Readings Acts 17.22-31; Ps 66.7-19; 1 Peter 3.8-22; John 14.15-21.
In some churches you will hear the message that God loves you. Well actually I hope you would get that message loud and clear in every church, no matter which denomination or style, or the personal theology of the preacher. God loves you, and as Jesus says in John’s Gospel he is sent by God so that we may have life in all its fullness. So God wants you to flourish and to know joy. But in some churches that preach the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’, the logic goes further. If you love God back, then God wants to reward you. And if you show how much you love God - via the collection plate - then God will indeed reward you in this life as well as the next. You will be blessed with health and happiness and fortune.
Well of course this is bunk, and we know it is bunk because it isn’t our experience. This is magical thinking, and it is a dangerous and false theology. The reason it is dangerous is because if I think that my faith in God is proved by how successful I am - and then misfortune overtakes me - then what does that mean? ‘Oh, if only you had had faith.’ So the person who is suffering misfortune hears that, actually, it was all their fault.
Well, people who preach the prosperity gospel maybe don’t read the Bible carefully enough because St Peter, at least, takes a very different view. And in today’s reading from 1 Peter we hear the continuation of the theme that he began last week - that living in faithful obedience to Christ is going to mean - not riches and a life of ease - but suffering and hardship. So Peter is talking about living as Christians with integrity and perseverance through difficult circumstances. Not, perhaps, the message we would most want to hear. But perhaps the message we need to hear, especially as we negotiate some difficult circumstances of our own. Peter the fisherman is a realist, and the letter is helpful for Christians who live in the real world.
It is not actually clear what suffering the writer has in mind. Even though this letter was probably written earlier than the great persecution that began under Nero it seems already the label ‘Christian’ is attracting slander and hostility (eg. 2.12, 3.9, 4.14). His community feel like outsiders and are being maligned as misfits and troublemakers. And the Christian community that Peter is writing to is experiencing this harassment simply for being Christian. And one of the ways the letter responds to this is to say, well, be model citizens. Criticism and slander are nothing to be ashamed of if you did nothing wrong. Well that’s debatable, I guess! But Peter is drawing on an old tradition in Judaism about righteous suffering - if as a righteous person you have to suffer then that creates a sort of surplus of good. Peter assumes that the time of the end is very close, and is assuring the community that they are sharing in the suffering of Christ and so will also share in the glory of Christ when he returns.
Well, one thing we have to be careful of here is identifying too closely with the community Peter is writing for! The sort of suffering Peter is talking about is the suffering that can come with the territory when you faithfully follow the way of Jesus. And that sort of suffering is certainly real for some Christian communities today, in the Coptic Church for example, or for Iranian or Chinese Christians. In fact according to a recent statement of the UNHCR Christians are one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world today. Here in Australia we get a little bit of teasing from the secular community around us who just don’t get the point of living a life of faith, but more often we cop some well-deserved criticism when as God’s people we act in ways that are unloving or hypocritical. That’s not persecution for our faith, that’s being caught out not living a life of faith!
We’re human. We do cop some flak, sometimes, because we follow Jesus. Other times we are rightly critiqued for not following Jesus. Other times - even though it’s not exactly what Peter is talking about here - we just have a hard time because of the ups and downs of life. And the gist of Peter’s letter - we get there right at the end of the reading - is that actually we have the resources we need for faithful living in our baptism. Peter says what buoys us up, what keeps us afloat in the rocky seas of life, is our baptism. And what Peter says about baptism is central to how the Church has thought about baptism, ever since.
To be honest, Peter makes his point in a fairly laboured fashion, making a marvellously clumsy segue from crucifixion - which is to say Christ’s solidarity with all who suffer - to all things watery by claiming that following his death on the cross Christ visited the nether regions to preach to those - among others, presumably - who had died in the Great Flood. This is a poetic flourish, of course. But it hasn’t stopped theologians for centuries from speculating on what Christ preached about in hell on Holy Saturday or whether the imprisoned souls were liberated. At the very least Peter’s imaginative by-the-by can be taken as the very helpful claim that nowhere at all, not even in hell which by definition is the most alienated and despairing circumstance possible - nowhere at all since in Jesus God has shared our worst nightmares - can divine love be absent. But in any case the segue to the Flood gets Peter where he wants to be, which is in the water that represents both birth and death. And so Peter eventually makes the claim that in baptism we share in the suffering and death of Jesus, and for this reason we also share in the resurrection. If you listen carefully that’s the same claim that we make in the baptism service even today.
Another way of understanding Peter’s analogy is to notice that the God who saves Noah and his family from the Flood is the same God who at the beginning of all things hovers over the chaotic waters of pre-creation to bring forth life and order. Jesus too demonstrates mastery of the chaotic waters as he walks on the surface of the sea of Galilee - revealing that he is one with the Creator of all things - and in his death and resurrection reveals that the chaotic waters that threaten to overwhelm us can never separate us from the love of God. The baptism service in our Prayer Book reflects this point as well.
In plain English it means that wherever we find ourselves in life, Jesus is there with us. We are not alone, and we can trust that God’s goodness will be revealed in and to us. Through our baptism we have access to a new way of living, focussing not on the accidental or malevolent ups and downs of our life but on the one who gave us life and is our ultimate destination.
In our reading from John’s Gospel the Evangelist makes much the same point in a different way. We are not abandoned. Jesus promises his disciples - including us - that when we are following his commandments and most especially his commandment to love one another - then both he and his Father will take up residence in us. Using John’s very favourite code word that I spoke about last week - they will abide in us just as Jesus abides in his Father and his Father abides in him. In some sense that’s not just words or empty promises, not just an article of faith but organically true and able to be experienced. And Jesus here tells the disciples that it is the Spirit or Advocate of God that makes the Father and the Son present to us. Well, when the Gospel was written there was not yet any doctrine of the Trinity, but you can see where it comes from. The Spirit of God is present to us which means God is as near to us as our own breath. The Spirit of God is the Spirit of truth and self-giving love. You know if you’ve got it, and it is infectious. Other people can catch it from you. Notice that in this reading Jesus is not talking about future promises, not a distant time or place but a person and a relationship. It’s how as Christians we stay afloat in the rough waters of life, not by denying or wishing away anxiety or hardship but by staying in loving relationship and communication with God and with one another, and recognising the part we ourselves play in how God acts in the world - by being together the body of Christ.