1 Peter 3:13-17
Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but 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; yet 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. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.
Our text today is part of a long section of 1 Peter in which the worshipping community is asked to grapple with difficult concepts about their faith. The culture of the community outside the church was one that allowed slavery, that put women into positions of servitude, and that generally made it difficult for the church to live out its egalitarian existence as a community of those called to the service of God. Christ, who showed no preference, preached to people who were specific about theirs. There were the ruling classes and the subjugated ones, and it was primarily in the latter category that the Christians in 1 Peter’s context were found.
What has inspired and vexed the Church for centuries is that the people are not charged to rebel against this system. Slaves are told to be obedient and women to be submissive, not because these are what God wants, but because in doing so they may win the good favor of the people around them. The church was to go above and beyond the standards of the community they found themselves in so that when they were accused of any malice and wrongdoing, it was painfully obvious how trumped up the charges were. More than this, it ensured that the vulnerable populations of women and the enslaved were protected from the cruelty of the world around them. It was a policy of survivor, not the ideal community of Christ.
The kernel which we read today is not specific to any group. It is offered not only to the congregation in 1 Peter’s audience, but to all of Christianity. That every faithful person should abound in doing what is right, and that they should be prepared to answer the questions that are asked of them, “with gentleness and reverence,” so as to put to shame their opposition. Again, the theme is that by being good we can never go wrong. That if ever we are asked to suffer on behalf of good, we should consider it a blessing, because to give in to what is wrong to avoid punishment would be to let evil win.
All of this is complicated. Gender relations in the Biblical World are not what we in the modern world see or expect. Still, mutual submission is the overwhelming theme of scripture, and it places men and women equally in God’s kingdom. In fact, it is only in select texts and particular contexts that men and women are delegated different lots in God’s kingdom. Unfortunately, those select texts were often the most popular throughout history.
Similarly, slavery was different in the ancient world than what our American sin of slavery constituted. It was no less dehumanizing and no less a sin, the Christian Church is historically abolitionist. Still more, ancient slavery is so foreign to us that the comparison between slaves in Rome and America simply do not bare out. The antebellum gospel offered to American slaves that they must be obedient was a perversion rather than a fulfillment of divine mandate.
Yes, these two are more complicated and nuanced issues of biblical interpretation. A full study of 1 Peter, if you embark on one, requires a great deal of preparedness to undertake. Perhaps, one day, we can tackle that as a community. However, we are made to return to the most difficult concept in this book – the one that is not locked to context, but asked of us all, and that is to be people of good conduct and to be ready to provide an answer for our hope.
It is important that we understand that we are to give an answer to those who question us. Oftentimes we translate the Greek word used in this text (απολογια) as defense. Certainly, in the ancient world a defendant in court was asked to make a defense, and that defense was called an apologia. Even today, when you’re not ready to say you’re sorry for something, and instead hope to explain why you did the thing you did, you offer an apology. Defense betrays this text, it shuts down what the point of this discussion is. Namely, can we as a church, answer those who question us, even if the accusation is vile and cruel, and still do so with gentleness and reverence.
Defense is oppositional language when the text is asking us to think communally. We are not just fighting against faceless accusers, but our neighbors, our friends, our family even. We are not brave crusaders fighting the scourge of unbelief. We are fragile vessels carrying impossibly valuable treasures. Away from the context of persecution, we have no excuse not to answer questions put to us, and we have no excuse not to respond in gentleness and reverence.
There are many things that the Church did for centuries that have become sacrosanct in Western Culture. Christian burial, in the medieval sense, is still primarily how we bury. Christian holidays, though commercialized to a deadly point are still the dominant holidays in the West, to the point that we receive time off for them almost universally. Even Biblical names, across cultures and languages, are still the most common names in the West. Joseph, Jesus, John, Ian, Janos, Mary, Mariam, Abigail, Sarah, I could go on… The Church has changed society fundamentally, but we only left a shadow of an impression, one that now begins to fade away.
We leave a shadow of an impression because, as a previous sermon stated, we lost track of the community of the faithful. We loved power, we loved anger and wrath and control, and when we started to lose it we locked ourselves away. Modernity saw two major movements of the Church. There were those that embraced modernity to the point they really just became a social club that enjoyed sipping wine and eating bread once a month, and there were those who rejected it completely and hid away from it. On one side the witness of the church became equivalent to popular perceptions and on the other popular perception was written off as completely sinful and something that should be rejected.
The church is a radical thing. It asks that all members be committed to one another in love. It asks that even when persecuted and treated poorly, we should still be good. There is never a point where a Christian could act cruelly and say, “They made me do it!” Because we are called to something higher than that. When the world debases us, we bless them. When the community rejects us, we reach out and try to help. When all manner of evil is said against us, we call ourselves blessed.
All this to say that the ethic of gentleness and reverence is not one of moderation. In our era of polarized politics and discourse another party has emerged that insists that the middle road is always the best. This is an impossibility. The middle road of slavery was Liberia. The middle road of the Holocaust was appeasement. The middle road of Christian witness is luke-warm and good only to be vomited out. We must be radical, but we must also be gentle. We must be confidant, but we also must revere one another as fellow members of Christ’s body. We must work with Christians we disagree with to find the center of our faith and band together as one.
The diversity of the church demands that there will be differing opinions about what is the best way to live out the Christian life. Some people, for example, believe that communion should be open only to members of the denomination that offers it – like Catholics – others like the Methodist church hold that all Christians should share in a common cup. Some Christians believe the universe in billions of years old, and others that it is six thousand. In both cases the Church still stands somewhat apart from the world around it. Both parties hold that the Eucharist is more than just bread and juice, but a gift from God that dispenses grace. Both parties believe that the universe is created with a purpose and that God initiated that construction. Even in the midst of differences on certain matters, the core message of Christianity emerges.
Of course, these are softball issues. Rarely do differing perspectives on creationism or communion cost lives. When we go into the more complex issues that face us today, more trouble emerges. Matters of economic inequality, of racial justice, of political allegiance, and even basic truth claims further divide the church. However, we cannot afford to stand a bicker about these forever, the church must begin to have dialogue internally and sort through our mess before we ever can hope to bring change outside ourselves. We have to find what is good and do it, we must find what we have done that is evil and do away with it. Because, the fact is that people look in on us and see that we are no better than anyone else, they will have questions.
When those outside the Church see the poverty that surrounds our sanctuaries, they will have questions for us. When they see the segregation that we continue in our pews despite the fact no law forces us to, they will have questions. When we as people of faith side with conspiracy theories that suit our political needs rather than authentic knowledge that keeps people safe, there will be questions.
The reality is that we as the church cannot begin to give an answer following the model of 1 Peter. 1 Peter asks that we be of good conduct, so that when we are accused the accuser is put to shame because it is unfounded. Unfortunately, we as a body of faith have much to apologize for, centuries of bad work and twisted roots to sort through. If we are accused of wrongdoing, we will often be found, if not as a body, as individuals, to be guilty.
We must sanctify ourselves as we sanctify Christ as Lord. We must follow the example put before us if we hope to effect change in the world. We can memorize the entire works of C.S. Lewis, Lee Strobel, Thomas Aquinas, Polycarp, and any other defender of the faith throughout time so that we have an answer ready for any quibble someone has against us. That will not matter if we do not follow up our belief with action. Our accusers will not be put to shame unless we authentically remove evil from our life.
The first evil we can remove is the divisiveness we have accepted as the norm. Why should the church be as divided as the world around it? Why can we not come together and find the center of our faith and work outward? We are working toward a schism in the Methodist Church in which we will split progressive from traditionalist in the same way our country has split conservative and liberal. Not because the other side, whoever they may be to us, is belligerent, but because we both have refused to have dialogue. We do not answer one another’s questions with gentleness and reverence, how could we ever do so with the world outside the Church?
Let us listen, let us seek truth, let us love one another more than our opinions. This is just one step toward a clean conscience, the beginning of a conversation we all must take place in, and one that we will be able to stand together afterward and finally answer our critics as people who are free of guilt, and whose innocence will put anyone who stands against us to shame. Only if we repent, only if we can learn to love and revere one another can we ever truly defend the faith. – Amen.
 This premise is explained at length in Richard B. Vinson et al. 1 & 2 Peter, Jude. (Macon Georgia: Smyth & Helwys 2010)