Three words jumped out at me as I read today’s epistle lesson: Suffering. Humility. Glory. If I had to pick one out of three for myself, I’d choose glory. If I had to pick two out of three, I’d pick glory and humility. But the author of our lesson is adamant, chapter after chapter, that suffering is what we can expect. We don’t have a choice. Rats.
Peter writes as if Christians should expect to suffer, not from illness or poverty, but from believing. If Peter would walk among us, join us for worship in this century, would he be surprised at our lack of suffering?
We need to sort out this idea of suffering. Peter is not talking about suffering from arthritis or cancer or mental illness. Peter is not talking about suffering from unemployment or foreclosure. Peter is not talking about suffering from a cranky car or noisy neighbors. Peter expects that Christians suffer because they act differently from their non-Christian neighbors.
In other words, if we’re Christian, we should be suffering. It goes with the territory. If we’re not suffering because we’re Christian, is there something wrong here? I can see two interpretations here. One, we’re not acting like Christians, or two, if we are, nobody is noticing. Either way, it paints a rather lukewarm picture of us. Or here’s a third–this is the 21st Century, not the 2nd Century, and besides, we live in America.
That brings up another puzzle. How many times have you said or read or heard that we live in a Christian country? It is a lovely but inappropriate statement. Yes, there are a lot of Christians in our country. Yes, we can practice our Christian faith freely. Yes, people have tried to legislate Christianity into our laws. But, remember, people came here in the 16th Century and every century since then to worship according to their own beliefs. The Pilgrims and the Quakers and the Catholics all came here because they were fleeing a “my way or the highway” kind of Christianity. Now, we are in danger of becoming the kind of nation our foremothers were fleeing. The word Christian in the national lexicon has the connotation of a person or group of persons who wants to force everyone else to believe just like them. Out here in the boondocks, we know that’s not true. But the national media lumps all us Christians together and claims our faith as the national religion. That is one of the reasons we don’t suffer for our faith…it’s uber-popular.
If Jesus had been born in 1984, would we be begging him to run for President? That was the trap Judas fell into. Judas had every hope that Jesus would overthrow the Romans. Judas was deeply disappointed when Jesus did not meet his expectations of Jewish dominance and victory.
It is easy for me to fall into that same trap. I want to legislate everything according to my faith. There is a thought process that goes from “I should act more like Jesus.” to “If only more people would act like Jesus” to “Everybody should act like Jesus” to “It should be a law to act like Jesus.” But if we follow the Jesus of the Bible, that collapses like a popped balloon. Like Judas, I want Jesus to solve everything. But it doesn’t work that way. Jesus didn’t change the world through guns or legislation. He changed it one person at a time, one healing hand, one kind word, one act of forgiveness at a time. Jesus won’t solve everything, but–and here is where the suffering can come in–Jesus expects me to solve “everything.” Remember our analogy of being the hands and feet and voice of Jesus?
Christianity is not a political party. Christianity is personal. It does not grow in broad sweeping strokes–although that has been tried time and again. Christianity grows one person at a time and that means we have no guns or government behind us. Only Jesus covers our backs. And we are still living as the aliens Peter describes. For all our talk about being a Christian nation, we still live in a nation made up of humans, who are greedy and lazy and stupid and selfish AND kind and generous and wise and concerned. Being a human is complicated and being a Christian makes it harder because being a Christian is not natural.
To claim my Christian faith, I need to follow it when it is popular and when it is not popular. But how do I know, since Jesus isn’t riding next to me, standing next to me, sitting next to me, if I am making the right decisions? It’s no secret that Christians do not agree among themselves what constitutes Christian belief, let alone Christian practice. We’ve been fighting about it since the apostles started writing the epistles.
The secret is that it takes constant reminding, constant encouragement, constant education. That’s why we read our Bibles on all days that end in ‘Y.” That’s why we listen to Christian music. That’s why we read Christian magazines and books. That’s why we gather on Sunday mornings. The lucky thing for us is that we live in a country that legislated from the beginning that we could practice our Christian faith–or our Muslim faith or our Wiccan faith or no faith at all! We are not forced to be Christians; we don’t pay taxes to be Christians. We do not go to jail if we do not go to church. Did you ever think about that? The only reason the Jews in Jesus’ time were not prosecuted for not worshipping Caesar was because the Jewish council had a legal arrangement with the Roman government. Otherwise, jail time for practicing the wrong faith was possible. (Of course, Christians have been trying to do the same thing to Muslims since the Spanish Inquisition.)
Humility is the next concept. “I am by nature sinful and unclean.” I grew up saying that every Sunday. It was part of the liturgy. It made me aware of my imperfection and reminded me that I always needed God’s intervention…in the form of forgiveness. It meant I couldn’t make improvements by myself.
First, I’d like to differentiate between humility and shame. Humility and shame can be confused. Simply put, shame is something imposed on us by others. When we are criticized, whether fairly or not, we feel shame. Criticism is not humbling; it is shaming. To be humble, to have humility is internal. It is an attitude that we have. Humility does make make me into a doormat. Humility does not allow other people to push me around. Humility is a kind of personal honesty that influences my relationships. Humility means that I know my gifts as well as my limitations; humility means that I know when to talk and when to listen. Humility means I don’t have a big head. Peter says that humility is the perfect relationship between me and God. What does that look like?
One author puts it this way: “The specific relationship can be spelled out as follows: the way in which we humble ourselves before God is to cast our cares on him.
“When we worry, when we are overly critical (which is simply a covert assertion of our own sovereignty and pride), when we do not acknowledge our profound neediness and even helplessness before God, we are not being humble. But rather than knuckling under, God wants us to cast our cares on him.”*
In other words, if you are a worry wart, you are not approaching God with humility. If you are a worry wart, you may not even be approaching God at all because you are trying to fix everything on your own. You don’t want to admit that you are losing the battle, falling behind, you just need a little more time, a little more money, and everything will be fine. Besides, do you ever say to yourself..”God has bigger fish to fry?”
Of course, to turn everything over to God requires that giant leap of faith that can be very scary. But think about it: who is more powerful, you or God? Who is wiser, you or God? Who can see the big picture better, your or God?
6 Be humble in the presence of God’s mighty power, and he will honor you when the time comes. 7 God cares for you, so turn all your worries over to him.
And that brings us to the third word: glory. Our suffering is not pointless. Our humility is not without reward. This Christian life, no matter how hard, no matter how easy, leads in one direction: to glory.
13 Be glad for the chance to suffer as Christ suffered. It will prepare you for even greater happiness when he makes his glorious return.
14 Count it a blessing when you suffer for being a Christian. This shows that God’s glorious Spirit is with you.
16 Don’t be ashamed to suffer for being a Christian. Praise God that you belong to him.
10 God shows undeserved kindness to everyone. That’s why he appointed Christ Jesus to choose you to share in his eternal glory. You will suffer for a while, but God will make you complete, steady, strong, and firm.
The first people to read Peter’s letter expected Jesus to return at any minute, so they knew their suffering would not last much longer and they knew that they would share in the same glory to which Jesus ascended. It is appropriate on this Ascension Sunday to remind ourselves that we are heirs to that same glory.
The suffering is temporary. A football coach might say that suffering builds character. Peter says that suffering unites us with Jesus. Jesus suffered and we suffer: we have that in common, not just with the human Jesus, but with the Christ, the God-Jesus. Now we share in Jesus’ suffering……but the Good News—finally some GOOD news—we will share in Jesus’ glory. A little while of suffering on earth…..then on to eternal glory.
So, if you are suffering for acting like a Christian, you’re in good company. If you’re not suffering for being a Christian, you’re in the right place at the right time…or maybe you’re not trying hard enough.
Let us pray.
God, my faith muscles need some exercise. Send your Holy Spirit to coach me in your ways. Amen.