The Joy of Being God’s Witness
Rev. Kit Billings
April 17, 2005
I Peter 3:13-17
A Reading from New Church Doctrine
Heavenly Secrets 3986  Nevertheless they who are in the good of life, that is, who live in love to the Lord and in love and compassion (also called “charity”) toward the neighbor, are saved. That these can be saved is because the Divine of the Lord is in the good of love to God and in the good of charity toward the neighbor; and where the Divine is within, there all things are disposed into order...  Moreover the good of love to God and the good of charity toward the neighbor, however various may be the truths and the affections of truth, are nevertheless receptive of genuine truth and good; for they are so to speak not hard and resisting, but are as it were soft and yielding, suffering themselves to be led by the Lord, and thus to be bent to good, and through good to Him. Very different is the case with those who are in the love of self and of the world. These do not suffer themselves to be led and bent by the Lord and to the Lord, but resist stiffly, for they desire to lead themselves; and this is still more the case when they are in principles of falsity that have been confirmed. So long as they are of this character they do not admit the Divine.
We are now three weeks after celebrating Easter together—which means we are three weeks after singing life’s highest joy that God in His Divine-Humanity rose victoriously from His grave. The Lord gave us so much in His resurrection. He made it clear for us forever that He loves us so much that even when His own children choose to crucify and kill Him, out of His love for us the Lord shall always rise anew in life—thus He always chooses to still reach out and draw us toward Himself. Christ’s resurrection reveals His eternal mercy and willingness to forgive. Easter is the supreme celebration for the Christian heart and mind since we know for certain that our loving Lord and Savior is more powerful than hate, more powerful than evil. For He was “despised and rejected of men, and the world revered Him not. He was bruised for our iniquities, and through His stripes we are healed.”
Easter, and the many visits Christ made unto His fearful and cowering disciples, changed the eleven deeply. The Lord’s resurrection and His new ability to be with and support His followers like never before changed the disciples entire perspective about suffering for the sake of goodness and righteousness. As we read in Peter’s epistle this morning, there is truth in that pain and suffering in life are not the greatest concern for the Christian soul and mind—ultimately God in Christ is the supreme reality of life, and this has profound repercussions for those who grow in faith in the truths of Easter. In these forty days after Easter as we reflect and remember the many ways that Christ visited and taught and transformed not only the eleven and the women like Mary Magdalene, but also other apostles such as Stephen (whose story is revealed so movingly in The Book of Acts), who was martyred by being stoned to death for his belief and faith in Christ our Lord.
This morning I want to speak with you about how blessed we are to have been given our Christian perspective, to be alive in the Lord’s Divine-Humanity, which is always drawing us into His love…always drawing us toward that which is good. I also want to share with you on the deep joy there is in living as Christ’s witness.
In Peter’s third chapter lessons he begins by addressing the wondrous truth on what happens when we begin having genuine, personal encounters with (and an embrace of!) the abiding goodness that God keeps alive in life. And so Peter asks us this question this morning also, “Who will hurt you, if you are ardent lovers of goodness?” In asking us this question, I believe Peter was pointing Jesus’ followers to one of the most fundamental questions of life on what makes us really human—are we primarily physical beings, or are we spiritual beings who for a while are clothed with material bodies?
The truth as our New Church teachings drive home so well is that the real truth of life is that we are spiritual beings first and physical beings second. Peter’s question underlines what sort of affection for goodness is the mark of genuine Christianity. He was teaching that being wedded with the Lord draws us into a passionate affection for what is good in life. The Greek word Peter used here was “zelotes”, which is the root word for the term zealot! A zealot was a patriot who loved nothing more than his country or nation. He was willing to die for it. He was willing to suffer for it. He was willing to leave his wife, children or friends for the cause of saving his country from tyranny. Thus was the path of the true zealot. Peter and others had first-hand contact with them, and therefore he chose his words in this chapter purposefully. What Peter is saying is: “Love goodness with that passionate intensity with which the most fanatical patriot loves his country.” Sir John Seeley said, “No heart is pure that is not passionate; no virtue safe which is not enthusiastic.” As William Barclay said it so well, “It is only when a man falls in love with goodness that the wrong things lose their fascination and their power.”
Peter goes on to talk about the Christian’s attitude toward suffering. For many reasons life is going to have plenty of suffering, difficulty, stress and pain. I believe we can talk about at least two different forms of suffering, which have bearing on our reflection together this morning. First there is the suffering of our external mind or being, which comes about from physical distress, illness, death, sorrow, weariness of pain and body, and the concerns and stress of making a living here on planet Earth. But then there is suffering due to choosing to live as a Christian and therefore begin the journey of inviting the Lord inside of my inner self where many evils live within various forms of selfishness. Our Christianity may drive us into conflict with unpopularity, persecution, sacrifice of self for the sake of God and the greater good, the deliberate choice for living the “difficult way,” and the necessary discipline and toil of living a Christian and moral life.
Yet the truly spiritual person has a kind of inward blessedness that runs through it all. What is the reason for this undercurrent of bliss? Peter’s answer is Jesus Christ our Lord. The reality of the Lord risen and glorified is that His Spirit and power make it possible for us also to rise above the depressions, fearfulness and meanness that pain and suffering promote, which lead into finding a soulful peacefulness, goodness and love for God and others. In addition, the Christian is the person for whom God-in-Christ is the supremacy of life. While it can be tempting to make material things, worldly aspirations, money and popularity one’s top priority and interest, the Christian Way is one where the presence and power of the Lord is worshipped beyond all else. There is deep joy in discovering this blessed path, since everything natural and worldly can be taken or stripped away from us—but who can take the Lord our God away from us? Who can separate us from the love that is in Jesus Christ? Quite simply, no one. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Christian church in Rome, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:37-39)
Both Scripture and our New Church teachings reveal that God’s essence is LOVE, which is the same thing as saying that God’s essential being is goodness itself, which pours into creation and life through the Light that shines from that Love. Swedenborg wrote that the Divine of the Lord is this goodness…this Divine Love. Salvation stems from being personally engulfed by and spiritually wedded to the Lord who is Love. This love manifests in a growing love for the Lord and all other human beings. I appreciate how Swedenborg describes the difference between the two mindsets: “for [those who are being regenerated] are so to speak not hard and resisting, but are as it were soft and yielding, suffering themselves to be led by the Lord, and thus to be bent to good, and through good to Him. Very different is the case with those who are in the love of self and of the world. These do not suffer themselves to be led and bent by the Lord and to the Lord, but resist stiffly, for they desire to lead themselves; and this is still more the case when they are in principles of falsity that have been confirmed. So long as they are of this character they do not admit the Divine.” (emphasis mine)
Life will contain many forms of suffering: we encounter physical sufferings, the sufferings that come from living the life of Christianity, and also the sufferings that stem from our commitment to be led by the Lord out of our inherent self-centeredness and be bent toward the good in life, and through good toward the Divine!
Yet, to be sure, there will be times when the world calls you onto its hard-hearted carpet and asks you to explain yourself for this choice of meekness and gentleness. Peter addresses this real issue, in these words in our text this morning: “Have no fear of them; do not be troubled; but in your hearts give Christ a unique place. Always be prepared to make your defense to anyone who calls you to account concerning the hope that is in you; but do so with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”
As we remember the forty days after Christ rose from the grave and began spreading the best news of life, we are brought back into reflecting upon the marvelous calling we’ve been given—to also be witnesses in a world that does have many forms of stress and suffering, yet walk with an oceanic kind of peace and love in your hearts, which many are still hungering and thirsting for as well. In short, there is a powerful depth of security for Christians to enjoy, which is not daunted by the fact that we live in a threatening world. Our lesson in I Peter makes it so poetically clear that the best and most important joy of living is to be a growing witness of the meaning we feel and know in Christ risen and glorified. So when we suffer, we suffer together in the reality that God is living and in Jesus has made a more palpable home inside our hearts and minds. The early apostles and followers of the Lord illustrate the power and reality of when the Lord has made His home in us. You could lose everything natural and material, you could be beaten and ultimately burned at the stake, martyred for all to see. And then like Stephen cry out for all to hear, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin. Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” No one escapes suffering, but for the genuine Christian suffering cannot touch the things which matter most of all!