Do Not Fear What They Fear

Sermon from May 25th, 2014. The lesson comes from 1 Peter 3:13-22.

Do Not Fear What They Fear

Whenever we read one of the letters in the Bible, or really when we read most any book in the Bible, we’re eavesdropping. We’re listening in on a conversation between the writer of the letter (or Gospel or apocalypse or whatever) and the people to whom the letter is written. The words that the author wrote were intended to have meaning for that audience. We read them because we think that overhearing that conversation will have meaning for us too.

The problem with eavesdropping, of course, is that you never really get the whole conversation. You often don’t know anything about the person speaking and the person listening, or the relationship that they have. You have to work those things out from context. If you were eavesdropping at a restaurant, and you heard someone say, “Listen, son,” you could deduce that the conversation is between a parent and her child. But eavesdropping on conversations that are 1900 years old is a little more difficult.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. There is still plenty we can figure out about the letter that has been passed down to us as 1st Peter. It just means that we have to dig a little bit. But the digging is worth it, because when we understand more deeply how Biblical authors were applying the scriptures and teachings of Jesus’ to their lives, we can understand much better how to apply them to our lives. If we want to understand what it means now, we have to pay attention to what it meant then

The first thing we can figure out about 1st Peter is that this letter wasn’t meant for one person or one church, but several. It begins, “To the exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithnya” and from that we can gather that this is a circular letter, sort of like a newsletter. It was meant to be passed on from one church to the next, throughout the area of modern-day Turkey. We can also figure that Peter probably didn’t write it. The book of Acts tells us that Peter was a fisherman from Galilee who could neither read nor write, but 1st Peter is written in high rhetorical Greek that shows a lot of education and skill. Most likely a student or disciple of Peter’s wrote it and ascribed the letter to him. Students often did this to pass on their teachers’ wisdom and as a way of lending credibility to their own works.

And finally the letter indicates that its recipients were undergoing some sort of persecution. The character of the persecution isn’t exactly clear. Given that systematic and official oppression of Christians had yet to occur (except a couple brief periods in Rome, a long way away from Asia Minor), it’s most likely that the harassment that they were enduring was unofficial. The kind of persecution that comes from friends, family, neighbors and colleagues.

In other words, they were having to deal with peer pressure. Now I think peer pressure gets a kind of strange rap in our society. We are actually very good about talking to kids and teenagers about peer pressure. We talk to our kids about peer pressure early and often, we remind them to “Just say no” or to reference my childhood hero, Penny Hardaway “Stay clean, and keep the dream.” And there are all sorts of movies and videos about peer pressure. And they go through typical teenage circumstances, being pressured about drugs or alcohol or sex, and they talk about how being cool isn’t everything, and how to say no.

What we don’t tell our kids is that peer pressure doesn’t end when you become an adult. It gets harder. While “being cool” isn’t what adulthood is all about, there are still popular people and unpopular people, and saying or doing the wrong thing can get you dropped from the former into the latter.

But for some reason give adults the same support and encouragement to resist that peer pressure, even though the consequences can be severe. If you fall out of line with your friends and colleagues you can get sent on bad work assignments or miss out on a promotion or be the first person fired in a downsizing and find yourself unable to find a job. I told a story to the Fellowship of Christian Women about a man who lost a business deal because he stood for what he believed in.

Or they can hit you where it really hurts. Your family. I knew a kid in my high school whose grandfather was on the wrong end of a political transition in another country. There were about 20 other kids at school from that country, and they made it their job to harass this kid whenever they got the chance. How much pressure did it put on Grandfather to know that two generations of his family were paying for his refusal to submit? In other words, peer pressure doesn’t go away with age.

And most adults don’t encourage people to resist it, but instead that we tell people to submit to it. “Keep your head down,” we say, “Don’t make waves.” “Don’t embarrass yourself,” we tell people, “You need to keep up appearances.” We spend all this time telling teenagers that they shouldn’t care what other people think of them, and then we spend all of our time trying to make sure that no one thinks badly of us.

This is the kind of thing that was going for the recipients of 1st Peter. Becoming a Christian was much more difficult than it is now. It involved abandoning your friends and family. And Christianity didn’t have a reputation as a positive thing. It was countercultural and strange, and there were all sorts of rumors about Christians eating people and stuff. It would be more like trying to tell your family and friends that you’ve become a Satanist, or a furry, or (and I hesitate to even say this, an Oklahoma fan). So people who did convert to Christianity were being treated just the way you think people would treat a Satanist. They were cutting off contact. They were ending business deals, they weren’t inviting them to events, and telling their children not to associate with such bad influences.

And 1st Peter is a letter that’s written to help these new Christians deal with all of the pressure that they’re facing. It’s a letter of encouragement and advice, so that these new communities of Christians don’t falter and lose faith.

And our passage in particular, offers practical advice to help people navigate a world that is hostile to Christianity. The letter says that we should be eager to do good. “Being a Christian,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.” That’s why we sometimes ask forgiveness for what we have done and for what we have left undone. To follow Christ means not only avoiding that which is sinful, but actively seeking out that which is holy and good. Which means that we can’t let our fear of what others might think if we do something get in the way of our fear of what God might think if we do not.

The second thing that our passage suggests, is that we must always be ready to make a defense to anyone who demands an accounting for the hope that is in you. This is important for two reasons. The first is that it strengthens our resolve to do what is good and right. We often jump into things because they seem “nice” or because they feel right, but without making fully sure that they’re good Christian actions. The world is still reckoning with the damage that well-intentioned Christians have done without meaning to do. But if you’re prepared to defend your actions as good and right, it means that you’ve thought through those actions and ensured that they are right. And that makes you more effective.

We like to tell stories about normal people changing the world, like its some accident that the world became a better place. Rosa Parks, from the Montgomery Bus Boycott is always the example that people use, a seamstress who just got tired of the abuse. What a lot fewer people realize is that Rosa Parks had been an activist for civil rights for more than ten years. The reason her case succeeded so well was because she and those who worked with her understood what they were doing and were always read to defend their actions as right and just even when others wanted to pressure them into submission. This doesn’t mean that ordinary people can’t or don’t change the world. Rosa Parks was still just an ordinary person like you and me. She was just an ordinary person that worked really hard to take the right stand and make it succeed. That’s what we have to do if we’re going to have an effect on our world too.

Finally, the letter-writer tells us, “Do not fear what they fear.” He makes a distinction between what it is to live in the world as a Christian and what it is to live in the world as something else. They are afraid of what other people might think. They are afraid that we might miss out on business deals or lose respect in the community. They are afraid that they will lose what they have accumulated in their brief life. But the letter writer tells us that we shouldn’t fear those things. Because as Jesus tells us, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”


About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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