Here's the message:
Our world is full of suffering. We see it in the senseless deaths of university students in California. We see it in the abduction of 200 plus Nigerian schoolgirls by extremists. Parents send their children to school every day fully expecting them to return home safely. But these children in countries separated by language, customs and many miles did not.Many in our own congregation are suffering physically or emotionally with diseases of all kinds. Suffering is pervasive in our world.
The letter of First Peter frequently addresses this aspect of the Christian faith. Both ancient and modern interpreters consider this letter to be one of exceptional clarity in the way it articulates the gospel. Martin Luther ranked it among “the true and noblest books of the New Testament.”
There are three basic kinds of suffering.The first is suffering that comes as a result of our humanity, when we experience disability due to age or disease.
The second kind of suffering is the result of sin. I do something stupid in my life and there are painful consequences because of that. This is best exemplified by man’s inhumanity to man. Look at the civil wars being fought around the world and the way we take care of the mentally ill, the homeless and the poor.
There is a third kind of suffering that is Christian suffering because of following Jesus. As Peter wrote, “You’re not the only ones plunged into these hard times. It’s the same with Christians all over the world” (5:9). Christians have always been persecuted, ridiculed and have suffered because of their faith.
The cost of discipleship was much higher for early Christians than it is for the average Christian in this country. Early Christians were ostracized from their families. They were martyred for the faith. Simply bearing the name “Christian” was a criminal offense. This is not our experience today here in the United States, but it remains the experience of God’s people in other parts of the world.
Suffering is pervasive and is part and parcel of being a follower of Jesus. Peter let his readers know that they were to be under no illusions regarding what it meant to follow Jesus. The community of faith would suffer as their Lord did. But they would also share his glory as well.
Peter did not write, “IF life gets really difficult,” but “WHEN” it gets
difficult (4:12). This is a description of the experiences of God’s community of faith and a reality check for any that thought they might get off easy in this life. Simply becoming a Christian doesn’t mean everything is going to be peaches and cream, hunky dory or totally awesome! We are going to suffer.
The sufferings of believers come from real and powerful sources. Not only did the early church experience persecution from those who did not believe in Jesus, but from the devil, who would cause suffering. God’s people were experiencing satanic opposition which would destroy them if it could (5:8). However, Christians had no need for anxiety because such suffering was the universal badge of followers of Christ (5:9).Christians trusted in God’s strong hand to protect them against this very real adversary.
How are we to respond to suffering in our lives today? Our response should be one of joy because it provides us with an opportunity to identify with Christ and to share in his sufferings. God is refining us to make us more like Jesus. Normally we see suffering as a sign of failure and loss. We wonder where God could possibly be in the midst of such difficulties. As Christians however, we know the reality of evil (just read the paper or watch the news).
How can we have such hope? As we heard in last week’s gospel, God does not abandon his people. There is a great future in store for us.
The only proper response to anything God brings our way is, “Bring it on!” One should praise the God whose gracious and redemptive dominion over all his creation will finally be revealed—whether or not it includes suffering for the sake of the gospel.
But why shouldn’t we be anxious when all hell is breaking loose in our
lives? After all, who is really looking forward to the pain of suffering? Peter said to “Live carefree before God; he is most careful with you” (v. 7). Literally, this means, “it matters to [God] what happens to you” (M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock). We are not left on our own with a far off God who is uninvolved in the lives of those he created.
Look at the verbs in the second half of today’s reading. How many of them describe God’s action? The vast majority tell us that in the midst of the sufferings we may experience for the faith:
God will promote us at the right time (5:6).
God is most careful with us (5:7).
God has great plans for us in Christ (5:10) and
God will have us put together and on our feet for good (5:10).
The present realities of suffering will not endure forever. Enduring the sufferings of this present life brings us the promise of future reward. However, this is not some pie in the sky future. Our life in God in today’s world has meaning in and of itself.
What is God saying to us as a community of faith at Bethel? I think Peter said it best, “Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner” (4:12-13).
We are not alone. “Whatever happens in this life, God’s promises revealed in the glory of Christ and his resurrection are sure. God will continue to restore [us] with creative gifts, to establish us firmly when we stumble, to give [us] strength in times of weakness, and to build us up on the firm foundation of the community of faith” (5:10) (James Boyce).
We are not alone because God is with us. This is true, but we alsoare not alone, because we are a part of the community of faith, the body of Christ, the church. The life of faith is a team sport. When we are struggling and weak and cannot walk, our brothers and sisters carry us.
Last Thursday we celebrated Jesus’ return to his Father, his ascension. Jesus would be with his disciples and us through the Holy Spirit, which was poured out on the church at Pentecost. Next Sunday is Pentecost when we celebrate the birthday of the church. This could not have happened if Jesus did not return to his Father. There would be no power for the early followers of Jesus and for us to share the gospel. Would there even be a church today?
As we draw close to God in prayer, study scripture, partake of the means of grace at the table and fellowship, we will experience God’s presence with us no matter what we are going through.
Later in the service, we will be praying the Lord’s Prayer. We ask that we not be led into temptation. Remember, we have an enemy that Peter describes as being “poised to pounce” (5:8). As Luther explains:
... we ask in this prayer that God would watch over us and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful self may not deceive us and draw us into false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins. And we pray that even though we are so tempted we may still win the final victory. (The Small Catechism)
M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary.
James Boyce, workingpreacher.org.
Martin Luther, The Small Catechism.