Thursday, May 04, 2017

May 7, Easter 4: Believing Is Suffering As Action

Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10

Last Sunday I said that when St. Peter gave his speech to the crowd in Jerusalem, about the injustice done to Jesus and their implication in its evil, they were “cut to the heart,” and they called out, “What shall we do?” 

So think about speeches to the crowds in history, by Mark Antony or Robespierre or Mussolini or a recent presidential candidate, when the crowd gets angry and even violent. “Lock her up,” throw them out, rise up against Pontius Pilate, overturn the Temple. But this time, instead of an angry mob, we get a new community of mutual welcome and radical hospitality.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Fellowship. The Greek word is koinonia, which you can also translate as communion, community, commonality. This first community of Jesus was very communal: they “had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Radical hospitality, a way of life expressing the sort of believing that is welcoming, a believing that opens your heart as much as your mind. This practice of radical hospitality is what believing in Jesus should look like.

 Their primitive communism was a wonder and a sign. It was not meant as a law for all of us for all of time. It was a special sign and wonder to recapitulate the temporary communism of the Children of Israel when they were gathered at Mount Sinai, even while the promise of the Torah was that in the Promised Land everyone would enjoy their own private property.

So the apostles did not enjoin this temporary communism on their later congregations. How could they, when their converts were often women who had no right to property and slaves who had no right to themselves! The most they could share was their presence at worship, if they could risk getting away for a couple hours once a week at night. Their inability to contribute any more than that was part of their suffering.

Even for that first church in Jerusalem the suffering began soon enough. Chapter 5 reports that some people lied about their donations. Then the apostles were imprisoned and flogged. Chapter 6 reports dissension in the congregation over who got more food, and then with the stoning of Stephen the rest of the city rose up in rage against them, and the Christians had to flee Jerusalem, and the new sign and wonder was holding up in peace and love while under persecution.

So in his first epistle, when St. Peter wrote about enduring pain while suffering for doing good, he knew of what he wrote. Otherwise it’s unattractive what he wrote, and it’s been taken to suggest passivity and surrender in the face of trouble. Like sheep. And if Jesus is such a good shepherd, then why am I suffering? And frankly I do not want to endure pain while suffering unjustly. Neither do you. Either you want to ease the pain or stand up and fight back against the injustice.

But in fact the epistle is describing something active. It was addressed to women who had no legal rights against their unbelieving husbands and were forced to submit to things against their will. It was addressed to the converts who were slaves, of which there were some number. They were not field slaves, and not abused as badly as our American slaves, nor did they suffer the added cruelty of racism, but they still were slaves, with no right to their own lives. And their love of Jesus gave them no advantages, only disadvantages.

So just their living as Christians as best they could was not passivity but daring activity, even just going to church. The pain and suffering that St. Peter addresses is the by-product of doing the right thing in a tough spot, of voluntarily doing the right thing with no hope of reward or recognition but maybe punishment. This takes moral courage, especially to not fight back, to not retaliate in kind, unless you consider it fighting back when you just keep doing the right thing time and time again.

First Peter calls us to follow Christ as an example—the Christ who was willing to go all the way to his death on the cross. It’s not that our suffering is good or redemptive. Suffering is bad, yet we should not walk away from suffering, but enter into it with freedom and purpose and love.

Because if you walk in love you will get extra suffering. If you walk in love you will eventually meet the resistance and opposition of the powers of the world, because their power is built on possession, not on love. And if you walk in love, you will develop extra sensitivities, and the suffering of others will touch you more and more.

The call of First Peter is a call to action, not passivity. But you can’t free others from suffering without having to suffer some yourself. You can’t free others from abuse without it costing you. I believe you know this, and yet you want to live this way anyway. You want to live this way because this is what you believe.

Christ is the example but more than an example. He went through the doorway of this cross to his resurrection, and he lives. He is actively the shepherd and guardian of your souls. What First Peter means by “soul” is not a disembodied spirit, but your personality, your mind, your emotions, your vitality, your breath, your life itself. He is the living guardian of your life and your vitality.

As your shepherd and guardian he does not spare you from suffering, because death is real, and the shadow of death is scary, but his love is stronger than death, and he gets you through each next valley of the shadow of death, partly by his Holy Spirit in you and partly by means of your belief, by your just being aware of him, and that awareness can sustain you. 

He doesn’t spare you from enemies, but he sets a table before you in the presence of your enemies, and the power of your enemies does not extend to forcing you not to love. We prefer to share our table among other nice believers like ourselves, like in that first church in Jerusalem, in mutual hospitality, but we are called to extend a table to people who want to be your enemies, in radical hospitality and supernatural welcome.

This model of fellowship is a vision not just for the church but for how human beings should be behaving in the world. Of course it is opposed by the powerful, and it takes belief to do it, because there is so much history to suggest that the way to power and success is consumption, aggression, defensiveness, possession, and legitimated violence, and so much expert analysis to back it up. You have to endure all that to still believe, you have to suffer all that to still believe and still to love.

Last week I said that believing begins in your heart before it gets to your head. It begins in your heart and it rises into your head and then it shines out of your eyes when you look at other people and you believe in them. I said that because believing is from your heart it is a kind of welcoming, when you welcome the testimony of a witness or welcome the good news. And then I said that because believing is from your heart it desires action. 

Well, then, is it any wonder that the very first action of the Christian community was welcome, hospitality, fellowship, sharing bread, distributing your wealth as all have need? Yes it is a wonder, it is a wonder and a sign of what God is like and how God behaves in the world. When you share in this community of Jesus you are sharing in the acted-out testimony of God’s love for the world and God’s great and unfailing love for you.

Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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