6th Sunday of Easter – 5/17/2020
It's tough to be a Christian today, isn't it? Not that it has ever been easy. Everyone and his or her mother seem to fashion themselves as preachers of righteousness. They might never go to church or have ever really read and studied the Bible, but, boy, howdy, they profess to know exactly what you and I ought to think, do, and how we ought to live. As we have all found out most recently in the throes of this latest pandemic, I'm not just talking about your peers or friends, or even the plethora of television preachers. I'm referring to many of our elected officials. They lecture you and me almost daily on who Jesus is, what it means to be a Christian,... how Jesus wants us to love our neighbors, and, of course, that if we truly love Him as we say we do, then we will obey their every command and order.
Rarely do their words and rhetoric square with what the Bible says. As a consequence, their preaching often puts us in quite a predicament. Many times we are forced to contradict them by pointing out the truth of what God says in His Word: who the real Jesus is, what sort of salvation He came to bring into our world, as well as how He expects us to truly love our neighbors.
Sometimes this necessitates that we even take stands and positions that are in direct defiance of these self-proclaimed preachers of righteousness. The result is that they do their best to ridicule us, silence us, marginalize us from the rest of society, and maybe even physically attack us. It is not easy to be a round peg in a square world!
Our Epistle lesson this morning is just the ticket for us. It is a portion of the Apostle Peter's first letter. Peter addresses his letter to, yes, the Elect of God, that is, believers in Jesus Christ, but also to those who are residing as aliens in this world and find themselves, because of persecution, scattered throughout the world.
Peter writes to encourage his readers to rejoice in the inheritance laid up for them in Jesus Christ, "though now," he says, "for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials." (1 Pet. 1:6) He then goes on to acknowledge to them that God uses such trials as a sort of "testing by fire" so that in the end their faith "may be found to result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 1:7, NASB).
Just before our text, Peter instructs his readers that even though their lives are rough, it is still imperative that they live their lives in a godly fashion, honoring both Christ and His Word. He then asks them, almost rhetorically, "Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?"
Oh, boy, that is a loaded question if I ever heard one! Yea, I ask you, fellow sincere followers of Jesus, in our most godless and promiscuous world today, "Who would harm you if you were bold enough to live your life according to the commandments and the principles the LORD has laid down in His Word?" Who? At times, it appears that everyone! Some seem to think that they have a divine right to oppose, hassle, and persecute all the "goodie-two-shoes" in this world. More and more public policies and laws seem to be specifically targeting Christians and Christian groups to prevent them from espousing their long-held beliefs or carrying out their various ministry programs. Most recently, under the guise of protecting public health, churches are being told not only how they should worship but also what they should teach and whether or not they can or cannot assemble to worship. More and more Christians are being ridiculed for their beliefs. Every year around the world, more Christians are being persecuted and murdered than ever before in our history. Being a Christian today is often more than simply a hard-luck life; it is a dangerous life.
But we hear Peter say, "But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed." Really? How can that be? It makes no sense whatsoever!
Be assured that the blessing, or even "happiness," Peter speaks of is more than simply the knowledge that, as one treated poorly and unfairly, you are in good company with Christ. Yes, it is a great honor to be treated as Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World, was treated. But the blessing Peter speaks of is found in what God has graciously given to you but has not given to those who persecute you. And that is your ace in the hole, dear friends!
All you need to do to find out is look at your baptism. Yes, you heard me right. I know we rarely think about our baptism. We might or might not even know the day we were baptized. We tend to look at it as some kind of right of passage in our Christian walks, but view it as no longer having any importance, meaning, or help for us now. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Peter is assuring you that your baptism holds the key to your happiness—your sense of true blessing in this world of tribulation, no matter what happens to you. You see, in your baptism, God has given you exactly what you need to live a righteous life in this unrighteous world and to boldly and joyfully give "a defense to anyone who asks you for the reason for the hope that is in you." In your baptism, God, in His grace, through Jesus Christ, has given you a "good conscience."
Now, lest you get confused, Peter uses the term "good conscience," not a "clear" or "clean" conscience as we might use the expression today. None of us, even those of us who have been baptized, can honestly say that our conscience is clean. Baptized or unbaptized, the Law of God convicts us daily of sin in thought, word, and deed. The Law of God points out that even what we might consider our righteous deeds are as filthy rags (Is. 64:6). Not one of us has pure or perfect motives for what we do. Our consciences are not clean!
But baptism is in no way designed to make us "clean" in the sense that we are guilt- and sin-free. No, Jesus instituted baptism to give us a good conscience.
What is a good conscience? It's a conscience that does not condemn us. It is a conscience that is right before God. Within it, there is no fear of God's wrath against sin. It is a conscience where the peace of Christ dwells and the solid hope of life with Christ Jesus lives and reigns. That good, great, wonderful conscience is yours!
As descendants of Adam, we face a real dilemma. We have inherited a bad conscience. Like Adam, we want to hide from God. We know only shame before Him. Yet, you and I cannot buy a good conscience to replace it. It is also clear from God's Law and even our own experience that not one of us can earn a good conscience or build it on our own. If we could, we would not need baptism or Jesus. We could think or work our way to a good conscience before God. So what can be done?
God, in His grace, acts on our behalf. He gives us His Son and saves us with water. Peter states: "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water." "Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him."
Your good conscience before God stems from only one place: the cross of Jesus. The Son of God came into this world and took on the flesh of your flesh for one reason only: to suffer the punishment due you, the righteous, for the unrighteous, to justify you before His Father in Heaven.
The proof that He was successful on your behalf is made clear in His resurrection from the dead. As St. Paul writes at the end of Romans chapter four, "(He) was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification." The resurrection of Jesus is unmistakable proof that God has forgiven you.
Your conscience can then be at peace because your baptism has connected you to Jesus' resurrection. How is that? There is no way it can be temporary. Your baptism is separated from Jesus' resurrection by over 2 millennia. But God has connected your baptism to Jesus' resurrection through His word and power. Again, we quote the apostle Paul: "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?" We were therefore buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in the newness of life. "For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his" (Ro. 6:3-5).
God has, in His grace, brought you this saving rescue from your sin and its resulting good conscience through the holy waters of your baptism. Consider the saving flood of Noah's day for some perspective on water conservation. The flood of water represents the saving waters of baptism. The flood waters both drowned and saved, just as the flood of Holy Baptism did. One Lutheran theologian wrote: "Water was the means for destroying all the rest; that same water was the means for floating the ark with its eight souls." In those cases, water served as both a means of judgment and a means of saving. We may add that Christ also has the same effect upon men (Luke 2:34); "the Christ whom the damned saw in terror in hell (when Christ descended and preached to them) is the same Christ who is our hope in heaven" (R.C. Lenski, p. 169).
Just look at what this "good conscience" given to you in your baptism does for you now! As a baptized believer in Jesus Christ, Jesus has been "set apart" (sanctified) as Lord in your heart, replacing worldly idols, worldly values, and worldly things. Worldly threats and fear of what the world might do to you do not need to rule your heart. There is a new sheriff in town! Baptism drowned your enemies in the death of Jesus and lifted you into the boat of the redeemed of the risen Jesus. Having been saved in this flood, the crucified and risen Jesus Christ now rules and reigns in your heart and life. When you are ridiculed, slandered, hounded, and mocked, you can go about doing the best that you can to live a life that glorifies Jesus because you are assured that no matter who seeks to condemn you, you know it is not about being perfect but rather living in joyful humility, knowing that your failures and sins have already been paid for in the blood of the only Son of God.
At the same time, no matter who might seek to contradict you, belittle you, or threaten you, your baptism into Christ has left a good conscience in you, fully equipping you to give a gentle, respectful, yet firm defense of the hope that is within you to whoever asks. "For this good conscience is fully convinced that suffering for doing good, if that is God's will, is far preferable to suffering for doing evil." So we see in this morning's first reading from the Book of Acts, St. Paul's daring defense at Athens' famed Areopagus. He left no doubt about who the true God and Savior of sinners is in front of the elites of his day's wisdom, philosophy, and logic. He shared the truth of Christ unapologetically, without fear, and most respectfully and gently because, like you, he had been granted a good conscience before God through Holy Baptism.
Our text concludes with Peter saying this: "Jesus Christ... has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to Him."
The wicked and unbelieving can revile, slander, and mistreat you with all their might. But your conscience is good! You know who will have the last laugh! You were put to death in His death and raised to life again in His resurrection through your baptism. Your eternal life is tucked away in him. He now sits at God's right hand, subject to every power, entity, and being. How blessed you are! Amen.