Sunday, July 2, 2023

Sermon: "The Impression That I Get", 2 Peter 1:1-11 (July 2, 2023)

Now that we’ve finished with Isaiah, the next mini sermon series that the Narrative lectionary suggests for the summer is on 2 Peter. It’s an unusual choice – preachers tend to avoid this epistle, for reasons that we may uncover shortly. 2 Peter isn’t the shortest book of the Bible, but it’s definitely a quick read at just three chapters long. Like many other biblical texts, the authorship of 2 Peter is uncertain – scholars believe that neither 1 not 2 Peter were actually written by the Apostle. In fact, evidence suggests that they were written by two different individuals at least a generation after Peter’s death.

Whatever its authorship, 2 Peter was likely the last of the canonical epistles to be written. Its author therefore had a wealth of resources already available to him, and in many ways, his writing reflects that. Like those who came before him, the author leans heavily on established theology and on the authority of both scripture and the apostles to make his arguments. But while it might seem on the surface to be just like any other biblical letter, 2 Peter makes some choices that ultimately set this epistle apart from the others – and not necessarily in a good way.

We don’t even have to get into the meat of 2 Peter’s message to get a sense of how this letter is different. Although today’s reading only gives us the opening verses, there’s a lot that we can learn even from our very first impressions of this book. To begin with, the author uses both a Hebrew and a Greek name to establish his credentials: “Simon Peter”. We don’t find this “double naming” in any of the other epistles. Other writers generally use the name that makes the most sense in their immediate context – a Greek name if addressing a Gentile audience, a Hebrew name if addressing a Jewish audience, or else whatever name they’re best known by. But the author of 2 Peter isn’t satisfied to limit himself in that way – he wants both Hebrew AND Greek speakers to listen to him. He’s doubling down on his authority – even though, remember, he isn’t even actually Peter!

This unique introduction may also be a result of the letter’s intended audience. The writer of 2 Peter doesn’t plan for HIS readers to be limited geographically or ethnically; he has different criteria in mind. Our faux Peter addresses his audience in an EXTREMELY unusual way – with the exception of Jude (which is written broadly “to those who are called, loved by God the Father, and kept safe by Jesus Christ”) every single other biblical epistle is addressed to a specific person or group of people by name. 2 Peter, in contrast, is written “to those who received a faith equal to ours”. Whether intentional or not, this address seems to be a test of the AUDIENCE’S credentials. IS your faith equal to the faith of Peter, one of Jesus’ closest personal friends? If not, this letter isn’t for you. Like a ride at an amusement park, “You must have at least THIS much faith to be included,” as far as the author of this letter is concerned.

The third and final part of an epistle’s introduction, the formal greeting, is where 2 Peter diverges most dramatically from tradition. Without exception, every other biblical letter greets its audience by offering “grace and peace through the Lord”, in one form of another. Sometimes it’s “the grace and peace of Jesus Christ,” sometimes it also includes love or mercy, but grace and peace is always offered directly through God. 2 Peter, however, offers grace and peace “through the KNOWLEDGE of God and Jesus our Lord,” as if knowledge is a prerequisite for this gift. He then goes on to mention knowledge four more times in the next nine verses. Whereas Paul writes about justification by divine grace through faith alone, 2 Peter seems to believe there’s more to it than that. Faith is great, it seems to say, but knowledge is an essential mediator between us and God.

So you may be starting to understand why preachers usually avoid 2 Peter. This faux Peter isn’t a particularly likable guy. Within the first two verses, he’s already come across as arrogant, exclusionary, judgmental, and elitist. And I can tell you that these impressions only get stronger as you work through the letter. It’s difficult for anyone with a grace-centric, welcoming theology to listen to what he has to say.

This presents us with a serious conundrum. Because the Bible tells us that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character,” so in spite of its glaring faults, even 2 Peter must have some sacred wisdom to share. Indeed, already in in these first verses, we find some nuggets of divine truth: 2 Peter gives us an illuminating version of the fruits of the spirit, and his lessons about false prophets (which we’ll get to next week) are important to hear. But we can’t benefit from these teachings if we can’t get past their presentation, can we?

The problem is that Faux Peter lets his own priorities and values take center stage instead of the gospel. The balance between authenticity of self and clarity of message in his letter is all wrong. It’s the same problem that many of us have with job interviews. Imagine showing up to an interview, qualified and prepared, thinking you have the job in the bag. But when you discover that you DIDN’T get the job, you realize that some aspects of your presentation may have distracted from your qualifications. Maybe your resume had some pretty major typos. Maybe you wore your lucky socks – that you hadn’t washed in six months. Maybe you forgot that the water bottle you brought with you had a sticker with a competitor’s logo on it. Little things that you weren’t even thinking about because they’re just a part of who you are, and they have nothing to do with your actual skills and qualifications. None of these things are wrong or bad in and of themselves, but they still get in the way of your message: that you would be a great employee.

Now imagine that instead of a resume with a few typos, you just handed them a sheet of scrap paper with your past jobs scribbled on it. In addition to your lucky socks, you wore your favorite old crocs. And instead of a sticker with a competitor’s logo on it, you wore a t-shirt that said, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”. Again – nothing criminal or innately wrong about any of that. But even you probably wouldn’t hire yourself if that’s how you presented at a job interview! THAT’S how 2 Peter comes across. Faux Peter has been given an important message to share, but he foils it by getting in its way.

Whether you’re preparing to share your job qualifications or the gospel of Jesus Christ, it’s critical that you don’t let anything get in the way of your message. I’m not saying that you should hide your true self, in either interviews OR in evangelism, but you should always be aware of how you’re coming across. Faux Peter isn’t actually a bad guy. He’s inspired to write his letter out of love for the Church and concern for its preservation. False prophets had been spreading skepticism about Christ since he hadn’t returned as quickly as they anticipated, and he doesn’t want anyone to be led astray. But in his zeal, he winds up creating a document overflowing with frustration and vitriol, which has led generations of Christians to reject his words entirely and miss out on his larger message.

This problem isn’t unique to first-century Christians – and it’s not one that afflicts any particular denomination or political affiliation more than another, either. We’re all human, with limited human perspectives, so it’s natural for us to place our perspective at the center of our testimony– it’s all we know! But in order to be effective disciples, we HAVE to be able to let the gospel speak for itself. Of course, we can (and should!) also share how we understand it and how it’s changed our lives, but that all must be secondary to God’s radical message of justice, mercy, inclusion, and love.

As I see it, there are two lessons for us to learn from our first impressions of 2 Peter. The first is that biblical criticism is a vital part of hearing God’s Word. Not “criticism” in the sense of “finding fault”, but in the sense of subjecting scripture to scrutiny and discerning its context. Faux Peter isn’t one of the false prophets that he rails against, but he frames the gospel’s words using his own (rather off-putting) ideas. And if we aren’t able to separate the man from the message, we’ll never be able to glean the truth that lies underneath.

The second lesson is to realize that we’ve all been a “Faux Peter” at one time or another. We’re all standing at the very end of a long line of prophets, apostles, and martyrs, of interpretations and traditions, and we all bring our own ideas with us, too. It’s so easy to let any one of these voices speak louder than God’s. But that’s not what we’re called to do. Through the life and witness of Jesus Christ, we know that none of us is more important than any other, that salvation is a gift that has nothing to do with merit, and that no human quality can stand between us and God’s grace. It doesn’t matter how we feel about it; THAT is the gospel message. And THAT is what the world needs to hear – not our opinions.

You can tell a lot from first impressions. So from the very first moment we open our mouths to share the Good News, we have to be conscious of how we’re coming across. Whose perspective are we presenting – our own, or God’s? Whose agenda is front and center? What are we communicating that we don’t mean to? Who are we pushing away? Don’t make the same mistake 2 Peter does. You can’t improve on perfection; let the gospel speak for itself from the beginning. If THAT pushes someone away, it’s between them and God. But as long as you’re faithful in your message, you can be sure that your first impression will always be – literally – divine. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment