1 Peter 4:1-19
Introduction: The Real Identity Thief
It’s the last Sunday of summer, and we’ve not quite wrapped up 1 Peter. By now, though, hopefully Peter’s big goal in writing his letter is clear: He wants to make sure we know who we are.
Peter wants us to be confident in our Christian identity. To know we are God’s “elect.” We are the chosen ones. (Sorry, Trump, it’s not just you who’s been chosen by God.) We are God’s precious— far more precious than Gollum’s powerful ring. We are God’s very “special, beloved, possession.”
It makes sense when you read the Gospels. Young Peter had some major identity issues. Jesus kept reassuring immature, insecure Peter about his true identity: Peter, you are loved. You’re forgiven, restored. You’re my lamb, and... you will be my Shepherd! My ROCK! Petros! No wonder Peter wants to make sure we hear this Good News too. Do you know who you are?
Because there’s the other side to our identity: we’re also aliens here in Vancouver. We’re strangers and foreigners in our own country. And it’s this 2nd part of our double-identity that makes 1 Peter feel really alien to us. Peter keeps telling his “Dear friends (verse 12)... Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come upon you… as though something strange were happening to you.”
But we are surprised by suffering. We’ve never had life so good. No other generation before us has lived so pain-free, with so much therapy, so much access to pain medication, so little back-breaking labour, so much stress-free banking, and travelling and lifestyles, so many pampered holidays… so much happiness.
Or have we? It feels like every time I open up CBC News, every time I pick up a newspaper, every time I turn on the TV, there’s another new study of the skyrocketing rates of internal anguish— anxiety, loneliness, clinical depression— robbing our joy, robbing our ability to live life to the full, robbing our very souls, our very identity. IDENTITY THEFT!
Yet Peter keeps saying to us: Be willing to suffer. Look at some verses just in today’s text:
Verse 1: Since Christ— the magnificent Christ (remember, last verse, ch. 3) who sits on the throne of the universe with angels, authorities and powers submitting to him— suffered in his body... arm yourselves also with the same attitude.
Verse 12: Dear friends, do not be surprised at this fiery ordeal [of suffering].
Verse 13: Rejoice— you get to participate in the sufferings of Christ.
Verse 16: If you suffer as a Christian… praise God that you get the honour of bearing that name (“Christian”)!
Concluding verse (19): So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.
Why? What good is suffering? Suffering is an Identity Thief. The ultimate suffering is DEATH… and that wipes out our identity. The Ultimate Identity Theft. How is suffering good, Peter?
Let’s look a little more closely at what Peter has to say in this chapter about suffering. Suffering does not have to be an Identity Thief. Just the opposite of theft. Suffering can give rather than steal. Suffering is able to offer very special gifts. Let’s look at the three gifts Peter says suffering can give to us:
1. Suffering as Sin-Stopper
Back to verse 1: “Those who have suffered in their bodies are done with sin.”
Suffering is a brilliant sin-stopper. It’s a cliché that people who’ve been pampered all their lives, who’ve known only pleasure, the high life, a bed of roses, sumptuousness (you know, the Kardashians)— they can’t help being shallow and self-centred.
Notice the sins Peter specifically mentions (verse 3): Debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing (excessive feasting), drinking parties. All sins of excess. The stuff that steals our souls, and is going to destroy our planet. [Sorry: this Sunday is the beginning of the Christian season of Creation, which I completely missed, so this is not, sadly, a sermon on our Christian mandate to steward what God has given us… and yet it kind of still is… beginning with our own bodies and lives!]
These sins of excess are taking good things and turning them— in Peter’s words— into “detestable idolatry.” We must not think of idolatry as bygone people sitting around in incense-hazy temples, muttering incantations to little marble goddess-statues. No, we are every bit as idolatrous as those primeval Baal and golden calf worshippers. (Phones) An idol is whatever takes over your ultimate loyalty, your ultimate allegiance. It could be your car. Your holidays. Even your child or your spouse. If that one thing or even one person were taken away, I would not just grieve; I would be destroyed. If that one thing were taken away I don’t just feel sad. I am devastated. Crushed. My life is meaningless. “Let’s just end it now.”
But only God is big enough to hold that kind of worship. Anything else will utterly let me down if I worship it. Or, say, I make Sandra my idol, my goddess (as I’m tempted to do), I will crush her under my expectations that she be “God” for me. Because only God deserves that kind of allegiance. Only God is grand enough, glorious enough, weighty enough, to be able to hold my worship, that kind of adoration.
Suffering, says Peter, will strip away your idols. Suffering is not an Identity-thief, but an Idol-Invader. It’s a Sin-stripper. Suffering finally gets us to stop running after all that reckless, wild behaviour. Suffering wakes us up and can draw us back to God. Suffering: the great sin stopper.
2. Suffering as Future-Focuser
2nd Gift of Suffering: Suffering reminds us that this life is not all there is. Really? Isn’t the opposite true? At first glance, suffering can seem to steal our perspective, steal our future. All suffering ends in death. And surely death has to be the great thief of life.
But, says Peter, your suffering doesn’t need to get you all focused in on yourself. You don’t need to spiral inwards because of your suffering. Instead, let suffering remind you how there is more life after this life. I want to be very careful not to be insensitive here. We must not minimalize suffering. It’s terrible. But here is the thing: all of our suffering will eventually lead to Judgment Day.
Jesus promised Eternal Life. That means death is not the end. Just think about that for a moment. One day you are going to be standing before God. One day I will be standing before God. And I will be giving an account of how I’ve lived my life.
C. S. Lewis points out how strange it is that we hardly ever think about that anymore. Mostly because us modern Christians have things so amazingly good. But I really do think C. S. Lewis is right:
If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. [Blank Slide]
Suffering gives us the huge gift of focusing us on our future. When my dad was fighting for every breath— drowning despite pure oxygen forced up his nostrils— he had no trouble believing life is bigger than the vacations we take (we’re going on vacation this week so I’m speaking directly to me!), the education we acquire, the prestigious job we hold, the investments we manage to store up.
It is so easy for us to forget how we are eternal beings, created for God, and one day we will stand before God. Maybe that’s why Peter is so blunt here (verse 5): “You will have to give account to God who is ready to judge all— the living and the dead.”
Verse 7: “The end is near.” I’m 50. I get it… or I’m starting to get it. Life has never seemed so short. The END just keeps getting nearer.
Finally verse 17: “For it is time for judgement to begin with God’s household, and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the Gospel of God?... So then (verse 19), when you suffer... commit yourself to your faithful Creator, and continue to do good.”
Which brings us to Suffering’s Gift #3:
3. Suffering as Christian Calling
Suffering doesn’t just stop us “sinning” against ourselves, against God and against others. Suffering doesn’t just focus us on the whole of life, particularly the life of our future. Suffering also wakes us up to who we are and why we exist. Suffering sharpens our calling, our vocation, our mission. It is the very opposite of an Identity-Thief. We are dull. We are distracted. We are indolent and insensate. Then suffering comes, and claws the blinders off our eyes— and we see our true identity. Suffering shows us our life-purpose, our Christian calling.
Peter says this in a number of ways in our text:
Verse 10: “Use whatever gift you have received to serve others as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If you speak you should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If you serve, you should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever!” We get to give God a great reputation through our vocation— even when we suffer.
Verse 13: Rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ! Sufferings unite you to Christ. You share in Christ’s life. You share in Christ’s vocation.
Verse 16: “If you suffer as a Christian, don’t be ashamed. Praise God you bear that name. It’s your name; it’s your identity: “Christian. A little-Christ.” You look like Jesus. You have the image of Christ, the image of God.
In one of our campfire discussions last week, we were talking about our heroes, and I shared about an older man of my childhood church who always seemed to me fully alive. He took a deep and personal interest in us kids, relentlessly; all through our youth and young adulthood. Nelson died just a few weeks ago; oh, I wish I could have been at his funeral.
That Nelson (like this one!) epitomizes for me Peter’s description of the abundant Christian life, depicted in our text’s middle paragraph (verse 8): “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” Not covering, as in hiding those sins and pretending they don’t exist. But covering sins like the blood of sheep sacrifices in the First Testament covered over sins, and washed them away. Like the suffering blood of Jesus covers over our sins.
But Nelson suffered deeply in so many ways. I remember vividly that most devastating day was when he lost his teenage son Michael to a farm accident, crushed under a tractor. I remember Nelson utterly broken by the death of his son. Yet Nelson’s beautiful spirit was also shaped through immense suffering. Suffering gave Nelson his identity. He lost his son, but how he opened his heart even wider to others.
Verse 9: “Offer hospitality to one another freely… no begrudging, no grumbling.” How often I was at Nelson’s farm. His home, his table... my home, my table. Nelson was a poor, struggling farmer. I don’t know if he ever took a vacation, ever got on an airplane. Yet he was unbelievably hospitable.
That word, “hospitality,” is φιλόξενια. You know xenophobia: fear of the stranger. This is the opposite: friendship love toward the xenos, the stranger. We think of hospitality as inviting our friends over for a meal. True hospitality is reaching out to the stranger, the alien, and making them our friend. Nelson lost his own son; I often felt like he drew me in as if I were his son. [Blank slide]
Listen: suffering can destroy you. It can be a horrid identity-thief, debilitating us, curve us in on ourself, make us a shell of a human. Like any normal human being, I’m deeply grateful for all of our pain-reducing technology. Anesthesia, morphine, and modern dental practices are all precious gifts. I’m delighted to have Dorothy’s skills rather than my ancestors’ tooth decay and absesses. Suffering can indeed be a powerful identity-thief.
And yet… and yet... the more suffering-phobic and pain-free we are, the lower our tolerance to any discomfort, the more we find ourselves overwhelmed by other forms of anguish.
We are finding that the absence of suffering can be an even more insidious, more powerful, identity thief.
It’s why this book, Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants, is one of my favourite books ever. Dr Paul Brand is another of my real-life heroes. I only met him once… in my early 20’s. You really must read his books; he’s a missionary doctor who has spent his entire life working with people who have lost their ability to feel pain… which is basically what leprosy is all about.
Listen to this book’s opening story: [page 3]
A beautiful little girl without pain… becomes a monster. What will become of us without pain?
No wonder Peter encourages us not to run from suffering. Suffering has so much to offer us. Suffering purifies us. Suffering joins us to Christ. Suffering makes us like our suffering God. Suffering gives us life!
In this season when life is so good, and we are so comfortable, let us arm ourselves with the same attitude as Jesus. Not just because when we pursue pleasure, ironically, we suffer more in other ways. Not just because there are lots of signs of global suffering ahead, as creation itself groans. Not just because one day we will stand before God on Judgement Day. But because Jesus suffered for us… let us follow in his steps, and be like him.
Khalil Gibran is famous for his teaching on suffering:
“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self. Therefore, trust the physician and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility.”
Trust the Physician. The broken and poured out Wounded Healer. By his unfathomable suffering, Jesus has healed us. He has become the bread of life. His blood has become wine for the world. Let us receive his suffering love in body broken, blood poured out… so we would be made whole.
Let us eat and let us drink his remedy… in silence and tranquility.