Year A, Easter 7, Pastor Stephanie McCarthy
Storytime: The Lines on Nana's Face - by Simona Ciraolo
We meet early Christian communities in the 1 Peter reading today. 1 Peter is a letter written to communities who are struggling. There is pressure to return to worshipping the gods they worshipped before – because it’s what their masters want, it’s what their husbands are doing – there’s just general societal pressure for them to do this. And when they don’t, life becomes a bit more unpleasant - they are ostracized and shunned. These folks aren’t being persecuted by the state, their lives are not in danger, but because they refuse to walk away from Jesus and his teachings, life has become decidedly more difficult.
The first verse of our reading today, paraphrased by Pastor Stephanie, basically asked them – well, what did you expect? How is this a surprise? Jesus ended up dead because of his message, and so if people truly follow him and preach his word, than the powers of the world will not appreciate that. The author reminds them in no uncertain terms that their suffering is not a sign of God’s displeasure, but in fact a sign that God’s spirit is with them. Following Jesus does not magically transform our lives into sunshine and roses all the time, it doesn’t take away our pain and suffering, it doesn’t assure us of any material or earthly success.
In fact, we may encounter some discomfort or even suffering as a direct result of our faith. Yet letter tells us that we should rejoice, that there is blessing in suffering. One benefit of opposition in the face of us acting out our faith is that we are forced to defend and articulate clearly what we believe, which can strengthen our faith. And, when we suffer, we participate in Jesus’ own story, who suffered as well. We participate in all of Jesus’ story - even the end - resurrection and glory!
Pay attention – full stop – are you listening! Sharing in Christ’s suffering perhaps makes our suffering more meaningful, BUT this is NOT AN INVITATION TO SEEK OUT SUFFERING TO BE LIKE JESUS. Jesus did not go around inviting suffering into his life. Suffering came to him unasked for, unbidden, as it comes to us. We can take comfort knowing that Jesus understands our suffering and has been there before, but NEVER should we seek out suffering in order to ‘be more like Jesus.’
In the face of their suffering, this community (and we here today) receive some instruction. Paying attention to the verbs in this reading is helpful.
First: humble yourselves. Why? Because we can’t earn our own exaltation, and we can’t exalt ourselves, so why pretend we can? Humility before God is not about being a doormat. Biblical humility is not about self-deprecation or having low self-esteem. It is a recognition that our worth and our salvation lies in our creator – and that is where our glory and exaltation comes from as well.
Second: cast all your anxiety on God. Why? Because God cares! This one reminds me a little bit of ‘let go and let God.’ Let go of anxiety? Yes, please. But let God do what exactly? We’ll get to that later!
Third: Discipline yourselves, keep alert! Why? Because evil is real. Prowling lion real. And it’s bigger than individual people or their actions. Racism is far more than the sum of racist actions or statements. Greed can easily become institutionalized. Violence can overtake people who never thought they were capable. Watch out for evil, for it is prowling around, looking for someone to devour.
Four: Resist evil and keep steadfast in your faith. Why? Because you’re not the only ones suffering and struggling. We resist evil because while we know that God is stronger, we are called as Christians to struggle against it until God is finally victorious.
But lest we think we are on our own, there are some verbs in this reading that remind us of what God will do. Restore. Support. Strengthen. Establish. When we hear ‘let go and let God’, these are the things God will do. God does not magically fix things, but comes alongside us – to restore, support, strengthen, establish.
When God restores, I picture someone restoring an antique piece of furniture, a beloved family heirloom. When we are worn, tattered, and dried up, God patiently, carefully, by hand restores us to what we were before. God knows how to restore every nick and scrape, and none of them go unnoticed. I think of the times a smile from a stranger turns around our day. When someone notices we need an extra hand, an extra hug, and extra moment to talk.
When God supports, I picture being given the tools we need to succeed - I picture empowerment. Ever have a moment where if felt like you said exactly the right thing, but have no idea where those words came from?
When God strengthens, I picture how our muscles work. To make muscles stronger, they must physically rip and be repaired, and when they are repaired, they are stronger. The world really rips us up sometimes, and God strengthens by rebuilding what has been broken into something even better.
When God establishes, I picture a sturdy bridge built over a raging river. God’s word, God’s love, God’s grace, establishes a foundation that will never break. No matter where we go, the foundation is under us.
God is a multitude of things, but God is not a magician. Today’s letter from 1 Peter reminds us that in addition to the many metaphors the help us understand who God is, God is also a coach, mentor, guide. God restores, empowers, strengthens, and establishes not because we have done all those other things this letter asks us to do, but so that we can do all those things. We are only able to humble ourselves, cast our anxiety on God, stay alert, and resist evil because of what God has first done for us!
And when we have a hard time seeing God’s restoring and strengthening work, when we can’t seem to connect with the foundation, I picture this – Jesus, vehemently praying on the night before his death, not for a way out, but for the disciples, for the church, for us! Through this overheard prayer, we know that the life and future of the church is in God’s hands, not ours. We are reminded that we are the beloved for whom Jesus prays. We hear a blessing of loving-kindness spoken aloud, one that connects the disciples to one another and that will carry them through all the trials and tribulations that will come. Jesus pleads for our protection and unity because his love for us is so great.
Like the lines on Nana’s face, our story is etched into the very body of Christ. The body that continues with us every single day, whether exhilarating or mundane. The body that has suffered greatly, and so when we suffer we know we are not alone. The body that that rose again, and so we are raised also. This is the body of Christ, the prayer of Christ, spoken and given for you.