Serving the world and giving glory to God
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And “If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:12-19; 5:6-11 ESV)
The situation of Meriam Ibrahim, the Sudanese woman, charged with adultery and apostasy in Sudan because the Sudanese court decreed that she was a Muslim and an adulteress because it did not recognise the fact that she has been a Christian all her life and that she is legally married according to international jurisprudence can rightly be labelled persecution – among other things. Having given birth to her second child in prison, she was awaiting further punishment, when last night the media began reporting that, after international condemnation (that which we see) and I suspect lots of prayer (which we don’t see), the Sudanese authorities are now saying she is to be freed. We wait for that to happen.
You know that when I first applied for a visa for China a few years back when I wanted to see my son, I was rejected by the Chinese authorities because my listed occupation meant I could not be trusted not to do church work there. They didn’t believe that I was a father visiting his son and while I wouldn’t have denied my faith, if asked, I wasn’t going there to be missionary. At the time I regarded it as bureaucratic irritation rather than persecution.
There is no dispute I think that the world is changing in terms of personal morality, sexual ethics, cohabitation and what is legal or illegal, moral or immoral and the social acceptance that comes with majority rules. Where in the west, the Church’s voice and expectations about behaviour previously overlapped – even controlled – society for many centuries, in these last few decades society it seems has shrugged the Church off and the Church is increasingly surprised and bewildered about how to respond. Often it begins by trying to cling to former prestige but I suspect that won’t work or last and Christians in the west will increasingly feel marginalised – something more akin to Christians who already live in countries that are influenced or controlled by another religion or philosophy; something more akin with the Christians of the first century who found themselves out of kilter with their society – whether Jewish or Roman.
We continue listening to Peter’s first letter this Easter season; how he wrote to the scattered Christians in what is today Turkey assuring them that Jesus’ resurrection secures their salvation – an inheritance undefiled, unblemished – which can be hard to believe when life is tough with troubles and persecutions. Peter encouraged them to see themselves as God’s people – Israel, ie. God’s own people who have received mercy and who are to serve the world as a royal priesthood – particularly as they – as we – pray for those around us – and seek to live peacefully. Peter spoke to slaves about their behaviour as disciples, then to wives, then husbands, and then to all Christians repeating the point that
following Jesus and his cross is not a walk on easy street. Peter also keeps reminding his readers that evil will not win out, the Devil doesn’t have the last laugh, but that Jesus is victorious and so Peter keeps reminding his hearers and readers of what Jesus has done – suffered, died on a cross, and then, best of all, risen from the dead and ascended into heaven.
Now taking a stand for anything gets you noticed and, in time, groups form – rivalry develops – judgements are made – right and wrong is claimed – and this can be two people discussing the latest song, friends discussing football, right through to cultic behaviour and possibly even suicide bombers. The cost of taking a stand is what you do when others disagree with you. Fight? Don’t fight? Attack? Defend? And the Christians from a Jewish background will have been aware of this – they’ve always walked to a different tune in this world – so for those following Jesus taking a stand and what then happens isn’t ‘new’. But think for a moment of the Gentiles – who previously were part of the social fabric – blended in – and who now have met Jesus. They learn of his love, his mercy, his forgiveness. He doesn’t isolate them, send them to an island, turn them into a cult, wind them up to destroy people – none of that. Instead Jesus sends his followers back into their relationships – marriages, neighbourhoods, extended families, occupations, countries – to follow him there – serving others. Yes, these disciples will march differently – following Jesus means not doing various things – worshipping other gods, sexual immorality, dishonest dealings, and so on – and doing other things – living peacefully as far as possible, being merciful, forgiving one another, and even loving their enemies. So these Gentile Christians live in their former worlds – still the same people – but also different for they now seek to serve those around them and make things better for others. Imagine their surprise when the world with which they previously were in sync but now they wish to serve, turns on them?
Don’t be surprised says Peter – also don’t be ashamed by insults and injustice – as stinging and humiliating as they might be – for this is what happens to Christians and if they come, let them be for your discipleship rather than your bad behaviour. Peter’s mention of fiery trials or the Devil as a roaring lion might be word associations to quietly tell Christians where they may end up in this world but it is unlikely that Peter is writing to Christians who are suffering such extreme persecutions. Why? Because Peter’s Greek suggests an ongoing situation rather than a response to a particular event. He is not suggesting that they will die and the persecution will stop for them but that they should know the name of Jesus – and all that he teaches – and also be aware that others will attack, will hurt even, but will never destroy for God will protect you from destruction – as they realise that Christians around the world and throughout time face similar things.
Peter doesn’t give specific guidance about what to do if your situation is like Meriam’s – official state persecution – or mine – bureaucratic nuisance. There is no mention about what to do in a playground or staff lunch room should Christians become a target. There is no instruction on how to receive a telegram from God about when to speak out and when to be silent in the world.
What there is is a call to know the name of Jesus – know him personally, learn the will of God, and become increasingly firm in your faith. This only comes about as you encounter God’s Word and sacraments and are shaped by them. Reading and remembering God’s Word helps us to be clear about what God says and doesn’t say and so we learn how to respond to what the world says. We can ask for the basis or the evidence behind the world’s assertions or attacks just as we check and verify our own stances and viewpoints and for this we need to read and study God’s Word. As we daily return to our baptism so we are reminded whose we are above all other relationships and that we are sinners – not perfect in behaviour – hopefully not arrogant in the world – but humble as people who always know themselves to be beggars of divine grace. And as we commune at God’s table so we are strengthened by Jesus for another week out in the world. We’re not alone at this table and so we can also turn to those around us for help, support, guidance, another perspective, advice about the specifics of whatever we’re facing. Congregations are not clubs for the successful and those who have-it-all-together but are more mobile hospital units where we are patched up for another week in the world and where we can get perspective and support about what we might do in the playground or staff lunch room; how we might face the world that is hostile to us.
Living in the resurrection reality is one of joy and confidence as we hear year after year ‘Christ is risen!’ (He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!). This is more than just knowing about Jesus for faith is knowledge and trust or we might say that it’s doing something with that knowledge – following Jesus, living in relationship with him. That’s hard enough when we’re battling our selfishness and sins but add in a hostile world and the resurrection reality often takes a battering. Jesus, just before his arrest, before he prayed in the garden, said to his disciples – taught them – ‘I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world’ (John 16:33 ESV).
Take heart. Don’t be surprised. Stand firm. Following Jesus may be getting tougher in the world but the eternal truths don’t change – sin kills us and yet God is gracious towards us and this all comes into focus with one man – Jesus – who serves us and who is the person we want the world to meet, no matter how hard and stubborn it is.
- 1 Peter 4:12 - 19
- 1 Peter 5:6 - 11