04/12/2011 at 6.30pm
1 Peter 3
Jesmond Parish Church
A sermon preached by Ian Garrett
We come tonight in our series on discipleship to the topic of witness – which is Christian jargon for sharing the gospel about Jesus with people who don’t yet believe in him. And the person who’s taught me most about that is a guy called John Chapman, or Chappo as he’s called. He’s an Australian evangelist and some of you will remember him leading outreach weeks here with us. And he’s been such a significant figure that there’s a biography about him. So let me read you a bit:
In 1994, John was in England at Newcastle upon Tyne. He was again ministering to students, but the venue distinctly did not resemble the Guildhall at Cambridge or the Sheldonian Library at Oxford where he’d previously spoken. It was ‘The Boat’, a vessel moored under the Tyne Bridge. In his prayer letter John wrote: Monday night saw me on ‘The Boat’ [OK, so don’t say JPC doesn’t push the boundaries sometimes]. It’s a student watering hole with a revolving dance floor. Over 300 were there. It was classic. The music was so loud no conversation could be heard. Lights were flashing and dry ice was coming out of the floor so it looked like the vision in Isaiah 6. But when I got up to speak there was good listening. A couple of guys were drunk and started heckling but some of the Christians soon ‘bounced’ them. [He goes on:] I hated it, but the Christians loved it. I think I like the sort of evangelism where I’m completely in control and don’t have to trust God at all. Whereas he, in his kindness, keeps pushing me into new and scary places. (Chappo: for the sake of the gospel, Michael Orpwood)And the word ‘evangelism’ there just means communicating the gospel, the message about Jesus that we have in the New Testament (NT). And in the Bible God tells us that evangelism is the privilege and responsibility of every Christian. So let’s turn straight to tonight’s passage to see that – 1 Peter chapter 3 and v15:
But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. (v15)And that’s addressed to every Christian, not just to some, like John Chapman, who are especially gifted at evangelism. Having said which, we need to get right out of our minds the idea that evangelism equals preaching like this. Let me quote from Chappo’s excellent book Know & tell the gospel. He came to faith aged 16 and writes:
I embarked on a flurry of evangelistic activity. The family received the full blast and a small sermon was delivered at breakfast each day for months! Finally I remember my exasperated father saying one morning, ‘You don’t ever eat your breakfast at church do you? Then why must I always have church at breakfast?’ [And John Chapman comments:] It seems a reasonable statement as I look back on it some 30 years later, although at the time I thought it was a godless rejection of the gospel. (Know & tell the gospel, John Chapman, Matthias Media)So evangelism doesn’t mean trying to hold the floor for 10 minutes and splurge out the whole Christian message. It means trying to help people get the chance to hear the gospel – by whatever means.
And one of the obvious means is: inviting people along to an event where they’ll hear something of the gospel from someone else. That’s why we try to make Sunday services accessible for people who are still just thinking through what they believe. And it’s the principle behind a lot of our events – like House for our youth, and the Globe Café for internationals, and Christianity Explored Tasters – and, at this time of year, Carols by Candlelight – which is culturally the easiest invitation of them all. So, e.g., I remember one student called Paul bringing the entire university firsts football team along to Carols by Candlelight (he was captain, which probably helped). Anyway, I didn’t know him so I said, ‘Have you been coming to JPC long?’ And he said, ‘Yes, since my first year.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry I haven’t met you properly before.’ And he said, ‘That’s OK. I only come once a year for carols.’ So I said, ‘Have you thought of coming in between?’ And he said, ‘Well no – I’m not a Christian or anything.’ So I said, ‘But you brought your entire football team!’ To which he said, ‘Well, everyone should go to church at Christmas, shouldn’t they?!’ It’s the one time of the year when the culture is really on our side and wants to hear something – so let’s make the most of it.
So inviting people to an event is one means of evangelism. But then there are opportunities in conversation where it’s down to each of us to do the talking. And that’s what tonight’s passage is about. So take a look at 1 Peter 3, v13:
Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened. (vv13-14)So he’s on about the fear we naturally have that people might react negatively to our witness. And the Christians to whom this was first written knew all about that – just look on to chapter 4 and v2. Peter has just been talking about what it means for someone to turn to Jesus as Lord and he says:
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. (4v2-4)And in v4, aren’t those the two things we all, by nature, fear? What people will think of us if we live and speak for Jesus; and what they’ll say, how they’ll react. So, e.g., the Newcastle Uni students’ newspaper once ran an article headed ‘No sex, please we’re students’ – based on interviews with members of the Christian Union. Quote:
Chris, a second year, says, ‘When sex is not in the proper context of marriage, there is great potential for hurt, including sexually transmitted diseases and unfaithfulness.’ He seems confident making this statement, one which would cause intense discomfort if not outright ridicule in any student bar. But the Christian Union group appear indifferent to such mockery. [And it goes on:] To the average student… [their] attitude is inevitably subject to misunderstanding, not to mention disbelief. (The Courier, 18 May 1995)And by nature, we’re all afraid of what people will think of us and how they’ll react to us for what we believe and the way we behave. And that’s the first thing Peter helps us with. He says:
Firstly, BE MORE CONCERNED ABOUT WHAT JESUS THINKS OF YOU THAN WHAT OTHERS THINK OF YOU (v14b-15a)
Look down again at the end of v14:
Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened. But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. (v14)I.e., remind yourself that Jesus is your Lord and decide that he’s the one you want to please – even if it costs you the displeasure of others.
For example, a while back one of our students called James joined a rugby team and then found out that the new kit was being sponsored by a strip-club in town, and would have their logo on the shirts. And his team-mates didn’t give it a second thought. But he knew that, having Jesus as Lord, he couldn’t possibly advertise a strip-club. So he came to talk it through with me, and at the end of the conversation he said, ‘I already knew what I had to do, I just needed someone to help me decide to do it.’ So we prayed for courage for him, and for the Lord to take care of the consequences. And off he went to speak to the captain – not without some fear. Now in fact, the captain said he completely understood, and there and then phoned the company doing the shirts. And they were literally just printing James’ so they left the logo off it and he didn’t even have to buy a second shirt. But James didn’t know in advance that it would pan out like that – you never do in these ‘being a witness’ situations. He had to overcome his fears by setting apart Christ as Lord in his heart.
So when you’re facing a crunch point like that, in your heart set apart Christ as Lord – decide that he’s the one you want to please. When someone asks a question that gives you the chance to say something Christian, in your heart set apart Christ as Lord – and say it. Before you knock on a friend’s door or give them a ring to invite them to a Christian event, in your heart, set apart Christ as Lord – decide not that maybe you’ll invite them, but that you will invite them.
And if that just reminds you how you’ve blown moments like that, the first thing to say is: ‘Join the club – I’ll be President, you be Secretary!’ And the second thing to say is: remember that the apostle Peter, who wrote this, had blown it big time – but gone on to be a remarkable witness. You remember how he blew it – the night before Jesus died, when Jesus had been betrayed and Peter followed him to the courtyard of the high priest’s house where they interrogated Jesus. And a servant girl – nothing more threatening than that – said, ‘He was with Jesus – he’s one of them.’ And Peter denied it three times. And Luke tells us:
The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. (Luke 22v61)What kind of look do you think it was? Condemning? No. Like it says,
There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8v1)Loving? Definitely. But we’re not told exactly what the Lord Jesus’ look communicated. But I guess it stayed with Peter for the rest of his life, and that that moment taught him to be more concerned about what Jesus thought of him than what others thought of him.
And if you’re not yet a committed Christian but still just thinking about it, you need to know that it does involve being public about your faith, and that pleasing Jesus will, some of the time, cost you the displeasure of others.
The next thing Peters says to help us in this area of witness is:
Second, BE PREPARED TO SPEAK – IN BOTH SENSES OF THE WORD ‘PREPARED’ (v15b)
Look at v15 again:
But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. (v15)So Peter is thinking of the situation where you’ve been asked a question about why you believe what you believe – or it might be a question about why you behave the way you behave. E.g., last year my wife Tess’s father died. He was a Christian, and Tess and her Mum were at his bedside when the Lord took him. But it had become clear the day before that he was dying, so Tess’s Mum had asked that he be taken off all the drips and machines and so on and just left to go in God’s time. And that had a great impact on the staff around. One nurse said, ‘It’s so rare to see people do that. Almost everyone asks us to do something more – even when there’s nothing more to be done – because they just can’t face the fact that it’s the end.’ Now that wasn’t a question. But it’s an implicit question, isn’t it? There’s something there to answer. And Tess’s Mum was able to say that they were Christians, so they didn’t think that was the end of him.
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you. to give the reason for the hope that you have. (v15)So on the one hand, we need to be prepared in the sense of being willing to take the opportunity when the question comes.
Now one of the fears I still have is that the other person won’t want to talk about Christian things. And it is important to respect whether or not someone wants to talk or is interested in coming along to an event – because if they’re not, at least for now, it’s counter-productive to try to push it. But the great thing about being asked a question is that by definition you’re being given permission to speak. But then our next fear is that we won’t say it well, we won’t know how to argue for what we’re saying, or to cope with any of the arguments that come back at us. To which I want to say: just trust the Lord and say what you can – even if it’s just a one word answer. And if you don’t know the answer at all, just say you don’t – but that you’ll think about it and get back to them. Because that creates a new opportunity down the tracks.
Which brings us to the other sense of being prepared, as in being equipped – having thought about the gospel and how to explain it and how to answer questions about it. So one thing to say on that is: if you’re asked a question to which you don’t know the answer, don’t let that happen again with the same question. Find the answer – and you can ask Christian friends to help with that, or do ask any of us on the church staff. And one of the best equipping tools I can think of is the book I’ve already mentioned by John Chapman – Know & tell the gospel. But it’s important to say: nothing can equip us for all the questions that might come our way. We wish we could be 100% equipped because, as John Chapman said, ‘I think I like the sort of evangelism where I’m completely in control and don’t have to trust God at all.’ But in reality, you have to think on your feet – and half the time I think of what would have been a great answer the day after.
But the key principle in answering questions is to say something that gets you towards Jesus and what’s central to the gospel. So, e.g., it’s office Christmas party time and someone says to you, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen you drink more than one or two glasses of something – let alone get drunk. Why is that?’ Well you could say, ‘I don’t like getting drunk.’ But that doesn’t say anything Christian. So you could at least say, ‘Well as a Christian I don’t believe in getting drunk.’ Or to be more explicit, you could say, ‘Well, as a Christian I aim for Jesus to be in control of me rather than anything else.’ Try to get towards Jesus and what’s central to the gospel and see what they say – or whether they drop you and head for the other side of the room as soon as they can. That’s the risk isn’t it? ‘But in your hearts, set apart Christ as Lord.’
But what if no-one asks us any leading questions? Do we just passively wait? Well, no, I think the answer is: we should actively fish for questions. E.g., I was helping at the Globe Café one night and met this new Chinese guy. And I’d have loved him to ask, as his first question after the ‘What’s your name?’ bit, something like, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ But the chances of that were nil. And the question he actually asked was, ‘Why do you run this café?’ And I could have said, ‘Well, we enjoy getting to know people from other cultures.’ Which is true. But again, that doesn’t say anything Christian – so it’s not going anywhere Christian. So I said, ‘Well, as Christians we have two reasons: one is that Jesus wants us to show hospitality, and the other is that we love to get the chance to share what we believe with people.’ That was me fishing for the question, ‘Oh, so what do you believe?’ But instead of asking me that, he just said, ‘Well I have no beliefs.’ Which wasn’t a question. It was a statement of belief. And whenever anyone makes a statement of belief, you can always ask them questions about why they believe it – and see where that goes. So I said to him, ‘Do you really think you have no beliefs?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘So, e.g., what do you think happens when you die?’ And he said, ‘Oh, you just stop existing.’ And I said, ‘Isn’t that a belief?’ And he stared at me and said, ‘Well, yes I suppose it is.’ So I said, ‘And do you have any reason for believing that?’ And he thought for a moment and said, ‘No.’ And then he said, ‘Why – what do you think happens when you die?’ And there was a question that gave me the opportunity to something about the gospel.
So being asked a question gives you permission to speak. And so does a Christian event like Carols by Candlelight – because in a culture that generally avoids the subject of God, an event gives you permission to speak about him. And if someone’s come along with me, I always ask the question, straight afterwards, or on the way home or maybe next day, ‘So what did you make of the talk?’
Having said all that, it’s hugely important to say that there are situations where it’s wisest not to speak. E.g., at the beginning of chapter 3, Peter deals with the situation of a believing wife married to an unbeliever. Look back to chapter 3v1:
Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives… (v1)Now obviously people can’t be brought to faith in Jesus without any words at all, without hearing the gospel. So Peter must be assuming that the wife has tried to say something – tried to get her husband interested – but right now he just isn’t. In which case, trying to push it – like Chappo at the breakfast table – isn’t the way forward. The way forward is to live out your faith as consistently as you can and wait and pray for an opportunity down the tracks. And that principle applies to all close relationships – relationships with housemates, marriage relationships and family relationships – and especially Christian child to non-Christian parent relationships (where the witness of loving and honouring our parents is the key thing) and Christian parent to grown-up non-Christian child relationships. In all of those, saying too much is generally the mistake, rather than saying too little.
Then the final thing Peters says to help us in this area of witness is:
Third, BE CAREFUL HOW YOU SPEAK AND HOW YOU BACK IT UP WITH YOUR LIFE (v15b-16)
Look down, lastly, at the end of v15:
But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (vv15b-16)So the end of v15 says: be careful how you speak. It says: do it with gentleness – and the word in the original means not over-reacting or aggressive. Because Peter knew that some questions and comments will be hostile, will have an edge. E.g., ‘Isn’t it arrogant of you to believe your religion is the only way to God?’ Or, ‘I think every church is the same – full of hypocrites.’ And it’s easy to react in an over-argumentative way, or an aggressive way, rather than with gentleness.
But it also says: do it with respect. But that’s a bad translation because the word in the original is ‘fear’ as in v14. So this translation (the NIV) interprets it as respect for the person you’re talking to, but I think it’s talking about fearing God, in the Bible’s usual sense of respecting him and wanting to please him and not let him down. So make sure you answer in a way that does that. Which means not ducking the truth – e.g., if someone asks you whether there’s really a hell. And it means not bending the truth – e.g., don’t say the Gospels were written just a few years after the events when in fact they were probably written at least 30 years after. God doesn’t need you to make the gospel sound more credible at the expense of truth!
And then v16 says: do this keeping a clear conscience – i.e., being careful to back up what you say with your life. Not that any of us can back it up with a perfect life. But we can avoid undermining it with hypocrisy.
John Chapman is now in his eighties. And ten years back, on a sabbatical, I stayed with him in Oz. And one night I took him out to the Sydney Opera House for supper followed by a spot of Donizetti. And as we were having supper he announced that it was his birthday – his 71st. So I said, ‘Why aren’t you doing something bigger than this?’ And he said, ‘Well, they laid on a great big, surprise thing for my 70th – only they got the year wrong and I didn’t have the heart to tell them I was only 69.’ And that night I coaxed a raft of stories out of him about a lifetime’s evangelism, at the end of which I said, ‘Has it got any easier?’
And he said, ‘Ian, the answer is: stick at it; the first fifty years are the hardest.’
For more sermon transcripts visit http://www.church.org.uk