Twenty-six years ago, I said to my son Jon, “Let’s build a pen for Myrtle, your box turtle.” Jon was so excited. I thought, “This will be a great father/son project.” We got to work, but at the age of nine, Jon wasn’t the fastest of workers and seemed to prefer TV to hauling rock. Before long, I got grumpy. And before long, Jon began to shrivel. His eyes welled up with tears. He went inside… like a turtle. And I built the turtle pen alone.

Twenty-six years ago, I was also preparing to preach on the same text that we’re preaching on this week. When I had asked the Lord what he wanted us to hear in 1 Peter 5, I realized that it was something like this: “Peter, I didn’t ask you to build a turtle pen. But I’m building a son, and I’d like you to help.”

How do you build a person as opposed to a bunch of turtles in a turtle pen?
There are advantages to boxes and turtles in turtle pens — they feel safe.
But turtles are unhuggable… and they bite.

About ten years earlier, I was building homes in Mexico along with my youth group from Los Angeles. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that Billy had bent a nail, couldn’t seem to straighten it, and was now hiding that fact from me. I said something like, “Hey bonehead, try this,” straightened the nail, made a joke out of it, and we all kept working.

When I left Bel Air Presbyterian Church, Billy pulled me aside and said, “Peter, I want you to know how you changed my life.” I hoped for a reference to some great message that I had given. But Billy said, “It was the nail.” When I looked confused, he explained, “In Mexico, when I bent that nail, I fully expected you to curse me and ridicule me in front of my friends. That’s what my dad would’ve done. But you acted like it was no big deal. It made me think, ‘Maybe love is real, and God is Love.'”

So, was I building houses in Mexico… or Billy… or maybe my ego?

In my heart, Billy was like the poster child for “Peter Hiett Ministries.” It wasn’t long before I preached on 1 Peter 5, 26 years ago, that I received a phone call from the father of one of Billy’s friends. He said, “Billy went for a walk at UCLA, pulled a gun out of a paper bag, and shot himself in the heart. He’s dead.” I don’t know why Billy did that, but I know that I hadn’t called him for a while, and I know that, just as I had felt pride, I now felt shame as if I had failed at building Billy. I had used Billy to build my own house, my ego, my turtle pen. But I’m pretty sure that I had helped him with the nail, not simply because I was trying to exalt myself but because — at least for a moment — I actually loved Billy, or Love loved Billy through me.

My hope is that when Billy sees God, he’ll recognize him from that day in Mexico and surrender his life to the one who gave him life in the first place. My hope is that Billy will recognize the Jesus in me because I recognized the Jesus in him. Jesus said, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.”

I suspect that one day, Jesus will look at Billy and me and say, “You are the house that I am building.” I bet he’ll say something like that to Peter and Judas. And I bet they’ll say, “Thank you for letting us help.” I’m not the only one to lose a disciple to suicide.

Jesus said to Peter, “You are Peter (Rock), and on this rock I will build my church.” I bet Peter felt responsible for Judas.

When John saw the New Jerusalem coming down, it was a temple — a house — built on 12 foundation stones upon which were the names of the 12 Apostles of the Lamb. Judas is the “Son of Perdition (lostness),” but Jesus came “to seek and to save the lost.” And so, as Peter told us, “He went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison… and this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead that, although judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the Spirit the way God does.”

Jesus is building a house. And until you catch a glimpse of the house that He’s building, you’ll keep building turtle pens for turtles who find themselves trapped in outer darkness, and one of those turtles will be you.

1 Peter 4:17, “For it is time for judgment to begin with the household (oikos: house) of God.”

Peter felt responsible; he tried to build the Lord’s house. That’s why he was rebuked by Jesus who said, “Get behind me, Satan.” That’s why he was rebuked by God on the Mount of Transfiguration. That’s why he denied Jesus three times, for Jesus, the Lord, refused to lord it over his enemies and thereby wrecked all of Peter’s construction plans. And that’s why Peter fell to pieces weeping after Jesus looked at him with the gaze of Relentless Love.

Jesus never asked Peter to build the church. He said, “You are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

And that’s why, having risen from the grave, Jesus found Peter on the side of the sea and asked him, “Do you love me?” and then said, “Shepherd (feed) my sheep.”

1 Peter 5:1, “Therefore I encourage the elders (the ones further along) among you, as a fellow elder… shepherd (feed) the flock of God… not under compulsion, but willingly; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over (lording it over) those in your charge but being examples to the flock.”

If it’s all about building turtle pens for turtles, then we would need to be all about legislation, enforcement, threats and promises — promises to keep people free from the pain of people like Judas, Billy, and little boys that would rather watch TV then haul rock for turtle pens.

But the Church — the living thing — has always grown best and fastest where turtle pens for Jesus are illegal and oppressive governments hold all the power.

Power is seized, often with bloodshed. Authority is earned, often with blood shed for those that would seize power. Authority is the power of Love. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.” God is Love. And Christ crucified is the Word of Love — the Imperishable Seed.

At the end of that message 26 years ago, I introduced our new building program and then said, “If we come together in love building a beautiful building and it subsequently burns to the ground, we will still have built the church — that is, be the church that God has built. But if we build a building that stands for hundreds of years but build it with compulsion, for shameful gain, and lording it over others, then we will only have built a lonely turtle pen full of lonely turtles.”

We built a great building, but someone complained to the ecclesiastical authorities that I might be suggesting that the “Gospel was preached even to the dead, that although judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.” …and then, for suggesting that the Word preached might actually be entirely successful.

They said, “You can’t say that.” And they seemed terribly offended. I don’t know, but I often wonder if that’s because it’s easier to build things with compulsion, for shameful gain, and by lording it over others, than to trust the power of a Seed that must die, lest it remain alone.

They said, “Recant, or lose this institution.” People still wonder why I did what I did. It’s really quite simple. And on my part, it certainly wasn’t brave. I didn’t want to become a lonely old turtle trapped in a turtle pen. And I didn’t want to renounce the Seed that I’d been planting for years.

If it comes to a choice between the turtle pen and the Imperishable Seed, always sow the Seed.

When Jesus was crucified, His church had shrunk from thousands down to His mom and Mary. He had written no books or policy manuals. He had no building or organization. All He could do was speak a Word: “Father forgive them; it is finished; into your hands I commit my spirit.”

The night before, He had said, “This is my body. This is my blood.” He is the Imperishable Seed.
Always trust the power of the Imperishable Seed, the Shepherd who feeds his flock with Himself.

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