To the Exiles...
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.
5: 6 Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. 8 Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.
Every time I hear that story from the first chapter of Acts it just makes me want to laugh - does it just sums up the Christian experience: one minute Jesus is by your side leading you every step of the way and the next minute he disappears into thin air and you’re left, staring up at heaven saying “Lord, what do we do now?”
But there’s a comfort in that somehow, knowing that literally since the very moment Jesus ascended into heaven, his followers have been engaged in a struggle. And, like most trailblazers, those very first Christians had it worse than anyone.
The author of this letter known to us as 1 Peter, understood that his audience lived in a world where who you were was dictated by the family and the position into which you were born. Your birth determined your social class, your religion, how much education you were allowed to receive, what jobs were available to you, how much wealth you could accumulate, and when and how you could participate in worship. That was the norm and that was life.
Unless you chose to become a follower of Jesus.
What Jesus offered was a different way of life, an unclear path but for many a path of hope in which their life could take on new meaning. This was a life in which your worth was not determined by your social class because your worth was the very same as any other human being’s whether you happened to be rich or poor or Jew or Gentile or man or woman. To Jesus, each and every human being was a child of God, created in the image of God, worthy of love and mercy, to be treated with dignity and respect.
This path called early Christians out of normal social conventions, and what they began to do in the name of Jesus offended their neighbors. They pulled away from the worship practices of the community - refusing to participate in sacrifices to the gods, choosing to ignore rules about who should associate with who, who should share a table together, break bread together, rules about who you could love or share your wealth with. When pressed to declare that Caesar was Lord, followers of Christ replied, “Only Jesus is Lord.”
So as you can imagine, their rebellion became destructive, tearing communities apart. Neighbor against neighbor, father against son, sister against brother — within these communities of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, Christians became exiles without ever leaving home. The same people who had raised them were now after them because of their decision to devote themselves to the ways of Jesus Christ.
But you know, at the same time these Christians were being persecuted for their faith and existing communities were in turmoil something else was happening.
Christians were discovering other Christians. And even in the midst of their suffering and so much uncertainty about how their stories were going to unfold, a new sort of kinship was being formed - and it was based in the love of Jesus.
Today it’s as easy as going on facebook and making a declaration to the world. You post a comment - or an article, or a meme, or join a group and in a heartbeat, for better or worse, you will find likeminded people and you will find the opposite. But in the days of the early church, Christians were in the minority and broadcasting their faith could easily have put their lives or livelihood in danger. And so I’m sure many felt alone. Isolated. Scared. Imagine how we have felt, not being able to gather with our church family these two months now, then add in the fear of persecution and possible death.
That was the suffering the audience of 1 Peter was enduring - with no end in sight.
So this letter, in a strange sort of way, is somewhat like one of the earliest form of social media. The first verse of the letter reads: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ… to the exiles.” To the exiles. The lonely. The isolated, the scared… but also the brave. The persistent. The strong, faithful, steadfast.
The one writing this letter wants these Christians to know that however alone they might feel right now, they are members of the body of Christ. This rag tag group of followers - from different backgrounds, different households, who would have never, under previous circumstances, associated with one another - are a family. Earlier in the letter he states, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.” The hope of this letter is that in the midst of such a disorienting time, the people will remember and know that through Jesus Christ they are bonded to an entire community of faith that knows their struggle and shares their pain.
Over time, something strange began to happen with those Jesus-followers. The early Christians, they persisted and the Spirit was with them and it took hold in the hearts of many and followers of Jesus began to spring up all over the world. In some places, those with power and influence even became Christians. For you and me, living here in 21st century North America, especially in the state of Alabama, it is now neither shocking nor dangerous to claim to be a follower of Jesus.
I wonder what those earliest Christian would think of us these days: two weeks off in the school calendar to celebrate the birth of Jesus? Beautiful sanctuaries where (under normal circumstances) Christians gather freely and sing and pray! Classrooms set up for disciples of all ages to study the Scriptures and sip coffee and eat snacks.
I’m sure in many ways they would be thrilled.
But at the same time I also wonder if they would find us a little too comfortable in our faith practices.
Imagine them, walking down the halls of First Presbyterian, peeping in to see the Noah’s Ark murals in our nursery - whispering, “Do these people not know that’s a story about God’s annihilation the world? Why would you put that in the room where the babies sleep?”
If they saw us wearing crosses around our necks, would they wonder, “Why are these people wearing murder weapons as jewelry?”
If they showed up in the middle of a rainforest themed Vacation Bible School week to find us doing energizers would they even know what to say?
Yes, I am trying to be funny here, but I’m also trying to make a point.
We follow a God whose only son Jesus came to this earth as a source of comfort and gentle kindness to those suffering. But he also came to unsettle those who had become complacent in their faith. To the ones abusing their power, denying the image of God in their fellow human beings, he was not afraid to challenge and rebel. Martin Marty once wrote that it was the work of God to “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” And so Jesus did.
I know that lately, I’ve not felt very comfortable when it comes to how I’m used to practice my Christian faith. For over two months now, our comforts - our routines, our familiar ways of being present with that community of faith we hold so dear, our “church family” has been absent. And I know my spirit has suffered and from conversations with many of you I know I’m not alone in that.
And yet, lately, there are a couple of things that have been true light breaking through the darkness for me that I hope can offer you some light too:
The first is this idea that being a follower of Jesus has never been, and perhaps should never be, a comfortable way of life. We know this because Jesus himself chose to call his followers out of a world that provided comforts for some but not all to a way of life in which love is demonstrated by sacrifice, commitment, forgiveness. He chose to suffer himself so that we might have hope in the midst of our trials.
Generations later, the founders of the Reformed tradition found themselves in their own crisis of faith - once again there was a disruption, this time within the Christian community as the Protestant Reformation came about and followers of Jesus underwent a reckoning of sorts, giving up so many of the rituals and routines that had once defined their faith so that a new church - the Protestant church, could emerge.
Since that time it’s happened again and again in various places and times, a period of suffering and reimagining in which Christians have struggled to deal with circumstances that have caused them pain forced them to change their ways. Yet so often it is these times that have led to vibrant new ways of living out our membership in the body of Christ.
So yes, I’m guessing like you I have spent many moments in the last few months like those characters in Acts - standing, staring into the heavens, wondering where Jesus is, and what we’re supposed to do next. But I find strength in knowing that if I’m not comfortable right now, and if members of my church family are feeling the same, perhaps this path we are on right now is the very same one our ancestors have walked before us, and perhaps is the exactly the path Jesus is leading us on so that we might discover new ways of being the Christ’s body in the world.