Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen. The text for the sermon is the Epistle, which was read earlier.
On July 1, 1523, two Augustinian monks were burned to death in Brussels, Belgium by the Inquisition. Their names were Heinrich Voes and Johann Esch. What was their crime you might ask? They were teaching the doctrines taught by one of their Augustinian brothers – a man named Martin Luther. These were the first men ever killed for teaching Lutheranism, for teaching what is revealed to us in Holy Scripture. For us, it seems a little strange in our country today to think about persecution, doesn’t it? We in this country aren’t likely to be burned at the stake or thrown to the lions or beheaded for being Christian. And for that fact, it makes it a little tougher for us to get our heads around our text for today, and yet Peter begins by saying, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”
The fact is that persecution of Christians has been the norm of the Church from the beginning. In looking at Peter’s first three chapters of his epistle, he puts the question of suffering in the context of a kind of sermon on themes from Christian baptism. Now, in chapter 4, the focus narrows from suffering in general to the specific trials of this specific group of believers. And they are suffering, apparently, for no other reason except that they are believers.
It’s pretty much of a certainty, then, that this letter is addressed to Christians who are being actively persecuted because of their faith. Under the Roman emperors of the time, the infant community of Christian believers began to assume a kind of Passion in imitation of Christ’s own suffering – believers were burned at the stake, fed to the lions, hounded out of their homes and cities. In short, it cost something in those days to believe in Christ.
There is a sense that it will always cost something to believe. It’s doubtful that any of us are fed to the lions or burned at the stake, but don’t we suffer for being Christian? There is that unspoken indifference to your faith by friends and coworkers, maybe even your family. There is the mindless inattention by the rest of the world, to those things of the Spirit which you take to be passionately important. There is suffering there, and accusation, and trial. And to those of you who feel that pain, for the sake of your faith, Peter has a job for you to do: “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”
It seems like a strange thing to do when you are suffering for Christ, for remaining faithful to the faith that has been granted to you. But God has a purpose in allowing such persecutions. These trials, as Peter says, are “to test you.” There is the sense here that sufferings purify the Christian. Because we are always sinners and saints, we are never pure enough. Christ is always striving to purify our hearts and minds. The Christian, in standing firm, shares in Christ’s life and death. He suffers and dies with Christ. That is the joy we have in our Baptism, that we die to sin and are made alive in Christ Jesus. On the other hand, that can be our curse as well, for the world is hostile to the saving faith that comes through Jesus Christ; therefore, the world is hostile to the Christian as well.
But there is great comfort for you, the suffering Christian. Peter says, “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” Fellowship with Christ does not end with the earthly death of a Christian but continues on to eternity. That is because we are connected with Jesus Christ and He with us. He strengthens us when we are persecuted. He is there with us when we suffer.
As you go about your life as a Christian, you should expect trial and suffering along the way. It may be society’s generic accusation that you are a bigot and a racist for holding fast to the Word of God, or that you’re intolerant for proclaiming that Jesus is the way to heaven. It may be the awkward conversations with family or friends who have different beliefs, who are less than pleased with the confession of faith on which you stand. It may be Old Adam’s whispers of doubt that you must endure as your sinful flesh persuades you to question God’s promises; or it may be battling teachings that were deeply ingrained in your youth. It may be the accusation of some that, if you care about doctrine, you must not love people. It may be the silly, man-centered notion that numbers are proof of the life of the Church. But if you are one who, by the grace of God, follows Jesus, you can expect to be misunderstood, falsely accused, mocked and rejected. As the world treated Jesus, so it will also treat you.
And how should you respond? Peter tells you not to be surprised, but be prepared. Furthermore, rejoice in the trials you suffer for being a Christian. This is, strange but true, a confirmation that you are the Lord’s, and that the Lord counts you worthy to suffer for His name. Therefore, declares the Lord, do not be ashamed if you suffer for being a Christian. Rather, humble yourself before the Lord. Suffering and fiery trial hurt; and during such times, peace is hard to find. Therefore, humble yourself and submit to the Lord. Confess to Him your sins and doubts, and give thanks that He considers you worthy to suffer for His name. And, adds St. Peter, be on guard and resist the devil, because he prowls like a lion to devour you; and he wants to devour you by making you suffer until you reject your Savior.
For this is your salvation: for your sin in which you were born, you faced only the prospect of suffering God’s eternal wrath and judgment. But so that you might be saved, Jesus Christ took on flesh and blood just like you, to go to the cross and die for your sins. He suffered rejection by the world, as man had him arrested, beaten and crucified. But even more, He suffered God’s rejection on the cross, as His Father condemned Him for all the sins of all the world-for all of your sins, too. Now He is risen from the dead, risen to give you forgiveness and life. For all the times that you sin and thus deserve God’s fiery trial, Jesus declares that He has suffered and died to deliver you. For all the times that you resent suffering, He declares that He has died for that, too.
Do not think it strange that you suffer for being a Christian in this world: for if you are delivered from eternal suffering, the devil, the world and your own sinful flesh will do their best to torment you while they still have time. No, do not think it strange, and remember the words of St. Paul: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” That glory is yours for the sake of
Jesus, who suffered, died and rose again for you. No, even as you are given to suffer, you do not suffer without the hope of God’s favor and everlasting life: because you are forgiven for all of your sins. In Jesus’ name, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.