Sunday, August 6, 2023

Phil Kniss: It’s the gospel truth!

Telling true from false
2 Peter: True to the Root
2 Peter 1:16-2:2, 15-19; John 15:4-5

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

...or download a printer-friendly PDF file [click here]

...or read it online here:

I promised last Sunday,
that in my second sermon from 2 Peter,
we would slog through some pretty harsh and polemical words
from the letter writer.
I also suggested there might be a way to better understand the context,
so that we could actually appreciate this text a bit more.
Let’s see how we do on that.

And just to up the ante,
let me read a few more verses from chapter 2
that our lectionary skipped over
for reasons that may become apparent as I read them.

Beginning at v. 12—
“These people [referring to the false teachers] . . .
are like irrational animals, mere creatures of instinct,
born to be caught and killed.
They slander what they do not understand,
and as those creatures are destroyed, they also will be destroyed,
suffering the wages of doing wrong.
They count it a pleasure to revel in the daytime.
They are blots and blemishes,
reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you . . .
[etc, etc, then picking up at v. 21]
It would have been better for them
never to have known the way of righteousness
than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment
that was handed on to them.
It has happened to them according to the true proverb,
“The dog turns back to its own vomit,” and,
“The sow is washed only to wallow in the mud.”

“The Word of the Lord, thanks be to God.”
Do any of you still wonder why 2 Peter
doesn’t get preached from very often?

But what’s actually going on here?

Well, let’s start by just noting that there is a cultural difference,
between then and now,
in terms of the value of “polite discourse.”
In the church today,
we couldn’t speak like that publicly,
without being dismissed for violating basic norms
for acceptable public speech.
It sounds just mean-spirited to our ears.

But then, read some writings of our Anabaptist forebears.
Even in the 16th-century,
when gospel truth was at stake,
Anabaptists did not hold back their tongues.
They may not have picked up a sword.
They were not physically aggressive.
But their words were sometimes quite sharp.
So let’s just admit a cultural difference,
in what is an acceptable way to speak.

let’s think about what was likely happening
in these churches that 2 Peter was addressing.

To repeat briefly from last Sunday,
the recipients of this letter
were likely churches emerging in mostly urban areas
around the Mediterranean,
where Greek and Roman culture and values dominated.
These newer churches were being formed
by Hellenized Greek-speaking Jews
(that is, Jews who had already
drifted far from their roots in Jerusalem)
and by Gentiles who had no roots
in communal Hebrew and Jewish values.
And—most importantly—
this was when the written accounts of the life of Jesus—
our Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—
were only beginning to be written down and passed around.
No one, yet, thought of those writings as scripture.
Same for the letters of Paul.

So, the place of Jesus in the church was at risk.
It needed to be defended.
What did Paul mean by calling the church the “Body of Christ?”
And did everyone agree that “Christ,”
the Messiah being referred to,
was the very same Jesus of Nazareth,
the Jew from Galilee,
whose earthly life ended on a Roman cross?
Could the folks gathering around the Roman Empire,
continue to trust that Jesus had it right,
back there in Jerusalem?
Was Jesus, indeed,
not just a renowned prophet who paid with his life,
but also the Anointed One,
the Son of God?

The answer was disputed, especially in the heart of the Roman Empire,
far away from Jerusalem.
So yes, the place of Jesus in the church needed a vigorous defense.

Because, apparently, this was more than doctrinal drift.
These were communities, in some cases,
led by influential leaders who had lost their trust in Jesus,
and were enamored by their own growing wealth and power,
and began to lead the church with values and ethics
that resembled the excesses of the Roman Empire,
far more than the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

So at stake here in 2 Peter is not just something
you could describe as doctrinal heresy.
This was a denial of basic moral responsibility.
It’s one thing if the conflict is over theological differences only,
if you are contending over the exact words used
to describe the nature of God and humankind.
It’s another whole level of urgency,
if leaders are pulling people away from Jesus altogether,
denying the validity of his ministry, his claims,
and saying his promised return is a hoax.
If so-called Christian leaders
convince their followers that there IS no moral code
based on the Hebrew tradition of Torah,
and enhanced by the life and teachings of Jesus . . .
if they openly embrace the values of the Empire,
and use wealth and power and sexuality
to exploit others for their own gain—
then there is something to stand up against, strongly.

Strong forces of evil demand strong words and actions in response.

So let’s be clear that the “false teachers” being talked about in 2 Peter,
are not merely teachers the letter-writer disagrees with.
They are teachers who have rejected the way of Jesus,
and have embraced the way of the Empire.

Understanding that context—
that the church was facing a deadly threat from within,
and that harsh discourse was more culturally acceptable—
I think we can actually appreciate the passion and love
the letter writer has for the church of Jesus Christ.
So I think we should cut him some slack.

In fact, let’s ponder, together,
whether his letter might even be seen
as something we could look to as inspiration for today.

Is that going too far?
Maybe. But maybe not,
given the extremes that we see today,
that get put out there in the name of Christianity,
that do not in the least resemble Jesus of Nazareth,
but look an awful lot like purely
secular, self-centered, circling of the wagons . . .
or that slap the name of Jesus right on top of
the same pile of racist and patriarchal language
that white-supremacists have used for generations . . .
or Christian nationalists,
that push for a so-called Christian nation-state
to advance the Kingdom of God?
At what point do we just stop and call them out as false?
as Christian pretenders?

The Christian church today,
is no less at risk, than was the church of 100 A.D.
We are also growing up in places far away from our roots,
immersed in the values and practices of the Empire,
of a way of life that honors wealth, exploitation,
self-indulgence, abuse of power, and violence.
The church and the Empire are incompatible.
They are just as much at odds today in our world,
as they were in the first-century Mediterranean world.

Let’s not be fearful of calling a spade a spade.
If looks an Empire, quacks like an Empire, walks like an Empire,
it’s an Empire.
And we should be able to say so,
in the spirit of a biblical prophet.

But if it looks like Jesus, talks like Jesus, and walks like Jesus,
it’s Jesus, and we can embrace it.

And of course, caution is in order.
We should use words carefully, and judiciously.
We should use a tone of voice that people can actually hear,
instead of shutting us off prematurely.
And we should be humble enough to know
we sometimes don’t see the whole picture.
But there is a place for speaking truth, and not apologizing for it.

But let’s choose the right things to get urgent about.
These days, it’s easy to get fired up and mean-spirited
about anything we believe in.
Let’s reserve the open calling out of others,
for those so-called Christians who have actually,
and verifiably,
rejected the character of Jesus revealed in scripture,
not those we just have disagreements with.
Doctrine and lifestyle and political differences,
we can and should sort out,
with honesty, humility, clarity, and kindness.
But denying the life and witness and character of Jesus?
Using Jesus as a prop for violence, nationalism,
and racist ideology?
Then, bold, prophetic words and witness are much needed.
And we, as a church, should be ready to stand up and speak out.

Let’s bring our whole-hearted and whole-bodied commitment to Jesus
with us whenever we gather as a church.
And especially whenever we gather at the table of communion.

The table is a place steeped in symbols of conflict—
the broken body and shed blood of Jesus.
At the table, we are reminded of the cost
of standing up and speaking out.
We are also reminded of the new life and healing that is possible,
when the real human Jesus, and the risen Messiah,
is host at the table, and invites us to come and dine.

—Phil Kniss, August 6, 2023

[To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below]

No comments:

Post a Comment