Monday, May 26, 2008

“Bearing the Name”

Acts 1:6-14; 1 Peter 4:12-19, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11[1]

There is a curious diversity among Christians these days. If you asked a random sample what it means to “bear the name” of Christ in the world, you would get a wide range of answers. For some, bearing the name means essentially being a good, upstanding member of the community. For others, it’s about adopting a unique culture—you dress a certain way, you talk a certain way, etc., etc. For many, it has meant sacrificing everything and everyone in your life to go overseas and work with a primitive group of people to convert them to Christian faith. For others, it’s a matter of getting out there and promoting certain causes that are associated with social justice and compassion for the needy.

Most Christians would probably point to scripture as the basis for their versions of what it means to bear witness to Christian faith. Interestingly, most of these answers don’t reflect what I would suggest is the central theme of “bearing the name” of Christ in the world: suffering. The Bible plainly shows us over and over again that those who would live in our world as God’s people and bear witness to Christian faith must be prepared to suffer.[2] In fact, it is precisely by our willingness to embrace suffering for the sake of our faith that we “bear the name” of Christ in this world.

Peter calls this “sharing the sufferings of Christ” (1 Peter 4:13). That’s a strange idea. We have been taught that Jesus suffered death on the cross so that our sins might be forgiven. So how is it possible for us to share his sufferings? It seems to me that when the Bible speaks of sharing Christ’s sufferings, it’s talking about how we bear witness to our faith in this world. The Apostle Paul says it this way: “Our bodies show what his death was like, so that his life can also be seen in us” (2 Corinthians 4:10, CEV). What he means by that is that God sustains him in his sufferings, and that becomes a witness to others so that they too may share in the new life in Christ. In other words, our most effective witness is what God does in and through us as we embrace suffering, rather than anything we say or do!

I think that’s the idea behind Peter’s message to the Christians of Asia Minor. He has said this in different ways throughout his letter: they suffered “various trials” so that the character of their faith might shine through (1:6-7); they endured hostility so that their “honorable deeds” and “good conduct” would glorify God (2:12; 3:16); they were bearing witness to Christ by following in his footsteps (2:21). In our text for today, Peter tells them that when they suffer the Spirit of God rests on them (1 Peter 4:14) and that God would be with them through everything they had to suffer and would strengthen them to be able to endure (1 Peter 5:10). It’s that sustaining presence that becomes a powerful witness to others.

As we endure suffering for the sake of Christ, we are “bearing the name,” essentially by being willing to undergo the experience of “sharing the sufferings of Christ.” This becomes a witness for Christ because it provides a golden opportunity for God to display his power in our lives, just as he did when he raised Christ from the dead.[3] This may seem like a strange twist on the “Easter faith” that looks to Christ’s resurrection and the new life he gives us. But if you think about it, what better way to demonstrate that new life than by making each of us walking billboards, bearing the name of Christ to our world, testifying to our “living hope” in spite of what we may have to endure.

We don’t face suffering in the same way Peter’s audience did. They were rejected by friends and family, they had their livelihood stripped from them, they were sometimes beaten and sometimes even killed for their faith. But in another respect, maybe our situation isn’t all that different. The people around them didn’t understand why the Christians didn’t just “go along to get along.” I think that’s probably going to be our greatest area of potential suffering.[4] The decision to follow Christ in our world means that we will inevitably have to “deny ourselves” and “take up our cross”—and that means suffering losses. We face many pressures to conform to “the way things are”—to do what everybody else does, to compromise our principles, to avoid being “different” at all costs! We are constantly tempted to go back to those “futile ways.” But our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ calls us to “march to a different tune”—to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). And as we do so, God’s Spirit within us presents to those around us a powerful testimony to Christ’s new life.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached on 5/4/08 by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 360-61, argues that the church is “apostolic” to the extent that it participates in the mission of Christ and the Apostles, and that “inescapably” entails suffering. He says, “the church is apostolic when it takes up its cross.” See also Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 424: “Words that do not cost anything and deeds that are meant to make us popular have nothing to do with the [apostolic] character of the people of God.”

[3] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 355: “When believers take up their cross, the kingdom of God is manifested to the world.”

[4] See Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 468, where he enumerates potential forms of suffering for Christian faith in the modern world; he defines this as “any form of Christian abstinence, …, if it is a withdrawal, for the sake of faith, from the powers that dominate our world.”

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