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Easter: A Living Hope

A Living Hope

1 Peter 1:3-9


The great British author and neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote of his childhood religious experience with these words: There had been some religious feeling, of a childish sort, in the years before the war. When my mother lit the Sabbath candles, I would feel, almost physically, the Sabbath coming in, being welcomed, descending like a soft mantle over the earth.


But when I was suddenly abandoned by my parents (as I saw it), my trust in them, my love for them, was rudely shaken, and with this my belief in God, too. What evidence was there, I kept asking myself, for God’s existence? I determined on an experiment to resolve the matter decisively: I planted two rows of radishes side by side in the vegetable garden, and asked God to bless one or curse one, whichever he wished, so that I might see a clear difference between them. The two rows of radishes came up identical, and this was proof for me that no God existed. But I longed now even more for something to believe in.


St. Peter, the man who penned the words we are looking at this morning, knew a similar feeling. In Peter’s case, he thought he’d found something to believe in. In their three years with Jesus, he and his brother Andrew had seen the most amazing displays of power, had heard the most powerful teaching anyone had ever heard. They saw him multiply meager amounts of food until all present were satisfied and plenty was left over. They had seen him heal the sick and oppressed. They had even seen him show his power over nature by calming powerful storms.


Over time, they came to believe that this Jesus they were following just might be the Messiah they and their people had been waiting for not just for years, or decades, but for centuries. The one who would raise up a great army and lead them to victory over their oppressors once and for all. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, with the masses chanting for him, laying palm branches on the ground so that even the hooves of the animal he was riding would not touch the ground, had their hearts pumping. Now the time had come! The rebellion would start in Jerusalem and spread over the entire east coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Jesus was the Messiah, he was going to lead them to victory over the Romans, and they were going to be a part of it. Peter would be one of his generals for sure.


And then the bottom fell out. The rug got pulled out from under them, just like it did for Oliver Sacks, and maybe … for you and me. Ever feel like that? Ever felt like you had things figured out? I mean the really big things, the really big questions? Have you ever thought that you had a real handle on questions like “Why am I here?” “What’s the purpose of life?” Or even things like “I know where my life is headed?” “I know what I am going to do, or supposed to do?” Life is good. Everything is moving according to plan, And then he leaves. Or she leaves. Or you’re following a speeding ambulance to a hospital. Or you find a pink slip attached to your pay check. Or you’re driving to a section of town you’ve never been to pull a child out of the gutter. Or you find the suicide note. Or you flunk out. And just like that, nothing makes sense. The answers you offered yesterday don’t cut it today.


That’s how Peter felt. He strode into Jerusalem right behind Jesus, head up, chest out, his direction sure. A week later he ran hiding, bloodied and beaten with his tail between his legs. The conversation would haunt him forever. “Even if all of these other folks fall away and leave you, I never will Jesus. You can count on me. I’m here until the bitter end. If anyone tries to hurt you, I’ll defend you.” “I will lay down my life for you” (John 13:37). Jesus’ response had baffled him. “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you. The rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.” Peter thought he had proved himself too. When they came for Jesus in Gethsemane, Peter had drawn the sword he carried, had drawn blood. But instead of rising up to fight, Jesus knelt down, picked up the bloody stump of the man’s ear, and put it back in place, instantly healing him. Why didn’t a man with that kind of power, power obviously befitting the Messiah, rise up and fight? Why did he go along with them? Something didn’t add up. Then things went from bad to worse. He was the only one who rashly declared his loyalty to Jesus above all else, and he had denied he even knew the man three times that night. As the rooster crowed Jesus turned and looked right at him. He had failed. He knew it. Jesus knew it. Things would never be the same, even if Jesus managed to get out of this one alive.


And then he watched as Jesus was crucified. The one he’d watched heal so many. The one he’d seen calm a raging sea. The one who had taught with such power. Crucified like a common criminal. Killed by the very people he had come to help. Peter didn’t have any answers anymore. He had only questions. And the knowledge in his heart that he had denied knowing his best friend in his darkest hour. The only thing Peter knew was that he didn’t know anything. That he had gotten something somewhere very wrong. A life that made sense just a few days ago no longer had any rhyme or reason. Peter must have felt as bloodied and broken as the body of his friend hanging on that cross. This is the man, Peter, who is responsible for writing these words.


Read 1 Peter 1:3-9. What in the world happened to Peter, the great failure? More on that in a minute. For now, let’s look at the words he wrote.


In one really long sentence, he begins by describing the power, the majesty, the beauty of Christ, of the salvation he won for us when he died on the cross and rose from the grave. The words almost feel like they are tumbling out of his heart faster than his mind can process. They come gushing out. They are explosive, and there is a reason for that, for they are describing the explosive, life-transforming power of the salvation and renewal we have in Christ. This salvation is so powerful, so amazing, so beautiful, so dramatic that it can be described as nothing less than a new birth. A second chance at life. Rebirth into a new life.


Look at the words Peter used to describe this rebirth. Our new life in Christ is imperishable. That means that it won’t get stale. It won’t decay. Then he says that it is undefiled. In other words, it’s the real deal, unstained, completely pure and holy. And third, he says that it is unfading. Unlike the flowers you’ll cut this spring and put on the table in your kitchen, or the flowers you received on Valentine’s Day, it will never wither and die. It will not wilt and fade away. Taken together, these three words: imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, describe something that is permanent, something that cannot and will not die, no matter how hard the sands of time, the winds of change, and the trouble and pain of this life pound against it. It cannot, and will not, be destroyed. That which has been purchased by the blood of Christ and confirmed by his resurrection will not fade away. Your failures and mine cannot disable it, for they too are swept away in the flood of Christ’s spilled blood, and in the power of his resurrection.


Now, look at V. 5. As great, and transforming, and powerful as this new life is, you haven’t seen anything yet. The best is yet to come. For that which was inaugurated when Christ died on the cross and was raised three days later will be consummated when the battered, beaten, and bloodied Savior returns as the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. And the power of God at work in the empty tomb will guard and protect us for that day.


Now, Peter does not mean that bad things will not still happen to us, that we will not face trauma, tragedy, failure, and pain. In fact, he’s about to make that very clear. What he’s saying is that no matter what happens to us in this life, God will not let go of us, even when we no longer have the strength to hold on to him. His grip is strong and sure, and a guarantee that our last breath in this life will be followed by our first breath in the next, in his presence, welcomed by his embrace with the words “Welcome home child. Welcome home.”


And for Peter, salvation in Christ can be called nothing less than a “living hope.” Not a dead hope. A living hope. Not the kind of hope that says “I hope I win the lottery.” Or “I hope my child shapes up someday.” Or, “I hope things work out in my new job.” Those things are wishful thinking. The living hope Peter is talking about here is rock solid and grounded in the reality of Christ and his death and resurrection. But that does not mean we will not face incredible trial, that our faith will not be shaken to its core, that we will not waiver, that we will not stumble and fall. It means that God will not waver, that what he has done in Christ cannot and will not be shaken.


Look at V. 6. First we need to understand what Peter IS NOT saying. He is NOT saying that we rejoice no matter what is happening to us in life. He is NOT saying that we should be happy when life falls apart, or when we blow it big time. What Peter IS saying is that no matter what happens in life, we CAN rejoice in the firm hand of God holding on to us even when we have no strength left to hold on to him. The word “rejoice” does not mean that we have a continual feeling of happiness or that we deny the reality of pain and suffering. It means that we can, because of Christ, look forward to the time, no matter how dimly we may see it, when salvation is complete, when everything that is broken is made right. When every scar, no matter how deep is finally and permanently healed. Peter is not saying “just ignore the pain” or “just get over it” or “put a smile on your face no matter what happens.” He’s saying, “Trust me, God is not done writing the story yet. There is another chapter yet to be written. You don’t have to like where you are now. But know that death itself does not get to have the final word. And you won’t believe the way the story ends.”


Peter makes two promises here. The first is that God’s saving work in Christ is secure, no matter what we face. The second is that we may face incredible pain and suffering in this life. But the good news of Easter is that our pain, our suffering, the tragedies we face do not get the final say.


Now, look at V. 8. The important thing is not what we can see, our pain, failure, and struggle, but what we cannot always see. And that which we cannot always see is the strong arm of our Savior holding on to us no matter what we face.

So what happened to Peter anyway? What was it that caused this brash braggart who could talk the talk but couldn’t walk the walk, who failed miserably, to write these words three decades later? On that first Easter morning, three women who were followers of Jesus went to his tomb to anoint his body with spices. And when they got there, they found an empty cave, with the cloths that had wrapped the body of Jesus carefully folded and laying where his body had been laid, and an angel sitting next to the cloths. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples AND PETER that he is going before you to Galilee” (Mark 16:6-7).


Tell his disciples … and Peter. I want Peter to know something. Tell his disciples … and Peter. Tell Peter that his denial does not define him. Tell Peter that his failure is not final. Tell Peter that the story is not over, that the final chapter has not yet been written. Tell Peter that the one he denied with a curse will not deny him. Tell Peter that Jesus is alive, and that changes everything.


And so Peter found himself on a beach by the sea eating breakfast with Jesus (John 21). And when breakfast was over, the resurrected Christ leaned over to Peter and asked him, “Do you love me more than these others do? Do you love me more than anything else?” How those words must have stung. The word Jesus used here was the word for the highest level of love, the kind of love only God is really capable of. It was the kind of love Peter claimed to have for Jesus when he said even if all these others forsake you, I will not, but that was before. Before the betrayal. Before his denial. No longer did Peter think he could love his Lord like that. No more bragging. No more posturing. No more high and lofty words. Peter was a broken man. He had failed miserably, and he knew it. So when he answered Jesus, his words were, “Lord, you’re like family to me. I love you like a brother.” He no longer claimed to be better than anyone. The look on the face of his beloved Messiah as he turned toward Peter the second he denied knowing Jesus for the third time still haunted him.


A second time Jesus asked him, “Do you love me above all else?” Ouch. And a second time the broken Peter answered him, “Lord, you know I love you like family.” Peter was saying, “This is all I’ve got. I messed up. I blew it. I turned my back on you to save my own skin. I’m broken. I know it isn’t much, it certainly isn’t worthy of you. But it’s all I’ve got.” And so Jesus looked at Peter with love and said, “Peter, am I like family to you? Do you love me like a brother?” He said, “Peter, I know you’re broken. I know you’ve messed up big time. I know you think you blew it for good. But you’re willing to give me the mess that you’ve got, and that is all I’m asking of you.” “Peter, do you love me like family?”


And in that moment, Peter knew that his failure would not define him. That the chapter written on that dark night a few weeks prior was not the end of the story. That he was no longer living in a “one strike and you’re out” kind of world. He had been reborn. And the words he wrote in this letter, a letter written to believers struggling to remain faithful when all they could see was grief, was Peter’s own story. In that moment, Peter experienced for himself what he could only call a living hope. And that living hope transformed him. Peter, the brash braggart who was all bark and no bite, who denied knowing his best friend in his darkest hour, who blew it on a public stage for all the world to see, who believed, like many of us do, that in this life its one strike and you’re out. Peter found out that he too could experience a rebirth. That he would get another at bat. And so can you.