Over the past few weeks we’ve been talking about the early church, and gleaning what we can from some of the teachings to the early Christian church. In this text, we again see that our author is writing to this conversionist body of believers – the new church, established under a new faith in Christ as Lord. This week, the author is focusing on the issue of suffering. I’ve often wondered when reading this text, do we – the church today – really suffer for Christ in our community, state, nation – perhaps at all in the western world – like the early church? I’ve also had it asked of me and wondered myself, “Is suffering something we should be expected to encounter as modern day Christians?”
I want us to consider today three questions regarding the application of today’s text for our lives in the church: How did the early church suffer? Are there Christians who suffer still today? and finally, Is it imperative that we suffer for the sake of Christ?
Our scriptural author declares that for the community to whom he is writing there is some form of present suffering taking place. Verse 1 of today’s reading says, “do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you.” The author uses language that represents the imagery of Satan’s lair. Elsewhere in 1 Peter, we read that the church is facing some forms of suffering. In 1 Peter chapter 1, verse 6, our author names that they have had to suffer various trials. Again in the third chapter, verse 14, we hear the author speak, “Even if you suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.” In fact, out of the 42 times the word ‘suffer’ is used in the New Testament, 12 of those uses come in 1 Peter.[i]
There was certainly suffering taking place. But in what ways did the early church suffer?
Historically, we know the early church suffered at the hands of the Roman Empire. The Emperor Nero sought out to arrest and execute Christians beginning in AD 64, following the burning of part of Rome.[ii]
A fuller account of what took place can be found in the Annals of Tacitus, a 1st Century historian of the Roman Empire. Hear what he had to say:
“Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices,27 whom the crowd styled Christians.28 Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus,29 and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers30 were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race.31 And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night.”[iii]
Emperor Nero, to escape a rumor that he was the blame for the fire that burned much of Rome, named the Christians as his scapegoat. Tacitus says he blamed those who went by the title Christians; it was those who believed in Christ, a man who was killed in Judaea. Did you hear the language Tacitus used to describe the Christians? He says they had a disease, and that in the time following Christ’s death the disease spread from Judaea to the Capital of the Roman Empire. He likens Christianity with all “the horrible and shameful [things] in the world.” And though many Christians weren’t convicted of arson, they were convicted on the count of hatred of the human race. The punishment they endured was death. Some were eaten by animals, others died on a cross.
The early church would suffer, from the time of Nero through the time of Constantine, some 250 years later. They were persecuted because of their affiliation with others who professed Christ as Lord. But it wasn’t just the belief in Christ that led to their persecution. Miguel De La Torre says in his commentary on today’s text, “Empire[s] seldom care what the masses believe, as long as allegiances to the ruling elites are not compromised … the early churches were persecuted not for what they believed, but for what they did.”[iv]
The suffering of the early church stemmed from the unwillingness of the believers to worship the ruling elite as the gods they wanted to be. What the early believers did was to live as Christ lived. The author of today’s reading says in verse 13, “Rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.” Just as Christ suffered at the hands of the Romans because of his rejection of the religious elite and his claim to be the Son of God, it should not come as a surprise that those who continued to live and teach as Jesus lived and taught also faced the same persecution Christ faced.
They suffered together, both with one another and with Christ. The Greek word used to describe sharing in Christ’s suffering is koinwneite (coi-no-neigh-tay). This word stems from the root word koinonia (coi-no-knee-ah), which is the word used to describe the community of the church.[v] Wikipedia defines koinonia as, “the idealized state of fellowship and unity that should exist within the Christian church, the Body of Christ.”[vi] While often thought of as a faith where the relationship between God and the individual is primary and perhaps all that is necessary, there is at the core of the teachings of Christ and the early apostles for believers to be gathered in relationship together, suffering with one another, in perfect unity with all who profess Christ as Lord.
Those in the early church knew they were not suffering alone. They suffered with one another, and because of their knowledge of a unified struggle, they held on to the hope promised that the suffering would result in glory. They saw their suffering as a blessing because they knew their suffering would lead to joy in the revelation of God’s eternal kingdom.
If we don’t pass over the text skipped in the Revised Common Lectionary, if we read on in chapter 4 of 1 Peter, we hear the author say in verses 16 and 17, “If any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name. For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God.”[vii] Perhaps it was easy for the early church to undergo suffering because they believed the return of Christ and the beginning of the eternal kingdom was just around the corner. They believed it was better to suffer for a few years than to suffer eternally. But it has been 2000 years since the author promised the time had come for judgment to begin.
So how do Christians today respond? Christianity in our community and nation is not illegal. Following the spread of the Gospel through Asia Minor, the Mediterranean, Europe, and eventually to the Americas, we worship in a Church in our nation that is largely un-persecuted. But there are still Christians who are persecuted today around the world.
I have a friend on Facebook who I got to know a couple years ago in my Clinical Pastoral Education program; he lives in Florida. Almost every day I wake up to see that he has posted a call to prayer for the persecuted church around the world. Each week he focuses his prayer on a different city, nation, or region. This week he has called his friends to pray for Christians in Malaysia.
I remember some 15 years ago the band DC Talk published in conjunction with The Voice of the Martyrs organization a book titled Jesus Freaks. In it are stories of modern day testimonials of people who have been persecuted, tortured, or martyred for their faith in Christ. It was the first glimpse for me, a young, middle class, and privileged kid to see that others in the world did not have the freedom and luxury I had in believing and professing Christ as the Son of God, crucified and resurrected.
The Voice of the Martyrs still publishes stories of persecuted Christians on their website, persecution.com. They have on their website a Prayer Map that identifies nations around the world where Christianity is in some way restricted. Under each country listed, the prayer map offers the stories of Christians who are suffering today because of their faith. Some nations, while not directly outlawing Christianity, have blasphemy laws that prohibit people from defiling the name of other prophets and faith-based literature. In some areas of the world, like Colombia, Christians aren’t persecuted by the government, but instead they fear being attacked by local drug cartels and paramilitary groups against whom the Christian community bemoans. Pastors in these nations have been assassinated because they preach against the activity of such groups. In many nations across Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia the government supposedly guarantees religious freedoms. However, many of these nations have conversion laws that prohibit people from converting to Christianity. Even in nations like Belarus, which is 70% Christian, recent religious laws prevent religious activity in private homes, and require all new churches to register and seek approval from the state. Religious leaders in Belarus have been arrested, harassed, fined and imprisoned.[viii]
In thinking about how many people who believe and profess Christ around the world suffer today, I am left with this final question for this morning, is it imperative that we suffer for the sake of Christ?
Going back to our text, our author offers these words, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary, the devil, prowls around looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.”
Now, I know the author was speaking to a church in the Mediterranean region nearly 2000 years ago, but I wonder how applicable these words should be for us today, “for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.”
We aren’t undergoing the same hostility here in America as many of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world are facing. Yet, if we are called to suffer in koinonia, in the ideal expression of the community of believers in Christ, should we be comfortable and rejoice in our freedom while yet others suffer? I wonder, for us as a nation, in which over 70% of the population still identifies themselves as Christians, why are we not facing the same hostility here at home?
Have we become so complacent in our freedoms in this nation because it was set up for religious liberties? Have we been tricked into caring less about the remainder of the world because our founders, who the history books tell us cared about Christianity, or their perspective thereof, gave us a place to worship without fear of persecution?
There are organizations like the Voice of the Martyrs that encourage charitable donations to offer minor support to those being persecuted for their belief in Christ elsewhere in the world. Many more organizations offer support for suffering of others in the world for non-religious reasons – lack of health care, lack of clean water, lack of education, and so forth. But I wonder, is charity what the church in America maintains as the best way to offer support to the rest of the world? Miguel De La Torre in his commentary questions if charity is simply our way to feel good about offering support to others while not upsetting the economic status quo from which many of us stand to gain from maintaining. He suggests that our call from God is not to charity, but instead “[to dismantle] the very global structures designed to privilege [the dominant culture] at the expense of others.”[ix]
It was the call of the early church to suffer along with Christ for the dismantling of both religious and government policies that relegated some as privileged and others as outcasts. It was the call against celebrating Caesar and all other human entities as lord that led to the persecution of Christ and the early church. It is the call for religious liberties, the call to profess Christ as Lord that continues to cause suffering for many of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world today. I wonder if the reason for which we do not suffer in our lives in Christianity in the western world is because we have grown too accustomed to the norm of our surrounding society that claims what is worthy is to gain and to celebrate self-promotion, while anything contrary is seen as weak and shameful.
Gordon McClellan says in his thoughts on this text, “[Peter’s reference to the devil in verse eight names the devil’s greatest achievement.] The greatest form of violence the devil can render is to separate people from one another – that is, for people to forget or abandon this notion of our connectionality, of being united with Christians around the world in our struggles, triumphs, joys and fears.”[x]
And so as our text ends today, we hear from the author not a question of if suffering may exist, but he says, ”And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.”
Like the disciples who suffered during the crucifixion of Christ, like the early church who suffered through the persecution of the empire, like the church around the world that continues to suffer today let us remember that we are called to suffer in koinonia – in unity with one another and with Christ as we reject the worldly and spiritual forces of wickedness to rejoice in the resurrection, knowing that in our call to join as one with all who profess the name of Christ as Lord, it is “God who calls us, restores us, establishes and strengthens us.”[xi]
May we allow ourselves to be called by God to serve with one another in the body of Christ, built upon the Lord, our cornerstone – our foundation, to rebel and speak out against those who would silence, slander, reject, dehumanize, cast out, persecute, and kill – not just those who profess the Lord – but all of humanity. For we each are created in the image of God. We each are called to profess Christ as Lord. We are each called to join in koinonia, to be part of the body of Christ and to be led and to worship and to lift up Christ as Lord of all.
[i] James Boyce. http://workingpreacher.org. Retrieved 2014-05-20.
[ii] Chris Trueman. http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/rome_and_christianity.htm. Retrieved 2014-05-30.
[iii] Tacitus. The Annals. Accessed from http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Tacitus/home.html. Retrieved 2014-05-30.
[iv] Miguel A. De La Torre. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word; Year A, Volume 2. Eds. David L Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
[v] David L. Bartlett. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word; Year A, Volume 2. Eds. David L Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
[vi] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koinonia. Retrieved 2014-05-30.
[vii] New Revised Standard Version. 1 Peter 4:16-17.
[viii] The Voice of the Martyrs. persecution.com
[ix] Miguel A. De La Torre. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word; Year A, Volume 2. Eds. David L Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
[x] Gordon McClellan. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word; Year A, Volume 2. Eds. David L Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
[xi] Fred B. Craddock. Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year A. Eds. Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, and Gene M. Tucker. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992. Pg. 289.