Suffering for the Sake of Righteousness

This is my sermonon 1 Peter 3:8-18, preached on the 6th Sunday of Eastertide (Rogation Sunday), 21 May 2017.

Introduction: Receiving Good & Evil from the Lord

“Satan said the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life.  But put forth your hand now, and touch Job’s bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.”  And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord, and afflicted Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.  And Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God, and die.”  But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” – Job 2:4-10

The blessed Job, often considered the most patient man in all of biblical literature, understood a profound truth about God that is difficult to grasp even now: God is in charge.  What he gives to us, he gives to us.

Sometimes we receive from the Lord things that we would consider good: a friend, a spouse, an income, a home, health, prosperity, a family, times of leisure.  It is for things like these that we pray during Rogationtide, these days of special prayer for a prosperous season.  Originally days to pray for the newly-planted harvest, the Rogation Days are now also opportunities to pray for our businesses, industries, and all the other forms of labor that we undertake for our private and public livelihood.  We pray that God will shower down his blessings.

But we also receive from the Lord things that we call evil: loneliness, loss, suffering, pain, sickness, destitution, unemployment, or its opposite, a schedule so dominated with work that we have no Sabbath at all.  Job certainly underwent a great many trials and experienced a great range of evils through the course of his story.  Although we do not pray for evils from God to descend upon us, we are taught in the Scriptures that it does happen, and that there is a blessing for us in the midst of them.

 We are not alone; Christ suffered too!

Before we dive into this subject too deeply, though, I should note two common knee-jerk reactions that we tend to have toward suffering: “Why me?” and “It isn’t fair!”  Both of these reactions betray an inadequate perspective on life.  The reaction “why me” reveals a heart that is not fixed upon Christ, for Christ also suffered.  The reaction “it isn’t fair” also reveals a heart that is not fixed upon Christ, for Christ never even did any wrong that he should deserve the least bit of suffering.  We do not believe in karma, but if we did, all we’d deserve is the greatest evils upon our souls, considering the fact that we are all sinners.  If the world really was “fair,” we would suffer and die, and Christ would live untouched for ever.

But thanks be to God, the world is not governed by such a notion of “fairness.”  The justice and wisdom of God is far greater than anything we could have ever conceived, let alone achieved.  According to his own secret counsel, God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to live as one of us and die on our behalf, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.  This is the critical point that puts all our sufferings and trials into their proper perspective.  This is also the climax of our Epistle lesson this morning.

1 Peter 3:8-18 deals with the issue of Christian suffering, and, as I’ve just quoted, it ends by grounding our experience in the experience of Christ himself.  More specifically, verse 18 puts suffering for righteousness’ sake in the context of eventual glorification – the final blessing!

It’s interesting to note that so far 1 Peter has only dealt with Christ’s sufferings and vindication (that is, his resurrection), which matches the present liturgical context: Christ is risen, but has not yet ascended to the right hand of God.  The book will get to that glory in due time, just as the Church will be celebrating that ascension on Thursday.  (Or in our case, on Wednesday evening.)

As verse 18 specifically brings to our attention, though Jesus was put to death and was resurrected – the emphasis is on its historicity and passivity.  These things did happen, and they were done to Jesus.  Sometimes the scriptures speak of Christ “laying down” his life of his own volition, but Peter is careful to use the passive tense in this instance: he wants us to know that his suffering was both real and uninvited.  With this foundation and lynch-pin in mind, let us proceed through this text.

1 Peter 3:8-18: Suffering for Righteousness’ Sake

Verse 8 calls us to be “same-minded,” which is to include our sentiment, aim, and purpose.  This draws a picture of noteworthy unity!  When we are united with the Body of Christ, the Church, our tendency toward self-centeredness is kept in check.  When we pursue the same ambition and goal – to be one in Christ – we strengthen the ties that bind us one to another.  This is critical for what is to come, both in this text and in the Christian life.

Verse 9 instructs us to bless others continually.  This teaching is echoed throughout the New Testament: But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matt. 5:44-45).  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them (Rom. 12:14).

The reason that we are called to bless others is because of God’s blessings upon us.  Jesus himself illustrated this in his Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matt. 18:21-35).  In that story, a lord forgives a servant of an enormous debt, but that servant does not extend the same mercy to someone else who owed him much less.  The story ends like this: “Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?  And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt.”  This idea continues into the next three verses as well.

Verses 10-12 essentially quote Psalm 34:12-16a, and we can see them as an exhortation against being like that unmerciful servant (Matt. 18:32-34).  Love life & have good days is a wish to enjoy life’s fruitfulness (the results of Rogationtide blessings, as it were).  Stop the tongue from evil is, like last week, considered the starting point for various and sundry forms of sin.  We are also commanded here to move from evil toward good, where we can find peace in the fullest sense (shalom).  The Psalm quote ends with a double reference to God’s attention: God’s eyes are upon describes the blessing connotation of his face, and God’s countenance is against refers to the cursing connotation of his face.

Verse 13 begins the next major section of the book: how to deal with the new situation of persecution!  Even though it’s a new section, it’s still closely tied to the previous verses; it’s on the heels of these calls to unity and perseverance and holiness that Peter now turns to the specific issue of persecution.  This simple sentence in verse 13 packs a great deal of wisdom.  Think about it, who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is right?  As one early 20th century Lutheran commentator observed, “It is mighty hard for anybody to mistreat people who are zealots for goodness, i.e., for doing what is beneficial to others” (Lenski, page 146).  He adds, “Despite all the good which Christians may do, the world does not really like them and is on occasion bound to vent its hatred.  What Peter says is that zealousness for the good robs opponents of any real reason for mean treatment of the readers; as in the case of Jesus, who constantly went about dispensing good, some other reason for mean treatment will have to be trumped up” (Lenski, page 147).

Verse 14 deals with suffering in a conditional sense: we “might have to be suffering.”  In other words, Peter hopes these trials will quiet down.  Suffering is not a guarantee.  We could paraphrase this verse to say: Don’t let them scare you, neither be disturbed (in mind or conduct).

Verse 15 gives us our priority, whether under persecution or not: sanctify the Lord, Christ, in your hearts.  In order to do this properly, we must be holy, or sanctified, or set apart, as he called us to be.  In order to do this properly, we must fear him alone, above all earthly powers.  In so doing, we nurture a “living hope” for which we can give account in testimony at a moment’s notice.  But our apologia must be made in meekness, not roughness, to keep a clear conscience (as verse 16 adds).

Verse 16 also points out that our good behavior will contrast with the wickedness of our accusers.  And that is true whether they respond to our meekness or not.  Sometimes people are shamed or inspired to repentance by the meekness of those they persecute.  Sometimes their hearts are hardened.  We pray for the former, but it ultimately isn’t up to us.

Verse 17, finally, admits that it is potentially God’s will that we suffer even for doing good.  Suffering for doing wrong, as Peter writes both here and in a previous section, is entirely out of the picture.  If you sin, and suffer for it, that’s justice.  It’s suffering for doing no wrong that is the issue his original readers were beginning to face, and the same issue that persecuted Christians have faced in many other times and places since then.  It might seem crazy to imagine that suffering just for being a Christian should ever be allowed under God’s permissive will, but that’s why we started at the end, at verse 18 – Jesus also suffered, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.

Jesus says, “follow me.”

Suffering for doing good is following the path of Christ, so it’s just as much a blessing as is a peaceful life.  There are false teachers out there, preaching what we call “the health-wealth gospel” or “the prosperity gospel.”  They teach that God only wants to bless you with good things.  Therefore, they say, if you’re suffering, it’s because you don’t have enough faith!  These wolves in sheep’s clothing have obviously never understood the story of Job, nor studied 1 Peter, let alone understood the glory of the Cross.

Yes, the glory of the Cross!  We sang an excellent hymn a few minutes ago that draws together this glory with other themes we’ve dealt with this morning.

“Hail to the Lord’s Anointed, Great David’s greater Son!
Hail, in the time appointed, His reign on earth begun!”

Notice here that the reign of Christ has already begun.  Jesus is King, not just will be in some distant future.  Our faith is not built upon the promise of Christ’s return, but upon Christ’s completed work on the Cross.  We do indeed wait with a true and “living hope” for the fullest glory of his return, but we do so only because of the confidence we gain in what he has already done.  On the Cross, Jesus made his full sufficient sacrifice, satisfaction, and oblation, cancelling the hold of the Devil over we poor sinners.  There, he set us free.  There, he seized the throne back from the Evil One.

And then we sang another verse:

“He comes with succor speedy To those who suffer wrong,
To help the poor and needy, And bid the weak be strong;
To give them songs for sighing, Their darkness turn to light,
Whose souls, condemned and dying, Were precious in his sight.”

This is his ministry both on earth and in heaven. He continues to provide help to we who suffer, and are poor, and needy.  He still strengthens we who are weak, turning our sighs into songs, our darkness into light.  In the midst of the “evils” that we have received, God effects blessings.  And thus, verse 3:

“He shall come down like showers Upon the fruitful earth,
And love, joy, hope, like flowers, Spring in his path to birth:
Before him on the mountains Shall peace, the herald, go;
And righteousness in fountains From hill to valley flow.”

Earthly blessings are used here as a metaphor for spiritual blessings.  Just as we seek a good season for the prosperity of our crops and other works during these Rogation Days, we also seek a good life for the prosperity of virtues like love, joy, hope, and so forth.  Sometimes our work is beset with thistles and thorns, blight and blunder, just as our lives are best with sin and suffering and spiritual stagnation.  These trials and tribulations do not mean that we have spurned God’s grace.  More often than not, they are opportunities direct from our Lord himself for us to learn, to grow, to prove and demonstrate our faith in his sight and in the sight of “those who would call us to account”.

May the light of your faith so shine in your works and your forbearance that even the most hardened of sinners may sit up, take notice, and glory God on the day of his visitation!

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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