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.”

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