"The hope that is in you"-Sermon for Easter 6, I Peter 3:13-22:
I remember one night in college while an undergrad at the University of Texas. And, going against my better judgement here…I will honestly note we were on sixth street. I was with friends on the rooftop deck at a popular college hangout at the time called Maggie Mae’s…don’t know if that was a nod to Rod Stewart or not. The roof top deck was popular because you could look down actually on sixth street and see the Mardi Gras like madness full of revelers flowing below you. And, what I recall about this night was that a dear friend took me, quite unexpectedly, to the edge of the deck to show me something or someone, in particular, on the street below. My friend had a serious look on his face…which was also unexpected, at least, for that gathering. And, indeed, what he pointed me too was a surprise…not some shirtless frat guy doing cartwheels or some such. Instead, he pointed to a solitary man standing in the middle of the street. He was dressed simply. He was much older than most of the crowd…which was more or less doing their best to ignore him. Most were giving him a wide berth and some even giving him dirty looks. Next to the man was a large wooden cross…much like our own Good Friday cross we set before our congregation each year in Holy Week. He had a megaphone to his lips…and I could just make out from my place perched high above…words like sin and repent and hell and damnation. And, to be fair, I also heard a “for God so loved the world”…and the like…a time or two. And, after a few moments of gazing upon the scene playing out below us, my friend said, “Miles, this is my problem with you Christians.”
Now, before I comment further, I want to say that I do not know that man and I did not go down into the street and meet him. I do not have the power to pear into the heart of another human, and I do not and will never know his motivations. Perhaps, as my friend would go on to suggest, he was full of up with judgement and hate and anger. His tone and language would suggest as much. But, honestly, I imagine that was perhaps not entirely true. Instead, I would guess, and it is only a guess, that this man believed with all of his heart, so much so that he would suffer the tremendous ridicule and judgement he was receiving, that, in fact, he fully believed that God loved entirely everyone on sixth street that night and that God desired nothing less and nothing more than for each and every person on sixth street that night to give their lives over entirely to a loving and dedicated relationship with God in Christ. And, if that is correct, on that point, I would be in agreement with him. But, I will also note, my guess, and it is, again, only a guess, is that he also believed that those who lived a lifestyle different from his own, who believed differently that he believed, that is those who in his opinion lived a prodigal sort of life and those who do not take Jesus as Lord and Savior before their physical life ends are destined to eternal torment. And, on that point, I would entirely disagree with him.
For, I believe, with every fiber of my being…rooted in my prayerful and long-standing study of scripture, that God will not lose anything or anyone that God has made. I believe that Easter is the final and forever proclamation that love is stronger even than death. Thus, love alone is what stands at the end of all things for all time…for all creation…and for every person…whatever you look like…whoever you love…whatever you believe. Easter promises that love wins…for all of us. We may get to choose how we respond to God’s love in our life in lots of particular ways and in each moment that we find ourselves in…and sometimes we chose well and sometimes we don’t. But, we don’t get to choose God’s love for us. It just is…from before time and forever. And, further, that God’s loving and life-giving purposes for all of us will be our gracious end. That we will all, without distinction, be among those whose robes are washed white in the blood of the Lamb and worship God day and night for all eternity in joy and eternal bliss from forever to forever…through Jesus’ glorious resurrection that we continue to celebrate together in this Easter season. That’s what I believe.
But, back to my story, I am sure you would be happy to hear and perhaps relieved to hear that I would never choose to share my faith in the way that man, that night did on sixth street. And, I mean that without judgment, but It is just not me, and, even if we agree on some things, his way of sharing his faith, in just my opinion, likely draws more folk away from a life-giving, loving relationship with God in Christ…than it draws people toward it. But, there is one thing which I am actually quite grateful to that stranger for, even to this day. For, as Peter writes in today’s New Testament lesson, it gave me the gift, to share with a friend I love very much and remain close to this day, the gift to make “an accounting for the hope that is in me…with gentleness and reverence.” For, though at St. Julian’s, we have, indeed, chosen a very different way of sharing our faith…we are called…all of us…not just the ordained types…but all of us…to be evangelists of the Good News of God in Christ.
Now, the “E” word sometimes gets a bad rap…and sometimes for really good reasons…but the word, evangelism, with origins in Greek, actually just means good news. Thus, evangelists are just good news bearers. And, surely the world needs more good news. And, as I already shared with you to some degree, that good news is that, again, God loves us from forever to forever and that God will never let us go. That, in Jesus, God has defeated sin and death for all time and all people. Thus, love wins…and our lives will be held for eternity in the everlasting arms of love. As Paul, Peter’s contemporary, writes in Roman’s chapter 8, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Friends, we don’t need fear to motivate our evangelistic efforts, and we don’t need to feel the pressure to save the whole world. Jesus has already handled that for us. But I am convinced that there are people all around us living sometimes quiet and sometimes noisy lives of desperation. People who feel isolated and alone. People struggling to find enough hope for their future and our word’s future to keep moving forward. Or as Johnny Lee crooned, there are people all around us “looking for love in all the wrong places”. There are those around us who desperately need to know that they are loved by God infinitely…that because God’s Spirit is an available and present reality they are never really alone…that their lives will not end at the grave…that sin, addiction, compulsion, and self-interest don’t have to control their lives. As Paul also says, “For freedom Christ has set us free”. It is for those such as these, that we must recommit to the call on our lives, as Jesus’ followers and lovers, to be evangelists. Not with megaphones and giant wooden crosses and not with fear and condemnation…but with love and in gentleness and with great reverence…remembering that the one to whom we share the hope that is alive in us, our faith, is worthy of our love…is worthy of our time…is worthy of all the dignity we can give to them…they are God’s own beloved.
And, the work of an evangelist begins with our example…our deeds. Actions always speak louder than words. Or, as St. Francis is said to have said, “Preach the Gospel always and if necessary use words.” Our choice to live lives of integrity, to share generously from our resources with those in need, our acts of kindness, our willingness to give voice to those suffering injustice, our willingness to freely spend time and really listen when someone is suffering or struggling…all such deeds…speak volumes…for they are the love of God incarnate…they point people to the God who already loves them.
And, often, such deeds build trust, which is hard won and easily lost, but, once established, our good deeds often lead to meaningful conversations…that then allow us with our words to make an account of the hope that is alive in us with gentleness and reverence. And, I have experienced just these sorts of connections literally save lives from the utter darkness of despair or worse. It is not eternal damnation from which our work as an evangelist may save some person. Instead, it is hopelessness, or apathy, or meaninglessness, or hate, or fear that our witness to the love of God in word and deed works to overcome in other’s lives…right now…right here…on earth…as, indeed, it will be in heaven for all of us. That first part, sharing hope rooted in our faith in word and deed with those who need it, is our work. The second part, the great gift of everlasting life in the arms of love alone, is Jesus’ work…and it is already done.
But, before any of our evangelism work begins, we must first make our own accounting of the hope that is alive in us…that is to take the time to look inward and really discern what stands at the center of our faith and how we might then articulate that to others. For, it is our belief in that hope that we know in our hearts and can articulate with our lips…the belief that God very personally loves us…loves you and loves me…our deeply held faith that sin and death really have no power over us…over you and over me…such hope, such faith is the wellspring from which the Spirit fueled power wells up in us to take risks…to sacrificially do good deeds…build trust…and share that hope with others…with our words…in gentleness and with reverence.
My experience is that evangelism rarely looks like what we might imagine as some sort of great revival…with thousands of people participating in some mass altar call. Though I believe that happens, my experience is that evangelism much, much more of the time looks like…loving relationships. Like gently and reverently sharing the hope that is alive in us in one on one connections rooted in a trust well-earned over much time, which can, even it feels like a little thing, make a difference for good and for God greater than we can ever imagine. It is to this sort of intimate work that we are called into together as evangelists of the Good News of God in Christ.
And, a final note, that conversation with my friend on the rooftop deck of Maggie Mae’s some three decades ago…it continues. As I mentioned, this friend who I love…remains close. And, what I can say with certainty is that my friend respects my faith, is grateful for the path my life has taken, and, most importantly, he believes that God is love and loves him entirely. He is living a creative and meaningful life that I am grateful to be a part of. Beyond that…I know God has all well in hand…and our 30-year conversation…continues. Amen.