Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“His Death is Enough” (1 Peter 3:18)
February 18, 2018
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Have you ever worked for someone who had a Jekyll and Hyde personality, someone whose mood swings would keep you off balance—kind and supportive one day, distant and critical the next? I once had a boss like this, and the emotional rollercoaster of his Jekyll and Hyde personality created much anxiety for me and the rest of the staff, because day to day we never knew where we stood with him. One day he was like a kind uncle, the next day like an angry teenager. Many of you have experienced this dynamic, if not at work perhaps at home or school or somewhere else.
One of my favorite television shows ever is The Office, the brilliant comedy series about the daily lives of the employees of the fictitious Dunder Mifflin Paper Company in Scranton, Pennsylvania. One of the characters is Dwight Schrute, played brilliantly by Rainn Wilson. Dwight Schrute is neurotic and insecure to the nth degree, the “assistant to the regional manager” who finally gets his chance to be the acting manager of the Scranton branch. As acting manager Dwight exhibits Jekyll and Hyde behavior with his staff that wreaks total havoc. He orders everyone to gather in the conference room and then gives the following speech:
You guys are my best friends, and I mean that. Managing you for the last week has been the greatest honor of my life. And if you ruin this I will burn this office to the ground. And I mean that figuratively, not literally, because you guys are so, so important to me. I love you guys, but don’t cross me, but you’re the best (from “Dwight K. Schrute, Acting Manager”—season 7, episode 23).
It is a hilarious scene, but awkwardly so because the staff has no idea where they stand with Dwight. How could they? They are literally along on Dwight’s anxiety-provoking emotional rollercoaster. You can almost hear the instructions over the intercom: “Make sure the safety bar is locked in place, secure all loose items, keep your arms and legs inside the car at all times, and enjoy your ride.”
Although Dwight Schrute is hysterically funny in The Office, the problem is that many people view God like Dwight Schrute. Deep down inside many people hope they have good standing with God, but they do not know for sure, and they may see every event in their lives as some kind of sign that either God loves them or God is mad at them. They hope that at the end of the day their good deeds outweigh the bad ones so that they will have good standing with God.
Many years ago when I was serving at a different church a parishioner scheduled an appointment to talk with me. He was a good friend and one of my favorite people at the church. After the opening pleasantries he began describing to me the realities of his life—that his marriage of over twenty years was fraught with tension and at the point of breaking down, that his relationship with his son was strained, that he was stressed out and depressed.
After revealing all these things he looked at me and asked me if God was mad at him, if the struggles in his life were payback for his wild youth. “I could tell you some stories you would not believe,” he said. The emotional rollercoaster of his life, especially the plunge of the previous few years, left my friend wondering where he actually stood with God. Did God love him or was God mad at him?
Over years of ministry I have encountered this scenario often, and yes, in my darker moments I too have asked the same questions. Perhaps you have too.
Today I am preaching briefly on just one verse from the reading from the First Letter of Peter, a verse that directly connects with all this, a verse that summarizes the center of the Christian faith: “Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). This is high octane gospel about the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ for you, as the late Anglican priest John Stott wrote in his book The Cross of Christ:
How then could God express simultaneously his holiness in judgment and his love in pardon? Only by providing a divine substitute for the sinner, so that the substitute would receive the judgment and the sinner the pardon. We sinners still of course have to suffer some of the personal, psychological and social consequences of our sins, but the penal consequence, the deserved penalty of alienation from God, has been borne by Another in our place, so that we may be spared it (The Cross of Christ 134).
On the cross Christ suffered for sins once for all, the righteous (Jesus) for the unrighteous (you and me). Moreover scripture tells us:
While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8)
God did not wait for us to “get our act together” or “change for the better” before sending Jesus to die on the cross in our place—which is a good thing, because if that were so, God would still be waiting. Instead, “while we still were sinners Christ died for us”—or as we sing every year on Good Friday, “for our atonement, while we nothing heeded, God interceded” (Hymn 158 in The Hymnal 1982).
And Jesus’ death is enough. His substitutionary death on the cross remains a “once for all” death as is emphasized repeatedly in scripture: “The death (Jesus) died, he died to sin, once for all” (Romans 6:10); “(Christ) has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26); “It is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (10:10). When it comes to what you owe God for your sins, Jesus has paid your debt entirely, all of it. You owe nothing, because as Jesus succinctly said in his final moment on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
In the opening of the Eucharistic prayer of the 1549 Prayer Book, the same prayer used in “The Holy Eucharist: Rite One” in 1979 version of The Book of Common Prayer, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer beautifully emphasizes this as well:
All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world (BCP 334).
Do you believe this? Does it sound too good to be true? That’s one of the reasons the gospel is such good news—it sounds too good to be true and yet it is true, absolutely true. You are fully known by God, fully forgiven by God, fully loved by God with no catch because God in Christ has taken your place on the cross.
Again, as Peter put it, Christ suffered for your sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous “in order to bring you to God.” Your salvation is entirely God’s work, a free gift God offers you. God’s grace in Jesus’ substitutionary death for you is what brings you to God, nothing you could do or should do. When it comes to your salvation, the self-made need not apply.
Several years ago I was at a middle school graduation for one of our kids. There was the endless stream of awards for every conceivable academic subject and activity, even perfect attendance (I wanted to thank the parents who sent their kids to school sick and passed their sickness on to our kids—really appreciated that). There was the painful performance of the middle school band (God bless middle school band teachers), and the ego-filled speeches from the top graduates. Finally, the graduation certificates were given.
Each eighth grade graduate ascended the stairs and walked across the stage to be handed their certificate, flashing a braces-filled smile as they did so, and descended the stairs on the far side of the stage. One graduate had special needs and was wheelchair bound. He had not received a single award, and due to severe challenges to which very few people could relate, he would have never won a perfect attendance award. His father wheeled him to the stage.
There was an awkward moment at the foot of the stairs, because the father could not wedge the wheel chair up the narrow stairs, but then something very moving happened. The father simply scooped up his son into his arms and gently carried him across the stage to receive his graduation certificate—and yes, this young man also flashed a braces-filled smile for all to see. As you could imagine, he received the loudest applause of all. There was not a dry eye in the auditorium.
And that is what God does for you. God does not have a Jekyll and Hyde personality toward you. God is not mad at you. God loves you more than you could imagine with unchanging love. Jesus, the Righteous One, took the place of all the unrighteous ones, including you, on the cross. Jesus suffered for your sins “once for all” on the cross. Jesus is your substitute. His death is enough.
When it comes to the love of God for you, there is no rollercoaster at all.