Service for the Lord’s Day
Sunday, May 17, 2020
Prelude Stand Up and Bless the Lord Robert Powell
Hymn No. 379 My Hope is Built on Nothing Less (vs. 1 and 4) Solid Rock
My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
REFRAIN – On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand. All other ground is singing sand.
All other ground is sinking sand.
When He shall come with trumpet sound, O may I then in Him be found,
Dressed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before Thy throne. (repeat REFRAIN)
Confession and Pardon
Response Goodness is Stronger Than Evil John Bell
Goodness is stronger than evil. Love is stronger than hate.
Light is stronger than darkness. Life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours, victory is ours through Him who loved us!
Victory is ours, victory is ours through Him who loved us!
Prayer for Illumination
1 Peter 3:13-22
Sermon In Good Conscience
Hymn No. 339 Be Thou My Vision (vs. 1 and 3) Slane
Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart. Nought be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou, my best thought by day or by night. Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
Be Thou my wisdom, and Thou my true word. I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord.
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall, still be my vision, O Ruler of all.
Offertory Fairest Lord Jesus arr. James Michael Stevens
Janis McCollim, flute solo
RESPONSE Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart Henry Smith
Give thanks with a grateful heart. Give thanks to the Holy One.
Give thanks because he’s given Jesus Christ, his Son.
And now, let the weak say “I am strong.” Let the poor say “I am rich,”
Because of what the Lord has done for us. Give thanks!
Prayers of Intercession
Hymn I Love to Tell the Story (vs. 1 and 3) William Fischer
I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story because I know ‘tis true. It satisfies my longings as nothing else could do.
REFRAIN – I love to tell the story. ‘Twill be my theme in glory
to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story, for those who know it best seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest. And when in scenes of glory I sing the new, new song,
‘twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long. (repeat REFRAIN)
Blessing and Charge
Postlude Cornet Voluntary John Travers
Next week’s sermon is “Belonging for Others.” The scripture text is John 17:6-19.
Thanks to Jill Duffield of The Presbyterian Outlook and The Book of Common Worship (PCUSA) for portions of this service.
In Good Conscience
Everyone wants a good conscience. Who hasn’t wrestled over right and wrong, trying to listen to what your conscience is trying to tell you? And who hasn’t felt that pang of conscience when you’ve done something you know you shouldn’t have done? We’ll go to great lengths to have a good conscience. We’ll even convince ourselves that the truth is a lie so our conscience won’t bother us. When a child is caught being naughty, she’ll point to her brother and say, “He made me do it!” A CEO will convince himself that he didn’t know his company’s books were being cooked, even if he did conveniently look the other way. And when people can’t have a good conscience within the accepted norms of right and wrong, they’ll construct their own system of morality. The Sopranos lived by the mob’s code of honor. They might grow rich by murder and extortion, but within their own moral framework, they had standards of right and wrong. Suicide bombers in the Middle East can kill innocent bystanders in good conscience because they see their acts within the context of a skewed understanding of jihad.
A good conscience is important to us, but there is a lot working against it. In fact, the forces working against a good conscience are so strong that we need something more than our own willpower to keep our conscience from being overwhelmed. We face temptation, peer pressure, fear – left to itself, our poor little conscience can’t stand up for us on its own. A set of rules or guidelines can help, but what we really need is a guide, someone who can help us see in every situation what is the right thing to do. We need someone to give us courage to face up to all those things that overwhelm our conscience.
1 Peter was written to early Christians who were struggling with their conscience. They were faced with difficult choices. Their commitment to Christ put them at odds with many of the things that were accepted, even expected, in ancient times. Their faith put them at odds with things that had been engrained in them since their birth. For example, everyone who lived in the Roman Empire was expected to worship the emperor. You could worship any other god you pleased, but you had to acknowledge that the emperor had supreme allegiance in your life. Christians couldn’t do that. To follow Christ is to make him first in your life, ahead of everything, even country. If they didn’t worship the emperor, they could be tortured or even killed. Their consciences were conflicted. Should they be loyal to those values their government, their peers, even their families held, or should they be loyal to Christ?
Peter reminded those early Christians of their baptism. Baptism was their assurance that a good conscience rests in Christ, and in Christ there is nothing that can shake it. We share Christ’s death and we share his resurrection. Every power that could hurt us is subject to him. What do we have to fear by letting him guide our conscience?
One of the first Christians to show the power of a good conscience in Christ was a man named Stephen. (He is the namesake of our Stephen Ministers.) The story of Stephen is found in the seventh chapter of Acts. Stephen was a deacon in the church in Jerusalem in the first years after Jesus ascended into heaven. Deacons were those who cared for the widows and the orphans in the early church. Stephen was clear and articulate about why he served. He let everyone who would listen know that by serving the poor he was serving his Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, in those days the nerves of the authorities were still raw after their encounter with Jesus. They had crucified him because they feared that his growing popularity was a threat to their power. But things had only gotten worse for them. More and more people believed that Jesus rose from the dead. When Stephen spoke about Jesus, people responded and gave their lives to the Lord. So the authorities arrested Stephen and told him to account for himself.
Don’t you ever wonder what you would do if you were arrested because of your faith in Jesus? Do you wonder if there would even be enough evidence to convict you of being his follower? Do you wonder if you’d have the courage to stand up for what you believe? Stephen could have rationalized that he’d be more effective for Christ if he just kept quiet and stayed alive. But his conscience was firmly grounded in Jesus. He gave a long and eloquent defense of his faith, a powerful testimony to his Lord Jesus Christ. The crowds were so angry that they picked up rocks to stone him to death, but he calmly prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” His last words were not words of anger or vindictiveness or revenge. His last words were like those of Jesus, words of a good conscience. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:59-60) Stephen’s conscience was grounded in Christ.
William Sheppard had a conscience grounded in Christ. In 1890 he became the first black Presbyterian missionary to Africa. Sheppard went to the Congo. In those days the Congo belonged to King Leopold of Belgium. Leopold had vast rubber operations there. His henchmen would force villagers who lived deep in the forests to leave their farms and work in the jungles tapping the rubber trees for sap. That sap was processed to make rubber. The workers lived in subhuman conditions. Meanwhile, their families starved to death because there was no one to tend the crops.
One day in 1899 Sheppard was traveling in the bush and came across a camp of soldiers in the service of the king’s rubber company. There was a horrible stench in the air, and in the camp were a large number of objects arrayed on racks being smoked for preservation over an open fire. The leader of the soldiers told him they were hands – the right hands of 81 villagers who had resisted capture. The leader told Sheppard, “I always have to cut off the right hands of those we kill in order to show the State how many we have killed.”
Sheppard wrote about his discovery and other atrocities committed by the king’s rubber company in missionary journals that were widely distributed in churches in the United States and Britain. He wrote in spite of a law forbidding anyone to write anything critical of the king or his agents. As a result of Sheppard’s articles world opinion began to swell against the Belgian atrocities. The Belgians put Sheppard on trial, but he was acquitted on a technicality, probably because of the presence of the American and British consuls in the courtroom. As a result of Sheppard’s bravery, the world community put pressure on the king of Belgium to cease his forced labor.
Sheppard had plenty to fear in following his conscience and exposing those atrocities. He broke the law in order to do it. But the same faith that led him to brave the jungles of Africa, risk malaria, and risk instant death so he could preach the gospel to remote Bakuba people gave him the courage to speak out against the King of Belgium. When your conscience is grounded in the everlasting God, what do you have to fear? Sheppard ended his life as pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church in Louisville. When he died so many people came to his funeral that his little church couldn’t hold them all, so the service was held at Second Presbyterian Church where, many years later, I had the privilege of serving as pastor.
That same faith guides the conscience of Christians every day. Most of our stories aren’t as dramatic as those of Stephen or of William Sheppard. But a conscience grounded in Christ still gives courage as it has through the ages.
A high school junior I’ll call Alice was out driving around with some friends on a Friday night. There were five in the car. As they were driving through a park, the girl driving the car pulled a bottle of spiced rum out of her purse and took a drink. She passed it around. Alice was scared. She didn’t want her friends to ridicule her and make fun of her for being too good to do what they were doing. She didn’t want to be cut off from them. But she remembered what she had read in the Bible about our bodies being the temple of the Holy Spirit. She knew that what she did reflected on her family and on Jesus. She knew she didn’t have anything to fear, so she said no and asked the driver to let her off at a convenience store so she could call her parents to pick her up.
When you were baptized, God grounded your conscience in Christ. You share his resurrection to eternal life. Sometimes we get weary. We forget or get distracted. But Christ doesn’t forget. He nourishes us and he fortifies us with his spirit. He prepares us to stand up for him, and he stands with us, just as he stood with Stephen and William Sheppard and Alice. He gives us a good conscience. In Christ there’s nothing to fear.
 Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost (Boston: Mariner Books, 1999), p. 164.