Back to series
Good morning, church. It’s good to be back, and I will no longer be making jokes about not having things cancelled from hurricanes, because last time I announced that, we cancelled stuff from a hurricane two hours later.
Thanks to Adam for preaching last week, and to Meg for editing his sermon so it wasn’t four hours long. And thanks, everyone, for asking and caring about us. We had a good trip. Our son, AJ (he’s five) hung out with my parents, God bless them, and he went fishing and caught a toad that now lives in our house. He also wanted me to tell you that he drove a golf cart and used the pedals. Annie and I slept. We went on hikes through the mountains, played games, lounged, and ate good food. It was a good trip, and we are grateful for friends who are willing to share the good things in their life with us.
Turn with me to the book of 2 Peter, chapter 1. We’ve been in a series through Peter’s letters now for the majority of the year, because Peter is writing to a church that’s scattered and suffering, and this year has been a year of dispersion and hardship for us. His message has been, over and again, no matter what’s happening around you, no matter what you’ve done or what’s been done to you, there is hope in Christ. Hope for abounding life on the other side of brokenness. Hope founded in his resurrection, and his promise to raise and restore us back to rights if we partake in him. Suffering in this broken world is inevitable, but in Christ restoration is just as sure.
This week, we are shifting into the book of 2 Peter. Just like in his first letter, Peter is a pastor writing to people he loves who are facing difficult times. But you’ll notice, this letter has a different tone to it, because, as Peter admits in the passage we’re about to read, this is the last time we’re going to hear from him. He’s been sentenced to crucifixion in Rome. This is what he wants to leave with his church, what he hopes they will remember about his teaching when he’s gone, a pastor writing to his church, his friends, his family, that he’ll never see again.
Read with me in 2 Peter, chapter one, starting in v.1. [2 Peter 1:1-15]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly, Lord God, I pray you would show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. We pray this in the name of our God and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
The first thing Peter wants to tell his people is this: Pursuit of sinful desire causes corruption. Pursuit of sinful desire causes corruption. The image here in v.4, the picture he leaves with us is of decay in the body of Christ. He’s saying, if you don’t address the sin in your midst, time will not heal that wound, because sin is like infection, decay, gangrene. If you leave it alone, it will only spread and worsen until you need to cut off that part of the body to preserve the rest of the body from decay.
It’s a stark image, I know. In one of our not-finest parenting moments recently, we accidentally introduced our five-year-old to the concept of battlefield amputation. I was planning to wait at least a little longer, you know maybe until he was six or so, to introduce that concept, but he’s been on a pirate kick, and we got a kids’ pirate book from the library that had a lovely color cartoon drawing of someone sawing through the leg of a conscious patient. So, thanks, children’s book illustrator, for that conversation.
But he looks at Anne-Elise and goes, “That would hurt a lot. Why would anyone do that?” And the short answer is, because of corruption. Before antibiotics, corruption would have been a constant concern. Cuts and scrapes could mean death for the people to whom Peter is writing, and they would often turn to the gods for healing. I’m gonna get a little nerdy for just one minute, but bear with me: One of the largest religious cults of the time Peter was writing was the cult of Aesclepius, the greek god of healing who carried a rod with a serpent wrapped around it, which is still the symbol for hospitals and medical professionals today. Aesclepius required virtue of his followers, and through that virtue he would heal them—the same virtue Peter tells his people in this passage to add to their knowledge of Christ if they long for healing of their spiritual corruption.
Peter’s point is, sin is like infection. You have to be just as diligent to kill sin in your life as you would have been cleaning wounds, and just as harsh in your treatment. Even if the path to healing hurts, to quote AJ, “a lot.” It may hurt to wash out a wound, to put salt in it or some other balm, but it hurts far less than losing the limb several weeks later. Sin in our lives may start small, like a scrape or a sore, but if you leave it alone, if you don’t address it in your life or in your community, it grows and kills whatever part of you was infected, be it your mind, heart or hands. You have to go to God for healing.
I want you to begin to recognize sin by the symptoms—what are the results, the fruits, of your actions—because we’re usually clever enough, we have enough excuses to justify, the sin in our lives, and then we wait, and tell ourselves “time will heal it.” But we have to recognize the symptoms of sin, because sin brings corruption and corruption does not heal over time. It starts small, some pain surrounding a wound you’ve been trying to tell yourself was healing nicely without your having to do anything to it. Maybe a fight you had with your spouse or your roommate, and you never quite did the work to reach forgiveness and reconciliation. Or you see racial inequity, or hatred across political lines and assume time will heal it. Or the mental health red flags you’ve blown off because you think going to see someone would make you seem weak, and you don’t have the time. Or the lack of spiritual discipline you’ve excused with your business, and you tell yourself when I’m older, I’ll add those things into my daily life. So the corruption spreads.
Soon, those relationships with the wounds we never addressed are leaving more and more left unspoken until you’re living separate lives. Your unexamined heart grows callused to outcries for asylum and justice coming from those who are across racial, political, and class lines from you. Or you begin to play with the trappings of burnout—risky behaviors, emotional disregulation, escapism—still pushing yourself to deny your own mental health needs. Or your lack of spiritual discipline turns into a quenching of the Spirit in your life.
Eventually these things result in death. Death of the relationship. Death of compassion for the people suffering around you. Emotional or mental breakdown. Spiritual death, going through the motions of worship and feeling, knowing, changing nothing. Unless you address it. You’re waiting for time to heal it, but time cannot heal sin, just as it doesn’t heal corruption. Either you take the time to deal with it now, or you take the time later to clean up the mess you caused by ignoring it for so long.
Sin causes corruption. First pain, then numbness, then discoloration, then loss altogether. Don’t let sin cut you off from the people and things in your life that give you meaning and purpose, that matter deeply to you, that are the secret longings of your heart. Rather, go to God, and be healed, because our God is able to heal whatever sin is corrupting you, he’s able even to regenerate what has been lost in you, even to raise you from the dead. Go to God, and be healed.
Secondly, Peter writes, knowledge by itself is idle and unfruitful. Knowledge by itself is idle and unfruitful. I’m really bad about cleaning out cuts. I’ve got one on my arm right now from the last disaster relief trip to Lake Charles that is definitely scarring. I knew it would get infected, but I did nothing. What did my knowledge of the human body do for me? Absolutely nothing, because I didn’t act on it.
There are certain conversations that I have over and over again as a pastor. One of them is this; I had it just last week: a person will ask me what Bible translation I prefer. Usually I’ll offer a practical answer about how to choose a Bible, word-for-word translations verses concept for concept, and where different translations are on that scale. Sometimes people tell me they only use the KJV, or the ESV, and I don’t argue.
Because always in that conversation I try to tell people—it matters less what version of the Bible you’re using, and more whether or not you are reading, rightly understanding, and living out what the Bible is teaching. Knowledge of Christ, without any kind of action or love for the people around you, is idle and unfruitful—it doesn’t do anything; it produces nothing.
Simon Peter, or Simeon in Hebrew, the author of these letters we’ve been reading, one of the pastors of the first Christian church in Jerusalem, a man whom Jesus specifically chose to found his church upon—that Peter was not educated or cultured. He was from the country. Peter today would not have a degree from a good school, and when he preached it would probably be a simple, straightforward message about who Jesus is and what he’s seen God do in the world. When you even compare the grammar of his letters with, for example, Paul’s letters—Paul, who studied under Gamaliel, who spoke several languages, who was invited to speak to the Aereopagus—compared to Paul, Peter’s writing sounds like he’s in high school.
But Peter had spent time with Jesus, had loved him like a brother, and loved the apostle John like a surrogate father. He loved God, and loved the church. He served them well, and was steadfast in his promise to Christ to feed his sheep. Those are the sons and daughters God uses to serve his church, to feed his people.
And when Paul speaks of his academic training—what would be a shining record, summa cum this, laude that, under the best professors—he curses, calls it all rubbish, dung, worthless, compared to loving Christ and loving the people around you. Here’s what Peter is trying to get across—knowledge is good, but it’s worth nothing unless it’s paired with faith, virtue, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, family, and love. V.9, it’s possible to be so focused on the truth revealed in Scripture that you grow nearsighted, blind to the people and struggles around you. It’s not enough to be well read, to be able to impress people with your knowledge.
Peter is leaving his church, one that he helped start and build up, and new leaders were rising to fill his spot, and he’s telling the congregation—don’t be impressed by impressive people. Look for the servants, the ones who love God, the ones who love the church and bend low to serve the people around them. Knowledge is good, and in v.5 he writes that we should make every effort to add knowledge to our faith, but until we have love, faith, and godliness, knowledge is worth nothing.
Reflecting on these things, I know I’m a little more like Paul than Peter. I knew every answer to every question in church far before I actually came to know Christ—I made the Sunday school teachers run out of gold stars—and when I finally came to know Christ personally, when I finally met him and knew that he was raised from the dead, I was embarrassed to find that my knowledge mattered far less than I had assumed, far less than the simple obedience and love for God in which I was only just beginning.
And you, as you reflect on the sin in your life, the corruption causing numbness and death in you, the sin you thought time would heal, knowledge will help you. You have to know how to clean a wound. But the greater part of learning how to clean a wound is gritting your teeth and actually doing it, bearing the pain, turning to God for healing, turning to the people around you, accepting correction, admitting fault and difficulty, and doing the difficult work of restoration.
Because if you know the first thing about Christianity, you know that we only have sin to contribute to our salvation. The sinner’s prayer that you first learn to pray when you are taking your first steps in our faith is really the Christian’s prayer: Father God, I’ve sinned and fallen short of who you created me to be. I need your grace and forgiveness to cover my sins. If we are saved, we are saved by unmerited grace, through faith in Christ. It’s only after knowing Christ that we are made godly, which is my last point from the text today: we are invited to participate in the nature and work of God. We are invited to participate in the nature and work of God.
Peter writes, “through [knowledge of God] you may become partakers of the divine nature.” Partakers, partners, participants, sharers. Ancient writers would often use this word to describe partners in business, or citizens of the empire. They had a part, a role. In Peter’s time, he would have been writing to people who had always considered God, divinity, to be far off, on a mountain somewhere looking down, and he’s encouraging them that in Christ God has come near, even dwelt among us, even dwelt in us—he described his body in v.13 as a tabernacle—where we can be sharers, participants in the divine nature.
For us, we need to see in this our role in our own godliness and in the work toward his kingdom come, his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. We need to understand our role in our own godliness, in our spiritual development, and in our faith and worship as partaking in Christ, participating in his work and nature.
Maybe you, like Peter’s readers, grew up thinking that God was far off. Miracles had ceased, the work of God a thing of legend, to be believed but not really expected in your everyday life, though you could still fast and pray as a last resort in difficulty. Church, religion, was more about being the best version of yourself, a virtuous godly person, than about anything else. You sang and studied out of duty, because it pleased God—those are things he liked, and he would be displeased if you did something else. If you offered part of your wealth and did the right things you would receive a blessing from the god in return. I grew up around this kind of Christianity, though I knew many faithful people as well. When I think about it—it’s amazing how close our cultural American Christianity is to the paganism of Peter’s day, though we would never admit that.
Or maybe you’ve understood enough of the gospel to realize that you are a sinner saved by grace, and it’s nothing that you’ve done, so it doesn’t make you a good person, and you may be confused, because you feel the Lord moving you to do good things, and you’re wondering how to live out this Christian life. Or maybe you don’t know God, and you don’t consider it possible that you might be able to be saved. You can’t even forgive yourself, much less ask God for forgiveness. Maybe you feel unable to do what you feel like God wants you to do.
No matter who you are, the truth is that you can’t do what God requires of you. You’ve never been able to do what God requires of you, and you don’t deserve grace and forgiveness. This is why God is so good, because he offers forgiveness to those who are unforgivable, salvation to those who are completely unable to save themselves, closeness to those who feel God has grown distant, and direction to those who have been wandering.
I was talking to a doctor friend of mine recently who told me that all through her medical training, she would have moments where she would learn something new about the human body and praise God for the greatness of his creation, the thoughtfulness and care with which he created us. One of the things she pointed out is that all of medicine is not geared at healing—it’s merely pointed at ridding the body of something causing active damage and waiting for the body to heal itself.
So we, too, in this corruption of our spirits due to sin, in this infection, gangrene that threatens to kill all of us, or even just a piece. Our role is not to heal, our role is to participate in the healing God is accomplishing in his great power. To clean the wound, even if it hurts, kill the sin in our lives, to move beyond knowledge to love, faith and godliness, and then to welcome the healing he will bring. My invitation today is toward participation. Look and see what God is doing in our church, to bring people to a point of healing, to do justice in our community, to bring community to those who felt outcast, to be a home to people who wandered. See what God is doing, and come participate. Invite the Lord into your life, and participate with what he will do in you, in the salvation which only he is able to accomplish, but which waits as a first invitation for our participation in what God will do. Pray with me.