By Joanna Shenk
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
When I read through the lectionary passages for this Sunday, the words from 1 Peter jumped right out at me. They were different than the other New Testament texts that told the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. On Ascension Sunday, which is today, we celebrate the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry and anticipate the coming of the Spirit. Next Sunday we celebrate Pentecost which marks the Spirit’s presence among us.
So this week in the Christian calendar we’re in liminal space. It’s the space between Jesus leaving and the Spirit coming. It’s perhaps a time when Jesus’ disciples were saying, “Well, he’s gone. That’s disappointing and a little scary. What do we do now?”
The 1 Peter passage is trying to answer that question. It’s an exhortation to Jesus’ followers of how to live in the midst of oppression when Jesus is no longer present on earth. The words also seem to resonate with our reality today.
“Do not be surprised by the fiery ordeal taking place among you, as if something strange were happening…”
It reminds me of the words of many friends of color since the election. Pointing out that although hateful rhetoric has a much bigger platform now, the oppression of people of color, Muslims, immigrants, transpeople and others has been happening all along. This is nothing new for the United States of America.
“Cast all your anxiety on the Divine who cares for you…”
There is a lot of anxiety floating around and I can understand why. What a gift to be able to offer it to the Divine rather than put it on each other. God can handle our anxiety. We do not need to project it onto other people.
“Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary prowls around, looking for someone to devour.”
Wow. That’s real, right? It does seem like the current administration is openly prowling around, not even trying to hide who it wants to devour. But the adversary is so much more than that. One powerful manifestation of the adversary is white supremacy which has the capacity to devour everyone.
Understanding how white supremacy affects us all is part of what it means to be disciplined. It takes commitment to see through the lies we have internalized about ourselves and others.
“Resist the adversary by being steadfast in your faith, for you know your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.”
We are not alone in our resistance. We are part of a great body of people who are choosing the way of love and justice, and who at times, are paying a high cost for that commitment.
The book of 1 Peter was written in the first century to Jesus-following communities in what is now Turkey. It was a letter encouraging them to keep living in the way of Jesus. They were a struggling, minority group experiencing marginalization. It’s unclear if they were being killed at that time, but they were at least being discriminated against and losing their standing in society.
The book was written to aid them in discerning how to live within a dominant culture that saw them as a threat. It was all about how the priorities of Jesus followers are different than Rome’s priorities, different than the priorities and values of empire.
“If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.”
Suffering was not the point, but if it happened it was not surprising since the Jesus followers were living in a different way. They were clear on where their loyalty lay. To those observing them from the outside they looked like disloyal resisters. Just as suffering was not the point, neither was resistance the point, but both those things happened as they walked in the Jesus way. This would have been similar for the early Anabaptists who were not seeking out suffering, but rather trying to follow Jesus as best they knew how.
It was risky to walk in the way of Jesus because it meant a person’s loyalty was not devoted to Caesar, to the king, to the empire.
Is it risky to walk in the way of Jesus today? Throughout Christian history, this passage has been used to instruct Christians how to respond to persecution. In countries where persecution of Christians continues today, 1 Peter is one of the most read books.
Given our national political reality, how do we respond to claims that “Christianity is under attack?” How do we interpret a text like this as North Americans steeped in a culture of Christian hegemony?
In our context we need to understand the difference between the persecution of Christians and the dismantling of Christian hegemony. We all shake our heads when we hear about the “war on Christmas” and the people that are mad they can’t say “Merry Christmas” everywhere all the time. That is the dismantling of Christian hegemony which seeks to undo the normalization of Christian culture, symbols and language.
The dismantling of Christian hegemony also challenges narratives that paint Christianity as a peaceful religion and Islam as a violent one, for example. To put it simply it is effort to help Christianity take up an appropriate amount of space in a multi-faith world, rather than assuming it should take up all the space and that it is the best.
So in the United States today Christianity is not under attack, rather our “Christian nation” breeds aggressors who are targeting minority faith groups. Tragically to this point, in recent days two people were fatally injured while trying to protect Muslims from discrimination in Portland, Oregon.
In my 11th grade English class I did a persuasive speech on the persecution of Christians around the world, making the case that much persecution is still happening. I think my motive for choosing that topic was to remind my seemingly nonchalant Mennonite classmates that some people actually took their faith seriously enough to suffer for it. I was not impressed with the lack of passion for Jesus I observed among them. In retrospect, I don’t think my speech did much to persuade them of anything other than to reinforce my reputation as an outspoken (or perhaps annoying) charismatic Christian.
In writing this sermon it’s interesting to come back around to that theme and engage it with deeper understanding. It’s also sobering in light of the shear number of people suffering around the world. In the past week 28 Coptic Christians were killed in Egypt. In the Democratic Republic of Congo 5,000 Mennonites are in hiding. In northern Nigeria Christian villages are being burned with impunity.
Why all this suffering and violence? I cannot pretend to have the answers. But I do know that the Divine grieves and rages with all those who are suffering.
I think about our Lenten series on the soul and particularly when we talked about shadow. The collective shadow of groups of people allows for the practice of scapegoating: it underlies all kinds of prejudice against those belonging to groups other than our own (or the dominant group) and it is at the root of all massacres, pogroms and wars.
Scapegoating happens whenever people need someone to blame or when people are threatened by those who dissent from the dominant reality. This is what led to the enslavement of Hebrew people in Egypt, to the prophets being killed, to the persecution of the early followers of Jesus, to the persecution of Jewish people and early Anabaptists and Indigenous people and enslaved Africans and undesirable immigrants and Muslims in predominantly Christians countries, and Christians in predominantly Muslim countries, and queer people.
One word of wisdom I would give to my high school self is that our suffering sisters and brothers around the world and in this country are not just those who identify as Christian but all those who suffer injustice for living in ways that challenge the status quo around them. Jesus was a friend to these people, to those who were outcasts and undesirables.
As Christians we must be aware of the legacy of the Crusades, the Doctrine of Discovery and Western Christian imperialism. Much religious violence today has roots in those efforts. From Indonesia to the Philippines to the Middle East to the African continent those histories of conquest continue to propel violence. For examples, the brutal president of the Philippines did not come out of a vacuum, he has been deeply formed by the centuries of colonization of his country by the Christian West.
Unlike the small Jesus-following communities of the first century, our identity is informed by a couple millennia of Christian witness and Christian domination. This is both a burden and an opportunity. Do we understand the difference between the priorities of the Jesus way and the priorities of this empire? Are we willing to be categorized as disloyal resistors because our way of life looks different than the status quo? Will we be in solidarity with those who suffer oppression, and at times be willing to put our bodies on the line?
The Divine is calling us to the way of discipleship. Let’s hear again the words from 1 Peter. What does the Spirit inspire in you?
4:12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you, as though something strange were happening to you.
4:13 But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when Christ’s glory is revealed.
4:14 If you are reviled, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.
5:6 Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that God may exalt you in due time.
5:7 Cast all your anxiety on the Divine who cares for you.
5:8 Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary prowls around, looking for someone to devour.
5:9 Resist the adversary, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.
5:10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you, will restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.
5:11 To Eternal Love be the power forever and ever. Amen.
Do not be surprised by the fiery ordeal. Humble yourselves. Cast your anxiety on the Divine. Be disciplined. Keep alert. Resist the adversary.
To Eternal Love be the power forever and ever. Amen.