About Me

My photo
Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

How Much Does a Clear Conscience Cost?

1 Peter 3:18-22
“How Much Does a Clear Conscience Cost?”
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church

Lent is the season of preparation for Easter. How does a person get ready for Easter? Let’s be honest. Most of the time we don’t get ready for a Christian Easter at all. We get ready for Secular Easter, which is a different holiday altogether. Secular Easter happens on the same day as Christian Easter. And it has the same name as Christian Easter, which makes it doubly confusing. Secular Easter is the one we really get ready for. And Christian Easter just sort of happens.

How does a person get ready for Easter? Same way we get ready for any other holiday – we go buy stuff. This is America, where you can’t celebrate anything without buying stuff. Dresses, bonnets, and white shoes. Marshmallow Peeps, with so much yellow sugar they crunch. We paint the eggs that come from the bunny. Explain that one to a fifth-grade biology class. Some sort of weird genetic experiment gone so wrong it’s cute. And while the church, over the centuries, has done backflips to make all the Secular Easter activities sound religious, the truth is they never were, and were never intended to be anything more than a really fun springtime party. Everybody loves a good party. So given the choice between getting ready for Secular Easter or getting ready for Christian Easter, the secular celebration wins almost every time.

Christian Easter is so completely different from its secular counterpart that it’s hard to believe they have the same name. How does a person get ready for Christian Easter? Maybe you saw people walking around town last Wednesday (Ash Wednesday) with black marks on their foreheads. That’s such a wonderful tradition. About an hour after the morning Mass, they forget the ash-marks are there. Because no matter how hard you try, it’s really hard to see your forehead. Pretty soon, the people are off into their day, in a business meeting or a class. And they get bored or get a headache and put their hand on their foreheads, and then a moment later they see this black stuff on their hands and think, “What the…?” And then it comes back to them. Oh yeah. The ashes. The ashes of last year’s Palm Sunday branches, the stain of crucifixion, has left its mark, once again.

Or maybe you’re one of the people who gets ready for Christian Easter by giving something up during Lent. Chocolate is one of peoples’ favorite choices of things to give up. I don’t know if that’s really in the spirit of what the early church fathers had in mind. Maybe you have some strange physical condition that requires you to eat chocolate every day or risk grave bodily or mental illness. So it’s really a life-threatening sacrifice. But most likely, chocolate’s a luxury. Some people give up eating red meat. Or they give up television. We tend to give up things during Lent that we know aren’t all that good for us in the first place. Is giving up bad things really such a sacrifice? Did our Lord prepare for crucifixion by giving up sweets?

The truth is, we don’t really know how to prepare for a truly Christian Easter. Why? Because the Christian story of Easter is so divorced from our regular, secular lives that we just don’t know what to do with it. Easter – in its purest sense – is so far beyond our comprehension, so far out of our control, so counter to anything we’d ever expect or dream or imagine – that we have to turn it into a separate holiday. We have to turn it into a completely different secular holiday. We have to make Easter different in order to be able to handle it. I know there aren’t really two Easter holidays with the same name on the same day. But maybe there should be.

The scripture of today’s Lectionary reading is the Easter story, and then some. Peter stretches his understanding beyond the breaking point. Peter challenges our brains to think about something only our hearts can know. In Peter’s telling, the Easter story – the Christian Easter story – is so big, so great, that only God could have dreamed it up. The Christian Easter story is so vast that it makes a white bunny delivering pink eggs almost sensible. Peter’s version of the Easter story shoots like a bullet, on a trajectory through Noah and the ark, through the depths of hell, through the heights of heaven’s glory, through the beams of a cross, until finally it pierces your own flesh, lodging in your heart. For Peter, Easter isn’t just a day, and Lent isn’t just a season. All of life is Easter. All of life is Lent. All of life – all of history – is a time of getting ready, a time of tuning for God’s great opus. The question answered by Peter’s writing isn’t, “How do you get ready for Easter?” The question he answers is, “How does God get ready for Easter?”

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you--not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

These are sacred words. If we really knew what we were saying, we’d read them in a whisper of terror. Not because they’re bad words we should be afraid to say, but because they are good words. So good that we should tremble to dare speak them.

Small wonder, then, that we should create a parallel holiday to Easter, a cute holiday, a happy holiday, whose meaning we can grasp and whose activities we can control. Like Moses in the wilderness, we have to look away from God. We’re just not made to see that much glory and live. In the immortal words of Jack Nicholson, we “can’t handle the truth.” Not because we’re bad, but because we’re only human. God’s designs, God’s plan for life – not just your and my brief lives, but all life – God’s imaginings – if we could really grasp them in fullness – would put our feeble brains on overload and burn our circuits out. That’s what the shadow of Easter ought to do to us.

God got ready for Easter “in the beginning.” God got ready for Easter on the paths of Gethsemane. God gets ready for Easter in the lanes of Alcoa Highway. God gets ready for Easter in the loud noise of our daily insanities. God gets ready for Easter in the quiet of our shame. For God, Easter isn’t just one day. Easter is all of life. Easter is all of our conscious moments sewn together with the thread of the Holy Spirit.

The working title of this sermon, which is printed in your bulletins, is, “How Much Does a Clear Conscience Cost?” It’s because when I was reading the scripture, my mind seized upon that one word, “conscience,” in verse 21. All of God’s preparation, which baptism symbolizes, saves us as an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I thought, is that what the scripture means? That God does all this – from creation to Noah, to hell to heaven, to the cross and to glory – Does God do all this so you and I can have a clear conscience? Does God do all this from alpha to omega so you and I can go to sleep each night knowing that whatever sins we committed that day aren’t really all that bad in God’s eyes? Did God do all this so we can let tell the little nagging voices of our consciences to hush? Is that why Jesus came and died – so you and I have can have a clear conscience? Is the point of all existence centered on us?

If that’s how we read the scripture, then our faith is both selfish and cheap. We strip the gospel of its worth. God’s grace is cheap if a clean conscience costs us nothing. Empathizing with the pain of Christ is just playing pretend. It makes us hypocrites in the truest sense of the word.

I don’t know about you but there are a lot of sins I’ve committed that don’t merit God’s forgiveness. A lot of sins we commit shouldn’t be wiped clean from our conscience. A lot of sins we commit ought to be lived with, and ought to cause us sleepless nights. So we learn from them, and don’t repeat them – even suffer for them. Did Christ die so that I can go to sleep with a smile on my face, because I know God with God’s magic eraser is wiping out whatever bad things I did that day? And that’s supposed to make me so happy in Jesus that I won’t do those bad things ever again? That’s a bunch of garbage. It’s cheap and selfish. It’s not grace; it’s fantasy.

But the word Peter uses for “conscience” has more depth. It can also mean the overall “consciousness” of anything (and everything). Consciousness – awareness of life – is the gift from God that distinguishes us from animals. We’re aware of who we are and what we do. We’re aware that there is good and bad. We’re conscious that our actions have consequences. Well, on good days we are.

And so I think what Peter is so magnificently saying is not that you and I are at the center of existence. God didn’t do all this so you and I can have a clean conscience. I think Peter’s saying the complete opposite. I think Peter is saying that all of God’s great pageant of redemption is so we can have a healthy consciousness. An awareness of the awe and majesty around us. A soul-felt realization that life means something. Now. Something more than our rising up and laying down, and doing it over and over until God takes us away. Christ didn’t die just so you can I could get into heaven on a free ticket like so many church signs say. Christ died, not just so you and I can get into heaven, but so that heaven could get into us. Christ died not to ease your conscience, but to wake up your consciousness. Breathe in this great story of all of scripture, reaching out to all the world, in all times, that makes you see your piddling conscience in perspective. That’s the pearl of infinite cost that Jesus Christ brings through Easter. Life has meaning. What you do – what you don’t do – does matter. Because you are part of a plan of redemption so awesome you can barely grasp it. Getting ready for Easter is more than singing, “I’m so happy Jesus saved ME.” It’s singing, “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest.”

So. How do you get ready for Easter? I guess it depends on which Easter you’re getting ready for. The one that’s centered on God? Or the one that’s centered on you.