September 3rd 2013
Text: 1 Peter 1:3-9
I’d like to begin by thanking you all, every single one of you, for coming today for this very special service, as we give thanks to God for my Dad’s life and commit him into God’s care and keeping.
Dad asked me a few years ago if I would preach at his funeral, and when I said yes, he told me that the text was to be 1 Peter 1:3-9. He didn’t go so far as to actually write the sermon for me, but I know that he would have wanted two things to stand out front and centre: the good news of Jesus Christ, and the note of joy.
But I don’t want to start with the note of joy. I want to start by acknowledging the suffering of the past few years. Most of you know that Dad has suffered with Parkinson’s Disease, as well as scoliosis, and multiple other health issues. Life has not been easy for him, and it hasn’t been easy for my Mum; as the months and years have gone by, Dad has lost more and more control and more and more dignity, as more and more parts of his body have declared independence from his brain. And although my Dad was a man of great faith, he was also a human being, and he would have had to be superhuman to have never asked himself the question, “Why me?” I know that he asked that question, and I know that he had to cling hard to his faith as he lived with ever-increasing frailty in the last few years.
So I don’t want to ignore this reality, because I think that Christian joy does not ignore this reality. A joy that ignores this reality is a very fragile joy, a joy that can only survive by working very hard to keep certain questions locked away – and those questions have a tendency to break out of prison and come back to trouble us. So it’s important to name the suffering that Dad, and Mum, have gone through over the past few years, and to honour it, and to take it seriously, because a Christian joy that’s worth its salt is a joy that takes every part of life seriously.
Peter certainly takes it seriously in the passage from his letter that we read this afternoon. The Christians he was writing to were going through a time of suffering for their faith in Christ; it would have included ostracism, economic hardship, and in some cases imprisonment and death. Maybe some of them were asking the question, “Why me?” Maybe some of them were even asking the question, “Is it worth it?”
Peter takes this suffering very seriously in this passage. After telling them about the wonderful blessings that they are receiving because of Jesus and his resurrection, he goes on to say, “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (v.6).
‘All kinds of trials’. There it is, right in the middle of our reading, just as the trials are often found right in the middle of our lives. Peter doesn’t try to pretend that they don’t happen. He doesn’t try to pretend, as some Christians do, that if you just put your trust in Jesus all your problems will go away. He doesn’t try to pretend that there are no difficult questions for us to struggle with.
What he does is to set the trials in the context of the big picture of the Christian life. Let me briefly explore with you what Peter does here. In this passage he deals with the two components of the Christian life: joy, and suffering. Or, another way of looking at it would be to say that in this passage he gives us both hope for the future and strength for the present. In verses 3-5 Peter says,
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed at the last time.
So this hope that Peter is talking about is unashamedly a future hope. He uses the illustration of a wonderful inheritance that is waiting for us. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but these days inheritances aren’t as wonderful as they used to be! Jesus talks in the gospels about the mistake of trusting in treasure on earth, “where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19). These days those moths and vermin and thieves often take the form of stock market crashes and the collapse of interest rates, so that what we assumed were good pension plans and secure savings accounts turn out to be a lot less secure than we thought!
But like all the writers of the New Testament, Peter points ahead to a day that God has promised. As we look around now we see a world full of sorrow and suffering – with joy and happiness too, yes, but also so much that is evil and broken. But God has promised that this is not the last word. Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – and the gospel promises us that one day God will answer that prayer. Even now, God is quietly at work transforming the world by his love, and the love of his people. That work is still far from complete, but one day it will be completed.
Peter promises us that we will see that day. Like all the writers of the New Testament, he believed that the resurrection of Jesus Christ wasn’t just about Jesus; it was about us, too. Life after death isn’t just about the survival of the soul in a place where there are no bodies. It’s much better than that. In the New Testament a believer who has died is often said to have ‘fallen asleep’. Why ‘sleep’? Because sleep is temporary; even a teenager on a Saturday will wake up eventually! When his friend Lazarus died, Jesus said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up” (John 11:11). And this afternoon Jesus wants us to know that although his friend Bob has fallen asleep, one day Jesus is going to come and wake him up!
Yes, the kingdom of God is coming, and when it comes in all its fullness, God will raise his people from the dead and they will enjoy it with him forever. I have absolutely no idea what that will look like; I expect that it’s far above anything I can conceive or imagine. But Jesus has promised it, and he invites us to believe it, and to live by it. If we accept that invitation, we can never live as if suffering has the last word, and we can never live as if death is final.
But how can we know that we’re going to be part of that glorious resurrection? Peter mentions two things: the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the new birth.
Death looks final. I was not present at my Dad’s death, but I have been present at the deaths of others, and it certainly looks final to me. And when the disciples of Jesus saw his battered body taken down from the cross on Good Friday, they all assumed that it was the end of the story. Even on the Sunday morning, when the reports started to come in of strange happenings at the tomb, they responded as you and I would have responded – skeptically. It took a lot of persuading, and a few resurrection appearances of Jesus, to convince them that it was true: love really was stronger than death, and evil hadn’t had the last word after all.
But having been persuaded, the disciples’ lives were transformed. Never again would they be afraid of tyrants who said, “Do as we say, or we’ll kill you!” They’d seen their master tortured to death on the cross, but three days later they’d seen him alive again, so what was there to be afraid of? Even the last enemy, death, turned out to be a toothless tiger after all.
So we know that we will be raised, Peter says, because Jesus was raised, and he has promised that one day we will share in his resurrection. But Peter also talks about the new birth. This is how the power of Jesus’ resurrection invades your life and my life.
Birth is a huge change in the life of a baby! And God wants to bring a huge change into our lives too. When he created us, he had a dream for us – a glorious dream. The glory of God is a human being fully alive, free from evil and sin, reaching out and achieving all that God has planned for us. This is impossible without the help of God, so God gives us the gift of a new birth to help us in that process of transformation.
In the New Testament this new birth is often associated with three things: faith, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. They don’t always happen at the same time, and they don’t always happen in the same order!
My Dad was baptized when he was a little baby, and his parents took him regularly to church as he grew up. But Dad sometimes talked about a very special week, Holy Week 1954, when his faith came alive in a new way. On each day of Holy Week, St. Barnabas’ church had special early morning services; Dad went down to those services with my grandfather, and each day the scripture readings spoke to him in a powerful way. That week changed his life, and I’ve heard him speak about it more than once as a new birth. Later, in 1971 in Southminster, he experienced for the first time a powerful infilling of the Holy Spirit. He said it felt like standing under the waterfall of God’s love, and the water wasn’t just running over him but running into him as well, touching even the deepest parts of his soul with the love of God.
We’re all different, so we all experience these things in different ways. But the common thread is transformation. Jesus experienced transformation as God raised him from the dead, and now we experience transformation as God brings us to the new birth and gradually changes us so that we become more and more like Jesus.
And, hard though it is for us to think of it, suffering has a part in this. It did for Jesus, and it does for us as well. This is how Peter puts it:
‘In all of this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer grief in various kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory, and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed’ (vv.6-7).
I once heard a story about a little girl who was taken to see some sheepdog trials. She enjoyed watching the dogs running around and herding the sheep, but she was quite surprised to discover that there was no judge sitting with a black robe and a wig. To her mind, the word ‘trial’ always included a judge and a jail sentence! She learned that afternoon that ‘trials’ don’t always include the threat of punishment; sometimes they are about exercising our abilities and discovering what we can do when we’re put to the test.
Suffering can be like that; it can drive us into the arms of God, teach us to rely on his presence and his strength, and help us grow in faith. Certainly no one in their right mind seeks suffering, but this passage teaches us that in God’s good purposes, suffering need not be wasted; it can teach us wisdom, and patience, and reliance on God, and compassion for others.
And so even in the midst of our suffering there is joy. At the end of our reading Peter says,
‘Although you have not seen (Jesus), you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy’.
This joy of knowing Jesus is a golden thread that runs through the pages of the New Testament. In one place Paul says, ‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain’ (Philippians 1:21). This is lovers’ language, isn’t it? A young couple, very much in love with each other, might say, “Yes, our life has a lot of hardship, but our love is enough to carry us through”. And that’s what Peter is saying here: “My dear Christian friends, you are going through great suffering right now, but in the midst of it all you’re finding that Jesus is enough; knowing him and walking with him day by day is giving you a sense of joy that no trouble can touch”.
I know that my Dad believed this, even though his faith was severely tested by his suffering; this is the faith in which he lived and died. By God’s grace, I hope to live and die in that faith myself, and I hope you do as well. So let us pray that God will keep us in that faith now and always. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.