you really believe that?!

The text for yesterday (1 Peter 3:13-22) was something of a strange mish-mash.  There’s at least four or five different sermons hiding in there.  The theme that kept jumping out at me was how out of step with the culture the recipients of this letter must have felt, an experience that we share with them.  Reflections from yesterday are after the jump.

I don’t know about you, but I found that a little difficult to follow.  Hang in there, though.  It addresses concerns that really matter.  It deals with fear, with hope, with all the mess of life.  It’s all in there.  I promise.

Let’s start with a little context.  The author of this letter, who was almost certainly not the apostle Peter but more likely a person who learned from the apostle Peter, is writing to other Christians.   And they’re having a hard time of it.  It’s not clear when this was written, so we don’t know exactly what they were facing.  It could be that they were facing violent persecution–being thrown to the lions, that kind of thing.  It seems more likely, though, that they were facing something milder, more like subtle discrimination.

Christians at the time weren’t willing to worship the Emperor as one of their gods.  They wouldn’t declare that Caesar was Lord.  They said Jesus was, Jesus was the only Lord of their lives.  And that just kinda made them suspect in their neighbors’ eyes.  A rough parallel might be the kind of suspicion that our Muslim neighbors have had to face in the last decade – the way people look twice at an Arabic man on a plane, the way we stare too long at a woman who covers her head.

It’s important to recognize that as Christians today our experience is different from the people this letter was written to.  No one is going to refuse to sell us a home because we worship at the Presbyterian church.  The police are not going to come bang on our doors because we’re Christians.  It would be difficult to argue that in any meaningful way we suffer at the hands of the state for our faith.  This letter is to people who do suffer because they declare that Jesus is Lord of their lives.  That’s an important distinction to remember because there are people in the world who do suffer in that way.  We don’t want to make light of that or pretend we’re in the same boat.

I do think, though, that we share something with the people who received this letter.  We share their experience of being out of step with our culture.  Only 44% of Americans under thirty profess belief in God.  Fewer than one in four Americans attend religious services weekly.  A recent Barna poll found that the vast majority of young Americans believe that Christians are “antihomosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, too political, out of touch with reality, and boring.”

Increasingly we live in a society that views what we do each week in this space with some mixture of benign condescension: “Well that’s sweet, that you get together each week and play make believe,”  to outright suspicion: “Are you, like, one of those fundamentalist Christian?” to, my favorite, “You say you’re a Christian, but you seem normal.”

All of these responses are some variation on the question, “You really believe that?”

And it’s a fair question.  You really believe that?

The claims made by our faith are misunderstood by our wider society, and directly contradicted.  A recent example was when Osama bin Laden was assassinated.  The response of our faith, to continue praying for our enemies, was irreconcilable with the celebration counseled by our culture.  If you found yourself trying to explain our love ethic to someone, no doubt you got some variation of the question: you really believe that?!

The truth is, while maybe at some point our faith would have put us squarely in the mainstream of American culture, it doesn’t anymore.  It puts us somewhere out on an edge.  And that’s an experience we do share with the Christians who received this letter.

One of the places we most clearly see this cultural clash is in our beliefs about suffering.  And that’s what this letter’s about.  It’s about how to face suffering.

How does our culture view suffering?  What are we told about suffering?

  • It’s really bad.
  • It might very well be our fault when it happens.
  • If we’d work hard enough, lose enough weight, network well enough, and send out the right intentions into the universe (anybody read The Secret?), we’d be able to avoid it.
  • And if we could avoid it, our lives would be much better.  Then we’d be whole.

Salvation, in our cultural parlance, is to avoid suffering.  Right?

That is not what our faith says.  Our faith would call these claims, that suffering can and should be avoided, a lie.  That’s what this letter says.

First, the idea the that suffering can be avoided.  It’s just not true, is it?  I mean, have you ever met someone whose life is free of suffering?  All religions and value systems wrestle with the problem of suffering.  Our faith takes suffering and puts it right smack dab in the middle.  It says even God doesn’t get out of it.  Christ, God’s own self, suffered, was crucified, and died.

So how do we deal with the crumminess in life?  One thing this text says is to remember that Christ also suffered.  That’s what verse 18 is about.  Christ also suffered.  We’re not alone in this.

There is some suffering in life that is unavoidable, isn’t there?  And the Christian response is not to live our lives in fear, running away, seeking escape in all the many, many ways available to us, seeking anxiously, neurotically, fearfully to hold it all at bay.  No, Christianity says, these things will happen.  Christianity is deeply realist in this way.

But now, let’s be clear.  This letter is not saying to seek out suffering.  We’re not worshipping suffering.  More suffering doesn’t make you more holy.

When we talk about suffering and our faith we get turned around, sometimes, don’t we?  It’s verses like 14 that can cause trouble.  Verse 14 in the NRSV says, “Even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.”  The Good News, which you have in the pews in front of you is even more stark, “Even if you should suffer for doing what is right, how happy you are!”  You could read that and think, well, then, if I want to be happy in God’s eyes, I better go find some suffering.  I should run myself ragged, or seek out destructive situations so that I can really suffer and then I’ll be holy, then I’ll be righteous, I’ll be blessed and happy just like Jesus.  But that’s not what that verse means, and it’s not what our faith claims.

Let’s please be clear about that.  Our God is the God of life.  God does not will death and destruction for us.  Period.  The terrible suffering we’ve seen in Joplin this week?  That was not a “blessing in disguise.”  Likewise, violence in the home or bullying at school, degrading poverty or crippling mental illness, those things are not God’s will, simply to be endured for the sake of later reward.  Let’s be clear when we’re talking about suffering and Christianity.  God longs for our wholeness, our flourishing, our salvation.

Our faith is not one that neurotically avoids suffering.  And it does not seek out suffering.

Both of those paths are lies.  The truth of the gospel, the truth we have come to know in Christ, is different.  In Christ we see that God has come, the Ultimate has come and entered into our daily existence and knows what we face.  Christianity looks realistically at the world and says, yep, hard days will come.  For all sorts of reasons.

The Christians in this letter were facing suffering because of their witness.  A modern parallel would be civil rights protesters were put in jail.  Sometimes, because of the ways of the world, bad things happen when we do the right thing.  Sometimes bad things happen because we make bad choices.  Sometimes, things happen for no discernible reason.  Often it’s a mix.  Our faith does not turn its head away or put its head in the sand in the face of any of that, though.  And that’s the good news we find here.

When trouble comes our faith stands, back straight, eyes clear and says, I will not fear as others fear.  The end of verse 14 is one of my favorites.  Do not fear what they fear.  Do not fear what others fear.  That’s the claim our faith makes, the claim that is so strange in the midst of a world that says, suffering is so scary that we should give all of our money, our time, and our very lives over to avoiding it.

In the face of that claim, we instead say, we do not fear as you fear.  No, in fact, in the face of the worst the world has to offer, we have hope.  We have hope.  That’s my other favorite verse in this passage, verse 15.  Always be ready to make an accounting for the hope that is in you.  Always be ready to make an accounting for the hope that is in you.

And what is our hope?  Our hope is that in Christ we have seen that death will come but it does not have the last word.  Ever.

We do not fear as others fear, do we friends?  In the face of wars and terrifying weather, in the face of long unemployment, and the slow decay of our bodies, in the face of death that comes too soon, in the face of all the pain and misery that this world can deal out, we do not fear as others fear.  No, no we don’t, because have hope.  And our hope is this: the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, our Lord.

Others may say, you really believe that?!

And we can say, we stake our hope on nothing less than this: that there is nothing, no misery or suffering that we might face in which God is not present.  That is the promise of the cross.  There is no abandoned place, no outer darkness, no depth of suffering where God will not go with us.

That’s what this crazy verse 19 about Christ preaching to the imprisoned spirits is about.  It’s talking about the spirits imprisoned after death in hell or darkness or whatever metaphor you’d like to use.  Even there, even in the deepest hell, in this life or the next, Christ comes bearing good news.

No matter what you face today–whether it is big or small, whether it is something you aren’t sure you’ll get through or it’s simply the anxiety of daily life–hear this: Christ is with you.  Share this news with all you meet.  It is the best news the world has ever heard.  God is a clear eyed realist who doesn’t shy away from the suffering we face, but stares straight into whatever it is we fear and walks with us through it bringing us the words of life, bringing us blessings we never could have dreamed, sustaining us with the very bread of heaven and the waters of life.

Others may say, you really believe that?!

And we say, we do not fear as you fear.

Others may say, you really believe that?!

And we say, we know a God who is so Mighty that she went to the very depths of hell to save us.

Others may say, you really believe that?!

And we say, death and decay do not have the last word, for we have met the resurrection and the life.

Others may say, you really believe that?!

And we say, we have been born into a hope that is an imperishable inheritance incapable of fading or defilement.

Others may say, you really believe that?!

And we say, there is no valley too deep, no shadow too dark, no hell too forsaken for our God.

Others may say, you really believe that?!

And we say, through it all we cling to the cross, trusting that there is life in the midst of death, that there is love that will not end, that it is love that will get the final word, this day and every day.

This is the light by which we live.  It is the light we bear into the world.  May we bear it faithfully.  Amen.

May 29, 2011
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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