Power to Follow and Endure
This week in Faith in Real Life, the group continued discussion about Christian identity and how that should shape our perception of the world around us. If our personhood is safe with God, it opens us up to live more generously in all senses, both in giving of ourselves to others, and in receiving the blessings of a life lived richly. And the “slings and arrows” inherent in our human existence? It turns out those become survivable, too.
1 Peter 3:13-22
13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear,Note the values differences–what do ‘they’ fear and why don’t we have the same fear and do not be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you — not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
Over the last couple of weeks, I have tried to address both the questions of suffering and unjust treatment (‘ Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?) as well as the need to clarify Christian identity (‘Do not fear what they fear’ and ‘Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you”). But I’m not sure we can discuss them enough.
I believe it is vitally important that we be able to articulate our creedal beliefs in ordinary language and to live them in ordinary relationships. One of the primary purposes of our Faith in Real Life groups is make those connections. Otherwise, we are likely to be caught discussing our faith in terms of the reasonableness of miracles and the possibility of the supernatural rather than discussing how our core beliefs give hope and a new way of living. Such discussions are usually hopelessly abstract and divorced from real life.
One issue that seemingly cannot get enough attention is the problem of suffering. The opening verse of this passage seems to suggest that we will not be harmed if we are eager to do good—or at least that harm will be lessened. (”Who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?) That simply does not match human experience as I know it. In real life, lots of people will harm you. Harm has come to everyone one of us—whether or not we are eager to do good. In many cases, the desire to do good makes us easier targets. I see couples in conflict all of the time in which one party seeks to be fair and reasonable but where the other party regularly exploits those kindnesses. Doing the right thing often is not reciprocated and certainly does not protect us. That said we are still expected, within our abilities, to do the right thing. The christian faith claim is that because we are all God’s children, our identity and worth come from God. We are required to be mindful and respectful—whether or not we are received, accepted or challenged. Because we are saved, safe with God, we will live a life that matters. That is a very high standard but it is the one set for us. And if we hew to that standard—in traditional language, if we follow Christ, we will be blessed.
But that blessing does not mean our lives are any easier or that we have any less suffering. Again, we make a particular faith claim. We believe that such a life is a life of meaning and purpose. It is the claim that long after our names are forgotten our loving matters. Christians call that life, eternal life. Eternal life is here and now and it is easy to lose that truth when our religious discussion focus upon afterlife, heaven and hell.
The passage goes on to raise another real life problem. Does the example of Jesus suggest we should accept and even seek suffering ‘for his sake.’ Is suffering a measure of faithfulness? The short answer is NO.
Suffering, persecution or martyrdom should never be sought. There is a very big difference between acknowledging that suffering will occur and the belief that our suffering is a measure of faithfulness. Sometimes we can explain the pain in our lives, sometimes not, but suffering in and of itself is neither a sign of punishment or disfavor nor is it a particular sign of faithfulness.
In this passage Peter is addressing the category of suffering that results from a basic conflict between Christian values and secular values. In the empire, it was foolish to see the slave as equal to the master. In the empire, the secular world, human value is a function of youth, attractiveness, intelligence, position etc. For the Christian, an aging deteriorating body is be treasured every bit as much as our younger, more vital body. That is a value that is hard to hold when stamina, mobility and memory start to fade. To follow Christ meant—and means living apart from the empire. It is not easy to do.
There are countless ways that the Christian path overlaps with secular values—but there are also countless ways we are different. It is our responsibility to make those distinctions—with gentleness and reverence. As Peter says: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” There are many things which concern me about our current political discourse but in the midst of the many flailing counter charges, I rarely see anyone indicating how their faith has been part of their opinion. How many of us would say, I came to these conclusions based upon my understanding of my faith? How many of us could articulate our foundation? As often as not, I find people (and myself) using dichotomous language and judgmental attitudes to ‘advance’ the cause of inclusion and respect. My mother would say, ‘That is the pot calling the kettle black.”
Our Christian identity is based upon a foundation greater than us. Jesus’ undeserved suffering shows us that none of us are immune to suffering and that more importantly, even the most radical suffering and death is survivable. Spiritual life is unity with God, physical life is continuity of consciousness. They are different. We will lose our physical lives. “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit…”
Our faith promises that we are loved—no matter how the world sees us and no matter what happens to our bodies. The promise of baptism is that we are God’s children. God’s care exists apart from our understanding or even our acceptance. We do not get decide if God loves us. We can only choose whether or not we will enjoy that love. The resurrection faith promises that love extends beyond time and physicality. We live like love matters.
I have tried to weave some of our foundational faith claims into this blog because at the end of the day, we need a firm foundation in order to make decisions and to live our lives. We are in the constant process of discernment. And we live in the faith that nothing separates us from the love of God—Jesus reaches even to deceased disobedient—”he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey..” —which in turn prefigures God’s promise of unrelenting love in our baptism. In our human reckoning, the disobedient deserve punishment, the dead are irretrievable. But this image of God’s care, Jesus ministering to disobedient dead shatters those categories. God’s valuing of people transcends human categories.
It is only by standing on the foundation of that love and by differentiating spiritual values from secular ones that we can stand the rejections and hardships of this world. It is the only way we can follow Jesus. It is as true for us now as it was in the first century.
“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8) It will give you the power to follow and the power to endure. Let it be so.