(Before you read this sermon transcript, keep in mind that I don't always stick to the manuscript when I preach and therefore those who heard the sermon heard something at least a little different than what you're reading...if you really want to be impacted by these sermons, you need to be there with our church family and travel together with us as we submit to the Scriptures together. Christianity is not a path to be walked alone; in fact, unless you're on a deserted island with no way off and no way to be with others, it is unfaithful NOT to be in a worshiping community. But enough of that. The following is the sermon)
“Humble yourselves, Discipline yourselves, Be steadfast."
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11
The first awareness we carry coming off this passage is that Peter is writing to a group of people who are suffering. How they are suffering we cannot know specifically. Whenever authors in the New Testament referred to suffering, we’ve often thought about persecutions carried out by the Roman Empire. At and around the 60’s A.D. a giant fire swept through Rome and the emperor Nero scapegoated the early Christian community, doing some awful things to folks associated with the name of Jesus primarily in and around Rome. But this letter of Peter is addressed to Christians in Asia Minor which is about the area we today call Turkey, far enough away from Rome that Nero’s influence wouldn’t have been as strong. And in this area if we tried to imagine what Peter meant by “fiery ordeal,” or “sufferings” we could imagine maybe two main specific things.
First, that the Christian community called Jesus Lord, which was a serious issue for Roman citizens since only Caesar was to be referred to as Lord. So, if Jesus was Lord, that meant Caesar wasn’t; which meant Christian allegiance belonged to someone other than Caesar, which made them subversive and dangerous to the social order. A society needs to run like clockwork, and in order to do that, everyone must know who the authority is and obey. Different authorities and different Lords aren’t tolerated. Not so coincidentally, this was the same charge directed against the early Anabaptist community in the 16th century. Declaring Jesus as Lord was all well and good for a supposedly Christian society as long as Jesus had your soul, but the king and the nation had your life, energy, and allegiance. So the early Christian community and the Anabaptists both had important choices to make: submit and obey Jesus and his Way, or submit and obey Caesar or the Prince and his Way.
A second specific factor would have been at play if we think of “ordeal” or “suffering.” Shame and ridicule. The average Roman citizen, upon hearing of the life, ministry, and death of Jesus would have pitied the Christian community, if not outright mocked them, accusing them of wasting their time. Why? The one they claimed was Lord and Messiah had been crucified; which was the lowest, most vile form of execution the Romans carried out. In this respect, Jesus was no different than the thousands of other scum the Romans crucified; those who boasted big, promised big, but were exposed as pretenders at the hands of the most powerful empire in history.
The Roman senator Marcus Tullius Cicero, a pagan, wrote, "Let even the name 'cross' be kept away not only from the bodies of the citizens of Rome but also from their thought, sight and hearing... It is a grave offense even to bind a Roman citizen, a crime to flog him, almost the act of parricide to put him to death: What shall I then call crucifying him? Language worthy of such an enormity -- It is impossible to find!"
I’ve got a couple pictures of an impression found on the wall etched in by a Roman citizen regarding Christians and how he thought about them. The picture is now known as “Alexamenos worships his God,” which is drawn from the crude Greek inscription underneath the pictoral etching. The etching itself shows a person standing beside a cross with his hand upraised to signify worship. On the cross, the representation of Jesus is a man with a donkey’s head. The offense is clear. You’re worshiping a failure, a man worthy of nothing more than pity. And if you devote your life to this worship, what a waste!
Without any further understanding of Jesus, we might agree. The guy failed. He claimed to be leading a movement, but he was crushed. End of story. Unknowingly though, one may not have known they were playing right into the hands of the Christian community. At the core of the message of the early Christians was this simple statement: Jesus taught and exemplified a very unique message of loving and serving others no matter how they treat us. He taught and exemplified that we are to humble ourselves before God and in vulnerability trust God alone to know how to live. And we are to be willing to give our lives to the point of death and beyond, to absorb even the most shameful, undeserved treatment. Why? Because God loves the world, because God desires all his creation to live healthy, joyful, meaningful lives.
This is enough reason to love and serve Jesus. But even more, the same God raised Jesus from the dead, proving he is more powerful than powerful people and death. So we have no reason to fear what even the most powerful empire in the world can do to us or the most well-placed bullet because we get to bear witness to a powerful love. It is this awareness, this belief that has led followers of Jesus into the darkest, most violent places on Earth to proclaim and live the transformative message of Jesus and the way of life he redeems us to. Or, it has led followers of Jesus into parts of our society that aren’t necessarily desirable, has led us to desire healing and hope in places of brokenness.
Believing this message should, I emphasize should
lead Christians to look at their society around them, searching for places and relationships of brokenness that we can then move towards, engage with
; instead of separating ourselves from, insulating ourselves from brokenness
. Unfortunately, the pattern of response to brokenness in Cincinnati, like many cities, is people abandoning, leaving behind, running away from darkness because we don’t like to feel uncomfortable, insecure, stretched, or frustrated. People move into an ever-increasing ring of suburbs to find a place of security, leaving behind communities falling apart. We then build beltways and interstates that keep us from having to see and engage those communities on a daily basis, and they slide into our subconscious; only coming up when we are forced to detour through them.
Precious few churches choose to obey the courageous call of Jesus to seek out places of brokenness and put down roots there. This community of Cincinnati Church of the Brethren and our community Vineyard Central have attempted to be faithful to the call of God in this way. But it has been rough going, for us and for you
For one thing, we’ve found that we don’t have the tools to be able to handle pain and brokenness very well, because we’ve been shaped by a gospel of pain avoidance. Several weeks ago, I heard a story from a man named Scott Dewey that connects with this truth. Scott is a follower of Jesus, and Scott caught a vision to move to the slums of Bangkok, Thailand with his wife. There are any number of preventable diseases there in the slums that primarily result from unclean drinking water. Scott wanted to solve those problems, and bring hope to the slums. So they said, “Here I am Lord, send me” and they went. Three years later Scott rolled over in bed one morning and said to his wife, “Melanie, I can’t do this any more. There’s too much pain here.” After three years, they hadn’t solved the unclean water problem and Scott had been crushed by the pain and darkness of life in the ghetto. Scott, however, chose to reflect on his thinking instead of just abandoning the place, and he came to one crucial awareness.
They had entered that neighborhood to do ministry for
people there. They had come with a gospel they believed provided hope. And Scott realized as he thought about the pain and darkness crushing him that the people who had lived in that ghetto all their lives had a greater capacity to deal the with the pain and still find little cracks of hope than he did. Scott found out that the gospel and the community he came from was one that was not familiar with pain, did not seek out pain, struggle, and brokenness and therefore he didn’t have the resources to deal with the pain there in Bangkok. What Scott learned was that the people he had come to minister to were in fact ministering to him in how to live with pain and suffering. What Scott learned through them was a fresh understanding of the gospel that does not bring hope through avoiding pain but through embracing it and finding God in the midst of it.
So, in a powerful way, Scott found out through experience the word here in 1 Peter 5, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on God because he cares for you.” Scott was led to understand in a deeper way his responsibility as a disciple of the one who “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant…humbling himself by being obedient to death.”
Something died in Scott then. He was able to work again to put to death his own pride, his own Messiah complex. He also needed to put to death what he believed to be the gospel, so he could embrace a gospel much more profoundly Biblical, one which required much more of himself; a gospel centered on imitating the example of the Jesus he followed, one oriented toward pain and discomfort rather than a commitment to avoid it. Scott, in a very real way, experienced the salvation of God there in Bangkok, and it has served him well in his life. I experienced him as a profoundly humble, transparent man familiar with suffering; refined through suffering.
Discipline Yourselves, Be Steadfast
I suspect a number of you may feel the same way Scott did there in Bangkok. It was a cool idea, in the words of Jeremiah, to “Seek the peace of the city.” You left the relative comfort of Blue Ash to try to put down roots here in Walnut Hills.
“We work to engage with the city and its people, embracing and celebrating the diversity that fills our world. Our engagement sparks conversations about disparate income and educational opportunities, violence, race relations, and gentrification. As we face these tough issues, we strive to follow Christ’s example and look to God’s wisdom for answers. On this journey, we are guided by the belief that Jesus was serious about living a life of love, service, peace, justice, and simplicity.”
That is a beautiful statement, one you need to cling to in times of frustration in ministry.
You’ve come face to face with problems that Sunday mornings won’t fix. You’re learning to mentor and care for families and children dealing with chronic homelessness, inadequate nutrition, etc.
And you have opposition to your work. There are any number of ways evil, chaos, distrust, and hatred are at work here that require people of courage to absorb, or even be crushed, by the pain. But maybe your biggest enemy is the gospel of pain avoidance. Our wider culture is not encouraging us to seek out pain. The deep irony here, though, is that the Christian community surrounding us often functions like the Romans who thought the early Christian community was wasting its time. We have allowed our culture to shape us more than our Lord Jesus.
Have you, like Scott, in your own unique way, rolled over in bed thinking, “I don’t have the ability to handle this any more”?
I want to encourage you, like Peter did for the early church in Asia Minor, to
humble yourselves under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on God because he cares for you…God…after you have suffered a little while…will make you strong, firm, and steadfast. So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.
Or, in the words of Alexander Mack we are about to sing, “Count well the cost, Christ Jesus says, when you lay the foundation. Are you resolved, though all seem lost, to risk your reputation, your self, your wealth, for Christ the Lord, as you now give your solemn word?” Let us say “Yes” together with our lives.
: May you abandon the gospel of pain avoidance and embrace the life of following Jesus which brings fun times and brings hard times, but always in all things brings joy. So, humble yourselves, discipline yourselves, and be steadfast in what God will teach you here in Walnut Hills. What you have chosen is good and worthy and right; worth giving your life to. Go now in peace to love and serve the Lord.
Labels: Bangkok, Caesar as Lord, fiery ordeal, gospel, gospel of pain avoidance, Jesus as Lord, Messiah complex, mission, Nero, persecution, Peter, resurrection, Roman Empire, Scott Dewey, suffering