Sunday, April 3, 2016
What color of suffering do you know well? Endless shades of pain visit human beings: disease and treatments that mock us with hope only to have hope dashed when a relapse comes; loss – loss of a loved one, loss of a relationship, loss of job and with it loss of identity; that which shall not be named – mental illness; anxiety of various types. Pain comes from every angle. Anxiety by itself takes on numerous forms – relational. I struggled with that one for years. There’s theological anxiety: what if what we do every Sunday is all for nothing, there is no God, and this life is all there is? And social anxiety, which branches off in countless directions.
What a horrible opening paragraph to the sermon one week after Easter. Just last Sunday, we stood joyfully blinded by light emanating from the empty tomb. We can still see it from here, still feel its warmth. And I stand reciting verse after verse of depression.
First Peter 1:6 says Christians rejoice even as we suffer various trials. This letter was read in churches that worshiped about 60 years after the resurrection. These were second generation Christians, most of whom had not met Jesus in person or even any of his original followers. They came to faith as we do, by the witness of those who came before them. However, unlike us, in the late first century, to be part of a Christian church was to be part of an extremely small and often persecuted minority. Where the passage describes the “various trials,” that word ‘various’ literally means in Greek ‘multi-colored.’
That’s the crossroad where today’s church meets the Christians of the first century. That’s the intersection of struggle and faith. While our trials differ from theirs, like them our struggles are multi-colored. Some of the trials we go through come from our own mistakes. We find ourselves knee-deep in messes of our own making. Some can be explained. A person is in a wheel-chair because another person drank too much beer and then drove a car. Some suffering cannot be explained. God, why does one 55-year-old run several marathons a year while another 55-year-old comes down with cancer? And God doesn’t answer the “why” question. Some suffering is unfairly stigmatized. We show great compassion for the one with cancer while we judge the one with depression. Neither did anything to be afflicted. It is not the depressed person’s fault he is depressed but from Christians he hears, “Get over it.”
And by the way, even if someone suffers and it is his own fault, as followers of Jesus, the giver of unlimited grace, aren’t we to be givers of grace and compassion? It is why Christians visit prisons and love prisoners. We are called, in Christ, to even love people who in some way are responsible for the difficulties in their lives. We are not supposed to rub people’s noses in the messes they make. We are called to love all and especially to heap love upon those in pain.
Eventually, pain visits each one of us. What do we do with this word from 1st Peter that says followers of Jesus rejoice in our trials?
How do we rejoice in times of trial?
Easter is not that far in the rear view mirror. It is just last Sunday. See the tomb? It is empty because Jesus who was dead is alive, resurrected. Feel the life pouring forth from Easter? First Peter says God has “given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:6). The resurrection doesn’t stay fixed as something we sing about at the beginning of spring only to stay there, forgotten by midsummer, and then re-visited next year again at the first of spring. The resurrection is a means by which God gives us new birth.
In new birth, we have undergone a change and there’s no going back to who we were before we put our trust in Him. In new birth, we have a new outlook. Yes, we still face challenges and trials. Some among us go through significant suffering. All have times of difficulty. Yet we know that on the other side of our deaths, eternal life awaits. The darkness of our rainy days is pierced by the vibrant rays of eternal joy that is ours in Christ.
Also in new birth, our sins are forgiven and paid for. So we can relate to one another as individuals free from death’s grip. In the resurrection of Jesus God adopts us as His own sons and daughters and reserves for us the inheritance promised to children of the king. We are, in Christ, a family. This doesn’t instantly make our present struggles go away. But it does mean that when we face numerous shades of pain, we do not face these trials alone. The resurrection doesn’t stay put in the week of late March and early April. The resurrection is God’s way of creating. God creates hope. God creates a family.
The resurrection also opens the door to personal knowledge of God. We are invited into real relationship with the creator of the universe. First Peter says that we of the New Birth are “being protected by the power of God” (1:5). This might sound odd when we openly acknowledge that Christians have hard days and seasons in dark valleys like everyone else. What does this scripture mean when it says we are being protected?
We’ve named a few things. In Christ, we have eternal hope. Even though we live through some painful some days, life after death comes next. In Christ, we have a community. Even in bad times, we have people around us to make the bad more bearable. And when 1st Peter as well other passages says, we are “being protected,” it means God is with us now.
The Holy Spirit is mentioned in 1st Peter 1 in verse 2, again in verse 11, and in verse 12. The Spirit makes the church holy (v.2) – both the church corporate and individuals within the church. We are set apart to God. The Spirit lives within us, helping us know how to pray, giving us courage and strength to stand up in spite of the onslaught of various attacks (v.11). And, the Spirit brings into our hearts news from Heaven (v.12).
Of course this is not news like that reported by The New York Times or CNN or WRAL. What we get by the Spirit from Heaven is revealed news – deeper understanding of God. It puts our difficulties in proper perspective, helps us see the blessings in our lives, and expands our capacity to love others. Hold onto these promises: we have eternal hope, we are in a family, and God is with us.
What makes it possible for us to keep our eyes on the resurrection so that we are comforted and emboldened in dealing the world around us? I find hope in a basic practice that when done consistently creates in us a mindset that we will see God no matter how tough today or any day is. In this practice we stay fixated on God and who we are as people of the resurrection in Christ.
I am talking about daily and weekly rituals of worship. Verse 6 says we rejoice even when we suffer. I am certain that the rejoicing talked about here, which was done in the early church, was not an emotional response.
Yes! I just lost my job because my pagan neighbor found out I refuse to offer sacrifices to this city’s local deity. Fist pump! Oh year, my wife and I were kicked out of the synagogue because they don’t believe Jesus is the Messiah and we do. We just lost the community of friends we’ve had our entire lives. Sweet! My son just got his head knocked in by a centurion who found out he follows Jesus and will not bow to images of Caesar. Hallelujah.
I don’t think that’s what was meant by rejoicing. The early Christians wept and mourned; they had grief, fear, and doubt. “Rejoice” is a spiritual discipline. We are Easter people. Even when we know our Christian brothers in Syria are being targeted by terrorists, we rejoice because of who Jesus is, because our sins are forgiven, and because of what Easter means.
He is risen! Syrian Christians hurt, but terrorists cannot wipe them out. We worship weekly to remember our victory and rejoicing is part of our worship because we are Easter people.
He is risen. My depression cannot get the best of me because I sing the songs of resurrection even when I am down; and, when I am so down I cannot sing, my brothers and sisters in Christ around me sing for me and I am reminded of the family of which I am a part.
He is risen. Alcoholism, death, angst – none of it can claim us. We are already claimed by the one who defeated death. We are his. Our weekly and monthly rhythms of worship remind us, keep us in step, open us to new revelations from God, and help us regularly reset our lives.
I have just experienced a loss that leaves me feeling like a failure, utterly crushed and adrift. Rejoice! Hallelujah! Amen!
The rejoicing done in corporate and individual worship is not a show of false happiness. My loss leaves me feeling broken. But I trust more in the God of Easter than I trust in my feelings. It feels like I am broken, but the tomb is empty; there is more to the story and more to my story.
So, we come back every week. We look one another in the eye. We embrace. We weep at the cross on Good Friday, soar in the light on Easter Sunday, and the rest of the time immerse ourselves in the word and in the worship. We trust it. We rejoice because of who God is and God is who He is no matter what is going on.
In doing this, we discover as we look back at the Hells we’ve endured that blessing was there all along. Sometimes we don’t realize salvation is happening while we are being saved but only upon looking back at it. Oh, that’s where Jesus was!
“Although you have not seen him,” First Peter says, “you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1:8-9). In daily, weekly practices of worship, we don’t see Him, yet, actually, we do see the Lord. In the church, in the songs, in the Spirit, we do see Jesus. We live in the potential where any moment may be the moment when God breaks through. And we know He is with us in every moment. So every experience of life is lived in the light of the empty tomb.
He is with us, always. Our God is with us.
Every day, we are people of the resurrection filled with a hope that never fails.