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Preach the Gospel: Smile

1 Peter 3.8-16

We continue our series this week, “Preach the Gospel at All Times, and if Necessary, Use Words,” a quotation attributed to St. Francis.  And a reminder that we don’t have to all have a PhD in Religion in order to live out our faith.  The first week of the series, we talked about service: caring for the poor and those in need.  The second week, we talked about invitation: we heard from several individuals in the church who know how to say, “come and see.”  Last week, the youth reminded us that you don’t need a seminary degree to preach!  They witnessed to the power of God in their lives, and the ways that they are learning – and teaching us – to follow Christ as sheep follow the shepherd.

Throughout much of our series, our antagonist – or maybe protagonist – has been an author by the name of Sam Eaton. He has written an article with some long title about why millennials don’t come to church.  And as I have said a couple of times already, it really is a helpful reminder of why many in our culture, regardless of age, don’t see the church as a priority anymore.

This week, Eaton is back with us, with another one of his 12 reasons.  This week, he tells the Church, “we’re tired of you blaming the culture.”  He points to culture wars that tend to blame our society for everything that is wrong with the world.  It is Hollywood’s fault.  Or Washington’s fault.  Or Madison Avenue’s fault.  How much time is wasted, Eaton asks, blaming and whining about the culture?  And how many folks hear that message and keep walking instead of bothering with a Church that has become experts at wringing out hands and wagging our fingers at the world?

He says is succinctly: “From Elvis’ hips to rap music, from Footloose to “twerking,” every older generation comes to the same conclusion: The world is going to pot faster than the state of Colorado.  We’re aware of the downfalls of culture – believe it or not we are actually living in it too.  Perhaps it’s easier to focus on how terrible the world is out there than actually address the mess within.”

Ouch.

Eaton’s words are powerful, but they are not original.  Eaton is an echo of 1 Peter.  Most scholars now believe that 1 Peter was not written by the Apostle Peter, but more likely by a much later writer.  The book doesn’t sound like it was written by a fisherman, writing right after the Pentecost.  Instead, it was probably written by someone using Peter’s name as a pseudonym out of respect for him.

And it was written much later, maybe around 90 years after the birth of Christ.  It is the timing that matters more than the author.  Because it sounds like it was written to a universal Church that has started to become more of an institution.  Congregations are gathering across the region, and they are staying connected to each other and supporting each other.  Meanwhile, 50-60 years after Jesus, the Church has become a target.  It has already begun to suffer at the hands of an Empire and a culture that does not appreciate or understand them.  The Apostle Peter and all of the disciples have already been martyred.

So imagine the author Peter – whoever he is – writing during this time period.  He is writing to a Church that sees the government mistrusting, and even actively hostile to them.  He watches soldiers break down doors of house churches and shut down congregations.  He watches pastors get arrested for sharing the faith.  He watches Christians imprisoned or even killed for preaching the Gospel.

And now, imagine Peter getting into a time machine and travelling to the Church of the United States of America, 2017.  Imagine him listening to our concerns or our fears.  What would we tell him?  What would he say?  How would that conversation go?  Maybe something like this:

Peter, sit down.  I have some bad things to tell you about.  We are in dire straits.

I went to the restaurant the other day, and my waitress had purple hair.

Peter, my granddaughter came over to the house yesterday and brought her boyfriend.  Nevermind all of his tattoos and piercings…I asked him what church he went to and he said that he was an atheist!

Peter, my grandkids’ teacher at school doesn’t even teach the children to pray anymore.

Peter, I went into Wal-Mart the other day, and instead of “Merry Christmas,” they told me “Happy Holidays.”

Peter, we are so oppressed here.

Can you imagine Peter’s face?  His response?  My wife has a workout t-shirt that has on the back in big letters, “Suck it up, buttercup!”  I could imagine Peter shaking his head and telling us about the real oppression that he knows.  I would imagine Peter, like Eaton, would say that we are fighting the wrong battles.  That he would tell us to stop living lives of resentment and whining and judgment…the world is not here to coddle and spoil you.  You got lucky that you grew up in a time period where the culture did all of the work of the Gospel for you.  And now the culture doesn’t protect and pamper you quite in the same way.  But stop playing victim. Stop hiding in your bunker, complaining about the world.  “Suck it up, buttercup!”

It’s not entirely unlike the message that we hear in the passage in 1 Peter.  In the midst of oppression and anxiety and a world that doesn’t always appreciate or understand the Church, Peter is telling them how to respond.  And it isn’t with judgment or anxiety…but with hope.  For Peter, the good news was that the Church didn’t need culture coddling them from the outside in order to have hope on the inside.  In short, Peter’s message to his church is “don’t give them a reason to hate you more.”  He invites them to respond with grace, and humility, and kindness, and love.  He wants them to live in a way that sets them apart from the world around them, but not by confrontation and conflict.  Not by finger-wagging, telling them that they are doing it all wrong.  But by modeling Christ-like love!  By killing them with kindness. Let me read it again, this time from the Message translation:

Summing up: Be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble. That goes for all of you, no exceptions. No retaliation. No sharp-tongued sarcasm. Instead, bless—that’s your job, to bless. You’ll be a blessing and also get a blessing.

Whoever wants to embrace life
and see the day fill up with good,
Here’s what you do:
Say nothing evil or hurtful;
Snub evil and cultivate good;
run after peace for all you’re worth.
God looks on all this with approval,
listening and responding well to what he’s asked;
But he turns his back
on those who do evil things.

In such modeling, says Peter, they will be shamed into believing.  And not shame as in obligation.  True belief never comes from obligation.  But in a culture in which there was a dichotomy between shame and honor, when two people disagreed, one held the place of shame and the other of honor.  Peter is telling the Christians of his church to choose the position of honor.  Then their opponents will have this realization that the Christ-follower standing here receiving all this abuse with a smile on her face isn’t the enemy they thought they were.  Maybe these people know something worth hearing about.  David Bartlett says that the oppressor will experience shame because they are “flanked by kindness.”  The rest of the passage from the Message says it well:

  If with heart and soul you’re doing good, do you think you can be stopped? Even if you suffer for it, you’re still better off. Don’t give the opposition a second thought. Through thick and thin, keep your hearts at attention, in adoration before Christ, your Master. Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy. Keep a clear conscience before God so that when people throw mud at you, none of it will stick. They’ll end up realizing that they’re the ones who need a bath.

And so, Peter’s prescription for living the Christ-like life works for us, too!

“Preach the Gospel at all times…when necessary, use a smile.”

I don’t think Peter was saying that Christians always have to go around being “Mary Sunshine.”  Or that we should never confront evil in our world.  But he is saying that kindness and grace and hope are inherent to our faith.  In short, show them the hope that you have on the inside.  And if you don’t have that hope, you are probably doing it wrong.  The life that Christ came to give is one of abundance.  Of grace.  Of love.  Of kindness.  We are a beloved people.  Let us show love to others!

Again, it is Eaton who says it profoundly, “Until the church finds a way to be radically kinder and more compassionate than the world at large, we tell outsiders they’re better off on their own.  And the truth is, many times they are.”

Preach the Gospel…with a smile.

When the waitress shows up and looks different than you, what if you gave her a big tip and thanked her for her service?  (And don’t write a Bible verse on the ticket…it actually has the reverse effect with most servers than you think it does.)

When the pierced atheist boyfriend shows up with your granddaughter, what if you sat down and listened to him?  Heard his story?  Asked him about what his tattoos mean?

When the public schools don’t require public prayer anymore, instead of complaining to or about the teachers, what if you volunteered to help?  Showed up to make copies or signed up for a program to read to the children?

And when at Wal-Mart, somebody says “Happy Holidays,” what if you said, “you, too.”  Because Peter would likely remind us that when we angrily respond “It’s Merry Christmas,” the other person will probably think “that Christian person didn’t seem happy or merry…I am sure glad I’m not a Christian!”

Brian McClaren wrote a phenomenal little book several years ago titled, More Ready Than You Realize, in which he translates this idea from Peter into current day.  His argument is that you are more ready than you realize to share your faith, to “preach the Gospel,” than you think you are.  It doesn’t require the degree in Greek New Testament.  Sometimes it just requires a kind word.  A willingness to listen.  A smile.  You have it in you!  That good news is in there!

“bless—that’s your job, to bless. You’ll be a blessing and also get a blessing.” (1 Peter 3, the Messaage)  That’s the good news of Peter for us today.  May each of us bless…and be blessed by the eternal love and grace and hope of God.

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