Sermon: Second Sunday of Easter, 22 April 2017, St Aidan’s

St. Aidan’s West Epping, 23rd April 2017

“THE HOPE THAT EASTER BRINGS”

Rev. Paul Weaver

(Acts 2:22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:1-12; John 20:19-31)

Today and over the next six Sundays, our readings will take us through the bulk of the First Letter of Peter, and I thought it might be helpful to introduce you to the letter this morning.

It is very appropriate to read 1 Peter during this Easter season: the resurrection is never very far away from its thought. It has been traditionally understood that the apostle Peter wrote the letter with the assistance of Silas, who had also worked with Paul. It was written perhaps towards the middle of the AD60’s, three decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The letter was written to churches in what we know as Northern and Western Turkey, mainly in areas where Paul had not been active. And one issue which keeps coming up in the letter is the problem of persecution. For Christians in those days it was a very real issue. It’s one thing to follow Jesus when life is straightforward. But what about when things get hard?

Peter’s letter focuses on how to live as a follower of Jesus. As you read through the letter – and it’s worth reading it yourself in one sitting: it’s only a few pages long – you will find plenty of instruction on the practicalities of Christian living.

Peter calls his readers to live godly lives, obedient to the Lord’s commandments, and to show genuine love in their dealings with people. He makes clear how important it is to keep growing in our Christian understanding and maturity, and in bearing witness to the great things that God has done. But this witness must be given with humility and sensitivity, not with arrogance and pushiness. Peter also writes about how to live as members of the local community, as well as citizens of heaven. He tells us how we are to respond to those in authority, as well how to relate to members of our own families. He speaks of the church: both its great spiritual significance, and the way its members are to serve and relate to each other. Peter makes it clear that Christians must be prepared to be different from those round about: the way of Christ is not always the way of the world.

You can see that the letter is packed with many important insights and instructions. Some experts believe that it was actually used as an instruction manual for new Christians preparing for baptism: it certainly has a lot to say that would be relevant for these people.

But the question which it really opens up for us is this: how do we live as faithful followers of Christ when things get tough? It seems to me that what keeps us going when life is difficult is hope. I certainly observed this during my hospital ministry. People can cope with pain and difficulty if they can see that it will come to an end. They can struggle on if they believe that there will be a positive outcome. But if there is no encouragement, no end in sight, no improvement expected, then it is so much harder for people to remain positive.

What Peter keeps emphasizing is that hope is right at the heart of the Christian faith. And that hope is based above all on the reality of the resurrection of Christ. Of course Christians have different understandings of some aspects of Christ’s resurrection. But if we reduce it to a story, a myth, a wish, a mere symbol, we lose hold of the reality of the resurrection.

It was the fact of the resurrection that produced the change in the disciples from terrified confused men to powerful witnesses of Jesus Christ. It was the reality of the resurrection, demonstrated to him personally, that led Thomas to call Jesus “My Lord and my God!” as we heard in our Gospel reading. It was the crucified and risen Jesus who called Peter to be the first public preacher of the resurrection, as we heard in our first reading today. The death of Christ was seen to be the basis of salvation only because Jesus had risen and conquered death. The resurrection of Jesus has opened up the risen life for all Christ’s people. It is the resurrection that gives us hope.

During its first few decades, the church experienced various forms of persecution. To the Jewish leaders, the Christians were heretics and blasphemers. To the Romans, much of the time they were a bit of a mystery. They seemed to be a Jewish sect, but the Jews seemed to hate them; and anyway, how come there were all those Gentiles who seemed to be Christians too?

The Christians didn’t seem to be real criminals, but trouble developed wherever they were to be found. They didn’t seem to fit in, they didn’t join in the worship of the local gods, they seemed to have some very strange ideas: perhaps they were a threat to the established order. And around the time Peter wrote this letter, Nero fixed the blame for the devastating fire of Rome on the Christians: few locals believed they were actually responsible for the fire, but they were a convenient scapegoat, and after all, someone had to be punished for it, didn’t they?

Over the next few decades, persecution of Christians would become more and more widespread, even though it was not carried out in any consistent way. Peter was wise to warn Christians to be prepared for it. And he made it clear that if they should experience persecution, it should not be because they actually deserved it. Sadly many centuries later, when the church was in a position of power, its leaders failed to recall the evil that persecution was, and the church itself became responsible for appalling persecution of those it viewed as heretics and unbelievers. And today in Egypt, Iraq, and other countries of Africa and Asia, Christians are again facing terrible persecution for their faith.

Hope is what will keep Christians going in tough times. For some Christians those tough times may well involve persecution. For us it would more likely be the pains and struggles that life brings: illness and injury, misunderstanding and rejection, bereavement and loss of independence, or whatever else it may be.

How do we hang in there? The resurrection of Christ gives a perspective, by making it clear that through Christ there is a bigger and far more wonderful picture. We are today exiles of the dispersion, God’s people scattered in different parts of this world, as Peter says in his opening verses. This world, as we know it, is not our true or ultimate home. Through Christ, our true home, our true fulfilment awaits us. We await our inheritance in him: an inheritance which Peter says is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for us.

This salvation is not yet revealed in all its glory, but we look for it with hope. We haven’t ourselves literally seen the risen Jesus, but we have the witness of those who did. Peter goes on to point out that even suffering here and now can be used by God to bring benefits to us and to others. It can test the genuineness of our faith, and help it to deepen and grow. And if we handle the problems of life in a godly way, there will also be opportunities to bring honour to God.

Of course we can use the promises of God as a cop-out, an excuse not to face reality. We can reduce them to a “pie in the sky when you die by and by”. But Christian hope is far more than that. And if we hold on to the reality of God’s promises, while being real about the challenges we face here and now, then we are taking hold of a hope which is true and solid and wonderfully strengthening.

Peter points out that these promises are well established. They were set out in the Old Testament scriptures, as we heard in our readings, and these promises are made clear and fulfilled in a wonderful way in Jesus Christ, above all in his death and resurrection for us. The God who made these promises so long ago, and at the right time brought them to fulfilment, can be trusted to fulfil the promises that have yet to be brought to their ultimate fulfilment. There is every reason for us to keep believing, to keep hanging in there, to maintain our hope in Christ.

So do have a read through of 1 Peter. Begin to get something of its flavour and the issues that it explores. And let us keep rejoicing in the reality of Christ’s resurrection.

And when the problems of life confront us, however they may come, let us face them with the help of God’s Spirit, in a positive and godly way. Let’s keep a healthy perspective on life, and hold on to the true and glorious hope that is opened us for us in Christ, our risen and living Saviour.  Amen.

Paul Weaver