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"Living Hope"

On our better days, sin can seem like someone else’s problem, an antiquated construct, a dark myth. But from the shadows, Peter lifts up the reality of our sin and Jesus’ blood, shed for us.

“Hope” by Carol Aust
“Hope” by Carol Aust

Psalm 25:1-10 and 1 Peter 3:13-22

May 14, 2023

Dr. Todd R. Wright


Outside the church the birds are singing,

trees are showering our cars with pollen,

and lawns are growing lush and green – all of it a testimony to life!


But inside the church, prayers for the sick and grieving catch in our throats,

our celebration of Mother’s Day is muted by the toll of more senseless killings,

and we are reminded by empty pews of people and strength we have lost.


Outside all nature proclaims hope, and warmth, and new life.


Inside, scripture calls us to reflect on sin, and suffering, and death.


There is a danger that some will think that the church is woefully out of touch –

returning as it does so regularly,

to a time 2000 years ago, when most are concerned with the present;

talking of uncomfortably personal issues to a people who value their privacy;

asking folks to reflect deeply in an age of sound bites.


The truth is the church is more in tune with our souls than is nature.


Within these walls we talk of sin as those who have felt its sting;

we reflect on suffering with a people who ache with the bruises;

we confront death in a community anxious about war, and illness, and aging.


We gather, with the season of ashes and scars, of crushing darkness and death, still fresh.


We could stuff all that back in the closet and talk only of the resurrection, but we don’t.


We keep telling the harder story because it speaks to our hearts;

because it helps us to wrestle with our demons;

because, in the end, it is the source of our hope amidst the shadows.

 

Psalm 25 and 1st Peter take turns telling the story, like an old married couple completing each other’s sentences.


“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul,” the psalmist begins,

like a toddler yearning to be picked up and embraced;

like a lover tentatively offering a gift;

like the knocked-down-one extending a hand for help.


“Do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me,” the psalmist prays with desperation creeping into his voice, her voice … our voice.

like a child who doubts their parent’s love;

like a lover unsure where they stand;

like the bruised and beaten pleading for protection.


That is how the psalmist begins the story of Israel’s relationship with God.

 

How should 1 Peter begin the story of God relationship with the infant church?


As if he has heard the echoes of the psalmist, he begins simply with: “Jesus suffered.”


The truth of that phrase tells you all you need to know if you are …

a people the author refers to as “the exiles of the Dispersion,”

scattered throughout Asia Minor,

“chosen … by God … to be sprinkled with [Christ’s] blood.”[2]


It means costly love given freely to those who need love;

it means empathy for those who wonder if God understands;

it means comfort for those who feel beaten down.


Most of the New Testament tells stories of Jesus working wonders, walking on water, healing the sick, raising the dead, or preaching in parables. But the letters to churches confront problems and encourage hope in the face of a multitude of difficulties.


Peter does not shy away from talking about Jesus’ suffering. He experienced hatred and abuse, senseless violence and abandonment. As the Study Catechism says, “there is no sorrow [Christ] has not known, no grief he has not borne, no price he was unwilling to pay …”[3]


Jesus’ suffering, Peter continues, was “for [our] sins, the righteous for the unrighteous.”


On our better days, sin can seem like someone else’s problem, an antiquated construct, a dark myth. But from the shadows, Peter lifts up the reality of our sin and Jesus’ blood, shed for us.


It was done, “once and for all” according to the scriptures.


These words testify that Jesus’ act was sufficient, conclusive, final. Case closed. No matter how many times we return to this story, it remains stark and beautiful. Nothing else needs be done to secure our forgiveness. Jesus has already done it all. That’s the foundation of our hope!

 

“Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love,” the psalmist chimes in.


The purpose for all of this, 1 Peter responds, was “in order to bring [us] to God.”


Great! But now that we have been brought to God, what will we do with that good news?


Will we rejoice in our salvation and let it make us lazy or indifferent to our neighbors?


Will we celebrate our status as children of God and look down on all others?


Will we recoil at the mockery of others and let it make us bitter?


Will we marvel at God’s grace and let it teach us to welcome others?


Michael Spangler tells of visiting St. Nicholas’ Church, in Moscow, its orange, green, and white exterior and small onion domes shining with gold a stark contrast to the grey surroundings:


“It was midmorning,” he remembers, “and there were a few women and an old bearded man sitting on benches inside the compound wall. A couple of women were sweeping, bent over, with short straw brooms. As I started lining up my first photo of the church, an elderly woman in black ordered me to go away. They didn't want people like me coming to take snapshots, making fun of their church and their faith.


In bad Russian I protested that I wasn't making fun of them, that I only wanted some pictures so I could show others how beautiful the church was. And besides, I was a pastor myself, a believer like them.


Still pushing me back toward the gate, she hissed: ‘Where is your beard then, priest? And your boots?’ – which any Russian Orthodox priest would be wearing.


I thought my visit was over. [But] then another woman, even smaller and older, bustled in, elbowed the first woman aside, and said, ‘Welcome! We're glad you came. Isn't our church beautiful? I hope you'll take pictures to show your friends. Please come inside and let me show you some of our precious icons. And I will tell you about our church.’"


Spangler reflected, “I understood the sentiments of the first woman. Thousands of believers had been put to death, hundreds of churches destroyed – her generation had endured enormous suffering. Why wouldn't she be afraid of ridicule, tired of intimidation, and quick to retaliate?”


That made the second woman’s hospitality unaccountably gracious! Spangler marveled: “She was of the same generation as the first woman, yet her response was the opposite.[4]


You know why. She had taken Peter’s instruction to heart: "Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence."


She knew! What will you do with the hope that is within you? Amen


[1] “Hope” by Carol Aust
[2] from 1 Peter 1:1-2
[3] from the Study Catechism, PCUSA, Question 43
[4] From “Foolhardy faith”, his reflection on the text for the Christian Century, 4/21/99
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