If I recall correctly I was filling in for my friend Rev. Hampton Deck at the First Presbyterian Church of Vallejo, California. That’s where I did my internship in 2000-2001 and after that Hamp always called me first for supply. Between my internship and the supply gigs I probably preached there close to 25 times.
And honestly, for one of my earlier efforts, that 1 Peter sermon isn’t too bad. And I say that having read with regret some of those rookie homilies, feeling sorry for the poor folks that had to hear them. Sometimes I’ll even discover my theology has changed and I want to go back and say, “Remember that thing I told you 15 years ago? I don’t believe that anymore!” (Don’t worry, DPC; I stand by pretty much everything I’ve preached to you.)
Here’s the key part of the sermon:
This is the embodiment of what that small community of Christians heard all those centuries ago, “God has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
This living hope is such an exciting prospect that the writer of the letter originally wrote the whole section from verse 3 to 12 in one long sentence. It’s as if it was so important that he couldn’t even pause for a period. He asks us to swallow whole the entire reality of the Christ event. Hope, resurrection, rebirth, faith, joy, revelation, salvation…it’s all there in one headlong rush.
And by compacting all these themes in one lyrical phrase we can see, we can hear, we can feel that they are of a piece – not a series of discrete concepts from which we can pick and choose but the indivisible totality of our faith, the whole of the Christian experience. Everything is made inseparably one by God’s act of raising Jesus from the dead. The parts just don’t work without each other.
Hope without faith doesn’t work – it becomes just worldly optimism.
Faith without joy doesn’t work – it becomes just lifeless waiting.
Joy without the promise of new life doesn’t work – it becomes just transitory happiness.
Rebirth without resurrection doesn’t work – it becomes just turning over a new leaf.
Today, even in our present circumstances, I’ll stand by what I said about hope, faith, joy, rebirth and resurrection. Because if you paid attention to the dates, you saw that I preached that sermon after the first Easter after the events of September 11, 2001. Our world had been upended then as now. And every person who dared set foot in a pulpit during that time of fear and uncertainty had 9/11 as a background. Then as now, there was something haunting our proclamation, casting a shadow, asking “How do I fit into your pretty words?”
And I continue to struggle with our constant corona companion that can’t be ignored or dismissed. Even without explicit mention, it colors how we interpret, proclaim and receive God’s word. Of course, we are always measuring our faith against our circumstances, good and bad. All the Biblical authors were crafting their stories, poems, letters and sermons in light of their own real world circumstances and events. Their lives, like ours, have a context.
How has your faith changed, grown or been challenged by our circumstances? How are you experiencing God in these strange days? What do words like “hope” and “joy” and “resurrection” mean when we, like Jesus’s disciples are “behind closed doors” (John 20:19).
I’ll be preaching on John 20:19-31 this Sunday, the story with Thomas who desires proof. Perhaps this most misunderstood disciple will offer a way for us to believe in our strange days.
Grace and peace,