Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Responding with a clear conscience"

Message preached March 9, 2003
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15 

Order of Worship

            Lent has begun. This season leading up to Easter is set aside in the Christian calendar as a time for "examination." With that in mind, the ushers will now distribute the test sheets. Please put away all books and other materials. All you are allowed is one #2 pencil. Some of the questions on this exam are multiple choice, others require a brief answer in essay form. Make sure you write legibly. If an answer cannot be deciphered, it will be marked as wrong. You have the next twenty minutes to finish. Are you ready?......

            Did I have you going there for a minute? Did any hearts start to race just a bit as you recalled the pop quizes, final exams, or other tests you have taken in your life thus far? Perhaps you remembered sitting in the MVA trying to answer all those questions correctly in order to receive your driverís license; or worse, sitting behind the wheel with the examiner next to you asking you to parallel park. Maybe it was an IRS audit that came to mind...

            Rest assured. In case you had any doubt just now, we arenít taking a test this morning. However, Lent is still a time for examination. In some cases, thatís literally true, as persons approaching baptism or confirmation at Easter time begin intense preparation right now.

            I read this week of how one of my favorite biblical scholars, Walter Brueggemann, studied long and hard for this important step as a young man. His father was the Pastor with whom he went over and over the catechism of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, and by whom he was then quizzed in front of the entire congregation. Can you imagine? After passing him on this examination, his father then presented him with a specially-chosen Bible verse which became uniquely Walterís own, a scripture that was significant for his later vocation as a teacher of and prolific writer on the Old Testament. The verse? "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path" - Psalm 119:105. ("The Prophetís Imagination," Andrew Santella, Prospect: the magazine of Elmhurst College, Spring 2003, vol. 3, no. 1, p. 41)

            Of course, sometimes the real test comes after we make an important step of faith. Remember the story of Jesusí baptism and how he hit his time of examination after he left the Jordan river and then entered the wilderness for forty days and nights (Mark 1:9-13). Itís often immediately following our baptism that many of us face into difficult choices and temptations. "Lead us not into temptation" (Matthew 6:13a, Luke 11:4b), we pray - which literally could be, "let us not succumb to the trial" (Jeremias, The Lordís Prayer, p. 29). O Lord, "deliver us from the evil one." Most of the real tests in life do not involve pencil and paper, as our faith ceases to be merely a noun about which we talk, and becomes a verb which we live.

            This morningís scripture from the first letter of Peter was written to people in the middle of a test, trying to live out their faith under difficult circumstances. They were suffering for their faith, something we may have a difficult time understanding. After all, persecution is a somewhat distant concept for us in this country, even in this post-September 11th era. Suffering for their faith was very real for those first century followers of Jesus. It was stressful.

            The other week I read with interest what Newsweek magazine had to say about living under the stress of "code orange" national security alerts, with all that duct tape and plastic sheeting. What I found odd was that amid the discussion of biofeedback, meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, massage, medication, even simple self-indulgent pleasure, not one mention was made of faith in God or prayer as a response to anxiety - except for the possible use of a "Hail Mary" instead of an "om" in transcendental relaxation ("Coping with Anxiety," Claudia Kalb, Newsweek, 2/24/03 pp. 51-52). Mind you, many of these other answers to anxiety are helpful. But have we forgotten the resources many of us already possess?

            This morningís scripture is a reminder of some essentials, some things we - like those who have walked by faith before us - need to shift from noun to verb, from creed to life. "Christ also suffered," Peter here asserts. He died. He suffered because of the sins of others. He was the one righteous one who died for the unrighteous. He died that one time for all people. He went through it all - was crucified and then resurrected, made alive - in order to bring us to God. "He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit."

            The Apostleís Creed puts it this way: Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead." That mouthful lies at the core of the season which we have just entered. It also is at the center of the faith which we profess as Christians. The real test of our life together as followers of Jesus is how we shift all that from words upon a page into how we live here and now, no matter what circumstances we may face.

            Next Sunday, you are invited to stay after Sunday School to further explore this very thing. The basic question will be - what does the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ mean in your life - to you personally? That is, how are you shifting these from nouns to verbs? He died for you. Thatís what scripture says. He died "once" for all, and that "all" includes you and me and every person on this planet. How is that working out in your life? He rose from the grave. Thatís what the Bible says. And in him we also are raised - on the last day, indeed, but also today. So, how is that working out in your life? The apostle Paul elsewhere encourages us to "work out (our) own salvation with fear and trembling, " that is, to "work out" what Christ has already "worked in" (Philippians 2:12). In other words, through his death and resurrection, Christ "lives in" us, how we then "live out" of this reality is the real test of faith.

            The Good Ground Sunday School class is helping me next week to lead our exploring of what this means personally. When we met together last week to begin preparing for this, we discovered that many of us had thought more about the "crucifixion" end of things than the "resurrection" side. For some of us it was because of being raised in the Catholic church where, in most sanctuaries, there upon the cross is still the suffering figure of Christ. The "stations of the cross" are primarily about only half of the gospel equation. For others of us, it was hard to talk about the resurrection in our lives because, as Brethren, we were "baptized into his death."

            You know, the Brethren and the Baptists long ago used to debate at great length about whether a person should be baptized forward or backward. Being raised a Baptist before shifting to the Brethren persuasion, I was baptized as a Baptist, which was, one time backward - so that when I came out of the water I would be rising with Christ out of death, facing upward. Brethren traditionally have done it three times forward. As Christ died upon the cross, his face fell forward. And so, when Brethren baptize, we do so into his atoning death. To be honest, I have a hard time getting into that argument, for both are right - baptizing forward into his death and backward into his resurrection. The very old joke I tell is that if I were to be a "true" Brethren, Iíd need to be rebaptized four times forward - once to erase the Baptist baptism and then three times forward ... well, you get the idea. I did say it was an "old" joke.

            Anyway, youíre invited to come next Sunday and participate. I would say "come and discuss what this all means." However, itís more than just talk that weíre after. Some folks, after all, are more gifted at gab than others. Faith is something that is lived, not just mouthed - though speaking what we believe is part of acting upon it. I promise, there wonít be a quiz at the end of our time together next week. The real exam, as I said, comes in your everyday life.

            It was so for those early followers of Jesus to whom Peter wrote. He reminded them of their baptism, which was more than a matter of scrubbing down with a bar of soap. Yes, there is a "cleansing" that is part of our baptism, as we let go of a lot of the "crud" of sin in our lives. But the water of baptism isnít a bathtub. Itís something more.

            In our upcoming dinner theatre production of Godspell, I have the privilege of portraying the John the Baptist character in it. I get to "Prepare ye the Way of the Lord" in song, and to act out the baptism of all the other characters, including Jesus. As we were practicing the scene last week, the director corrected how I was doing it. Instead of scrubbing away, she wanted me to just touch each one with the sponge. Her reasons were not theological, Iím sure. But as I thought about it, that touch is more appropriate. Baptism is not, as Peter wrote long ago, about the "removal of dirt from the body."

            What did he say it was about? The King James version puts it this way - baptism is "the answer of a good conscience to God." That is, itís a pledge that proceeds from a clear conscience. Think in terms of a wedding in which two persons willingly commit themselves to one another. "Do you take this woman to be your wife," is the question, "to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, 'til death do you part?" From good conscience comes the answer - "I do." In baptism we pledge our faith to God in Jesus in Jesus Christ, in response to what God has already done for us.

            Of course, as marriage is a lifetime process, as we seek - to the best of our ability - to live out our answer, our pledge, our vow, so our life in Christ is also a process. Baptism is not the finish line. It is a beginning. And just as every relationship is tested over time, so is our baptismal relationship with Christ and his church. There are days when our conscience may grow cloudy, when our motivations become mixed, when the dust of the path we tread leads us to doubt our commitments, and we are tempted to walk another way.

            There is another complimentary (not contrary) way of translating what Peter said here (3:21) about baptism. The RSV/NRSV renders it as such: Baptism is "an appeal to God for a clear conscience." That is - itís a request to the Lord for the strength of character needed down the road as our baptismal vows are put to the test, believing that God will respond by providing for our need along the Way. It is only by Godís grace, we believe, that we are able to live out our faith with a "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Hebrews 11:1good conscience. "Help us not to succumb to the trial," Jesus taught us to pray, "but deliver us from evil."

            As I said, Lent is a time of examination. No, we donít, during the next six weeks, seek out persecution that we might be tested by it. We do, however, conscientiously remember our baptismal vows. Are we still answering "I do" in how we are living out our relationship with God in Christ? Are we continuing to appeal / to ask God for what we need in order to keep following Jesus?

            Well, brothers and sisters, put down your pencils , and pick up your hymnal. Letís sing a song for the road. The real test of everyday life awaits.

online resources for 1 Peter text, Mark text

For commentaries consulted, see 1 Peter & Mark.

©2003 Peter L. Haynes

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