1 Peter 1:3-9 – Be Joyful in Suffering

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (New International Version)

One of my favorite stories is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. It’s a story of grace and new life. The main character is Jean Valjean, who spends nineteen years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family.  The experience in prison caused him to become a bitter man. 

By the time he is released, Valjean is hard, angry, and cynical. Since ex-convicts were not treated well in nineteenth-century France, Jean Valjean had nowhere to go. In desperation, he seeks lodging one night at the home of a Catholic bishop, who treats him with genuine kindness, which Valjean sees only as an opportunity to exploit. 

In the middle of the night, Jean Valjean steals the bishop’s silver and leaves. The next day, however, he is caught by the police. When they bring Jean back to the bishop’s house for identification, the police are surprised when the bishop hands two silver candlesticks to Valjean, implying that he had given the stolen silver to him, saying, “You forgot these.” 

After dismissing the police, the bishop turns to Jean Valjean and says, “I have bought your soul for God.” In that moment, by the bishop’s act of mercy, Valjean’s bitterness is broken.

Jean Valjean’s forgiveness is the beginning of a new life. The bulk of Victor Hugo’s novel demonstrates the utter power of a redeemed life. Jean chooses the way of mercy, as the bishop had done. 

Valjean raises an orphan, spares the life of a parole officer who spent fifteen years hunting him, and saves his future son-in-law from death, even though it nearly cost him his own life. There are trials and temptations for Valjean all along the way. 

What keeps Jean Valjean pursuing his new life is mercy. Whereas before, he responded to mercy with a brooding melancholy and inner anger, now – after being shown grace – Valjean responds to each case of unjust suffering with both mercy and joy, deeply thankful for the chance to live a new life full of grace.

Suffering and joy. They, at first glance, may seem to be opposites. Christianity views suffering as an occasion for joy, and not just empty meaningless grief. 

“A gracious soul may look through the darkest cloud and see God smiling on him.”

Thomas Brooks (1608-1680)

Followers of Jesus imitate their Savior through walking in the way of suffering. These sufferings are trials to our faith and the means by which our faith is developed, used, and strengthened. Just as gold is refined by being put through fire, so our faith is refined and proven genuine through the purging fires of life’s trials and troubles. 

Walking in the way of the Lord Jesus, adversity is our Teacher, helping us to know Christ better and appreciate the great deliverance from sin, death, and hell we possess in Jesus.

Adversity has a positive effect of making faith genuine. Every generation of Christians must come to grips with faith. Belief is not only a matter of confession with the lips; faith is also proven primarily through suffering. So, we must walk-the-talk, as well as talk-the-walk. 

Faith is like a new car – it is meant to be occupied, used, and driven – and not to only sit in the garage and be admired. A car is meant to be on the road, and if it does not perform well, we say it’s a lemon and we get another car. 

Cars are the vehicles getting us from point A to point B. And, hopefully, we enjoy the ride without being frustrated and having road rage. It is unrealistic, as drivers, to believe we will never have to drive in adverse road conditions. We know it is silly to believe the weather must always conform to our driving habits. 

Good drivers are good drivers because they drive a lot and have driven in nearly every road condition there is.  Mature Christians are those followers of Jesus who live their faith each and every day and, since they allow their faith to take them places, have seen all kinds of adversity, trials, and suffering along the road of life.

They have learned through all their troubles and trials to enjoy what God is doing in their lives instead of being frustrated and have faith-fury. Such Christians have the confidence they are receiving the goal of their faith, the salvation of their souls. They understand their faith grows and develops as they face the challenges of life every day with a firm commitment to their Lord Jesus.

There are times we feel overwhelmed by our circumstances and wonder how to get through them. Yet, no matter what happens, we still love Jesus and believe him, even though we don’t see him. Like Jean Valjean, we keep living our lives with joy knowing that mercy shapes our lives with purpose and meaning.

Peter could praise God because his life was transformed by the grace and mercy of Jesus. Peter went from an impulsive and fearful fisherman who denied the Lord three times, to a confident and courageous witness of Christ because he was regenerated, restored, and renewed by grace. He joyfully endured suffering and opposition because his faith was precious to him. 

There can be a tendency for many Christians to show a flat and staid attitude through the trials of life – trying to keep a stiff upper lip and endure. However, taking the approach of “It is what it is” only works for so long. 

Eventually “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” is a more appropriate response to trouble. It is precisely during those times when human hope fades that we rejoice – even though the rejoicing is through tears – in the living hope kept for us.

This gracious inheritance of hope is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. That means we can live through a difficult day or week or month or even, dear God, a year or longer with spiritual endurance. We can persevere through a worldwide trial of pandemic. We can do more than survive – we can thrive through having our faith muscle stretched and strengthened. We are not alone. We all suffer together.

Our shared value of the risen Christ is the fuel that keeps our car of faith running. It is what transcends the stoic attitude of unfeeling endurance to a joyful flourishing of faith. 

Eventually, suffering will have done its work and we will be with Christ forever. Until that day, let’s not hunker down and stay in the garage of life. Let us explore all that God has for us, embracing both the meaning and the mystery of faith. Since our salvation is assured, let us live with confidence and run the race marked out for us. 

Let us not be complacent or slow in doing the will of God, but work for God’s kingdom purposes on this earth, in this age, while it is still called Today. And let us allow the trials of this age to do their work in us, responding to them with joy knowing that our faith is being strengthened for the benefit of blessing the world. 

To God be the glory. Even in suffering.

Blessed Lord, you created us and lovingly care for us. We accept all our sufferings willingly, and as truly obedient children we resign ourselves to your holy will. Give us the strength to accept your loving visitation to us through adversity, and never let us grieve your heart by giving-in to impatience and discouragement. We offer you all our pains to be used for your honor and glory.

Brother Jesus, you loved us so much as to suffer and die for our deliverance from sin. Through the love we have for you, we willingly offer all that we have ever suffered in the past, am now suffering, and will suffer in the future. We are grateful that your love enables us to suffer with joy. Because you suffered, we have new life in the name of Jesus who taught us to pray. Amen.

Matthew 5:10-12 – Blessed are Those Who are Persecuted Because of Righteousness

Painting by Hyatt Moore

“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

“Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort, and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even! —for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble. (The Message)

No matter our vocation or avocation, what we do, or don’t do, what we say, or don’t say, we will not avoid insult and persecution. Just ask Jesus.

The issue is not if we will suffer but why we suffer. The Apostle Peter devoted his first epistle to helping Christians deal with their suffering. He made his point clear about suffering: 

If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. (1 Peter 4:15-16, NIV)

That’s Peter’s way of saying, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness.”  We will endure abuse, in some form, from others. So, let’s make sure it’s for being characterized by Christ’s Beatitudes, and not for being obnoxious.

Christ’s followers take up their cross and share with him in the world’s hatred directed toward us. This kind of living is blessed and receives the approval of God.

What is persecution?

Persecution is not only physical abuse. It is also verbal abuse, ridicule, slander, discrimination, and generally making one’s life harder just because of a commitment to Christ. Persecution is not necessarily a sign of doing something wrong. It could be that something right is being done. 

Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) wrote what has become one of the best-selling Christian books of all-time, The Imitation of Christ. Thomas had the right perspective on the subject of persecution:

“Sometimes it is to our advantage to endure misfortunes and adversities, for they make us enter into our inner selves and acknowledge that we are in a place of exile and that we ought not to rely on anything in this world.  And sometimes it is good for us to suffer contradictions and know that there are those who think ill and badly of us, even though we do our best and act with every good intention.  Such occasions are aids in keeping us humble and shield us from pride. When men ridicule and belittle us, we should turn to God, who sees our innermost thoughts, and seek His judgment.

Therefore, we should so firmly establish ourselves in God that we have no need to seek much human encouragement. It is when a person of good will is distressed, or tempted, or afflicted with evil thoughts, that they best understand the overwhelming need for God, without whom we can do nothing. While enduring these afflictions they take themself to prayer with sighs and groans; they grow tired of this life and wish to be undone in order to live with Christ. It is in such times of trial they realize that perfect security and full peace are not to be found in this world.”

Insult, negativity, and verbal abuse can trip us up and discourage us. It doesn’t feel good to be disliked. Trouble and conflict is something most of us would like to avoid, as much as possible.

We might be able to steel ourselves for a large persecution against denying Christ and would be willing to die a martyr’s death to hold on to our faith. Yet, conversely, we may:

  • Crumble in a heap if we think someone is mad or displeased with us.
  • Worry that our lives will get complicated and difficult if we uphold the righteousness and justice of God.
  • Be afraid of others who might think bad of us if we showed mercy by standing with the unpopular person or if we actively and overtly engage in peacemaking.
George Reeves in The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958)

It is the “small” abuses which can cause us so much grief. We are determined to stand tall when the bullets of blatant, oppressive, and systemic persecution comes. Then, when the gun is thrown at us, we may flinch, duck, and fret over one person being upset.

Back when I was a kid, I watched old reruns of the original Superman television series. In more than one episode, Superman stood tall and faced the person peppering him with bullets. Then, when the bullets ran out, the villain threw his gun at Superman, who then promptly flinched and ducked the gun!

It is not our job to ensure that everyone is happy – it is our business to do God’s will and to embody Christ’s Beatitudes. Our calling as believers in Jesus is not to worry about what people (including family) are going to think if we live a humble, righteous life of mourning over the world’s sins, exhibiting a meek and gentle spirit, standing for grace when others want blood, refusing to defile our hearts with impure thoughts and actions, and standing up to do something about the injustice around us.

How and why do respond to persecution?

            The proper response to persecution is joy! There are two reasons why we can face persecution and come away glad instead cringing and discouraged:

  1. Because being characterized by the Beatitudes of Jesus brings heavenly reward. Show me a person who puts all their eggs in the earthly basket, and I’ll show you a person who is never satisfied and constantly unhappy. Show me a person who lives to please God and pursues the blessing of Christ, accepting any flak from others, and I’ll show you a person who is inwardly rejoicing that they are a Christian, loved by God, and counting it a privilege to suffer for the Name of Jesus. (Acts 5:27-29, 40-42)
  2. Because we are in good company. God’s people throughout history have endured the same kinds of sufferings and received a Christian purple heart award. We are not just to face persecution with a stoic, grind-it-out mentality, but with rejoicing! (Hebrews 11:36-40)

Who does the persecuting?

            The ones who persecuted the prophets were religious folks. I wish I could say the worst persecution I ever received was from evil people who live ungodly lives. However, the most insult, hardship, and slander I have ever endured has come from the lips and the efforts of people who claim the name of Christ. The reason abuse happens is because there are people not characterized by the Beatitudes of Jesus, so they become the persecutors, instead of the persecuted. 

            All the sufferings and hardships of Jesus, all the persecution he faced did not come from the world, but from his own people, including a person from his inner circle of disciples. Although the church, throughout its history, has done immense good, it also has had a chronic problem of shooting its wounded.

Far too many people have adopted a legalistic form of righteousness that focuses on outward conformity and myriad rules and regulations. Abundant grace is needed. Not judgment.

Conclusion

If we are persecuted, let’s make sure it is because we are advocating for others who need mercy and are facing injustice; addressing the brokenness of this world through specifically Christian lenses; and desiring the applause of heaven.

See if you can hear the Beatitudes in what the Apostle Peter, had to say about persecution:

For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:19-21, NIV)

Be like-minded and sympathetic. Love one another. Be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. For,

“Whoever would love life
    and see good days
must keep their tongue from evil
    and their lips from deceitful speech.
They must turn from evil and do good;
    they must seek peace and pursue it.

 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous
    and his ears are attentive to their prayer,
but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (1 Peter 3:8-12, NIV)

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (1 Peter 4:12-14, NIV)

May you know the blessing of solidarity with Christ through the afflictions of this present life.

Acts 10:34-43 – Alive with a New Vision

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (New International Version)

Peter’s Vision

The Apostle Peter, a Jew, was told by God to go to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile. God had given Peter a vision of unclean animals, saying, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”  While Peter was wondering about how to make sense of this, men came to retrieve Peter and take him to the house of Cornelius the Centurion.

The death and resurrection of Christ is universal in its scope. It effects every person on planet earth. God shows no favoritism. The cross of Christ is for all kinds of people from every nation, race, and ethnic group. Peter invites us to have a perspective on the cross which delivers us from all wrongdoing and misguided living. The Apostle encourages us to interpret the resurrection of Jesus as a new lease on life to millions of people. Peter’s message is to view the life and death of Jesus and see it as our redemption.

My Vision

For the first seventeen years of my life, I grew up in a nice family, a nice church, and attending a nice school. I heard the facts of Jesus, and the story of Jesus. I heard and understood that Jesus lived on this earth; lived a holy life; was a loving and good teacher; that evil persons had him arrested, tortured, and killed on a cross; that after three days he rose from death; and, that he now lives with the Father in heaven. I simply took all these Christian facts for granted. And yet, I never looked at those facts from my own perspective.

I did not see that as a teenager I was metaphorically speeding down a gravel road about to hit a t-intersection and face spiritual death. I did not interpret those events of Jesus from the angle that it was all done for me.  After all, there are all kinds of needy and lost people in the world, and I was living in Christian America. It’s all good for me, right? 

But it wasn’t all good. My heart was dark and unable to see the good news that Jesus did it all for me. Then, not too unlike what God did for Peter in seeing the world a new way, I saw that Jesus died for me. It totally changed my life.

“For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Romans 6:9-11, NIV

Suddenly, I saw life around me as if it were a new world. I began seeing and experiencing God’s love. I started to see the beauty and grace of God everywhere. I began to experience peace. These are the very things the gospel does for us – changes us from the inside-out.

When Peter preached his message to the household of Cornelius, they both were changed. Peter gained a brand new perspective on Gentiles and on God’s grace. And Cornelius began to interpret Jesus in a way that brought hope and life. 

A Cosmic Vision

In forty years of proclaiming the message of God’s peace through Christ to others, I have seen that the gospel is for everyone – poor and rich, the paranoid schizophrenic and the well-adjusted, addicts and non-addicts, those without much education and the highly educated, mean people and nice people.

One of the interesting things about the book of Acts is that it ends quite abruptly. We have all these wonderful stories about the good news of Jesus changing people’s lives, and then, in the middle of one of those stories with the Apostle Paul, the book of Acts just ends with chapter 28. The wise way of interpreting the abrupt ending is to see that God is still writing a story. The Lord is still active in the world, helping people to see Jesus in new and life-giving ways.

Today the right and proper way to interpret the story of Christ is that he is alive!  Because he lives, we live, if we direct our faith squarely toward Jesus. There is forgiveness through the cross. Since Jesus is alive, we are alive. Alive to the grace of God that has taken care of the guilt and shame issue once for all through the cross. Alive to the possibilities of what God wants to do in and through us. Alive to the people around us who need Jesus. Alive to one another. Alive in Jesus. 

God Almighty, thank you that Easter is for all people, that your love and salvation are for all who confess with voices and heart that the tomb is empty because Jesus is risen so that we might know forgiveness, and be reborn through Christ, your Son, our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit reign as one God, now and forever. Amen.

Mark 14:26-31 – Pride Comes Before the Fall

Peter Disowns Jesus by Ethiopian artist Nebiyu Assefa

When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

“You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written:

“‘I will strike the shepherd,
    and the sheep will be scattered.’

But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”

Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not.”

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.”

But Peter insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the others said the same. (New International Version)

Learning to Trust

I have two sisters-in-law who were lifeguards when they were teenagers. One day I watched one of them handle a group of kids experiencing their first swim lesson. She went to each child and told them to put their ears in the water and their belly buttons in the air while she was holding them up. “When I count to three, you won’t feel my hands underneath you, but they’re there,” she said. Most of the kids frantically jerked their knees toward their chins and flailed their arms. Truth is, almost all people float when they assume a posture of rest. But people who think they will sink don’t keep their posture for long. 

The disciples had a hard time trusting Jesus. They just couldn’t seem to rest and relax with Jesus holding them up. After all, Jesus said and did things they were not expecting him to say and do. Jesus preached the necessity of humility and loving one’s enemies. He focused ministry on the least and the lost. 

Different Agendas

The disciples had not yet really bought into Christ’s kingdom agenda. They kept pulling their knees up, thinking Jesus was going to lead a rebellion against the Romans and put Israel back on the map. Bless their hearts, the disciples mistakenly believed Jesus was there to immediately restore the glory days of Jewish dominance in the land.

Despite Christ’s teaching and ministry, some folks believe God’s agenda ought to be restoring prayer in public schools and The Ten Commandments back in courthouses. But Jesus has a different agenda. Christ goes to the heart of the matter. New life is what he is after. Transformation leads to observance of God’s will so the least and the lost persons among us will be reached. 

Jesus turned the world upside-down by insisting not that people come to the temple but that the temple worshipers go to the people. It was not a popular teaching with the disciples, let alone everyone else. The disciples had greater (or so they thought) ideas about how things ought to go.  

Christ followers might neglect the upside-down teaching ministry of Jesus because we believe ourselves to be good people. We already assume we know what God wants. And we would never betray Jesus, right!?  O, sure, we sin occasionally, but not like murderers and child molesters. Our sins are respectable – a little resentment here, a little prejudice there, or a smidge of gossip just to make sure outsiders know and respect their place.

However, we must first hear the bad news before we can hear the good news. And once we hear the bad news and accept it, we need to receive God’s remedy for it. The disciples Peter and Judas are contrasting figures in grasping Christ’s message and responding to it.

Peter and Judas

Peter and Judas had similar ideas about how the future should look – seeing Israel restored to its previous glorious prominence. Judas was a religious and political Zealot. And Peter had no problem picking up a sword when it seemed the time was ripe for a political rebellion and takeover.

Peter insisted he would never turn on Jesus. Yet, Jesus flat-out told him that would happen. Sure enough, Peter did a big belly flop in the pool of denial by disowning Jesus three times.

Then there was Judas. He caught on quicker than Peter that Jesus wasn’t going to lead a military coup. Talking about wasting time on marginal people who couldn’t help usher-in a glorious revolution was the last straw for him.  After Judas clearly saw Jesus had no intention of fulfilling what he thought should happen, he actively sought an opportunity to betray him.

In fact, none of the disciples wanted to take a step of commitment into the world of suffering as the means of reaching others. They wanted glory, not suffering. But Jesus chose the cup of suffering.

Both Judas and Peter realized, after denying Jesus, they had made a terrible mistake. However, that is where the similarities end. Judas responded to his guilt by completing suicide.  Rather than throw himself upon the mercy of God, Judas handled the guilt himself. It was a refusal of grace.

Peter, instead, wept bitterly. He realized his poverty of spirit. He mourned over his sin. Later, Peter became a genuinely meek person with God’s righteousness taking root within him. Having received grace, Peter became a preacher of truth and grace.

Stubborn Pride

Renewal comes from spiritual transformation. It requires a brutally honest assessment of self and others. “I will never fall” comes from a heart that believes “I’m not so bad.” Our failures of faith stem ultimately from pride and a lack of trust. We keep pulling our knees up because we are too anxious to let the agenda of Jesus control our lives. 

Proud people have little need for prayer because they are self-sufficient. However, humble people pray a lot! They don’t want to fall into temptation and defame the name of the Lord. They pray because apart from Jesus Christ they know they’ll act like a cockeye little dog who thinks he is a big dog. Even Jesus himself felt the need to watch and pray so that he could face his hour of pain and suffering on behalf of humanity.

When Jesus was arrested, Peter followed him at a distance. That describes too much of our own following of Christ. We want to see how everything will shake-out before we commit. Jesus invites us to trust him, to commit, to make and keep promises before we even know what it all means. 

It could be that we need to acknowledge we’ve made a mess of our lives through being stubborn. Perhaps we have willfully held to our own ideas of how things ought to go, for far too long.

If you find yourself in a mess, whether it is of your own making or of somebody else’s, grace is the thing that can handle it. That is, coming to God with honesty and humility. Being willing to rest and relax when Jesus is telling you to. It’s okay to let your knees go down and stick the belly button out – to rest in Jesus.

Give us honest hearts, O God, and send your kindly Spirit to help us confess our sins and bring us the peace of your forgiveness, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.