Sermon for the Third Sunday after Easter
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
May 15, 2011
Well, according to numerous news reports from various fringe movements within the pseudo-Christian faith, today is our last Sunday to worship together. Based upon extremely narrow readings of the Books of Genesis, Daniel, Revelation, II Peter and others, next Saturday, May 21, 2011, will be the end of the world, and the rapture will take place then. Are you ready? Will you be one of the ones raptured, or will you be one of the “left behind?”
Don’t for one minute misunderstand me to say that Jesus’ couldn’t in fact come back next Saturday. He could and he very well might. Heaven knows it would be a wonderful thing if he did come back. That is what we are praying for, and eagerly awaiting. Certainly that will inaugurate the great and terrible day of the Lord, but we are guaranteed God’s mercy and justice when that day comes, and that for those who love him, serve him, and proclaim him as their Lord will enter into perfect rest and happiness where all tears will be wiped away and our mourning will be turned into joy.
For all that I disagree with regarding all of the Nostradamus’ of this world, I do agree with one general assertion that they make, we need to live knowing that the end is coming one day and it might be soon. We must live each day as if it were our last. If we do, we will live it with meaning and purpose and conviction.
In St. Peter’s first epistle I was struck with one phrase that caught me as interesting and I hope you caught it as well. It was at the very end of the passage we just heard where he tells his listeners, “For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: as free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.” He then ends that section with a four-fold exhortation, “Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.”
There appears to be a contradiction here. Peter tells his audience and us as well that we are free and we’re servants. Hang on a minute. How can we be free and servants at the same time? If he uses the word servant doesn’t that imply that you are under the authority of someone else and not free to do as you please? On the flip side isn’t a free man subject only to himself?
Here’s where Christianity turns everything on its head. Yes, as Christians we are free. Through our baptism we have received a freedom and a new life that on our own we could never earn, merit, or receive. The debt for Adam’s sin which would be counted against us as an insurmountable debt that we could never repay has been forgiven and there is a freedom that comes from that gift.
The big difference comes with our proper definitions of slave or servant, freedom, and liberty. Several times in the New Testament we hear the phrase that once we have been freed we are now the servants of Christ. This isn’t a false dichotomy here. Once we receive Christ we are free to serve him with a renewed definition of the word serve.
Many of the great philosophers, both pagan and Christian, understood what we see as a contradiction.
Seneca once said, “No one is free who is the slave of his body,” and “Liberty consists in obeying God.” Cicero said, “We are the servants of the laws that we may be able to be free.” Plutarch insisted that every bad man is a slave; and Epictetus declared that no bad man can ever be free.
Presbyterian theologian William Barclay wrote, “We may put it this way. Christian freedom is always conditioned by Christian responsibility. Christian responsibility is always conditioned by Christian love. Christian love is the reflection of God’s love. And therefore, Christian liberty can rightly be summed up in Augustine’s memorable phrase: “Love God, and do what you like.”
“The Christian is free because he is the slave of God. Christian freedom does not mean being free to do as we like; it means being free to do as we ought.”
Of course, I don’t think that Dr. Barclay is advocating some sort of Pelagianism here that says that we are given all we need to do what is right and that we just need to try a little harder. That’s the form of heresy coming from the mouth of Joel Osteen. What I believe he is saying is that we have the freedom that comes from an open avenue to God the Father, through His Son Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
I’ve heard this type of Christian freedom described in the following manner. If you think of a football game or baseball game that has some sort of foul lines or boundaries, there is a tremendous amount of freedom to excel and play the game of football or baseball when you know what’s out-of-bounds and what is not. How could you ever play if the foul lines were constantly moving or shifting or you don’t even know if there were any? Would you be free or would you be enslaved to uncertainty and chaos?
Being a servant of Christ and using our liberty as St. Peter describes consists of four actions. We are to honour all men and honour the king. Does this mean blindly agreeing with everything they say or declare? No, it does not. Does it mean to at minimum show respect for the office that those people hold, yes it does. There is a time and place for exercising our displeasure or disagreement with others, but the Christian virtue of charity must be at the core. Showing honour to those to whom honor is due is one of our callings.
We are to love the brotherhood. Peter is speaking of the community of believers here, and there is to be a special bond of love that binds the Church together in community. The special love that binds us together is not some sentimental type of love, but what St. Augustine would describe as loving others in God. This brings us to the fourth and central point that Peter exhorts us to do and that is fear God.
We are to fear God as we normally think of that word, as well as in the sense of awe and wonder. This two-fold sense of fear properly shapes our posture toward our Maker. Fear in this proper sense allows us to live each day with the perspective that we are in the world, but not of the world; it allows us to recognize our dependence upon for everything that we have now, and what we will enjoy in the future; it will allow us to not worry about stories like the supposed end of the world on May 21, but that we might be like the 5 wise virgins who had their lamps trimmed and had extra oil on hand when the Bridegroom calls us to the wedding feast, and bids us to come inside and feast at His table. The foretaste of that banquet lies ahead for us. Let us with penitent and faithful hearts approach our Lord’s table in joyful thanksgiving for the benefits he bestows upon those who love and serve him. May we be nourished and receive the grace to honour all men, love the brotherhood, fear God, and honour the King, as the free servants of Christ Jesus our Lord.