Written by Jacob Wiebe and Pastor Ed.
German – Ist da noch jemand damit ich Gotter Barmherzigkeit an ihm tu
English – The Power of Love
I Peter 4: 1-10
Over the past several weeks we have been listening in on and examining Peter’s letter to Christians scattered across what is now Eastern Turkey. It is often referred to as a “general epistle” since it is not addressed to a specific congregation or person, as Paul’s letters tend to be. Written probably late in the 1st century, we get a picture of Christians who were under some threat of persecution, and who were trying to come to terms with what it meant to remain faithful in those circumstances.
We have noted how Peter ties their hope to the resurrection; that Jesus not only died for them but also rose for them so that they no longer need fear death. He has built them up by recalling for them the many titles they can claim as their own. They are somebody! A holy nation, God’s own people.
And Peter advises them on how to live in their current environment, with non-believing masters and spouses. He suggests that they should take care so as not to provoke further persecution, but rather by their actions seek to win non-believers to the faith.
And he spends a great deal of the letter reminding them that suffering for doing good is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. If you are punished for doing bad things, well, then you deserve it. But if you suffer for doing good, remember that Jesus did the same and that it is always better to do the right thing, even if it means ridicule or punishment, than to give in and do what’s wrong.
It’s the kind of moral and ethical dilemma that is often posed to us in hypothetical situations, asking “what would you do if?” kinds of questions. And sometimes we are faced with those same questions in real life. At the boundaries training that I led several weeks ago in Manitoba, one of the scenarios posed to the pastors what they should do if they are called to a parishioners home, and when they show up, the woman meets them dressed in a negligee and invites them in for a glass of wine!
Now some wanted to argue that walking away meant facing the risk of false accusations, to which some others replied, “So it would be better to go in?” Peter, and I, would argue that it is always better to do the right thing, even in the face of threats, than to do wrong.
There is a story in the Apocrypha, found in Daniel 13, of Susanna who was confronted by several elders of the people who lay in wait for her in her garden as she was bathing, wanting to have sex with her. They threaten that if she does not give in to their advances, they will accuse her of meeting another man who escaped from them. Rather than give in, Susanna cries out and indeed, the elders accuse her and she is brought before the congregation. Only the intervention of Daniel saves her from death.
Peter would argue that it is better to choose the right, even if it means punishment, for doing right is following the way of Jesus.
As I noted, one of Peter’s themes is that of doing right, or good, in order to set a good example for those around and to quiet their ridicule. He notes, in the passage we read, that their friends are surprised that they don’t engage in the same kinds of activities as they did before. He also has some words for the Christians as they relate to each other, including words for the elders and leaders of the flock.
He urges all of them to practice hospitality toward each other, to serve each other with whatever gift they may have, and above all else, maintain constant love for each other, for he says, “love covers a multitude of sins.”
Now, it is amazing how much commentary one little phrase can generate, but believe me, this one has generated a lot, and some it quite interesting. Peter may have been remembering the proverb found in Proverbs 10:12 which reads, “Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers many wrongs” which is similar to another in 17:9 which reads, “One who forgives an affront fosters friendship, but one who dwells on disputes will alienate a friend.”
James also uses a similar phrase when he says, “My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20 you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (5:19-20)
Psalm 32 begins with these words. “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” The Greek word “Kalupto Kaluptw” is fairly straightforward in its meaning, to cover, hide, or conceal something. It’s the word that is used in the story of the disciples crossing the sea with Jesus asleep in the boat. Matthew says the boat was being swamped, literally, covered by the waves.
So what’s the issue with Peter’s statement? Well, one commentator asks,
What does it mean for “love to cover a multitude of sins”? Does it mean one of the following?
- Love prevents you from seeing or noticing sins at all?
- Love allows you to see sins, but you overlook/ignore them?
- Love allows you to see sins, but you forgive them?
- Something else?
R.C. Sproul, Jr. suggests that we have things to decide. He says, “When we are wronged our calling is to practice a careful moral calculus. Is this offense one I should let go of? Is it among the multitude that love covers? Or is this offense grievous enough that love means confronting in grace my brother?”
Many others suggest that clearly Peter didn’t mean to imply that love gets rid of sin. Rather they insist, love will confront the sinner and call them to repent. Ron Graham states bluntly,
“ Your love and my love has no power to blot out sin, or to modify the conditions under which any person’s sin may be forgiven. Only the blood of Jesus can blot out sin.
Love is not a carpet under which to sweep people’s sin. Love isn’t like a pretty green creeper that grows over, and hides, the rubbish people have thrown down. Rather it is a light which can reveal sin and lead a sinner to God’s love, mercy, and grace. But your love cannot do the thing which only the Saviour’s love can do.
Your love and my love can help sinners to face their sins and repent.”
One writer also made the point that Peter said love covers a “multitude” of sins, not “all” sins, so again we have to decide which ones to forgive and which to overlook. But I wonder. Why are we so quick to want to negate what Peter says? The Hebrew equivalent of this word often means to forgive, as in Psalm 32. The two verses in Proverbs I referred to both suggest that love does not bring up wrongs, as hatred does, but rather promotes good will by covering over others wrongs.
Perhaps Peter is remembering some words of Jesus when he was asked how many times someone ought to be forgiven, as many as seven times? And Jesus said, not seven, or seventy, but seventy times seven, or until you lose count. Or perhaps Peter was recalling Jesus teaching us to pray that God would forgive our sins, “as we forgive others their sins.”
Or perhaps Peter has simply seen the power that love can have on another person’s life. He had seen Jesus show love to the lepers, the blind and the lame, and even to a woman caught in adultery. He had been among the disciples who had experienced Jesus’ love and seen its effects on people. So maybe Peter knew what he was talking about.
One of our biggest challenges, I believe, is to believe that love really can cover a multitude of sins and make a difference in the world. We are generally quite quick to point out other people’s faults, and less generous with our words of praise. Love, as we’re talking about it here isn’t about how we feel about someone, it’s about how we treat someone. It has to do with our actions toward them.
And if Jesus told us to love our enemies, how much more should we be able to love our brothers and sisters in the church and treat them with kindness. And when we do that, or if we do that, we might be amazed at what love will cover over. Have you ever known someone who spoke despairingly about a particular group of people, and then got to know someone from that group who befriended them.
Quite a few years ago now, there was a story in the news in Nebraska about a person who was a declared neo-Nazi and who targeted a local Jewish rabbi with slurs and graffiti. Later on, the neo-Nazi became terminally ill, and the rabbi began to minister to him, befriend him, and show him love, which changed the man completely. Love covered over a multitude of sins.
When Jesus appeared to the disciples following the resurrection, recorded in John 20, he said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Do we truly understand the power we have to make a difference in people’s lives, either for good or for ill? Do we truly understand that showing love to another person, even people we think have done wrong, has the power to change them in ways we can’t comprehend? And showing love will change them far more than condemnation will.
Peter is very clear that our actions and speech must demonstrate the way of Christ to those around us. He reminds his readers that when they are called to give an account of their actions, they should be ready to do so, “yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” Our actions and our persons are all combined into one, and we want to be seen as whole persons. Yet all too often we think we can separate people from their actions.
“Love the sinner, but hate the sin” is a phrase we often hear. And so we think we can condemn the sin without making the person feel we are saying something personal about them. But that’s not a phrase that’s in the Bible. I’m not saying we should love sin. What I am saying is that we are called to love, period, regardless of sin, because love covers a multitude of sins. I have come to believe that we would get much farther in our mission of spreading the good news of Jesus if we would spend far more time loving people, no matter who they are, than spending a lot of time pointing out people’s faults and why we think they need to change.
The letter of I Peter is a call to live our lives in such a way that we provide a witness to the world around us. And the essence of that life is to live a life of love, not retaliating against those who harm us, speaking gently to those who might demand and explanation, and showing within the community of the church a new way of living with each other, an example of what the kingdom can and will be like. And we do get glimpses of that in the church today.
This past week, the Mennonite Church, indeed the world, lost an example of such a person at the death of Vincent Harding. Vincent was a Mennonite pastor, a leader in the civil rights movement of the US who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and a gentle spirit who spoke eloquently to his brothers and sisters in the church. He denounced racism both in society and in the church, yet never abandoned the ethic of love either in his words or actions.
May our lives be such that people will see our lives and give glory to God, and may we love abundantly, be hospitable to all, and serve one another with the grace God has shown to us. In so doing we will fend off that prowling lion, the devil, and receive the support and strength needed from God. To him be glory and honour. Amen.