1 Peter 1:3-9
Today is often referred to as ‘Low Sunday’. It contrasts with the ‘high’ of last Sunday, Easter Sunday. Congregations also tend to be lower after it! We are now in the Easter season, however, and, for the next few weeks, we will be thinking about what the events of Easter mean as we move towards Ascension Day and Pentecost.
One of the amazing things about the Early Church was how quickly it worked out the implications of Easter for its life and belief. It is often said that it was St Paul who did this and that the beliefs of the early church were relatively primitive and unformulated until St Paul came along and gave the Church a developed and sophisticated theology.
The reality is that the theology of the Early Church was already in place when St Paul came along: a fact that he himself acknowledges. What St Paul did do was to draw out the implications of it for the Gentiles especially - as we saw during our Lent Bible studies on Ephesians.
Before his crucifixion, our Lord had told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would lead them into all truth. He wasted no time in doing so. The resurrection might have come as a complete shock to the disciples, but they seem to have got what it meant almost immediately. Which, it has to be said, is more than most Christians today.
I would venture to suggest that the first disciples’ understanding of the importance and significance of the events of Easter was more advanced than our own, and we have the benefit of 2,000 years of Christian thinking about it. I don’t want to be offensive, but most of us understand our phones better than we do our faith. Dare I say that this may in part be because our phones matter more to us than our faith?
Now you may think that I am being a bit harsh in saying this. So let me ask you what would upset you most: losing your phone or losing your Bible? Now I realize that as I write this some of you will say, ‘But Ross, my Bible is on my phone!’ So, for you, a different question: what would upset you most: not being able to access Facebook or not being able to access your Bible? I think you get my point. There are a number of reasons for this and perhaps we will have an opportunity to think about them over the next few weeks. But one at least emerges from this morning’s second reading from the first letter of St Peter.
The first letter of St Peter is a circular letter written to Christians in several different Roman provinces including Galatia. The reason St Peter had for writing it is that the Christians to whom he wrote were experiencing suffering and persecution for their faith. St Peter writes that they rejoice in their salvation:
‘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 – maybe found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.’ (1 Peter 1:4)
These were Christians who were facing suffering for no other reason than they believed that Jesus Christ was alive and sought to serve him. St Peter says that their faith is more precious than gold. What was it about their faith that led them to value it more highly than the most highly valued commodity on earth?
I think the first thing to be said about it is that it was more than a theoretical belief. By this I mean that they didn’t just think that Jesus was alive. I believe many things that have absolutely no impact on my daily life and which certainly I would not be willing to suffer for. To take a comparatively trivial example: I believe Mount Everest to be one of the highest mountains in the world, but it may as well not exist for all the difference it makes to me. For some people, however, it does make a difference and a very real difference. They can’t wait to attempt to climb it even though doing so involves much effort, cost, and even pain.
The Christians that St Peter wrote to didn’t just believe that Jesus had risen, it was something that they lived for and were prepared to die for: something that they were already suffering for, but valued so much that couldn’t be persuaded to abandon it.
Their faith was real and intensely personal. It wasn’t just something that they believed, it was something that they experienced. Listen to how St Peter describes it:
‘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’ (1 Paul 1:8)
The reason why we wouldn’t want to lose our phones is that they have become a part of our lives in a way, sadly, that our faith has not. You don’t willingly suffer for something that has little personal value to you.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of this Easter season is not whether we believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but whether we experience it and are willing to allow it to become an integral part of our daily lives.
St Peter’s Christians were prepared to suffer because their faith mattered to them and had become part of them. But what was it about it that had led to it becoming so important to them? Why did they value it above gold?
St Peter in just a few verses sums it up. He describes what they experience as a ‘new birth to a living hope’. This is through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is into an inheritance that is ‘imperishable, undefiled, and unfading’.
This is exciting stuff. We live in a world of ‘change and decay’ as the hymn describes it. We ourselves age, get sick, and die. What we have in Christ, however, is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. Not only have we new birth in Christ, not only do we experience the Risen Lord, the inheritance he gives us is everything that we do not have at the moment.
Despite this, it may not seem immediately attractive to us. Perhaps we are doing quite well for ourselves. We have a good job, a nice apartment, a happy family with our children at good schools. Talk of an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading may seem remote, abstract, and irrelevant.
It is, though, anything but.
There is an old Christian hymn that we do not sing very often now as its language is a bit dated: ‘Will your anchor hold in the storms of life?’
Yes, talk of an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading can indeed seem remote and abstract; something that is not really relevant to our daily lives. Until, that is, we encounter one of the storms of life. It only takes a visit to the doctors to make it very relevant or an accident or a bereavement. Or any one of the storms of life that waken us from our easy complacency and challenge us to see what really matters in life. What it is that is secure in life. What we have that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.
It is not a coincidence that many people come to faith during one of life’s storms – through a personal crisis of some kind. Sometimes that’s what it takes to challenge us and make us think about what really matters. And God certainly respects that and doesn’t turn us away just because we are being opportunistic in our coming to him.
The question, however, for us today is why wait?
I am a big fan of the stories of Sherlock Holmes, the original ones by Conan Doyle, that is, not the modern imitations. Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories, the first of which, and one of Conan Doyle’s own favourites, was ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’.
In the story, the King of Bohemia had, some years earlier, had a fling with a beautiful opera singer, one Irene Adler. In his passion, he had written her letters and had his photograph taken with her. Now he wants to marry, but not someone as lowly as an opera singer. He intends to marry someone in his own class, a princess.
He is worried, however, that Irene will use what is in her possession to blackmail him threatening him with a scandal if his relationship with Irene became public knowledge. He has tried everything to get the letters and photograph back, but to no avail. In desperation, he turns to Sherlock Holmes.
Sherlock Holmes reasons that, in a crisis, when a person is threatened with the loss of everything, they will try to save what matters most to them. He plans a scheme then to convince Irene that her house is on fire, disguising himself so he can be there at the time to see how she reacts. As he anticipated, Irene reveals where she keeps the letters and photograph.
As it happens, however, Irene realizes what she has done and acts accordingly to protect herself. She earns the admiration and respect of Holmes for whom from henceforth she will always be THE woman. It turns out that she never had any intention of blackmail, but feared – justifiably – that the King might do her harm and kept the letters and photograph for her own protection.
In the end, Holmes convinces the King that Irene is no threat to his marriage and will not cause any scandal. The King expresses his admiration for Irene saying he only wished she was on his level. Holmes replies:
‘From what I have seen of the lady, she seems, indeed, to be on a very different level to Your Majesty’.
Irene revealed what mattered to her most when she thought she was going to lose it in a fire.
What would we grab in the fires of life?
St Peter talks about the ‘fiery ordeal’ facing those to whom he writes. Their faith was sometimes, quite literally, to be tried by fire. Most of us won’t have to face such an ordeal, but we will be tried by the fires of life.
Is our faith what matters most to us?
If it is, we can have confidence for ours is a living hope in a living Lord. One who gives us an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.