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Passing the Peace, 1 Peter 4:7-11
Good morning, church, again, welcome. Welcome to all of our friends who are visiting from other places and are here for Mardi Gras. Please hear from me, from a genuine place, I’m really glad you’re here. It’s so encouraging to have brothers and sisters from around the country who care about our lives and work here and want to take part.
Please go with me in your Bibles to the book of 1 Peter, and I’m going to be reading from chapter 4, but first, a little context. 1 Peter is a book written to exiles. He opens the book listing the various congregations in Asia Minor to whom he’s writing. Kind of like how all of us will scatter by the end of the week to all of our various cities. Back to Illinois, to Alabama, to New Mexico. Peter’s congregation at this point is scattered across the empire, and to each of them in every place, he asks God to multiply grace and peace to them. He begins both of his letters this way, “Grace and peace be multiplied to you in Christ.”
This was his habit, then, whenever writing to people he considered to be his Christian brothers and sisters, he would begin with grace and peace before saying anything else. And not just a little grace and peace, grace and peace multiplied. Grace, he goes on to say in our passage, grace that arises from the love of God which is able to cover our many sins, and peace which is meant to characterize our lives as Christians, and especially our interactions with each other.
We’ve been in a series about Christian practice since the New Year—I don’t know if any of y’all from out of town tune-in on Spotify or on our website—we post our services each week, but I confessed to the church, this is what God has been teaching me since I started pastoring here—I’ve been praying for the Lord to make me a better pastor, and I think the congregation can probably tell you we’re still waiting on some answers there; we’ll keep praying. But what the Lord has actually been teaching me is how to be a Christian, the ways in which our faith is meant to affect our actions.
In our culture we talk a lot about belief, and rightly so. Right belief is important. If you know me, you know it’s not difficult at all to draw me into conversations on theology, philosophy, hermeneutics, and especially literature. Right belief is important. We call it orthodoxy, but what is too often neglected, orthodoxy is meant to be paired with right action, or orthopraxy.
I’ve been convicted as a pastor, and just as a man seeking to follow Christ, I’ve been convicted by Jesus’ words in Matthew 23, also in Luke 11, he says, “ “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.  You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” Or as James writes to many of the same folks Peter is addressing here, “faith without works is dead.” If I am to be a guide in this life, I don’t want to be a blind guide. And if I am to be sharing my faith, I don’t want it to be a dead faith.
I’ve experienced enough of death and loss to know that I want to do anything and everything I can to rage against it. There is a kind of death that is blatant—the spiritual death of those who know nothing of Christ, the violence we’ve seen surging in our city—these things are death unleashed, and it’s devouring our community. It’s right that we rage against them. Peter is writing to people who are in the midst of persecution, grief and loss, also death full-grown.
But then there is a more subtle kind of death, too; a kind of death which sets in even before you physically die. The kind James is writing about, a death of faith, let’s call it. It’s a daily struggle to follow Christ in the midst of the mundane, the every day. We know what we would do in a crisis, if we were facing death in the name of Christ, but we struggle when we’re facing life the next day or the next year in the name of Christ. When there’s no urgency.
I find this kind of faith-death in my own life and in my faith, and I want to address it before I communicate to the people around me, like a sickness that leads to death. This is the kind of death that staggers us in the middle of our lives and keeps us up at night wondering whether or not the things we’ve done with our life are worthwhile, whether or not we’re spending our days well, because, as Annie Dillard writes, “How you spend your days is, of course, how you spend your life.”
In the face of death of all kinds, Peter writes this passage. Let me read it. If you will, please stand with me. 1 Peter 4, starting in v.7. [1 Peter 4:7-11] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
If you know me well, you’ll know I’m passionate about church history, ritual, and tradition. As is often said, tradition is the living faith of the dead, where wrote acting of religious worship, without engaging with the meaning behind it, is the dead faith of the living, the very kind of death I’m trying to warn against this morning. For thousands of years, churches held a special place in their services called “passing the peace.” Traditionally it was placed immediately before communion in recognition of Christ’s teaching to leave a gift at the altar of God and go make peace with your brother before coming again to worship.
In most Baptist and nondenom churches this practice morphed into a greeting time towards the beginning of the service, and in my lifetime the practice has mostly disappeared altogether. I remember, growing up—I was, am, very shy—awkwardly shaking hands with adults I’ve never met and wondering what on earth this strange moment in the service could possibly be about. But three years into pastoring through some very divided times, I realize I’ve spent most of my time pastoring just passing the peace of Christ from person to person. At this point, I consider passing of the peace as central to my Christian practice, my orthopraxy.
In more traditional churches, sometimes you’ll see the passing of the peace in the program or the liturgy. People will usually shake hands and tell each other, “peace to you,” or “Peace of Christ be with you,” and answer, “and also with you.” But even then, when I’ve been apart of those services, it felt like there was some component missing. Some key to the meaning of this practice that had been lost long ago, like the key to my grandmother’s trunk, which my parents gave me a few years ago, and we’ve been meaning to bring it to a locksmith, but every time I think about it I don’t, because it just feels like a lot of work, and it’s easier just to leave it. But I do wonder if there’s anything inside.
So, whether we’re torturing the introverts of our church with a special greeting time, or we’re actually wishing peace for each other, the fact remains, making peace is meant to be at the core of Christian practice. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus says in the sermon on the mount,“for they shall be called sons of God.” And when Christ is born on earth the angel pronounces that peace has come on earth. Over and over again we see in Scripture, peace comes hand in hand with the kingdom of God in every time and place.
Peace in the Bible is no small thing, and it’s not an individual thing. Jesus is right to summarize the law by saying “blessed are the peacemakers.” Peace is one of the defining characteristics of the life to come, with God dwelling among his people in the restored earth. Because in the Bible the words peace and restoration are almost the same concept. Biblical peace is everything restored to the way it should be. Everything on earth, every person, restored back to rights. Isaiah imagines a table laid on Mount Zion, with all of the people of God gathered together to a single table in peace.
So, maybe if awkwardly shaking hands is all we can muster, we should. My real concern, though, is not to bring back the greeting time. My real concern is that along with the passing of the peace in our services, I’m concerned we’ve let the actual practice of peacemaking fall to the wayside in our lives, in our churches, and in our interactions with our culture. We’re more concerned with winning arguments, swaying the crowd, gaining a follower than we are about peacemaking. So my main point today is to encourage you to allow love to cover sins. In other words, I think you should lose the argument if it means winning a brother.
But this takes wisdom, I know. Too many times, people compromise on truths which are central to the faith, just as I’m arguing peacemaking is central. So how do you do both? How do you embrace your brother without conforming to him? How do you welcome your sister without endorsing her sin, something you believe will end up wrecking her in the end? How do you both put on the armor of God, waging war against the enemy and yet, to quote Peter elsewhere, “live at peace with everyone as far as it depends upon you?” Our passage this morning can help. It has everything to do with understanding the war, the enemy, and the means—we always forget the means! We always forget the way in which Christ stood firm. The war, the enemy, and the means.
The main thing you have to remember about the war is that it’s already won. Another interesting piece of history—New Orleans’ history this time, not church history. Jackson square, just a few blocks from here, is named for Andrew Jackson, which is something you probably knew already. What you may not know is the reason they named the square after the man. He won a stunning victory just east of New Orleans over British troops in the war of 1812. In large part the victory was attributable to Jackson hiring several dozen pirates led by Jean Lafitte, after whom many other buildings in the French Quarter are named, to harass the British at sea. Over 13,000 troops clashed in the battle of New Orleans, over 2000 soldiers perished. Remarkably, only 60 American troops were lost.
But even more remarkably, the entire battle was waged after the war was already done. The treaty ending the war of 1812 was signed the day before Christmas in 1814. The battle of New Orleans was fought on January 8, two weeks later, only word hadn’t reached New Orleans yet. It’s difficult to wrap my mind around 2000 men dying for a war that was already won.
But then again, here we are in our lives fighting spiritual battles which Christ won on the cross, not two weeks ago, but before Peter is even writing. Brothers and sisters, how long will we continue to fight in a war that’s already won? With Jesus’ death on the cross he atoned for our sins, allowing for our adoption as sons, all into the same family, and his love, our passage tells us, is able to cover a multitude of sins to where we can welcome one another in hospitality, which we talked about last week, without grumbling.
To be clear, the multitude of sins in the passage is your multitude of sins. We always imagine, in this biblical war analogy, that we’re on the side of the Lord. We weren’t. We sided with the enemy in our sin. Praise God that now he’s won the war he’ll still allow us into his city if we lay down the enemy’s weapons. “Multitude of sins” isn’t referring to all the people on the other side of the dividing line in your mind.
The sins are yours and mine, and her’s and everyones but God’s. The love is God’s, though. Love like atoning blood sprinkled on a people who have brought only sin to the offering. Sin and a hope that Christ can bear the weight of all the suffering we’ve caused and felt. Yet here we are, excluding people from our churches, splitting churches, denominations, all because we’re fighting for truth. Truth which already came and dwelt among us, died, and is more than a conqueror, and so are we. Or do we not believe Christ’s dying declaration that his work was finished?
The war is won. Our God doesn’t need you to wound and exclude your brother or your child or your friend any more than he needed Peter to cut off that guy’s ear, yet here we’ve all brought swords to the garden anyway, just in case an immutable God changes his mind. I’ve always imagined Christ putting that guy’s ear back and looking at Peter annoyed and grieved, like I’ve told you a hundred times, and you’re not even understanding what I’m trying to do. Thankfully by the time he’s writing this letter, Peter understood. The last line of our passage is more than just words of praise. “To him belong glory and dominion forever.” Dominion, meaning rule over the land. He is ruling and reigning even now over our nation and every other one. That war was won long ago on the cross. We are now in a time of his dominion.
The war, the enemy, and the means. The war is won, and the enemy—what you need to remember about the enemy is that he’s already defeated. His work in the world is a tantrum. Things didn’t go his way. His head is crushed beneath the heel of Christ. We act like somehow if we don’t stand up and fight the enemy will win in our lives, in our families, in our churches, in our culture. But the enemy is already defeated. Those flaming darts he’s throwing aren’t an assault, they’re a subversion, a protest against the reigning king. We’re not meant to be defending the kingdom of God, as if an omnipotent God, lion of Judah, needed a defender, we’re meant to be inviting people in the outer darkness into the kingdom, for their sake and our own. The war is won, the enemy defeated, and “the end of all things is at hand.”
The war, the enemy, and the means. We always forget the means. We try to pick up and use the weapons of the enemy, but the enemy’s weapons will only ever serve him. You can’t drive out darkness with darkness, only light can do that. You can’t do good in your church by using power politics. By insisting on your own way. Keeping secrets, threatening, gathering a group that agrees with you and threatening to leave or stop giving if you don’t get your way. The church is one body. In creating divisions, you’re hacking off limbs. Stop cutting people’s ears off. Put the sword down, or better yet, beat it into a plow share, you won’t need it. These are the enemy’s weapons. The King won’t allow them into his city. God doesn’t work the way the enemy does.
God covers sins with love and welcomes his enemies to his table, thankfully, since we were his enemies. He shows hospitality at his table without grumbling. These are his means. He tells the truth without narrowing it to prove a point. He forgives. He gives to all generously, without finding fault, and since you have received a gift, you should use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s grace. Right from the start, to every reader, Peter prays that God multiply grace and peace to them.
Practically speaking, knowing what to do to make peace isn’t always easy. I know that. The reason we are to live at peace with everyone as far as it depends upon you is that sometimes it doesn’t depend upon you. Then, especially as pastors, part of our role is to ensure false teaching doesn’t make a shipwreck of the faith of the people in our care. Part of our role as shepherds is to guide the sheep toward pastures where they can thrive, instead of pitfalls which will allow death to creep in.
But in this, one, we need to remember our own sin and error. We are the ones whom Christ’s love needs to cover. Enter every conversation knowing you might be wrong, ready to listen to the other side and really weigh it. Don’t be afraid. Truth will never perish from the earth, and the gates of hell will never overcome the church. You can be humble. To quote my favorite seminary professor, you can’t always know everything for certain, but some things you do. I know for certain I’ve been wrong about a number of theological matters and scriptural interpretations. I know for certain I’ve been wrong because I’ve changed my mind. On several things—the Lord’s supper, baptism, salvation, original sin, the end times—in my life and even in my time pastoring, I’ve changed my mind, which means at one point I was wrong.
Logically, either I was wrong, and I’m now right, or I was right before, and I’ve changed my mind so that now I’m wrong. Or, there’s always the wonderful logical possibility of being wrong before and changing my mind to a different, but still incorrect view.
Two, remember that you’re trying to win the person, not the argument. In our arguments, we’ve become cripplingly lonely. Being married has taught me that more often than not, being right is less important than being loving. Wouldn’t you rather win your brother than win the argument? They’re supposed to know we’re Christians by our love, and instead what they know is our division. I think of C.S. Lewis’s depiction of hell in his book The Great Divorce. He imagines a city that’s been deserted because no one could stand each other, and they kept moving further and further out from the city, apart from each other until every person is cripplingly, pitiably alone. Miles away from any other single soul.
I want to assure you I’m speaking more to myself than to anyone else, but I’ll ask you, who is close to you? Does anyone really know you, or is there some part of you that keeps moving further and further out? Is peace something which characterizes your home? Your congregation? Your conversations with the people around you? It it a plowshare or a sword in your hand? Are you passing the peace of Christ to your neighbors in your daily interactions, or are you passing along something else? Something a little more deathly?
Three, before you add any other descriptor to the word person, remember that personhood, itself, bears the image and incomprehensible love of the father. And every person you’ve ever met is everlasting. Every Christian you’ve ever met will spend eternity at your table. Your church, the walls, the chairs, the pews, the culture, your reputation, will last a few more years, but your congregation will be with you in eternity.
Four, practically, and I’ll close with this, you can only make peace with your neighbor. A lot of people are peacemakers in theory, and prefer to make peace ideologically than actually. But in truth, you can only make peace with your neighbor. Your family. Your friends. Your neighbors. Your coworkers. If you have to ask who your neighbor is, Christ will tell you, but it will surprised you. In your words, in your service, in your love, in your telling of the truth.
Brothers and sisters, I would invite you this morning to make peace. To have everything you say build up instead of tearing down. Above all else, to allow love to cover sins, the sins of the people actually in your life. Isn’t it time to put down the sword? The battle is over, the enemy defeated, and all glory and dominion belong to Christ. Pray with me.