October 24th, 2013
Near the end of our sermon text last Sunday, Peter writes,
“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.“
When we hear anyone in the New Testament speak of “passions” or “flesh” we tend to interpret those words and phrases as a general reference to the whole range of vices, like those Peter warns of earlier in the passage. Some commentators however wondered if Peter’s concern here were narrower. Given that the whole tenor of his letter has in mind the suffering of his addressees, and that the verse immediately following his reference to “passions of the flesh” concerns the hostility they were facing, it may be that front and center to Peter’s thinking were those passions elicited in response to hostility. Lust, sloth, and greed all fall into the category of passions. But could not a case be made that the greatest test of honor among the Gentiles would involve how the church responds when the Gentiles deride, accost, threaten, burn and pillage?
Now, the only thing threatening CtK right now is a colony of fire ants laying siege from somewhere outside the building. I can relate. So if Peter’s most prominent pastoral concern was how the church would respond to the exile’s experience of estrangement, how does his concern relate to us, if at all? Consider this quote from Frederick Buechner (which I had to read about 4 times to get its sense):
‘In this war of conquest that we all must wage, there are also the adversaries with whom we have to wage it; and they are adversaries of flesh and blood. They are human beings like ourselves, each of whom is fighting the same war toward the same end and under a banner emblazoned with the same word that our banners bear, and that word is of course Myself, or Myself and my Family, or Myself and my Country, Myself and my Race, which are all really MYSELF writ large. It can be the most ruthless of all wars, but on the other hand it need not be. Saints and sinners fight it both. Genghis Khan fought such a war under such a banner, but so did Martin Luther King, Jr. It can be the naked war of the jungle, my ambition against your ambition, my will against your will, or it can be war more in the sense of the knight at arms who abides by the rules of chivalry. If often it is the war of the unjust against the just, it can also be a war of the just against the unjust. But whichever it is, it is the war of flesh against flesh: to get ahead, to win, to gain or regain power, to survive in a world where not even survival is had without struggle.”
Beauty and wonder suffuse this world, but no corner is free of some version of war–from interpersonal to geopolitical. And at the bottom of every war, Buechner argues, lies a struggle less for a cause but for the self–the self appended to an idea, a cause, a land, or a people. Now, a struggle with the defense of self somewhere in mind doesn’t necessarily delegitimate the struggle. One could rightly and nobly feel a personal satisfaction, for example, in seeing the Third Reich fall; detachment in the face of victory would be contrary to the good of the cause. But unless we’re aware of how we can champion a cause which really has ourselves at its center, we can take the struggle to such lengths that it becomes not just counter-productive but contrary to its ostensible nobility.
So what’s the implication for us? In any given struggle, with friend or foe, the question we must ask ourselves is “what am I really defending?” Is it the truth, the good, the beautiful? Or is it ourselves–our sense of dignity, reputation, preference, or power? Had the early church sought at every turn to defend their dignity, property, reputation when those outside the church threatened each, the church would’ve lost an opportunity to champion the true source of their glory, dignity, and security–namely the knowledge that they had been born again to a living hope through the sacrifice of the Eternal Son of God. Restraining the impulse to retaliation would demonstrate a confidence in a greater power both above and within them. True power would manifest itself not in overpowering but in pardoning, as in this scene from Schindler’s List (some language).
There are exceptions to this principle of forbearance. A wife, for instance, misapplies it by enduring the unremitting assaults of her husband; some abuse requires resistance not resignation. But on the whole, both our presence to one another and our presence to the world will depend on trust in what is tied, not to what we have, but what we have been given. Not to what we have made of ourselves, but to what we have been made that was not by human hands. Otherwise we will spare no effort to defend ourselves, and in turn lose the chance to make a defense of the hope that is in us, yet not in us.
Professor Mike Rasmussen teaches Old Testament, preaching, and evangelism at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas. He’ll be our guest preacher this Sunday. Psalm 101 will be his text. Part of the worth of what you receive in a sermon rests in having prepared yourself to hear. Sit with the Psalm. Ask for insight, for how those ancient words have particular relevance.
Then when you come, take this direction from no less than our Book of Church Order
Chapter 49, sections 2 and 3:
Let the people assemble at the appointed time, (hint) that all being present at the beginning (2nd hint) they may unite with one heart in all the parts of public worship. Let none unnecessarily depart until after the blessing be pronounced.
Let the people upon entering the church take their seats in a decent and reverent manner, and engage in a silent prayer for a blessing upon themselves, the minister, and all present, as well as upon those who are unable to attend worship.
and while we’re on the topic of asking God….
“The impossibility of doing what we would as we would, drives us to look for help. And this brings us to a new point of departure”
So begins one of George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons, this one entitled, “The Word of Jesus on Prayer.” Early in the sermon, taken from his meditation on the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18, the Scotsman makes the case for prayer from Jesus’ words, saying, ““if, in a word, my own being is everyway too much for me; if I can neither understand it, be satisfied with it, nor better it—may it not well give me pause—the pause that ends in prayer?” The ostensible insolubility of so much in my present moment sends me scrambling for insight and relief. If we must go somewhere for aid lest we turn to despair, then why not appeal to appealing?
Sunday night we’ll devote a portion of our time to prayer. But to ensure we’ll in fact use the time to pray (and not just prepare to pray), we’re asking you to share needs for prayer, for yourself and others, beforehand. So Sunday morning we’ll have a prayer request insert in the bulletin which you may complete and place in the offering plate. If the request is of a more confidential nature you’re welcome to give it to an elder (and future elder!). We’ll collect those requests of a public nature and pray through them Sunday night. If you can’t be with us Sunday, you’re welcome to submit the requests here on our website where you may also specify their public or private nature.
We mean to practice faithful presence in all three dimensions simultaneously Sunday night: present to Him in request, and present both to one another and to our world in making request on behalf of each. We will snack and catch up. We’ll listen to the kids holler and watch them scamper like the wild animals they are. But we’ll also pray for one another and for our world, for things only God could do. Hope you’ll join us.
And would you pray:
- for Cal Ramage as he and a team head to the Amazon on a medical/dental mercy trip
- for “Thomas,” the friend of Cal’s who’s suffering from esophageal cancer: for both extraordinary healing and a new and extraordinary peace
- for Cathy McAndrew’s mother recently suffering from chest pain and dizziness
- for Sheri McMillan’s mother who will be having esophageal surgery in the coming days
See you Sunday at 9:30,