A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Easter 3 ~ 1 Peter 1:3-9
The scripture passage we’re looking at today is one of those readings that’s filled with all sorts of familiar churchy-sounding words – words that if we’re not careful we can rush right by them and miss not only their profound depth, but also possibly take a very unhelpful message away with us. There are wonderfully uplifting concepts in this passage, and also a couple of land mines. So we will tread carefully!
We begin by saying that God has (verse 3) given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus.
God has given us a new birth, a rebirth, to be born again, to be born anew. Literally it means to be re-begotten, or in more familiar language, regenerated. That sounds fantastic.
But, of course, we have to remember that before one can be born anew one has to ‘die’ to what was. We talk about this all the time. In order to open your hand and receive God’s new thing we have to first release our grip on what was and let go of the old thing.
The obvious question arises – is the new thing better? Is letting the old thing go (letting it die) worth it?
New life in Christ isn’t just my old life with a new paint job.
It’s a new life, a new worldview, a reordering of my understanding of the values and priorities of the world – and that has real consequences for my choices and my actions.
We toss out words like renewed life, and born anew, and resurrection (especially about Jesus) but we sometimes forget that the key feature that led to that resurrection was a cross.
We aren’t playing around here. This regeneration-new birth stuff is serious business.
God has given us a new birth (sounds great) into a living hope (I like that) through the resurrection of Jesus – the death and resurrection of Jesus. (Gulp!)
Like I said, we can’t fly through this stuff too quickly or we’ll miss the weight of it.
Perhaps you’re thinking:
“Ok, so I get that I have to let go of what was, die to what was, in order to be born anew into what will be. But, um, what exactly am I being born anew into? I mean, what does this new life look like?”
I’m so glad you asked!
1 Peter 1:3-4 says that we are given a new birth INTO a living hope…and INTO an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.
New life in Christ apparently has the character of being a living hope.
A living hope.
What the heck does that mean?
Well, remember that hope as a spiritual concept doesn’t mean wishful thinking but rather a confident expectation and assurance of something God has promised and we trust we’ll receive. And it’s not just a hope, it’s a living hope – like when Jesus described the living water. Living in this sense means to be filled with spiritual awareness and presence, to know spiritual abundance. So we are born anew into this state of having a spirit-infused awareness of and confidence in God’s blessing and God’s kingdom – even if we look around and see that it isn’t fully realized in the world yet.
And that helps make the next part make better sense.
We’re not just born anew into that character of living hope but also into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.
What kind of things do we usually inherit? Money, possessions, material things. Things that are perishable, things that fade.
And what kind of things do we inherit upon rebirth into God’s living hope? Things that are imperishable, incorruptible, indestructible, unfading, enduring, perpetual.
Spiritual things. Things of God. Things like love, and blessing, and compassion, and kindness, and selflessness, and shalom.
These are the types of things we inherit. Inherit – as in after a death.
But again, as we look around our world, we see that even though we as followers of the Way of Jesus are born anew and into this glorious living hope that we cannot yet fully enjoy our inheritance because the world hasn’t generally embraced God’s kingdom.
In other words, we’re different but the world ain’t.
And that’s going to cause some problems.
The first problem is that in the beginning of Christianity there was a very real sense that Jesus would be returning in a very tangible way and in the very near future. When he didn’t return in that literal, physical way the church eventually found different ways to theologize his teachings – but at the start they believed he’d be back any minute now.
So we get language like in verses 4 and 5 that say that since we can’t fully receive our inheritance now that it will be “kept in heaven” for us and will be “revealed in the last time.”
These are the land mines I was talking about.
But if you dive into this language it’s not what it seems. Our inheritance is kept or spiritually guarded in ‘heaven’, which is not up there on the third planet from the right but really means in God’s realm, God’s being, God’s kingdom – the kingdom of heaven – which is right here, all around us, but hidden from those who have not been born anew into it.
And it will indeed be ‘revealed’ not at the end of time but in God’s ultimate time, God’s kairos time, and that may be different for each of us.
The second problem with us trying to live in God’s way, in this spiritual realm we call the kingdom of God, is that it tends to upset those who hold power in the conventional kingdoms of the world.
When your worldview, and ethic, and justice-filled love of the ‘other’ is lived out loud it lays bare, exposes, and embarrasses the world’s ways.
When you upend and disempower the powerful they tend to push back.
1 Peter 1:6-7 In this (living hope and spiritual inheritance) you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials…
I’m sure we can all relate to that these days!
But here’s another potential landmine, and sadly it’s because of my favourite bible words – so that!
In this (living hope and spiritual inheritance) you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials… so that the genuineness of your faith–being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire–may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
Ok, here’s what this doesn’t mean.
God does not send us trials to make us suffer so that we can prove how faithful we are.
No, no, no. Never.
God did not send Covid-19 to test us. That is just abhorrent theology.
The trials that 1 Peter is talking about is the hardship of trying to be a faithful, practicing Christian in such a hostile environment.
For example, in Roman controlled places you had to confess that “Caesar is Lord” – publically. Or face beating or imprisonment.
If you’re a Christian who insists that “Jesus is Lord,” well, you’re saying that Caesar isn’t.
And if you refuse to say he is, you would suffer.
Not many of us have suffered very much because of our faith. The odd embarrassment or discomfort maybe, but not suffering.
It never occurs to us, safely attending church services in modern Canada (even online), that once upon a time freedom to practice Christianity openly and freely was impossible – not here, but certainly in the ancient Roman Empire.
Some other religious expressions were not clamped down on so much by the Empire, but there is something about Christianity’s insistence on upending the world’s power structures that was deemed dangerous.
Staying true to your faith in Christ in such hostile circumstances really was a trial and really did cause suffering. And, the genuineness of one’s faith would certainly be revealed in such trials.
Can you imagine?
I mean, we’re experiencing some trials right now when it comes to practicing our faith.
You’re sitting at home and I’m standing in an empty sanctuary.
We can’t gather in-person.
We can’t even offer a hug or a handshake.
We can’t stand side by side in the kitchen doing what we do best – food! (Ok, maybe not best, but close!)
Our finances are being pinched.
Our fellowship is feeling a bit disconnected.
This is definitely trying us.
Worshipping in this format, doing bible study online, phoning people instead of visiting them, feeling a bit imprisoned in our own homes – it’s not like we’re being persecuted exactly, but it almost feels that way.
Now would be the easiest time to fall away. (Maybe I shouldn’t say that out loud!)
It would be so easy to stop tuning-in to worship.
Who’d know? It’s not like we can see who’s not here in their usual spot.
It would be easy to not do any faith formation, or bible reading, or even prayer.
It would be easy to withdraw into ourselves and into our own needs and not think twice about helping others.
It would be easy to lock our doors, order in our groceries and needs, and bask in the safety and security of our privilege while others have to go out and keep things running.
Maybe the greatest trial of our ability to stay faithful is how easy it would be to just shrug and give it up.
Paradoxically, if we were being beaten or imprisoned for our faith it might actually make us more resolute. That’s how we got so many martyrs in the early church.
Adversity forged character.
And it also reveals character.
Yes, trials help to build up our faith and character little by little. But trials and hardships also reveal our faith and character in the here and now.
How Christians are currently responding to our current season reveals much.
Increasingly, we’re hearing stories of churches struggling with finances and making decisions based on economics and not mission and ministry.
Whose values will prevail?
A great debate is raging right now in society about when the right time is to lift restrictions and start to allow businesses to open and let people gather and interact again.
Some are arguing for a swift return, even though it will result in illness and death for some (likely the most vulnerable), because the majority needs to get on living.
Does that sound very Christlike to you?
Leaving behind the vulnerable so the strong can do their thing?
That sounds like Empire, not God’s Kingdom!
And yet, look at all the stories these days of neighbours helping neighbours, of people making facemasks for others, of money flowing to charities and impacted persons.
Sure there are some awful stories about people being selfish, but by and large the story is positive.
No, I’m not saying everyone is a closet Christian.
I’m only saying that while we may be building character for the future in this ordeal we are also seeing our current character being revealed right now.
And in many, many cases it’s revealing something good.
Same goes for us as Jesus people – as church-goers – as people of Faith.
Look at where you are right now.
Whether you’re watching live on Sunday morning or watching the recording later on demand, you’ve chosen to invest your time in nurturing your faith and connecting spiritually with our community of faith.
You’re praying in your house.
You’re singing hymns on your couch.
Through the week you’re connecting to different church online events, or reaching out to other church members just to check in and stay connected.
This season of self-isolation and physical distancing is revealing the character of your faith – it’s showing you what’s important to you.
And apparently, this is important to you!
A deep and genuine faith is revealed when trials come. And we are blessed by our faithfulness.
1 Peter 1:9 concludes by praising us for how we are receiving the outcome of (our) faith, the salvation of (our) souls.
That word ‘outcome’ means the fulfillment, the consummation of our faith, the fruit of our faithfulness.
Yes, this is a hard, hard, hard season.
But it’s also Easter.
And in this season of Easter we celebrate new life.
God has given us a new birth into a living hope…and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.
In this living hope and spiritual inheritance we rejoice, even if now for a little while we have had to suffer various trials… so that the genuineness of our faith in Christ Jesus is revealed.
And although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,
and through all this we are receiving the fruit of (our) faithfulness, the salvation of (our) souls.
Thanks be to God.