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"Faithful Suffering"
1 Peter 3:13-22

Many pastors do not follow the revised common lectionary to determine their sermon patterns. Some will develop themes and then a series of topics to fit within those themes. More specifically, they will ask themselves, what ANSWERS are my listeners looking for, and how can I help them find them?

I think we ALL are looking for answers. All the time. I know I certainly am. But if that is your PRIMARY concern, and you are impatient to find those answers, the most honest thing I can do for you is to direct you to the self-help sections of bookstores.

You can find more than enough of that at Barnes and Noble or Borders in Springfield. Or online at Amazon.com.

Of course, there ARE what would appear to be some relatively straightforward answers in scripture. But even most of those still require some qualification, and still require much faith.

For example, in the tenth and eleventh verses of the third chapter of the first letter of Peter we find these words drawn from the thirty-fourth psalm:

“Those who desire life and desire to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit; let them turn away from evil and do good; let them seek peace and pursue it.”

Okay. There’s an answer for you. But then we are tempted to ask, “So why is it that those who are so hateful, those whose mouths are filled with lies, seem to be living so WELL?

And in the twelfth verse we read, “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”

So, God is on the side of those who are righteous, and God is not on the side of those are are not righteous.

And then the question is raised, “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?”

How naive can one verse be! We would not even BE here if it were not for the harm done to one who was eager to do what was good!

Folks, much as we want our answers to be SIMPLE, life does not work that way. But I am sure that we were all reared by parents or elders who taught us, in some form or another that we should be nice to other people so that they would be nice to us. We evolve an understanding that if we do good, we will be rewarded; if we do evil, we will be punished.

But in the next verse Peter provides us with the necessary qualification:

“But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.”

Now, this may not be the simple, straightforward answer you are looking for. But if you can live with faith-based answers, this is a good one.

Peter is admitting, “Yes, you may suffer for doing what is right.” But he is telling us that if we do so, we are blessed.

And this is the same blessedness of which Jesus spoke when he told us, in the eleventh verse of the fifth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”

And when Peter writes “Do not fear what they fear,” he is drawing from the twelfth verse of the eighth chapter of Isaiah: “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears, or be in dread.”

And God could just as easily be saying, “Do not think as they think.” And how SHOULD we think? Peter tells us, “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; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”

This is a good answer. And, it is an answer about how to give an answer. When folks ask us what we believe or why we believe the way we do, why we behave the way we do, are we prepared to tell them?

I once read an essay entitled “Religion and Critical Thought.” The fellow who wrote it didn’t have much good to say about religion or the church. But he was honest in explaining why. He was in church from the age of 5 to 14. Or maybe I should say that he was FORCED to be in church. And his memories were very negative. All he could recall was religion being forced upon him.

I think we need to take very seriously Peter’s injunction to make our defense 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.”

I think there is more than conscience involved here. If we are maligned for a single act of good conduct, that single act needs to be surrounded by a life, a life STYLE, that is Christ-like. But since we are all sinners, how do we pull this off?

Well, we may not be perfect, but we can certainly be working on it.

And is there something that can help us to be working on it? Back up to Peter’s instruction, “in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.” Now, I confess that I have some problems with the definitions of the word “Lord.”

But one of the usual synonyms for Lord is “Master,” and that works for me. If, in my heart I sanctify Christ as Master, then I am identifying who is in control, who is in charge, who is the example for how I should be living. I cannot live as righteous a life as he did, but I can work on it.

Peter continues, “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.”

I’m reminded of Luke’s version of the crucifixion, when he tells of the conversation between the two criminals hanging on the crosses beside Jesus, in the thirty-ninth through the forty-first verses of the twenty-third chapter:

“One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?

“And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”

Jesus was suffering for doing good, but the others were suffering for doing evil, “getting what we deserve for our deeds.”

But there is a piece of this verse that I think needs some clarification--”if suffering should be God’s will.” This sounds like God might WANT our suffering to take place for doing good, and I have a real problem with that. I don’t believe that God WANTS such an unjust consequence. HOWEVER, I do believe that it MAY be God’s will for us to wish to do good, and that suffering is an unintended consequence.

“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.”

It has taken Peter a while in this passage, but he finally gets around to telling us that we have a model for our suffering. Jesus has been there and done that.

Did he suffer for doing good? We might make that claim, but Peter does not say so. Instead, he says that “Christ suffered for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous.” And the implication is that Christ suffered for someone else’s evil.

He took the blame for someone else. But this was not an empty, purposeless gesture; it was filled with intent: “in order to bring you to God.”

This is not a far-fetched model. I think we can see it on different scales all the time. People make sacrifices for others, to varying degrees, regardless of whether they consider those others righteous or unrighteous, because they believe that those sacrifices will be good for those others. We may not be talking about dying for those others, but there is still sacrifice present.

“Jesus was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.”

Now, if you have difficulty understanding this, or what follows, you’re in good company. So do Biblical scholars. Bear with me.

Peter tells us that Jesus was “made alive in the spirit.” And I think that is a wonderful way of understanding the resurrection. But being alive “in the spirit” allows Jesus to transcend time and place, which, I believe, helps us to understand “the spirits in prison.”

I don’t think we’re talking about any kind of tangible prison, but rather a spiritual prison. It may even be a prison of one’s own making, a prison in which one has trapped oneself. It may be a context in which a person feels punished for wrong-doing. Indeed, sometimes our lives can feel like prisons from which we cannot escape, but long to.

And then, Peter gets specific about the spirits in prison:

“in former times [they] 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.”

Now, when Jesus, alive in the spirit, proclaims to the spirits in prison, I believe that is Jesus message, across time, to all who will listen, and that includes us even now. The prisons in which we are trapped are the results of our wrong-doing, of our disobedience, of our unbelief. We have largely imprisoned ourselves.

But Peter isolates a point in time, the time of Noah. And this might be seen as apocalyptic, eschatalogical, as a model of the end-times.

In those times, disobedience was rampant. But God was patient. The ark was built, the flood came, and all but Noah’s family--saved through water--were lost.

We are still spirits in prison. We still do not obey. God is still patient. And Jesus continues to make his proclamation to us.

Now you might ask, “So whatever happened to the line of argument about suffering?” Well, Christ also suffered, in order to achieve all of this, in order to bring eternal truth to us, in order to bring us to God.

So when we are confronted with suffering, if in our hearts we have sanctified Christ as the one who is in control of our souls, we are prepared to be a part of his message to the spirits in prison.

Peter tells us that eight persons of Noah’s family were saved through water. “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.”

The flood cleansed the world of evil. Baptism as practiced in the United Methodist Church, in which the baptism of infants is encouraged, is not a washing away of evil, but the invoking of God’s power to be constantly cleansing us.

It is also a commitment of corporate responsibility, when the congregation as a whole affirms that it plays a role in the spiritual growth of the baptised child.

“Jesus Christ, ...has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.”

“...even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.” Sometimes we don’t suffer. Sometimes, it seems that absolutely nothing happens from our attempting to do what is right, and we wonder, “What’s the point?”

And the point is, that we are blessed for doing good, that our rewards are spiritual and heavenly, and, like Jesus, our kingdom is not of this earth.

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