Recently in my stay at the Genesee Monastery in upstate New York, one of the monks shared with me this image. He explained, “This is a painting of the trinity with an empty space at the table. God in all his mystery always welcomes us to his table. We should go and do likewise. The same unity we see in the Trinity is what we must aim to see with one another.”
1 Peter 3:8-12 NRSV
8 Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9 Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing. 10 For
“Those who desire life
and desire to see good days,
let them keep their tongues from evil
and their lips from speaking deceit;
11 let them turn away from evil and do good;
let them seek peace and pursue it.
12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”
13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.
A Dirt Road South of Cairo and a Response that Shocked the World
On May 26th of this year on a dirt road leading to a Monastery in Egypt, 130 miles south of Cairo a group of terrorists hijacked a bus leading to the monastery and killed more than half of the people inside. This was part of a continued rise in sectarian violence in Egypt. Immediately the outpouring of anger, frustration, and hate poured over from many throughout Egypt and the world since many of these victims were also children.
Those killed were Coptic Christians which is an ancient group of Christians who reside mostly in Egypt. They have a long history of violence coming against them. Their understanding of what propels them forward has always been the faith and blood of their martyrs, as they say.
And so over the years we have grown used to hearing these kinds of stories. Usually what follows are scenes where loved ones are carrying coffins in the streets on their way to the burial site. This then is usually followed by people speaking into cameras expressing their rage and frustration. Crying tears of vengeance and bewilderment. I get it.
However, with this latest attack in Egypt we come across something we rarely hear if ever. It came from one of the leaders of the Coptic church in Egypt. I am going to read what he has to say and I want you to keep in mind who he is talking about. He is talking about young men who took the lives of 28 people, many of them children. Here is his message to them:
“You are loved. The violent and deadly crimes you perpetrate are abhorrent and detestable, but YOU are loved. You are loved by God, your Creator, for He created you in His Image and according to His Likeness, and placed you on this earth for much greater things, according to His plan for all humankind. You are loved by me and millions like me, not because of what you do, but what you are capable of as that wonderful creation of God, who has created us with a shared humanity. You are loved by me and millions like me because I, and we, believe in transformation.”
“Christians believe in transformation”, he said, adding that even those who had persecuted Christ“went on to live with grace. We believe in transformation because, on a daily basis, we are personally transformed from a life of human weakness and sinfulness to a life of power and righteousness,” he added. “We believe in transformation because the whole message of the Cross and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ is to take humanity from the bonds of sin and death to a liberation in goodness and everlasting life.”
He admitted this is far from the reaction people may expect, but said it was the “Christian message”. Bishop Angaelos said he grieves for young men who see it as “not only justifiable, but glorious, to take the lives of other young men and women”. “No family should lose a son in this way, even if they are partially or wholly responsible for this flawed ideology,” the bishop added. Bishop Angaelos said these attacks come due to a loss of understanding of the sanctity of life.
The bishop concluded: “What is important is not that this message be read but that it be communicated; not that it be accepted but that it be understood as another perspective [lived out]; and not that it should be fully embraced, but that it may create at least a shadow of a doubt in the minds of those intent on inflicting harm and pain.”
You see the hope of this humble and Christ-like man is that this message will not so much be read to the attackers but rather demonstrated before them. That radical love and forgiveness would be what wins over the hearts of those set on inflicting harm. This is of course in opposition to the alternative which is with bullets and bombs.
In a day and age when retaliation, fear, and vengeance permeates much of our politics, society and even personal relationships, the words of Bishop Angaelos comes rushing in like a river of fresh water to a thirsty society and church. The ideals of not only forgiveness. Not only loving your enemies. But an ideal even more difficult than those two.
Forgiving is by no means easy, but it’s doable. Loving your enemies is also not easy but this too can be done. It is what this Bishop does which is inconceivable to many of us: Seeing Christ in the other person. Seeing Christ in the person who has harmed us. Seeing the image of God in the person who is grating at our patience. Seeing the beauty of Jesus in the person who has so harmed us, so wronged us. It is this ideal which is often the hardest and impossible among us Christians.
The height of Christian hypocrisy is demonstrating bitterness, un-forgiveness, and hate to others. It is completely antithetical to our nature. It shouldn’t be in our DNA. If it is then we must take a look in the mirror because everything we show towards others must run through the filter of what has been shown to us in Christ. We have done nothing to earn or receive it but in Christ we have mercy, forgiveness, gentleness, kindness, grace, love, and a continued disposition from Jesus where he sees the image of God in us. To not show all of this toward others denies the very pillars of the faith which we say we believe in.
I am sure many of us can think of situations, people, and circumstances where we have bitterness. We have hate. We have frustration. Guess what, its Ok! You are human! But we must never settle for this. What we must strive for, work towards, is to be so full of the love and power of Christ that we are able to demonstrate the skill of seeing Christ in others.
It begins right here. It begins with one another. In order to do the unthinkable of forgiving the unforgivable, seeing Christ in the most evil of people, it must begin first within our own heart but then in the community. As we revisit these words from Peter let us possess one trait more than any other this morning: humility.
1 Peter 3:8- The Tools of Our “Counter-Culture”
In order to get the full punch in the gut of Peters words here we must take a step back for a moment. Let’s remember exactly what is going on here. We have a large group of Christians who are trying to navigate their new lives in the midst of persecution, suffering, trials, and many other serious obstacles to their faith. They have people coming against them, kicking them out of the synagogues, families being split apart, people losing their jobs—all for their faith in Christ.
It is in this context that Peter reminds them to focus on two things: loving one another; and blessing others. If I was there I can imagine my response. “Really Peter? Do you know what this is like? Do you know what we are going through? This is every man for themselves! We can’t do this! We have to compromise somehow. We have to figure out a way to get through this!” And Peter would reiterate what he said. The way to get through it is to display the radical love of Christ first to one another and secondly to your persecutors. To those who bother you, grate at you, and cause you frustration.
What this speaks of isn’t conflict resolution 101. What Peter is instructing is embodying a foreign and supernatural culture. The big buzzword is being “counter-cultural.” That by the way we live and interact with others both in the church and outside of it, is so different and foreign to our culture that we are displaying a counter culture.
John Stott, an amazing British Christian writer, wrote a book on the sermon on the mount. This is the section in the book of Matthew where Jesus lays out what he expects from his followers, you and I, in how we live and interact with one another. Stott says,
“If the church realistically accepted Jesus’s standards and values as here set forth, and lived by them, it would be the alternative society he always intended it to be, and would offer to the world an authentic Christian counterculture.
Instead of doing this, the church throughout history has too often developed clever ways of explaining why Jesus didn’t really mean what he said or why his teachings are not to be applied in the present time. Thankfully there have been prophetic voices bringing us back to the authentic gospel down through the ages.
The Christian community must be in some sense “other than” the world around it, maintaining fundamental points of divergence. That where the common ways of society and how we treat one another go this way, we represent a different way. For so long the church has tried to be “counter-culture” in all the wrong ways.
Through t-shirts, through alternative music, through our own education, our own this and our own that. Those do not make us a counter culture. Wearing a bracelet or a cross on your neck does not make you counter cultural. Posting the most Christian status or picture on Instagram does not make you countercultural. To be countercultural is to do exactly what Christ does for others; exactly what we see this Bishop doing: see the beauty of Christ in every person around us, which then transforms how we speak, view, and relate to them. That is real transformation. The rest is cheap, sleezy, and void of depth.
Peter is very specific on what the “tools” are for making this culture exist within our community which then goes outside these walls. He first mentions unity of spirit. This is the simple understanding that we are in this all together. No one has their stuff completely together. What we do have is each other. As imperfect as we all are, we are a family together.
Peter then mentions sympathy, love, and a tender heart for one another. These three adjectives really boil down to one thing: being selfless. Usually when we lack sympathy, when we lack love, when our heart turns brittle and cold it is due to a deep root of selfishness within us. We are either imposing our standards on the other person or we have outrageously high expectations that are unrealistic. We must be tender towards one another. Acknowledge the flaws, but wow, lets love one another through them.
Peter is a wise man. He is slowly turning up the heat on the community. He begins with unity, then heads to three areas that are doable, and now he is turning to something that is nearly impossible. The last tool he gives is the height of Christian maturity and character because it is the very essence of Christ himself.
1 Peter 3:9- The Height of Christ-likeness
Our Lord Jesus, when he was being crucified cried out with a loud voice, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do!” Other ancient Christians who were either being martyred or persecuted offered forgiveness to their persecutors. A man by the name of Anacleto who was an advocate for peace during the Cristero war in the early 1900s in Mexico was quoted as saying with his last words,
“I pardon you from the heart; very soon we will see each other before the divine tribunal; the same judge that is going to judge me will be your judge; then you will have, in me, an intercessor with God on your behalf.”
As followers of Jesus our highest aim is to always emulate Jesus. Just as many who came after him have done. Just as Anacleto has done. And just as many of us can do today in the simple act of choosing to bless those who cause us frustration.
You know, Peter has some nerve to instruct the church to do this in light of what they were going through. Can you imagine right now living in the days of Peter, like many places around the world right now, and you are being instructed to bless others. To love your enemies. To show kindness, love, and mercy to those who have wronged you? This would be so difficult for us. But for Peter, this is our divine destiny.
Do you notice how he says “repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called that you might inherit a blessing.” The word blessing has been often hijacked from Christian pop culture. Over time it has been watered down to the point where we say we are “blessed” over everything. If we have a new car we will say, “God has blessed us!” Well not exactly. You are very fortunate to have a job, credit, and you have chosen a car to buy. Sorry to burst your blessed bubble.
Blessing is much deeper than that. The ancient understanding of blessing comes from the relationship of a parent to the child. For the father or mother to bless the child is to say, “I love you. I am for you. I empathize with you. I am proud of you.” The word blessing is tied more to relationship, less to the attainment of material goods. Even in ancient Israel when the Psalms or the prophets would seek the blessing of protection, food, or anything it was always within the context of their relationship with God.
Therefore, when Peter says to return a blessing after being insulted, he is not saying to bake cookies for the one who has wronged you. He is saying “look them in the eyes and find Christ, and find the good within them to love. Find what you can empathize with. Discover the pain and heartache that causes their lashing out. Pray for them. Sit with them. Have coffee with them. Value their personhood. Show them grace.” That is being a blessing to others. Baking cookies is easy. Finding Christ in them takes time and diligence.
Peter then ends with this beautiful phrase for his readers as well as us. He says, “so that you might inherit a blessing.” Again, keeping the right understanding of blessing in mind, let us remember that we do not bless others to receive anything in return. We do not aim to give our tithes and offerings so that God can “bless” us with financial prosperity. That is a lie and a gross misunderstanding of the Scriptures.
No. We bless others, we find Christ in others, we love and live in unity, empathy, humility with others, so that we might receive the blessing from the Father. And what is that blessing? It is a Father, a parent looking at their child saying, “I love you, I am for you, I am with you, I am proud of you!” This is the purest understanding of what it means to be blessed by God. Sure, our jobs, are food, our shelter are signs of Gods providence and we are fortunate to have these.
But they are not the end all be all blessing. The only blessing that ever means something worthwhile is the Father looking at us and our obedient hearts and saying, “I am proud of you. I love you. I see Christ in you.” That is it. And that is what Peter is longing for, for these people. But for them to get there, they need to begin to live differently from the world around them. The same goes for you and I.
What We Must Do/Be
A few weeks ago I had a rare parenting “win.” It’s nice to see when you are doing something right. My three children, whom I love with all of my heart, become combatant with one another occasionally. Well, one day a few weeks ago it was my oldest two going at it. Caleb and Kennedy were fighting so much. Rather than yelling I called them over. I sat them down. I explained to them that it wasn’t ok to talk to one another and treat one another the way they had been. They then rushed to say sorry and a little while later they were back at it.
This time I knew I had to do something different. This time I called them back. I made them come together and this time they each had to make a list of ten things they loved about each other. You would have thought I asked them to climb Everest. It took about 20 minutes but they did it. The rest of that day something was different in them. They played together, they laughed together, they helped one another. And why? Because they intentionally found the good in one another and it changed everything. At its simplest level, this is what Peter is instructing, this is what Jesus did with everyone, and this is what Bishop Angaelos did with those attackers.
Being a counter cultural community of love and Christlikeness begins in your own mind and heart. After we experience that same transformation this Egyptian Bishop speaks of, maybe then we will see ourselves truly walking in the footsteps of Jesus like never before.
We will know we are walking in those footsteps when we no longer look with suspicion, distaste, disgust, or even hate at groups like ISIS, the LGBTQ community, or people on the other side of the political aisle (yes believe it or not the love of Christ is found in Democrats, Repuplicans, Socialists, Communitst, and even Marxists) Or even people of a different race. People who bother us. People who have hurt us. People who grade at our nerves. Peter says it best: let us seek to live in
“unity of spirit, sympathy, love, and tenderness of heart. Not seeking to repay insult for insult but rather a blessing. Hoping that in doing so we might make our heavenly father proud.”
This is what HighMill church needs beofre anything else. We are not all going to always get along or see things the same way. But in walking out our faith we will seek to look at one another with humility as better than ourselves.
This is what our community needs. This is what our vast world needs. You want to change the world? Change you first. But to change superficially. Change deeply.
I encourage you. I beg you. As you go home today begin to look at your circle of family, friends, husband or wife, children—and ask the Holy Spirit to show you who you must first begin to find Christ in. Who you must begin to seek unity with.
As hard as it may be, it is the only right(eous) thing to do. If we fail to do so we are being disobedient. While walking this difficult task out, take joy in realizing you are experiencing the mysterious and beautiful transformation of your heart.
From a heart of stone to a heart of tenderness.
Ἐμοὶ γὰρ τὸ ζῆν Χριστὸς καὶ τὸ ἀποθανεῖν κέρδος.