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A Living Hope

Date:5/3/20

Passage: 1 Peter 1:3-9

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Michael L. Gregg

The first week after Easter is often considered Low Sunday. It’s considered Low Sunday because Easter is the highest of holy days, when everyone comes to church and packs the pew for the joyous celebration of our faith. The trumpets blare, the organ pounds, the message is one of miraculous hope, and the power of resurrection feels impenetrable. And so, every year we have this big and exuberant presentation of Easter which means that the Sunday that follows can feel like a huge let down. It is often called Low Sunday because the people who showed up at Easter, including most pastors, stay home the very next Sunday. In some circles, the Sunday after Easter is called Associate Pastor Sunday, or in our case, Youth Minister Sunday, and we were fortunate to have Tim step in and challenge our thinking about creation and our roles as caretakers in honor of Earth Day. But, for me, it seems that every Sunday after Easter feels like a Low Sunday, feels like a letdown. And I think we are experiencing this letdown even more right now than we have in the past.

I know today is the fourth Sunday of Easter and we are still in the season of Easter, but this morning I am struck by the weight of sorrow and suffering in this time. We can’t be around the people we love. Some of us have parents or grandparents dying and we can’t be with them. Some of us have spouses going through gut-wrenching medical struggles and we can’t visit them. Some of us have kids that are constantly bickering because they miss the broadness of life outside of the four walls of their homes. Some of us feel the sense of dread and hopelessness that comes with being isolated and alone for so long. Some of us feel as if our emotions are right on the edge of our sleeves and we feel we want to break down but know we don’t have the luxury of doing so. And so, even though we weren’t able to gather for our Easter celebration all together three weeks ago, this Sunday, to me, still feels like a Low Sunday.

So, what do I need on this Low Sunday three weeks after Easter? I need hope. I need a living hope in a living God who beat death and defied death and destroyed death so that we could learn about and live out the saving power of God. For me, the resurrection of Jesus matters more now than it did two weeks ago on Easter Sunday. We need hope, dear Church. We need hope for this time when we are in crisis. And I’m not talking about a boring hope or a wishy-washy hope or a powerless hope. No, I’m talking about a living and breathing hope that took the suffering and the shame and the nails and whips and still revealed the purpose and power of resurrection. We need a living hope right now.

And in the midst of needing hope, I came across a letter. It was a letter that a follower of Jesus wrote to struggling Christians, Christians who didn’t understand what was going on in the world, to Christians who were being shunned for their beliefs, to Christians who were abandoned and isolated and alone. I came across a letter to churches that were in crisis. Was this letter penned recently about what we have been going through over the last several months? No, but it sure could’ve been. You see, the letter I’ve been reading isn’t addressing today’s church situation, although the struggles of churches in a pandemic to make payroll, stay connected to members, and assist those who are suffering and dying feels very much like a crisis. I’m referring to the faithful follower of Jesus, Peter, and his letter to the churches in Asia Minor, now modern-day Turkey.

And yes, I’m talking about that Peter. Although there is some debate over who actually wrote Peter’s letter to the churches in Asia Minor, I like to think it was Cephas, Peter, the Rock. Because you see, Peter wasn’t that rock-solid when learning from Jesus. Peter wasn’t really sturdy and strong when called upon to walk on water out to Jesus. Peter wasn’t firm in faith when he denied Jesus three times and the rooster crowed its mourning song. Peter probably wasn’t the best person to write a hopeful letter to a Christian people in exile, dispersed and alone.

But, maybe, Peter was, indeed, just the right person to write a letter of hope to a suffering people. Peter knew what it meant to suffer. He suffered the guilt and shame of denying the Christ. Peter suffered the ridicule for taking Jesus’s message of love and hope to the Gentiles, those outside the Jewish nation and the chosen people. Peter dared to bring all people, ALL PEOPLE, to the saving and hope-filled work of God. And so, with that experience of suffering, Peter’s letter was addressed to small groups of Gentiles, foreign Christians, who did not have the support of their families and their governments. They were outcasts and didn’t know how to live in a place where everyone hated them. Their hope in Jesus coming back to make things right was dying on the vine. Their hope wasn’t alive anymore. And it felt like they weren’t physically alive anymore. They were stuck in their suffering and needed a word from one of the closest followers of Jesus who was also suffering with them.

And Peter was probably in the very city that epitomized suffering, hurt, slavery, and oppression. Peter referenced his location in the fifth chapter, in which he was experiencing great suffering while in “Babylon.” Although Babylon at the time of Peter was an ancient region of the world and quite possibly a smaller city near the Euphrates, it is thought that Babylon was also a symbolic word used in the book of Revelation to describe the evil and unjust powers of the day. And, for Peter’s time in the first century world, Rome would’ve been that powerful entity. Peter, indeed, lived and died in Rome, so for him to be in Babylon, or Rome, when writing to a church in crisis, I think, revealed Peter’s understanding of suffering and his suggestions about living as followers of Christ in a chaotic place.

And so, we get the apostle Peter writing to churches in crisis from the region of the oppressor, Rome. It was right after Jesus had died and during Paul’s missionary journeys. And for Christians at this time, every day felt like Low Sunday. The resurrection had happened, but Jesus hadn’t returned as quickly as they assumed he would, and these new Christian communities didn’t know how to survive in the world, how to get through their suffering.

And that’s why I think Peter began his letter in with these words: “Blessed by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Did you hear that? It’s almost as if Peter had to remind a hopeless and suffering people what the Easter story was all about. I mean, Jesus had barely been dead and was risen and already the feelings of Low Sunday had set in. And it is the same for us. We are barely three weeks out of Easter and the feelings of hopelessness in our trials and sufferings have us feeling low and defeated. That’s why Peter reminded the dispersed and detached communities of Christ-followers that they have new birth, a resurrected hope, a living hope that will guide them through their struggles and strains.

And, since Peter knew what suffering was, he reminded the early church that suffering connects us to the cross and to Jesus. Karl Barth wrote, “We do not believe if we do not live in the neighborhood of Golgotha. And we cannot live in the neighborhood of Golgotha without being affected by the shadow of divine judgment, without this shadow to fall on us.” Peter knew, the early Christians knew, we know that suffering is the shadow we all fall under, every one of us. We all live in the neighborhood of Golgotha. But even in the neighborhood of the cross, we know there is resurrection, there is becoming new and better and more like Christ. And we don’t go it alone. God has gone through suffering and defeated it. That is who we are as Easter people. And because Jesus is alive and God is alive in the world, we have a living, lively hope, a hope that emerges from the shadows of suffering and propels us into God’s good future.

The author of Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller wrote, “I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes and he never opened his eyes. After that, I liked jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.” Jesus has shown us the way to resurrection. Jesus has shown us the way to a living hope. And Peter knew that. And so, Peter’s job was to remind the struggling and suffering early church that Jesus’s resurrection gives us a living hope. Peter’s letter reminds us today, as well, that we too have a living hope.

And I know it doesn’t feel like it. I know it feels like a Low Sunday and we are suffering under the weight of the world. It is so very hard. We are being tested in the fire right now. But know that our faith, the faith we have in each other and in God, is imperishable. Our faith is being made stronger in this time. And we can know as we are being refined, as we are being like Jesus and showing the world a living hope, that we will be at odds with our culture, a culture that wants to take hope away from people. We will be at odds with those who don’t care how many people die from COVID 19. We will be at odds with those who don’t care if people get evicted for not paying their rent. We will be at odds with those who think incarcerated people don’t deserve to be protected. Our living hope that we bring to all people, just as Peter did, is at odds with our world. But if we share the living hope that we have in the resurrection and new life of Christ, we will receive, and others will receive, the outcome of our faith, the salvation of our own souls and the salvation of the souls of all those who are suffering.

And so, for these four weeks leading us to Pentecost, we will focus on Peter’s letter to a church in crisis. It is my hope that as we explore Peter’s letter, we will discover the purpose of Christ and the love of God in our own actions as we come together as an isolated and burdened people to survive in this uncertain time. How might our hope be alive in this peculiar Easter season? How might we share the living and breathing hope that only belongs to God? How might we read Peter’s letter to a church in a crisis and at the bottom sign our own names?

“Dear Church,

By God’s great mercy God has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

Amen.