The following was written last month while I was on study leave but missed the deadline for the May Messenger – I decided it was still appropriate for June – despite the earlier context.
I am writing from the Mount Herman Christian Conference Center, where I am enjoying a week of study leave at the West Coast Presbyterian Pastor’s Conference. Although today was only the first full day of the conference, it was a very rewarding one. The morning leader is speaking on Paul, the pastor, and leading a study on 1 Thessalonians. In the evening our speaker is Anne Zaki, Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, Egypt.
It has been very interesting and moving to hear Anne’s discussion of what it means to be Christian in the context of Egypt and the Middle East, especially in light of the Egyptian Revolutions and the recent bombings of two churches on Palm Sunday. It was her address this evening (Tuesday) that really inspired this column.
In the morning Dr. J. Ross Wagner led a study on the opening of 1 Thessalonians, where Paul offers the following thanksgiving, “We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thess. 1:2-3 NIV) Did you notice the classic trilogy of Christian virtues: faith, hope and love? Look also at how Paul says these virtues are manifest in their lives. Faith, hope, and love if present in our lives should be visible in similar ways. Dr. Wagner also made the point that early Christians were not coming from a position of power. Whether Jews or Gentiles, they were often treated as outcasts by their families and social groups, having adopted a misunderstood faith that turned their allegiance and values upside down from the viewpoint of that culture.
In the evening, Anne built on this, sharing that while Christians are numerous in Egypt, they still live in the shadow of Islam. While Christians and Muslims live next door to each other, evangelism is an illegal activity that has severe penalties, and Egyptians who embrace Christianity face the same loss of family and social circles as was true in the 1st Century.
All the above is the context that Anne brought to a challenging look at 1 Peter 3:15-18a, a follow-up on our morning discussion of hope. “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. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” (NIV)
Those verses have a lot in them, so read them again! The first challenge is to set Christ apart as Lord, the one who is in control of our lives – not just a teacher, not just a friend, not just a savior… but our Lord. Yes, we all know that, but do we do that, all the time.
The second challenge as we return to that wonderful theme of hope is Peter’s admonition for us to always be ready to answer questions about our hope. Anne reminded us that as a disciple, Peter was the one who blurted out answers that were not always right… at least before Pentecost. Peter understood the importance of thinking our answers through, and getting them right.
I have frequently preached on the theme that our lives should have such a love and joy that people wonder why we are different. Here Peter says that our hope should also lead friends and neighbors to ask us about our faith. Anne said that in a land where evangelism is illegal, faith must be shared by living their faith, love, and hope in such a way that their neighbors ask about their lives. She said evangelism is illegal, but answering questions is considered polite. Of course one must be careful how the question is answered… and so in youth groups and Bible Studies, they practice, so if asked they can give a good account that will share and invite faith without crossing the line and being accused of evangelizing.
Can you imagine if we did that here? How would you answer if someone asked you about your positive outlook on life or the future? How would you answer if someone asked about your caring and forgiving nature?
Since this is already longer than the usual column, and it is getting late, I would like to close by repeating three more questions that were posed to us:
How can our personal lives reflect this radical hope, so that others will ask us questions?
How can our congregation reflect such radical living that our neighbors wonder what’s going on with those Presbyterians?
Do you hope in things, someone, or Someone?
Too often we put our hope in the right job, a better income or return on investments, a human relationship to give us meaning, a new car or something else that will give us that elusive sense of satisfaction. While some of those are great, none of them can be a lasting source of hope that will never disappoint. The true lasting source of hope is Jesus Christ, who alone can bring us salvation and give our lives meaning that will last beyond this life.
As you can tell from all the above, I’m having a great, but very thoughtful week. I hope God is blessing you this week as well.