What’s Good about Suffering?

You might expect this week’s excerpt from Peter’s first letter to start at 2:18, or even 2:13, but no, the given reading is 1 Peter 2:19-25. I guess that the reference to slaves accepting the authority of their masters might make twenty-first century people think there is nothing here for them, but quite the opposite! We are all suffering Covid-19 lockdown. Suffering in different ways, perhaps, but I doubt if anyone much is enjoying it. So the question comes, can there be anything good about suffering?

And in one sense, the answer is no. Our God does not inflict suffering, as if it was a good thing, and certainly does not want us to enjoy suffering ourselves, or making others suffer. But that doesn’t mean that the experience is totally wasted.

Jesus suffered. It was unjust, and nasty – but it set us free! That doesn’t make it “right”; Pilate, Judas and others are guilty. But it is something we need to take note of. Peter speaks to Christians who are suffering, and will suffer, for a number of reasons. Some are slaves with pagan masters, others are oppressed in other ways.

He points them, not to futile rebellion or smouldering resentment, but to being aware of God. With God’s support, both to see them through difficult times, and to reassure them of final justice and the vindication of those wrongly accused, they can endure. That endurance will also be an advertisement for their faith, helping others to find truth and help.

His view was realistic and helpful in the first century – and still holds! We need a way to get through difficult times, and this is it. It helps us, and helps others at the same time. It doesn’t make everything right, or mean that we are going to enjoy what is happening. But it does mean that, in God’s world, nothing is wasted – not even the bad bits!

By the way, there is a well presented overview of 1 Peter at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhP7AZQlzCg&list=PLH0Szn1yYNecanpQqdixWAm3zHdhY2kPR&index=27

In hard times

What do you say to someone having a hard time? Perhaps feeling isolated, threatened, and bruised. One answer is found in 1 Peter, which we are going to follow through the lectionary readings for the next few weeks. It offers a commentary on the significance of the resurrection.

So what do you say? We’ll look at todays reading – 1 Peter 1:17-23. Start with that first verse: “live in reverent fear during the time of your exile” – not perhaps the sort of encouragement we would expect, but follow it through.

“Exile”. Not literally – the letter (see 1:1) is not to refugees, nor to Jews living outside Palestine, but to Gentile Christians living, as Abraham had done, as one passing through the world on the way to heaven. It may be that these Christians felt the social exclusion shared by some Christian young people – because they were different. Peter encourages them to be different, for a reason.

“you know that you were ransomed”

1 Peter 1:18

I hope you do, too! Ransomed is a word we understand from kidnapping and the taking of hostages. But we can be more precise. Ransomed from v18 “futile ways inherited from your ancestors”.

We can all look back at wasted time – and perhaps worse – when we did not offer a service as effective as we should have to God. That is what we were – and are being – saved from.

Ransomed by v18b not valuables, but the sacrifice of Christ. No detail here of how, but a reminder of the real cost. Also v20 “for your sake” – this becomes personal. Yes, in Passiontide we think about the suffering of Jesus, and in Easter of the joy of his Resurrection. But when we put those together, we see that the implications of the Resurrection are more significant because of their cost.

Which brings us, knowing what we are Ransomed from, and what we are Ransomed by, to what we are Ransomed to v21 to trust in God “so that your faith and hope are set on God” Peter will return several times to talk about holiness of life. About the need for Christians to take on board what has been done for them, and then to live the life. Now he speaks of obedience to the truth, and love. v22

New birth is a new status, but more important the start of a new life, which, unlike the futility described in v18, is to last and grow into something valuable, serviceable, and eternal

What do you say to someone having a hard time? Most of us try things like, hope it gets better soon. Peter takes a rather deeper line. Remember who you are, what your ransom cost, then take full advantage and live it to the full.

Still Thankful

When Peter wrote (we are looking at 1 Peter 1:3-9 ), Christians were not having an easy time; like us, they were people who had not known Jesus during his ministry. Like us they had problems, though theirs may have been from the emperor Nero. Life is difficult for many people, now as ever. I imagine most of you could identify “issues”; perhaps you’d like to think about it as you read. What are the problems, the irritants, the sticking points, the causes of tension. Is there one main one, or two or three together (more than that, and you’re probably missing the point, the root cause). If everybody annoys you, it may be you who is the problem

Have you got some idea? Good, because what Peter has to say may well apply to us, too. First of all, he urges us to “give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” v3 – thanks for the new life we were given through Jesus’ resurrection. That’s important, not least because it tends to get lost when other things get to us. If you don’t know what you are doing, at least give thanks, and remember what you are giving thanks for.

Then he talks about the safety of our presents. Have you ever had something put away for you? The silver mug or spoon at the Christening; the toy that’s very nice, but a little too old for you just yet? Adults may have things in the bank, like the deeds of the house, or a piece of family jewellery – kept safe. Well says Peter, at an unsettled time, isn’t it great to know that God’s good presents to us are kept safe; they can’t be stolen, or spoiled. So even in rough, uncertain times, there is something to give thanks for personally.

So you can face your “issues” with thanks to God, – and with faith. Too often we leave a gap between the difficult bits of life and our faith, but that’s a mistake! We are given a new life, and need to live it, and to apply its energy and principles to our problems and sticking points. Peter is not surprised that the Christians are suffering; he didn’t expect them to escape difficulty because they had been good (verses 6, 7a). Their problems will help them to grow up in faith, showing what is genuine, and what isn’t and needs to be replaced by something firmer.

He doesn’t offer an instant fix. Look at Jesus he will say (in chapter 2:18f), and as his followers you will not expect an easy ride, or immunity from pain, or success. But look at Jesus, he will say, and you will see how worthwhile it all was, and how glorious is the way he walked, even with its pain.

We may be glad that our Royal family is one we can give thanks for. I don’t think I can find a single point of comparison between them and the emperor Nero. But like those first century Christians, we face problems, and need reminding to face them with thanksgiving for God’s goodness, remembering that the worst trouble is not going to make us lose God’s best blessings, and that if things are rough for a time, it should sort out our faith.

New Life

The last few weeks have been a shock. Covid-19 lockdown, news of a rising death toll. Separation from family, friends, and familiar activities and places. We have had to learn new ways, changed routines.

Which might help us to understand just how shocking the events of that first Easter were. To disciples already emotionally exhausted by the exciting, confusing events of the last week in Jerusalem – not dead ! ??? It was another surprise twist in the plot. It would mean a totally different life.

That is what Paul is saying in Colossians 3:1-4 (which we read today – you may want to read to verse 17, which expands these four verses). Sharing what Christ has won is no small thing, and it does require that we die and rise to a new way of living. This is no mere formality, not something acquired by being born into a good family, getting an education, or trying to share in the faith or goodness of other people.

I hope you can celebrate Easter, and that your life will show the effects of being raised with Christ, so that your ambition is “on things that are above”. If that is real, the Holy Spirit will be at work. There will be opportunities to take, and inner changes. You may not notice much at first – though other people may, but if you hold onto the new life, it will grow and bear fruit.

Attitude!

Sometime one line seems to say it all. Stuck at home, bored and tired of Covid-19 restrictions? Fearful of illness, running out of money or food, or just the state of the world “afterwards”? Wondering what has happened to change everything so fast?

“The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had” – says Paul.

(That’s the Good News Bible translation of Philippians 2:5, as we read Philippians 2:5-11).

Perhaps this Holy Week you will read again the account of Jesus betrayal and death. Perhaps you will follow one of the many schemes of Bible reading, on paper or virtually on a phone or computer app. However you remember Jesus, for those who follow him, this is our pattern, our example. this is the route that has been pioneered for us, and left for us to follow.

Scholars suggest that Paul was adopting a hymn here. It makes no difference, for whatever follows “The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had” is going to be a hard act to follow.

There is also a question whether Paul was tactfully skating round failures in the leadership at Philippi. Were relationships there not so good? was there disunity, boasting, ambition and selfishness?

Again, the answer is not essential to our understanding. Churches are not perfect – we are a congregation of sinners. But we need to know where we are heading, and what we are supposed to imitate, how we are to work towards our goals. Again

“The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had”

This Holy Week we have more opportunities than any other week in the year. Please take them, even if present conditions are difficult – perhaps especially if present conditions are difficult – not to be distracted, but to think again about

“The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had”

When Natural is bad.

I don’t recommend advertisements which seem to be keen on “natural” ingredients, because often natural things are excuses for bad behaviour: “It’s only natural”, “Doing what comes naturally” doesn’t often mean doing something good.

Paul knows about this, and offers a simple choice (we are reading Romans 8:6-11). You can live in one (but only one) of 2 ways: life according to the “flesh”, and life according to the Spirit.

“To set the mind on the flesh” means doing what comes naturally. It may have a veneer of respectability or sophistication, but it is ultimately selfish, competitive. It will love only if that is rewarding, be community minded only if there are benefits to the doer, and may at any point be cynical, greedy, or peevish. The only alternative is life empowered and directed by the Spirit of God. This is what makes the Christian life possible and rewarding (and not just a lot of hard work).

Someone will object that there is another alternative. What about following a moral code – like the 10 commandments? Paul has thought of that; indeed, as a pious Jew, he has lived it carefully for many years. He will say that such a moral code is good – indeed the Old Testament Law tells us vital things about what God is like, and what he expects of human beings. But if it is useful for that, it is absolutely hopeless for transforming us into people who can live like that.

It is all very well to know you ought to be patient, loving, joyful and generous. It is quite another thing to do it, and go on doing it! Either we lower our standards to “be reasonable”, or we find another way.

So we come back to this simple, and stark, alternative: You either live “naturally”, being selfish, or trying not to be, but discovering that there are tight limits on how much you can control yourself, or You live for God, handing your life (and all your resources) over to God’s direction. It’s a big step, but if you take it, go on taking it, and allow the Holy Spirit to control you, you should experience a slow transformation. It won’t happen fast, and it won’t solve all your problems, but you will begin to be changed. Not by your own effort, but as God works on your personality, your priorities, attitudes, and ambitions.

Paul defines a choice for you. You must answer which way you have chosen – and more important, which way you will now choose. Answer now for yourself, that you may be ready to answer to God.

Threat – and opportunity

The world seems very different from just a couple of weeks ago. The threat of a virus – covid-19 – has changed our lives, causing strain and fear. Can Paul’s words from his letter to Ephesus offer any help? (We read Ephesians 5:8-14)

Christians are just like everyone else in having to respond to the situation, take instructions, and know that many things are changing, and some will never be the same. Paul’s challenge would seem to be that we do this with love, deliberately imitating God.

Yes there is evil in some of what is happening. Fear, insecurity, we could make quite a long list. These things can divide people and strain relationships. Can there be anything good in all this?

“Live as children of light” we are told. No secrets, no selfish advantage, but an open attempt to live generously and well. What does that mean, when we cannot go and meet people, join for worship, offer help? Perhaps it is a helpful challenge. It makes us think again about how we live our faith.

We cannot gather to worship, but we can join in broadcast services, or listen to our leaders and teachers via the internet. We cannot go and see people, but we can be in touch by phone, e-mail, messaging. We have more time spare that we are used to – and can use it well, or badly.

What it will mean to live in the light as Christian disciples? That will vary in detail from person to person. But for all it will be a life sharing with others, probably in new ways, which need exploring. We may self-isolate to avoid the bug, and the problem of others catching it from us, or perhaps having to care for us – but that is physical, not emotional. Don’t lower the portcullis and prepare to resist any who come near!

When we get back to something more like normal, what will the churches have learnt? Will they try for “business as usual”, or will they be glad of having tried new ways of supporting one another, new friends made, new skills learnt? It’s not that the faith has changed, but the times mean that the practice of faith has to adapt. Is the understanding we have gained so far equal to changing, and meeting a new world with the light of Christ?

“No longer for ourselves alone”

Paul wrote a letter to a church he had never visited – and, usefully for us, it sets out the message he preached. That message centres on Jesus, and on the good news that God has acted to rescue humans unable to save themselves. Let me take you through a little of what he says before today’s epistle. Paul claims that at least some of God’s character is clear in creation – but that there has been a general rebellion against God and living his way, and as a result there is guilt. The trouble is, it is not just “them”, it affects “us” too. Those who knew the Old Testament Law – 10 commandments and more – simply knew their failure in more detail. By Romans 3:10 he can say “No one is acceptable to God”, – and that is serious .

So what’s the answer? Clearly not a set of rules, not a greater effort to be perfect. The good news is Jesus, who offers himself as a sacrifice for our sin. The acceptance we cannot earn we can accept as a gift, received by faith. Paul then goes on in chapter 4 to show how this worked out in Abraham. It was, he insists, Abraham’s faith, and not his achievements, that made him God’s friend and won his place in Jewish and Christian history.

So we come to chapter 5, and today’s epistle (we read Romans 5:1-11 ). Faith in Jesus, trust in his sacrifice for us, bring us reconciliation to God. It doesn’t mean we shall have an easy life – in fact it can bring persecution and suffering – but even then we shall have hope. When we think that Jesus died for those who were his enemies, we see something of God’s love.

This is not widely understood in our culture (perhaps not in any culture). Many people seem to think “Don’t worry about sin, it doesn’t matter, God won’t make a fuss!” But it does matter, and it separates us from a just and holy God. The answer is not forgetfulness, nor greater effort to be perfect – the answer is the sacrifice of Jesus, a gift we accept by faith. God does for us what we cannot do.

So what does a Christian life look like in these terms? Let me pass on a story:

Disillusioned with the view of God she had been taught, Karema began searching for spiritual answers as a young graduate. The wonder of God humbling himself and coming into the world as a man, sharing our experiences and pain, was crucial in Karema’s journey of accepting Christ as her Saviour. 

When her community learned of her belief in Christ, Karema realised she was in danger and fled her home country. She is now ministering to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, meeting practical needs and teaching the Bible to those hungry for spiritual truth, as she was once herself. 

Karema shared her story. She says, “They asked ‘Why are you so kind to us, what is behind this?’ so we explained how Jesus had put in our hearts to go and help the strangers.”

That sort of story is challenging to us, but I think it rightly understands the gospel. In the Thanksgiving prayer at the eucharist (Church in Wales, Lent) we say: “By Jesus’ grace, we are able to triumph over every evil, and to live no longer for ourselves alone, but for him who died for us and rose again.” It was living “no longer for herself alone” that raised the questions Karema answered with the story of Jesus.

Take the tablets?

What brings us into relationship with God? How do we connect, and eventually get to heaven? There have been, and still are, a great many answers. Some refuse to believe it is possible – yet the interest in the “spiritual” continues. Some rely on drugs or mind-altering techniques – but that lacks reality, and permanence (though the damage can be lasting!). Some insist that matters of the spirit mean getting away from the material, by changing your view of reality through fasting, meditation, chanting etc . .

The most common alternative to Christianity is the idea that if you are good, you will be rewarded, and if good enough, you will make the grade and “pass”. In some ways, this was the Jewish position. The Law told them what was required, so they studied, set up safeguards against breaking it, and thought themselves separate and superior. Wrong, says Paul. (Today we read Romans 4:1-5 and 4:13-17). Good is good, but you will never be good enough for God. No. Christians come to God as never good enough, but trusting – and that trust or faith is the key to finding God.

What do they trust in? Not themselves, their effort or goodness, but God. We trust God, but more specifically, Jesus who died for us and was raised. Paul argues in Romans 4 that it is not only Jews, who keep the Old Testament Law, who are in a covenant relationship with God. We can see that it would have been important then – as fury with Christians for allowing Gentiles full believer status without conversion to Judaism provoked persecution and the division of the two faiths. But does it matter now? or is it of purely historical and specialist interest?

In fact, arguments about the Law are still current and important, though not in a Jewish-Christian setting. It may help to look at what is being said. In Rom 3:31, Paul claims to uphold the Law (that is, the Old Testament). As chapter 4 starts, he turns to Abraham, who believed God. Genesis 15 tells us that Abraham, childless, believed God when promised that he would have as many descendants as there were stars in the night sky – and Paul makes the point that this is before the giving of the Law at Sinai, and before the rite of circumcision.

“And he believed the LORD, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

Genesis 15:6

Abraham didn’t win God’s reward by outstanding action, heroism, or moral excellence. It was his trust, and God’s goodness, that brought them together and gave him hope. Unlikely though it may have seemed that an old couple could have a child, he thought the God who said it reliable, and believed.

What caused a fuss in the first century was the idea that both Jews and Gentiles reached God in the same way through faith/trust. What causes division in the twenty-first century is that faith, rather than achievement, knowledge or experience is the key. That makes all believers equal – equal in finding God through faith, equal in failure to deserve or earn or require his recognition.

Like a Virus?

Jesus lived a very long time ago, in a different country, culture and speaking a different language. How can his life be relevant to us in in the 21st century? In Romans 5, (today we read Romans 5:12-19), Paul contrasts Christ with Adam (even more remote), but would argue that both are still relevant.

“sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin”

Rom 5:12.

Whatever you make of the story of Adam’s rebellious disobedience of God’s instructions in the Garden (it wasn’t just that he didn’t want to do what he was told – he wanted to take over God’s role and be in charge!), there is no doubt that the consequence of death and disaster coincide with our experience. Death is something we don’t talk about much, and don’t deal with very well. Wishful thinking abounds as people tell us what they “like to believe”. Yet we all experience temptation and failure – that is, sin – and know the consequences only too easily lead to death (whether our own or someone else’s). It is just as if Adam had released some deadly virus into the world, and we all now suffer because it cannot be contained.

Paul then goes on, in an aside, to talk about “Law”. The 10 commandments were long after Adam, given when Moses came down from Mount Sinai. But they didn’t introduce or invent Sin. The Old Testament law defined sin, and helped people recognise what it was. They knew it was nothing new, even then.

Today, when awareness of truth and right seem less clear, that Law not only helps to explain what God is like, but to show up how different we are, and how much we need help or transformation. Escaping sin has never been a question of just making a bit more effort – or getting old and less energetic!

“But the free gift is not like the trespass” v15 Now we are coming to Jesus. A world stuck in sin leading to death is pretty miserable, but Paul points us to the far greater power of Christ. Adam unleashed a problem – Jesus pours out the solution. The grace of his death is the answer to both sin and death. His sacrifice brings forgiveness to all who will accept it, his resurrection opens the way to eternal life for the faithful.

Paul wants us to have confidence in the effectiveness of what Jesus has done. We know the bad news; however hard we avoid thinking about it, it is part of our experience and the experience of our world.

Are we equally experienced in the good news? Jesus sets us free from sin, and from the effect of death. It is the offer of a totally different life, to be lived in a new way with new power. But it needs accepting and doing.