Christie and I recently had dinner with dear friends from England who were visiting the States. We’ve known them for 30 year and shared much of our lives together. Yet, during a discussion at dinner I found myself defending my point of view about a certain subject, with a mixture of anger, arrogance and downright petulance.
At one point, I looked to Christie for support, but fortunately she said something like, “What is wrong with you!? Why are you talking to our dear friends that way?” Good question. And what made the episode even more ridiculous and ironic was subject I was so ungraciously defending – I was talking about the grace of God! I was clearly not helping my cause. The grace of God! Imagine what could happen if the subject was some other hot topic, like, say, a statue or a political stance. Obviously, you don’t have to imagine that scenario.
But, imagine what might happen in our society if the reminder from today’s epistle were written on all of our hearts. Peter says, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” The Apostle is specifically referring to our witness to Christ, but the gentleness and reverence part would be welcome medicine in our public square.
Vitriol is nothing new of course. Adam was vitriolic in the Garden of Eden, blaming both his wife and God for his own problems. One of his sons murdered another in an argument about who had the best sacrifice to give to God. Again, sadly ironic.
I’m reading a Nick Hornby novel called “How To Be Good” in which a surly, unhappy, aggrieved man writes a column for his local paper called, “The Angriest Man in Holloway.” He writes a weekly screed against everyone and everything – old people on buses, toddlers in supermarkets. His wife of 20 years finally has enough, so she has an affair and asks for a divorce.
But then the man pays a visit to a dodgy New Age guru named GoodNews, who radiates healing heat from his hands. And suddenly, all his anger dissipates – he is filled with gentleness and reverence, even when his wife’s lover barges into their house to malign their marriage. I haven’t finished the book, but it’s hard to imagine that the guru’s healing heat fully eradicated the vitriol resident in the human heart since the Garden of Eden. Wouldn’t it be nice if that was all it took to usher in gentleness and reverence.
What about those two words Peter uses? Gentleness is easily understood. Gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit. Gentleness is not weakness, but power used rightly, quiet strength used for the protection of others. One commentator describes gentleness as “strength under control, being calm and peaceful when surrounded by a heated atmosphere, emitting a soothing effect on those who may be angry or otherwise beside themselves, and possessing tact and gracious courtesy that causes others to retain their self esteem and dignity.” Imagine that quality directing our private disagreements and our public battles. Rarely to we have the preservation of another’s dignity in mind.
What about reverence? Why the use of that word? In his essay, “The Weight of Glory” C.S. Lewis talks about dealing with other human beings with reverence. He reminds his readers that each of us is made in the image of God and will live eternally. He says,
“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.
It is a serious thing…to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship…. There are no ordinary people. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner…. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
Those descriptions of gentleness and reverence convict me, and perhaps you too. But they don’t bring me any closer to acting with gentleness and reverence towards others. So in the absence of hot healing hands, what are we to make of Peter’s admonition? Well, obviously we look to the source of the real Good News. We depend on, as Peter says, the “hope that is in” us.
Peter distills the Good News powerfully a few verses after his admonition to gentleness and reverence. He says, “Christ suffered for sins for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” This is the true and unique good news of the gospel, which, of course, means “good news.”
As Fleming Rutledge reminds us, “the biblical story differs radically from any other religious, philosophical, or ethical system ever known. Every other system, including rabbinic Judaism and some varieties of Gnostic teaching from within Christianity itself, assumes some sort of distinction between godly and ungodly, righteous and unrighteous, spiritual and unspiritual. In it’s radical form, the gospel declares, ‘It is written, None is righteous, no, not one;’ and ‘there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’”
This revelation is what led Herman Melville in his masterpiece Moby Dick to say “In the scales of the New Testament…who ain’t a slave? It’s a mutual joinstock world…Heaven have mercy on us all. Presbyterian and pagans alike, for we all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly in need of mending.”
How does this relate to gentleness and reverence? Well if we are all the unrighteous, if we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head and sadly in need of mending, then wouldn’t it stand to reason that we might, in the words of Otis Redding, “try a little tenderness?” Of course it stands to reason, but the reality is that sin is unreasonable and that anger can override gentleness and reverence in a flash.
But, again, that is exactly why Jesus Christ “suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” This means that he absorbed the anger of the world into himself on the cross, and still does so today.
I’ll close with a story told by English psychologist Frank Lake, a story that shows how this might happen.
Many years ago, I met, in a friend’s rectory, a young man of immense physical proportions, heavily muscled. I heard his remarkable story. He had ‘done time’ and after it had been invited to stay with my friend. He had developed a habit of climbing a narrow stairway into an attic prayer-room, sitting there to gaze at the crucifix, letting its meaning seep into his soul.
Some further offenses came to light and he was sentenced to a further period in jail. He took in with him, in his pocket, a small crucifix. Some time later a letter arrived, asking for another crucifix to be sent him. When at last he was out and back home, he was asked what became of the first crucifix. His hand reached into a pocket and drew out a few shattered pieces of wood and the twisted metal which had been the Lord’s body, all that was left of the first crucifix.
He explained that he had felt cruelly provoked by a prison officer who seemed to “have it in for him.” On the occasion of one particularly flagrant taunt he had found his right fist coming up to punch the man in the face. By a miracle of inner prompting he had managed instead to force that hand into the pocket where his fingers opened just enough to grasp the crucifix. All the fury of his violent anger went into that hand. He crushed the crucifix to smithereens. The twisted fragments bore witness to the strength of his retaliatory rage. His violent anger, which had been justified enough in its way had spent itself on the Cross of Christ, accepting the Lord’s request to make him, not anyone else, the victim.
As Robert Leighton, Archbishop of Glasgow in the seventeenth century wrote to a very depressed woman, “I bid you vent your rage into the bosom of God.”…Christ was crucified in order that now our anger can spend itself, obediently and in faith, hurting the one provided, the Lamb of God.”
Jesus Christ suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.