefore need not fear or flee from situations of difficulty but rather follow our Savior, confident in His power.
Peter desires for our lives to be shining with hope. We will face unjust persecution cheerfully and without complaint. We will give no offence and we will not strike back, and even the slaves among us will obey their masters, even when the master is not watching, husbands will honor their wives, wives will respect their husbands, even when that relationship is fraught with tension.
Peter understands this behavior, this lifestyle, to be a tool, a means whereby people notice that we solve our problems differently, we deal with our disappointment differently, and we see our whole life differently.
The point is that this Christian way of life should be very obvious. Because God works through His Word, we can be effective witnesses to the hope we have, although for the moment it may seem to produce few, if any, results. Because God will have the last word, we will not give up.
Yes, our witness of the good deeds is driven by the amazing hope which we have. God has promised that in our words He acts. He has promised that in our deeds, He acts.
Because Jesus stands between those who believe in Him and the forces of darkness, nothing will be able to come to them, which has not come through Jesus. Jesus is the Victor, having triumphed over all evil in His death on the cross and His resurrection from the grave. All suffering that comes to us has already been conquered by Him.
In his letter Peter gives us but a glimpse of this glory of God. He relates how Jesus not only suffered for our sin but how He rose from the dead in victory over all evil. He descended into hell to proclaim His victory over the powers of hell, and He ascended into heaven, is seated on the right hand of God, where He now rules over all things. Sound familiar?
This is our profession of faith each and every week. This is our vision. When suffering enters our lives, when difficulties endanger our witness, Peter encourages us to see this bigger picture of our risen and ruling Lord.
Jesus sets us on a course of life and life-giving service and love. While Jesus delights to comfort you in all your sorrows and forgive you all your sins, He has established you to be a living witness. His love is for all people.
The presence of Christ among you, it defines and empowers you. The forgiveness with which He has blessed you, the love with which He has filled you, is a forgiveness and love for every person in your neighborhood, your town, your community, your city, and this whole world. He calls you to an obedience which takes seriously His gifts and His Spirit and His presence. It will not always be easy, it will take great faith, but you will never be alone. He is always with you. Amen.