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April 14, 2002
1 Peter 1:17-23
Leonardo Da Vinci's original idea back in the fifteenth-century was apparently meant to be a lifesaving device for people to use to rescue themselves from tall buildings that were on fire. His notebook showed what looked somewhat like a modern parachute. Modern engineers concede that, as clumsy-looking as this "parachute" was, it could have worked, but Da Vinci never took his idea beyond the drawing board. No record exists that a working model was ever built, nor that a "jump" was ever made with Da Vinci's parachute; nevertheless, based upon his notes and drawings, we may award Leonardo Da Vinci yet another credit--as "inventor of the parachute." [Jim Bates, "The world of parachutes, parachuting and parachutists," Aero.com.]
Have you heard this story? You are one of two people on a malfunctioning airplane with only one parachute. If you are a ...
Scientist: you give the other person the parachute and request he or she send you a report on how well it worked.
Philosopher: you ask how he or she knows the parachute actually exists.
English Teacher: you grade the grammar of the parachute instructions.
Surgeon General: you issue a warning that sky diving can be hazardous to your health.
Of course, parachutes are important. A man hijacked a Philippines airliner, robbed the passengers and crew of their cash, then bailed out near a village east of Manila. They found him shortly afterwards, deader than a doornail. Seems like our plucky hijacker made his getaway using a homemade parachute. According to a villager on the ground, the hijacker's chute separated from the hijacker almost immediately, making everything else moot. Note to self: Do not make parachutes at home. ["Ephemera," Wired News, May 26, 2000]
Charles Plum, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, was a jet fighter pilot in Vietnam. After 75 combat missions, his plane was destroyed by a surface-to-air missile. Plumb ejected and parachuted into enemy hands. He was captured and spent six years in a communist prison. He survived that ordeal and now lectures about lessons learned from that experience.
One day, when Plumb and his wife were sitting in a restaurant, a man at another table came up and said, "You're Plumb! You flew jet fighters in Vietnam from the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. You were shot down!"
"How in the world did you know that?" asked Plumb.
"I packed your parachute," the man replied. Plumb gasped in surprise and gratitude. The man pumped his hand and said, "I guess it worked!"
Plumb assured him, "It sure did -- if your chute hadn't worked, I wouldn't be here today."
Plumb could not sleep that night, thinking about that man. Plumb says, "I kept wondering what he might have looked like in a Navy uniform -- a Dixie cup hat, a bib in the back and bell-bottom trousers. I wondered how many times I might have passed him on the Kitty Hawk. I wondered how many times I might have seen him and not even said Good morning, how are you,' because, you see, I was a fighter pilot and he was just a sailor."
Plumb thought of the many hours the sailor had spent on a long wooden table in the bowels of the ship weaving the shrouds and folding the silks of each chute, holding in his hands each time the fate of someone he did not know.
Now, Plumb asks his audience, "Who's packing your parachute? Everyone has someone who provides what they need to make it through the day." [Charles Plum, "Parachutes," courtesy of Tim Puffer, Getfed.com]
On a clear spring day, near an airport north of Madison, Wisconsin, Alan Klapmeier wished he had a parachute. He almost died that day. He was taking an advanced flying lesson, with an instructor sitting beside him, when his plane collided with another plane. Klapmeier's wing sliced through the strut that supported the other plane's wing, and that aircraft spun into the ground, killing the pilot. Alan Klapmeier had to ram the control yoke hard to the left to keep his plane -- now missing part of its right wing -- on course back toward the runway. As he neared a landing, he realized that he had pushed the yoke as far left as it would go. In moments, he was going to begin rolling over to the right. Then his disabled wing would strike the ground, sending the plane into a cart-wheeling crash. But death took a holiday. With a second to spare, Klapmeier felt the wheels touch the runway. He survived.
Now you might think that Alan Klapmeier would walk away from such a harrowing experience determined never to fly again, but you would be wrong. Realizing that existing small planes were risky, he committed himself to making them safer. He decided to start building planes with parachutes. He and his brother Dale have developed the Cirrus SR20--a four-person aircraft that contains, as standard equipment, a parachute for the whole plane.
This is one solution to the long-standing question of how best to protect pilots and passengers. Fired by a rocket, this Kevlar parachute enables a plane to drift safely down to Earth, saving the lives of everyone on board.
Like the Klapmeiers, we, too, are parachute people. In v18 of today's lesson, the apostle Peter reminds us that we "were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from [our] ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold." He is not talking about a Kevlar parachute, of course, but a Christ parachute to save us from ourselves and our sin.
The first letter of Peter was written to encourage the church in a time of persecution. Christians were a tiny, struggling minority amidst a powerful, belligerent pagan culture; nevertheless, they have hope that enables them to live even amid suffering and persecution. This "living hope" demands an equally vital response from believers. Peter summarizes the believers response with a general call to holiness. Verse 17 proposes an attitude of "reverent fear" as the basis for personal obedience and holiness.
This "fear" is not a terrified quaking-boots fear that God will "get you" if you don't measure up. Note that Peter unabashedly refers to God familiarly as Father -- implying divine tenderness and concern. Peter's call to "reverent fear," however, reminds his audience that even God the "Father" is still magnificently holy and totally other.
As we read the scriptures, we find a growing conviction that God is, on the one hand, unspeakable mystery and, on the other, that God is actively concerned with our lives. The divine presence tabernacles with us, and is the controlling reality in every situation, but the presence is so awesome that we only approach it with fear and reverence. This is the attitude of worship.
And it is this attitude of awe and wonder at God's power that makes it possible for Peter to offer his most comforting words to this exiled band of believers living at great distances from other believers. Because of God's strength, we are able to experience a sense of calm and confidence, trust and reliance, in this powerful, uncontrollable mystery that is God. As Peter says in v21 "that your faith and hope might be in God."
Peter tells his audience that they are a ransomed people. They have been redeemed not with money, but with "the precious blood of Christ." This "ransom" imagery was an important part of the early churchs thinking about its relationship with Christ. Mentioned again explicitly in Mark 10:45 and 1 Timothy 2:6, Christians found this whole concept validated by their reading of Isaiah's reference to the "Suffering Servant." In Isaiah 53:10-12 this Suffering Servant "redeems" (ransoms) Israel from her sins. 1 Peter speaks here of "a lamb without defect or blemish" (an image itself recalled from Exodus 12:5), just as Isaiah 53:7 had spoken of the suffering servant as a "lamb." Thus Peter welds this new Christian community of faith to the history of God's redemptive work as carried out in the Exodus and as foretold in Isaiah.
God's past, present and promised future redemptive activity is the cause for Christian "trust in God" (v. 21). Believing in Christ's resurrection both grows out of this trust and magnifies it. Christian hope is dependent upon the trust we have in this redeeming God.
Love One Another
Peter goes on to specify some particular demands made upon Christians who hold this hope. These demands involve not just God, but extend into the community of faith, encompassing all Christian brothers and sisters. He calls of us to "love one another deeply from the heart." This love flows from the depths of our deliverance. The only legitimate response from those are redeemed is boundless love.
Verse 22 reads, "Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently"
These verses from I Peter ch. 1 reflect a typical pattern in 1 Peter: a call to holiness that builds to a command for shared love among all believers. This demonstrates the apostle's concern for the future well-being of these Christian communities. Baptism does bring individuals into the community -- as each confessor is "born anew" -- but in order to embody the "living and enduring" qualities of God's Word in this "new life," communities of Christ must grow and flourish. The only way this can happen, scripture declares, is through a spirit of "genuine mutual love." Parachute people are people of love.
But the important thing about parachutes is that you have to trust them. You can not always see them, packed and strapped to your back. You can not fuss over them or fiddle with them when they're lodged deep within a Cirrus SR20. You can not test them in the safety of your home. You can not control them as they deploy in a mighty rush of wind. You simply have to trust them, rely on them and have complete faith in them, as they blossom above you in the sky and save your neck.
Peter's point is clear: God has provided a parachute, but it requires an element of trust. God destined Jesus to save us "before the foundation of the world" (v. 20). God's divine research and development plan put Jesus in place long before we began to spin sinfully out of control and plummet headfirst toward destruction. Just before impact, Jesus "was revealed at the end of the ages for our sake," announces Peter; Christ came and stopped our descent into a life of meaninglessness, sin, and disobedience.
Because of this, "we have come to trust in God," concludes Peter in v21, "who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God." The point of Christ's sacrifice is not to give us a pleasant little parachute ride, but is to save us for a new and more abundant life: a life in which we trust in God and set our hope in him. In other words, the point of Christ's parachute is to send us soaring again. It is to get us back in the air and flying right -- maybe for the first time.
Respond in Love
So what does the life of a parachute person look like? According to Peter, it involves the purification of our souls by obedience to the truth (v. 22). This obedience is a deep and heartfelt connection to the one person sent by God to show us the way to live and to save us from death and despair. When we are obedient to Jesus, we are tied tightly to the parachute that can deliver us to safety.
Peter wraps it up by saying that the purpose of all this is so that we might have "genuine mutual love." And as if that were not clear enough, he adds: "Love one another deeply from the heart" (v. 22). Benjamin Franklin put it another way to John Hancock: "We must indeed all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."
Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of her nephew Will's first birthday party. The little boy was the center of everyone's attention, and so he happily did a little dance -- until a jealous 7-year-old named Jason charged over, put both of his hands on Will's chest and shoved. Will fell hard. His rear end hit first, then his head, with a crack.
He looked utterly surprised at first. No one had ever hurt him before, and he did not know what to make of it. Then he opened up his mouth and howled, but not for long. His mother hugged him and helped him to his feet, and the first thing Will did was to totter over to Jason. He knew Jason was at the bottom of this thing, but since such meanness was new to him he didn't know what to do. So he did what he had always done. He put his arms around Jason and laid his head against that mean little boy's body.
"What Will did to Jason put an end to the meanness in that room," observes Barbara BrownTaylor. "That is what love is ... not a warm feeling between like-minded friends but plain old imitation of Christ, who took all the meanness of the world and ran it through the filter of his own body, repaying evil with good, blame with pardon, death with life. Call it divine reverse psychology. It worked once, and it can work again, whenever God can find someone else willing to give it a try."
We need to give it a try, as a person, a community, a nation. Social scientists who have spent careers studying how the self-sacrificing World War II generation begat what came to be known as the "Me Generation" predict that America's war on terrorism could transform our national character and forge community bonds as powerfully as did the attack on Pearl Harbor. But they also warn that Americans have so thoroughly lost the habit of togetherness that this new sense of unity, if not nurtured, will vanish as quickly as the group tears shed after Princess Diana's death.
"Will this last? It's a question I've been asking myself a lot over the last few weeks," said Harvard professor Robert Putnam, who teaches at the John F. Kennedy School of Government ..."The immediate effect of the attacks has been to reverse what has been a 30- to 40-year steady decline in most measures of connectedness or community," Putnam said. "Blood donations are up. Volunteering and philanthropy are up. People are hugging their kids and saying hello to their neighbor and joining in community activity. That's the terrific news, and that's real.
"The bad news is that's always true," Putnam said. "After every crisis, whether it's a flood, a hurricane or war, there's always a spike in community involvement. The real question now is: How long does it last?" The impact of Pearl Harbor and World War II is still visible today in the habits of older Americans. "That generation, all their lives and across all races and classes, joined together more, voted more, trusted more, worshiped more," Putnam said. "That generation was permanently marked by World War II, and it had a terrific effect on American public life over the last half-century." [April Witt, "Shedding our shells," The Washington Post, October 14, 2001, A1.]
So, are you willing to give it a try? To show genuine mutual affection, loving one another deeply from the heart? To purify your soul by your obedience to the truth? To set your faith and hope on God, the one who raised Jesus from the dead and gave him glory?
If so, you are born anew. You are saved from destruction and sailing smoothly on the wind of God's Spirit. Why? Because Jesus Christ packed your parachute. He is the parachute. And now, you are a parachute person. Amen.
Fallows, James. "Freedom of the skies." The Atlantic Monthly, June 2001, 42-45.
Taylor, Barbara Brown. "It's hard to hug a bully." Christianity Today, January 11,1999, 74.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 5/6/02