There is so much we can learn from the stories of Christians down the ages. If you haven't got an account or two of a missionary pioneer sitting on your bookshelves at home, then I humbly suggest you are missing out. Because there is so much we can learn about following Jesus, and what it means to be counted as His disciple.
For example, recently I read the story of Archibald Glover – a name probably none of you have ever heard of. He was a missionary in China in 1900 when the Boxer Rebellion broke out as a popular protest against foreign interference in that country's affairs. It was a first-hand account of his and his family's 1000 mile traumatic journey to safety. On the way they were stripped naked, endured days without food, and several times sentenced to death. Most of the journey was spent as prisoners being transported in unsprung wheelbarrows over dry, rutted roads. Soon after the Revd Glover reached safety his wife gave birth to their third child who died four days later. She herself died of peritonitis a couple of months afterwards. But the Revd Glover and his family were the lucky ones. In that rebellion 97 missionaries of the China Inland Mission were killed and nearly 50000 native Christians.
Although his book strikes you nowadays as rather stilted and of its era, it reminded me once again how all through the ages and across the world Christians have suffered for their faith. You know, it would be so nice to stand up here this morning and say, "Come to Jesus and everything will be all right". I'd love to be one of those evangelists who promises untold blessings to everyone who turns to Jesus, and command God's grace to make you wealthy, healthy and successful. But I just can't do it. OK, we're not likely to face the sort of things Archibald Glover faced, but there are times – aren't there? – when it's tough being a Christian. At least that's my experience.
So today we're going to take a long hard look at what it means to suffer for Christ. It's not a subject we talk about often. It's maybe not something we want to talk about that often. But we need to talk it because as soon as you walk out of this building this morning you will face opposition because you love Jesus. Over the dinner table with someone in your family who thinks you believe in fairies, or at work with the colleague who always want to argue or at school where believing in Jesus is just so uncool. That's the reality, so let's deal with it.
Now, over the past few weeks we've been looking at the first letter of Peter, and if there's one subject that comes up again and again is this whole issue of suffering for Christ. Indeed if you look through our reading today the word "suffer" or "suffering" comes up no less than five times in these seven verses. We'll look at what Peter teaches here in a moment, but first of all it might be worth recapping his teaching so far to remind us why we encounter such opposition as Christians.
First of all, in chapter 1 Peter started off by talking about the glorious hope that has been secured by Jesus' death and resurrection and the inheritance that can never perish, spoil and fade – kept in heaven for you (Chapter 1, verse 4). As far as I'm concerned, the opening verses of 1 Peter are some of the most beautiful in the whole Bible – but they can also be one reason why some people get mad at Christians. You see, without Christ there isn't the same hope, and there never can be. So the fact there is a bunch of people who are confidently looking forward to heaven can be a great source of irritation. People will want to mock us, say our faith is all "pie in the sky when we die", because they can see no reason why we should be so certain of our final destiny. As far as they are concerned, death is the end of the story and how dare we suggest any different.
Then in chapter 2 Peter moves on the whole question of suffering for doing good. Talking to slaves in chapter 2, verse 20 he says: But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. Now I realise that few of us ever face a literal beating, but I wonder how many of us have ever had to pay the price for doing right? For example, you may be working for a company and you discover all your colleagues fiddle their sales figures so they can get a bonus. Everyone expects you to do the same. If you don't invent some additional customers, then the whole scam will be exposed. What do you do? In that kind of situation Peter clearly expects us to stand out from the crowd. But there's no denying – it's tough, very tough.
Or again, moving on to chapter 4, which we looked at last week, there's the whole issue of not joining in. In chapter 4, verse 3, Peter lists all the vices of the pagan world which L summed up in her memorable phrase as "binge drinking, sex on demand and weird spirituality". And then he goes on to say: They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you. And isn't that so true? When you refuse to watch a dodgy DVD that everyone is watching or to have that extra drink that takes you over the limit. So often your friends think you are being a killjoy, or are pretending to be "holier than thou", because that's what Christians are like, aren't they?
And let me just add that this pressure is especially great for our young people. When you are busy growing up, you want to fit in. You want to be popular, and you want to have lots of friends. If you're not already praying for our young people already, then can I ask that you start doing so immediately? In some ways it's never been harder to grow up as a Christians than today.
To sum up then we are likely to suffer as Christians because we have a hope, because we are honest and because we don't join in. Now of course you may well wonder why God lets you suffer in this way. After all, the Christian faith is about the good news of God's love. Through Jesus we discover God to be our loving Heavenly Father who never leaves us or lets us down. So why, then, does He allow us to put up with so much simply because we have chosen to follow Him?
In today's reading Peter gives three reasons.
First of all, verse 12, God wants to refine our faith. Unfortunately at this point there is a bit of a problem with the translation we are using. When it reads Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you it is missing the point of what Peter's saying. Peter is not talking about a "painful trial" but a "fiery trial" and he is picking up the image of purifying fire we have already come across in 1:6.
Now if I hold this order of service over a candle, what will happen to it? That's right, it will eventually catch fire. I discovered this at a Communion Service at DC1 some time back. But what if I hold my wedding ring over the flame? Well, it will get a little bit warm but it won't burst into flames. There is, you see, a world of difference between paper and gold. Paper burns easily, gold does not.
Sadly there are many people for whom their Christian faith often seems little more than just words on a piece of paper which they read Sunday by Sunday. They say all the right things, and sing all the right songs, but their faith makes no real difference to how they live day by day. God doesn't want that kind of faith. He wants believers who see Jesus as the most precious person in their life, whose faith is worth more than any amount of gold or silver the world can ever offer. And the way He tests us to see what our faith is like is to put us under pressure. If following Jesus is just a hobby or a leisure activity we will melt away. But if following Jesus is our passion and our prize then we will hold on, and show we have really grasped what it means to be a disciple.
Which leads to the second point Peter is making, that suffering shows we truly belong to Jesus. Verse 13: But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. What does Peter mean by this? Well, when we put our faith in Jesus, Jesus becomes far more than a historical figure who lived a long time ago. There is a very real sense in which His earthly life becomes our earthly life. As Paul says in Gal 2:20: I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. So because Jesus Himself experienced opposition, rejection and hatred, it should not surprise us when we face similar trials. His journey to the cross becomes in some way our journey.
Now that can make this whole business of believing in Jesus a rather grim experience. But that's to ignore the second half of this verse. Jesus trod the path of suffering not out of dogged determination or because He enjoyed being a martyr, but because in some way He knew that His death would not be the end, that His Father would in some way raise Him to glory. Do we, I wonder, have the same kind of confidence? If you find following Jesus has become rather a burden or a chore recently, then maybe it's worth asking yourself whether you still the hope of glory in your sight. Nothing about what I say about suffering this morning will make any sense if the eternal dimension is not in view. Jesus suffered, yes, and was raised to glory. We are called to suffer with Him, yes, but we too have the hope of glory.
How do we know this? Because, thirdly, our suffering shows the Holy Spirit living in and through us. Verse 14: If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. You see, when someone makes fun of you, or attacks you because you are a believer, it isn’t that God has somehow withdrawn His love from you. Rather it is the testimony of many believers around the world that precisely at this point they become most sure of God's presence – the presence of the Holy Spirit – in their lives. That's one of the things you learn from the accounts of these missionary pioneers. They did not embrace suffering willingly, they were often unprepared for the persecution they were about to face, but page after page of their stories tell how at their lowest point God was at His closest. I wonder if you have a similar story of the Holy Spirit at work in your life today.
We've covered a lot of ground this morning. We've thought why we as Christians come under attack for our faith. Our hope, our honesty and our refusal to join in all mark us out as believers, and we should not be surprised if we are misunderstood, abused or persecuted for our faith. We've also considered why God allows this to happen. He wants to test our faith to see how precious Jesus is to us, whether we truly belong to Christ, whether we know the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Which is all very well in theory, but how should we respond as we go out from this building into a hostile world that neither loves nor knows Jesus?
Well, it wouldn't be a proper sermon without three points beginning with P, so here goes:
Firstly, we should praise. Verse 16: However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. Do you count it as an honour and a privilege to be counted a follower of Jesus? To identify with Jesus, even to the point of sharing in His suffering? Let's not be ashamed to be called as Christians, but rejoice that God has seen fit to save us and call us to follow in the footsteps of His Son.
Secondly, we should pray. Verse 17: For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? We have talked a lot this morning about the Lord refining us and purifying our faith. We know however that whatever we suffer on earth is not the end of the story. But what of those who do not know the Lord, who persecute us for our faith? One day they too will face the judgement of God. If that does not drive us on our knees to pray for them, and pray for their salvation, then nothing will. That prayer Jesus uttered on the cross Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing should be our constant prayer, for the Lord to show them mercy and grace and His saving power.
And thirdly we should persevere. In a way verse 19 seems almost like an anti-climax: So then, those who suffer according to God's will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good. We want Peter to finish with a drum-roll, to leave us with a glimpse of the heavenly glory that awaits us. Of course, as we have seen, Peter is well aware of the glory God promises to the faithful.
But Peter wants us to focus on the practicality of living day by day Jesus for Jesus. As he already has made clear in his letter, there is no better witness to Jesus than people who keep on keeping on with Him. Yes, He has no doubt that one day God will glorify all those who do God's will. But He wants us to think about Monday morning, about the workplace or school or home, or any other place where it's hard to be a Christian. Think what it means to live there for Jesus, and for Him alone. How can our perseverance point others to Jesus, to show them that He is alive, that there is nothing more precious than knowing and loving Him? That's the question Peter wants us to leave us with. And it's the question all of us need to think about this morning.