The Defense Never Rests

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For a number of years, I’ve had a Bible verse on the signature line of my email account. I chose that verse as a sort of mission statement. I think it sums up my calling as a pastor and also to share the faith in my daily vocations as husband, father, neighbor, co-worker, friend, etc. So it is really no coincidence that that it happens to be our text for today

 “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; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Pastor Terry Jones drew worldwide attention when his small congregation (about thirty members) staged a “trial” of the Koran on March 20, 2011 in Gainesville, Florida. News of that event incited riots in Afghanistan and allegedly provoked an attack on a United Nations facility that killed seven people.

Jones then planned a Good Friday rally outside the largest American mosque in Dearborn, Michigan. Jones stated, “We have made it very clear that we are coming there with very, very peaceful intentions,” but added, “We will be armed. We do have concealed weapons permits.” Banned in court from holding the protest outside the mosque, Jones finally staged a rally near the site a week later with a half dozen supporters. He had to cut short the rally when he was drowned out by about 700 protesters who shouted and tossed their shoes and water bottles at him. Undaunted by the protests, Jones claimed his fight is not about hate, but about standing up for America and combating the radical Muslims.

Other churches have taken a much different approach: They have actually opened their facilities to Muslim groups. Heartsong Church near Memphis, Tennessee, reportedly allowed members of the Memphis Islamic Center to hold Ramadan prayers in its building. Steve Stone, Heartsong’s senior pastor, said, “No thought at all was given to the political ramifications… The decision was firmly based only on our understanding of the mission and nature of the church.” He also pointed out that “there was no trading of theologies. They are Muslims; we are Jesus followers; both of us are clear about that.”

How about another example of polar opposites in church bodies dealing with “controversial topics” in the public area? Take Westboro Baptist Church, a congregation, started by Fred Phelps, which first gained notoriety in 1998, when members picketed at the funeral of Matthew Shepherd, who was murdered in Wyoming because he was gay. Since then, the members have protested at the funerals of public figures, children killed in accidents, and soldiers killed in war.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, the church spokeswoman at the time, said they want God to punish Americans for tolerating homosexuality. They picket funerals to make people angry. They want people to reject God and be condemned to hell. “Our job is laid out,” she says, in comments sprinkled with biblical references, “we are supposed to blind their eyes, stop up their ears and harden their hearts so that they cannot see, hear or understand, and be converted and receive salvation.”

Compare that to the comments of Rev. Mark Hanson, the former Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. When asked about the hundreds of congregations that have left the ELCA since it voted in 2009 to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as clergy, Hanson said those defections represent a small percentage of the church body’s 10,000 congregations.

Hanson declined to state his personal view (or more importantly the biblical view) on whether God can bless gay and lesbian relationships, stressing that his job is to help all sides feel safe and free to discuss their differences. Hanson declared, “Our unity is in our diversity.” Then he added that congregations holding the traditional view that the Bible condemns same-sex relationships are still welcome.

Two pairs of extremes. Two pairs of diametrically opposing approaches to “defending the faith.” The one “in your face” confrontational, the other bending over backwards to appease. Each trying to deal with difficult issues: the rapid spread of Islam and a campaign for the acceptance of homosexuality. None coming to the correct Biblical conclusion. All sadly missing out on their opportunity to make a defense to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that we Christians have in Christ Jesus, our Lord; doing so with gentleness and respect.

But as difficult as these issues are for us today, are they anything compared to Peter’s day? The apostle writes to encourage people who have already begun to experience persecution for their faith under Nero; but he predicts that worse ordeals are still to come. Not having the right of citizenship, they could be arrested and imprisoned, held without bail or habeas corpus rights for any length of time, physically abused, subjected to seizure of property, exiled, sent to work as slaves in government mines, and even killed for no other reason than being Christians.

Peter could well understand these Christian’s bewilderment that God’s sons and daughters should undergo this kind of treatment—he himself had once expressed shock and horror at the idea of Jesus’ suffering and death, and he had to be rebuked as though he were Satan himself. In the upper room on Maundy Thursday, Jesus had told him: “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31, 32).

Peter’s experience of failure, repentance, forgiveness, and restoration uniquely qualified him to write to other struggling Christians. He’s been there. He writes his letter to help his brothers and sisters see that their painful trials are temporary, that hardship will purify their faith, and that God’s real goal for His children lies beyond this dying world. Peter wants them to lay hold of this living hope and to share the reason for that hope whatever their circumstances.

Peter undoubtedly has to smile to himself as he writes these words about nonviolent passivity. After all, is he not the one who was armed in Gethsemane? Is he not the one who drew his sword and gave Malchus the earectomy? He was ready to go down in a bloodbath, thinking that he would thus be honoring God.  

Peter can also understand the urge to run and hide. When Jesus was led away to the high priest’s house, Peter followed at a distance. A servant girl’s innocent question was all it had taken for him to deny even knowing the Lord. But his Master had taught him well. Jesus prayers for Peter’s faith to not fail were answered. Peter repented and was reinstated.

Here, Peter issues an inspiring call to confessing the faith even under the threat of persecution. Christians are not to bash their enemies over the head, nor are they to cowardly run away when confronted. You are to always be prepared to make a defense of the faith to anyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that is in you. This is the ultimate in loving one’s enemies—what better way could there be than to seek to share the message of eternal life with them?

Notice, Peter isn’t talking here of make evangelism calls, where you go door-to-door, talking to complete strangers who know nothing of you and your situation, nor you of them. There is a context: you’re living as a Christian, enduring some hardship, and someone asks you why you are living the way you do. Why aren’t you hopeless or bitter or vengeful or silenced? Why do you stick with the faith?

The Lord uses the situation to raise questions so that you might have the opportunity to speak His Word. You don’t necessarily even have to start the conversation: people come to you. It may be the one inflicting the suffering. More probably, it’s the bystander who may well be suffering, too, but without any hope. Why do you have hope? Can you make a defense? Can you give the reason for your hope?

St. Peter tells us how to do this. He begins: “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy…” Does this sound obvious? Do you need to be told this? Of course you do. People hate hypocrisy, and they can smell religious hypocrisy at 200 yards. And unfortunately, you are hypocritical. You like other people to think you are better than you really are. And much of the time, you try to fool yourself, too. You want to believe you’re doing better than you really are. I know, because I do, too!

The selfish poisons inside of you seep from your sinful nature, and that Old Adam needs to be rebuked and contained each day. The new man in you needs to reaffirm his faith every day—every day repenting, every day praying for strength to stand up for the truth, every day listening to the Savior’s voice through His wonderful Word. And when your own heart is full of gratitude for being rescued from death and hell, you will be ready to speak, and your speech will have depth and conviction. You will not taste or smell or sound phony.

The next step is “always being prepared…” This is not just a Boy Scout motto. You prepare for other less important things. So, why not prepare to share that which is most important to you: “the reason for the hope that is within you”?

God opens up the door for each of us to share the Gospel. So be prepared. Think about what you might say beforehand. Do it now, when the pressure does not seem so noticeable. Can you summarize the Christian faith in a few sentences?

Here is a simple four-keyword summary of the Bible’s Law-Gospel message that you can keep in mind to help organize all the Bible facts you know.

The first word is sin. Tell people how we are separated from our Creator at birth, that no human being can lift himself up to God’s standards of holiness, that all people by nature are God’s enemies and under His curse.

The second word is grace. Tell people that for Christ’s sake, God loves us anyway. He sent His Son to live and die in our place and pronounced the world not guilty because of Jesus.

The third word is faith. Tell people that all of these good things—forgiveness, peace, spiritual life now, life forever—flow into our lives personally as the Holy Spirit uses God’s Word to lead us to believe these wonderful promises.

The fourth word is works. Tell people that the Spirit of God comes to live in believers and enables them to live for God. Believers see God’s ways as a delight rather than a burden, and find joy in conforming their will to His will.

Thus prepared, you are ready “to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…” The word translated here as “a defense” is apologia, a positive testimony and witness to the truth of the Gospel, particularly in the face of opposition. The word translated as “a reason” is logon, literally, “a word,” preferably a word of Scripture. Christianity is “reasonable.” It stands up to scrutiny and investigation because it is true. Christians are to be prepared to tell others about this truth whenever they have the opportunity.

When you talk to people, you don’t have to argue with them. You don’t need to deliver the perfect sales pitch or try to make God’s ways logical or reasonable to them. You don’t need to be clever, or take on the burden of converting them yourself. Just tell them what you hope for in God through the merits and work of Christ. Let the Holy Spirit do His work through the Gospel! 

As you do so, you must avoid the extremes of unnecessarily offending others in your Christian witness, or neutering the message to appease the modern gods of tolerance and political correctness. You must not unnecessarily antagonize them, nor should you pull back from them if they object. Just speak the truth in love.

St. Peter says, “Do it with gentleness and respect.” But even such a gentle and respectful approach will not avoid all criticism or conflict. That’s why he adds: “having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.”

You should not be surprised when you suffer, not even when you suffer for doing right. You live in a fallen world, where all of us are subjected to the consequences of sin in our daily existence. God said to Adam: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread’—and to the woman—“I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing.” Since that time every human being has suffered—even Jesus. He suffered more than you or I ever will—and He was perfectly righteous.

That’s why Peter lifts up our eyes from our own circumstances to the objective reality of the victorious Savior: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”

Your sin and guilt are more deserving of suffering than you care to admit. Even one sin is deserving of God’s temporal and eternal punishment. And you’ve committed thousands of sins—more than you even realize. But these words point you to what someone else has done for you, on your behalf, in your place: the suffering and death of the God-man, Jesus Christ.

Christ also suffered “once for sins.” Although you sin repeatedly, Christ’s one act of atonement covers all your sins. This is the Great Exchange: “The righteous for the unrighteous.” The Father loaded the blame for the sins of the world upon a righteous substitute and then had Him executed on a cross in our place. He is the Lamb of God who bears the sin of the world.

Christ did all of this “that He might bring us to God.” You cannot lift yourself up to God. Christ has lifted you up to God. Christ has reconciled you to His heavenly Father. Christ—His suffering, death, and resurrection—are the heart and center of the Bible. This is really the only Good News that you have to share with a world that is lost and dead in its trespasses. This is the Gospel that you need to hear again and again and again for it is the only Word that saves you… that brings you eternal life… that brings you a good conscience.

This is the reason for the hope that is in you, no matter what your outward circumstances: “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring [you] to God.” Though He was put to death in the flesh, He was raised to life and has ascended into heaven at the right hand of God, where He intercedes on your behalf and brings your prayers before the heavenly Father. Even so, He is here with you today and always, coming to you in His Word and Sacraments, where He brings you salvation and eternal life, bringing you this Good News: You are forgiven of all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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