I’ve been fire hosed with a ton of information since beginning last August and I prayed to God when I was writing this that some of the more interesting and relatable things I’ve retained over the many weeks will find its way to enlighten today’s message.
As a future Priest and military Chaplain, I will encounter a range of people with different backgrounds and beliefs. Suffering can and will be a present reality for any of them. For us who are ministering to a very broken, sick, and hopeless world, providing a universal message about the need to suffer from our Epistle reading, is not the most positive nor easily receptive thing to present to the oppressed.
That is the challenge with today’s passage in 1 Peter. It tells us that we should not be surprised at the chaos happening around us as if it were a strange thing. That no matter who we are, we believe, as Christians, that we must and will endure more suffering. There is seemingly no way to escape the powers of evil that divide and violently interrupt the good of creation. Our attitude then should be joyful, humble, and disciplined.
As I read this passage when writing my sermon, my initial reaction was that Peter made it seem too easy to just have a joyful spirit within a practical sense. I then began to ask myself, as a Christian community, how do we sit with this? Why must we suffer? I can even take it a step further and ask How does such a good and benevolent God, who has already called us to his eternal Glory in Christ, allow suffering?
From what I observed, I am way younger than most of you in this space so if you have it figured out, please do come up here and proclaim the good news! I certainly need to hear it!
The attitude of joy, humbleness and discipline may provide us with the remedies of the fiery ordeal yet, something is missing. What’s missing is that the passage of our Epistle reading only reveals a conclusion of Peter’s wisdom from all of his own spiritual testimonies. I am certain that he went through several hardships that shaped this further understanding of suffering as he was writing this letter and probably spoke more about it in the earlier chapters or latter ones. For those of you who know the term exegesis, you know what I mean. There is no simple answer.
I can’t remember the quote exactly nor do I remember where it comes from, but it said something about faith having reasons that reason has no knowledge of.
Therefore, a possible first step in understanding suffering is not the fact that we must simply be joyful and disciplined. I believe it could be that we first have to develop our faith, to encounter and learn about mystical experiences that draws our attention inward, giving us a deeper understanding of our reality. This faith then reminds us of our truest identities as Human Beings made in the image of God destined to be renewed and glorified beyond this world as Peter stated.
These deeper revelations can help draw meaning out of suffering within our own context of liberating epiphanies, as Peter seemed to have reflected on throughout his Epistles in encouraging the early Christian communities to have steadfast hope and joy.
Peter said: “the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour”. We must be on alert for inadequate ideologies, thoughts and social standards that can easily disrupt our faith. Otherwise the world will define our realities and enslave us to a false perspective.
Like Peter, the other disciples witnessed miracles, paradoxes, parables, and mystery throughout their journey with Jesus. These countless moments, most of them requiring some level of hardship and uncertainty, developed their faith through their spiritual growth which led them to continue to walk with Christ against their religious and political adversaries.
In our first lesson, a reading from Acts chapter 1, Jesus was finally resurrected from all the turmoil and pain. The disciples, having endured so much through Jesus’ ministry, thought the end was near and asked Jesus if this was when he will restore the Kingdom to Israel.
I can imagine how hopeful they must have felt, the relief they thought so possible, that it might be time to experience the new reality. Unfortunately, Jesus told them that they will not know when, but that the Holy Spirit will be with them and they will be his witnesses.
Sidenote: I hate cliffhangers and this ascension story is probably one of my most hated ones in the bible! I thank God that cliffhangers are not the final say in our creation story.
Then suddenly, Jesus ascends and disappears into heaven, leaving them more disoriented than they probably have ever been in their entire life.
As they stood there, confused, perplexed, in awe, pondering upward…….
They were unable to make sense of what just happened to them and how it should shape them moving forward.
Then again, very suddenly, two figures appeared next to them, reminding them that this isn’t the end as they expected it. Instead, a new beginning has emerged, one in which they will soon partake in through establishing the first Christian communities, spreading a message so radical, abundant, hopeful and restorative that it leads to our redemption from the sufferings of sin rather than our desolation to it that marked the end of our first beginning in Genesis.
I witnessed this very recently during my stay at the monastery, not the glories of heaven yet, but rather a 21 year old, a young man on retreat as I was. He told me how he was nervous about being there, not knowing how to enter an intentional space with God in this moment of his life. He isn’t sure about his college degree nor specifically what he wants to do in life yet, and even dropped out once, receiving negative feedback from his family.
The young man is taller than me by about a foot. As he spoke with me, he is hunched in his chair, visibly lost and also curious as to how God will show up in his life. I can imagine the pressure he is feeling within his reality, him possibly asking God why, why can’t I figure out what to do in life? Why aren’t my loved ones supporting me with care and understanding? Why must I suffer like this?
As he spoke, I resonated with him, being in a very similar position during the entire duration of my college years. Unlike the young man, I had plenty of support from my loved ones but it took me almost 3 years after graduating college which was almost 7 years after finishing high school, that I finally figured out what my path was.
Of course, only knowing each other for that short amount of time, I can’t appropriately offer him any specific advice. However, like the 2 mysterious figures giving the disciples hope, I encouraged the young man to continue to live into this experience with God as his call will come in time as it did for me.
Again, to provide meaning to anyone’s suffering requires much context and no simple answer. It requires one’s willingness to step in faith with God through God’s timing of his revelation in their lives. I have learned very quickly that seminary does not and cannot teach all of these life lessons to you.
Within my seminary education as a graduate student, I have studied philosophy, theology, ethics, canon law, introduction to liturgy and performance, Christian history in the last 2000 years, and have taken all my bible classes for Old and New testament in 2 semesters.
To say that this is a lot of information in a very short amount of time is a huge understatement and on top of that I have 2 more very full and busy years left to complete my degree. Please do pray for all of us who are working very hard to become and continue to be well rounded ministers of reason, knowledge and scripture.
Through all the hardship that I am going through, not yet able to digest all the wisdom and knowledge being thrown at me, frustrated that I cannot have all understanding bestowed upon me right now, I know that seeds are being planted, new beginnings are unfolding for my next steps beyond seminary. Faith has reasons that reason has no knowledge of.
However challenging it is to find a meaning for suffering, I am particularly fascinated by the ways in which our Old Testament Professor, Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams, speaks of the paradox of good and evil through her method of teaching Hebrew Scripture. Overall, her teaching style is to remind us that we are a part of this story, this narrative of God who wants to love all creation deeply and intimately.
She reminds us that knowledge is an embodiment.
Whether we like some parts of the bible or not, it’s there, that is our reality and we must sit with scripture and try to embody it as a story that is ongoing, transformative and everlasting.
Just think for a moment how profound this knowledge is? That our scripture is an account of a faith community who remembered their love story with this vulnerable God particularly in the suffering and restoration of the Exodus. This understanding of their divine purpose removed the fogginess of their exile beyond the failures of the Davidic monarchy that left them dispersed and dislodged from their home land. It brought clarity through the prophets who vividly reminded them why they fell into such a state yet there is hope because that isn’t the end of Israel.
Hebrew scripture contains an important account of this history but even more significantly, almost 50% of the books of the old testament are of the Prophets, telling Israel to be alert, be hopeful, for God’s endless glory will be revealed to the seeds of Israel, the remnants, the strangers, the eunuchs, the aliens, the suffering, poor abandoned people, to all nations, eventually.
This is the living word that the Apostles and disciples of the Early Christian church held faith in and evangelized of. Not the living word of a canonically shaped bible or some other Christian document of faith since that did not exist yet for the new Jewish and Gentile community of Christ, but the living word of God through the story of the Hebrew people that transcends boundaries of time, space, language, ethnicity, gender, culture and religion to transform their narrative of suffering into everlasting glory as was prophesized.
Knowing our history can help us find meaning and purpose to overcome suffering and not let it hinder us. We can embody this knowledge as Christ did in our Gospel reading today, praying for the good and wellbeing of others, and for ourselves, so that we can be transformed in all ways and be redeemed through the Spirit.
Another side note: I’m not sure about you but I find it quite creepy that our Gospel passage may be an account of someone overhearing, or rather, eavesdropping on Jesus’s intimate prayer to God!
But, regardless, what a joy, what a blessing, what peace we have in knowing that even at the climax, right before he was to be handed over to the Roman soldiers to his imminent suffering and death, regardless of how his beloved disciples have kept their integrity and faith. Jesus prayed in confidence of the outcome. Jesus knew.
He knew his Jewish history, he knew their scripture, he knew of THE exodus and several other stories of rejection, abandonment, loss of dignity and suffering and was a witness to it throughout his ministry.
More importantly he knew of an all powerful and all loving God full of mercy, full of grace, full of a vulnerable love for his creation that will not allow suffering to separate them from a much deeper reality that awaits us all. Jesus knew, and so he prayed in confidence, knowing that his death, resurrection and ascension is an end and therefore the beginning of what the disciples will witness.
As a future Priest and Air Force Chaplain, this is the hope, that I desire to have in restoring humanity’s meaning and purpose in a suffering world. Despite how difficult it may seem to accept suffering in the present moment, I firmly believe in the first Epistle of Peter, that this does not however define the final revelation of our story nor should it allow us to be indifferent or unfazed by the effects of suffering in our lives and in others.
We are made in the image of a merciful and compassionate God who will not let his love for us end in death and suffering. God’s love requires justice, it requires reconciliation, renewal and mercy not just for the patriarchs, nor only for the Jews, but for All OF CREATION as spoken through the prophets and fulfilled by Jesus. God made us in this abundant love and we must imitate that same desire to swell within our heart, mind and soul. In embodying this love, we are already overcoming death and destruction, and can be humble, joyful and disciplined, knowing that we are able to witness the magnificent and glorious new kingdom right now. Described in Revelation chapter 21 is a small glimpse of what the 2 mysterious figures revealed to the disciples when Jesus ascended. That there will be a new heaven and a new earth. God will wipe away every tear, there will be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither will there be any more pain. Only for a little while longer, then we will all be there soon.
My ending thoughts will be for you. Every single one of you, unconditionally.
I pray that in this upcoming season of Pentecost that you will keep a faith having reasons that reason has no knowledge of, sit in that tension for some time.
Allow the seeds being planted in your life,
in those moments of confusion, perplexity, and awe,
to transform you as you embody Christ’s mysteries that has and is and will be revealed.
Know that God intimately longs for you, his beloved. Appreciate this love story that you are wonderfully made in spirit and body, as Christ was, full of goodness and glory regardless of the suffering reality that is indeed for a little while. Amen.
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