I Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; John 17:1-11
“Cast all of your anxiety on God because God cares for you” was one of those verses that I had the privilege of memorizing as a child during my 9 years of parochial school. As wonderful as these memory verses are, we hardly were ever taught the Biblical context for these verses. That way, any verse that was taken out of context could be applied to much more general things in our lives rather than understanding and appreciating the situation in which these words originally were written and how the original audience would have heard these words. For example, the people to whom this first letter of Peter was written find themselves in a situation that is much more intense than being anxious about a school exam or facing the first day on a new job.
Given all of the references and clues that we have in First Peter, the apparent audience of this general letter to the early Church includes Christians who are living in Asia Minor at the end of the first century. Although this was a time when the persecution of the followers of Jesus had intensified under Roman occupation, the anxiety of these particular disciples in Asia Minor was more the result of their situation of having to resist some of their cultural norms in order to be faithful followers of Jesus. Much of this dynamic is laid out in the book entitled, “Pagans and Christians,” which describes many of the cultural practices of the Greeks and the Romans that these early Christians had to abandon if they wanted to be faithful to the One whom they professed to be their Messiah or their Christ.
As most of us know, the Greeks and the Romans had a myriad of gods and goddesses that they worshiped and glorified. These gods and goddesses were characterized by super-human figures as well as magnificent and strange animals. Many of these deities required animal sacrifices or exotic rituals in order to be appeased or satisfied. Competitive games became a part of the cultic ritual that supposedly brought delight to these deities. Of course, in the midst of all of this pagan worship was the imperial decree that even the emperor was supposed to be worshiped as the lord and savior of the world.
In addition to this paganism from which these early Christians tried to escape, they also found themselves living in a world of hierarchical elitism and economic disparity that was so contrary to the ways that they had learned to live as followers of Jesus Christ. They had been taught that everyone was to be welcome into their community and treated as equals in the sight of God. Both wealthy people as well as impoverished people joined their community. However, once they did, those who were in need were taken care of by those who lived an affluent life.
Whereas competition leading to victory or defeat was elevated as one of the highest virtues in both the Greek and the Roman worlds, these early followers of Jesus were taught that their unity and oneness was grounded in their love for one another and in their cooperation with each other. Of course, one of the main points of contention for these disciples of Jesus was the expectation that every able-bodied man was supposed to serve in Caesar’s army. However, most Christians refused this tour of duty because they had learned from Jesus’ disciples that shedding the blood of another human being was contrary to the way of Jesus and the will of God.
Basically, these early followers of Jesus found themselves to be cast as a countercultural people who were choosing to abandon their former way of life for a life of faithfulness to the God of grace that had been revealed to them in Jesus of Nazareth—the One whom they had come to know as their Messiah or their Christ. In this context, now listen to the words of our second lesson for 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. Instead, rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you also may 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 God may exalt you in due time. Cast all of your anxiety on God, because God cares for you. Discipline yourselves and keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist this evil, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to the eternal glory in Christ, will restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To God be the power forever and ever. Amen.”
I don’t know about you, but from my perspective there are many similarities about what is happening in our country today and what life was like within the Roman Empire under the influence of the Hellenistic philosophies and culture. However, we have a problem, because our country supposedly was discovered and settled by people of the Christian faith so that whatever was done in the name of Christ by these followers of Jesus was sanctioned as being righteous in God’s sight—including the slaughter of the indigenous people of this land, the defeat of the British, the enslavement of the Africans, and the denial of women their rights to own property or vote. The early idolization of our freedom, especially our religious freedom, gave rise to the justification that violence was an acceptable form of defending our freedom at all costs. Based upon the ideal of capitalism that was chosen as our economic framework, the virtue of competition and the value of free enterprise became the bulwark of our way of life and has resulted in the extreme economic disparity of today.
Now, I probably shouldn’t be talking about these things today because, according to Tony Jones who was our keynote speaker at our Synod Assembly two weeks ago, these are issues of the past that should be left to rest because living in the past isn’t something that appeals to our young people today. To be more specific, Tony said that our boomer generation has dealt with the Viet Nam War, women’s suffrage, and civil rights, and our young people today are wanting to hear about other issues which he did not go on to name. As I listened to this remark, I said to myself that we still are engaged in the longest war in U.S. history, women still are being treated and harassed as second-class citizens, and racism is as alive today as it ever was—just more subtle and more covert. Obviously, Tony thinks that we shouldn’t be getting too anxious about these issues because there are more personal things that go on in our daily lives that are of greater and more immediate concern.
Just as Martin Luther created this convenient bifurcation between that which is spiritual and that which is secular 500 years ago, so also today we hear religious leaders like Tony Jones creating a bifurcation between that which is personal and that which is public or political, and emphasizing that if we concentrate on the personal matters in our lives, the more global issues will take care of themselves. I guess that is one way of resisting the evil that permeates our society and has a major impact on people throughout the world—simply by ignoring it or casting these global issues aside as if we have no part in them or responsibility for them. The reality is that when the Church does not name and challenge the structural evil in which it finds itself, then the Church becomes an enculturated institution rather than the counter-cultural movement that began when Jesus prayed for his disciples and asked God to be with them as they lived in this world, but not of this world.
If we are steadfast in our faith, then we are going to be anxious about resisting the evils of racism, militarism, sexism, elitism, homophobia, economic disparity, slavery, and the like, because to take on any one of these issues is going to require a tremendous amount of trust in the One who loves all of us and whose Spirit is resting on us so that we will know that we are never alone in our resistance. In addition to this Spirit that calls and gathers us together as one people, we also have each other to turn to for support and encouragement, not only to deal with the personal matters of our individual lives, but also to face the challenge of all of the corporate issues that infect and impact all of our lives.
When Jesus prayed for his disciples that we all may be one, he knew what challenges his disciples would have to face in the world once he was killed by the authorities of his day. As far as Jesus was concerned, he had accomplished the mission that he had been called and anointed by the Spirit of God to do. He had challenged so many cultural norms of his day and had resisted so many evil dimensions of his society that he knew the outcome of his actions before it happened. Was he ever anxious about what he had been commissioned by God to do or what would happen to him if he was faithful to his call from God to transform the world? I would assume so.
As one way to deal with this anxiety, Jesus often went off by himself to pray and after every time that he did, he returned to the public which he had been called to serve and inevitably would upset the principalities and powers of his day by being faithful to the God in whom he put his trust and from whom he received his power. Jesus’ anxiety especially was made apparent in his final prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane when he asked God to remove this cup of resistance and reconciliation from him. However, this prayer probably was one of the most significant prayers of his life because when he said, “Not my will, but your will be done, O God,” Jesus was free to resist all of the evil that he was about to face and to do so in a non-violent and peaceful way. May this be all of our prayers as we face living in this world, but not of this world as faithful followers of Jesus, our Christ. Amen.