Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sentenced to Life!

Some years ago I asked one of my colleagues at Providence what tense our Easter formula is in: Christ is Risen! She replied that the formula is subject, verb, complement. Risen is not so much what Christ did; it is the very nature of who he is. We remember his resurrection, and we celebrate the truth that he is life itself.

The Resurrection turned the disciples’ lives upside down. Death was swallowed up in life. Sorrow was overwhelmed with joy. Despair gave way to hope as they discovered the reality of Jesus’ words: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” They thought that the crucifixion was their own death sentence, and they found they had instead been sentenced to life! To explore this basic thought we look briefly at John 20 and Acts 2, and then in more depth at 1 Peter 1.

John 20
In the first part of the chapter, Mary Magdalene, and then Peter and John, come to the empty tomb. Jesus appears first to Mary. Then the verses we read: That evening Jesus appears in a locked room with the disciples and commissions them to continue his ministry. Then a week later he appears to the disciples again, this time including Thomas, who states a basic point of these appearances, his recognition that Jesus is both Lord and God.

One notes an undercurrent of disbelief, not just in Thomas’ scepticism, but in the fact that the disciples knew well that dead people don’t rise. They took some convincing! The long ending of Mark (not found in the earliest manuscripts) states it explicitly:
When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it. Afterwards Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country. These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either. Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.
The late writer of this ending names the undercurrent of doubt, which took repeated appearances of Jesus to dispel. In the end they realised and affirmed with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”

Acts 2
Peter preaches his Pentecost sermon to the Jews gathered from around the world for the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot). In these verses he says:
Jesus was God’s man among you, through whom God acted.
You had him killed.
God raised him from the dead. This action shows that Jesus was God’s chosen one.
All of this shows us clearly that Jesus was God’s Messiah, and God has made us (the disciples) witnesses to his life, death, and resurrection. Peter quotes from Psalm 16 to make his point, showing how Jesus had taught them to read Scripture through his life.

The implication of this sermon is that the community of Israel finds its fulfillment in the Messiah, and that the ministry and message of the disciples continues the ministry and message of Jesus himself. The people’s response was to turn in repentance to embrace the risen Messiah.

1 Peter
A few words about the context in which Peter wrote: John reflects on events that he saw. Luke (in Acts) reports on events that he had researched. Both are writing about the time immediately after Jesus’ resurrection.

In this letter Peter is writing about 30 years later. As I read the commentators, it makes the most sense to me to say that Peter, the impetuous disciple and one of the leaders of the apostles, wrote this letter to people in what today we call Turkey around 60-64 A.D. During this time Nero was Caesar in Rome. He claimed divinity for the emperor at his death; Christians pointed to the man who died and rose from the dead and called him, “Son of God”. Nero feared Christians because they owned Jesus as Lord and would not say that Caesar is Lord. Just as American border officials take their cue from the President’s public announcements (so that immigrants are afraid), Roman officials in Asia took their cue from Nero’s public stance (and Christians knew they were in danger.

Peter and Paul were probably both executed in this time of persecution, so that this letter probably comes near the end of Peter’s life. Here at the beginning of the letter he gives the words we heard earlier.
Verses 3-5: Words of praise for God’s great mercy, given to us through the resurrection of Jesus, by which have “an inheritance that can never die.” This inheritance is in Heaven, and we have the certainty that we will live forever there.
Verse 6: In the meantime—now—we are experiencing great trials, but our joy is deeper than our trials.
Verse 7: Trials prove that our faith is genuine. These present troubles become the source of our greatest praise.
Verses 8-9: We love God (even without seeing God) and know such great joy because we know that God is in the process of giving us salvation.
Verses 10-12: The prophets told us long ago that trials leading to victory was the pattern for God’s Messiah, and therefore also the pattern for us, the followers of the Messiah.

Peter’s Point
The basic point of this passage is found at its centre: We experience great trials in the present, but our joy is deeper than our trials. Peter sates the basic reason for our joy and peace at the beginning: “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” That is, we have life in the presence of death because Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus sentences us to life.

This connection between joy and trials is a repeated theme in the New Testament. In Mark 13 Jesus told the disciples that the glory of his return would follow great persecution. Joy and hope come out of despair and grief. In Romans 5 Paul sounds the same note:
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

In James 1, James the brother of Jesus repeats the same idea:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

This theme of joy in suffering runs throughout the New Testament. We could have looked at Romans 6, or 2 Corinthians 6, or 2 Corinthians 12, or many other passages. The early Christians were ready to die, and they went to their deaths singing praises to the God who had saved them. Their joy ran deeper than their sorrow. Their peace was the peace that passes understanding, the peace that Jesus had promised them before he himself went to the cross. They knew the power of love, even though they lived in a world of grief and despair and turmoil.

Our World Today
We look at the world around us and see a world much like the world Peter knew. I follow the news more closely than is healthy. Lois tells me that she doesn’t follow news headlines because she can get them all from me. As I listen to the news I observe two things. One is that our world as a whole is in a fragile and dangerous state. All of us in the world face dangers that are not specific to Christian belief. For example, in the next 50 years we may see many people forced to move out of large parts of the Florida coast, or out of the city of New Orleans. These are dangers that are part of being human, not just of being Christian.

I observe also that in many places it is becoming more difficult to articulate Christian belief and live according to Christian standards. In some parts of the world, Christians are actively persecuted. In other parts any strong religious commitment is suspect—whether of Muslims in Europe or Buddhists in China or Christians in Indonesia.

Between wondering about the stability of my own future in retirement and worrying about what will happen as our society pushes religious faith into people’s private lives, I can imagine the real possibility of my children and grandchildren facing dangers far worse than anything present in my own lifetime.

What do we do with such fears? Is it “the end of history”, to use Francis Fukuyama’s phrase? [Fukuyama referred to the idea that “liberal democracy” is the final stage in political evolution, so that we have achieved the state that the world will continue to move towards. I am using the phrase more darkly, with the idea that the world itself may come to an end.] We may wonder what the next stage of development is in being human. What effect will the continued development of Artificial Intelligence have? Will our grandchildren live in a world we would recognize as human? What will be the effect of continue population growth? Will assisted dying become the norm for everyone after a certain age? Questions and fears surround us, and we can feel as afraid as the disciples the night after the crucifixion, or as the people Peter wrote to as the Roman Empire began to flex its muscles against them.

Fear as the Source of Hope
Peter speaks to us as well. He begins not with our fears, but with our hope. He begins not with the possibility of destruction, but with the reality of the resurrection. I think that he would want us to do the same. If we dwell on our fears, they will drag us down into despair. If we use our fears to turn to God in Christ [“My peace I give to you”], we discover instead a bedrock of joy and praise.

I have been reading in the history of Brethren in Christ World Missions. Leoda Buckwalter has written several accounts of the 40 years that she and her husband, Allen, spent in India. She was born in India, and left the country when her father died of smallpox. She was then nine years old. She describes her father’s funeral, when she heard God asking her if she would help to fill the empty space left by her father’s death. She answered, yes. Her mother stayed to finish her term, while Leoda and her brother, Joe, moved to California to live with their grandparents (their mother’s parents), but that answer remained with her.

Leoda married Allen in 1936, and in 1939 they sailed across the Pacific for their first term of service. Among the many stories she tells, I think of one from those days of World War 2. On the one hand, she was back home. On the other, they were in the far north, close to the Burmese border. The Japanese had taken Burma and were pushing their way through the jungle towards India. Leoda describes the experience of bombers flying overhead each night on their way to drop their payload on the Japanese enemy.

The day came that the government required all expatriates to move to a safer place, so Allen and Leoda were withdrawn to Monghyr Fort, on the Ganges River. They left behind most of their possessions, including their wedding present locked in trunks in their home. While they were gone, the villagers debated ransacking their house and taking what was there. It was wartime, and everyone was afraid for the future. Finally the Christians went into the house and divided up the Buckwalters’ belonging. When Allen and Leoda returned, they found the house empty.

Leoda writes how this loss almost destroyed their relationship with the people they loved. She struggled with resentment and anger over the betrayal by those who had been her own childhood friends. She struggled especially with losing a set of cloth napkins that had been a wedding present from her mother. A village woman had taken them and was using them as diapers. Leoda could see them hanging from the washing line when she went about the village.

Then she and her husband went to Darjeeling for a short rest in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. There she sat with other missionaries who had escaped the invading Japanese by walking across the mountains out of China. She began to see the gift of life that Jesus had given them and her, and she stopped focussing on her loss, so small in comparison.

When they returned to the village, she learned what had really happened. The villagers had been planning to ransack their house and take everything. The Christian community came in first and divided up their wedding presents and other belongings. Then she realised why so many of their things had been returned to them. She had lost the cloth napkins, but little else. Their friends had in fact protected them, and the one who kept the cloth napkins had been in great need. She and Allen returned to the village and renewed and deepened their relationships with the Christian community there.

Leoda’s experience gave her the necessary sense of loss to discover where the villagers really lived. Although they had been friends from her childhood, they had to share loss to discover the power of life. That is the way God has made our world.

I could tell many more such stories. You know already, I suspect, the story of Sokreaksa Himm, survivor of the Cambodian Killing Fields and graduate of Providence Seminary. Grief and pain beyond my ability to fully grasp became the soil for forgiveness and healing also beyond my comprehension. I chose the story of Leoda and her cloth napkins because it is often the smaller loss that undermines us. We deal with great tragedies, and then something small overthrows us. Even in a matter of cloth napkins, we learn to die to self and live to Christ.

I worry a bit about saying this, because I remember being taught in my counselling courses about the dangers of denial and triumphalism. We face the danger that we want to be “victorious Christians”, and so we do not enter fully into the darkness of grief and pain.

Peter had entered that darkness. As he stood there that night and said, “I never knew him!” he saw Jesus look at him, into the depths of his heart. He went outside and wept bitterly. When Peter denied Jesus, he discovered his own depths of fear and pain. Peter knew the darkness inside himself.

But Peter is the one who speaks these words of joy and power: “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 both future and present—God’s eternal reign waiting for us in glory, and God’s reign present in our lives today. “Our Father in Heaven,” we pray, “Holy be your name! Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”

The road to glory, then, is the path that embraces suffering and grief and finds it redeemed by the resurrection. As the Anglican Prayer Book puts it in the regular Friday prayer:
Almighty God, whose dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Grace Bible Church, 23 April 2017

Acts 2:14a, 22-32
1 Peter 1:3-9

John 20:19-31

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