Sunday, June 5, 2011

Sermon for June 5th: 1 Peter 4:12 - 5:11

The Normal Christian Life

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the old gospel song ‘Poor Wayfaring Stranger’. The first verse goes like this:

I am a poor wayfaring stranger,

While traveling through this world of woe.

Yet there’s no sickness, toil nor danger

In that bright world to which I go.

What’s the vision of the Christian life that this gospel song portrays? According to this song, the Christian life in this world is a life of suffering. We live in a world of woe, and our experience as we travel through it is full of sickness, toil, and danger. The only escape from this dismal scenario is to die and go to heaven, which is, of course, a much better place.

For an alternative, here’s a chorus we used to sing when I was young:

At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light,

And the burden of my heart rolled away!

It was there by faith I received my sight

And now I am happy all the day.

Here’s a completely different vision of the Christian life. The burden of my heart is rolled away because I’ve put my faith in Jesus, and now I am happy all day long. It sounds wonderful, but we might have a sneaking suspicion that it’s a little less than honest. In fact, I know that some people who used to sing this song were definitely not happy all the day, and some of them were actually carrying enormous burdens of one kind or another.

So what is the normal Christian life? Unbroken hardship and misery until we go to heaven? Or one long clap-happy gospel song party, with nothing but joy from morning ‘til night? Well, of course, the truth is something in between those two extremes. In our final reading from the first letter of Peter, the old apostle sets out for us some of the elements of the normal Christian life, and we won’t be surprised to find that some of them are about hardship and some of them are about joy and strength and growth. Turn with me to 1 Peter 4:12 – 5:11, and let me point out to you four elements of the normal Christian life.

First, suffering. In 4:12 Peter says, ‘Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you’. The ‘fiery ordeal’ phrase reminds us of something Peter said in the first chapter: ‘In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith – being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed’ (1:6-7).

Peter is not referring here to the suffering that is the ordinary lot of human beings in a broken world: sickness, financial hardship, family struggles, war and so on. It’s clear throughout this letter that when Peter talks about suffering he means the suffering that comes our way specifically because we are followers of Jesus. His vision of the Christian life is that Christians are not afraid to stand up and be counted as followers of Jesus, to live by the values Jesus taught us, and to share the good news of Jesus with others. We don’t keep quiet about all this because we want to have an easy life. We’re open about it, and if there’s a price to pay, we’re willing to pay the price.

As I’ve been preaching through 1 Peter I’ve mentioned a few times the sorts of suffering for Christ that the first recipients of this letter might have endured. Christians were accused of being a superstitio, an antisocial sect that wouldn’t do its civic duty of praying to the gods for the safety and prosperity of the town, and wouldn’t take part in civic celebrations that involved the worship of idols. Christian business people were getting poorer, because the trade guild meetings took place in the context of pagan worship, and as Christians they could not participate. Christians were in danger of their lives if they refused to worship the emperor as a god.

It’s interesting to me that all of these points of tension involve idolatry. When we think of the idols people worship today – money and possessions, prosperity and success, everlasting youth, sexuality, nationalism and so on – we would do well to ask ourselves, “What would it mean for me, in my own daily life, to refuse to participate in these forms of idolatry? And what would be the consequences?”

Peter has an interesting way of thinking about this sort of suffering in verse 13: ‘But rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed’. He’s thinking about the Cross as the price that Jesus paid for his obedience to the Father. Jesus came into a broken and sinful world and he did the will of the Father faithfully. But a sinful world wasn’t happy with that. Those in power found their power challenged, and they weren’t ready to give it up and embrace the new way of Jesus. People committed to sinful lives didn’t like the way their sins were challenged. People who believed in the way of violence thought Jesus was being disloyal to Israel’s God when he rejected the path of armed rebellion and told people to love their enemies. And so Jesus was despised and rejected and nailed to a cross; that’s the price he paid for his obedience to God. And when we are treated as Jesus was treated, we are sharing in his sufferings. That’s what Jesus meant when he told us that we have to take up our cross and follow him.

So Peter’s vision of the normal Christian life includes standing up and being counted for Jesus, and not being afraid to suffer the consequences of that. The second thing we see in this passage – and you’ll perhaps be surprised to hear me say this – is sin. Look at verse 15: ‘But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief-maker’.

Don’t you find it surprising that Peter would have to warn a Christian congregation about these things? ‘If you’re going to suffer, make sure it’s because you follow Jesus, and not because you’ve murdered someone or stolen their car or robbed their bank or even stirred up gossip about them’. What sort of people were these Christians Peter was writing to? Surely they would all be well beyond that, wouldn’t they?

Apparently not. Apparently the early Christian church was made up of imperfect people just like you and me, except that some of their imperfections included sins we would find socially unacceptable. It’s sad, but there is often a double standard in the Christian community. Stealing is unacceptable, but greed and covetousness are okay. Drunkenness is unacceptable but other forms of overindulgence are fine. Gang violence is unacceptable, but violence when the state orders it is okay.

The writer Adrian Plass spent many years struggling with a smoking habit. One day when he was standing outside a building, someone he barely knew came up to him and said, “I see you’re still indulging in that filthy habit”. Adrian was in a touchy mood that morning, and he shot back, “It’s a lot better than your filthy habit!” The man’s face went pale, and he quickly slipped away. Adrian had no knowledge of any filthy habit the man might have, but obviously his comment had struck home. We all have skeletons in the closet; we all have things we’re ashamed of that we wouldn’t want anyone else to know about.

We spend our entire Christian lives learning to turn from our sins and follow the way of Jesus. Sometimes we’re successful, sometimes we’re not. That’s why Peter had to warn his flock to make sure they didn’t suffer for the wrong reasons. Your besetting sin might not be burglary or gang violence; it might be addiction to the good things that money can buy, or a simple laziness that finds caring for the poor and needy just too much like hard work. Whatever it is – that’s the story of our Christian lives. Jesus is gentle with us, but he always calls us to turn from our sins and follow him. So don’t be surprised if you meet sinners in the church; they’re people just like you!

So the normal Christian life involves, firstly, standing up and being counted for Jesus, and being willing to suffer the consequences for that, and, secondly, it also involves continued struggle with our sins. The third thing we see in this passage is imitation. In 5:1-5 Peter gives instructions to the elders of the churches he was writing to, and in verse 3 he says this: ‘Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock’.

Now, we might spend a lot of time profitably examining the difference between our professionalised form of Christian ministry today and the much more informal model presupposed in Peter’s letter. But I only have twenty minutes, and I want to focus in on one of the defining characteristics of Christian pastoral ministry as Peter sets it out here: older Christians show by their good example what it means to be followers of Jesus, and younger Christians watch them, learn from them, and imitate what they see.

This is a model of Christian growth that’s quite different from the professional education model we so often follow. But of course, it’s the way children grow and learn, by watching their parents. It’s the way I learned to play guitar; I only took six professional guitar lessons in my entire life, but I spent a lot of time watching and listening to other players and trying to do what I saw them doing. I used to try to sit as close to the front as I could at concerts so I could see what the players were doing with their hands!

We can probably all think of older Christians – not necessarily chronologically older than us, but more experienced in the Christian life – people who we have admired and have found ourselves trying to imitate. But have we ever thought of returning the favour to others? I remember many years ago having a conversation with a young cousin of mine who was getting interested in Christianity and was asking questions about prayer. We were talking about having a daily prayer time and what that might look like, and I suddenly decided that the best way to teach him was to demonstrate. So I said, ‘Sit beside me, and we’ll do it together’. We read a Bible passage and I talked about some of the things that struck me from it, just as I might do for myself if I was reading the passage devotionally. I then let him listen in as I prayed – praising God, confessing sins, thanking God for things, and bringing my requests to God for other people and for myself. When we were done, I said to him, “Now – do you think you can do something like that?” He replied, “I think I can”.

Of course, behind all this is the idea of imitating Jesus himself. Earlier in the letter Peter says, ‘For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps’ (2:21). Paul also says, ‘Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Jesus is the ultimate pattern for us to follow; we who are older in the Christian life are responsible to put his teaching and example into practice, so that younger Christians can see Christ in us. And so we all follow Jesus together, and gradually we’re changed into his likeness.

So the normal Christian life involves, firstly, being willing to suffer the consequences of faithfulness to Jesus, secondly, continued struggle with our sins, and thirdly, daily imitation of the good example that we see in Jesus and in older Christians. There are many other things I could point out in this passage: for instance, I might think about the humility that Peter mentions in 5:5-6, or the daily casting of our anxieties on God in 5:7. But time is limited, and I do want to conclude with the last thing Peter mentions in this passage: spiritual warfare. Look at 5:8-9: ‘Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are enduring the same kinds of suffering’.

This Christian life is not a walk in the park; it’s not a nice relaxed conversation in which everything goes. The New Testament is quite clear about this: Jesus, Paul, Luke, Peter, John and all the rest are all agreed that behind all of the evil in the world there is a personal being, a malignant force who opposes God and wants to dominate and subdue God’s good creation. All human cruelty, love of power, greed, anger, violence, injustice and oppression point to the character of this evil force. Sometimes he’s called ‘the devil’, as here in Peter; at other times he’s called ‘the satan’, which means ‘the accuser’. Here he is also called ‘your adversary’, the one who opposes us. We are setting ourselves to imitate the good things that we see in Jesus, but our adversary is determined stop us. His aim is to shipwreck our faith and win us back for the kingdom of darkness.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Peter saw the persecution that the early Christians were going through as part of this spiritual struggle. The devil was trying to intimidate Christians, to set the cost of following Christ higher and higher, so that people would be discouraged and give up. But Peter tells them not to do that. Instead he tells them to do two things. First, they’re to ‘resist (the devil), steadfast in (their) faith’ (5:9a). To be ‘steadfast’ is to stick to it, not to give up, just as Jesus didn’t give up when he was tempted in the desert. Second, they are to remember that throughout the world their brothers and sisters in Christ are involved in the same struggle as they are.

A roaring lion looking for something to devour might hesitate to attack a whole herd of animals, but the thing it really loves is to find an animal that’s all alone. That sort of animal is a sitting duck. And that’s why it’s so important for us not to try to isolate ourselves from other Christians. That’s why it’s so important for us to come to church week by week, to pray together and get together for Bible study with our fellow Christians. Together, it’s easier for us to resist the attacks of the devil. But if we neglect that meeting together, it gets harder and harder.

So this is the normal Christian life as Peter sees it. First, we’re not afraid to stand up and be counted as followers of Jesus, and we’re prepared to suffer the consequences. Second, we know that we continue to sin, but we do our best each day to turn from sin and live as Jesus taught us. Third, we imitate the good example that we see in Jesus and in those who are older in the faith than we are. And fourth, we recognise that we’re in a spiritual struggle, but we don’t give up; we resist the devil’s attacks and we meet regularly with our fellow Christians so that we can be strengthened and encouraged by one another’s faith.

Constant sorrow? Unbroken happiness? No, not really – a bit of both! Let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will give us the strength to live the normal Christian life as Peter has portrayed it for us.

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