Easter 7A

May 26, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 17: 1-11

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Acts 1: 6-14

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 68: 1-10, 32-35

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

                The Revised Common Lectionary brings the Easter season to a rousing conclusion with these selected verses from I Peter.  As we have seen week after week, this letter deals with suffering, particularly unjust suffering, suffering visited upon Christians precisely because they are Christians.  Like successive waves rolling toward the beach, Peter returns to the subject again and again.  Here we have Peter’s last words of counsel to his suffering flock.  He offers them a fresh new perspective on their suffering (4:12-14); he commands them to do specific things in the face of such suffering (5:6-9); and he gives them a bracing promise designed to strengthen them in their suffering (5:10-11).

                I use the phrase “fresh new perspective” not because Peter’s words are so different from other Gospel words about suffering, but because they are so different from the usual human perspective on suffering.  Most of us respond to suffering with one word.  Why?  Why me?  Why this?  Why now?  Particularly if we believe that God loves as his beloved children, we Christians ask this “why” with special passion.  “My God, my God, why…?”  This question presupposes that suffering shouldn’t happen to anyone, especially someone like me.  Or it protests that it is happening to me more than to others.

                Peter silences our “why” by saying, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange is happening to you.”  This suffering is not unusual; it should not surprise you.  This is the way life is, not just for the human race (though that is definitely true), but especially for Christians.  Peter conveys that last thought by his choice of the word purosis (translated “painful trial” by the NIV).  It’s a word that refers most often to the application of fire to metal to purify it.  Peter has already used this idea in 1:6, 7.  Our sufferings are used by God to make our faith pure.  That’s not to say that God causes this suffering; it is to say that God uses it for a very good purpose.  Our suffering is part of God’s way of turning us into pure gold.

                So, rather than asking “why,” we should “rejoice….”  That’s crazy!  Rejoice in what?  Here Peter says a shocking thing.  Rejoice “that you participate in the suffering of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”  Two things beg for comment here.  First, it is a magnificent thing that our suffering somehow participates in the sufferings of Christ, but what on earth can that mean?  Well, it can’t mean that our suffering is redemptive in the sense that it can save anyone (as Christ’s once for all suffering did).  But it can mean that, like Christ’s suffering, our suffering is caused by the opposition of evil to God, that it is part of the general cost of bringing salvation to the world, and that it is part of the way in which God brings us to righteousness.  (I. Howard Marshall suggests these thoughts.)   In other words, the sufferings of Christians are part of our union with Christ and, thus, are of a different order than ordinary suffering.

    Second, Peter’s words about being “overjoyed when his glory is revealed” sound a great deal like “pie in the sky.”  Put up with your suffering now because someday everything will be just great.  Never mind that you are in utter agony.  Rejoice anyway because someday you’ll see the glory of Jesus and that will make you forget all about your suffering.  Such “pie in the sky” theology has long been mocked as “the opiate of the people.”  It deadens the pain of life so much that Christians are passive in the face of injustice.  It keeps people from rising up and changing their situations.

    There’s no doubt that the accusation has some truth in it.  But elsewhere Peter calls us to live such good lives in the world, lives of such holiness and brotherly love and honesty, that the world praises God for the difference we make.  And, quite apart from the abuse of the doctrine of Christ’s glorious return, it is clear that the Bible does teach it over and over again.  It is part of the Gospel, and it does help to know that his return will be so glorious that our sorrow will turn into overflowing joy.

    Besides that, Peter makes it very clear that the Christian life is much more than simply waiting to see Christ’s glory in the last day.  In fact, he says, “the Spirit of glory and of God [already] rest on you.”  “If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed….”  That’s a theme running through the NT.  Jesus said it in Matthew 5:11, 12 and John 15:18-20.  The early Christians experienced it in Acts 5:41 and 14:22.  Paul taught it again and again in Romans 8:17, II Cor. 1:5, Phil. 3:10 and II Tim. 3:12.

    Here Peter explains what that blessing is.  Unfortunately he does so with some of the most difficult Greek in the NT.  But the sense seems to be that the Spirit of God is upon us when we suffer unjustly, and that gives us a share in the glory of God right now.  Perhaps the best way to think of this is to remember the martyrdom of Stephen.  Acts 7 says that his face was like an angel’s face, that he was full of the Holy Spirit, and that he saw the glory of God.  In other words, if we suffer because of the name of Christ, the Holy Spirit will rest upon us in some glorious way that we can’t imagine.  There is a present blessing for us when we suffer as Christians.

    Peter goes on to say some hard things about judgment in connection with such suffering, but the lectionary skips those verses.  So will I, because what we’ve reflected on so far demonstrates what I meant when I said that Peter offers us a fresh new perspective on suffering in these verses.

    In the rest of our reading, he also issues some very direct orders or, more accurately, some very helpful pastoral advice.  Here are two things you should do when you are faced with such suffering.  The first has to do with God (verses 6 and 7) and the second with the devil (8 and 9).  God will use your suffering to lift you up to greater glory.  The devil will use it to drag you down and devour you.  So when you suffer as a Christian, humble yourself under God’s sovereign hand.  Don’t fight him; trust him.  And when you suffer as a Christian, watch out for the devil.  Fight him with all the faith you can muster.

    The idea of “humbling ourselves under God’s mighty hand” might seem a bit demeaning at first.  I mean, here I am suffering like a dog and now I have to cringe before the God who is in some way responsible for this pain.  But that is not at all what Peter means.  The “mighty hand of God” can refer to God’s hand as it tests us through suffering (see above).  But usually that phrase refers to God’s sovereignty being exercised in redeeming his people.  Think of the mighty hand of God delivering Israel from Egypt.

    Notice that the very next verse speaks of God’s care.  Indeed, verse 7 is a subordinate clause, spelling out what it means to humble ourselves under God’s hand.  It means that we cast our cares on him because he cares so much about us.  Humbling ourselves before God in our suffering isn’t about abject resignation or cringing self-abnegation.  It’s about admitting that we are simply creatures, that we are fragile, and that we must rely on God’s care in our suffering.  “Humble yourself” means let God be God and relax into God’s care.  Cast yourself into his mighty hand and rest there.  “He will lift you up in due time.”  The Greek there is ev kairoi (as opposed  to chronos), which suggests “in God’s special time.”

    But don’t ever rest when it comes to the devil, because he is always prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.  The call to be self-controlled (the Greek has the connotation of staying sober rather than getting drunk) and alert is heard again and again in primitive Christian teaching.  The devil is a deceiver; the word “enemy” is antidikos (an opponent in a lawsuit) and the word devil is diabolos (accuser, cf. Job 1).  He will try to use your suffering to make you doubt the loving care of God.  He will oppose you by accusing God of unfairness or injustice or cruelty or apathy.  He will be subtle, like the serpent in the garden, so that you can’t identify his accusations against God as demonic lies.  Therefore, you have to be in full command of your senses and completely alert.  He is in reality a roaring lion who only wants to devour your faith, so that you turn away from God and into his yawning maw.

    The devil’s aim is to destroy your faith.  Don’t let him do it.  Fight him.  Resist him.  The only way to resist him is to stand firm in your faith.  You can’t do that alone; he is too much for you.  But you don’t have to do resist him alone, because you have a band of brothers (and sisters) around the world that is going through the very thing you are.  Peter isn’t saying that misery loves company.  He is saying that we are part of a world-wide community engaged in a titanic struggle that Jesus has already won (cf. last week’s comments on I Peter 3:18-22).

    Peter’s encouraging words give us a glimpse of the contact between the tiny scattered churches in the first century.  They knew of each other and that helped them as they struggled with suffering.  Our individualistic brand of Christianity can learn from their mutual support long before there were smart phones.

    After laying out a refreshing new perspective on suffering, Peter gives his suffering brothers and sisters some bracing counsel about what to do in the face of that suffering.  But he doesn’t end his letter with a pep talk about what they must do.  He ends with a promise about God will do.  We must stand firm, but the reality is that our final hope is in God, not in our efforts.  And God will come through for us.

    Peter describes God in a lovely phrase here—“the God of all grace,” the God whose grace is sufficient for every situation.  The grace of God has called you in Christ.   The grace of God will give you his eternal glory.  The grace of God is available and abundant all the time.  And the God of all grace is almighty.  So, after you have suffered a little while, the power of God will raise you up.  It is fascinating, but not surprising that Peter began his letter with a reference to Easter and now he ends it with a similar emphasis.  One scholar suggests that we see all of I Peter as an Easter catechesis.  Here’s how we should live in the light of Easter when the world is hostile to us.

    Peter uses four powerful words to describe how God will give new life to those who have suffered for the name of Christ.  It is difficult to distinguish the nuances of meaning in these four verbs.  “Restore” is katartidzeiv means to put in order or complete or repair.  He will put all things back in the right place.  That sounds like Shalom, doesn’t it?  The rest of the verbs suggest various degrees of strength and solidity.  After being abused and broken and scattered by the forces aligned against you, God himself will put you back together, make you strong, and set your lives on a foundation so firm that you will never be shaken again.  Let that firm promise strengthen your faith.

    Peter ends with a short, but powerful doxology.  “To him be the power forever and ever.  Amen.”  The God of all grace is the God of all power.  The God who promises to do all of these things for you is fully able to do it.  The mighty hand of God that seems to be against you will raise you up, even as he raised Jesus up.  Thus endeth our reading for this seventh Sunday of the Easter season.

    Illustration Idea

    In a world that either denies the existence of the devil or glorifies his power in scary movies, even many Christians don’t take very seriously the real threat he is to our lives.  C.S. Lewis can help us appreciate the devil’s efforts to “devour us.”  In his classic Screwtape Letters, Lewis portrays a couple of devils plotting to lure a seeker away from God.  From the very beginning the senior devil, Screwtape, reminds his nephew, Wormwood, that humans are merely food for demons.  In fact, says Screwtape, if the younger devil fails in his efforts to tempt the human, then Wormwood himself might be devoured for his mistake.  “Bring us back food or be food yourself,” growls Screwtape.  Contrary to the lies he spreads, the devil is not out to make human life easier, sexier, richer, or in any other way better.  He is out to make human life a midnight snack.