Thursday, March 26, 2015

Truly Alive?

Truly Alive?
Ephesians 2:1-10[1]
When I look at the way we as a people live our lives today, I have to wonder what happened to the concept of “sin.” Now, I would be the first to insist that, contrary to what some may say, sin is not the basic truth of our existence. I firmly believe that our basic truth is that God loves us unconditionally and irrevocably.[2] And yet, if we take a good look at the way we live our lives, I think we’d have to say that there’s plenty of sin going around. I’m not much for some of the typical approaches to sin: the “devil made me do it” doesn’t hold much water for me.[3] And I don’t believe it’s some deep stain or flaw that defines us. I think that sin is what we do when we’re trying to avoid the real truth of our lives.[4]
I think most of us would have to admit that we really, really don’t want to have to face the facts of our lives. We’d much rather just let the television wash over us, or lose ourselves in busy work, or just simply escape with alcohol or food or shopping. Not all of those things are “evil” in and of themselves. But when we lose ourselves to them in an attempt to avoid having to deal with what’s going on with us and especially what’s going on inside us, these things can leave us feeling profoundly lost and empty. When we’ve done everything we can to avoid feeling the pain of life, we also lose the capacity to feel anything. It’s as if we’re dead inside. I have to ask the question I think we’ve all sensed at one time or another: when we live our lives that way, are we really living at all?
St. Paul addresses this question in our lesson for today. He faced this spiritual deadness head-on. He made it clear that, on our own, we are “dead through our trespasses” (Eph. 2:5).  In fact, he uses some language that may seem strange to us. He says that our deadness comes from “the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world” (Eph. 2:1-2). That’s not the way we tend to describe our lives these days. We might say that we have a weakness for something, or maybe we struggle with some bad habits, or perhaps we are dealing with certain issues. But we don’t tend to describe our lives in terms of “trespasses” or “disobedience.”[5]
But St. Paul won’t let us off the hook at this point.[6] When get lost in those pursuits that leave us feeling dead inside, he calls it following the “course of this world.” I like the way the Phillips translation puts it: our problem is that we’re drifting “along on the stream of this world’s ideas of living.” Paul is quite blunt about what that constitutes: sin. When try to ignore the real truth of our lives, the truth that is rooted in our very souls, we are living in disobedience. Paul makes it clear that living that way is the cause of the sense that our lives are empty. If it seems like we’re not truly alive at all, it’s because we’re trying to avoid the truth we’d rather not face.
Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. Paul makes such a strong point of emphasizing how dead we can be in order to point us to the fact that God is the one who makes us truly alive.[7] In fact, Paul insists that, just as Jesus was dead, but God made him alive again, so also God exerts the power of the resurrection to bring back to life all of us who are living in a kind of spiritual deadness.[8] In our lesson for today, Paul says that the basis for this amazing transformation that we can all experience is God’s grace.[9] It is because God is “rich in mercy” (Eph. 2:4) that God steps in to do something about the emptiness of the way we live. Just as death didn’t keep God from raising Jesus from the dead, so the reality that we may be “dead through our trespasses” (Eph. 2:5) doesn’t prevent God from giving us new life. In fact, Paul’s whole point is to assure us that God has already “made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:5). By the power of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, we have the chance to become truly alive.[10]
I realize that my approach to being “dead in sins” is probably a bit different from what St. Paul had in mind originally. I would imagine he was thinking of other kinds of behaviors, like pleasure seeking, immorality, promiscuity, and other vices we still have with us today. But I wonder if it isn’t the case that, then as now, those excessive behaviors aren’t just another way to escape from the emptiness and the pain we suffer in the depths of our soul. While we may use more acceptable ways of avoiding what’s really going on with us and inside us, the result is the same: we’re dead inside. By keeping ourselves from feeling the painful truth of life, we lose the capacity to feel anything. Unfortunately, all those things we work so hard at avoiding have a way of coming back to haunt us. I find this is especially true in when we’re sleeping—or trying to sleep. That’s when the truths we’ve been trying avoid come back to remind us that we’re not really living.
But this is where the power of the resurrection can make all the difference in the world for us. Think about it: if God’s power is great enough to overcome even death, then what part of your suffering can’t God overcome? I think the answer is obvious. The new life of Jesus’ resurrection is so powerful that it spills over into our lives. It gives us the courage to face the struggles we’d rather avoid. When we do that we can come alive in a way that we may never have thought possible. As we face the reality of our lives, the pain that can haunt us slowly loses its hold over us. Through God’s mercy and love, by the power of Jesus’ resurrection, we can come back from the emptiness of trying to escape from life and instead we can become truly alive!

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/15/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Pheme Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” New Interpreters Bible IX:394: “Ephesians has placed its description of sin in subordinate clauses. The focus of the opening period is God’s grace and love experienced by the redeemed.”
[3] Cf. Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, 117, where he recognizes that the text speaks of the spiritual power that influences humankind toward sin. Nevertheless, “This explanation of sin does not, however, do away with human responsibility, for in the next breath the writer can say that not only the readers, but all believers, were at one time those who chose not to obey.”
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2:260, where he speaks of the human condition as a self-enclosed “imprisonment” where “we only fulfil [sic] our own possibilities and only believe in our own possibilities.”
[5] Thomas G. Long, “Just As I Am,” The Christian Century (Mar 21, 2006):18, where he says of Paul’s language that we are “dead in sin” and in need of salvation: “To see this statement as applicable to us, to swallow even one ounce of this claim, we must admit a cluster of truths about ourselves we would rather not face—that we are captive to cultural and spiritual forces over which we have no control, that they have drained the life out of us, that we are unable to think or feel or crawl our way free, and that we are in urgent need of a God who comes to rescue. In short, we need saving.”
[6] Fred Craddock, “From God to God,” The Christian Century (Mar 22, 2003): 18. He says, “The language is vivid: You were dead. This is to say, you were caught in a futile way of life obedient to desires of the flesh, seeking the approval of your culture, heeding every inclination that led away from God, aimless and helpless to extricate yourself.”
[7] Craddock, “From God to God,” 18: “For all their power to cripple, control and alienate, all hostilities in the universe will not only cease ultimately, but will be reconciled. For redemption in Christ to be complete, it must range as far and wide as the forces of evil. And his liberating work has already begun in setting free the person caught in the passions of the senses and enamored of this worlds offerings.
[8] Cf. Lincoln, Ephesians, 116: “the parallel he draws between the supreme demonstration of God’s power in the resurrection and exaltation of Christ (1:19–21) and his activity on behalf of believers. He wants them to realize that just as Christ was physically dead but God raised and exalted him, so they were spiritually dead but God raised and exalted them with Christ.”
[9] Cf. Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, 32, where he offers what I think is an excellent definition of grace: “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more” and “there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.” Cf. also Barth,Church Dogmatics 2.1:278: “God’s love is not merely not conditioned by any reciprocity of love. It is also not conditioned by any worthiness to be loved on the part of the loved.”
[10] Cf. Lincoln, Ephesians, 118: “With grace as its ground and faith as its means, this salvation can have nothing to do with any notion of merit. That it is ‘by grace’ means that it has not originated from a human source but comes from God as a gift. That it is ‘by faith’ means the exclusion of human effort and, therefore, of any pride or boasting in the presence of God. The writer wants his readers to be absolutely clear that it is God, and not humans, who is to be given the credit for salvation, and that means the whole of salvation, including believers’ good works.”

Monday, March 16, 2015

A Suffering Savior?

A Suffering Savior?
1 Corinthians 1:18-25[1]
It seems to me that we like our heroes to be larger than life. There was a time when our heroes had to conform to the stereotype of the knight in shining armor whose integrity was as impeccable as his chivalry. Or a crusader working for justice for the oppressed, who was as strong as she was caring. These days I think we’ve lowered our standards a bit. We don’t seem to mind if our heroes break the law or betray their loved ones as long as they can win the game or show us the money. I suspect that what we’re looking for in our heroes is someone who we can imagine is capable of rising above our mundane and tedious lives. It somehow makes the boredom and the frustration a little easier if we can escape by identifying a “hero.”
I don’t think much has changed about that aspect of human nature over the years—or even over the centuries. There’s a reason why the myths and legends that have inspired the human family—from the ancient world until today—featured men and women with superhuman strength, intelligence, and courage. Above all, they were usually able to face impossible odds and snatch the victory just when all seemed lost. And that’s just the way we like our heroes to be: attractive, courageous, and invincible, whether due to their incredible strength or their massive intellect. At the end of the day what matters is that they always win.
The Jewish people of Jesus’ day were no different. They were looking for a Messiah who would come riding into Jerusalem on a white horse and lead them to throw off the yoke of their Roman oppressors. They even believed at times that their prayers had been answered, and they followed certain charismatic figures and took up arms against the most powerful empire in the world of that time. As you can imagine, the results were predictable. They suffered crushing defeat. The last time they rose up to follow a so-called Messiah into battle against Rome, their country was completely laid waste and they were expelled from their homeland for over 1800 years.
So I think we can imagine some of the challenges the people of that time had when someone like St. Paul came into town. He was proclaiming the good news that God had offered salvation to all people through a man who was executed on a cross. The people of that world were very familiar with the cross as a form of punishment. The Romans used it to great effect to suppress any potential rebellions.[2] So I imagine that when Paul came preaching the “good news” of Jesus the Suffering Savior to them, a good number of them must have thought he was crazy. A Savior isn’t someone who winds up executed by the Romans; a Savior is someone who rides into battle and emerges victorious, like the heroes of old. They must have thought that Paul was sadly confused or had simply lost his mind.
But the Apostle was well aware that his message sounded like foolishness to the people of his day. In our lesson, he puts it this way: “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18). If his words seem to set up a tension between “us” and “them” that we might not find fitting in our day, I think we can excuse Paul. After all, he was greatly outnumbered by people who believed in all sorts of gods and who saw his message as quaint but misguided at best, and at worst confused and delusional. So I think we can understand why his words might have a bit of an edge that we might find misplaced.
But St. Paul also knew by experience that God’s ways are not our ways. He knew by his own efforts that salvation is not something we can achieve by our own strength or something we can figure out by our own intelligence.[3] Paul says it this way: “in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him” (1 Cor. 1:21, TNIV). And yet the good news Paul proclaimed was that God chooses to set things right in this world and in our lives by a message that seems like the ultimate foolishness (1 Cor. 1:21).[4] But what Paul understands that many can’t see is that the suffering love of God poured out on the cross is actually powerful beyond our imagination.[5]
It seems backwards, if we’re really honest with ourselves.[6] We still look to the “winners” in our world as our “heroes.” If you doubt that, just check the numbers of people who are cheering on their favorite teams on any given weekend. Or just compare the hours we spend watching our heroes on TV shows and in movies. I’m a sci-fi fan myself, where the good guys almost always win. I think we demonstrate by our actions that we still want our “heroes” to be attractive, smart, and strong. But the witness of St. Paul, joined with the witness of countless believers throughout the ages, points us in a different direction.
It points us to the apparent contradiction that a Jewish man from an out-of-the-way town who was executed on a Roman cross is the one who procures new life for all humankind.[7] Most of the people of his day thought that message was the ultimate foolishness. If we’re honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that many in our world don’t put much stock in it outside of Sunday mornings. But maybe Lent is the time for us to re-think our “strategies” for success. Maybe this is the time for us to give up all our efforts to save ourselves.[8] Maybe this is the time to recognize that our “heroes” have feet of clay. And legs. And arms. And heads! Maybe now is the time to recognize that there’s only one man who can truly make the difference in our lives. He’s the one who was hanged on a cross, subjected to ridicule, enduring an excruciating death. He’s our Suffering Savior.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/8/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, 30-31.
[3] Cf. Hays, First Corinthians, 28-29. He also quotes from Isaiah 29:14 in 1 Cor. 1:19. In the original context it was a message of judgment against the political and religious leaders of Judah who trusted in their own wisdom by making an alliance with Egypt rather “listening to the word of the prophet and trusting in God.”
[4] Cf. Peter Lampe, “Theological Wisdom and the ‘Word About the Cross’: The Rhetorical Scheme in I Corinthians 1—4,” Interpretation 44 (Apr 1990): 120: “To connect the powerful God with the weakness of the cross, thus to announce the power as weakness and, consequently, the weakness as power (1:18, 24-25) is offensive and foolish in the eyes of the world (1:23).” This has traditionally been framed in terms of a “Theology of the Cross” as opposed to a “Theology of Glory.” Cf. Molly T. Marshall, “Forsaking A Theology Of Glory: I Corinthians 1:18-31,” Ex Auditu 7 (1991): 102: “The theology of glory seeks to know God directly in the obviously divine power and wisdom of glorious Holy Being; it presumes to be capable of perceiving clearly God’s transcendent, majestic reign. The theology of the cross, paradoxically, recognizes God precisely where God has chosen to hide, in suffering and in all that the wisdom of the world considers to be weakness and folly.”
[5] Hays, First Corinthians, 27: “God, however, has revealed in Christ another kind of wisdom that radically subverts the wisdom of this world: God has chosen to save the world through the cross, through the shameful and powerless death of the crucified Messiah. If that shocking event is the revelation of the deepest truth about the character of God, then our whole way of seeing the world is turned upside down”
[6] Cf. William H. Willimon, “Looking Like Fools,” The Christian Century (Mar 10, 1982): 261: “As Paul says, when you hear the gospel not with Sunday-morning ears but with Monday-morning ears, it can sound foolish indeed — tragically foolish or comically foolish, depending upon one's point of view.”  Cf. also John B. Trotti, “1 Corinthians 1:18-31,” Interpretation 45 (Jan 1991): 64-64: “We of the twentieth century, too, resist humiliation and vicarious suffering. We look for justice, righteousness, and peace; and lacking those we wonder if God is truly in charge and if Messiah has really come in any effective way. We, too, ask if this suffering carpenter can avail anything for us.”
[7] Cf. F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 71: “A crucified Messiah was worse than a contradiction in terms; the very idea was an outrageous blasphemy.” Cf. also Trotti, “1 Corinthians 1:18-31,” 64: “To the Jew the very term ‘crucified Messiah’ would be an affront. To be crucified was to fall under a curse (Deut. 21:23 and Gal. 3:13).”
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 69: “the knowledge of God in the crucified Christ takes seriously the situation of man in pursuit of his own interests, man who in reality is inhuman, because he is under the compulsion of self-justification, dominating self-assertion and illusionary self-deification.” Therefore, he can also say (p. 71), “The knowledge of the cross brings a conflict of interest between God who has become man and man who wishes to become God. It destroys the destruction of man. It alienates alienated man. And in this way it restores the humanity of dehumanized man.”

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Afflicted, But Not Crushed

Afflicted, But Not Crushed
Psalm 22[1]
I think we would all have to admit we have looked at someone who was having a hard time and thought, “They must have brought it on themselves.” While most of us in the church try to be more thoughtful than that, we can still experience the impulse to link misfortune or suffering with some identifiable cause. I think it’s a kind of protective mechanism. We use it, perhaps even unconsciously, to reassure ourselves that nothing that bad would ever happen to us. Even with our attempts to be compassionate, we all can have the capacity to essentially pass judgment on those who are distressed by assuming they are suffering for a reason.
Despite this protective impulse, the reality is that suffering is a part of all our lives. The pipe dream that we can somehow create for ourselves a life that is free from suffering is a by-product of our culture of prosperity and the “American Dream” it has fostered. It is not reality. The truth about our lives is that there really is no explanation as to why hardship strikes one family and not another. It is next to impossible to find any rhyme or reason to the way pain can suddenly cause our lives to come crashing down like a house of cards.
But the good news from our Psalm for today is that God doesn’t view suffering from the perspective that we somehow deserve it. For generations, even for centuries, many countless people have believed that. They believed that if you were good and did what was right, then God would bless you and your life would be happy. If you departed from the straight and narrow and did wrong, then God would punish you and you would suffer. Based on this rationale we have developed the habit of thinking that if someone has endured the mystery of suffering that has no apparent explanation, “they must have done something to deserve it.” And so the conclusion—the judgment—is that God is somehow punishing them.
But our Psalm for today takes a very different approach to suffering. It by no means minimizes the anguish of those who have to endure suffering. The opening lines of the Psalm are familiar to us from Jesus’ cry on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest” (Ps. 22:1-2).[2] There is no mistaking the fact that this individual is undergoing intense anguish.[3] He says that he feels like he’s surrounded by lions or wild dogs (22:12-13, 16), that his strength has been poured out like water and melted away like wax (22:14-15). His suffering is very real, and he is struggling with the prospect that there may be no way out for him.
And yet, in our lesson for today, the Psalm takes an abrupt turn.[4] The psalmist cried out to the Lord, and the Lord has heard his cries and delivered him from whatever was causing his trouble. This raises a completely different possibility: rather than being the one who inflicts the suffering of those who are afflicted, God is the one who is on the side of those who suffer. The Psalmist says it this way: “he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him” (Ps. 22:24).[5] I particularly like the way Gene Peterson puts it in The Message: “He has never let you down, never looked the other way when you were being kicked around. He has never wandered off to do his own thing; he had been right there, listening.” It seems to me the point is that God is the one who is right there, paying close attention to those who are suffering, hearing their every cry for help.
Unfortunately, the idea that those who suffer must be undergoing punishment for some kind of wrongdoing is something that has become ingrained for many of us.[6] We have traveled that path many times, and have the emotional scars to prove it. In my experience, the challenge with a thought pattern that has become a habit for us is finding a way to learn how to take a different path. Learning to think differently about our lives and our reality can be almost impossible. Some of us have spent years, decades, even whole lifetimes thinking that whatever suffering we experience in life is somehow deserved. While the truth sets us free, a lie can imprison us in ways we may not even notice. One way to begin to set ourselves free from that mental rut is to notice what we’re thinking and feeling. Sometimes that simple act can give us the chance to look at things from a different perspective. [7]
I think this pattern of thinking can be most harmful when we encounter suffering ourselves. When hardship strikes us we tend to think, “What did I do to deserve this?” And yet if we can take a moment to step out of the habit of thinking that way, perhaps we can embrace a different perspective. Like St. Paul, who himself was well-acquainted with suffering, we can say that we may have been afflicted in what we have endured, but we have not been crushed (2 Cor. 4:8).[8] As St. Paul makes clear, it is because of God’s sustaining presence that he can make that affirmation. The fact that he could trust in God’s unfailing love despite any hardships he encountered was also based on his faith that at the cross God demonstrated once and for all that he is the one who stands with all the afflicted in their suffering.[9] When we join St. Paul and the Psalmist and many others in trusting that God has always been right there with us no matter what we may have had to endure, then we too can say that we may have been afflicted, but we have not been crushed.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/1/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 109, where he says that the psalmist’s complaints express “the contradiction that rends the soul when the unity of faith and experience is broken.” Thus he “can speak of that rupture theologically only as forsakenness, as the distance of God.”
[3] H. -J. Kraus, Psalm 1-59, 295. In fact, in v. 6, Kraus interprets “I am not a man,” to mean “I have lost every semblance of humanness.”
[4] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 111: In the song of praise, “all has changed … . Instead of forsakenness, an answer has come to his cry (v. 24). Instead of the scorn of his fellows and the threat of evildoers, he is surrounded now by a company of brothers in praise and faith. Instead of laments at the encroachment of death, he can offer his brothers a wish for enduring life (v. 26).”
[5] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV: 764: “The affliction is still very real, but the affliction itself has somehow become an answer (v. 21b). What the psalmist now affirms is that God is present with the afflicted.”
[6] Cf. Sheldon Tostengard, “Psalm 22,” Interpretation 46 (April 1992):167-68: “Whereas the language of causality is rightly alien to faith, it is nevertheless common for Christians to suppose that the presence of a loving God means health and wholeness rather than bones that are out of joint and strength that lies helpless and bleached, like a potsherd along a path. A modern person might well ask what God is good for anyway if it is not to prevent trouble.”
[7] McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:766: “Entrusting one’s life to this kind of God as the psalmist did and as Jesus did, changes everything. For instance, life can be understood not as a frantic search for self-satisfaction and self-security, but as a matter of dependence upon God … . Suffering can be understood not as something to be avoided at all costs, but as something to be accepted—even embraced on behalf of others—with the knowledge that God shares the suffering of the afflicted … . Death can be understood not as the ultimate insult to human sovereignty, but as something to be entrusted to God with the assurance that nothing in all creation can separate us from God … .”
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 90: “It is in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings that the powers of the resurrection and the new creation are experienced and are efficacious (2 Cor. 4:7ff.; 6:4ff.). This power is perfected in the weak (2 Cor. 12:9).” Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.3.2:633, where he reminds us that Paul’s experience with suffering is such that “he can describe the totality of it as a repetition in his own person of the dying (νέκρωσις) of Jesus.”
[9] Cf. H. -J. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 301: “When Jesus now in the agony of the cross prays the first words of Psalm 22, … [he] enters the archetypal affliction of abandonment by God which was experienced in the OT by those who prayed … . But this means that Jesus solidly identifies himself with the entire fullness of suffering.”

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

At Any Cost

At Any Cost
1 Peter 3:18-22[1]
From my perspective, I’d have to say we are a people who don’t like to suffer. Most of us prefer our lives to be as comfortable and as pain-free as possible. And we expend huge amounts of money to secure for ourselves a life that is as free from suffering as possible. From medications, to entertainment, to other less healthy forms of relief, we find all kinds of ways to try to free ourselves from the pain of suffering. And yet this presents a curious paradox for those of us who profess to be Christians. We follow a Savior whose life was defined by suffering, and who called us to follow him in a life of suffering. I wonder how we who spare no expense to avoid pain can really claim to follow a Savior who gave himself for us at any cost.
In my opinion, this is a question that American Christians in general have not given enough attention. As we enter the season of Lent, I think it is no coincidence that many of our Scripture lessons for this season have to do with suffering—both on the part of Jesus and on our part. The fact of the matter is that the suffering of God’s love permeates the Bible. And suffering is a very real part of life that we all have to face at one point or another. We may try to avoid it by any means possible, but we will not succeed. We need a better hope than our various means of escape to sustain us in the face of suffering.
Our lesson from St. Peter for today addresses this, although in a very curious way. This text is one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament, with its talk of preaching to “spirits in prison”[2] and Baptism being likened to Noah’s ark. And yet, despite those thorny interpretation difficulties, this passage begins with suffering and ends with victory. St. Peter makes a declaration that Jesus suffered for our sakes, saying that “Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). And at the end of this lesson, he affirms that in his resurrection Jesus won the victory over all the powers in this world that would try to inflict suffering on us (3:22).[3]
Elsewhere in Peter’s letter, he talks about the lengths to which Jesus was willing to go to suffer on our behalf (1 Pet. 2:21-24).[4] He speaks about Jesus’ experience of being insulted and yet not insulting back. He speaks of Jesus suffering and not retaliating in anger or with violence of any kind. Rather he was willing to suffer for our sakes at any cost to himself. Peter says it this way, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross” and  “by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24). He accepted the cup of suffering that was placed before him. And in doing so, he made it clear that God’s love is a love that seeks to redeem us at any cost.
This is a very different approach to suffering than what we’re used to. Instead of avoiding it at any cost, the love of God in Jesus Christ sought us out and spared no expense to set us free from all the forces that can turn our lives into a living hell. What an incredible display of love. I think sometimes we may take all this for granted. But if you really think about it, who in this world would do something like that for you? We may have a handful of people who might seriously consider it. But at the end of the day, it really is amazing that someone would seek us out and embrace suffering at any cost in order to rescue us from the dark places into which we wander.
Perhaps the most difficult thing Peter says about all this is that we have been called to follow Jesus in this same kind of life![5] In fact, Peter says that Jesus suffered in this way to “leave you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).  How could it be different for those of us who follow a Savior who was executed in a most de-humanizing way?  Jesus himself told his disciples that his path, the path of obedience to God’s will, the path of seeking God’s kingdom and God’s justice, was going to lead him to suffer and die. He was willing to accept that ultimate suffering in order to “bring us back to God.” He was so intent on that goal that we was willing to see it through at any cost. And he warned his disciples that if they followed him, they would have to be prepared for the same kind of suffering.
I’m not sure we’re ready to hear that. We think of those who passively accept suffering as in some way weak or powerless. But if you look at the way Jesus suffered, there was nothing weak or powerless about it at all. His willingness to suffer for us at any cost was a demonstration of a level of strength that is hard to imagine. And his suffering was not simply a passive surrender to the forces that oppress us. In fact, his willingness to accept suffering and even death on our behalf was the most powerful response possible. He allowed them to do their worst, and then he rose up from the grave to show them that they had failed to defeat him.[6]
I think there’s a dimension of our suffering that’s like that. When we follow Jesus’ example and accept our suffering—whether it makes sense or not—it becomes a kind of witness to those around us.[7] In a very real sense, when we embrace the suffering that may come our way, or even go the extra mile and take on the suffering of others, by our very lives we make a powerful statement to the world.[8] We are saying that we are not afraid of the powers in this world that may try to inflict suffering on us. We are saying that we trust in the one who paid the ultimate cost and won the victory over all suffering to deliver us safely in the end.  We are saying that we are willing to follow Christ at any cost.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A Sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/22/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning: The Life of Hope, 149, where he comments on this difficult text, “We are not told how that can come about, whether the dead hear the gospel of Christ and, like the living, can arrive at faith. For us, it is enough, after all, to know that death can set no limits to the saving gospel of Christ, and that in faith in Christ there is hope for the dead too.”
[3] Cf. David L. Bartlett, “The First Letter of Peter,” New Interpreters Bible XII:297, where he says, “To be sure, Christ suffered as Christians suffer, but in his resurrection he not only overcame suffering but he also raised his flag of victory over the evil forces that bring suffering on the just and the faithful.”  Cf. also Paul J. Achtemeier, 1 Peter: A commentary on First Peter, 251, where he says that the point of this passage is to emphasize “the objective ground and cause of salvation that is the basis of the readers’ confidence that despite any unjust suffering which might seem to point to the contrary, Christ by his passion and resurrection has emerged victorious over all opposing powers, a victory in which faithful Christians will also share.” Cf. similarly Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.3.2:211.
[4] Cf. Mary H. Schertz, “Radical Trust in the Just Judge: The Easter Texts of 1 Peter,” Word & World 24 (Fall 2004): 232: “For the communities to whom this letter was written, the crucial meaning of the cross is Jesus' two-step decision, articulated in 2:23. His first decision is not to retaliate, not to revile in return for reviling. But his second decision is even more important because it grounds his first decision. His second decision is to entrust himself to the just Judge.”
[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 97: “The whole church lives from Christ’s self-giving and in self-giving for the reconciliation of the world.”  See also ibid., 284: “The way of life of the messianic era is stamped by messianic suffering.”  See also Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3.2:636-40, where he talks about this in terms of suffering “under the shadow” of Jesus’ cross.
[6] Cf. Schertz, “Radical Trust,” 232, 234: “This is not suffering for the sake of suffering. This is not condoning suffering. This is not giving up to suffering. This is not God making Jesus suffer. Rather, the life and ministry of Jesus, what he has been moving toward since at least the temptations, culminates in this testimony that reconciliation—between God and people as well as among people—is not a matter of containing evil but of transforming evil. It is a freely chosen, decisive action. It is a simple but powerful decision to break the cycle of violence.”
[7] Cf. David L. Tiede, “An Easter Catechesis: The Lessons of 1 Peter,” Word & World 4 (Spring 1984): 198, where he suggests that 1 Peter 3:14-15 “may sound the keynote for the passage: ‘Have no fear of them nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord.’” The idea is that when they do that they will be able to bear witness to the new life they have experienced through their faith in Christ. Cf. also Bartlett, “The First Letter of Peter,” NIB XII:296, where he says that when Christians suffer for their faith, “They join the struggle against oppression by speaking honestly and powerfully of what they hold dear, making their defense unapologetically.”
[8] Cf. Schertz, “Radical Trust,” 240, where she says that when we follow Christ’s example in this way, “there is an indestructible theological power in this obedience.”