[May 29, 2011 (Easter 6, Year A); 1 Peter 3:13-22; St. Mary’s Church, Arlington, Virginia]
I had not planned on preaching to you today on 1 Peter, because when I first read the lesson, I thought it had nothing to say to us.
This letter was written to a community who led a very different life than we do. We’re not sure where, exactly, that community lived—the letter never tells us—but we know that their lives were pretty hard. The letter calls them “strangers and resident aliens,” so they were probably on the fringes of society in some way. And being Christian made them even fringy-er. They were the object of persecution—perhaps formally from the state, and most certainly informally from the people who lived on their block. They were socially acceptable targets for harassment and discrimination.
Well, being Christian in this place and time doesn’t put us on any kind of margin. In fact, having at least some vestigial religiosity makes the average person at home in our vestigial Christian culture. In Arlington, we are not persecuted for our beliefs. Washington Golf Club doesn’t exclude you from membership because you go to St. Mary’s. Quite the opposite, so I had reached the conclusion that a letter about suffering in the midst of an unbelieving society had very little relevance for us establishment folk, here in the middle of a comfortable three-day weekend.
And then I spent the better part of a week at a nursing home, watching my grandmother die. Her death was the end of a long attrition of self. Her decline lasted almost five years, as age slowly robbed her of the ability to walk, to care for herself, even to speak. The only thing more terrible than the physical decline was the fact that she was alert and present for each stage of it, her mind fully aware of the failure of the body in which she was trapped. It was the kind of slow dying that stripped away layers of hope. And yet my grandmother held on to one hope: the hope of Christ. However miserable her life got, she never stopped insisting that God was good. The last words to which she responded were the words of the psalms; the promise of God’s enduring love.
I tell you this story not because it is extraordinary but rather because it is, I suspect, familiar. Most of you probably know someone who has made a similar choice in the way they have lived and in the way they have died. And their valor puts in front of me a question that has a great deal of relevance, and a question that is, I think, at the heart of what our epistle wants us to think about: Just how do you get that kind of courage? From where, or what, or whom do we get the fortitude that enables us to hold fast to our beliefs in this human life that over and over again calls those beliefs into question?
True, we do not suffer in the way that the early Christians suffered. Our struggles are not on an epic scale. Circumstance may not present us with lions in the arena. But just because our sufferings are hidden, they are no less real. Our lives are likely to be filled with mundane threats. We confront illness. We face the compromise of our bodies. We wrestle with the erosion of our identities, the erosion of purpose. We humans have great aspirations and limited capacities, and so sooner or later all of us have to confront limitation, finitude, and diminishment. It’s not just aging that I’m talking about. Sooner or later, we all realize that some significant aspect of our lives will not turn our as we’d planned. So the question is there for all of us, sooner or later: What are we going to do and say when that happens? How will we respond? And what will give us the strength to make that response?
Even before this epistle gives us any directions, I think it’s helpful to us because it removes some innocent misconceptions that tend to creep into our Christian life. We all know that God loves us, of course, and it’s natural to assume that such love will translate into an umbrella of protection. But this letter makes a more painful and yet more realistic assumption: that loving God doesn’t mean that we will never suffer. Here is a grown-up kind of faith—one that knows that the choice to follow Jesus will do absolutely nothing to shelter us. It won’t keep us, or the people we love, from getting hurt. It won’t keep us, or the people we love, from dying. The person who wrote this letter knew that we can do all the right things, make all the right choices, say all the right prayers, and still get wounded. Suffering is not the exception. It’s the norm, and God doesn’t make it go away.
But—God does change the way in which we perceive suffering. And therein lies the good news of this letter. 1 Peter takes away from us a shallow and ultimately disappointing understanding of God and replaces it with a very different theology. It reminds us that Jesus didn’t come to take away our suffering, but instead to make it like his suffering. Jesus came to show us, in fact, that all those wounds which are so very hard for us to endure have a place even in the resurrected life. Even they can be redeemed.
If we are to live a Christian life, then this is the story that will sustain us—not the fairy tale of good behavior being rewarded with good times. Instead, we get reminded that our journey is caught up in the great redeeming journey of all humanity. It stretches back past Jesus, back to the Ark, back into the generations before anyone started putting dates on their history. And it stretches forward who knows how far. And it does, in the end, point towards glory. Even if pain is the dominating theme in our individual story, it is not the victor in our shared story. Death, in the end, cannot have the last word.
If we come to church, if we come to God, looking only for everything to be made OK in our own lives, we will be very frustrated. We will most likely die disappointed. But if we come looking to take our part in the great narrative of salvation—well, then something more is possible. Our lives together, our lives with God, have a hope which they do not have on their own.
Our lesson today gives us an idea of how we might live in hope. And then it exhorts us to do so. “Do not be intimidated.” “Do not fear what they fear.” Think about the implications of that command for your life, for our life together. What is possible when you stopping worrying about getting hurt? What is possible when you even stop worrying about dying? What becomes irrelevant? What becomes possible?
When we do as the epistle asks us here—when we sanctify Christ as Lord, at all times, in all places—we will not make sense to most of the world. The merely vestigial Christianity of our culture is not going to help most people understand such a profound hope. Flannery O’Connor wrote that “the Truth will make you odd,” and so it will. When we live in this world but are ruled by a power larger than this world, we are going to stick out like a sore thumb. Even if we are in the same situations are everyone else around us, we are going to have a very different perspective on those situations—and, perhaps, make different choices. And that’s inconvenient, but it’s not wrong. On the contrary, I think it’s what God wants from us.
This weekend we celebrate Memorial Day— day that has plenty to teach us about suffering, to be sure. But it also teaches us about hope, the kind of hope that Christianity calls us to embrace. It’s summed up for me, strange as this might sound, in the flag etiquette for the day. If you look out in the morning, you will see flags at half mast, because we mourn, and we grieve. But if you look out at noon, you should see the flag being raised to its full height. And the reason behind this is that we know no death is pointless, that death is not the end. The men and women who died in service of our country did so in the pursuit of justice and freedom. That story is larger than any one human story, and that story goes on.
Not all of us are called to great battles. But we are all called to valor. Even in our most personal, most domestic moments, the demand is there. Will we be strong in the face of all that diminishes us? Will we have the strength to hold fast to hope, to defend hope, against all that would tear it away? Will we do so even when it makes no sense? Remember what Christ has done for you; remember where Christ will go with you.
[The Rev. Anne Michele Turner; Sr. Associate Rector at St. Mary’s Church in Arlington, VA; Degree from Berkley Divinity School at Yale and the Shakespeare Institute (University of Birmingham), England; she supports Christian formation and families.]