Rev. Kirsten's Sermon
Easter 7, May 28, 2017
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36
Today, I’d like to start with our Epistle—the first letter of Peter. Scholars generally agree that the apostle Peter did not write this letter himself. He was a Galilean fisherman (Simon, Cephas) who is not likely to have the fluency in Greek to have written this. But it is undoubtedly an early letter, written in the early to mid 60s. It was a letter meant to be read to people in congregations. We can think of this as a sermon—meant to inspire and build up the congregation. It is addressed to the faithful—likely a mix of Jews and Gentiles, but all who were followers of Jesus. The letter was written in a time of persecution. The Roman Emperor Nero was trying and executing Jesus’ followers. The congregations must have felt afraid. And maybe they were divided about how best to live under the Roman authorities. When was it worth standing up and fighting for what they believed and when was it better to just quietly abide by the rules and avoid the government’s attention?
The letter says to the congregations: Don’t be surprised at the fiery ordeal. Even if it feels like something strange is happening to you. The letter describes this evil, this persecution, the forces that oppress and cause conflict as the lion, the devil, the adversary who roars and prowls around looking for someone to devour. Naming the evil that threatens the communities is an important function of the letter. But the author encourages the congregation and says, when you suffer like this, consider it a blessing because you are closer to Jesus Christ. Just as he suffered, you share in his suffering and you are blessed by the spirit of God.
The letter offers comfort, “you are blessed”; then the letter gives instruction—“Discipline yourselves, stay alert”. I hear this instruction as encouragement to act—don’t just hide away, but live into the Gospel that you know. Do what you are called to do, stay vigilant.
And then comes the promise. God will glorify you after you have suffered for a little while “The God of grace will himself restore, support strengthen, and establish you,.”
1) Name the evil. 2) Discipline yourselves and remain alert. And 3) God will restore, support, strengthen and establish you.
I can hear this letter as a sermon to us. I was on my way to the gym the other night, I was still wearing my collar and I saw a woman in a wheelchair outside of the Social Security Office in downtown Berkeley. She was struggling to fold a big blanket. So I stopped and offered to help her. She wanted the blanket folded up and put across the back of her chair so that her little service dog, Kai could jump up and ride on the back of her chair. We got talking and she wanted to me to know about the evil spirits that are after her. She told me that someone stole her identity and was now getting access to her social security disability checks. She told me that her daughter wasn’t speaking with her anymore and that other family members wouldn’t help her. And she said that there are bad people who took a razor blade to her tent when she left the tent set up in downtown. Her stomach was quite distended and she said that she needs medication, but that she wasn’t getting consistent advice or care from the free clinic.
Seneka named her problems as evil spirits. She sees danger all around her. She believes that people are out to get her. After we talked for awhile, we prayed and then I went for my swim. I was thinking about the evil spirits that she named. I think she’s right. It is evil that her social security payments are getting to her securely. It is evil that she is alienated from family and community and forced to live on the street. It is evil that her only shelter, her tent has been vandalized and that she’s not safe. And it is evil that she is not getting the medical attention she clearly needs. These evil spirits aren’t just facing Seneka. These evil spirits are all around me. How can I live in a place where this could happen to someone? How can I accept a government, a system, a society that abuses people in my community this way? I am under threat because as a follower of Jesus, I know that this is not right. When we complain to the authorities about this situation, we will face ridicule or may even be persecuted ourselves if we are too outspoken. Our community is facing deeper and deeper divisions as these evil spirits separate the rich and the poor, separate the immigrant from the citizen, separate black and white people, separate us by political party, separate us from people of other faiths.
We, like the congregation who heard the first letter of Peter must name the evil and the suffering. We must see the roaring lion who prowls around looking for someone to devour. We can hear the comforting words—we are sharing in the suffering of Christ. As we know Seneka, our immigrant neighbors, our friends in the Wellness circle or in San Quentin, we know Jesus Christ in our midst. We can hear the words of comfort. After awhile, God himself will restore, support, strengthen, and establish us. The eternal life the Jesus knows in God is ours. But it comes not by magic, but by prayer and works of mercy. The unity of our community depends on our work with God through Jesus Christ. We will be divided unless we discipline ourselves and stay alert. The hope that Jesus offers requires our participation. Seneka’s suffering is real, our suffering as a community with her is real. Our hope must rest on God’s grace and the spirit that moves in our community.
The letter of Peter speaks to us. Before I conclude today’s sermon, I want us to hear Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel of John. In this passage we hear a human Jesus praying for his community. Remember that the Gospel of John is written after the destruction of the temple—likely around 90 AD, so they are also a community divided, a community facing persecution and threatened by the “powers that be”. But the Gospeler speaks in the present tense, giving his hearers Jesus’ comfort and presence. Jesus in this passage is the human teacher, leader, member of a community who is praying out loud. Jesus says, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” The gospeler is reminding the community that Jesus came and showed them the way to God. He taught, he healed, he resisted authority. He built up the community—not for his own sake, but for the sake of God, for the sake of God’s kingdom, for the good of all who believe. Jesus is praying for us, the believers who are threatened with divisions so serious that we might separated from God as we separate from the love of one another. Jesus is praying to the God who existed from the beginning of time that we may be one as he and God the Father, the Creator of all are one.
I invite us today to be the congregation that heard the letter of Peter. Let us know the evil that surrounds us, name it and discipline ourselves to address it. We hold fast to the faith that we are blessed to share in the suffering of others, the sufferings of Jesus Christ with the promise that God will restore, support, strengthen and empower us.
Today, let our prayers be Jesus’ prayer—Holy Father, protect us in the name of Jesus Christ. Make us one body in Christ, one with you. As you united Jesus to yourself before time, unite us to you and one another in Christ’s name.