A few weeks back I was asked to lead devotions for Lutheran Church–Canada’s Board of Directors meeting here in Winnipeg. Here is, more or less, what I spoke about that morning.
Reading: 1 Peter 1:3-9
In this letter from Peter, we see the paradox which so often accompanies the people of God: our faith is filled with joy; but it is also filled with suffering. We rejoice in the salvation won for us by Christ; but at the same time we suffer griefs and trials.
We rejoice in the salvation won for us by Christ; but at the same time we suffer griefs and trials.
In this book, Peter is writing words of encouragement to the faithful in Asia Minor. We learn in this letter that the Christians there were in some state of suffering.
At the point at which he’s writing, it doesn’t seem that outright persecution is the problem. That will come, but for now it may be that they are merely facing increased societal disapproval for being Christian. They are becoming Pariahs. Scapegoats. Outcasts. For this reason, Peter encourages the faithful not to be discouraged when they are insulted for being Christians. Instead, they ought to do their best to make peace with their neighbours. They ought to live such good lives that no one can accuse them of wrongdoing. They ought to be good citizens, obeying their rulers and authorities.
All good advice. But within a few decades, this social disapproval of Christians would transform into outright persecution. The Romans would begin executing the faithful for the simple “crime” of bearing the name “Christian.” During that time, this area of Asia Minor would come under the authority of a new governor: Pliny the Younger. What’s particularly interesting about Pliny is that he wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan describing the prosecution of Christian, and his letter survives to this day. In it, Pliny describes how he treats Christians when they are brought to trial: he gives them three opportunities to recant their faith. If they refuse all three times, he sentences them to death.
It is in this context of growing persecution of the Church in Asia Minor that Peter writes his letter. And it is Easter hope in the midst of this suffering that he offers.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he writes. “In his great mercy, he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Right from the beginning of the letter, we are reminded that our hope as Christians is not found in our earthly comfort, but rather in the sacrifice of Christ. We don’t have a “living hope” because we have good jobs, or because we’re healthy, or because we are well-liked in this world. We are often the opposite of these things: we are poor, we are sick, we are despised.
But our hope looks up to God. We can have a “living hope” because Christ has been raised from the dead. His suffering makes us able to bear our own suffering. It’s a hope not in earthly things but a hope, Peter writes, of “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade”—an inheritance “kept in heaven” for us. When things look difficult in this world, we look to the One who has overcome the world. We look to Christ. And though our earthly situations may be grim, we see in Christ God’s eternal goodness to us. And we can bless the Lord for that, “though now for a little while we suffer grief in all kinds of trials.”
The medieval theologian Bede writes well of this passage: “It is right for us to bless God,” he says, “because, although on the strength of our own merits we deserve nothing but death, he has regenerated us by his mercy to a new life. He has done this by the resurrection of his Son who loved us so much that he gave himself up to death for our sake. When that death was overcome by his resurrection, he offered it to us… to give us hope of rising again ourselves. For he died in order that we should no longer be afraid of death, and he rose again so that we might have a hope of rising again through him.”
He died in order that we should no longer be afraid of death.
“He died in order that we should no longer afraid of death.” And if we need not fear death, neither need we fear trials in this world. The situations Peter is addressing in this book are ones we in Canada are beginning to understand a little. In the past, Christianity and Christians were respected in our society. Today, we are reminded only too often that our faith is not welcome in the public sphere. We begin to face, as Peter’s audience in Asia Minor faced, “insults” for being Christian. We are accused of intolerance for confessing the Word of God—for proclaiming the reality of sin and the need for a Saviour. Prominent politicians label such beliefs “unCanadian.” More and more people are convinced faith should be restricted to the home and not be brought out in public.
And we face other trials too, as a church. Our membership numbers have dropped; we have less and less resources to do the work we are called to do. But in all of these things, we have Peter’s words of comfort: “These trials have come so that your faith… may be proved genuine, and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” Joy is coming. In the meantime, Peter tells us, we are “shielded by God’s power” “through faith” “until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.”
Do we in Canada suffer to the same extent today that the early Church did? No, and God-willing, we won’t anytime soon. But when we face difficulties as Christians—be they griefs in our personal lives, concerns over the future of our churches, or increased resistance to Christianity in wider society—when we face these trials, we must look back to the light of Easter and look forward to the return of Christ.
At present, we live between the two moments: Easter happened two thousand years ago; Christ’s return is still to come. But while we wait, while we live between Easter and the coming Kingdom, we do so with a living hope. “Though we have not seen him, we love him; and even though we do not see him now, we believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy. For now, right now in these present days, we are receiving the goal of our faith: the salvation of our souls.