Easter 7 - Sermon – 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11
May I speak in the name of +the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen
“Discipline yourselves. Keep alert!........
…..…for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.”
Sometimes, words from one of the weekly lectionary readings just leap out at you don’t they? They seem to resonate so much with the current time that it’s easy to forget they were written a couple of millennia ago.
Those particular words from our reading from the first letter of Peter might almost have been taken straight from one of our government’s daily briefings! And so it was that I found myself focusing on that particular reading this week and reflecting on the sufferings we experience as human beings and the extent to which Peter’s words might speak into our current situation.
Peter wasn’t of course writing to churches at a time of national crisis or global pandemic when all nations were being similarly afflicted by a virus without discrimination. Rather he was writing to a group of fellow Christians who were being persecuted unjustly for their faith, Christians suffering simply by virtue of what they believed, an experience sadly not unknown to some of our congregation here at Holy Innocents. It was shortly after the writing of this letter that the emperor Nero had Christians burned alive to light his gardens at night!
Suffering was to be expected by Christians. It was part and parcel of life in the early Church. Both Scripture and Jewish traditions recognised that God sovereignly used trials to strengthen his people’s commitment or to purify their devotion. In many Jewish traditions it was believed that the end time would be preceded by times of great testing and intense suffering.
Here Peter tells his fellow Christians not to be surprised by the ordeals they will face. Those who suffer for their faith are told they are blessed as they share in Christ’s sufferings. Earlier on in Peter’s letter, in chapter 3, Christ’s suffering is cited as the example to be followed and his followers are told that if they suffer for doing what is right they will have God’s approval.
The word “suffering” appears numerous times throughout the letter and the Christian life is depicted as a challenging, testing one, with suffering, for want of a better expression, being par for the course. But Peter reassures his readers that such suffering will last but a little while and that God himself will restore, support, strengthen and establish them.
Today we’re inhabitants of a world where great efforts are made by many in society to eradicate suffering. When a virus emerges which threatens to kill millions we don’t, as in past centuries, continue with our daily lives regardless, simply accepting that many will inevitably die, rather we lock ourselves away in an effort to control and minimise the loss of life.
Suffering, certainly on a mass scale, is something we in the West that we watch on TV from the comfort of our armchairs, and not something we’re generally used to encountering ourselves in our own backyard. In short, whilst we might expect to face the usual and inevitable personal tragedies and bereavements from time to time, we don’t really expect suffering and fear to be a regular feature of our daily lives (although, sadly that might be the case for more people than we would like to think). Suffering on a mass scale is something for which we are largely unprepared. Unlike our Christian predecessors we are not used to the inherent uncertainty and insecurity such suffering can bring.
And yet, to be created, is to suffer. As someone recently put it “All creation is intrinsically costing”. The creative process can be difficult and painful. We shouldn’t be surprised by suffering. It’s an inevitable and inescapable part of life.
In the context of suffering for their faith Peter reminded his fellow Christians that they were sharing in Christ’s experience of suffering and could look forward to God working with them to strengthen their faith. For them suffering was to be a witness to the truth. They were to embrace and accept the suffering until God provided a way out, conscious that the cries of God’s people during unjust sufferings had always moved him to act on their behalf. As Christians we’re not to be surprised when trouble comes. Rather we’re to remember that when we suffer because of our loyalty to Christ he will be with us all the way. But what when the suffering is not by reason of our faith in Christ but by reason of something else? And what when it is all of humanity that is suffering?
Creation is, of course, an ongoing process. It doesn’t stop. God is continually involved. I rather liked the analogy drawn by a friend recently of us all inhabiting some kind of grand Repair shop in which Jesus is repairing and restoring us daily. It seems to me there is a great temptation to think of creation only in terms of how it affects us, a temptation to forget that we are but a part of God’s grand creation. If there’s one thing lockdown may have taught us it may be how when we humans are subdued other species thrive!
Despite the emphasis in Peter’s letter on suffering and persecution, despite the words reminiscent of recent government soundbites and slogans, the words of the passage which in fact struck me more this time when I read it were “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God” as well as “Cast your anxiety on him”.
It seems to me that much of our lives are spent learning how to control things, learning how to bend things (and sometimes people) to our own will. Creatures of habit, we’ve learned to control almost every aspect of our waking day. And then, something comes along, it may be a devastating flood, it may be a period of prolonged drought or it may be a deadly virus, which reminds us that we cannot control everything, that fear and uncertainty can’t be eradicated, that unpredictability and suffering are as much a part of life as our family celebrations, our jobs, our intellectual pursuits, our worship and our quest for economic well being. Something comes along which reminds us just how small we are, how little we know, how vulnerable we are. Something comes along which reminds us that we are part of something much bigger than us. We can’t escape fear, anxiety or the suffering such huge events can bring but we can cast our fears and anxieties on Him, secure in the knowledge that He too has walked the path of fear and suffering, and that the God of all grace will restore, support and strengthen us in the process and that, in due time, the suffering will pass.