1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.
Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.
Today is the Sunday of the Ascension, when we recall Jesus’ departure to be in the presence of God, the Father. As the scriptures describe it, forty days after his resurrection, Jesus goes out to the Mount of Olives with the eleven remaining disciples and somewhat to their surprise it seems, Jesus just up and disappears.
I can only imagine how disorienting that must have felt and so disappointing. They were barely over the trauma and grief of his death, the whipsawing of emotions that surely surrounded his resurrection, a creeping return of joy at his continued presence and then… he’s gone. Again!
Though the Holy Spirit has been promised; at the Ascension it hadn’t arrived yet and we can know the trauma of his original departure into death was creeping up on them because when, in ten-day’s time, the Spirit descends upon them at last, at the Pentecost, they are once again holed up in the upper room.
From that, at least partly, cloudy day outside of Jerusalem, until now, we have been living in the in-between-times. Between Jesus’ ascent and the day of his promised return. It is a liminal space. We are called to live in both the here-and-now and in the kingdom-to-come – and both at the same time.
And by and large, humans, I have observed, don’t particularly like in between places. No one loves the airport or the bus station; no one looks forward to their commute to work or sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office; we endure them in order to get to where we want to go.
We have all had a very big reminder of this over the past two months, we live in between what once passed for “normal” and whatever life will be once we (hopefully) need not fear for our fates in a pandemic.
St Peter wrote in the letter we heard from today; “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”
This experience has certainly been strange, and it has tested me in various ways. I am fortunate that in my personal life, it has been something short of an ordeal, fiery or no.
But that is my privilege. For many people, “fiery ordeal” surely doesn’t even begin to describe what has happened. Many are out of work, for the first time since perhaps ever, but definitely since records have been kept, more of our neighbors and fellow citizens are out of work; many who still have work have to offer their labor in precarious and unsafe situations, and often for barely enough to live on. Some have lost their dreams, many have anguished while their loved ones were sick and they were unable to be with them. And now, 100,000 of our neighbors have died. I want you to imagine that for a moment, 100,000 is a large number and hard to wrap our heads around. That’s the equivalent of 9/11 happening every day for over a month. In the past few weeks the equivalent of 2/3 of the residents of the city of Syracuse has died from a disease that before March, most of us had never heard of. That before December, may not have even existed in humans.
And though nothing has changed since we entered into the pandemic shutdown – still no effective treatment, still no vaccine, still no understanding about immunity, at best, we can hope that the hospitals are better prepared to deal with the sick and dying than they were two months ago. And yet, we are beginning to open up and venture forth because, basically, people don’t particularly like in-between spaces.
Are we, as a society, growing as numb to the suffering and death as we have to the relentless toll of gun deaths in our nation? Are we now as willing to sacrifice our elders and vulnerable as we are to sacrifice our school children?
Peter continues in his letter;
“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.”
Jesus’ preparation of his disciples, the example of his life, the point of his teaching, the promise of his resurrection – the whole of the Christian witness is for this – do not become numb to the needs and suffering of the world.
It is always a temptation, THE temptation, to retreat into our own bubbles and say that as long as – insert evil here – doesn’t happen to me and mine then I don’t have to worry about it.
Peter quite forcefully reminds us that that isn’t option for those of us who claim to follow Jesus. To do Jesus work, to go where Jesus invites us, is to walk into those places and be with those people which remind us that all human suffering touches us. There is no pain that exists in a world wholly separate from our own. We truly, are in this together, whether we wish to acknowledge it or not.
Do not become numbed; the mission Christ gave us is to hold onto the hope that things might be different, better, more just, more equitable than it is now. But that hope hinges on our ability, no, our willingness to recognize that the temporal world around us falls short of God’s intention, of the goodness originally endowed in its creation. To open our eyes to reality – and to work to make it new.
Thanks be to God.