Seventh Easter • May 24, 2020
Acts 1:6-14 • Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36 • 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11 • John 17:1-11
In the Name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I heard on the radio the other day that there is widespread emotional distress abroad in the land, and that citizens are suffering at record rates. Our Bishop has indicated something of the sort as well. So perhaps it would be good to listen closely to what Peter is saying to us in his letter that was read a few minutes ago—the Second Lesson.
He says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” The fiery ordeal he refers to is not a virus, of course, but persecution of some kind, perhaps from the Romans or perhaps from the leaders of the Jewish communities of which they were members. Christians at that time were still a sect of the Jews, somewhat deviant since they claimed that Jesus was Messiah, and not always welcomed.
But they were definitely under siege and in trouble. He says, in effect, “Where’s the surprise? It’s just another test.” I want to suggest to you that the corvid-19 shelter-in-place orders, and the possibility of infection, sickness, and death—these are just another test. You and I are all of a certain age; this is not the first test we’ve been faced with. There was Hurricane Sandy; and 9/11; and various previous illnesses and economic challenges—a host of them, if you live long enough.
But James is suggesting something pretty radical. He is saying that these tests are not given to us for no purpose. He says, “…rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.” Here is an invitation to not be the victim of the test, but to claim it. And in claiming it, to link it with the sufferings of Christ, thereby giving it meaning.
Peter has the clear notion that we are in God’s hands, in good times and in bad, and that the only thing to be afraid of is the devil. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer that the Father will save us from the time of trial, or as another translation says, that God will not bring us to the test. We hate being tested! And rightly so, but we are tested and we will continue to be tested. The bigger problem is evil. As the next request in the Lord’s Prayer says, “…deliver us from evil.”
Evil is a profound fact of life. The Scriptures see evil as an active force, and evil is often personified as “the evil one,” or “the devil.” You can see evil every day in news broadcasts and newspapers. We seem impelled, from time to time, to do things that damage others, to be shoved into dividing and separating ourselves from others. Not only on the personal level, but nations are divided against nations, and we are caught up in the midst of the trouble.
Peter says, “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.” If I remember my Greek correctly, “devil” is one way to translate “the evil one,” or simply “evil.” So devil, the evil one, and evil all refer to the same thing.
In the face of the evil one, Peter encourages us to “Resist him, steadfast in the faith,” and he goes on to say that we are not alone. Many of our brothers and sisters are facing the same trials. There is strength in solidarity, in knowing that we at one with many others who have the same problems to deal with.
And then Peter gives us a promise, and it is the consistent promise of the Gospel—our suffering will not last forever. I have noticed that, in the middle of a severe illness or stress of some kind, it seems that it will never end; I cannot even remember what it was like to be whole. But in fact, nothing lasts forever.
Peter promises that “after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace…will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” The promise is not only that the time of testing will end, but that you will be stronger for it.
My father, now long dead, once said to me in the middle of some difficulties I was having, “The ladder to success is made up of rungs of failures.” This was cold comfort at the time, but he was speaking to the same profound truth that Peter is promising—that facing the trials that are attacking us, and claiming them, is where growth comes from.
The evil one would have us refuse responsibility for our condition; he would encourage us to throw the blame on others; he would have us become the victim. This is the ultimate degradation, the destruction of the soul, killing any human dignity.
Please remember that Jesus, in his time of trial, when he desperately wanted to avoid the cross, asked the Father to “take this cup from me;” then he faced the trial and took it on. And in claiming his test, he was given the crown of resurrection.
To God be the power forever and ever. Amen.