We've been looking at the book of 1 Peter, which is a book written to small churches scattered throughout part of the Roman empire a couple of thousand years ago. They were massively outnumbered and were facing hostility because they believed in Christ. The question we have to ask is this: How does a persecuted minority end up eventually growing and transforming the entire Roman Empire of that time? How does a new religion on one end of the Mediterranean Sea spread to the whole of the Roman world in as little as 300 years? Rodney Stark's written a book called The Rise of Christianity with the subtitle How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries.
This is an important question for us because we in the church today are in a new position of becoming an obscure and marginal Jesus movement in a society that is becoming increasingly hostile to Christianity. It used to be that people were somewhat friendly toward the place of Christianity in society. We're living in a new day in the number one and two books on the Globe and Mail bestseller lists are God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and The God Delusion. This isn't news to any of us. We realize that culture's becoming increasingly hostile to faith and at least wants Christians to keep their faith private. How do we not only live within a hostile culture, but actually think about transforming it?
Well, there are two ways that Christians typically think about living in a hostile culture. One is to withdraw from it. They believe that culture is so bad, so corrupt, that we have to be vigilant against it, be careful about being polluted by it. They think that the main problem with Christians today is that they've been too influenced by the world.
On the other hand, you have the opposite approach. Some call this the accommodation approach: to accommodate or to assimilate into culture. They believe that churches have become too isolated from culture, out of tune and disengaged.
When you live in a hostile world, how do you respond? Do you withdraw from it, or do you stay involved? So one of your non-Christian friends has invited you out to a bar tomorrow night for drinks with some of his friends. You know that the conversation is probably not going to be G-rated. Some of you may think, "The problem today is that too many Christians are comfortable going to bars who should really know better." Or some of you may think, "The problem with Christians today is that too many of them are sticks in the mud and they need to get out a little."
I hope you can see that both approaches have real problems. If we withdraw from culture, we'll never have any influence. We'll live in our little bubbles and nobody will really care. On the other hand, if we are too afraid of being different, we'll fit in and nobody will think we're different at all. So what would you do? What do you do?
Well, the Apostle Peter tackles this question. This morning I want to briefly look at the answers to three questions: how we're supposed to respond, what it will cost, and why we should be willing to pay that cost.
First, how should we respond? How do we interact with a world that's hostile to Christianity?
Do you notice what he says throughout this passage? Verse 9 says, "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing." Verse 15 says, "But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect."
Remember what's happening here. Peter is writing to people who are facing some heat because of their faith in Christ. Frankly, it would have been easier if Peter had told them and us that we could withdraw from the world or be assimilated into it. Instead, he tells them not to withdraw from the world. At the same time, he tells them not to be assimilated by the world either. Even when it gives them grief and causes them problems, he tells them to be out there engaged and in relationship, and yet to be distinct by virtue of their faith.
Let's read verse 9 again. "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing." Peter says, "To this you were called." To what have we been called? What is Peter trying to say here?
We have been called to return a blessing when we are insulted by people who don't understand our faith. When they ridicule us or poke fun at our faith, we are called to respond by blessing them.
So, for instance, a Christian soldier did this. He lived in barracks with his unit. Every evening he would read his Bible and pray before going to sleep. The soldier across the aisle would always make fun of him and insult him. One night a pair of muddy combat boots came flying at the Christian. The next morning, the soldier who threw the boots found his boots at the foot of his bead, cleaned and polished and ready for inspection. This Christian returned blessing for insult, and as a result several soldiers in this company became Christians as a result of this one man's action.
So we shouldn't withdraw. Instead, we should bless. But we also shouldn't just blend in. In verses 15 and 16 he says:
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
Peter says two things about living in a world that's hostile to Christianity. First, he says, don't be afraid of the opposition. Second, remain faithful to Christ. Revere Christ as Lord.
There's a saying supposedly attributed to St. Frances: "Preach the Gospel always and if necessary use words." Well, Peter says, it's not going to be enough for you to live differently and to preach the Gospel only through your actions. You had better be prepared to use words as well. If you're really living differently and you're not withdrawing from society, then you will likely be asked what's up, and you'll need to be prepared to verbalize why you live differently. We're to be engaged in the world – no closing the door to relationships. We're to live our lives for Christ openly in the middle of an unbelieving world, ready to explain the reasons why we live differently.
Hundreds of years earlier, when God's people were carted off into exile in Babylon, there were some who wanted to live outside the city of Babylon because Babylon was so evil, and because they hoped to go back to their own land soon. They had a point, because the whole purpose of carting them to Babylon was so they would be assimilated into culture. A false prophet even stood up and said they'd be back home within two years, so go ahead and stay separate.
But Jeremiah contradicted this and gave this advice to the people:
Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. (Jeremiah 29:5-7)
In other words, don't withdraw like the false prophet wants you to. Move right in and live among the Babylonians and seek what's best for the city of Babylon, even though you're only exiles there. On the other hand, don't be assimilated into the culture like the Babylonians would like you to be. Stay distinct, and yet live among them, and be a blessing to them. This is much harder than withdrawing or being assimilated. It's what God has called us to.
The same goes for us today. Don't withdraw from our world. Make friends with those who aren't Christians. Go to parties. Hang out with people after work. Coach soccer. Join the condo corporation or the student council. Don't live in a Christian bubble. At the same time, be distinct. Live so that your devotion to the Lord is evident to everyone, and be ready to talk about it when it comes up. This is the hardest of all the options, but it's exactly what we've been called to. The best way to engage culture isn't to accommodate it or withdraw from it, but to bless it.
But second, Peter tells us the cost of doing this.
You know, if you're going to withdraw or assimilate, it's probably not going to cost you very much. You can go about your regular business and nobody will bother you. But if you don't withdraw but live out your faith, it will likely cost you. Peter implies that Christians will face insults. He says in verse 14 that we may "suffer for what is right." We may be threatened. He says in verse 16 that there may be "those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ." So there is a definite cost to doing this.
So you have an estimated 70 million people who have lost their lives as a result of their faith in Christ in the past two thousand years. 45 million of these are people who died in the twentieth century. Talk about a cost – 45 million people killed for their faith in the last century. It's estimated that more people have been martyred for Christ in the past 50 years than in the church's first 300 years.
Some 200 million Christians are suffering for their faith right now. Part of our responsibility here is to pray for them. Hebrews 13:3 says, "Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering."
Here, closer to home, we're not likely to face open persecution. But if we stay engaged – no withdrawal – and live out our hope in Christ, we're likely to get the occasional raised eyebrow, or be ridiculed. People love some parts of our faith. People generally think highly of Jesus and like his teachings about forgiveness and going the extra mile. But they may not appreciate a Christian view of sexual ethics, or they may not like if you believe that Christ offers a hope that can't be found through anywhere else. They may be okay with you having a faith as long as you keep it private.
You see, there's a cost to being engaged with culture and living distinctively. You may have seen the HBO series Band of Brothers about paratroopers in the Second World War. There's a scene in which Lieutenant Richard Winters is about to lead his troops into the most celebrated feat of the war, the Battle of the Bulge. A soldier pulls Lieutenant Winters aside and says ominously, "Looks like you guys are going to be surrounded."
Without hesitation Winters replies, "We're paratroopers, Lieutenant. We're supposed to be surrounded."
You know, we're meant to be surrounded. We're meant to be right in the middle of things, engaged with people and life, and yet living with hearts that revere Christ as Lord. That means we're going to be surrounded. Sometimes, as Jesus says, people will "see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16). But other times, as Jesus said, they will "persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me" (Matthew 5:11). When we don't accommodate culture or withdraw from it, but instead live within it distinctly, we will pay a price.
By the way, that's why it's so important that we become a community of faith characterized by the qualities that Peter mentions in verse 8: "Be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble." To really live this way, the church stops being a place we attend. It becomes a community of support in which we're free from the insults and hostility that come from those outside the church. It's absolutely critical if we're going to live in culture and yet be distinct.
So here's the last question. Why would we be willing to pay this cost?
I mean, if it's going to cost us, why not just go underground or assimilate into culture so that nobody knows the difference? Why would we be willing to pay the cost? It's a very real question because the cost is very real.
Peter answers this question in two ways, both of which are pretty obscure. In verses 10 to 12 he quotes Psalm 34. The interesting thing about Psalm 34 is that it seems to have been written by David when he had to flee for his life from Saul to enemy territory. David was scared because he could be killed as the enemy, so he pretended to be insane. It worked, and David came back safely and wrote this psalm praising God for delivering him as he lived in the middle of enemy territory. Peter picks up on this and says that as we live in a sense in enemy territory, "The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous" (1 Peter 3:12). God will watch over us just as he watched over David.
The other reason Peter gives us is found in verses 18-22. If you scratched your head as you read these verses, you're not alone. It talks about Christ "making proclamation to the imprisoned spirits" and about Noah. Martin Luther said, "This is a strange text and certainly a more obscure passage than any other passage in the New Testament. I still do not know for sure what the apostle meant." So we're not going to clear it all up in just a few minutes, but let me at least give you the bottom line no matter what interpretation you take.
Both Jesus and Noah lived the way that Peter talks about. They were both living engaged with the people around them, and yet they lived distinct lives because of their faith and suffered because of it. Both suffered, but both were ultimately vindicated by God. There's more that we won't untangle this morning, but this is the bottom line: we are united with Christ, and our commitment to him means that we will likewise suffer, but that we will one day be vindicated just as he was, because he now "has gone into heaven and is at God's right hand – with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him" (1 Peter 3:22).
That's why Peter says in verses 14 and 15, "But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. 'Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.' But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord." We're blessed when we're persecuted because we're just like Jesus, and we'll be vindicated one day just as he was. And we don't have to be afraid because we revere Christ as Lord much more than we revere the opinions of those who put us down.
Missionary Oswald Chambers said:
It is the most natural thing in the world to be scared, and the clearest evidence that God's grace is at work in our hearts is when we do not get into panics. The remarkable thing about fearing God is that when you fear God you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God you fear everything else.
There is one who has gone ahead of us, and who did not accommodate culture or withdraw from it. Instead, he lived in the world. He had relationships with all kinds of people. He was criticized and ultimately he was killed. But he has been made alive, and his victory has been proclaimed and one day will be known to everyone. He is at work in your life, and his victory is also your victory. The more that we keep our eyes on him, and see what he has done for us, and revere him as our Lord, the more we'll be able to engage our culture – not by withdrawing from it, not from accommodating it, but by living smack dab in the middle of it as we revere Christ as Lord.
Father, help us see this morning whether our response is to withdraw from culture or to accommodate it. And whatever our normal response is, we pray that you would transform it. Give us hearts that want to bless our friends and neighbors. Help us to seek the peace and prosperity of the city and to be the best citizens of our city.
Help us see Jesus, who suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God. We have been saved by his resurrection, and his victory is our victory. May we revere him in our hearts and Lord, and may this transform the way we live. We pray in Christ's name. Amen.