Easter Season, "The New Normal" week 4 of 5 Preached May 10, 2020 Mother’s Day at the 9:30am Virtual Worship
For this Easter season, Caitlan and I have been sharing with you the letter titled 1st Peter, and reflecting on how much Easter changed Peter.
Three weeks ago, we heard Peter remind us we have been reborn into the new normal of God’s coming kingdom.
Two weeks ago, we heard Peter teach, in Christ’s community, no one is elevated to positions of power or privilege over others. Instead, all are equal to one another as slaves, servants of the community as a whole. Therefore, if we have power or privilege in this world, we are to find the weakest, littlest, lost and alone, and put ourselves beside them, and join our voices to theirs.
Last week, Caitlan unpacked a tough text about marriage. She found, in the new normal, Peter’s call for husbands, wives, partners, whatever relationships we find ourselves in, all of us to live in unity, be compassionate, and to dismantle the unbalanced relationships and unjust systems.
Today, Peter will teach us how to interact with one another inside the community of God, the church. Let’s listen for the word of the Lord…
Scripture 1 Peter 4:1-11
4:1 Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, armor yourselves also with the same intention (for whoever has suffered (death) to the flesh has finished with sin), 2 so as to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer according to humans but according to God.
3 You have already spent enough time in doing what the (others) like to do, living in extravagance, obsessions, vices, luxuries, over-partying, and unapologetic worship (of stuff other than God). 4 (Now) They are surprised that you no longer join them in these extremely bad behaviors, and so they curse (at you).
5 But they will have to give an accounting to the One who stands ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 And this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, although they had (already) been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might (also) live in the spirit as God does.
7 The end of all (these) things is near; therefore be serious-minded. Discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. 8 Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers up a multitude of sins. 9 Be hospitable to one another without complaining. 10 Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. 11 Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the energy that God supplies so that God might be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To this God be all glory and honor forever and ever. Amen.
(This is the word of the Lord… Thanks be to God!)
There’s a trend in self-help and well-being to resist worrying about what others think. It goes something like this... "Be yourselves. Be okay being your full whole unique self. People might try to change you or critique you, conform you to their expectations instead of letting you be you. Stop giving them time and space in your head or heart. Don’t worry about what they might think. Don’t consider them before you speak or act, and don’t listen to them after. Just speak and act from your own true sense of self, and you’ll finally truly be free."
Have you heard advice like that, perhaps on TV talk shows, or in a book, or from a podcast, or a meme on Social Media? It sounds like it might be true. There’s a part of Peter’s lesson to us today that seems to resonate with this teaching. “Live the rest of your earthly lives no longer according to what humans think of you… You’ve already spent enough time doing what the others want you to do.”
Peter knows, not too long ago, his church folk were living what seemed to be normal lives. They were Romans or immigrants, Gentiles or Jews, free people or slaves, men or women. In the normal, each of these differences was seen as natural, and so society naturally sorted and limited or elevated people based on these supposedly God-given traits.
Peter, in the letter so far, has been speaking to those differences, chipping away at those assumptions, reminding them, "Okay, you might still be in the world’s eyes, masters and slaves, but remember, in God’s community, we are all equal as slaves. Out there, some might still assume husbands are over wives, men are over women, but in God's community, we are equal. You might have been born with different traits, and the culture might treat you differently because of them. But you’ve all been reborn now into God’s community, and in here, those differences are acknowledged and welcomed without any stigmas and without any special privileges."
He goes on... "Out there, lots of folks want fancy and extravagant. In here, we are going to appreciate the ordinary. They might obsess. We will be able to let things go. They might have unhealthy habits and vices. We will faithfully practice healthy disciplines. They might long for luxuries. We will enjoy simplicities. They might find they have to go farther and farther just to feel happy. We will find true joy, deep inner peace, right where we are, no matter what's going on around us. They will idolize celebrity, power, and wealth and will want it for themselves. We will worship only God, and want to serve only God’s vision. They will do things just for themselves. We will do things not just for ourselves, but also for each other, and for them too, and for all God’s people. They will think we are crazy, or weak, and might yell or threaten or curse at us. We will not react nor curse them back but will ache for them and pray for them. We will live our new shared life of integrity and wholeness right in front of them, not to spite them but to invite them to find they too are welcome and already included. They already have a place in the wholeness of the community of God.
Peter is teaching them how to be church.
Church is the reborn embodiment and foreshadowing of God’s new community, a current and future gathering of people who try to believe and practice Jesus’ way as the Way, and where we lay down more and more of our former ways and live his strange new way of doing life together.
It does seem to appear at this point Peter is encouraging people not to care about what others think. Then Peter’s turns his focus inside the community, how they will treat one another in the church, and his advice changes. Inside the community of church, Peter seems to say we must be very aware of what each other thinks and feels. We must be extra careful with one another.
In the community of church, we must be serious-minded, literally sane, sensible, consistent. As we do church with one another, we must listen carefully to one another, what we each think and feel, and we must honor the fears and feelings and ideas and wants of one another inside the church. Then we somehow build a sensible consensus that leaves no one behind, and gives no one too much control or power, equalizes and protects and nourishes us all, and constantly leaves room for new folk, strangers to enter and be fully welcomed and included as family the moment they arrive.
Peter says we must discipline ourselves for the sake of our prayers. Prayers here means hopes, dreams, visions of this holy community. In order for that to come, we aren’t free to do whatever we individually want. In holy community, we discipline our individual selves to do what is best for the whole. We as a community craft good habits that benefit the community, and we individually commit to practicing them, faithfully, together. We hold one another accountable not to personal rights and freedoms, but to the communal good.
Peter calls us to be hospitable to one another and to accommodate one another without complaining. In other words, the churchis always changing, always bending to accommodate the next new person. No one gets to have church stay our preferred way. Individual freedoms and rights aren’t the priority in the community of God, because they aren’t at risk here. Here, in church, all are loved equally. All have access to love and justice equally. We welcome and include all equally. So, individual opinions and preferences aren’t honored here, because we all follow God’s will together. We don’t have to accommodate anyone’s individual wants, wishes. We just accommodate God’s will for the collective.
Then, Peter says, above all, we must maintain constant love for one another. And why? Because love covers over a multitude of sins. In other words, there will still be sins in the earthly community we call church. There will still be words and actions that do not love God, and love self and love others in church. By cover over, Peter isn’t saying those things are swept under the rug, ignored, made invisible or forgotten. He’s saying they are covered, as in a bill, “Here, let me cover that.” Love sees and feels the debt when an individual or small corner of individuals in the greater group want something for themselves. When that happens, we are honest about that, and we love the ones who are confused, scared, selfish, or have their priorities out of place. We love them through that, back toward the words and actions that sound and look more like God, that build God’s community. Our communal love for them covers, pays the debt of those mistakes. We pay it for each other along the way, and we get back on track, toward Christ's way, not by allowing for things to go back to the ways they were, but by serving one another with whatever gifts or talents we bring from the old life to build the new life in community together. That’s what it means to be church.
So, should we listen or care about what other people think? No, and yes. If someone pressures us or insults us or threatens us to re-conform back to the old cultures of white over black, male over female, wealthy over poor, Christian over non-Christian, American over any other nationality, then no. We listen to them, but we do not accommodate them in our words and actions. We try to build and be God’s community. And should we find a brother or sister or ourselves wanting to go back to the former normal ways, we pause and we show love, and cover over it over with enough love that they let it go of the former ways too and move forward as one whole community toward being more and more, every day, the amazing, just, peaceful loving community of God on earth, as it is in heaven.
That's what it means to be church. That's why Peter's church and this church and every church was born. That's what it means to be reborn into being church. May this church continue and forever be good stewards of the grace we have been given, and build that kind of community, not just for ourselves, but for those around us who don’t believe that kind of community is possible.
To God be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.
Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore. Rev. Joel L. Tolbert Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown