The Christian Ethic: in the shadow of eternity
A Homily for the Sunday after Ascension
June 2, 2019
All Saints Anglican Church, Prescott, AZ
Text: 1 Peter 4:7-11
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
As I was reading about the second lesson we read this morning from St. Peter’s epistle one commentator titled this section “the life lived in the shadow of eternity.” I think that is a beautiful way to approach the passage – for this is our call – that we would let our lives burn for Christ in the shadow of eternity. This answers the first question about the text that we might have this morning: What exactly does this have to do with the Ascension? Ascension Sunday sits between Ascension Day and Pentecost. A time of waiting for the Apostles, and acts as a poignant reminder that we are both called to wait on the movement of the Holy Spirit, but also that we are in a time of waiting – waiting for the end of all things to finally come.
It is this statement that St. Peter starts with and has boggled many a theologians. How can the end of all things be at hand – nearly two thousand years ago – and yet Christ has tarried. There are three ways that this has traditionally been answered over the years – I think all three have merit and are worthy of both consideration and acceptance.
First is the simplest explanation. Here St. Peter is talking about the end of the first covenant – that soon, even the Temple would be destroyed, and sacrifices of animals would no longer be possible, and the diaspora would be spread throughout the world. The saint is thought to have died in 54 AD, and this letter was probably written in the early 50s. That would mean that less than 20 years after his death the temple would fall. So – the end of that system was in fact at hand.
Next - we live in this time of tension – this time of already, but not yet. This theme has been introduced from time to time here. But – first we must understand what has been completed. With Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension the world cataclysmically shifted. No more do we dwell in the shadow of death, no more are those who follow Christ slave to the passions of the flesh, to the ways of the world – but captured to Christ and invited to walk day and night with God.
With Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven – it is indeed finished. The end has come – death no more has dominion. Yes, death comes, and that will be important as we carry on – but the end of all things is at hand. It has been for two thousand years. We no longer live under the fear of the eternal death that comes from sin – but the death we will all inevitably face is only for a moment and then at Christ’s return will we join with all the saints singing praises unto his name.
The kingdom of heaven has in fact come – though only a taste of it is here today. It is this idea of already but not yet – already through a mirror dimly we see the things to come – we see them in the charitable hearts of our fellow Christians, we see them in the mercy and grace we experience from God in Christ, we see them in the sacraments, we see them when we open scripture and read the word of God, we see the kingdom of heaven time and again as we act as the church is called to do.
Finally – the hardest part of this – the end of all things is at hand acts to remind us that we will all face death. At some point in time in this life we will cease to be – that which we held dear, all which we possessed, all which we have done will cease to be important to us – and we will cease to be in this world. In that – the end of all things is truly at hand – for we are but a blink of an eye.
In each of these three understanding – we see the necessity to know what the ethics which we have been called to. This is what St. Peter spends the rest of the passage expounding upon – since we know that one day we will die, since we know that we live under a new covenant – not a covenant of works, but a covenant of grace – how then should we live?
The Saint writes to be self-controlled and sober-minded. These seem as almost the same idea – but the idea here is important because it not simply not being impulsive, though that is a part of what he is getting at. It means that all our thoughts and actions are submitted to Christ – that each thought we have is captured by him, that we take a thoroughly biblical worldview and live it out.
As we find the world in which we are living becomes more hostile towards this – we will find that capturing our thoughts to Christ will become increasingly difficult. We will face one of two temptations – either we will give in and embrace a fleshly worldview – no longer standing in the way which Christ has called us to live – or we will become hard, anger, and bitter, for the world we once knew has fallen away.
Neither of these is the way which we are called to live – we are called to live in a way that is pleasing to the Lord – that means having a joy-filled mind – giving our thoughts to Christ. We learn in the sermon on the mount that our thoughts and actions are equally important. It is not enough to be clean on the outside we are called to be clean on the inside. So we live as ones who dwell in the spirit – in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
And why do we do this – it is for the sake of our prayers – that our prayers are offered in purity of heart in faith. When sin overcomes us – our hearts’ harden – our hearts can no longer be poured out to the glory of God. But we are given a new heart in Christ – but we need to allow the spirit to attend to it. To soften our hearts so that we can live in such a way that God is glorified in all we do.
This is not a form of works righteousness – but an outflowing of knowing God and submitting to all he calls us to. It is an act of love – an act of love to God and to our brothers and sisters in Christ.
So – what is this love, that St. Peter says is above all else? To quote William Barclay “Christian Love is not an easy, sentimental reaction. It demands everything an individual possess of mental and spiritual energy. It means loving the unlovely and the unlovable; it means loving in spite of injury; it means loving when love is not returned.”
We see this first and foremost demonstrated for us in Christ on the cross – Christ was rejected and despised. He was brought to an utterly shameful death – he gave up his life – so that those who like us are more often bent towards sin – could be freed from that burden of sin, freed from these chains that do not let us go without Christ. The image and pain of Christ on the cross is the ultimate image of love.
He of course foretells his own death – when he tells his disciples “that greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Our calling in love – is to lay aside ourselves to the service of others.
St. Paul expounds upon this further – in his beautiful corrective passage in 1 Corinthians 13 – he tells us – “Love is patient and kind… does not envy or boast; is not arrogant, or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” That is to say – love is the greater way that puts the brothers and sisters in Christ first.
Finally, St. John tells us that love is so powerful that it casts out fear and St. Peter tells us that it covers a multitude of sin.
The new law of life for the Christian is that we love the Lord our God with our heart, soul, and mind, and love our neighbors as ourselves. It is this dying to ourselves – our giving up ourselves that allows us to forgive the sins of others – forgive the sins of those who have hurt us, the sins of those who love us, the sins of our enemies, and the sins of our friends.
But God’s love for us – also brought him in the second person of the Trinity – that is His Son - Jesus Christ to come to earth to die for our sins. It was love for people that kept Christ on the cross. So it is Christ’s love for us that has allowed him to die so that we might live and there is no sin, that His love cannot cover. There is no sin, when repented of can’t be forgiven by the love of God. That is both a beautiful and comforting thing.
So now we have it – St. Peter has told us – that the end will come – sooner rather than later – that we are to be self-controlled and sober-minded and so we are to love for love covers sin.
And the saint makes it even more practical – he reminds us that we are to show hospitality. It is easy to show hospitality all the time but do it grudgingly – but for the Christian, we are called to do it with joy – to do it without grumbling. Even if the stranger shows up in the middle of the night, even if the guest is smelly, or wiggly, or annoying. Even if the newcomer isn’t like us – looks different, talks different, dresses different, votes different. We are to show hospitality with a joy-filled heart.
For the New Testament church – Hospitality served a very real and practical purpose. It would have been both quite expensive and morally challenging for the apostles and other ministers to travel from church to church if the local body hadn’t opened their doors for them. For the inns of the day were not good places, but dens of immorality. So it is that – it was important for them to have safe places to stay.
But it is necessary to bear in mind – that which the author of Hebrews said – that by being hospitable some have even entertained angels. Today we are still called to be hospitable with joy-filled hearts because it is a central element of the Christian ethic. So, be kind, welcome the stranger, and love well.
Likewise – each of us are given gifts – each of us have talents, and we are to be good stewards of those talents. We are to use them wisely – to seek to know how to glorify God in that which we do. It is much like Christ’s teaching about the master who gave three servants talents to be stewards of. It is clear that we are called to use what God has given wisely – not for our own profit but so that the kingdom can be glorified.
St. Peter then reminds us of the two greatest gifts of the church – that is the gift of preaching – the gift of the word, and the acts of service. We must preach the gospel, and show His love in words – but we must also serve those who in our community well. Each of these are done by submission to God.
For an oracle of God of old does not speak on his own authority – does not expound upon the word by his will but by submitting to God. It is the same for us – by drinking deeply in the Word of God – we let it shape and form our minds so that when we speak we speak as ones who dwell in the Lord. It is by doing this that we bring men and women face to face with God.
Likewise – when we do acts of service – in the church or in our community or around the world – these acts show the Love of God for us – and for all people. And just as the word brings people face to face with God – so our acts bring people to see His love for all mankind. We find ourselves back at the beginning of our passage here – we are called to let our thoughts and actions be fully formed by God.
Now – why do we do all this? Why do we do the difficult task of learning biblical love, of opening our homes, our church, our lives, of using our gifts? That in everything God may be glorified in Jesus Christ – for this glory is rightful his.
We talk a lot about doing all things to God’s glory – and how glorious God is. Please do not down play this. God is more glorious than our words can describe and by serving him – in love and grace we get to experience this just a little bit.
For – the end is near – soon Christ will come again, and soon, His glory will be revealed to all people. So let us rejoice and take heart – let us love well, let us not rest our eyes on the things of the earth – but on the eternal promise of dwelling with God when His kingdom finally, fully comes let us live as ones who are under the shadow of eternity – so that those whom we experience come face to face with the reality of the God who loves them and forgives their sins and heals their hearts – no matter how painful, how dark, the days before were.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.