St Barnabas and St Michael’s 8th July 12
Reading – 1 Peter 5:1-7
What does it mean to deny Jesus?
I guess when we think of denying Jesus our minds go back to that incident in John’s gospel where Peter denies being one of His disciples. And if we’re being brutally honest with ourselves, I believe we can all think of examples where we’ve been too embarrassed or awkward to say that we go to church or that we’re a Christian. Over these past few weeks we’ve been thinking a lot about living as believers in a hostile world, and as we’ve seen sometimes it’s tough to remain faithful. I can only take heart from the fact Jesus still forgave Peter and appointed him to be a church leader, who many years later would write this letter we’re looking at today. If there’s hope for Peter, it strongly suggests there’s hope for us even when we let Jesus down quite so badly.
However the more I’ve been reading Peter’s letter, the more I’ve begun to realise it is perfectly possible to deny Jesus in rather less obvious ways. To deny Jesus isn’t just about what we say when someone asks, “Are you a Christian?” Denying Jesus is also a question of how we live day by day, and whether there’s a gap between what we believe and the way we behave. And it’s an important issue to address, not only for the sake of our own relationship with Jesus, but also for our witness as believers. In the words of the well-known question, “If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” If there’s little sign in the words we speak or the things we do that Jesus makes a difference, that, I hold, is also a form of denial.
So to deny Jesus is, first and foremost, not to practise what you preach.
Last week we took delivery of four rescue hens. They had spent the first eighteen months of their lives being intensively farmed in a barn. And they were in a pretty sorry state by the time we got them. Most of their tail feathers are missing, and they have bare patches fore and aft. Because they are used to fighting to get to their food, they are pretty feisty characters, all apart from one, who is a lot smaller because clearly she couldn’t compete as well.
For obvious reasons we haven’t yet put them in with our other hens which we’ve looked after since they were point of lay. These hens by contrast have all their feathers, their combs are red and healthy and although there is a clear pecking order, generally we don’t have a lot of scraps.
Now of course the farmer who owned the barn hens had to make a living. His first concern was to get the most out of his birds and so he farmed them intensively. He needed to make a return on his money, and he was probably under pressure to produce eggs at as low a price as possible.
But whether or not you think that is the right way to treat hens, Peter in our reading today is clear that’s not the right way to act as shepherd to God’s people.
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow-elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.
Sadly the fact Peter’s words are still relevant today reminds me there are still cases when church leaders exploit congregations or only grudgingly serve those in their care. Peter’s words are a reminder that if you are called to any form of church leadership you called to follow Jesus, otherwise you undermine the very gospel of love and reconciliation you are supposed to be preaching.
Now it would be very easy for me to start denouncing other church leaders and other churches but I am all too aware that in the words of the old saying when you point one finger at someone else you have three fingers pointing back at you. The danger in any church leadership is that it becomes about power, and about being right. That’s why as I celebrated the 13th anniversary of my ordination this week I took time to reflect on the fact first and foremost I was ordained as a servant, as a deacon, and Peter’s words are words to me, to be willing, to be eager to serve, to be an example to the flock.
But I also want you to be aware that in Peter’s time the word elder didn’t refer just to a church leader. The word elder simply meant someone who had maturity in the Christian faith. And so, if I may, I’d just like to talk to those of you here who have been going to church for 20, 30, 40 years. Because there is a sense in which you too are the elders of the church, and you too play a part in providing an example to the rest of us.
So when a newcomer to the faith or to this congregation comes in, do they see someone very busy with church things but who perhaps over the years has lost that eagerness and joy in serving the Lord? Or when they ask you about your faith, do you talk about an ongoing relationship with Jesus that is growing deeper year by year, or do you claim that you still don’t actually know that much?
Now I am trying to be very careful in how I phrase these questions. You are the backbone of the church, and your great level of commitment keeps our churches going. But is there still that same spark that fired you when you first believed or is it perhaps a distant memory? It’s when you end up running on memories that you can end up serving Jesus out of duty and habit rather than love and obedience. And the last thing I want is for anyone to drift away and maybe in the end deny Him altogether. Christians who have lost their first love are not great witnesses for the Lord.
Secondly, to deny Jesus is not to take on board what you have been taught.
Unfortunately this point has been made rather obscure by the translation of verse 5: Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. In the first place, Peter is not talking exclusively to men, as if his command did not apply to women. Secondly, that phrase “those who are older” is simply the same word as “elder” as in verse 1. So Peter is not talking here about the way different generations relate to each other. Rather he is saying something like: In the same way you who are younger, submit to the elders.
Now I think we have to be very clear what Peter is saying here. Peter has already spelt out that Christian leadership is not about power and domination. So any idea that Peter is suggesting that elders should dictate how younger believers live their lives is not in view here. In fact I would go further and say that a real warning sign that all is not well in a church is when leaders use their position to manipulate and control the lives of their followers. It’s at that point that a church starts to go down the road of becoming a sect or a cult, and the ministry becomes a total denial of the freedom we enjoy in Christ.
But at the same time, we can say that at the very least those who are young in the faith should be willing to learn and to be taught by their elders. You can’t have submission if people aren’t taking on board what is taught. And while that’s a very obvious point, I think it’s one that needs to be driven home.
You see, it’s interesting when people talk about church, they often will talk about the worship or the music, or the tea and biscuits afterwards, or the prayer time. But I have noticed how rarely the teaching is mentioned. I hope this is because there’s nothing wrong with the teaching, and it is making a difference. After all, let’s not forget the central purpose of church is for the people of God to gather round the word of God. The message of the Christian faith is that we have a God who speaks using language we can understand. How do we know this? Because of Jesus, the Word of God, whom we can know and love through the Bible, the words of God.
And to be a disciple means to learn more and more each day, each week about Jesus. Now of course in one sense the Christian faith is very simple. It’s about Jesus dying in my place for my sins so that when I believe and trust in Him I can be forgiven and have a new relationship with God as Father. I hope that’s not news to anyone here this morning – if it is, please see me afterwards! But while the good news is very simple, it takes a lifetime to understand even part of all that Jesus is, to grasp the height and length and depth of His love for us, and to work out what it means to serve Him. So we should look forward to learning more about Jesus, through the Sunday sermon, through our GIFT groups, through our daily devotions. They are not optional extras for keen or experienced Christians. If we are to remain faithful to Jesus, we need to be eager to learn more about Him.
I love the account in Acts of Paul teaching in the Greek city of Berea. Acts 15, verse 11 tells us: Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. We need more Bereans today – people who examine the Bible every day and weigh up what they are being taught. Because submission to the word of God is how we stay faithful to Jesus.
As you can see, there is much in Peter’s words that is challenging to us today. He is presenting a radical vision of the church where there is genuine servant leadership, and a genuine hunger to know more and more of the Lord. He is expecting those mature in the faith to be examples, and those who are newer in the faith to be ready to learn and to be taught. But that of course can only happen when there is good communication in the church, when people know and trust each other, when there aren’t egos clashing with each other and jostling for position.
That is why Peter moves on to the whole question of humility. Now I preached on the whole theme of humility last year when we were looking at the book of James because, interestingly enough, James includes this same quote from the book of Proverbs at almost the same point in his letter: God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.
Clearly this was an important verse in the early church and it’s not hard to see why. Because to deny Jesus also means to put self first. And that’s what pride is – putting yourself first, making yourself the focus of your thoughts, not relying on God or other people. Pride is the great enemy of the Christian faith, and it is something that we have to watch for again and again, because it crops up in all kinds of situations.
Let me give a personal example. Sometimes in the midst of a busy week I find myself with a great big long list of things to do. The great temptation is to try and rush at everything and get as much done as possible. Over the years, though, I’ve learnt that rushing to tick items off the list means I don’t do things as well as I should. I still haven’t completely cracked the problem, but I have seen that when I let God set the agenda, when I slow down and ask Him what He wants me to do, I seem to become far more effective. I shouldn’t be surprised, but it’s a lesson I need to keep learning. Learning to rely on God and not on myself is something that goes against that natural streak of pride all of us have.
My next big challenge – and it’s one again that I’m slowly learning – is also to start to depend on other people. Those who know me well know I have a very independent character and I often think it would be easy or quicker to do things myself. In the short-run it may be, but actually I am part of the body of Christ. We should be humble enough to admit we need each other’s gifts, that if we are going to build the kingdom of God in this place we should be working together, and we all have a role to play.
All of you, clothe yourselves with humility towards one another, because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Peter isn’t talking about putting on an air of false modesty. He is simply telling us to say to the person next to us this morning, “You are my brother or sister in Christ. As part of God’s family we belong to each other. I need you and you need me”. Which is why we share the peace one with another each week, to affirm our unity in Christ.
Now I began this morning with a rather negative question: what does it mean to deny Christ? But I want to finish by putting that question rather more positively: what does it mean for us to affirm Christ, to provide the evidence that we follow Him? Peter gives us the answer: that we practise what we preach, that we take on board all we have been taught, that we humbly depend on God and on each other. And when we do this, I believe we will start to see God at work in all kinds of mighty ways and we can claim the great truth of His promises at the end of our reading, promises that are for all God’s faithful people.
Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.
Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.