THE WAVERLY PULPIT
Richard Secrest Hays, M.Div.
First Presbyterian Church of Waverly
211 Schmitt Dr., Waverly, Ohio 45690 + 740.947.2905
Sunday, May 21, 2017
Are You a Clear Spiritual Bottle?
Who of us hasn’t used ketchup? There’s hardly a restaurant of modest presentation that doesn’t already have ketchup on the table or offers it with the meal. We use it on eggs and fries, burgers and wieners. My mother had a friend who put it on watermelon. The thicker the ketchup the better. As one ketchup jingle years ago sang, “Anticipation.”
Ketchup has a history, the early part of which is not nice. Some coal tar was added to make it redder. Sanitary conditions around its preparation and preservation often made it all the more toxic. As late at the turn of the 20th century 90 percent of commercial ketchup was found to have ingredients which were injurious to health. That’s makes today’s Big Macs positively healthy.
Almost a century and a half ago Henry J. Heinz was committed to bottling pure unsullied ketchup. He pioneered sanitary conditions for making ketchup and led the way for training his employees in health and wellness. His efforts resulted in a perfect environment for making a ketchup that would not kill you. It was so good that it became a staple on American dinner tables.
Heinz was so focused on purity and transparency that he refused to bottle his ketchup in the opaque brown bottles that were common at the time. He used clear glass bottles as a way of demonstrating the product’s purity to the public. Heinz even opened his factory to 30,000 visitors a year so they could see that the company had nothing to hide. “It’s always safe to buy the products of an establishment that keeps its doors open,” he once wrote. By 1906, Heinz was selling five million bottles of preservative-free ketchup every year.
Henry Heinz built a lasting legacy based on transparency, earning the trust of consumers because he focused on purity and quality and hid nothing from them. That clear, quality bottle of ketchup, whether it’s the traditional glass design or the squeeze bottle, is still something that people trust well enough to take for granted, even in the red plastic bottles now sold. The transparent character of H. J. Heinz is still reflected in every one of his products since after his death in 1919.
Heinz made better ketchup and he wanted to make the world a better place. Are we as “zealous for good,” as Peter puts it in this week’s reading? Are we living lives that are equally transparent, “because of righteousness,” no matter what it might cost us? Are we clear spiritual bottles which allow everyone who sees us to know exactly what’s inside us?
Distress and persecution for their faith were the order of the day for the people who received the Peter letters. They lived in a world where greed and fear and lust for power produced all manner of hidden and open agendas and schemes to beat down social and political threats. The righteousness and good works of Christians were perceived as a threat to the extractive system of the economy and rule which enriched the already rich and empowered at the expense of the already poor and disenfranchised.
Rather than retaliate or go into hiding, Peter encouraged the believers to live lives of purity in the midst of suffering, “maintaining a good conscience … so that those who malign your good lifestyle in Christ may be ashamed when they slander you.” Peter urged, “Happy are you even if you suffer because of righteousness.” For Peter, the real test of the Christian life was the ability to stay pure and transparent, even when others were trying to demean your spirit and pollute your witness. Suffering is inevitable in the Christian life. Peter might go so far as to say that if we aren’t suffering because of our faith in Christ, we have given into or been absorbed by the culture around us. We are opaque bottles of toxic lives. What matters is how we react to the suffering that the world around us creates.
When the world pounds us, what comes out? Paul wrote the Roman believers (5:3), that “trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Jesus said that we should rejoice when we suffer, because it means that we are representing him and we are coming closer to the kingdom (Matthew 5:10-11closeAn error occurred.). Somehow, in a counterintuitive way, suffering can wind up producing the best in us.
We only need to look at a ketchup bottle to be reminded of this. We like thick ketchup, but then we get frustrated having to wait for it to make up its mind to come out of the bottle. The classic glass Heinz bottle doesn’t make it easy to pour out the ketchup. The thick tomato mixture is strengthened with xanthan gum, which makes it a “non-Newtonian fluid,” that is, one which changes its viscosity or flow rate under stress. That’s why you have to whack a bottle of ketchup repeatedly to get it to come out. The trick is to do it the right way. Pounding on the bottom of the bottle only causes the viscosity of the ketchup at the mouth of the bottle to get thicker. Instead of releasing the pent-up ketchup, we block it in. Instead, as every Pittsburgher knows, the way you get the ketchup to transform into free flowing liquid is to tap on the top of the bottle or, even more ideally, to tap two fingers on the raised “57” numbers on the bottle’s neck. That’s the force that produces the good stuff.
The pounding of persecution and suffering can produce the same effect in us. It can either cause us to stiffen, or it can trigger a flow of the fruit of the Spirit in us that can season the world. Just as the spice and herb rack offer all kinds of possibilities, so do Spirit’s fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22closeAn error occurred.).
Peter says that this is exactly what happened with Jesus, who suffered for our sins on the cross and yet produced the effect of bringing people to God. When we “regard Christ as holy” in our hearts and respond to the imposition of trouble in our lives by giving an account of this hope in Christ that is within us with “respectful humility,” we produce the kind of fruit that is transparently clear in conscience, and pure in heart, life and motive, the kind that will bring shame upon those who persecute us.
Jesus extended his own fruitfulness to the “spirits in prison,” those people who were disobedient in the days of Noah. Scholars debate what Peter actually meant here, but the main thrust of these verses is about baptism, which is the ultimate mark of purity, transparency and cleanliness for the Christian. As God saved Noah and his family “through water” during the days of the flood, so God saves us through baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ.
It’s a cleansing that goes much deeper than the removal of the dirt and crud that defiles the body and makes even things like ketchup to be lethal. Instead, it’s a cleansing that sterilizes and protects us from the long-term effects of death. Baptism reminds us that we are people who belong to Jesus and that we are to witness transparently to him in our conduct, our character, and even in our suffering.
Baptism is a sign and seal of salvation, But it is also a solemn oath made before God. The flood came as a judgment upon evil people, but for Noah it brought deliverance from their mockery and sin, ushering him into a new life. In baptism, believers identify with Jesus Christ, who separates us from the lost and gives us new life. Baptism is a sign of the new covenant, identifying the person baptized with the people of God and the community of Christ. Neither the ceremony, the water, or the removal of dirt from the body – the spiritual cleansing – saves us.
The water of baptism does not “wash away sin” literally. Baptism is the outward symbol of the inner transformation that happens in the hearts of those who believe. So the pouring of the water into the font as part of our words of confession and forgiveness is a visual reminder of what Christ has done for us.
What kind of suffering has been pounding at you these days? How can you allow Jesus to help you make it fruitful? In what ways are you living out your baptism, being a transparent witness for Christ in the world? As Jesus said, the true people of God will be known by their fruit, by what they produce. Are we presenting ourselves to the world as an opaque bottle of a vile and potentially lethal potion concocted of hatred, sin, and revenge?
Or, are we pure, inviting, and transparent? Does our living invite the world to see the vision of the one who loves us, cares for us and employs us?
The next time you pick up a bottle of Heinz ketchup and start to become impatient with the time it takes to receive its goodness, and prepare to pound the red delight out of it, remember where it came from. And remember where you came from, that Christ has made you a pure, transparent bottle of Spirit-filled joy to humbly strike fear and shame into the world that would declare you toxic.