Tag Archives: suffering

Strength of (God’s) character

We often admire people who show great strength of character. They have a hard time, and manage to cope, even to encourage others. There is nothing new about this – Paul knew that the philosophers of his time would say much the same, arguing about how to achieve this.

In 2 Corinthians 4:7-15 (which we read today on 25 July, the feast of James the Apostle, replacing the readings in the regular sequence which would have given us Ephesians 3:14-21), Paul has an answer. Whatever good qualities Christians show, they are not a personal possession or achievement, but the gift of God.

The comparison he uses is clay pots – comparatively cheap (compared to bronze or precious metal), and always fragile. Although they can be chipped or broken, they can be filled with all sorts of precious things.

James was a fisherman, perhaps with a bit of a temper, if we think of his nickname “Son of Thunder”. One of the twelve apostles, he was the first to die as a martyr – before Peter was arrested and then miraculously released. (Acts 12). What was the point of that? Somehow the twin events showed God at work in frail humans. They were not guaranteed protection, but given support and purpose – as Paul says in this passage.

We are often perplexed, by the things happening around us, and not least our own reactions and failures. But there is no need for despair (verse 8), as God leads us on and provides what we need. We shan’t always look good, or come out of things with a glowing reputation, but we trust the Holy Spirit to lead us on and through all, and hopefully to allow even our failures to show something of God’s love and patience.

Do we need a Priest?

If you follow that calendar, this is the fifth Sunday in Lent, and thoughts turn to Jesus death. But how are we to understand the Cross, the whole strange process of Jesus going willingly to death? The problem is that it is unique. It is much easier to explain things that repeat, especially when they are familiar. The New Testament uses various complementary descriptions, each important, but part of the whole truth.

So today, one of those descriptions of what is happening in and through Jesus death is from the letter to Hebrews. It centres around the idea of High Priest – familiar to Jewish first Century Christians, and not entirely foreign to us. We read Hebrews 5:1-10, which explains three things about a High Priest, and shows how they fit Jesus (and him better than others!)

The third thing Hebrews says (you’ll understand my order in a minute) from Hebrews 5:4-6: A High Priest is not self-appointed! (You can guess why!). Jesus was of the tribe of Judah (as a descendant of David), not the priestly tribe of Levi – so how can he be a priest? Because he is not only recognised as Son of God (Psalm 2:7 is quoted at his Baptism and Transfiguration), but also by Psalm 110:4 as a priest for ever (Hebrews 5:6) in the order of Melchizedek.

The second thing Hebrews says 5:2,3: any earthly High Priest was weak, sympathising with sinners and offering sacrifice for them and for himself. 5:8 notes that, while sinless Jesus needs no sacrifice for himself, his earthly life shows suffering and obedience. Once again, Jesus is qualified for this role in a way we can appreciate and be grateful for.

Our third point, Hebrews first (5:1): a High Priest is chosen as an intermediary between God and humans. The Jewish High Priest offered sacrifice, in a daily and annual cycle. (Hebrews will focus on the ritual from Leviticus 16, for the Day of Atonement, but the detail is not vital). Jesus offers a perfect sacrifice – himself – once for all time. 5:9,10 – the source of eternal salvation. He bridges the gap, and unlike the generations of Temple priests, permanently. This is why some Christians dislike “priest” as a title for minister – Jesus is the High Priest for ever, and we shouldn’t confuse the roles.

How are we to understand the Cross, the death of Jesus? Following the New Testament in its variety of pictures and explanations. One of those is Jesus as High Priest. He is appointed by God, familiar and sympathetic with our life and problems, and by a unique act effective for ever in bringing us to God. I hope you begin to understand why the death of an innocent man by torture came to be the centre of Good News.

Suffering

Some people find it difficult to talk about suffering, perhaps because of bad experiences in their past. Others talk about little else. Hopefully Christian faith finds a balance. But it cannot avoid the subject, because it reflects so much of human experience.

When we come to the first letter of Peter, chapter 3 jumps in at verse 18 (1 Peter 3:18-22 is our reading)

“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.”

1 Pet 3:18

This is suffering with a reason, not some perverted psychology. As Jesus endured undeserved suffering, so Christians do not welcome hardship, but accept whatever comes as part of following their Saviour. You don’t have to enjoy it – it would be a bad thing if you did – but need to understand the possibility.

Then (18b-20) Peter goes on to talk about how Jesus, after his death, preached to the spirits in prison. There are different opinions of what exactly that means: does he [1] proclaim the gospel to those who died before his ministry, without the chance to hear the gospel, or [2] announce his victory to the powers of evil? It doesn’t matter too much to us, though we would do well to remember the judgement on those who refuse obedience.

The reference to Noah, and the saving of a handful of people in the ark from God’s judgement on the wickedness of his time, brings us to verses 21,22. Just as Noah’s ark floated people to safety, so Christian baptism is a way of escape to safety. It’s significance is nothing to do with being physically washed, nor is it a magic spell. Baptism applies the power of Jesus victory over evil and his resurrection; it needs faith – and can be disowned by those who do not live by faith – but it remains a powerful sacrament of God’s ownership of those who choose to belong to Jesus.

We may be glad if our lives escape extreme suffering, hopefully remembering those who do not. Perhaps we can try to find the balance between accepting the risks of Christian living, and the joyful celebration of what we are given.

Hallelujah!

“Hallelujah!” rings out in heaven. We may be surprised to find this is the only place the command (meaning “Praise God”) is found in the New Testament, but know it from the Psalms, and many Christian songs. But what is going on in Revelation 19 (we read Revelation 19:6-10)?

Christians have been taught of the victory won by Jesus and his death, demonstrated by his resurrection. Their life is lived in thanksgiving and imitation of their Lord. They find a victory through the power of the Spirit even though there is temptation, suffering, and all is clearly not yet what is meant to be.

In the book of Revelation “Babylon” is a code for the oppression of Rome, and more widely for all that tempts and misleads those who are attracted by the truth in Jesus. In our twenty first century, we are aware of some Christians who face direct, life-threatening persecution. Yet for many of us our experience is apparently milder. There is the marginalisation of faith as a “personal matter”, the constant distraction of the media and now social media with non-Christian ambitions and values, and the lure of possessions. Sorting out the good things created for our use and delight from their selfish misuse and camouflaged invitation to evil is difficult.

Thus there is proper joy, and an opportunity for praise, when the evils of “Babylon” are finally seen for what they are, and condemned to destruction. Only then can the faithful be finally made one with their Lord – the image of the marriage of the bride (church). We know the church as a group of imperfect sinners, relying on constant forgiveness – as is highlighted from time to time when particular failures and abuses are exposed. But the church is given holiness. The fine linen, even though “the righteous acts of God’s holy people”, has been crafted by the Spirit, and given, not achieved.

Looking to this time, and continuing to struggle with the temptations and distractions which confuse us, we are pointed forward. “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” It is good to know that there will be a time when all is clear, but that is a strong reason to get it right now. The temptations that “it will always be like this” and “it doesn’t matter” or even “it’s only reasonable to compromise” are – just temptations. However hard it may be to follow the leading of the Spirit in the steps of Jesus through confusion and difficulty, our destination is clear.

Not immune – but protected!

“I’ve been good, why is this happening to me?” Sadly this is a common wail of Churchgoers in trouble. Paul gives some answers in Philippians 1. (We are set to read Philippians 1:21-30, but it may be helpful to start a bit earlier – perhaps Philippians 1:12-30).

Paul is in prison (v13), yet his whole attitude is far beyond duty and courage! Even though some people are trying to make trouble for him (v17), he is happy. How does he manage this?

He has no illusions about the Christian life being a guarantee of no trouble, no hard times, no suffering. Quite the opposite, if his being in prison (not a pleasant experience) will help the gospel, then he is happy for that to happen. The experience is clearing up what is at stake, helping others to confront the challenge of the gospel – as persecution has often been a tool for strengthening the church – “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (as is said in East Africa). Paul draws strength from realism: he knows the failings and weaknesses of other people, but also he knows the God who is in control of all. His trust is in God, and with that he can cope with people.

Life and death! Paul knows the possibilities of his situation, and has come to be able to say

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Philippians 1:21

It is a vital line for many others who face death, whether through disease (as we all do, at some time), or through physical danger. Sadly, we don’t now seem happy to speak positively about preparing for death, preferring to let it creep up on us unawares. Is a sudden heart attack the ideal end? No, for it allows no time to prepare, no repentance, no sorting of finances and relationships. Yes, to prepare for death needs the courage to face dying; and yes, it is a good thing to do – for our own sake as we face God, and for the sake of friends and family, as they adjust to a new situation.

Paul, guarded by armed soldiers, is in no position to avoid the realities, and he has worked through his thoughts and feelings to this wonderful and helpful statement v21. What do we rely on? If Christ, then he will see us through death. If something else, then we need to change – and that brings us to the third paragraph Philippians 1:27-30.

“the important thing is that your way of life should be as the gospel of Christ requires”

Philippians 1:27a

This is your safeguard, in all sorts of ways:

  • if you have enemies, who oppose and ridicule your faith, live it consistently, and they will have no ammunition. More, they will be given fair warning of their own danger.
  • if you are frightened of what may happen in the future, of the uncertainty that is always part of life (health, work, family …) then live as a Christian and you will develop the resources to cope with all these things, as well as to recognise that many will never come.
  • even should you ever be afraid of the “nasties” of the spiritual world, of black magic or vodoo or anything else you should not be involved with – this is your basic protection. Live as a Christian, for Christ does not allow his people to be seriously hurt by the enemy.

So I hope you see that Christians are not “immune”. All sorts of things can and do happen to them, but they are still safe with a God whose work is not stopped. They can face death with reasoned courage; they know that living as Christians is a preparation and protection which will get them through good times and bad.

The God who smiles First

We have many different pictures of God. Sometimes they give stern suggestions of the never-satisfied perfectionist; sometimes they are more tolerant of failure, even expecting our poor performance. Too often they reflect nothing more than our human experience, and the feeling that “you get out what you put in”. But we want – need – more than our imaginings, based as they often are on our experience growing up.

Through this summer in the Revised Common Lectionary, we shall be reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, starting from chapter 5. (Today we read Romans 5:1-8). Romans has had a profound effect on many Christians through the ages, perhaps because it was written to a church Paul had not started, and gives a more systematic account of his belief and life.

At any rate, Romans 5:8 gives us a clear view of God

“While we were still sinners, Christ died for us”

Romans 5:8

Whatever our background suggests God might, or even should be, here is fact. The Christian God is the God who smiles first. Not waiting for us to be ready, or make an effort, Jesus comes to earth and dies for us. It is the most generous welcome to a new life – but without force. The offer is there. It remains open. But it can be accepted or declined.

The Christians in Rome already had some idea of this, and also knew that the Christian life with God was not entirely easy. Free of guilt and confident of being loved, they faced all the ordinary difficulties of life, and the threat of persecution as well. Paul won’t let them be depressed about that:

“we also glory in our sufferings”

Romans 5:3

Hard to justify? Well, read on. These Christians are not just those rescued from danger, as if to remain feeble and traumatised. They are being grown into strong disciples, to share hope and love. The Christian picture of God is of a God who smiles first, and with good reason.

Suffering, Humility and Discipline!

Through the Easter season we have been reading the first letter of Peter, and noticed that he has a good deal to say about Christian suffering. (My computer Bible finds 6 matches for “Suffer” and another 3 for “Sufferings” in the 5 chapters in NRSV). It has come at an appropriate time with the covid 19 lockdown, but perhaps there is never an inappropriate time to remind followers of Jesus that their lives are no more likely than his to be trouble and stress free. Of course it often isn’t fair – but for everybody, life is like that.

Christians get added trouble because of their faith. It comes in many forms – dislike for people who act differently or stand out from the crowd; a reaction of guilt (even without critical comments); or a fear that they might be right! It is something we need to come to terms with.

Usefully, this week’s reading (given as 1 Peter 4. 12-14; 5. 6-11, but it might make more sense to read 1Peter 4:12 – 5:11) has more to say that might help. First is the idea of humility. (1Peter 5:5,6, and throughout). It is important that we have a realistic understanding of ourselves, and our place in the world and the church. That is not the same as saying we are worthless, which is untrue. Every person is made in the image of God, and loved – and so of enormous value. But that is every person, so we have to understand what our particular gifts are, and how they should be used to work in with others. Humility is about being “down to earth”, always remembering that earth is wonderful stuff that enables miracles of growth.

Humility provides some defence against suffering, helping deal with wounded pride and foolish ambition. With it, Peter commands discipline. Again, it is not a fashionable virtue, but one that shows its value in hard times. We have all been advised in lockdown to have a routine, to exercise, and eat and drink sensibly – yes, it’s a discipline. Peter is more concerned that we are alert to temptation, and ready for the service of God. In other texts, Paul talks about the discipline of the athlete in training, or the soldier on active service. We remember that discipline will not earn us God’s love or salvation, but it will enable us to better respond to those things in effective service.

I hope you have found 1 Peter a timely commentary on life after Easter in 2020. Perhaps, as we move towards Pentecost (are you using the Thy Kingdom Come app?) you might like to read the whole letter again?

The Ideal Lifestyle

What sort of lifestyle would you really like? Some years ago David Atkinson pointed out that many people half believe the myths about the problem-free lives of “ideal” people, which does not help at all in facing problems. We all face problems, and many involve fear.

Peter tells us (in our reading of 1 Peter 3:13-22), ““Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.”, which might sound like wishful thinking. But he gives a reason: “in your hearts revere Christ as Lord”. If Jesus is Lord, there is no need to fear anyone else. (Peter means it – he is talking to those facing persecution). It is part of the Easter message. Jesus has faced everything, and won! Since he is Lord of all, if you serve him, there is nothing to fear.

That does not mean you will lead a charmed life. V 17 “ For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” Suffering may come, but cannot take away the really important things, so don’t worry about it.

Why do good people suffer? God knows, but it happened to Jesus, and many others, and sometimes that is how the gospel spreads. V15 “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,”. Christians had, and have, a great impact. Arguably that comes more from simple believers sharing their faith, hope and love in difficult times than from learned arguments. Hopefully that is one of the things which will emerge from the coronavirus crisis. If Christians are known for being unafraid, practically helpful, but always gentle and respectful – that will get attention and raise questions, leading people to Jesus.

It is not about slogans, or advertising budgets, but a reality in our communities. Verses 19-22 might seem unclear, but Peter is talking about the commitment pledged in Baptism, and the grace of God which transforms people through the power of Jesus’ resurrection.

What sort of lifestyle would you really like? Have the myths of happiness in idle luxury, unconcerned with the world around, poisoned you? Or would you value a life without fear, experiencing the ups and downs, but in company with God’s family and travelling to a wonderful destination? Part of the Easter message is that the best lifestyle is yours for the asking.

If you know the truth behind “Jesus is Lord”, and claim it through baptism, then you have nothing to fear. Yes, you may still suffer (which threatens your comfort, not your security). And certainly you will be called on to explain your hope. But I think that gives most of us something to work on.

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

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.