SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D ALLAN B. WARREN
III AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT, BOSTON
FEBRUARY 22, 2015, THE FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT
For Christ died for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God. ( I Peter 3:18 )
One of my favorite characters in the gospel story is Simon Peter, the fisherman, and I suspect that I am not alone in this. Peter is perhaps the most vividly portrayed of all of our Lord’s disciples. He is very much a main character in the story, and, as he is presented, Peter is all too human. In my mind’s eye I always see Peter and Andrew, his brother, as big men – broad-shouldered and strong, sunburned and fairly careless of their appearance. They were fisherman and, until they met the One who would change their lives, they worked hard pulling heavy nets of their catch out of the sea, repairing the boat, carrying baskets of fish on their backs to market to be sold.
And Peter, it seems, had, as a young man, a personality to match his stature. He was often given to boasting. He was stubborn. He never knew when to keep silent. He was impetuous and impulsive; one might even say over-enthusiastic. A man who acted and reacted before he thought. But then, of course, thought doesn’t seem to have been Peter’s long suit, does it ? He consistently misunderstood what Jesus was trying to teach him – he just plain got it wrong – and often he had to be corrected or even rebuked by his Teacher.
He could be courageous, Peter. He had boasted, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” And when the soldiers and the priests and the Pharisees come to arrest Jesus, Peter draws his sword – willing to fight singlehandedly to rescue his Master. And yet a short time later, and in a much less threatening situation, Peter’s courage deserts him. Not once, but three times he denies having had anything at all to do with Jesus. And so – as much as one is drawn to Peter as he is presented in the Gospels, one cannot help but wonder why it is that our Lord singles him out as “the Rock,” the one upon whom He shall build his Church. Apart from his name, Peter is very unlike a rock. Perhaps, though, Jesus is speaking of Peter not as he was then, but as later he was to be.
This morning we heard from that later, older Peter in the reading of the Epistle. It was taken from the short letter he wrote to a group of churches throughout Asia Minor. It may well have been addressed to many people whom he himself converted; “Beloved,” he calls them, as if he knows them. He was writing from Rome at the beginning of the fierce and cruel persecution of the Church under the Emperor Nero. He would himself be put to death during that time, and it may be that he anticipated this. Even so, he writes a letter of encouragement, an exhortation to steadfastness and perseverance in the faith.
In his letter we hear the voice of an older person. Someone who has lived an active, eventful, not an easy but a full life, and has at its end acquired the grace and wisdom which age often bestows. Gone is the impulsive, unsteady Peter; gone is the boasting and the bungling. Rather, Peter writes with a calm and serene confidence, even tranquility. And this is all the more remarkable because, you see, the topic he is addressing is suffering.
There is nothing abstract about what he says. Peter had suffered persecution and rejection for his faith; soon he would suffer again. He clearly foresaw that those to whom he wrote would suffer as well, and he writes to encourage people whom he knew and loved, to share with them the calm and the confidence which he himself had found. He does not argue; he does not attempt to explain; he only points to Christ. Do you suffer, he asks, don’t be surprised at this. It’s nothing strange. It is to be expected, for didn’t Christ, the Righteous One, suffer for the unrighteous ? Look to Christ, and “Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you.” Do you suffer? “The God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you” in your suffering.
The simplicity of the old fisherman has become wisdom – a calm and confident wisdom; simple, as well, for wisdom is always simple.
For centuries people have tried to explain suffering – “why bad things happen to good people”, that’s the latest one, I think. No one yet has managed it, and for all the explanations people still suffer. And even if we did manage to explain it, people would still suffer. (Explain to me why I hurt. Fine. Even so, I keep on hurting.) The suffering which you and I know in life, which we see all around us, calls everything into question, and we cannot explain it away. Indeed, explanations often serve only to make us bitter, and the hurt more intense. Suffering is a problem rooted in that which is transcendent about and within us, and it calls for – can only be answered by – the Transcendent without us. And as wise old Peter, at the end of his life, understood, that means the only answer is God. In our suffering the only help is God.
Through grace Peter became what Jesus said he would be – The Rock. In tribulation and trial, in suffering and at the point of death, he never denied his Lord again. The Rock. Indeed, he put his whole trust in God in Christ and his faith became unshakable, because it was a living faith in a living and risen Lord. And his hope was steady and confidently fixed on the love and glory of that Lord. And Peter, the Rock, commends that same faith, and hope, and trust to the believers to whom he wrote, and he commends them to you and me as well:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as through something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice when his glory is revealed. ( 4:12,13 )
Come to him, to that living stone rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious, and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. ( 2:4, 5 )
Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls. ( 1:8,9 )