A Good Conscience

Whether you are a long-time member or seeking a deeper connection with God, progressive, theologically-grounded teaching can be encouraging. St. James clergy and renowned guest preachers speak to issues of faith and public life that both challenge preconceived notions and call to action.

For daily reflections on the Gospel readings, our #SermonOfTheDay Series, follow St. James Cathedral's YouTube channel. Sunday Sermons are posted on this page the Monday following their premiere. 

Most Recent Sermons

February 21, 2021

First Sunday in Lent

I wonder if you can relate to any of these statements:

It’s not easy being church. It’s not easy being the Body of Christ. The communities in which we live do not understand us. And what they do understand, they do not seem to like. It would be easier just to blend in and not be noticed. We can do good without mentioning our faith, can’t we? If we do mention our faith, it doesn’t play well. We lose friends, we lose work opportunities. We lose things which sustain us. It’s not easy being church.

But after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

Turkey is officially a secular country, although President Erdogan’s ‘Justice and Development Party’ is certainly rooted in an Islamic approach to life. But whatever the political identity of that nation, the latest figures from it suggest that only 0.2% of its population express any religious identity other than Islam. That probably means that there are no more than 200-300,000 Christians in a country of some 82 million people. It would be interesting to know what members of these necessarily small church communities think of the experience of being a Christian in such a context - and how they would relate to the statements with which I opened this sermon.

But this morning I want us to journey back in time and consider a group of Christians who we generally know by the rather intriguing title of “the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia”. And if you don’t know who these Christians - these ‘exiles’ - are, let me tell you that they are the intended recipients of the letter we have come to call First Peter, from which our first reading this morning was taken. And you will probably surmise from what I have just said that Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia were all regions of what, in our own era, we know as Turkey.

Now, there is much about First Peter that is not straight-forward, and there is no shortage of scholarly books and essays debating all sorts of questions that it raises. We generally assume that the reference to ‘exiles’ alludes to Christians thrown out of Rome during one of the persecutions - but nobody is quite sure about that.

And nobody is quite sure who actually wrote this letter. Both its likely date and its style make it highly unlikely that it was genuinely written by Simon Peter himself. The Greek in which it is written certainly does not suggest its author was a poorly educated fisherman from a rural part of Israel, for whom that language would not even be his mother tongue. And we should remember that in the first century of the Common Era pseudonymous writing was not considered to have the fraudulent quality that it does today.

But what we do know about these ‘dispersed’ Christians of these five regions of Asia Minor is that they did not find it easy to be church. The letter is shot through with references to suffering and exhortations to stay faithful despite these setbacks. The author begs his hearers to “conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge”. He knows that these are Christians who are experiencing evil - and he calls on them to repay it ‘with a blessing’, encouraging them to suffer for doing good, for this will make them Christ-like.

And it is in the context of that statement that he reminds his audience of Christ’s suffering for sin, in the rather curious passage that we just heard read - a passage shot through with confidence in the consequences of Christ’s death and resurrection. A confidence in the grace and power of God that suffuses all five chapters of this letter, and which was clearly intended to help these fledgling Christian churches stand firm in the face of persecution. Peter, or whoever was writing in his name, understood that it was difficult to be the Body of Christ. He knew that being church was far from easy and that the active proclamation and practice of Christianity would jeopardize social standing, friendships, employment, and quite possibly life itself.

But after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

Lent, of course, is a time for repentance. It is the great season of penitence through which we pass to help prepare us to engage anew with Christ’s death and resurrection, and thus to come to terms once again with the consequences of Christ’s death and resurrection for the people of God. In her sermon on Ash Wednesday, quoting the journalist Connie Schultz, Lisa called us, both as individuals, and as a community, to ‘fix ourselves’ and help others (and not the other way round), for, as she reminded us, God yearns to see the fruits of holiness evident in us. But First Peter reminds us that holiness has consequences. Holiness has consequences because, for Christians, true holiness is modeled on Jesus Christ. And in our gospel reading we are reminded very clearly that even for Jesus, holiness has consequences - big consequences.

And the big consequences are two-fold, as Mark sets out with laconic simplicity. Jesus is propelled into the wilderness, and Jesus is compelled to act. To use a slightly church-ier way of talking, Jesus is called to prayer and to mission. Having joined the great crowd of people who were attracted by the powerful preaching of John the Baptizer, Jesus is powerfully affirmed by God the Father, and the Spirit descends on him - and the only response he can make to this is the response of prayer and action… but these have consequences, and they are far from easy. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not flesh out the details of what it means to say that Jesus was ‘tempted by Satan’. We are told he was in the wilderness for forty days, that he was ‘with the wild beasts’, and we are told that ‘angels waited on him’. Not for Mark the threefold temptations of turning stones into bread, throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple, or ruling the kingdoms of the world. Those powerful and evocative stories have their place and their function, but not only does Mark not need them, he needs not to be constrained by them.

For in Mark’s two, simple verses, there is a far greater range of possibility, as Jesus is tested by the one who accuses, and as he wrestles with the wild beasts. For the Spirit has sent Jesus into the wilderness to work out through prayer what it means to be a child of God. God the Father wasn’t just being nice when he says, “You are my Son, the Beloved…” - that was not the First Century equivalent of a heart emoji on a smartphone.

And so Satan - the accuser - pushes Jesus into the wilderness of prayer, testing him to make sure he knows what the consequences are of being ‘beloved of God’ - testing him to make sure he knows that it means that God is ‘well pleased’ with him. Making sure he can see just how big the consequences are of being called into a loving relationship with the one God - a loving relationship that demands that major ‘change of heart’ that we call ‘repentance’, and which demands us to align ourselves with the kingdom of God. That’s why, of course, you need what the author of our first reading calls a ‘good conscience’. Because it is not very easy - not very authentic or effective - to be aligned with the kingdom of God if you have a bad conscience. It’s not very easy to live as a beloved son or daughter of God without that ‘good conscience’. But luckily, if we are church - if we are the Body of Christ - that is what is on offer to us through the grace of baptism, as we heard read from First Peter: Baptism…now saves you - not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience…

And that’s only possible because Jesus - the Christ - lived out the consequences of being God’s beloved, not just in the wilderness to which the Spirit propelled him after his own baptism, but even in the wilderness of Golgotha, when he died a death forsaken by all his friends, disciples and companions - and even believing he was deserted and forsaken by God. For resurrection comes - and can only come - through death, and that was the final consequence for Jesus of living into being God’s beloved, even though - paradoxically - it seemed to him that God has deserted him. That is why the author of First Peter can make the great boast with which that reading begun that “Christ suffered for sins once for all…in order to bring you to God.”

But it doesn’t mean it is easy being church. At least, it certainly wasn’t easy being church for those ‘dispersed’ groups of Christians scattered across the regions of modern-day Turkey. But what of us? As we start our Lenten journey, what do we make of the vocation of being church? How do we find being part of the Body of Christ?

The author of an illuminating study of First Peter that I recently read, writing in the United States only a few years ago, remarked:

“Most Christians today… are in some important ways not very distinguishable from unbelievers. We divorce at the same rate. We have the same addictions. We seek the same forms of entertainment. We wear the same fashions…”

Clearly, unlike the Christians to whom our first reading was addressed, we don’t stand out. Maybe that makes it easier to belong to the church - I don’t know. The question is whether it helps us to proclaim and build the kingdom of God? Donald Trump won the 2016 election on the back of his claim that he would make America great again. And this last Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave an interview to the BBC, in which he claimed, “America is back” - in essence, a statement of the significance or the greatness of this country underpinned by a very different set of political beliefs and attitudes from the previous administration.

Wherever your cross went on the ballot paper in 2016, 2020, or in any other election, and however you understand or interpret the idea of American greatness, we need to remember that the Christians who found themselves in what is now modern-day Turkey at some point in the latter part of the First Century never believed that their role was to make Asia Minor great. Peter, or whoever wrote in his name, reminds them that whether they are in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, or Bithynia, they are foreigners and aliens. This profound letter makes it quite clear that their allegiance is only and exclusively to the kingdom of God - even though that is anything but easy to live out.

And if we are serious in accepting the consequences of holiness - if we are serious in accepting the consequences of our baptism, let alone Jesus’ baptism - then this must be our allegiance as well. The question for us is whether living out this vocation is easier or harder than it was for these early Christians in Asia Minor, given how indistinguishable we often appear to be from those amongst whom we live.

“We divorce at the same rate. We have the same addictions. We seek the same forms of entertainment. We wear the same fashions,” said the professor I quoted just now, and continued, “First Peter challenges Christians to reexamine our acceptance of society’s norms and to be willing to suffer the alienation of being a visiting foreigner in our own culture wherever its values conflict with those of Christ.”

For after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

This morning we have seen Jesus go deep into the wilderness to be tested by Satan, and emerge with what First Peter calls ‘a good conscience’, ready to leap into mission to proclaim ‘the good news of God’ and preach about the only kingdom that mattered to him, and which should matter to any of his followers. It was not remotely easy. He was alienated, despised, tortured and killed for the sake of that kingdom. And a similar fate beckoned those who followed him - including those who found themselves in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.

As we journey through Lent this year, are we prepared to take on the discomfort of being an alien in our own homelands, reexamine the norms of our society, and proclaim the good news of God? For the Lenten journey ends with Christians gathered around the font, to recommit themselves to the covenant promises of baptism - that ‘appeal to God for a good conscience’. Are we prepared to face up to the consequences?