Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 28, 2017
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11 Commentary
The novelist Richard Ford said once that the goal of the characters in his novels is this: “All we want is to get to the point where the past can say nothing about us.” In the postmodern world, people hanker to be free-floating. They want to live with the illusion that they are inventing reality as they go along. Identity cannot be inherited, cannot be handed down to you by someone else. Your identity needs to be forged (and also constantly re-forged) through having a variety of experiences.
It is telling that one of the most popular TV shows in the late 20th century was Seinfeld, a program that was touted as being “a show about nothing.” Every week there was an episode that presented two or three concurrent storylines involving the show’s regular characters. Generally speaking, though, any given episode had nothing to do with the prior week’s installment of the show nor would it have any connection to whatever the next week’s show would be about. Each episode was indeed about “nothing” in a wider sense. There were some running gags and a few recurrent themes, but if you were to take all of the Seinfeld episodes and consider them all at once, you would not be able to construct a plot or storyline that showed some kind of character development from beginning to end.
At the risk of making too much out of a comedy show, there is a sense in which Seinfeld is emblematic of a wider phenomenon. Today people resist what some refer to as a “meta-narrative.” Is there finally one, big story as to what life is all about? If you look at the history of the universe, is there a plot? Is there any narrative movement from the story’s beginning, toward the story’s middle, and culminating somehow in a climax that will tie all the narrative threads together in some coherent, meaningful way? Or is history finally pointless? Is history just one thing after another but without any development or purpose? Is all of life like Seinfeld: a series of things that is finally about nothing?
To understand the Bible, and specifically 1 Peter 4-5, you need ultimately to believe in a meta-narrative that catches up the entire cosmos. The verse that jumps out at you from the Lectionary selections from chapters 4 and 5 is 1 Peter 5:7 and the assurance that “God cares for you.” But I wonder if we always appreciate what a person needs to know in order to believe that there is a God who cares for him or her. It seems simple enough to us. To tell someone, “God cares for you,” is such a positive thing–you’d think anyone would be eager to hear and believe this. But what does believing this require of a person.
Suppose that someone says to me “Your wife cares for you, you know.” What do I have to know in the background of my life to believe that claim? Assuming I deem this to be credible–that is, if I hear that my wife cares for me and am able to believe it readily–what will inform that belief? It will be my history with her. It will be our story together. I will believe she cares for me on the basis of a hundred little things, and quite a few big things, that happened over the years. I’ll recall how we built our relationship and our trust in one another through our dating years, leading up to our decision to get married. I’ll remember little things like how she remembered to pick up my favorite food at the store or took care of a household chore that I usually do on a week when I was too busy to do it myself. I’ll remember the tears of sympathy she shed when I was upset and how she hugged me on a day I was sad and in tears myself.
I’ll reach for what could be called the meta-narrative of our life together. That’s why if someone I don’t know very well says to me, “I care for you,” I’ll be at a loss as to whether or not to believe that. I’m going to want some time to discern if that’s true. Even if this other person exudes kindness, how can I be sure that he or she really cares for me? Until I have some evidence that this is so, I will keep my cards somewhat close to my vest. I’m not going to make myself vulnerable by telling you my darker anxieties. Not right away at least.
It is precisely here that we can begin perhaps to detect the challenge that faces us preachers to convince people in this day and age that God cares for them. If people resist living inside a larger historical framework, a meta-narrative that encompasses finally the entire universe, then they also resist accepting the very history of God with his creation that is necessary to accept the idea that this God cares for people in a personal, intimate way.
If you look closely at I Peter 4-5, you will see sprinkled throughout these words hints and whispers of a larger story. To believe that God cares for you, you need to believe that God created you along with everything and everyone else. It is much more difficult to believe in God’s care for you (or for anyone) if you believe that the very existence of humanity was some kind of historical accident. The meta-narrative needs to have a good beginning if it is going to proceed forward to some kind of good conclusion.
The story’s beginning needs to be that God created us in his own image precisely to share his life and love with us. God created us so that he could communicate with us the same way a parent wants to start communicating with a newborn as soon as possible. If we can believe this, then we may believe that no matter how far off the rails life in this world finally got, no matter how cut off from God any of us might feel at any given moment, no matter how miserable we may at times feel as we suffer in this world, God is still with us. If the story began with a Creator God who loved us, who wanted the best for us, and so who is still pulling for us despite the odds stacked against us in a fallen world, then we can believe he still loves us.
All stories need a beginning. But then it goes from there. We further need the continuing story of the covenant. We need to believe that when this world started to go in a direction God didn’t like, he didn’t merely watch us go but ran to catch up with us. We believe he worked through people named Abraham and Sarah to start something brand new out of which would eventually come the salvation of all. We believe he built a beachhead through a people named Israel. We believe he brought out of that people one named Jesus, who was and is a full member of the divine, Trinitarian community. And we believe that this story has a midpoint, a climax, when that beloved Son of God got hoisted onto a cross and died only to rise again three days later.
All stories need a beginning and a middle if they are ever to get to an end. But they also need a theme. In this case, the theme is God’s pitched battle against the one Peter identifies as that marauding, prowling lion called the Devil. It’s a battle God has waged because of his intense love for us, but if you take away the opponent, if you write off the devil (as many today do) as a metaphor, a symbol, then a good bit of the story’s drama is gutted. We need to know that the reason we feel tempted, anxious, or hurt is because there is another who seeks to do us harm. We’re not merely caught up in a web of neurotic goings-on that we can solve on our own if only we get the right therapy. When the day is done, someone is out to get us.
This creation is up against something. Better said, it’s up against someone. The love of our God, the fact that he cares for us, is shown in the fact that he does not let us stand alone. In fact, the final defeat of that devil was taken care of by God’s Son Jesus for us. That’s why Peter can also call this Christ Jesus the Chief Shepherd. That is also an image of caring, of love, of tending to us as we wander through this often difficult world.
All of that is part of the larger meta-narrative that you need to embrace to believe that there is a God who cares enough for you that you can entrust him with your darkest fears and anxieties. Yet much of this story needs to be held on faith. This is where my earlier analogy about why I trust my wife breaks down. My personal history with God does not include my having been present at the creation, at the call of Abraham, or even at the cross of Jesus Christ. Most of this story’s details go beyond my short lifespan. I have to accept this on faith and then, by God’s Spirit, have it confirmed through subsequent experience with the God to whom my faith connects me in a living way.
How can we preach this to the millennial generation? One thing that won’t work is simply telling people what they have to believe. If we just give them a long list of doctrines and beliefs and historical facts and ask for their assent, we won’t get far. What people value today is relationship, authenticity, a credible witness that comes not in the form of a logical presentation so much as seeing something lived out in your and my life.
This is perhaps where Peter’s focus on suffering comes in. Today more than ever Christians need to be honest. We cannot present Jesus as some kind of magic cure who will automatically end all suffering in this life. Roadside billboards that proclaim “Jesus Is the Answer” strike lots of post-moderns as too neat, too easy, and so finally false. Even with Jesus in our hearts, we do not have all the answers. Even with the Holy Spirit in us, we are not free from suffering. To witness to the fact of God’s care requires that people believe the larger story. But that requires their seeing in our lives an authentic story being lived out as well.
Peter makes even our sufferings in this present age part of the larger story, the meta-narrative. By connecting these unhappy parts of life with the suffering of Christ, and by seeing ourselves as caught up now in God’s cosmic battle with the devil, we recognize that suffering does not mean God has abandoned us. In ways we cannot understand, these terrible things will somehow contribute to the salvation and restoration of all things. When in this chapter Peter tells the elders to be examples to the flock, there is a sense in which he is almost sounding a postmodern note, asking Christians to be authentic. We need to have a relationship with people in the context of which they can see how we fit ourselves inside the same larger cosmic story in which we are inviting others to orient their lives.
The God of all grace has called us into an eternal glory. It’s all a gift that we have received by grace. And this gift brings glory. But we get the fullness of the glory only after we have suffered a little while. History is so full of suffering. The sorrows across the ages, like the sorrows that fill this world at this very moment, are confounding and massive. Who of us could stand if we were, in one in-rushing of sound, able to hear every sob being wailed forth in the world right this second? If we could hear every moan of children starving to death in the Sudan, every cry of a mother in Syria whose child was accidentally killed, every cry of disorientation from the drug addict lying in some inner city alleyway, every Hospice patient gasping for what will be his final breaths: if we could hear just that which is going on now, much less the sum total of all creation’s groanings in history, it would shatter us.
How we need to know and believe and live out the idea that there is a God who cares for the whole creation. How we need the benediction Peter gives that assures us that after we have suffered a little while, there is yet a victorious God in Christ who will restore us, make strong and firm and steadfast unto an eternity of glory he has prepared for us and the entire cosmos.
Stories of the fairy tale variety begin with “Once upon a time . . .” and often end with “And they lived happily ever after.” Many times looking for a “happily ever after” ending for the history of the world seems too good to be true, too much to wish for. But as Frederick Buechner once pointed out, somewhere in the history of the universe there needs to be one fairy tale that will finally come true. We believe the gospel is just that story. Because in the end, the larger story we tell and into whose narrative we invite all others is a story that is too good not to be true.
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