In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What is it that can make Christians suffer gladly? What is it that causes Christians to be glad when they’re mocked, insulted, tortured, or killed? What makes Paul and Silas thank God and sing hymns that they have been counted worthy to suffer for the Name of Christ that they bear? What can cause Christians to rejoice in the face even of death, to grieve not as those who have no hope?
Peter writes his entire first letter to Christians who are suffering, being persecuted, being mocked, and dying. So, actually, I think we might have a bit of trouble understanding Peter. Because we in the twenty-first century—even Christians—have largely bought the anti-Christian story that suffering is something to be overcome. Suffering is something we want to avoid at all costs, and death is the worst thing that can happen to us—unless it is to avoid suffering. Almost all medical technology is dedicated to overcoming suffering. And that is certainly not bad in itself. But it can lead us to think that suffering itself is automatically bad. If that’s true, then we’re going to have a lot of trouble understanding not only Peter, but Jesus. Jesus assumes we will have trouble and suffering, simply because we bear His Name. They will hate you because they hated Me, He says. And Peter says it is a good thing to suffer, if you suffer because you are doing good. Suffering is not good if you suffer because you’ve stolen or murdered or done evil. But Peter tells the Christians who are suffering for bearing Jesus’ Name not to be surprised at the fiery trial that has come upon them, as if it were something unexpected or strange. No, he says, but rejoice, because you share the shame of Christ.
When Peter tells these Christians always to be prepared to give a defense of the reason for the hope that is within them, he’s not telling them to spend all their leisure time studying the Scriptures so that they can answer all the questions of the lazy skeptics and atheists. We’re the ones who live in an extraordinary time, where we actually have Scriptures to read and time to read them. These Christians didn’t have leisure time to study, nor did most of them have any way to read the Scriptures to and by themselves. When Peter tells them to be prepared, he’s thinking of a very specific answer: when people want to know how you can suffer gladly, why you’re not afraid of death, be prepared to give them an answer concerning the hope that is within you.
And what is that hope? That we will avoid suffering? That we will have a high quality of life? That we can put off dying as long as possible? That when we die, we’ll leave these damned bodies behind and float around in heaven? No. Peter is clear: when he speaks of their hope, as he does two other times in his first letter, he means something very specific: the resurrection of Jesus. In chapter one, he says that they have been born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1:3). And then he speaks of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, so that your faith and hope are in God (1:20). They don’t have to know all the answers, or even most of them, because they have the one answer that encompasses all the others: the resurrection of Jesus. And so they can go around doing good in this world of suffering and death, because they know death has been overcome in Jesus’ own flesh and blood. They do good in whatever ways they can, and if they suffer, they suffer. If they die, they die. If their love for others costs them jobs or family or friends, it costs them. They have a good conscience; they are free.
But how do they get this good conscience, so that their fear disappears like fog on a summer morning? Did you hear Peter mention a good conscience a second time? He says it toward the end of these verses, when he says that baptism now saves you, because it is an appeal for a good conscience to God through the resurrection of Jesus. You have a good conscience in the midst of an evil and perverse world that hates Christ and all those who bear His Name, because you have been joined to the hope of the resurrection. You have been put into it and it has been put into you. Your baptism, the Name of God put on you by water, puts you into the ark of the Church, by which you are saved. It appeals to God through the resurrection of Jesus—Paul says you are baptized into His death and resurrection—and that appeal will certainly be heard and answered.
You have a good conscience because you have been baptized into that living hope of the resurrection of Jesus. And so you can go about doing good for whomever needs it, you can go about your vocation, even if you suffer, or are mocked, or even die. While we are not suffering is the time to prepare. Before we die is the time to hear and believe and hope in the baptismal hope of the resurrection. And then, when we do suffer, we will be prepared to give a defense of the reason for that hope. Jesus, who is risen and ascended, is keeping that hope for us with Him in heaven—not only until we go there, but until He comes here and makes this world of suffering and death a world of the resurrection and the life. In Him is our hope at all times: in suffering and in comfort, in life and in death, in good times and bad. At all those times, our hope is the same: the resurrection of Jesus, into which we have been baptized.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 5/19/17