Sunday, July 30, 2023

Phil Kniss: It’s not icing on the cake

The gift that grows
2 Peter: True to the Root
Matthew 13:44-46; 2 Peter 1:1-11

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2 Peter doesn’t get preached a lot from Christian pulpits.
At least not the pulpits most of us spend time listening to.
It’s pretty harsh and polemical at times.
It’s speaking to situations that might seem foreign to us.

So maybe that alone is a good enough reason
to spend three weeks looking at this book a little closer.
There may some gems in here we’ve been missing.
And maybe we can find a better context,
to help us better appreciate the harsher parts.

So before I get into the opening chapter,
a word about the book in general.
The author of this letter is widely disputed.
Few scholars attribute the whole letter to the apostle Peter.
Some parts of it make sense as potentially coming from Peter.
Others not so much.
The prevailing view is that this is a fairly general letter,
written in Peter’s name,
to a whole group of churches—
mostly churches in the Hellenized Jewish communities
throughout the Diaspora.

That’s a fancy way of saying,
churches made up of Jews far, far away from Jerusalem.
Far away geographically, but also far away in culture,
language, and religious values.
They lived all around the Roman Empire,
in cities and communities dominated by
Greek and Roman ways of thinking and living.

You can imagine some of the possible worries
that the pillars of the church back in Jerusalem, like St. Peter,
might have had about these groups of young Jesus-followers,
planting churches around Asia Minor and Greece.
In the face of cultural pressures and persecution,
and the tendency to conform to the dominant society,
and considering how new this Jesus movement was,
and how the first Gospels of Jesus
had only recently been written and circulated,
and were not yet considered scripture—
it’s not hard to imagine these churches, and their leaders,
getting off-track, morally and ethically,
losing trust in Jesus as Lord,
and looking like some pseudo-Jewish, pseudo-Greek,
new religious community that didn’t look like Jesus.
Apparently, there were churches and leaders
who openly behaved in ways that abused their power,
accumulated and flaunted their wealth,
and sexually exploited others.
They were living the values of the Empire.

So the thrust of this letter,
written in Peter’s name, with his weight behind it,
is to call out the false teachers leading them astray,
and to bring the churches back to Jesus of Nazareth,
as a reliable witness, who was God’s anointed son,
at the center of their life and faith,
and Lord of all things.

So in chapter 1,
the author begins with one of the most winsome invitations
to a faith-filled life in Jesus.
He’ll get nasty and polemical in chapter 2.
We’ll slog our way through that next Sunday.
But here, the Gospel is presented in its shining glory.

Just in case any of those hearing this letter
have been tempted to give up on Jesus,
and need a word of encouragement or motivation
to stay the course,
and not follow some other alternate religious path,
the letter-writer hands it to them.

First a warm greeting,
“To those who have received a faith as equally honorable as ours
through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ:
May grace and peace be yours in abundance
in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.”

Then these glorious words:
“[God’s] divine power has given us everything needed
for life and godliness . . .
he has given us . . . his precious and very great promises,
so that through them you may escape from corruption
and participate in the divine nature.”

In other words,
God has not come with a list of demands
to make you earn your worth.
God has come with precious and great promises.
You already have all you need for life and godliness,
given to you by God’s hands.

That expression of God’s generosity and kindness,
is the basis on which our faith is built.

Now comes a list of virtues.
A virtue list is a literary form that shows up
several times in scripture,
and, interestingly, in ancient Greek and Roman literature.
Virtues are listed in a sequence,
each one being added on to the one preceding it,
so you kind of end up with a stack.

But I noticed something in this stack of virtues that stood out to me.
It was how the NRSV translated the verb at the front of the list.
They used the word, “support,” as in
“support your faith with excellence,
and excellence with knowledge,
and knowledge with self-control . . . etc.”
So many other translations,
including the NIV, King James, and others,
use the simple word “add,” as in
“add to your faith excellence;
and to excellence, knowledge;
and to knowledge, self-control . . . etc.”

So I dove into the Greek to find out what was up with that.
And the verb, which is ἐπιχορηγέω (epichorégeó)
means more than simply adding on,
like icing on a cake.
It has a much richer impact, that of “providing, lavishly,
or furnishing all that is needed to accomplish something.”

This is no optional sort of add-on,
that we could do with, or without.
where each layer adds another nice element to the whole.
When a chef makes a layer cake, or a parfait,
each layer added to the top makes it more interesting,
but they could stop anywhere, even after two layers,
and it could still be eaten, and be tasty.

This is not the kind of addition going on in 2 Peter 1:5.
It’s not icing on the cake.
It’s furnishing the essentials.
It’s critical support structure.

It is something needed to undergird what lies above it in the stack.
So each named virtue
is not something we slap on top.
No, with effort and intentionality,
we work it in under the structure,
in order to better support and accomplish
what lies on top of it.

So let’s look again at the virtue list from that vantage point,
and see if we can stack it up differently.

Faith is what needs support.
Our trust in God lies exposed to the elements, in a way.
By itself, it’s fragile.
It can be misdirected.
It can be misused, to the point of harm.
It can even fall apart, disintegrate.
I think that’s exactly what the epistle writer feared was happening,
in these scattered churches
who were fending for themselves against the forces of the Empire.

So, he writes, beginning in v. 5,
“make every effort to support your faith with excellence.”
Don’t settle for the easy way forward.
Do just go with the flow.
Strive for what is good and excellent and worthwhile.

“and [support] excellence with knowledge.”
Learn the truth about Jesus.
Excellence is hollow, if you don’t know
what Jesus stood for when he lived among us.
Know how Jesus fits into the larger story of God.
Don’t guess at it, or let your gut decide.
Listen and learn from reliable witnesses.

“and [support] knowledge with self-control.”
A life of faith requires respect and love for the self.
But don’t let your knowledge make you full of yourself.
Always yield to the greater good of God’s shalom project.
The Gospel is for us, but it’s bigger than us.

“and [support] self-control with endurance.”
Faith rarely gives instant results.
Reining in the self can be tiring work.
Patience is needed.
God’s timing is not our timing.
Trust that God’s arc is bending toward justice,
even when the arc is long.

“and [support] endurance with godliness.”
Godliness is tricky. We’ve been programmed to think
we create godliness by our doing good.
But godliness does not mean moral perfection.
It means being close to God.
We can cultivate a devotional stance toward God.
There are tried and true practices
for a life of devotion to God.

“and [support] godliness with mutual affection.”
Affection—toward God and toward others—
is the key to having a godly disposition.
It’s like spiritual warmth—wanting to be with God and others.

“and [support] mutual affection with love.”
Love is more than warmth.
It is a rugged commitment to orient ourselves toward another—
toward God, toward others, toward ourselves.
Willingness to set aside personal or self-oriented drives,
in order to invest in the well-being of the larger whole
of which we are part.
It’s not self-neglect. No, love seeks the good of all,
and it concludes this list of virtues.

See how these are stacked exactly opposite?

Love is most definitely not the icing on the cake.
It’s not the maraschino cherry on top of the parfait.
It is the foundation for a life of faith.

This fragile and tender thing we call faith,
can not only survive, but thrive,
when it’s built on a foundation of love,
that supports affection,
that supports godliness,
which supports endurance,
which undergirds self-control,
which supports knowledge,
which is the basis for excellence,
which results in a sturdy faith that can weather the storm.

And . . . get this!
We have already been given,
by the gracious and generous hand of God,
“everything needed for life and godliness.”

It is ours to make every effort to receive this gift from God’s hand,
and put it into use for the building up of faith.

Obviously, our world is a very different one
than the Greek and Roman-influenced
first-century Mediterranean culture.
But maybe not so different at the core.
There are still forces in society
that attempt to push us away from a Jesus-centered faith.
Our faith, on its own, is just as fragile today,
as the early Christians trying to find their way.
We have something important to learn from 2 Peter.

God is good.
God is generous.
It is not up to us to scrounge up the resources for faith.
We have been given them.
Now, let us open our hands, our lives, our bodies, our whole beings,
and offer them in the service of God,
whom we know in Jesus.

And let us confess our shortcomings.
Will you join me with the confession printed in the bulletin,
or on the screen?

one God of love and patience,
We confess we are sometimes indifferent to your lavish gifts.
We are burdened by believing we must earn your love.
all Forgive our failure to freely receive from you.
one We acknowledge we already have from you
all we need for a life of reverence and gratefulness.
all Forgive our ingratitude and self-obsession.
one The God of endless love and patience forgives us,
and continues to hold open hands toward us,
offering love, and life, and all we need to become
the people God created us to be.
all Amen. Thanks be to God!

—Phil Kniss, July 30, 2023

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