Readings: Acts 7:55-60
1 Peter 2:2-10
Big idea: Suffering for Christ is to be expected and is a participation in the very identity of God.
To be a follower of Christ can be a dangerous decision. It can lead to discrimination, persecution and ultimately death – in some parts of the world. The Coptic Church in Egypt has suffered greatly of late. Last December a suicide bomber killed 24 worshippers at a Coptic cathedral. Then two bomb attacks on Palm Sunday killed at least 44 people. Meanwhile, Christians in Syria and Iraq remain in grave danger. A recent mailing from the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East states:
At St George's Church in Baghdad... the congregation celebrated Easter amid worsening sectarian violence. On Good Friday a bomb went off... killing two people and injuring four. Despite this, hundreds of people came to the church to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ... Sadly, in other parts of Iraq Christianity has been driven out. A report in The New York Times showed footage of Qaraqosh in the north of the country. The journalist described it as a "ghost town".
In these situations the persecutors are Islamic extremists. Desperate times, but religious persecution is as old as Christianity itself. In the days of the early church, the oppressors were the Jewish authorities and the Romans. The reading from Acts documents the first Christian Martyrdom. It needs a bit of context. Stephen has been brought before the Jewish council. The Religious authorities felt threatened by the truth he proclaimed. His final address to the religious council, the Sanhedrin, did not go down too well. It did not help that he likened the Sanhedrin to their Jewish ancestors who rejected Moses and the prophets sent by God. Hence, the preceding verse to the section we heard reads: “When they heard these things they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.” The Jewish authorities couldn’t bear it and the angry mob stoned him to death. Stephen became the first to die for the faith. In the Jewish tradition of martyrdom, the dying called down curses on their persecutors; the first Christian martyr followed in the footsteps of his Lord in praying for their forgiveness.
The reading from 1 Peter is addressed to a Christian community struggling against harassment, if not overt persecution. They are reminded of the role of the Church as the new Israel. They are to see their suffering as evidence, not of rejection, but of a call to new responsibility and transformation by God. Their following of Jesus’ way will lead ultimately to life. In order to withstand such ordeals, in order to remain true to Christ, believers need to be nurtured and sustained by him. Peter writes “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation” (v2).
The same is true of course for the everyday trials that we face in life. Thankfully, in this country in present times, we are unlikely to be put to death for our faith; we are more likely to face incomprehension or ridicule. Jesus never said it would be easy, in fact suffering for him is seen as a norm. The cost of discipleship is to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. To be self-effacing in a culture which encourages self-interest and self-promotion is no easy challenge.
In the passage from John’s gospel, Jesus anticipates his death. The interesting thing about John’s gospel is that John does not only see Jesus as being glorified following his death, but through the passion itself. Richard Baukham writes, “The Servant is exalted and glorified in and through his humiliation and suffering.” In sayings such as, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (12:23) which refer to Jesus’ death as his glorification, John’s use of glorified relates to the heavenly splendour which other New Testament texts associate with the risen Christ. John’s repeated passion predictions which state that the Son of Man must be “lifted up” carry a double meaning: they refer both to the crucifixion as a literal physical lifting up of Jesus from the earth and figuratively as his elevation towards heaven. John’s whole passion narrative simultaneously fuses the two themes of lordship and servanthood: “Jesus is the king in humility (at the entry into Jerusalem), the king in humiliation (before Pilate and on the cross), and the king in death”. Bauckham makes it clear that the crucified Jesus belongs to the very identity of God. He concludes:
Here God is seen to be God in his radical self-giving, descending to the most abject human condition, and in that human obedience, humiliation suffering and death, being no less truly God than he is in his cosmic rule and glory on the heavenly throne. It is not that God is manifest in heavenly glory and hidden in the human degradation of the cross. The latter makes known who God is no less than the former does.... The radical contrast of humiliation and exaltation is precisely the revelation of who God is in his radically self-giving love.... In this act of self-giving God is most truly himself and defines himself for the world.
This kind of teaching is offensive to other faiths who do not believe that God is capable of suffering. Christianity presents a very different understanding of God. It is one in which God is able to identify with human suffering rather than remaining remote from it.
The focus of the John passage moves from Jesus’ personal going, the Passion, to the going of the disciples along the Christian Way – the way of obedience to Jesus’ example. Jesus death does not end their relationship but opens it to life. Jesus makes the bold claim, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” If Jesus is the way to the Father, then to know Jesus is to know the Father too. Jesus’ earthly mission will be accomplished through his followers. All who truly come to the Father will recognise, in the message of Jesus, the authentic marks of the God who is revealed.
Jesus offers some reassurance, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” Jesus will be preparing a place for us in his Father’s house. May we look to Christ and allow our lives to be shaped by his, with humble trust.
I’ll conclude with a prayer by the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a martyr for the true faith in Nazi Germany:
O Heavenly Father,
I praise and thank you for all your goodness
and faithfulness throughout my life.
You have granted me many blessings.
Now let me accept tribulation from your hand. You will not lay on me more than I can bear.
You make all things work together for good
for your children. Amen.