A Sermon for the Sixth Sermon of Easter (14/05/23):Zealots for Doing Good

1 Peter 3:13-22

Sometimes, perhaps often, we lose something of the Bible in translation.
Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?
That translation of Peter’s words rather hides an allusion that he is making when he urges us to be “eager.” I hunted through lots of translation and only one, the English Standard Version, keeps Peter’s picture in its translation. What Peter actually says is: “Who will harm you if you are zealous for doing good.” We recognise “zealous” as a rather colourful, perhaps a little old fashioned, maybe poetic word for “eagerness.” Though even the King James Version which you might expect to keep a word like that doesn’t. “Zealous” implies a certain kind of single-mindedness even fanaticism. The allusion that Peter is in fact making is to a group of guerrilla fighters, perhaps you would even call them terrorists, who were operating in Palestine against the Roman occupation at the same time as Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps even one or two of Jesus’ own disciples were members of that groups; the other Simon (not this one, Peter) gets the surname: “the Zealot”, and there is always the hint that Judas’ surname “Iscariot” implies the same thing. In a way Peter seems to imply that Christians should possess that kind of single-minded devotion to their cause, the kind of disciplined determination to their cause, a sort of fanaticism that is possessed by terrorists. If we read carefully, it does come up all over the Bible, the truth is Christians are meant to be religious extremists! The implicit commandment is: Be zealots for doing good.

Maybe the guerrilla army metaphor is worth pursuing just a bit. There is some sense that Christians do live in hostile occupied territory. The world is God’s, over which Jesus Christ is meant to reign, but that is evidently not the current, actual reality. Everywhere we look the world is ruled by something else. It might take many different forms. And we might give it many different names. But whatever it is that rules over the world and the people who live in it, it is not God. The earth is not yet the Kingdom of God. So this guerrilla army metaphor suggests that we are a secret organisation dedicated to resisting that foreign usurping rule over the earth. But that is where the metaphor breaks down. The conventional understanding of guerrilla of “zealot” stops being helpful, since the last thing we are actually called to do is wage any kind of war, even against the powers that have usurped Christ’s reign in the world. Jesus himself makes the point in his defence before Pilate. Pilate concludes that Jesus is indeed a king Jesus replies:
My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is my kingdom is not from here. [John 18:36]
Jesus is not a conventional sort of king. And his followers are not a conventional guerrilla army. As Peter observes we are expected to be zealous in doing good! Our action, tactics, the war we wage if you like, is to do good, to seek the very best for everyone around us.

But the question which Peter poses is:
Who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?
The answer to that question ought to be: no one. Who could condemn you, who could be angered by you, who would persecute you if you are only ever seeking the best for everyone else? But the very fact that Peter poses the question suggests that answer is a contrary one, and turns out to be be “plenty of people.” Well in a reasonable, rational world the answer would of course be nobody. But then we also all know that we don’t actually live in a reasonable and rational world, but one that is full of self-centred small mindedness, jealousy, frustration and confusion, even before we encounter any outright wickedness. People do contrary things. Like the drowning person who lashes out in desperation against the one who has swum out to save them and drowns them both. Who will harm you for doing good? Well not no one that’s for sure. The truth of the matter is that Christians do suffer and often they do suffer because of the good that they have been trying to do.

Of course we ourselves may sometimes be to blame. We have turned our “doing good” into a means for something else. So often we do people a good turn with the thought that perhaps, just maybe as a result, they will become sympathetically disposed toward us, and maybe even open to be persuaded to join us. Too often “doing good” has become an evangelistic strategy. A sweetener to the pill of trying to sell church membership. Well it is true that being kind to people is more likely to make them become Christians than being harsh with them. But that is not why we do good. And it has led the suspicion in many places, especially in places where Islam is dominant, that Christians are not actually interested in doing good but only in converting people, and that our kindness is nothing but a ruse, which means that it is impossible in some places for us to the good we know needs to be done and want to do!

Another way in which perhaps the “guerrilla army” metaphor does still work. Is that we do sometimes feel beleaguered, surrounded, living in hostile occupied territory. But I wonder, in this country, do we really suffer? And is it because of the good that we do? There can certainly be a great deal of hostility directed toward the Church now. But when we do good I suspect the reaction we get is not persecution, but indifference or at worst ingratitude. And that is not quite the same as the hostility that we receive from some who want to push all religions out of the public space. In the end much of that hostility is not because of the good that Christians have done, but because of the evil that some who have called themselves Christian have been perceived to do, from religious wars to the abuse of those that were in our care. In the end that may fall under the heading of suffering for doing evil which brings no blessing.

Zealots, fanatics, extremists, for the most part, are unpleasant people. The last thing we would actually want to be is those things, in any conventional sense. Because the reaction to “harm”, “suffering” or “persecution” that you tend to get from people like that is a kind of ill tempered, aggressive defensiveness. “How dare you!” “You can’t possibly treat me like that!” When you are sure you’re right, you end up feeling you have the right to bully everyone else who is wrong, which is surely the mark of of the zealot or the fanatic. And sadly we Christians can fall into some of that. Our disappointment with not being valued for the good we know we do can spill over into a certain snippiness. We leap to the defence of our actions with a little to much force. “We deserve better than this. . . . “ “It’s not fair, look at the good we do. . . .” We end up demanding a space in the world. We insist on religious freedom for ourselves, because it’s what is right and what we deserve. Which is probably not what Peter means when he suggests we should be ready to make a defence.

Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting of the hope that is in you. Yet do it with gentleness and reverence.
One way or another, whether it is because we are suffering because of what we are doing, or simply because what we do seems incomprehensible just demanding an explanation for those who benefit from our good deed or from those who look on, in the end we should be ready to explain. And the bottom line is that we should always have Christian reasons for doing the good we do. So for example we care for the poor, here and across the world, and this week is
Christian Aid week, not because it is a good thing to do (and it is) , but because doing so enables us to encounter Christ. We resist injustice, not because it is harmful and in the end self defeating, but because we are followers of the final judge of all things, Jesus Christ. We do things for Christian reasons. But it is not just the defence that we give but the manner in which we give it that counts. And it is here that the metaphor of “zealot” really breaks down. If we are fanatics or extremists we are a very different sort of extremist. Pet points to the manner in which we should give any explanation or make any defence:
Yet do it with gentleness and reverence
The trouble with most fanatics is that they like being right more than they like being kind. It should not be so with us. We should always prefer kindness. We might be right but our rightness is not a stick to beat anyone over the head with, which is perhaps why sometimes we have to suffer for the good that we do. Because, as it is said, “The medium is the message.” The way you say a thing determines what the message means as much as the message itself. And it is possible to undo the words you say with the way you say them. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard pointed out: Some things are true when whispered but false when shouted. Just imagine the difference between someone whispering “I love you,” and someone bellowing it. Or there is the preacher who talks about joy with a long face, or the pacifist who talks about peace in really aggressive ways. Our defence should be made in the manner which is appropriate to our actions. We should always make it with humility and with reverence for God. We are very strange fanatics, because we are the ones who speak gently and quietly

Sermons build on scripture, but very often scripture builds on scripture. Often a reading is already a sermon on another passage. This is particularly true of this passage from Peter, though it may not be immediately obvious. If we unravel what Peter says we can arrive at something quite striking, he says:
But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.
Which can be turned around to be: “Blessed are you who suffer for doing what is right” And that is a beatitude. And it looks remarkably similar to some which Jesus gives: “Blessed are you who are persecuted for righteousness sake.” [Matthew 5:10] or, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” [Matthew 5:11] Perhaps this part of Peter’s letter is already a sermon on Jesus’ beatitudes. But Jesus’ beatitudes always have a second clause, a consequence or an explanation of the first. Which is something Peter here also provides:
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.
“Rejoice and be be glad” said Jesus “for your reward is great in heaven” If we are going to be extremists or fanatics or zealots, or if at least we are going to be eager, we should display the same kind of eagerness which Jesus displayed, one tempered both by humility and great devotion to God. Which in the end is what anything we could say about being a Christian comes down to: Being like Christ, doing what Christ did, because Christ has already done it for us. The only answer that we can or should give, either for the good that we do or for anything that might be a consequence of that is: Because that is where following Jesus has led us!

Another sermon based on one of the readings for this Sunday can be found here

Zealots for Doing Good by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

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