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A Sermon from Sherborne
Compline Address 4 – Faith under Fire!
Sermons for Compline in Lent 2019, based on the First Letter of Peter
4. ‘Suffering and witness’ [3:8-4:11]: preached by The Reverend Jono Tregale, Team Vicar, on Monday 1st April 2019
As we have journeyed through Lent this year we have been exploring the First Epistle of Peter and tonight we come to our penultimate session. By now we will know that the letter was written into a context of opposition and persecution for the early Christians. Peter was concerned that they should be reminded of the blessings of salvation in the face of hardship and that they should know how to live rightly in a changing and challenging world. Peter reassures his readers with Christian hope and shows them how in the midst of suffering they can grow in faith and character. This is a message as relevant today as it was then.
The nature of opposition to the Christian gospel we face in the west is very different to those endured by those early Christians – though certainly millions of Christians today do live out their faith in hostile cultural and social environments. Martyrdom is not something solely of the past.
The old assumption, of ours being a Christian country and of everyone in the land being a Christian if they are not an adherent of another faith, is fading fast – some would say already long gone. In part I think there is an honesty this reflects in that people recognise that they do not actually have a faith in Jesus. ‘White Anglo-Saxon’ doesn’t equate to being ‘Christian’. I think Peter here in this one letter, and Paul in his many, are both clear that Christianity is no mere moralistic framework for how to live well.
And Jesus himself was no self-help guru. In a sense his message was simple: repent for the forgiveness of sins – for the kingdom of God is coming. Humanity is broken, we are broken – and we cannot fix ourselves. Paul writes “whilst we were still sinners, Christ died for us”. For us, and for our salvation. For us, and in our place. And for us, because “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Peter is clear what Christianity is. And we should be too. We need, like Peter and Paul, to have a Christocentric theology, not merely a moralistic theology. Christianity is about faith in Christ, the rock of our salvation – and not about just being ‘nice’, in and of itself. To describe someone we regard as good as ‘Christian in all but name’ makes no sense to the writers of the New Testament. Being Christian is not a moral statement. It is about faith in Jesus Christ.
So for Peter when he writes of how those early Christians, and we many centuries later, are to live out Christian faith in a changing and challenging world it builds upon the foundation of connectedness with Christ. We are called to be distinctive – not in shouting the loudest, arguing the most persuasively, but in expressions of love and humility. Though always ready to make a defence to anyone who demands an account of the hope that is in us (chapter 3 verse 15) it is to be done with gentleness and reverence (verse 16). This is about Christian character shining through, even in the midst of opposition. Let me say just a few words about his main themes.
Unity of Spirit. This is no abstract or idealistic concept. It is to have Christ-centred like-mindedness. Paul in his letter to the Christians at Philippi put it like this:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
This is a unity which is real and tangible, but it is not imposed from outside, through dominance or insistence. It is a unity which flows, and can only flow, from a spiritual unity in being united with Christ – in Christ, in relation to Christ, through faith in Christ. If we have a common relationship with Christ, a unity with Christ which can be described as vertical, then there will be a unity one with another which we could describe as horizontal. But without the vertical there is no horizontal unity.
Sympathy. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews writes of Christ sympathising with our weaknesses. This is a deep understanding of who we are and what we’re going through. It is not a casual or flippant sound bite. What could it mean for us, beyond a word on a bereavement card? How can we truly understand another in their place of hardship? Sympathy must surely pre-suppose careful listening.
Love for one another. Some other translations of the bible describe this as ‘brotherly love’ and we should add ‘sisterly love’. This is the love that stems from knowing that we are family together; brothers and sisters of the same heavenly Father. When we place our faith in Jesus we are ‘in Christ’, we are adopted into God’s family – there is a sense which such love becomes part of our DNA.
And how should these fundamental elements of character find expression in the wider world, even when hostile and oppressive? Peter offers a simple antidote to the aggression of the world – he has clearly learned from his time with Jesus – “do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but repay with a blessing”. And “keep your conscience clear”, he continues, “so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.” We are to be known not for our fighting but for our peacefulness.
In the midst of opposition how can we live this way? It is because of the hope we have in Christ and from this an understanding of blessing and judgement which takes a long view. We know that Christ suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous. We know that one day He will come again to judge the living and the dead – as the Creed reminds us. This is our hope, it keeps us going.
And it is a hope which looks forward to the ultimate victory of God. Through Christ’s suffering He has triumphed over evil, and salvation is proclaimed – and surely that would bring hope and encouragement to those Christians facing opposition. And holding fast to our baptism is integral to that – not as some magical charm – but as a sign or symbol of our union with Christ, of saving faith in Him, the one who died for us and for our salvation. When times are hard we can look back to our baptism and be reminded of God’s promise to us that we are His.
And it is in this knowledge of both Christ’s suffering and Christ’s victory that we are encouraged to ‘arm ourselves with the same intention’ to lead lives which are pursuing the will of God rather than human desires. Peter is blunt – we have already spent more than enough time on worthless things. Instead there is a discipline of prayer, a discipline of love, and a discipline of service. Such will nourish us in the context of opposition – this is not just a discipline for Lent.
Indeed, through suffering our character can be transformed into a closer likeness to Christ. Peter doesn’t glorify suffering for its own sake – the Christian isn’t asked to go looking for it – but through it God’s transforming love can be known, through it God’s transforming love can shine through.
But there is also a judgement to come – and we are to live in the light of it. It is inadequate to speak only of love in a way which reduces it to little more than niceness. To say that all we need to hear is “God loves you” neglects the message of Jesus which was to call people to repentance. Love and justice sit together in God’s character – and we all need saving, we all need His grace – we all need to acknowledge that Christ died for us because we could not save ourselves from the sinfulness in our lives. Then we will discover a greater depth in the words “God loves you”.
And in the face of suffering, in the face of opposition, in the face of persecution – we can keep going, trusting in a God who will always and ultimately do right.
So, let’s think for a moment. Where do Christians suffer injustice because they are Christians? Such people need to hear the message of Peter, the message of Christ’s vindication and ours, and then to learn to live in the light of that message so they can live through the persecution itself.
Even in our western world, though small in comparison to those who face death for their Christian faith, there are those who have lost jobs or promotions because of their Christian integrity, or been ostracised because they sought to live Christian lives, or who have simply felt ‘out of it’ because they refused to ‘run with the crowd.’ The message of Peter is powerfully relevant to them and they find strength and comfort in the midst of their troubles by reflecting on the ultimate vindication of God.
Whatever the pressure is to conform to the ways of the world or to live as if we were not a follower of Christ, and to give in to opposition, these words from Peter offer to us a sustaining vision of hope which enables us take the long view and to persevere in pursuing holiness. It encourages along a path which reassures us that faithfulness is a virtue higher than our need for peer acceptance.
And if the early church was a community in which Christians found strength to carry on in the midst of changing and challenging times, then the church today ought to play the same role for us, whatever our ‘troubles’ might be. If our society is marked by an absence of moral values, then Christians need the family of believers to strengthen us in our pursuit of holiness. If our society is marked by pluralism and scepticism about knowing ‘truth’, then Christians need the family of believers to strengthen us in our knowledge of God’s word, the truth of God revealed in the bible. If our society is marked by abuse, selfishness, and a lack of care for others, then Christians need the family of believers to be a better society in which everyone is treated as those worthy of love and affection.
And such a community of God’s people, the church, is worth being part of, and its message of salvation worth proclaiming.
In a changing and challenging world, and at times in the face of opposition and persecution, it is the eternal hope of being in Christ that encourages us to remain faithful to the call of God. We live in the light of the knowledge that Christ has ultimately triumphed over evil. We live in a way which is full of grace and truth, and with a unity reflected in love and humility.
For what purpose? As Peter concludes “So that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.”