Sunday, April 19 – Readings: John 20:19-23 and I Peter 1:3-9
In the gospel of John we read that after the resurrection, Jesus’s disciples self-isolate in one house. They lock the doors. The beauty (and terror) of the story is that even then Jesus shows up and shows up with reinforcements. He brings the Holy Spirit. He shares that Spirit in a way that violates our public health guidelines. He breathes on people—deliberately.
The Spirit of God that Jesus shared is the same energy that animates and connects our own community. We have that in common with those early believers, in addition to self-isolation. And it was that same Spirit that breathed life into the churches that received the letter of I Peter. We don’t know much about the context of that letter. The opening verses tell us that it was written to “the exiles of the Dispersion.” These exile communities lived in a range of places in what is now northern Turkey. The rest of the letter suggests that they were facing serious discrimination or even persecution.
The violence these followers of Jesus experienced might have been part of a state-sponsored program. Or it might have been instigated by the communities these followers of Jesus had once belonged to. We aren’t sure. We do know that the harassment and persecution had a significant effect on their lives. In addition to saying that these believers were in exile, the letter says they were “suffering various trials” and “maligned as evildoers” and undergoing a “fiery ordeal.” The word “suffer” or “suffering” shows up 20 times in I Peter, that’s more than in any other book of the Bible.
Now, there is an important distinction to be made here. The people who originally received this letter were suffering because of their decision to follow Jesus. They were not victims of a disease. So not everything that applies to them applies to us, but my hunch is that this letter means more to us now than it might have a month ago.
Christian communities have always tried to understand their suffering in light of their belief that a loving God rules over a good but fallen world. The letter of I Peter suggests that those who suffer like Jesus Christ can expect to share in the hope of his resurrection. It says that, if the one anointed by God to bring about the defeat of the powers of sin and death suffered, then we should expect the same thing. Suffering is a part of the path. It’s a part of the redemptive process.
In line with that, some Christians across the ages have wondered why they did not suffer more. Were they not worthy of suffering like Jesus? Did God not think they could handle more pain and disappointment? They wondered why their lives were so easy. It’s hard for us to identify with this sentiment. Our world teaches us to avoid suffering as much as possible. So much so that we may find ourselves ill-equipped to deal with it.
Yet what the letter of I Peter suggests to us is that the genuineness or depth of our faith is more valuable than living without suffering. Indeed, suffering allows us to get a better sense of our faith. In whatever way we might share in the experience of those who received the letter of Peter, we share this too: the living hope of the resurrection is also ours. When Jesus invites us to be his friends, he invites us to share in God’s life too. This is cause for rejoicing.
I doubt Jesus is going to show up physically in your place of self-isolation; there’s no need to worry about violating the rules of social distancing. So I think our prayer this week can be that Jesus would grant us a new experience of the presence of God’s Spirit. We can pray that God’s breath would be in us, especially now, when our own breath is deemed a threat. The writer of I Peter urged readers not to be afraid or intimidated. He encouraged them to rejoice! We can take that to heart.