“Come Together: Church”

July 15, 2018

Pastor Lucas Bitter

Intown Lutheran Church (Atlanta, GA)

1 Peter 3:8-9, 13-16

8 Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. 9 Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. 

13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

There once was a man named Isaac Newton.  He was a pretty smart guy; maybe you’ve heard of him.  Isaac Newton was a scientist, which means he spent whole his life analyzing the world around him.  And as he did so, he came up with a list of laws for the way things work.  I’d like to share one of those laws with you this morning.  It’s called “Newton’s 3rd law of Motion,” and it goes like this: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  I’ll give you a few examples of what this looks like in our world.

  • When a fish pushes its fins against the water, not only does the water get pushed back – the fish gets pushed forward.
  • When a bird flaps its wings against the air, not only does the air get pushed down – the bird gets pushed up.
  • When a marksman shoots his rifle, not only does a bullet launched out of the muzzle, but the stock gets also launched back into his shoulder. It’s called “recoil.”

And I could give thousands of other examples, involving everything from animals to machines to people.  For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  It’s just the way our world works.

But Newton’s 3rd law of motion can be applied to more than just physics.  It can also be applied to human relationships.  For every action between people, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  If you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you.  If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.  But if you’re mean to me, I’ll be mean to you.  And if you hurt me, you’d better believe I’ll hurt you.  It’s just the way our world works.

Hollywood understands this concept very well.  Just think of all the great revenge movies out there –  The Count of Monte Cristo, The Punisher, Payback, Kill Bill, Gladiator, The Princess Bride.  In every single one of these movies, there is a main character who has lost everything at the hands of an evil villain.  And what is their response?  They devote the rest of their lives to hunting down that evil villain and giving him exactly what he deserves.  And we love these movies!  They’re super popular.  We find ourselves cheering for the “good guy” even as he does terrible things to the “bad guy,” because after all, he’s only getting what he deserves!  Revenge feels right – because for every action, there should be an equal and opposite reaction.

If you want some real-life examples, just think of the conflicts that have been going on for generations in the Middle East.  Or the gang wars that have been raging for years in our world’s biggest cities.  Often the people on both sides of the conflict have had so many loved ones beaten and raped and killed by their enemies, that the only way they know how to deal with it is to do it all right back to the other side.  For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

And we see examples in our own lives as well.  You and I may not be part of a street gang or a Middle Eastern conflict, but we know what it’s like to be hurt.  We know what it’s like to have somebody tell lies about us behind our back. . . .or make us look foolish in front of the boss. . . .or turn our friends against us. . .or promise us love only to break our heart.  And we know how we are tempted to respond in those situations.  Tell lies about them!  Make them look foolish!  Turn their friends against them!  Dig our key into the side of their pretty little souped-up 4-wheel drive, carve our name into their leather seat, take a Louisville slugger to both headlights, slash a hole in all 4 tires, so maybe next time they’ll think before they cheat.  Well, that might be a little extreme.  We might not actually do that.  But we fantasize about it!  Because revenge feels right.  Mean people should get what they deserve.  For every action there should be an equal and opposite reaction.  It’s the way the world works!

But God wants us to work differently.  In our first lesson today, God inspired Peter to write some advice that sounds very different from “the way the world works.”  Peter says this: “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing.”  This isn’t the only spot in the Bible where we here something like this.  Jesus said “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you.”  He also said: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek as well.”

Now that is a hard teaching!  The Bible always has hard teachings in it, because the Bible is always counter-cultural.  No matter where you live in the world or when you live in history, there will always be some Bible teachings that make sense to your worldview, and some Bible teachings that challenge your worldview.  But man – this teaching challenges everybody! “Repay evil with blessing?”  “Love your enemies and pray for those who hurt you?”  “Turn the other cheek?”  This isn’t the way the world works!  This is really, really hard to do!

But if we think it’s hard, we should think about Peter’s original audience.  Peter wrote this letter to a group of Christians who were being severely persecuted.  We’re not just talking about being made fun of for your faith.  We’re talking about being beaten and robbed and chased through the streets by angry mobs.  We’re talking official, state-sponsored persecution where if anybody found out you were a Christian, you could get crucified or burned at the stake or thrown to the lions.  As Peter wrote this letter, the evil Emperor Nero had just come to power. . . . .and yet he was only the first in a long line of emperors who would bring wave after wave of deadly persecution crashing down upon the Christians.

Now if this was a Hollywood movie, what would those Christians have done?  They would have started a resistance!  They would have taken up arms and rebelled against Rome!  They would have assassinated Nero!  But the early Christians didn’t do these things.  They didn’t “did not repay evil with evil or insult with insult.  On the contrary, they repayed evil with blessing.”

What a strange, counter-cultural, not-of-this-world attitude.  It was an attitude that came from Jesus.

Jesus didn’t only talk about “loving your enemies” and “turning the other cheek” -he did it himself!

When Jesus was arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, he went peacefully and warned his disciples not to put up a fight.  When Jesus was slandered during an unfair trial, he even didn’t argue back – he simply bowed his head and said nothing.    When people curses at Jesus as he hung upon the cross, he didn’t curse back, but instead he prayed for them.  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

You know what’s interesting?  Many non-Christians – people who do not believe that Jesus really is the Son of God or the Savior of the world – are still fascinated by this historical figure named Jesus of Nazareth.  They see his teachings of peace and non-violence and forgiveness and they say “In an ancient Roman world full of bloodshed and violence, this guy was remarkable.  He was ahead of his time!”

And they’re right.  But what a lot of people don’t realize is that the most remarkable thing of all about Jesus is not his teachings or his actions.  It’s simply the fact that he even came down to earth in the first place.

The Bible explains this to us very clearly.  The real enemies of Jesus were not the Jewish leaders who arrested him, or the Roman soldiers who crucified him.  The real enemies of Jesus were the ones whose sin caused him to go to that cross in the first place.  His real enemies you were you and me.  The Bible tells us that ever since the Fall into Sin, each one of us has been born into this world as God’s enemy.  “The sinful mind is hostile to God.  It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.”  Our sinful minds do not operate on principles of forgiveness and love; they operate on the principle of revenge.   “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  It is because of our sin that the world is stuck in a cycle of revenge.  It is because of our sin that the world is full of hatred and suffering.

And there is a penalty for sin!  What we deserve our sinful actions is an equal and opposite reaction.  We deserve to be eternally separated from God in the fires of hell.

And yet here comes this strange, counter-cultural, not-of-this-world concept once again.  The point of the whole Bible is that God decided not to give us what we deserve!  Instead of rightfully condemning us for our sin, God decided to condemn his own Son instead.  Imagine that happening in the war-torn Middle East, or in an L.A. street gang.  A leader finally catches up with those enemies who have been tormenting and killing his loved ones for years – and yet instead of killing them he decides to set them free – because his son has volunteered to take their punishment in their place.  This would be absurd!  Unthinkable!! It would never ever happen, not even in a million years! And yet this is exactly what God the Father, and Jesus Christ his Son, did for us.

I love the song we sang earlier this morning, because it explains so clearly what was going on as Jesus was being crucified.  “Behold the man upon a cross, my sin upon his shoulders.  Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers.  It was my sin that held him there until it was accomplished. . . . (but) his dying breath has brought me life; I know that it is finished.”

God had every right to avenge himself on the whole human race.  But instead he did something strange and counter-cultural and not-of-this world.  He sacrificed his Son to forgive the human race.  Jesus willingly died so that you and I could live.  What an amazing act of love.

And this act of love holds the key to everything.  Now we begin to understand why the early Christians could live in the way that they did, loving their enemies and repaying evil with blessing.  No matter how much people hated them, they knew that God loved them!  No matter how hard their life on this earth got, they knew that they were going to heaven!

They had been set free from this world’s cycle of revenge, and commissioned instead with an important job: to “Go and make disciples of all nations.”  So they followed Jesus’s example and they shared the good news of the gospel as peacefully and lovingly as they possibly could. . . and l and behold, it worked!

At the time Peter wrote this letter, Christianity was a small, persecuted minority of maybe a few thousand people, scattered throughout the Roman empire.  Over the next 2 centuries Christianity would see tremendous growth, despite the tremendous persecution.  In fact, by 313 AD the Emperor himself became a Christian, and declared Christianity to be a legal religion.  By 380 AD Christianity was the official religion of the entire Roman Empire.  And today, there are approximately 2 billion people in the world who call themselves “Christians.”

The growth of the Christian church is proof that love is stronger than hate.  That forgiveness is stronger than revenge.  And that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the most powerful message in the world.

So where does this leave the Christian church today?  Where does this leave us, here at Intown Lutheran Church in Atlanta?  Well, we know how our world works.  We know how our sinful heart works.  We know that at times we all still operate on the principle that “for every action there should be an equal and opposite reaction.”

This means that internally, we will be tempted to fight and bicker amongst ourselves, to get offended every time that somebody doesn’t agree with us, and in general to become so divided that we are unable to “go and make disciples of all nations,” because we’re too busy fighting each other.

And this means that externally, that we will be tempted to “fight fire with fire.”  To argue with anybody who disagrees with our beliefs, because we’re so eager to prove that we are right and they are wrong!  And in general to come off as so superior and condescending that we turn people off to Christianity entirely.

These will be the temptations as we come together as a church.  But we don’t have to do those things – because we have Jesus!  We have his Holy Spirit breathing a strange, counter-cultural, not-of-this-world attitude into our hearts.  Teaching us to be “like-minded, sympathetic, loving, compassionate, and humble.”  Helping us put the best construction on each other’s words and actions.  Empowering us to go out as a team and “make disciples of all nations.”

And we don’t have to do that in a superior and condescending way.  Peter says “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. . . but do this with gentleness and respect.”  Sharing our faith is not about winning arguments so people can see how smart we are.  It’s not about pointing people to our lives so people can see how good we are.  It’s simply about saying to people (who may have very good reasons for not coming to church, based on what they’ve gone through in their past) – “I really think that if take a look at the message of the Bible, you might be surprised.  You might be relieved.  You might find that the God of Christianity is a God worth knowing a little more about.  So no pressure – I’ll respect you no matter what – but if you’re at all interested in learning more about this, I would LOVE to bring you with me sometime to church, or to Bible Basics Class.”  This is how the church is built.  This is how disciples are made.  One conversation at a time.

In the weeks and months ahead at Intown Lutheran, God has work for us to do.  We’re going to continue to come together as a congregation.  We’re going to continue to reach out to our community.  And I pray that God will help us to do so in such a gentle and respectful way that our actions inspire an “equal and opposite reaction” – but in a good way!

Internally, I pray that instead of a cycle of revenge we will build a cycle of forgiveness, compassion, and humility.

Externally, I pray that with our gentle and respectful approach we will shatter some of the stereotypes our world has about Christians being hateful and judgmental.

Overall, I pray that Intown Lutheran Church would become known as a safe, loving place where anybody can learn the truth about God.

We can’t make these things happen – but God can.  And so may God grant them to us, for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.