This sermon was originally preached in the parish of St Barnabas, Charnwood in 2015. The readings are the same ones set for Sunday, 21 February, 2021 – so I offer it again for your consideration.
A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent
February 22, 2015
(Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15)
Peter’s understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ did not come easily.
Rather, it came slowly over a three year period of following Jesus across Israel. It took time before he even identified Jesus correctly, and even more time before he understood what this title ‘The Christ’ implied.
As the events of that first Easter began to unfold, it was Peter who stuck by Jesus the longest – going ‘…right into the courtyard of the High Priest’. This same man also met the risen Christ and was there when Jesus ascended.
It was Peter – the one unable to give a straight answer when asked three times about his connections – who stood and publicly explained the working of God on the Day of Pentecost. The one who, in the gospels, seems to ask so many half-considered questions, is now the one offering the bold, scripture-backed answers to this rushing wind and the mysterious tongues of fire.
Peter the forgotten fisherman is now Peter the Apostle.
So when the now aged Peter writes in his rough Greek about the gospel – we do well to listen. This man walked with Jesus and witnessed many – if not all – of the key moments of Jesus’ life. He was also there for the birth of the church.
And now he writes to God’s ‘elect’ who have recently been scattered across Asia by persecution. Peter not only knows, proclaims, and loves the Gospel. He also knows the price believers pay for declaring that ‘Jesus is Lord’.
And so he encourages the persecuted church to persevere even in their ‘suffering’.
From anyone else it might ring a bit hollow. Peter, however, knows what suffering for the gospel looks like. On his back is evidence of flogging. He spent many nights in chains. Soon he will become a martyr.
This is no theoretical treaty.
But Peter is making nothing of the connection between his suffering and the suffering of the people of God. Rather, he is making a connection between their suffering and the suffering of Christ: ‘For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.’
Peter sees in the suffering of the church a reflection of the very heart of God.
I wonder if Peter would feel the same if he knew the harsh realities faced by much of the church today. I think of the executions of those 21 Orthodox Christians; of the sacrifices made by the army of missionaries – in all their forms – who seek to proclaim the Gospel where it has not yet been heard; of the vast array of volunteers who – in the name of Christ – give of themselves in the pursuit of justice, and; of the many Christians who languish in prisons across our globe.
Suffering for the gospel is not a thing of the past.
Peter’s statement is a wonderful claim with which to begin Lent. The old apostle pulls together the experience of the people of Christ and the Gospel Christ inspired. To me these words seem so simple, so succinct – a disarmingly clear statement of what a Christian believes. Hear it again: ‘For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.’
Do not be deceived: these are hard-won words.
Of course, Peter cannot end the story here. This death led again to life and a proclamation of the grace of God to all.
Peter even points to Noah. He believes that God’s saving of Noah and his family while judging of the rest of the world was not the last word. God, in Christ did not forget any one of them. They knew a very real death, but now the risen Christ, proclaims life to each them.
This Jesus-led outreach, it would seem, reached across the chasm of time, and indeed, across the gap between life and death.
And this is our experience also: life-to-death-to-life. In fact this odd God-movement is imbedded in not only the Easter story, but in our symbolic response to it: baptism.
Baptism, which our Gospel reading reminds us was undertaken by Jesus himself, is the great symbol of the aligning of our lives with that of Christ. We, as Paul so wonderfully described, once lived for ourselves, then died to ourselves, and now live to God.
The season of lent was originally embraced by early Christians preparing for baptism. It mirrored Jesus’ forty days of temptation immediately following his own baptism in the Jordan River. The account reminds us that Jesus was truly tempted, met each temptation with the words of scripture, and, it would seem very humanly, learned to give all for God.
Similarly, it is for us, a time to die (perhaps more) to self and to learn to live (perhaps more) to God.
So what practical steps are you willing to take to die to self and live to Christ?
We have decked the church in purple today. It is the traditional colour of a penitent season. This is a time of self-examination, of asking what it is we must die to in ourselves that we can more authentically live to God.
At certain times, this might look like the giving up of something – often an habitual sin. At other times it may look more like the taking on of a discipline.
But whatever is prayerfully chosen, the motivation is clear. We do this in order to give more of ourselves to God.
But please do not forget: dying hurts. It hurt those outside Noah’s ark; it hurt Jesus in the wilderness; it hurt for Peter and the scattered early church.
But it is also the path to life.
Peter goes on from his description of the suffering and exalted Christ – and our imitating of him – to urge ‘the arming of ourselves with the same intention’ as Jesus. Why? ‘…so as to to live for the rest of our earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God.’ (1 Peter 4:1-2).
Lent is not about surviving and suffering through the next forty days. It is about embedding the habits of heaven into our everyday.