(A sermon based on 1 Peter 4:7-11 preached on August 10, 2014)
Most of us are familiar with the term elbow grease; it’s used in a phrase like “That pan was hard to clean—I really had to put some elbow grease into it!” It’s a way of saying that you had to put a lot of effort into a task.
My title is a play on that term. There are two ways I’d like you to think about it. First, let the phrase “elbow grace” help you think about the effort that we need to be making as Christians; Christ deserves our all because Christ is our all. Second, let the phrase “elbow grace” help you think about the fact that grace is our “elbow grease”; it is the grace of God that fuels and drives all that we are and all that we do.
In the opening words of our passage, Peter tells his readers, “The end of all things is near” (v. 1a). Now, it is likely that Peter anticipated that Jesus would return very soon. We must remember, though, that God’s time is not our time and God’s schedule is not our schedule; Jesus might not come back for thousands of years and it would still be, according to God’s clock, “soon.” We do neither ourselves nor anyone else any good when we listen to people trying to scare us into watching their shows and buying their books and controlling our lives by telling us that the Ebola outbreak or the fighting in the Middle East or some other event signals that the end is near. God’s wrapping up (cf. The Message translation) of all things is always near, regardless of how far away it is.
The important question is not “When is Jesus coming back?”; the important question is “What are we to be doing until he does come back?”
Peter’s direction is spot on for us here today.
First, he said “Be serious and discipline yourselves” (v. 7b). We have a life to live under Christ and we need to take it seriously. That means paying attention to our thoughts, to our attitudes, and to our actions. It means growing ever closer to God, becoming ever abler to follow Jesus and becoming ever more sensitive to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. We each need to make a personal commitment to such serious discipline. It’s time for football and one of the things that will mark a successful team is the seriousness and discipline with which they have made themselves ready to play ball. Such seriousness and discipline is what will make us ready to live Christian lives.
Second, Peter said that we are to pray. Our serious dedication to our Lord enhances our praying. Why? Because our life as Christians is a life of prayer; our life is a life of continuous fellowship with God and that is what prayer is. Prayer is communion with God as well as communication with God so as we grow closer to God we can communicate better with God.
Third, Peter said that we are to love one another. It is to be a “constant” love; the word can mean “fervent” or “intent.” Such love is not just a feeling; such love is a commitment to each other that shows itself in action. It requires effort. It grows out of our disciplined following of Jesus. Such love, Peter said, “covers a multitude of sins”; that is, it leads us to do the very hard work of forgiving one another and of working and living together despite our differences. As we grow in love for one another we are less likely to sin against one another by our attitudes, our words, or our actions, but when we do, we are more likely to forgive one another and to maintain our relationship as sisters and brothers in Christ.
Fourth, Peter said that we are to “be hospitable to one another” (v. 9a). In the early years of the Church, travelling was dangerous and it was important for Christians to welcome missionaries and other believers into their homes. For poor Christians, it was an especially demanding responsibility. What does hospitality mean to us in our context? For one thing, it means that we welcome one another into each other’s lives. We are glad to share our joys and burdens with each other; we think more about someone else’s needs than we do our own. For another thing, it means that we welcome any and all comers to our church. There is no one who is beyond the reach of the grace of God and so everyone is welcome in the house of God. Notice that Peter said that we are to practice hospitality “without complaining” (v. 9b). That will take discipline, won’t it?
Fifth, Peter said that we are to “serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received” as “good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (v. 10). By God’s grace we are saved and by God’s grace we have the gifts and abilities we need to serve each other. We are not to keep God’s grace and God’s gifts to ourselves; we are to pass them on to others. We are to make a conscious decision and make a disciplined effort to put God’s grace to work by helping and serving other people.
Finally, Peter makes it clear that even though we are called to use some elbow grace, to be disciplined in and committed to sharing God’s grace and love with other people by serving them, it is only possible because God is in us and with us. Everything that we are and everything that we do is because of God and so that God will be praised.
[The commentary on 1 Peter by Richard B. Vinson in the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary was particularly helpful in the preparation of this sermon.]