June 21, 2014

The (Same Old) Fiery Trial


(N.B.: There is no audio for this sermon.)

Text: 1 Peter 4:12: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”

We are in the most dangerous moment in all the church year, the time during the calendar of the church that we are really left a little bit without supervision, or at least companionship. The feast of the Ascension was on Thursday, that moment that marks the end of the presence of Jesus with the apostles of the new church after his resurrection from the tomb of Good Friday. For forty days Jesus wandered in the wilderness preparing for his ministry, and for forty days he remained with his friends after his resurrection; and now he has gone where it was he said he would go, he has returned to unity with God.

He promised his friends that they would not be alone; he promised that the Holy Spirit would come and keep them, provide them strength and inspiration and grace and hope. But that has not happened yet. That doesn’t happen until next Sunday, the feast of Pentecost. In the meantime we are in the mean time. We are in the ten days between the cloud of the mountaintop and the fire of the coming of the Spirit. We are alone.

Well, okay, not really. We know that these days, these moments we mark through the calendar of the church are meant to remind us of things, not necessarily to make us relive them. The Holy Spirit is still living and working among us. The church is still the church, and grace is not just possible but abundant.

Sometimes, though, it seems more like we are living at just the moment those bewildered disciples did, somewhere between our experience of Jesus and the assurance of the Spirit. Sometimes this little ten-day season of Ascensiontide feels like where we live all of the time—knowing that something profound happened, knowing it has had an immense impact on our lives, yet not sure—not quite sure—what to expect next.

There is a simple and sound reason for this. We want our faith to be a cause-and-effect sort of deal. We want to know that once we hand over everything in faith to the covenant God wants us to make, that there will be a major change in our experience of life. That things will go well for us. That tragedy will leave us alone. That the doubts we have will turn into certainties. That the trials and tribulations that keep coming around year after year, day after day, will finally give up and leave us alone.

And when none of that happens—and none of that does happen—our faith feels maybe a little, well questionable. We’re maybe a little less certain that this is something we should put all our hope in. We start hedging our bets. We didn’t get the deal we thought we would.

It turns out the the problem may not be with the deal, but with us. Because it turns out that the exchange we thought we’d get in return for our faith, the deal we thought we were making, wasn’t actually the deal we made.

Maybe we were misinformed. Maybe we weren’t listening. Maybe the basic idea of the faith was somehow transmitted to us in less-than-honest ways. But in this morning’s little excerpt from the baptismal sermon of Peter, the actual terms of this are set out in unambiguous clarity: The trials, the hardships, the tragedies don’t stop once we get baptized. That’s not the deal we get.

If for some reason you thought that was the deal, then it may be understandable that you’re disappointed, or even disillusioned. But the truth is, that’s not what the Christian faith is about. Peter is saying not only should we not be disappointed, we shouldn’t even be surprised.

It’s almost as though what really happens when we take on this faith is that the edge of tragedy and sorrow gets even sharper, exactly because we see the distance between the law of love God wants to live by and the way humans build societies and treat each other.

At least before we were given this idea that compassion and mercy are the virtues by which God wants us to live, before we had the notion that the law of love will ultimately prove to be more powerful than any other human failing, before we believed all that we couldn’t be disappointed.

Here is what Peter says to all that: We really shouldn’t be surprised. The world is still broken. We are still frail. Bad things happen to good people. None of that has changed.

My old professor N. T. Wright sums it up this way: “There were many lepers in Israel who had not been cleansed, many widows whose only sons had died and not been raised to life. There were many poor people still unable to feed themselves, many prisoners yet to be freed. But Jesus has finished the specific work that God gave him. It was not his task to right the world’s wrongs overnight. It was his task to confront evil and defeat it: and he had now accomplished this.”

What has changed is not immediate reality, but ultimate hope. What has changed is not today’s troubles, but tomorrow’s triumph. We have not entered into this covenant for gain today, but for glory tomorrow, and for all time. And the meaning of that idea “glory,” a question we wrestled with at our fellowship group dinner last night, is in the end up to God. After all, it is God’s glory that all of this is supposed to be about, not ours.

We believe that God is glorified when we live as fully as we can by the basic guidance Jesus taught in his ministry: show compassion, love others as you love yourself, place more emphasis on the doing of mercy than the perfection of worship, the letter of the law is sometimes inconsistent with the spirit of the law.

Even though we know we fall short of these guidelines more often than we’d like we believe that God is pleased by our trying in the first place; and that it is our life in prayer that gives us the strength to try, and our life in community with other prayerful people that gives us the courage to have the will to try.

But in the end it is not that the world changes for us once we become people of faith. It is that once we become people of faith, it is for us to change the world; to understand that the fiery ordeals that continue to try us are not reason for doubt, but the focus of our attention, and the evidence of God’s need for us, the baptized community of God’s own people, to work in the world as the continuing, living, loving, reconciling, and resurrected body of Christ. Amen.