"You Gotta Have Faith" The Mission: Week One
This week we'll be celebrating a very special Sunday: The Sunday after Easter. I say "celebrating" because it sounds better.
But we all know what's about to happen.
My church had a record number of people attend worship last Sunday--both in person and online. I have a new tattoo and a haircut to prove it (see previous posts if that last sentence messed you up). Now comes reality.
Welcome to "Low" Sunday as it has become known.
Or if you prefer, "Black" Sunday, because the incredible shining mood everyone felt when the church was full on Easter will be undoubtedly replaced with a darker mood when it's not full the Sunday after.
Or my favorite: "Cannonball" Sunday--so named because you can fire a cannonball in the sanctuary and not hit anyone... allegedly.
Here's the thing--it wasn't always like this. The Greek Christians of old used to call this "Holy Humor" Sunday or something like that. They would tell funny stories, the priest would play practical jokes on the congregation and vice-versa, there was dancing, partying, revelry and the like. It was a day of intense celebration on account of the fact that JESUS IS RISEN!
Those zany early Christians thought that the Resurrection was something that was worth celebrating. They actually had the crazy idea that it wasn't just Easter itself, but the days AFTER Easter that warranted an elevated sense of joy, hope, laughter and merriment.
So, in keeping with the long-forgotten, but much-needed tradition of Holy Humor Sunday... I give you three jokes.
A man was rescued after being shipwrecked on an island for ten years. When his rescuers came ashore he welcomed them with tears and joy. They marveled at the series of huts he had built. "There's my house," he told them. "And there's my outhouse, gym and church." One of the rescuers pointed at a building off by itself in the trees. "What's that?" "Oh," the man replied. "That's my old church. I didn't like the preacher there so I went to a new one."
A Sunday school teacher for little kids asked her class, "What were Jesus first words on Easter Sunday morning?" One of the little girls raised her hand, stood up and shouted, "Ta-Dah!"
**it's okay to laugh**
A youth worker asked his small group of middle school boys to describe God. One boy solemnly said, "Well...He's kind of like your parents--only he doesn't yell at you as much."
**Are you feeling the Holy Humor Sunday by now?**
All of this actually makes a deep theological point. Seriously. I mean it.
The Sunday after Easter begs the very important question that these Greek Christians telling jokes and giving a wedgie to their priest were trying to answer: Jesus is Risen... Now What?
For the next month we will be exploring this question in a sermon series entitled "The Mission: Living The Christian Life--Like A Christian."
As you can see from the top of this blog post the imagery we are using to help illustrate this series is a 1980's homemade mixtape. If you are of a certain age--you know you made those. Admit it. Oh, and every sermon in this series is the title of a famous '80's song. Why? Because it's awesome. And it also gives us a tangible image for how the Bible speaks into our lives.
Think about it. You are rummaging through your keepsakes and you find your old mixtape. The technology is a little dated, but you remember making it. You remember listening to it and how it made you feel at the time. Each of the songs meant something to you--and as you put the old tape into the dusty old player in your garage you are immediately brought back to a time in your life that was meaningful.
And suddenly you might even start to see yourself a bit differently, too. Sure, you're older. Sure, you can't fit into your parachute pants anymore. "Maybe," you start to think to yourself, "if I could be so hopeful and happy and full of life then, I just might be able to feel that way again."
In a similar way people often see the Bible as outdated... irrelevant... it's not very "happening" technology, so to speak. And yet, when you open it up and start reading--there are things inside it that have the potential to speak to you on a level you forgot was possible. It reminds you of who you really are, in other words. You find yourself thinking about words you don't often bring to mind--words like: Love, Peace, Joy, Hope, Forgiveness. You may even discover that truly living means that you need to start living differently... And who knows? Maybe you might even find that whatever fear you had about the future--has faded away and living hope has replaced it.
And all that from a mixtape that you made from taping songs off of American Top 40 with Casey Kasem on a Sunday afternoon in 1985... God is good.
So today we're going to talk about faith. But more specifically we are going to talk about the kind of faith that is integral to the Christian life--the after-Easter Christian life.
And today I want us to hold on to this one big idea as we explore a letter that the Apostle Peter wrote nearly two thousand years ago: Genuine Christian faith is full of joy in the present and living hope for the future.
Just a word about who Peter was addressing his letter to when he wrote it all those years ago... Peter was writing to Christians in Asia Minor, what is now Turkey. This was likely a circular letter, which meant that several different groups would have gotten the same letter, or would have shared it. Scholars believe that the primary audience of Peter at this point would have been Christians who were living on what would have been the margins of Roman society and even farther over the margins for good Jewish society. Peter's audience was a group made up of gentiles, slaves and women who were either owned by or married to pagan men.
As a result of their adherence to this strange new way of life called "Christianity," these people would have been considered anti-social for not participating in pagan worship and feasts. They would have been deemed rebellious for not joining in the community events that surrounded worship of local deities. They would have been condemned as atheistic for not believing in a variety of gods. And, believe it or not, they would have been accused of defying the family values of the day that dictated how families and communities were supposed to submit to patriarchal authority, and the whims of the gods.
Peter's letter to them was a letter of encouragement and comfort as many of the Christians reading it were struggling with persecution and how to live in the face of it.
Let's read 1 Peter 1:3-9:
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.To begin with, some phrases stand out for us right away. Maybe they stood out for you, like the familiar lines of a song off of your old mixtape... I couldn't let the illustration alone there, could I?
We hear words like "new birth," and "living hope" and "everlasting inheritance." And we also see all of these things juxtaposed against suffering, trials and grief. Peter is acknowledging that bad things have happened and may happen to those who follow Jesus. But because of the resurrection of Jesus there is new birth and living hope that can't be taken away.
Peter uses the illustration of inheritance to demonstrate something powerful about the resurrection of Jesus and what it has accomplished for those who have faith.
In the ancient world, an inheritance showed that you belonged somewhere. For these people on the margins, they had little hope for earthly rewards. Many of them owed their very existence to others, and had no real voice of their own. But in Christ they were given a new identity, one that defied labels, and one that gave them courage to face the future.
And Peter also demonstrates a radical change in the Christian understanding of the "last days" in light of the resurrection of Christ. Prior to Jesus resurrection, beliefs about the last days were all over the map. But early Christians had begun to understand that the "last days" were upon them--the time when the kingdom of God had broken through and was in the process of being established on earth, but would not be fully realized until Jesus returned again.
When Peter speaks of them here there is a sense of both "now" and "not yet" in the language he uses--salvation that is happening and will happen. Which makes the act of faith on the part of these Christians he is writing to all the more powerful. "Even though you haven't seen him," Peter tells them, "you love him... you believe in him..." His words were meant to give hope to these people who found themselves suffering and wondering. His words helped them to see that faith in Jesus had an effect not only on how they viewed the future, but also their present circumstances.
So, what is faith anyway? The author of Hebrews described it in some seriously mystical terms: "It is the evidence of things you can't see... and the substance of things that you can't touch." Hmmm that makes sense... Not.
But I think that's the point. There's something about faith that defies logic--at least the way we would understand logic. Faith in God is both subjective and objective. It begins with the subjective "I." "I believe," we will say when we recite the ancient Apostles Creed. There's something very personal about faith, isn't there? In fact, in our culture we tend to highlight that point to banish faith-talk from the public sphere. "My faith," you might say, "is a private matter."
But is it really? Because with Christian faith there is not just the subjective--there's the objective aspect to consider as well. We might very well be the "I" in faith, but God is the "I Am." And for Christians we would include Jesus as the "I Am," because we believe that Jesus is the very embodiment of God, the Eternal Word, the Son of God. It's not just about what "I believe," in other words, it's also about what "I Am" believes about me.
What Peter is highlighting here is something absolutely fundamental to our understanding of faith: It's not just about my own effort, what I can muster up. It's not just about what I lack, have in abundance or wish I had. Faith is actually more about God--who God is, and what sort of gifts God gives to those who desire God.
Then there's the whole suffering aspect of Peter's letter. I get so furious every time I hear someone take this passage or others like it and try to justify why someone is suffering and should just passively accept their suffering since it comes from God.
NO WHERE ANYWHERE IN THIS PASSAGE DOES IT SAY THAT GOD IS CAUSING PEOPLE TO SUFFER. Suffering comes, and GOD REDEEMS IT. What suffering does do is point us to the Cross and connect us with Jesus who suffered far more than we could ever know for our sake and the sake of the world. AND WE SHOULD NOT STAY THERE AT THE CROSS BEMOANING OUR FATE. And, if you will pardon a sort of sacrilegious analogy, WE SHOULD NOT TRY TO CLIMB UP ON THE CROSS OURSELVES.
The Cross is as empty as the tomb, brothers and sisters. It is a sign that the powers of this world have no power over the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us. Suffering will come. Grief will come. Persecution will come. But they don't get to win, and though there is pain in the night, joy will come in the morning!
So how do we have joy? How do we find the kind of joy that rejoices in the middle of suffering? It comes from the kind of faith that sees all suffering, all trials, all pain as temporary and redeemable by the God who is still in the business of raising what is dead to new life. This genuine faith that we have been talking around is the very impetus to rejoice regardless of the circumstances. And hear this, beloved... True joy is not just a piece of the Christian life... it touches every piece of the Christian life because it is inextricably connected to our ultimate salvation.
What is salvation? Well, despite what you may have learned in the past it's not simply a "get out of hell free" card. For Peter, who walked with, talked with experienced and learned from Jesus--salvation was something that was ongoing. It was a process. It had a very "now" and "not yet" aspect to it as we learned a bit ago.
Listen, what Peter is saying here is this: Salvation isn't a moment--it's a series of moments. It's now--because when you take the step to follow Jesus something happens to you now that changes your present, affects it forever even if you wander away from following Jesus for a while. Then there's the not yet aspect of salvation that has yet to be revealed. In other words, we still do not fully understand what we will become when God's kingdom is fully revealed on earth through Jesus.
I get why people struggle with these kinds of things. Why is this important? So many people lose heart and lose faith when they feel as though they have not lived up to God's standards--or at least God's standards as outlined to them by people who love to outline God's standards. And then it's hard to rejoice. Especially if you don't fully believe. It's hard to sing praises and have joy when your fingers are crossed behind your back, isn't it?
Listen, even Peter went back to fishing when he thought that Jesus wasn't really going to return and give his followers some better instructions.
All of this stuff that Peter is lifting up in this short little passage can be traced back to the very necessary, vital, muy importante idea of Genuine Christian Faith.
Without it--it's hard to live the Christian life.
You should know that I am not asking you to have faith in every single thing that you find in the Bible. I am not asking you to have faith in denominational statements. I am not even asking you to have faith in all of the things that a lot of Christian-y people say that you have to have faith in to be a Christian.
I am asking you to have faith in the One who has faith in you.
The best way to describe this is by using the analogy of a Father and a child. I use this illustration with the best intentions, and with an ideal father in mind. I realize not everyone has experienced what you might consider an ideal, loving father.
But a loving Father will demonstrate faith in his child by allowing her to grow, to experience life, to make mistakes and sometimes to correct them. A loving Father knows that there are many things out there in the world that the child may one day discover--for good or bad. But the loving Father may keep some of those things hidden from his child for her own good. The goal of the loving Father is for the child to grow up happy, well-adjusted, strong and hopeful.
The child of a loving Father may not always understand the reasons why the Father does what the Father does. When she is small, she feels his presence strongly and intently. As she grows, and begins to learn more and more, she might sense the Father allowing her to step away from his presence. She may have moments where she falls, or is hurt by her actions. She may not understand why the Father didn't step in to help sooner, perhaps. But the child of a loving Father always knows--even when she has stepped what seems like a long way away from the Father--that he loves her and believes in her, and will be there for her always. And this gives her confidence that no matter what happens--she will be his, and he will be hers. No matter what happens... she is loved, and her hopeful future is in his heart.
Beloved. I am asking you to have faith. To say "I believe" in the "I Am" who believes in me.
Because genuine Christian faith is full of joy in the present and living hope for the future.