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

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Do The Good Stuff

2017-05-21 1 Peter 3:13-22 and John 14:15-21 Do The Good Stuff


I once heard an inspirational speaker. His summary – and I don't know if this was what he intended to say or if it just came out – because if he'd really thought about it, he might have rephrased it. Or maybe not. His summary was, "Don't spend your time doing the bad stuff. Do the good stuff."


And I agree. At first I thought, "Well, duh." That's not very inspirational. But then I thought, "Isn't this kinda what I say every Sunday, from the pulpit, with a religious flourish?" Isn't every sermon, at its root, "Hey, y'all. Don't do bad stuff. Bad stuff is bad. Do good stuff. Be good. Jesus loves you"? I think we all know it's true. And yet, you keep coming back.


I bring this up because the passage from the Blessed Saint Peter reminds me of the inspirational message from the inspirational speaker. You remember Saint Peter. He's the one at the Pearly Gates, who either lets you in, to the Good Place, or says, "Going Down" to the Bad Place. "Buh bye." Peter's God's gatekeeper. Literally. Heaven's bouncer. He looks you over from head to toe and checks The Book for your reservation. Nobody knows more about your good stuff and your bad stuff than Peter. And in the Bible he says, "Do what is good… with gentleness and reverence." He says, "Keep your conscience clear."


In other words, do the good stuff. And do it good. Don't do the bad stuff. So in your hearts, you'll sanctify Christ as Lord. Do the good stuff even when you'd really rather do bad stuff, or no stuff, even when the good stuff costs you, because you have made Christ your Lord.




The bad stuff.


Let's talk about the bad stuff first. Because, as Billy Joel said, "The sinners have much more fun." Bad stuff is bad, but bad sells. Bad makes headlines. Presbyterians start every worship with the Prayer of Confession. Why? Because we're bad. We're bad and we know it. It's just part of being Calvinist. No matter how good you are, you're still bad. You're bad. Come on. You know, you know you're bad. Hooo.


The Apostle Paul has that famous section in Romans (7:15-20) where he says, "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." "I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." "Do wah diddy diddy dum diddy do." And you know what that means. Nobody knows what it means. So it's probably bad.


And you know where bad people go. The Bad Place. Hell. Hades. The Underworld. The Netherworld. Gehenna. Abaddon. The Lake of Fire.


Hell works. Hell works in church because you might question how good you are, but everybody knows they've been bad. Well, people with a functioning conscience know they've been bad. There are always exceptions. 99% of us? We know. You don't need me to draw a picture because there's the Internet. If you're trying to get people to come to church, the threat of hell is a very effective motivational force. But there's a very fine line between motivation and extortion, both financial and spiritual.


Presbyterians don't talk about hell very much. At least not in church. We just talk about it in our spare time. In church, we tend to focus more on the redeeming love of a Christlike God. As opposed to the righteous anger of and punishment of the God of Moses, who at the foot of Mount Sinai made the earth crack open and swallow up all the drunk, dancing Israelites. God was a Bad Hombre who exacted vengeance with perfect hatred. If you were bad, there was a place for you. A very bad place.


But even the Bad Place had an escape hatch.


You might have noticed the kinda weird verse in the reading of 1 Peter 3, verses 19 and 20. It's generally understood this is about the three days after Jesus died, but before he was raised. It says, "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."


OK. The question I get asked the most about the Apostles Creed is that line, "He descended into hell." It just doesn't sound right. That phrase and Peter's verse appear to come from the same place. And it's not Presbyterian or even Christian.


There's a Jewish book – not the Bible – a book, 1 Enoch, written a couple hundred years before Jesus that was very popular in Israelite culture. Religious pop culture: what a concept. 1 Enoch was very important to Israel and therefore its stories were important in the early church. Very influential.


Enoch has a vision. The righteous who died in the bad old days were saved by a messiah figure who descended into hell to rescue them. And also, Noah's flood was very important in 1 Enoch. Enoch is also the name of Noah's grandfather, if you're ever on Jeopardy!. So, you connect the dots and begin to see that while the Bad Place was very, very bad, there was a way out. For the early church, this way, this truth, this life, was Jesus. What did Jesus do during the three days in the grave? He descended into hell to rescue the spirits in prison. Nobody but nobody would be left behind. We hear echoes of Enoch in Peter's letter.


Why is this important? It's important because none of us do all the good we mean to do. Even our best good has a shadow side. Even our best traits have their shortcomings. Like when the United flight attendant is kind enough to get you a seat on an overbooked flight. Good for you, bad for publicity. We don't need the Devil. We're all our own worst enemy. We all do bad.


But we aren't all bad. We are also good. At least my dog thinks I am. And that counts. Even our best good is imperfect. And God knows that. The Bible knows it. Sts. Peter and Paul know it. But most of all, and most importantly, Jesus knows it. And that's why he came. To save us from worst enemies. To save us from ourselves. To redeem us from our sin. To wash the bad off our hands and off our conscience. To tell us nothing, not even death, not even the powers of hell, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Risen Lord.


Come on. You know, you know you're bad. But God is better. God is good. And that's great.




The good stuff.


Don't do the bad stuff. Do the good stuff. Do the good stuff, even when it feels bad.


In my Bible, the publishers put summaries over the sections. It's important to remember that the stuff over the sections and sometimes in the margins of the Bible isn't the Bible, it's just comments on the Bible, made by people with good intentions who want to make the Bible easier. The title over the section we read today from 1 Peter is, "Suffering for Doing Right." It comes right after the section titled, "Wives and Husbands." Draw your own conclusions.


The early church to whom Peter wrote didn't need threats of hell to make them do the right thing. They had hellish threats all around them. Because being a Christian was not cool. I'm always amazed at the people these days who claim they're persecuted for being Christian. The early Christians would have given their lives to be so persecuted. And they did. Governments, religion, even their own families threatened them and made good on those threats every single day.


So Peter writes to them. He encourages them. Do good, even when it feels bad. Do good, even though people you love and respect and try to get along with treat you bad.


He says:


Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?

But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.

Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.

Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.

For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God's will, than to suffer for doing evil.

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….


This is the gospel. This is the good, good, good stuff. The best stuff. The good news. The good news of salvation for all. Even for the bad people. Because the difference between good people and bad people is usually based on personal opinion.


The question is not, "How good do you have to be?" The question is, "How good CAN you be?" How good can you be when nobody's watching? How good can you be when there's no prize? How good can you be when being good makes people treat you bad?


Faith is not about being atop St. Peter's leaderboard. Faith is about following Jesus, even through the valleys of the shadow of death. Not because you want to suffer. Suffering is part of life. There is so much bad stuff. But there's also good stuff. We follow Jesus because HE is good. Not because we are. Jesus is good. Jesus is our Good Shepherd. He is our Lord.




The second scripture reading today is from the Gospel According to John. And, as we've been reading the past few weeks, it comes from Jesus's sermon to his disciples just before his death. Bad days are coming, and Jesus knows it. So he does something good for them.


Jesus gives his disciples a New Commandment. A mandate. A mandatum in Latin, which is where we get the name of Maundy Thursday. And his new commandment is not, "Be good." It's not, "Don't be bad." The New Commandment Jesus gives his disciples is, "Love one another." He says:


I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." -- John 13:34-35.


And again today:


They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them." John 14:21


I think a lot of times we get the cart before the horse. We think that if we're good, and not bad, God will love us. But that's not what Jesus says. Jesus says, "Love one another because I have loved you." Jesus goes beyond goodness and badness, beyond good and evil. God already loves us. Jesus already loves you. So love back. Love as much as you can, even when it hurts.


Jesus did the good stuff, so we all can do our stuff, forgiven and freed from the bad and the good.