For the past couple of weeks as we have started this conversation about Christians and politics called Being Good Kingdom Citizens, we have talked about the fact that Christians are different when it comes to politics. We must be because our first allegiance is to something other than a political party or leader. Being different, though, will make us stand out. This week we talk about how to handle this in ways that honor Christ. Thanks for tuning in.
On Being the Tallest Nail
Sometimes some of the most powerful films get the least amount of attention. Now, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing that movies like anything Marvel puts out these days shouldn’t get the attention they do. As a dedicated fan of the superhero genre, I’m for all the attention they can get. There are some films, though, which fly under the radar, but which are truly terrific pieces of storytelling. One example from a few years ago is the movie The Good Lie starring Reese Witherspoon. Has anyone in the room seen The Good Lie? Has anyone heard of the movie, but hasn’t seen it? I figured that would be a pretty small group which just proves my point.
The movie is about a group of Sudanese refugees who were displaced to a refugee camp sometime during the Second Sudanese Civil War which stretched on for over 20 years from 1983-2005. Eventually, they are granted refugee visas for the United States and move here to set up a new life. While the whole story itself is incredible and even includes clear references to the Christian faith of the refugees as well as some of the people who were helping them, what struck me the most from the film was just how profound was the culture shock these folks experienced living in this new place. Things we consider utterly mundane and take entirely for granted were like wonders from the future for them. Electric lights. A refrigerator. A flushing toilet. A mattress on a bed frame. A microwave. These and more were marvels from another world.
In order to get along in this strange, new place (which for them was Kansas City, MO, although much to the disappointment of this native it was very obviously not filmed there), they didn’t simply need material things necessary for getting along on a day to day basis, they needed a guide who could teach them things like the importance of turning off lights and closing the fridge; of how to work the microwave and how to not let food spoil.
Now, while we haven’t ever experienced anything quite like that, to a certain degree, you and I can understand that feeling. Think about the last time you walked in for the first time to a place where everyone else around you already knew what the rules and expectations were, and you didn’t. For some of you, it may have been the first morning you walked into this church. That’s a scary feeling. One of the biggest fears you have in that kind of a situation is standing out; of doing something that marks you out as new and clueless; of acting in some way that betrays your newness.
Well, think about what we’ve been talking about for the last couple of weeks. If you are a follower of Jesus, we are strangers living in a strange land. It may be the place we’ve spent our entire lives, but we are citizens now of the kingdom of God and the world around us is not our home. Not only that, but the kinds of habits and expectations we have as citizens of the kingdom of God mark us out as strangers as compared with the world around us wherever that world happens to be. In other words, we are different.
This morning finds us in the third part of our conversation about politics and the election through the lens of the Christian worldview called Being Good Kingdom Citizens. The whole point of this series is for us to take some intentional time to reflect together on the season we are in as followers of Jesus and not simply let it pass us by. It is just too easy for us to go along with what everyone else around us is thinking and saying and not make sure we are looking through the lens of the Scriptures. And the trouble is, most of us tend to only be surrounded by people whose political leanings merely reflect our own. We don’t really understand how people on the other side think. And when you don’t understand someone, it’s hard to love them well. As followers of Jesus, though, we are never to simply go with the flow of the world around us. We are called to more. Thus our conversation.
So far, we have established a clear baseline from which all our other assumptions must flow: The church’s first allegiance is to God, not the world. We are citizens first of the kingdom of God, not whatever earthly kingdom we happen to inhabit. Everything our earthly kingdom says and commands has to be filtered through the lens of our first citizenship. Sometimes that doesn’t present any real problems, but more often it makes life just a little…or sometimes a lot…more complicated than it is for most folks. But, because our citizenship is first in heaven, we are freed from a burden most of the people around us carry when it comes to elections like this one. Whichever party wins, our lives are still secure. Because our allegiance is higher than any one political leader, which one wins doesn’t matter for us. I mean, sure, it matters in an immediate sense, but ultimately, it doesn’t make a difference. We don’t have to fear. However the election goes, God is still in charge.
Believing those two truths is good, but they’ll make us stand out from the world around us. The question I want to wrestle with this morning with you is this one: How do we handle that? The short version of the answer is that we need a guide. Fortunately, we find just such a guide back in Peter’s first letter. As I said a couple of weeks ago, Peter’s first letter was written to believers who were living in the midst of a culture that wasn’t like them and didn’t like them. He was writing to give them some guidelines for getting along well without compromising their convictions. In the second half of the letter he gets very specific about how followers of Jesus should do this when it comes to getting along with a culture that isn’t like them. Find your way to 1 Peter 3:13 with me and let’s take a look at these together.
These words come just after Peter’s final instructions for how we should keep our stuff together inside the church so we can stand united and strong whatever the world might throw at us in vv. 8-12. He begins to turn outward in v.13 and what we’re going to see over the next few minutes are four really important principles to guide us in getting along with a world that doesn’t understand us. He opens with a question. You can see this there in v. 13: “Who then will harm you if you are devoted to what is good?” That seems awfully idealistic, doesn’t it? It falls fairly well in line with Paul’s assertion last week in Romans 13 that if we don’t want to be afraid of the government, we just need to concentrate on doing good. If only, right? Try telling that to followers of Jesus living in North Korea or Iran. They’re devoted to what is good and there are plenty of people who want to harm them. Before you go getting all huffy about what Peter says here, let’s think about it. Peter understood why you’re reacting the way you are to his question. He was devoted to what was good and was unjustly beaten for it more than once. He’s basically saying, “All things being equal, this should happen.” Fortunately, he understands—just like you do—that all things are not equal. Thus we have v. 14.
“But even if you should suffer for righteousness, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear or be intimidated…” This is reality, right? Sometimes we do suffer for righteousness. We suffer not simply in spite of having done the right thing. We suffer for doing the right thing. We seek to honor Christ with our lives and the world comes after us for it anyway. Peter wants us to know something about these times, though, and this forms our first principle for getting along with a world that doesn’t like us. Here it is: The world isn’t a place that’s fair or just. There are times it is going to do the wrong thing at our expense. There are times our best efforts to be devoted to what is good are going to be met with cynicism, derision, and even persecution. And when that happens—are you listening here?—as followers of Jesus, we can be confident that we are walking the same path He did. That’s always a good place to be.
Okay, but how does that help us bear up under the strain and stress of being different? It doesn’t directly, but knowing something is coming makes it a whole lot more bearable than it is otherwise. Knowing something hard is coming is better than merely fearing it because our minds will always make it out to be worse than it actually is. When it comes to being treated badly by the world for being different, we know now to expect it.
But why? Why does the world do this? Why does it treat us this way? Well, come down a little further with me and Peter gives us the answer. Look at 1 Peter 4:4: “They are surprised that you don’t join them in the same flood of wild living—and they slander you.” There are few things all people in all times and all places have treated as badly as those which are different and which they don’t understand. When the world looks at us and sees the kinds of things we do and don’t do, and the ways we treat both one another and people who aren’t like us at all, it doesn’t understand. It doesn’t understand why we don’t do the same kinds of things in the same ways that it does. As far as the world is concerned, those things are right and good to do. Our refusal to behave in the same patterns marks us as far as the world is concerned as weird, deranged, and even evil. Do you understand this? I’ll be honest with you: It’s hard for us to really get our hearts and minds wrapped all the way around this truth because we live in a culture that was so profoundly shaped by the Christian worldview and is still haunted by it in many ways. The world and the kingdom don’t work the same. Where we think they do, that’s probably the result of our not getting the kingdom quite right. When the world comes after us, though, the reason for this is simply that it doesn’t understand us. That’s the second principle here. The world comes after us because it doesn’t understand us.
Jump down just a bit further with me and see how Peter makes this explicit. Look down to v. 12: “Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you.” Because we know the world is going to occasionally treat us poorly because of the fact that it just doesn’t understand us, when this happens, it shouldn’t ever catch us off guard. That’s one thing the various authors of the New Testament and even Jesus Himself do a really good job preparing us to face. Not a single one of them ever suggests following Jesus is going to be easy or pain-free. Much to the contrary, all of them guarantee we’ll face persecution when we’re getting it right.
This, however, just lands us on the third principle Peter offers. We can see that in the next couple of verses: “Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may also rejoice with great joy when his glory is revealed.” And here it is: “If you are ridiculed for the name of Christ, you are blessed because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” Do you see it yet? Rejoice in sufferings and persecutions endured for the sake of righteousness because they mean you are walking comfortably in the path of Jesus. But…make sure they are endured for the sake of righteousness. “Let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer; or a meddler.” And I love that. Murderer, thief, and evildoer we can understand being warned against. But a meddler? I did a bit of research on the word there and it really is just referring to someone who meddles in the affairs of others. In other words, don’t bring trouble on yourself for doing anything obviously evil, but don’t bring trouble on yourself for just plain being a nuisance either. Don’t meddle in the lives of the unbelievers around you. They haven’t signed on for the faith and so are going to behave like it. Love them with the love of Jesus, tell them the truth when asked, but don’t meddle. That’ll just turn them off from the faith entirely. The principle here, though, is this: If the world does come after you, make sure it’s not because you’ve done something wrong. Suffering for unrighteous behavior doesn’t glorify God.
When we are suffering and persecuted for the sake of righteousness, and continue nonetheless on the path of righteousness, though, that’s going to get the world’s attention. And when we have the world’s attention, Peter’s last and most important principle comes powerfully to bear. Come back with me to the text and look back to 3:15. After telling us to not be afraid of the prospect of suffering for the sake of righteousness (which we now know is because we’ve been told in advance it’ll happen, it’ll come because the world doesn’t understand us, and because when we are truly suffering for the sake of righteousness we are right in line with the example of Jesus), Peter tells us how to respond to it when it comes: “but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, ready at any time to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.”
When we have the world’s attention for bearing up under the burden it tries to lay on us because of Jesus, we respond by sharing why we do it. We respond by sharing why our hope in Christ is so great that we are willing to endure suffering now because of this promise of a future reward. In other words, we defend ourselves…just not in the way we might normally think about defending ourselves. We defend ourselves with truth. And we do it with gentleness and respect. Verse 16: “Yet do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that when you are accused [notice, by the way, that he has shifted from “if” to “when”], those who disparage your good conduct in Christ will be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.”
You see, when we stand out in Christ and do that well, we are going to get attention for it. Actually, that’s not quite the best language to use. You have perhaps heard the old expression, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” The idea is that the person who raises issues with how things are is likely going to get them adjusted to fit her preferences. The way that idea plays itself out in real life, though, doesn’t always go like we are told. Instead of the squeaky wheel getting grease, life more often goes like this: The tallest nail gets pounded. When we stand out from the world in Christ, we are going to be the tallest nail…and we are going to get pounded. When this happens, we just keep standing—and God will make us able to stand. We don’t stand threateningly or in ways that are ugly. We just keep standing with grace and poise. And when we do, folks are going to want to know why. When they ask, then, we respond in Christ. In other words, standing out well creates Gospel opportunities. Standing out well creates Gospel opportunities.
Here’s what I want to leave you thinking about today: How can we stand out well as followers of Jesus? What if we created an environment here where regardless of a person’s politics, he was embraced with all the loving intentionality of Jesus? What if we created a culture in which committed Democrats, committed Republicans, as well as committed “I-Have-No-Idea-ers” could serve, work, and worship together, fully united in spite of their differences by an entirely bigger, more encompassing reality? What if we followed our Lord in ministering the loving grace of the kingdom of God to everyone within our sphere of influence, proclaiming the truth with gentle boldness every chance we got? All of these things and more are different from the world around us in attention-grabbing ways. If we do them, we’ll get pushback from the political left and the right—and sometimes from the left and the right within the church. But if we just keep standing, we’ll earn the right to give a reason for the hope that is in us. That’s when the Gospel advances. Standing out well creates Gospel opportunities. This is a long-term investment, but if we’ll commit to making it, we will see our world transformed starting with the world just outside our doors. Standing out well creates Gospel opportunities.
Alright, that sounds good, but let’s get serious: There are genuine issues at stake in this upcoming election. Politics may, for Christians, create opportunities to minister the Gospel to all kinds of people by virtue of our standing out well, but there are nonetheless issues on which there is a right and wrong answer as far as the Christian worldview goes. How should we be thinking about these? Be here next week and we’ll talk about that very thing. See you then.