One of my most oft quoted lines from the Bible gets read every Sixth Sunday of Easter in Year A. I first fell in love with this sentence while in seminary. The Rev. Dr. Ruthanna Hook, one of my homiletics professors, assigned us an off-the-cuff five-minute reflection based on 1 Peter 3:15b, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you;” It was an interesting challenge to offer that defense/account/answer to a room full of seminarians who were trained to think theologically, to reflect skeptically, and to offer critique of our work. Over the years, I’ve come back to that phrase again and again: challenging not only myself to “always be ready,” but inviting my congregations to do the same. We will never overcome the reluctance to be Episcopal Evangelists without embracing 1 Peter 3:15b.
This morning, however, I’ve noticed, maybe for the first time, that the sentence doesn’t end with verse 15. Instead, there is a semi-colon. This admonition from Peter (or likely someone using his pseudonym) brings with it a very important caveat that will make the hearts of Episcopalians sing while offering a strong critique to those street corner evangelists who decry the sinfulness of those who walk by, use the fear of hell to coerce, and suggest that only their way is the way of salvation. Here’s the advice of “Peter” in its entirety.
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 Greek here translates as “gentleness” or “humility” and “fear” or “reverence,” which points us to the two directions in which we must give an account of our hope. First, we speak to other human beings who have experienced life and faith in ways that are different than ours. When we tell them how the story of God intersects the story of our lives, we should always do so in humility, recognizing that our story is only our story. No one person’s experience is universal, and we all have our own understanding of God and of hope. When we share, we should recognize the power of the story of the other. Additionally, and perhaps even more importantly, we must recognize that we are telling the very story of God. We should not presume to have all the answers, but rather, with fear, awe, and reverence, should be pointing always beyond ourselves to the power of God at work in the world and in our lives.
When we fail to share our hope with gentleness and reverence, we harm the gospel witness. We should take this caveat, inexplicably broken apart by the oddities of chapter and verse, exceedingly seriously. Always be ready to give an account of the hope that is within you with humility and fear.