Going Against the Flow
1 Peter 4:1-6
March 20, 2005
“Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin. As a result, he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you. But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit?” (I Peter 4:1-6).
Although it may not seem like it, this is an excellent text for Palm Sunday. I say that for three reasons:
First, this text forces us to confront the basic differences between Christians and non-Christians.
Second, this text reminds us that those differences can be seen in the way we live and the way they live.
Third, this text teaches us that to submit to the kingship of Jesus will pay off in the end, but it will never make us popular in the world.
It has been an amazing week in many ways. We began by contemplating a woman named Ashley Smith in Atlanta, who armed with nothing but the Bible and a copy of The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren, talked alleged murderer Brian Nichols into giving himself up to the police. Her courage cannot be questioned. Few of us would have had the presence of mind to stay as calm as she did.
As the week ended, the eyes of the nation focused on Terri Schiavo, a severely disabled woman who is being starved to death at the request of her husband. Certain facts of the case are beyond question. She is not brain dead, and she was not dying before the feeding tube was removed. Her own family wanted to keep her alive, but her husband refused. Unless Congress acts, she will slowly starve to death over the next few days. Christian leaders from across the spectrum have spoken out on her behalf, including spokesmen for the Vatican, James Dobson, John MacArthur and Joni Erickson Tada. Earlier this week, President Bush issued this statement:
The case of Terri Schiavo raises complex issues. Yet in instances like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws, and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life. Those who live at the mercy of others deserve our special care and concern. It should be our goal as a nation to build a culture of life, where all Americans are valued, welcomed, and protected, and that culture of life must extend to individuals with disabilities.
Ronald Reagan said it in a more folksy way some years ago. Suppose you are hunting in the woods and you see something moving but you don’t know if it’s a person or an animal, you don’t start shooting. You make sure before you fire a shot. That’s just common decency. You choose to protect life.
Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop warned us about the dangers of euthanasia in 1991:
While the terror of state-sponsored euthanasia may never grip America as it once did Germany, it is possible that the terror of the euthanasia ethic—tolerated by medicine and an indifferent public and practiced by a few physicians—may grip many invisible and vulnerable Americans. Over fifty years ago, German doctors and courts collaborated to identify millions of people who were labeled “devoid of value.” Some Americans are labeled the same today: members of a racial or ethnic “underclass,” a sidewalk screamer … an illegal alien … a nursing home resident with Alzheimer’s disease … an abandoned migrant worker … or anyone too old or weak or poor to help himself or herself. For two millennia the Hippocratic tradition has stood for the “sanctity” of human life …. As I have said many times, medicine cannot be both our healer and our killer.
On Friday a member of the Florida Senate used a powerful visual image as he spoke in favor of saving Terri’s life:
Here is $100 bill. If I were to crumple it up and throw it on the floor, if I were to wet and soil it, it would still be worth $100. Lives are like that. Some people’s lives are crumpled and wrinkled and thrown away by others, some lives are soiled but they are all still worth it. Life is worth it.
What is Terri’s life worth?
Also on Friday, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote a powerful column called “Barbarity in America.” This is how he begins:
I never believed that I would live in a country that would, in effect, execute a brain-damaged woman who never hurt anyone in her life. The story of Terri Schiavo should outrage every decent American. While our soldiers valiantly fight and die across the sea so complete strangers can enjoy human rights, here at home an American woman who suffered severe brain damage 15 years ago is being subjected to death by dehydration and starvation by order of a judge. Today, her feeding tube was removed. The humanity of every society is determined first and foremost by how it treats its most helpless citizens, and a nation that is prepared to murder a feeble and vulnerable woman who can breathe but not eat on her own must take a deeper look at the source of its ethics.
Here are his concluding words:
But woe to a nation that determines that the sanctity of life is determined by a capacity to feel emotion, memory or thought. Before he died, Ronald Reagan was so ravaged by Alzheimer’s that he had lost all memory and all capacity for cognitive thought. But could one only imagine a sane individual arguing that Reagan should have been denied food years before his 2004 death because he had become worthless? The same applies to millions of the elderly who inhabit our homes for the aged. A great many do nothing but sit in a chair or lie in bed with scarcely movement or memory. How far are we from a time when calls will go forth to deny them all food as well?
What comes to mind in the story of Terri Schiavo is the famous quotation of Pastor Martin Niemöller concerning moral failure in the face of the Nazis: “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I said nothing. Then they came for the Social Democrats, but I was not a Social Democrat, so I did nothing. Then came the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist. And then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did little. Then when they came for me, there was no one left to stand up for me.” Terry Schiavo has no voice, so we must become her voice.
I shudder for my country to think that such acts of barbarity can take place in the world’s foremost democracy and humanity’s guarantor of liberty and freedom.
The Majority Will Never Desire Truth
This is Palm Sunday. Most of us know the general outlines of the story. But I suspect that many of us have never considered the story in any detail. Why did Jesus ride into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey? Why did the people wave palm branches? Why did they cry out “Hosanna!” as he passed by? What does it all mean? Of all the events of Holy Week, the Triumphal Entry is the most-overlooked and least understood.
As a place to begin, let’s consider these words by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard:
The truth must essentially be regarded as in conflict with this world; the world has never been so good, and will never become so good that the majority will desire the truth.
On Palm Sunday, the Truth rode into Jerusalem on a donkey’s back. Although the crowds cheered the Truth, beneath the surface a conflict was raging. The majority did not want the Truth that day, nor have they wanted the Truth on any day since that day.
When Jesus neared Jerusalem riding on a donkey, great crowds greeted him. As Jesus passed by, people began waving palm fronds, a symbol of joy and celebration. We do the same thing today when we give our heroes a ticker-tape parade. When the Jews waved the palm branches as Jesus rode by, they were saying, “This is the man and this is the day!” It was the welcome given to kings and conquerors. “Ride on, King Jesus, no man can hinder you.” The people began to cry out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Hosanna literally means “Save us now.” It was a kind of “holy hurrah.” The second statement was a quotation from Psalm 118:26. By shouting these words, the people were in effect explicitly identifying Jesus as the promised Messiah. No other meaning could reasonably be construed from their exultant shouts. These people believed that at long last the Messiah had come.
They were right.
In the days to come some would look back and say, “If only we had known.” But after Palm Sunday no one could truly use that excuse. They knew! No one could ever say, “He didn’t make himself plain.” How could he have made it plainer? He made himself so clear that no one could miss it. On Palm Sunday no one was under any compulsion. The nation had a clear choice to make. So did the rulers. The Romans did nothing to interfere. The priests stood by and watched it all happen. Every man had a choice to make that day. For better or for worse, the die was cast. Jesus called for a decision and the nation rendered its verdict.
Kierkegaard gave us another penetrating word that applies to this moment in human history, and I don’t mean 2,000 years ago. What he said applies to this existential moment—March 20, 2005. These are words for today: “Jesus Christ is the object of faith—one either believes in him or is offended by him.”
Lessons from I Peter 4
This is where the words of Peter become profoundly relevant. They truly belong on Palm Sunday and for such a time as this. Peter makes three general points that we need to heed:
First, we will suffer as Jesus suffered and there is no escaping that fact. Here is verse 1 in the New Living Translation: “Since Christ suffered physical pain, you must arm yourselves with the same attitude he had, and be ready to suffer, too.” Our brothers and sisters in Sudan and China and North Korea hear that text differently than we do. It is only the grace of God that we have been spared the same kind of suffering.
Second, part of our suffering will come from rejecting a pagan lifestyle. Peter is very specific about this in verses 3-4. He mentions six manifestations of a pagan lifestyle—debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. If you think that Peter is overdoing it, you didn’t read the Chicago Sun-Times on Friday (March 18, 2005). They published part 1 of a series called “Sex on Campus: Hanging Out and Hooking Up.” Though the article focuses on the University of Illinois at Champaign, it could be describing Ole Miss, Texas, Penn State, Purdue, UCLA, Georgia Tech, or any public university and most private colleges in America. Here are a few quotes from an article called “Connect and Forget It”:
Chroniclers of 21st century college life—students themselves, as well as school administrators, health experts and pollsters—describe a booze-fueled, sexually charged campus environment marked by emotionless, too-cool-to-care hookups, low self-expectations and high pressure to “be normal” by sleeping around.
In one survey of 187 students at an East Coast school, 70 percent reported hooking up—having a brief sexual encounter, often with a stranger, devoid of any expectation of things developing into a relationship. … “There’s always been a lot of sex in college,” said Harvard psychologist Mark O’Connell. “It’s the quality of sex that’s changed. It’s increasingly disconnected. It’s a whole different mindset: ‘I had a beer last night, I hooked up last night.’ Sex just isn’t a big deal any more.” … “You have a whole life to be with [one] girl,” said a 22-year-old U. of I. frat member from Chicago. “This is your one shot to have a good time.” Added a 21-year-old U. of I. sorority girl from Springfield: “A lot of people feel like college is the only time when you can do what you want, and it doesn’t matter.”
Coming to college with previous sexual experience—as most undergrads today do —seems to affect attitudes. “I used to take sex more seriously in high school,” said Jenny Sabella, a 21-year-old Columbia College junior. “It seems like once it happens, it’s like ‘Oh, whatever. It’s just sex.’”
One student, a senior, did offer a cautionary note: “If you do it regularly enough, it feels empty after a while.”
I received the following email on Friday afternoon:
Have you seen the feature in the Sun-Times? I read it this morning and have been filled with profound sadness. The U of I at Urbana-Champaign is my alma mater. When I was there from ’93-’97, there was a portion of the student population that was getting to this point, but this was by no means mainstream. I think the writer of this article is correct when he or she says that while this type of behavior has been considered routine for college students for the past 30 years, the callousness and celebration of it is more of a recent and ominous development. It also speaks to a hardening of hearts among our young people, and this is what saddens me even more than the sexual aspect.
If our teens and college students and young singles, and for that matter, all of us who face sexual temptation every day, if we stand up for Christ and say no to the old way of life, verse four will come true for us: “Your former friends are very surprised when you no longer join them in the wicked things they do, and they say evil things about you” (NLT). Did you get that? Your “former friends” may not be your friends any longer because you don’t do what you used to do. You can’t have it both ways. You can either live with the pagans and adopt their morals and their lifestyle or you can live for the Lord. But you can’t do both at the same time. When you decide to go against the flow, don’t expect the world to give you a merit badge for courage.
This week I ran across an amazing quote from legendary shock rocker Alice Cooper. By the way, he married the daughter of Bill Goddard, former pastor of the First Baptist Church of Oak Park. Though you may not have heard the news, Alice Cooper became a Christian some years ago. Here’s the quote I found:
Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that’s a tough call. That’s rebellion.
He’s right on all counts. It’s a lot easier to get drunk and fool around than it is to follow Jesus Christ. You want to be a true rebel against the status quo? Become a disciple of Christ. Make him the Lord of your life. You’ll be going against the flow every single day.
Third, living for Christ brings its own reward, but we’ll have to wait a while to see it completely. Peter says in verse 5 that those who mock our faith will themselves see the judgment of God. Part of that judgment is the loneliness and emptiness of those who try to “connect and forget it.” The point is, unbelievers look at us and call us fools. God looks at those who reject him as fools, and he sends them to hell.
Our text ends with some good news. Those who believe the gospel will live with God forever. Verse 6 may sound confusing but it’s really a tremendous gospel promise: “For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.” The first part of that verse does not mean that we preach to the dead. It means that we preach to the living while they still alive so that when they die (having believed the gospel), they will go to heaven and not to hell. The world mocks those who follow Christ, and it doesn’t understand why believers do what we do. Even after we die, some people think we have wasted our lives. And I’ll grant you this much. Go to any cemetery and look at the graves, and you’ll see Christians and Jews and Muslims and Hindus and atheists and agnostics, and all sorts of people buried side by side. Death is the great leveler of the human race. Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief. We all die sooner or later. But death is also the great divider of the human race. The Bible says it is appointed unto man once to die and after that the judgment (Hebrews 9:27). First we die, then we face God in judgment. Verses 5-6 tell us that when we face God, the judgments of this life will be reversed:
· Those who got away with murder will be brought to justice.
· Those who supported the killing of the unborn will not be able to wipe the blood from their hands.
· Those who perverted marriage will have to answer to Almighty God.
· Those who promoted casual sex will find their days of pleasure have come to an end.
But that is only one side of the ledger:
· Those who stand for mercy and justice to the “least of these” (such as Terri Schiavo) in Jesus’ name will reap their reward.
· Those who suffered for Christ and died for their faith will receive the martyr’s crown.
· Husbands and wives who kept their wedding vows will be glad they did.
· Those who lost their jobs because they would not compromise their faith will receive a hundredfold in return from the Lord.
· Students who remained pure because of their commitment to Jesus will see his smile.
· Single moms who sacrificed everything to raise their children for Christ will find that the Lord has not forgotten them.
· Missionaries who served in lonely, dangerous places will find a hero’s welcome.
I love the last phrase of verse 6. One translation says, “their spirits will live with God.” It reminds me of those majestic words of Martin Luther (from the hymn “A Mighty Fortress”):
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.
King Jesus Comes to Oak Park
Now it is Palm Sunday and once again Jesus comes to us as he came to Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. The King comes riding on a donkey. What will you do with Jesus? Where Jesus Christ is involved, no one can wait forever. No one can sit on the fence forever. There comes a time when a decision must be rendered for or against the Son of God. In spiritual matters, not to decide is to decide. To say “not now” is really to say “no.”
It’s not enough to be interested in Jesus. Spiritual neutrality is a temporary way-station, not a permanent destination. No one stays there forever. Kierkegaard was right. “One either believes in him or is offended by him.”
There is a time to think and a time to decide; a time to be silent and a time to speak; a time to discuss and a time to make up your mind. There is a time to consider your options and a time to get on the side of righteousness. Palm Sunday reminds us that each of us must sooner or later make up our minds about Jesus Christ. Psychologist Rollo May offers a very helpful word at this point:
The reason we do not see truth is not that we have not read enough books or do not have enough academic degrees, but that we do not have enough courage.
Christ comes again and again to the human heart. Each time a verdict must be rendered. Look! He’s coming down Lake Street. Jesus has come to Oak Park. Your King has come. What will you do? Will you join with those who crucified him or will you join with those who cry out “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna!”?
Will you have the courage to go against the flow?
Will you have the courage to stand up for what is right?
Will you have the courage to go with Jesus all the way to the cross?
If we live, we live.
If we die, we die.
But whether we live or die, we belong to Jesus. His name is on us. Our future is secure. “The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever.”
Our greatest need is for courage to make the right moral choices. When the time comes to take sides with Jesus, all you need is enough courage to do the right thing. The Palm Sunday invitation is not to believe but to be brave.
O Lord, give us Christlike courage for these momentous, world-shaking, amazing days. Amen.