life of virtue
The Third Sunday After Easter
1 Samuel 2:1-10, Psalm 40, 1 St. Peter 2:11-17, St. John 16:16-22
The Lovely Life
I know a fellow named Jerry who’s a pretty fair amateur golfer. He shoots in the 70s. Years ago, I ran into him one day and he was stoked. He had ponied up to play in a charity fund-raiser and he had just learned he was to have the privilege of playing with a PGA Tour player.
His name is Paul Stankowski. Before a series of injuries derailed his career Paul won two tournaments on tour and finished as high as fifth in the Masters. He had a reputation as a free spirit.
After he played with him, Jerry reported that Stankowski was indeed a frolicsome sort. As he and his amateur partners stepped onto the tee of a par-four, Stankowski said, “I’m going to play this hole on my knees. See what you can learn from it.”
A lean six-footer, he took his driver from his bag, went to his knees and lashed a drive down the middle of the fairway. A few minutes later, having played every stroke, including putts, from his knees, he had a par for the hole.
“Now,” said the pro, “what did you learn from that?”
Now, I have to interject something here. I know most of you don’t play golf. You’re far too smart for that. I, on the other hand, am chief among sinners. So I can tell you that golfers are obsessive. We’re always searching for that one tiny swing change that will fix us forever.
So when the pro asked, “What did you learn from that?” Jerry and the other amateurs noodled furiously. What should they have learned? They tossed out answers plucked from the esoterica on which golfers love to obsess: the position of the right elbow at impact; that sort of thing.
No, no, no. no. Finally they gave up. “What you should have learned,” said Paul Stankowski, “is that short people can play this game, too.”
He was big enough, as one of the world’s elite in his sport, to make himself small. He could take whatever the world could throw at him. St. Peter says we have that stature, too. As sons and daughters of the King of kings, we have nothing to fear.
Peter surveys the landscape of the first-century church and sees the Lord’s sheep scattered across it. They are lonely and frightened, huddled against one another on the angry plain of a scowling world.
The apostle has a prescription for them, and no less for us: Live the lovely life. For this is your debt to your Lord: a fine, gracious and winsome life lived out in full view of Jew and Greek, pagan and, yes, persecutor.
The lovely life is a calculated life. We are good not for goodness’ sake but for God’s sake. This goodness flows not from a noble spirit within us but in answer to God’s call. We seek glory not for ourselves but for our Lord.
The lovely life is the common life baptized – consecrated for a holy purpose. It is our means of schooling the world of man in the ways of the kingdom of God. You’ve heard it before: Preach the gospel always, using words when necessary.
But the world wants none of it. It has already pierced the hand that offered it peace. Where do we turn for strength?
Even in a time of affliction, we can live the lovely life as a witness of our Father’s goodness and greatness and grace. To lapse back into the golf metaphor for a moment – and I offer this testimony as a recovering pagan – when it comes to life, pagans are the amateurs and Christians are the pros.
We know life. They know life apart from God. There’s another word for that condition: death. Our mission is to represent to them a life so lovely that some of them will not be able to resist it. See my lovely life. Embrace it. Preserve it. Rejoice in it. Reproduce it. Offer it as a sacrifice upon God’s altar.
Long before Peter wrote, Hannah had the idea. This morning we have heard her pray: “No one is holy like the LORD, for there is none besides You, nor is there any rock like our God . . . The LORD makes poor and makes rich; He brings low and lifts up.
“He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the beggar from the ash heap, to set them among princes and make them inherit the throne of glory. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’S, and He has set the world upon them.”
Even in the shame of her barrenness she had never doubted God’s power of deliverance. That trust had enabled her to live the lovely life always.
This idea of a life of virtue as a statement is not exclusive to biblical characters of old or Christians of Peter’s day or ours. Four hundred years before Christ, the philosopher Plato heard of a man making slanderous charges against him.
“I will live in such a way,” said Plato, “that no one will believe what he says.”
We truly can make our life our sermon.
This is the antidote Peter urges upon the scattered sheep of the persecuted church. Pagans charged the early church with all manner of crimes against decency. Because households fractured when one converted to Christianity and another did not, they were destroyers of families.
Because they preached the dignity of all human beings, they were responsible for turning slaves against their masters. Because they would not worship Caesar, they were enemies of the state. Because they spoke of the church in opposition to the world, they were haters of mankind.
Because even husbands and wives called one another “brother” and “sister,” they must be guilty of incest. Because Christians spoke of eating the flesh and drinking the blood, they were clearly cannibals.
In response to these accusations, says Peter, “abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles . . .” To what end? “. . . that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.”
God’s day of visitation will prove a blessing to some and a curse to others. Our brief is to win pagans over to worship of the Lord with our lovely life so that they will be among the blessed.
We know that when St. Paul received his revelation from the Lord it came wrapped up with the responsibility to take the gospel to the Gentiles. Now, maybe I haven’t had a road-to-Damascus experience . . . All right, I’ll come clean: I’ve never even had a road-to-Bartlesville experience . . . but each of us has received enough revelation to scatter light among unbelievers by the way we live.
And they will know a lovely life when they see one. In our passage, Peter launches into a list of the responsibilities of his disciples both as members of the church and citizens of the nation. And as Plato understood a life of virtue as rebuttal to slander, both Greek pagans and Jews as well as Christians had such codes.
All held up comparable standards of behavior as praiseworthy. Some among the Gentiles would look with admiration on Christians’ fine conduct. When they did, the believer’s next step was to explain to them the baptized life, devoted to God.
And the scattered sheep, Peter makes plain, owe this duty to their Lord in times of trial as much as any other. What makes them, and us, different from the upright unbeliever? The apostle addresses them, and us, as “sojourners and pilgrims.” Other translations have “strangers,” aliens,” “exiles.”
Peter has already referred to his readers in these terms in the first verse of his letter. Also in chapter 1 (v 17) he has admonished them, and us, to call on the Father and “conduct yourselves during the time of your stay here in fear,” meaning in awe of God. He is channeling Paul, who declares in Philippians 3 (v 20) that “our citizenship is in heaven.”
The author of Hebrews says, “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come” (13:14).
The New Testament writers are brushing a spiritual coating on God’s words to Abraham in Genesis 12 (v 1): “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.”
Whatever affliction Christians suffer, Peter and the others are saying, is merely a matter of the moment. You have the strength to live out your witness while sailing a storm-tossed sea because you have placed yourselves under God’s eternal protection.
This transitory life is not your home. As you await your entrance into God’s glory, proclaim that glory by your lovely life.
Now, let us not pretend there is not a measure of schizophrenia in our position. We are aliens in a sinful world but simultaneously citizens of it active in doing good works. I think of the third-culture kids on the mission field, rooted neither in their parents’ homeland nor their country of residence. They inhabit a culture all their own, sharing it, sometimes, with brothers and sisters and other missionary kids.
We, too, populate an intermediate zone, citizens of heaven but not yet resident in it, creatures of the created order but aliens within it.
And, like Peter’s original readers, we must expect conflict without and within. As St. John makes plain in his gospel, a world that reviled our Lord will not blow kisses at us. But if the world’s hatred turns us into haters we will fail in our role as ambassadors of His love.
We cannot advance the gospel of peace by waging war. As Hannah prayed, “For by strength no man shall prevail.” We cannot represent our God of love by hating back those who hate us. Maturity in the Lord demands a measured response.
We must quiet the knee that yearns to jerk, and suffer the jerk who deserves our knee.
And on the inside we will struggle with those old fleshly desires. Unlike Abraham, the scattered sheep of Peter’s day had not pulled up stakes. Most of them were planted in the same old geography. The country they had left behind was the old loyalties and the old ruts of thought and action.
Especially in a time of persecution, the siren sings sweetly of those old charms as just beneath the surface the rocks bare their teeth. Come home, come home, to the rough joke and the slick magazine, to the bottle and the brothel. No need to suffer with those sad, pious fools when you can rush back into our arms.
Way back then, Peter’s readers were still digesting the good news. Others had fled from the word of peace, off to find a muscular messiah who would lead them out to draw Roman blood. These disciples had chosen the One who said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
But who could blame them if they were still scratching their heads. In a world of oppression, God the Father would vindicate the oppressed by vanquishing the oppressors. They had it on good authority – form Israel’s infallible prophets.
But now comes God the Son to say, no, not in the way you expected . . . not by force of arms. I will smite my enemies with My love, suffocate them with My submission. I will make every creature made in God’s image greater than Myself and pay with My blood the price of his ransom. Now, follow in My steps.
Will their courage hold? Will ours?
Submit to one, submit to all, notably including the human king. This is where Peter ends his list. In the apostle’s present day, the emperor is Nero, no friend of Christ; in fact, a special enemy of the Lord’s disciples.
“For this is the will of God,” Peter adds. And take care not to turn liberty into license. You are free . . . because you have enslaved yourselves to God. This is not the world’s freedom.
And while you’re living the lovely life, make sure you get caught at it. At a previous posting, we had in the church a godly man named John. John went to the rector and told him that he had reconnected with an old flame named Robbyn, who lived a four-hour drive away.
She would be visiting on some weekends, and staying in his spare bedroom, said John. Oh, no, said the Very Rev. Dr. Crenshaw; your neighbors know you as a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. You must not only abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul but be seen to abstain.
Robbyn visited, each time staying in the home of other church members. In time, she and John married . . . and the church had a lovely flute played by a lovely lady who became a lovely wife living a manifestly lovely life.
One more golf story. You may have heard of Willie Nelson. He has gained fame and fortune through a body of work that includes “If You’ve Got the Money, Honey, I’ve Got the Time” and other light classics.
You may not know that he owns a personal golf course outside Austin, Texas. It’s just for him and his outlaw colleagues. A while back, someone asked him, “What’s par on your golf course?” Said Willie, “Depends on what I shoot that day.”
A good line, and an apt description of the freedom the world covets. The standard floats, but always remains firmly within my control.
My beloved fellow pilgrims, if we have left that old country behind and entered the land of God’s amazing grace we ought to have the fortitude to get down on our knees, take our swings and let the world laugh at us if it will. We’re a bit better off than those Christians of Nero’s time.
Is the American church headed in that direction? God knows. But I know this: If we surrender to the urge to retreat into defeatism and cynicism we will hand the victory to those who slander us.
The purveyors of the news of the world flog us daily with the bad news – the monstrous news — that man is in control. Yet we know he is not, for if he were he would have vaporized this planet long ago.
The Lord God reigns. Kings and governors serve at His pleasure and under His authority and perhaps one day, when we live finally and fully in His glory, we will know more of the why than we do today.
But we know now what we need to know now: Our brief is to live the lovely life as a witness and to bid others join us in it . . . forever and ever. Amen.