1 Peter 3: 13-22 Last Encouragements
There are some strong traditions in the Bible of religious leaders making grand farewell speeches just before their departure. Moses famously gathered the Children of Israel, and read them the words of the Law before dying in the land of Moab. Joshua wrote statutes and ordinances in a book of the Law, and then set up a large stone in the sanctuary of the Lord, before he died at the age of 110. David gave some final advice to Solomon, before 'sleeping with his ancestors', as the 1st Book of Kings puts it. And of course Jesus gave some final words of command to his followers before he ascended into heaven.
Fortunately, I am not dying and I'm not expecting to ascend into heaven at any moment either. I'm just moving on to a new parish, and to new challenges. For those who haven't quite caught up with the detail, you might like to know that I'm off to North End, in Portsmouth, where I will take up the post of Team Rector. I shall be given charge of three churches, in one parish: St Mark's, St Francis' and St Nicholas. I shall have a team of three priests to work with - two Team Vicars, and a Curate. All of them, incidentally, happen to be women...which is going to make for an interesting dynamic! I'm sure they'll knock me into shape in pretty short order! (Incidentally, there was a fascinating item on the radio last week. Women callers were invited to ring into Chris Evans' show on Radio Two with what they considered to be messages that all men needed to hear from all women. My favourite was the one that went: "Men should realise that every week on the same day, the dustbins are collected ...and they shouldn't need reminding to put the rubbish out!")
So, there is a sense of finality about today, for me at least. This is the last Holy Communion service that I expect to preside at here at Warblington - and the last sermon I shall preach to an 8am congregation in this parish. So I've been contemplating what I might say to you, before I leave. What thoughts would I like to leave with you?
As it happens, our epistle reading for this morning - which comes straight out of the lectionary - is a fairly good place to start. The 1st letter of Peter is a letter which still has a lot of resonance for us. It is a letter to Christians who are suffering from all kinds of persecution, and one that encourages its readers to be steadfast in their faith...whatever the circumstances. It is a letter that can be read by Christians in all kinds of today's circumstances. Churches in developing countries or Muslim lands, where they are often a persecuted minority - they find that 1 Peter's readers were just like them...bearing witness to faith in the midst of suffering, and mis-understanding, and bullying, and even death. And for churches in the West, 1 Peter contains many clues as to how to live faithfully while Christendom fades, and while Christians begin to again feel like sojourners and aliens - foreigners in their own lands.
So let's look at what this letter of Peter has to say to all of us...especially those of us who are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, as well as residents of Warblington and Emsworth. The first sentence that strikes me out of the passage we read just now, is the statement "Do not fear what they fear" (1 Peter 3:14). Peter is saying to his readers, don't be sucked in by the fears of the people who have no faith, or who do not share yours. Don't be sucked in by the things that our society think are worth fearing...instead, by "sanctifiying Christ as Lord" (verse 15) make sure that you keep your heavenly perspective on things.
Our society is very good at fear...and at driving us down all sorts of blind alleys in a relentless quest to put things right. And as a result, society tends to throw out the baby with the bathwater time after time. Let me explain what I mean...by way of a few examples.
The chances of you or me being blown up by a terrorist bomb is infinitesimally small...a billion times less likely than the chance that we will die of a disease like cancer. And yet, as a society, we seem to be quite content for our Governments to spend billions and billions of pounds in a fruitless quest to 'root out the terrorists' - instead of spending our taxes on finding cures for the diseases that will kill us. Our society's obsession with terrorism teaches us to regard every one with a different skin tone, or accent, as a potential terrorist...and stops us making friends of the strangers we encounter.
Here's another example: the chances of any of our children being abducted, are, statistically speaking, infinitesimally small. If anything, less children are routinely abjucted now than at any time in our past. But our fear of the possibility of abduction means that our children are prevented from playing in the woods, or along the sea-shore, as we used to at their age.
I could go on. In almost all the areas of fear that our society has - fear of the stranger, fear of excessive immigration, fear of crime, fear of teenagers, fear of being poor, fear of the dark...in almost every area, the Bible offers us a completely different way of looking at things. Peter says, "Do not fear what they fear" - and in doing so echoes the much earlier writings of the prophet Isaiah. Here are his words, from hundreds of years before Peter: "...the Lord spoke thus to me...and warned me not to walk in the way of this people saying: Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears, or be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy."
We are encouraged by this letter to stop taking our cue from public opinion, but to take our lead from Jesus. We are encouraged to follow in the footsteps of the Lord who, as Peter says in verse 18, "was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit" and who, in verse 22, "has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God". This is the same Jesus, now risen and glorified, who reached out to Samaritans and Romans - who were the enemies of the Jews, and the immigrants of his day. This is the Jesus who was unafraid to touch the sick and the poor; who did not fear what society feared.
So this is my final sermon to you - the final encouragement I would offer: never forget whose children you are. Never forget who purchased your salvation by his blood. Never forget that you are citizens of heaven, who also happen to live on earth. To quote St Paul, from his letter to the Romans, "Do not be conformed to the standards of this world. Rather, be transformed by the renewing of your mind."
The call of Jesus, which I shall try to follow in North End, and which I hope you will try to follow here after I'm gone, is to go on, continuously, being transformed and transforming. You have been called to be a son or daughter of God - and brother or sister of Christ. He offers you an entirely different way of looking at the world...and he calls you to be part of the world's transformation...to be salt and light to the world.
Jesus offers us a way of trust, instead of fear. He offers us the security of eternity with him, rather than the transient security of owning stuff here on earth. He offers us the way of peace, instead of war. He offers us the way of love, instead of hate. He offers us the way of forgiveness instead of resentment and bitterness. He offers us the way of life instead of death.
This, as I've often said from this pulpit, is the heart of the topsy-turvy Kingdom of God. We serve a King who rides on a donkey. A Lord who was born in a stable, the dead-man who came to life. Just about anything that our world considers normal and desirable...wealth, fame, safety, are all shown up by the light of the topsy turvy gospel to be the hollow shams that they are. He who seeks wealth will lose it. It will be taken from him on the day he dies. She who seeks fame will be destroyed by it...hounded from morning until night by public opinion. He who seeks safety will end up closing himself off from every other human being behind gated communities and security cameras - and will grow in bitter resentment towards every one, every nation, every foreigner who he sees as a threat to his illusion of safety.
But she who seeks love, will find it - in Jesus, and among his people. He who seeks to give things away, will receive a hundredfold in return in terms of the sense of peace and fulfillment that can only come when we hold onto things lightly. She who seeks to give herself to others will receive back friendship and companionship that will last for eternity.
So that's it - my parting shot. Do not fear what they fear. Be transformed, and be transforming.
And may God bless you all, richly and without measure. For ever.