Sunday, February 4, 2018

Suffering ...and Glory

1 Peter 4

Welcome back to 1st Peter. It’s been a while. Since the previous 1st-Peter sermon, we had Christmas -- and I hope that the holidays were a blessing to everyone -- and then we had three missionary Sundays. So if you are anything like me, you forgot a bunch of what we covered from 1st Peter back in November. So, for review, we made it through three chapters out of five; today will be chapter four, and next week we’ll wrap up the series with chapter five.

Now if we were to summarize the theme of Peter’s first letter in a single word, you might choose the word “suffering”. In fact, a little more than one in six -- almost 20% -- of all the verses in 1st Peter make explicit reference to suffering. So today we can’t help but revisit this theme. Especially now that we’re into chapter four, that begins with these words (4:1):

“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same attitude.”

It appears that Peter is hung up about suffering. And that might be troubling for many people these days. After all, if the Christian life is going to involve suffering, why do we want to have anything to do with it? How can we expect people to be willing to sign up for it? And how has the Christian message done so well in the marketplace of ideas if suffering features so prominently?

Well, if we think that the apostle Peter is simply trying to comfort his readers in their suffering, then we’ve totally misunderstood him. We need to appreciate that throughout this letter, Peter is actually building an argument concerning suffering; he is explaining the purpose of suffering. He is situating suffering in a bigger picture. So let’s explore that bigger picture this morning.

For starters, suffering is certainly part of the human condition. 350 years ago, there was a philosopher [Thomas Hobbes] who famously said that human life is typically “nasty, brutish and short.” Another famous philosopher, occasionally known as “the man in black”, put it this way:

“Life is Pain... Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.”

And, sure enough, verses from 1st Peter tell the same story (1:24):

“For all flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers, and the flower falls,”

The message is clear: suffering is just part of being human. Over the last three weeks, we heard speakers coming from Kurdistan, from Syria, and from Sudan -- war-torn places where the value of human life seems downgraded, and where evil can appear suddenly and deliver great suffering. We heard of livelihoods and possessions destroyed. We heard of hunger and hardship. And whenever we turn on the news, we witness human suffering around the world.

“But hold on,” you might say, “modern medicine and modern technology have changed things; things are much better here, and we can hope that they will eventually change things throughout the world.” It’s a nice story, but the fact is that in spite of technological progress, incidence of diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, depression and anxiety are all up -- not down -- in first world countries. And the incidence of ...death? Well, that’s still at the 100% it’s been throughout history.

We just like to avoid looking at suffering. We just want it to be kept at arm’s length. If people are sick, we have hospitals. If people are dying, we have palliative facilities. Now both of those are wonderful things, but the point is that they create the illusion for the rest of us that suffering is an exception rather than the rule that it is. We might be able to avoid looking at suffering, but we can’t avoid suffering -- that’s just part of being human.

So how do we respond to suffering? How should we respond to suffering? The key is found in our very first verse - the one we’ve already read:

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same attitude.

Now what attitude would that be? Let’s have a look at that this morning. On the one hand, we’ll keep our Bibles open to 1st Peter. But on the other hand, we’ll also spend some time in the rest of the New Testament -- gimplsing, where we can, Jesus’ attitude.

As we know from all the gospels, Jesus knew ahead of time that he was destined for torture and execution -- he explicitly predicted as much to his disciples at least three times, but in John’s gospel six chapters are dedicated to the last few days and hours leading up to that crucifixion. And at the beginning of those six chapters, we read (John 12:23):

Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified….

Now, as you know, “the Son of Man” was how Jesus referred to himself. He knew he was on the road to great suffering, but how does he describe it? “The Son of Man [is] to be glorified.” And at the end of those same six chapters, right before the soldiers come to arrest him, we find Jesus praying with these words:

Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son.

Isn’t that remarkable? The hour had come for his beating. The hour had come for his torture. The hour had come for his ridicule, his humiliation, and his suffocation on that Roman cross. But Jesus can see through that suffering -- it is as if it were just a transparent door for him -- and he can see the glory that awaits him on the other side. Now, as Peter puts it, we are to

arm ourselves with the same attitude.

Now the idea that glory can be a consequence of suffering also shows up in our text (4:12,13):

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.

Yes: we will be overjoyed with Christ in his glory. But more than that, we will also participate in his glory. We will share in his glory. That’s what we read a few verse later (5:1): Peter says that he has witnessed Jesus’ suffering and will share in his glory. And this same idea shows up elsewhere:

Romans 8:17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

2 Cor 4:17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

Yes: the glory to come naturally belongs to our Lord and Savior, but it is a glory that he is willing to share with us! We may share in his glory -- but only if we are willing to share in his suffering.

You know, once you’ve encountered this interesting side-by-side placement of suffering and glory in the New Testament, it seems to show up everywhere. In fact, I did a quick check, and I encountered at least twenty such instances -- and I’m sure I missed at least a few. For our purposes this morning, two are particularly important, because they speak specifically to the attitude of Christ. The first is from the book of Hebrews (12:2):

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Yes: we fix our eyes on Jesus, so that we can learn from him -- so that we can consider his attitude, that ability to see glory through suffering. The attitude that Peter instructs us to adopt. And it isn’t just Peter. In Philippians, Paul writes these same instructions to us:

have the same attitude as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God, did not [cling to his rights as God];
7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, ...
8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to [the point of] death...
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place....

This theme, of glory through suffering, isn’t just the theme of the fourth chapter of 1st Peter. It is the theme of the entire book of 1st Peter. And not just the theme of the book of 1st Peter, either. It is the theme of the entire New Testament, resting as it does on the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. So we fix our eyes on him, and his attitude of... as we read:

  • Endurance
  • Servanthood
  • Humility
  • Obedience

Scripture makes it clear: this is the only sure path to glory.

Now, of course, it is one thing to say that there can be glory through suffering, but it is another thing altogether to be able, like Jesus, to see that glory, particularly when we are experiencing significant suffering. But let me suggest that if are willing to pay close attention to Jesus attitude -- as described in the gospels and echoed in 1st Peter -- we will discover three necessary ingredients to experiencing victory in suffering.

But before we consider those three elements, it is appropriate to notice from our text that not just any suffering can be turned into glory. As you will notice in verses fifteen and sixteen, Peter makes it clear that we can’t expect glory for just any suffering -- and certainly not suffering resulting from our own misbehavior:

If you suffer, it should not be ...even as a meddler. 16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.

So what does it mean to suffer as a Christian in Canada today?

As you may recall, introducing the theme of suffering from 1st Peter last fall, Andy very wisely reminded us that while we may not face violence for our faith in Canada, there is a very real sense in which the culture around us feels (and this is quote from Andy’s notes) “that church is ... out of step with Canadian values.”

Well, that observation was perhaps prophetic. As you may know, quite recently the federal government decided to add an ideological purity test to their applications for summer work grants. This is how the government website puts it:

applicants will be required to attest that both the job and the organization’s core mandate respect individual human rights in Canada...

Now that sounds great -- what could be objectionable about that, right? Who would ever be disrespectful of individual human rights? Well, the very next sentence clarifies:

These [human rights] include reproductive rights.

“Reproductive rights” -- hmm, later, that’s made a little more explicit: it means “access to safe and legal abortions.” It doesn’t matter that Canada doesn’t actually have an abortion law; apparently, disagreement with elected officials on this topic makes you a second-class citizen: if you do disagree with them, don't bother applying for a student work grant.

Now the great irony in all of this is that on their website, in order to justify such an unprecedented action, the government invokes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But it is that very Charter that explicitly protects the "fundamental freedoms" of, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, and freedom of belief. But somehow, according to the present government, those freedoms aren't quite as important as the need to toe the party line on the topic of abortion. Sure: we may not suffer violence for faithfulness to Jesus Christ, but we will certainly be treated differently for it.

Of course, when we are treated as second-class citizens, there is enormous temptation to get all bent out of shape at the injustice of it all, but that could be exactly what our text is telling us not to do. Instead, the message of 1st Peter is that when we encounter such things -- rights abuses, marginalization, discrimination, mistreatment and injustice -- that we consider the attitude of Christ. In particular, if Christ did not cling to his rights as God, if we claim to be his followers, it shouldn't be our first instinct to cling to our rights as Canadian citizens.

After all, in the first chapter of 1st Peter (v17) and also in the second chapter (v11), Peter tells his readers to consider themselves “foreigners” in this world. Are we being treated like we don’t belong? Do we feel like we don’t really “fit in”? Peter says, “own that.” Is the church out of step with “Canadian values”? Peter is saying “Amen to that”! As Paul put it (Romans 12:2):

Don’t be conformed to the pattern of this world.

Or, as Jesus says in John chapter 17, where he is praying for us:

They [(meaning us)] are not of the world, even as I am not of it.

The attitude here is to be looking forward to another city, whose architect and builder is God. So the first element of Jesus’ attitude -- enabling the ability to see glory through suffering -- is to consider oneself a foreigner, knowing that our home is not of this world. Let’s could call this element “belonging elsewhere”. And on this point, our text (verse 3-5) reads:

For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do [and] They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.

That longing to belong, that our culture drills into us as early as primary school? On the one hand, it tempts us to conform ourselves to this world. But on the other, it reminds us that we were really wired for another one altogether. If we want to experience victory -- even in suffering -- we need to recognize our “belonging elsewhere.”

Now the second common element between 1st Peter and the gospels is the repeated admonition to love each other. In our text, we read:

4:8 Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.

(which, incidentally, is an echo of)

1:22 love one another deeply, from the heart.

(and also)

3:18 Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.

Suffering always comes with temptation -- the temptation to turn inward. In the grip of suffering, it is terribly difficult to see beyond oneself. And so developing a habit of love, which is always outward-facing, is a wonderful antidote. Loving each other deeply gives God the opportunity to plant his glory in our hearts. Of course, suffering can also increase our sympathy for others who are going through hardship. Are we willing to accept suffering if it represented an act of love to those around? Well, that’s what Jesus’ attitude certainly was. The gospels say that Jesus showed “the full extent of his love” by going to the cross for us. And it was with that in view that Jesus gives his most famous instruction to his disciples (15:9, 13, 13:34):

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

Those five words -- “as I have loved you” -- contain such a challenge. If our love is to be anything like the variety of love that Jesus has shown to us, we must be willing to suffer for it. How often do we let inconvenience dictate the limits of our love to each other, when Jesus didn’t allow suffering -- and even death -- to become a limitation on his love.

This last week, I encountered a really interesting English word -- the word “insufferable”. Of course, we use that word when we speak of someone else whose behavior we can hardly tolerate - or more accurately, whose behavior we are unwilling to suffer. But there is nothing that anyone has ever done that Jesus found to be “insufferable.” In fact, his suffering was enough to address the sins of every human being who has ever lived. And we are, as Peter puts it, to “arm ourselves with the same attitude”. If you want to experience victory this morning -- even in suffering, “be loving others”.

So far, then, our two key elements of Jesus’ attitude are then:

  1. Belonging elsewhere -- considering ourselves foreigners;
  2. Be loving others -- letting our suffering improve our ability to reach out in love.

And finally, we need to have an attitude of:

  1. Believing in God

Now you might think, “that’s no surprise,” but let’s check out a few examples in this regard. In the final verse of our chapter, we read:

4:19 those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.

When we are overwhelmed in our suffering, we fall back on our trust in God. We know that he is the only eternal hope. We know that we can count on his promises. As we read in the book of James (1:12):

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

That’s right: the glory that we have been talking about is promised to us -- if we are able to remain faithful in the face of suffering. And we know that we can count on our faithful Creator, because we have seen how he has glorified his son. Remember Jesus’ final words from the cross? In Luke 23:46, we read:

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.

In the extremity of his suffering, even at the point of death, Jesus turned to his Father, knowing that he was absolutely trustworthy. And in his final action, Jesus’ reliance on God becomes an example for us. That’s what it says explicitly in 1st Peter:

2:21-25 “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.

This commitment to believe in God -- no matter what trials we are facing, whether frustration, mistreatment, pain or even injustice -- this is the third key element of Jesus’ attitude.

But one more thing to notice: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” Similarly, in Colossians, Paul writes that he “rejoice[s] in what [he is] suffering for [his readers].” Could it be that the example that Christ is setting for us, and the example that Paul is setting for us is a willingness to suffer for the sake of others?

Here, in my hand, I have a document written by my father-in-law, []. Its title is: “60 Years as a Paraplegic.” In it, [he] describes the experience of contracting polio in 1954, and the agony and the humiliation that it represented. As a young husband, father, and farmer, his world was shattered. He prayed fervently for healing, or at least for some use of his legs. But more than that, he prayed that God would protect him from bitterness. While God declined to answer the first prayer in the way that [he] had hoped, He generously answered the second. For anyone who knew him, [he] was the most gracious and delightful of men. This is how he closes his reflection on sixty years of physical suffering:

Sixty years have passed so quickly. I have no reason to complain about my lot in life, nor to question God as to why I should be afflicted. The Lord has been very good to me and has helped me see that His ways are better than anything I could have planned.… I would not have chosen to have polio and be disabled, but I choose to believe that my life has been better used in the roles I have been directed to due to my disability. In no way do I feel that I have been cheated.

Now, if you ever met my father-in-law, you’d appreciate that he was entirely sincere as he wrote this. This is what it means to believe in God. We trust him to inject glory even into our suffering. Because not only is it possible to see the victory God intends for us through suffering, but it is possible to experience the victory that God intends for us in spite of suffering.

You can’t avoid suffering, but you can avoid being crushed by it. If we want victory -- even in suffering, we need to adopt the attitude of Jesus:

  • Belonging elsewhere -- considering ourselves foreigners in this world
  • Be loving others -- even as Christ loved us
  • Believing in God -- committing ourselves to the one who judges justly.