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Strong in Faith

Date:5/24/20

Passage: 1 Peter 4:12-14

Speaker: Rev. Tim Schaefer

STRONG IN FAITH

For the past several weeks, we have been working our way through 1 Peter. As we approach the end of this letter written to a church in crisis, we conclude our 4-week sermon series. And I don’t know about you, but I am definitely left wondering, “what am I supposed to do with this letter?”

But before we look forward and answer the “what now” question, let’s take a step back. In the closing chapters of 1 Peter, the author reiterates several key points made in earlier chapters and then ends the letter with some final words of advice to the elders of the early Christian movement. So, in order to get a fuller picture, let’s take a look back through 1 Peter.

You may remember Pastor Mike describing the plight of these early Jesus followers to us several weeks ago in this way: “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.”

We know from biblical scholars that 1 Peter was written for a very particular audience—a group of immigrants living in the Roman Empire. And they brought with them a set of foreign customs and practices that were shrouded in secrecy and superstition. This new Jewish sect of Jesus followers distinguished itself not only from other Jewish followers in the region, but also defined itself in relation to the polytheistic world of Rome. To be clear, these first century Christians were free to worship their God—there was no law forbidding it. It was only whey they refused to worship the state gods that they were met with hostility.

To make matters worse, the Romans observed Christians gathering secretly in the dark of night to practice the ritual of the Love Feast, an ancient form of what we now know more commonly as communion. Their suspicions were further heightened when they heard that this Love Feast included ritualistic kissing and the eating of the body and the drinking of the blood of the son. As you can imagine, it didn’t take long for Christians to be branded as a cult that practiced cannibalism, infanticide, and late-night…well, let’s just say other activities. As suspicion and distrust of the Christian immigrants built, it became increasingly more common for them to be blamed for all of the Roman Empire’s problems. This wasn’t the first instance in history of immigrants, religious minorities, or other outsiders being used as scapegoats by those in power, and as we know well, it wouldn’t be the last.

As an outsider himself, the author of 1 Peter understood this problem well. Maybe that’s why parts of this letter written to the early community of Christians now residing in the Roman Empire reads suspiciously like an instruction manual for outsiders—an immigrants’ guide to assimilation. As “strangers and aliens in this world,” the author urges the readers of his letter to do good deeds, to follow the law, and to “accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13). Chapters 2 and 3 outline Roman household codes, advising slaves to “accept the authority of their masters” and wives to similarly “accept the authority of your husbands.” Because we find these same household codes in other letters to Christians living within the Roman Empire, these passages read more like the pages of a handbook of Roman practices.

For immigrants, assimilation is often an act of survival. This was true for early Christians living as resident aliens in the Roman Empire; it has been a universal truth throughout history; and it is no less true today. The safety and security that assimilation offers are something that those of us who are first generation immigrants understand all too well. I experienced this most acutely myself as a young child, as I entered the first grade after my family emigrated from Germany. I felt the suspicion of my classmates as they peppered me with questions like, “why don’t you speak English?” and “are your parents Nazis?” As I became more proficient in the English language, I became more aware of how my cultural differences reinforced my outsider status. The foods I ate, the sports I watched, the holiday traditions I practiced were foreign and suspect to my classmates. So, over many years, I embraced American culture and gradually assimilated.

Of course, this is not a unique experience to immigrants. It is more common than you might think for people in the minority to change their behaviors to fit in with the dominant culture. We see this when people of color alter the way they speak or dress to become more palatable or less threatening to white folks. We see this when members of the LGBTQ community modify their mannerisms or appearance to conform with gender norms. We see this when women in the workplace, especially in male-dominated fields, adopt the behaviors of their male colleagues. Sometimes these changes make life easier. And sometimes these changes are a matter of life and death. But every time we make these changes for the sake of assimilation, we give something up. That tradeoff is often acceptable. But in some instances, assimilation has hard limits.

For the author of 1 Peter, that hard limit is neglecting your duty to do what is right. Christians can and should follow the law, respect the authority of earthly leaders, and even adopt the practices and customs of their new homeland. After all, it is not worth suffering for over these things that are inconsequential. “But,” writes the author, “if you put up with suffering for doing what is right, this is acceptable in God’s eyes. It was for this that you were called, since Christ suffered for you in just this way and left you an example” (1 Peter 2:21).

And this sentiment is repeated later. The author urges Christians to “be sympathetic, loving, compassionate, humble. Never return evil for evil, or insult for insult, but give a blessing instead. You were called to do this…Who is going to harm you if your goal is to do what is right? But even if you do suffer for what is right, count it a blessing” (1 Peter 3:8-9, 13-14). The letter of 1 Peter closes with this same message echoing in word of advice to the elders that was read this morning. “Cast all your cares on God,” he says, but be prepared for the trial that is coming. You will be tested, and it will come in the form of the Devil roaring like a lion.

For the Christian readers of antiquity, who were deeply familiar with the Jewish scriptures, this phrase would have struck the ear differently than it does ours. As humans, we have a tendency to personify things—everything from animals, to inanimate objects, and even intangible ideas or concepts. And this is precisely what has happened over time with the Devil. While modern readers may hear the word devil and think of a sinister being responsible for evil in the world, that would not have been the understanding of ancient readers. In our Hebrew scriptures, Satan (or the Ha-satan) merely represents one or more accuser or adversary. Sometimes the accuser in the story is another person. Sometimes it is a group of people. And sometimes the Ha-satan, the accuser or adversary is oneself.

And this understanding changes the meaning of our scripture passage this morning, especially when considered in light of the symbolic nature of lions in the Jewish tradition. In several passages throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the lion represents an instrument of affliction. The author of 1 Peter is warning his readers that they will face an accuser that will be the instrument of their human affliction. But who that accuser will turn out to be is unclear. Is the accuser the government of Rome, or Rome’s citizens? Is the accuser the members of other Jewish sects that have turned their backs on these Jesus followers? Is the accuser members of their own ranks abandoning the faith? Or is the accuser, perhaps, the self-doubt being experienced by these early Christians as they face suspicion and hostility?

Whoever or whatever the accuser may be, early Christians are encouraged to find strength in God—to do what is right regardless of the consequences, to stand up to their accuser, to remain strong in faith, and to find solace in the knowledge that they are not alone, for they suffer together with their siblings in Christ throughout the world.

And this message resonates deeply with me, and I hope it does with you, also. In the United Methodist Church, baptismal candidates and their families are asked the question, “do you resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” This question, at least in part, represents both the entry into the Christian community through baptism, but also serves as a constant reminder to the community of its calling. Just like the letter of 1 Peter, this baptismal vow provides hope to all fellow Christians that we are all in this together—through the good times and through the struggles.

Friends, living out the tenets of our faith is often difficult. If it were easy, I doubt we would have the letter of 1 Peter in our canon. But I am continuously encouraged by this community standing strong in their faith—even when it’s hard—by serving meals together with our interfaith partners; by advocating for the prisoner, the immigrant, and the least among us; for standing up for justice and equality.

Evil, injustice, and oppression do indeed present themselves in many forms. The accuser, the source of our affliction, is different to each person and changes over time. I can certainly identify and name the accusers or adversaries in my own life at this very moment. Can you? What, or who, are the accusers in your life—those obstacles that stand in your way, or those struggles you face as you pursue justice and liberation for yourself or others?

1 Peter makes clear, that doing what is right is not always easy. But it is the Christian thing to do. The good news for us, is that even when times get tough, we are never alone in our suffering. As the author of 1 Peter tells us, “the God of all grace, who called you to eternal glory through Jesus Christ will fulfill, restore, strengthen, and establish you after you have suffered a little while. To God be glory and dominion forever and ever!  Amen.”