1 Peter 4: 12-14; 5: 6-11
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.
If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.
Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that God may lift you up in due time.
Cast all your anxiety to God because God cares for you.
Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
And the God of all grace, who called you to eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.
To God be the power forever and ever. Amen.
The author of this passage makes the intent clear – suffering, is not some unrelated experience of the Christian life, but a seemingly central part of it – writing, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.”
There are passages of scripture that help us to avoid suffering, other passages explain suffering as punishment for doing wrong, while other passages, passages like this, don’t necessarily explain why we suffer, why bad things happen to good people, but assume suffering is a part of life, and that while we may not always understand it, suffering is not always without purpose.
Suffering as religious persecution is at the heart of 1 Peter, and while some Christians still suffer for the sake of their beliefs, today we stand on a foundation of believers who did not allow Christianity to die out, but who persevered in the faith though their lives were at risk. Women like Saints Perpetua and Felicitas were thrown to the beasts by the Roman Empire, giving the lion mentioned in today’s scripture passage not allegorical, but literal meaning, embodying evil in a way that makes our flesh crawl, wondering how such a thing could ever happen.
My relationship to lions, like my relationship with religious persecution, is not something I know from personal experience, but through books and magazines.
Browsing through National Geographic this week I saw a picture of 6 female lions chasing a herd of at least 400 water buffalo - all while the male lion napped in the shade of a tree. This entire herd ran, completely at the command of 6 aggressors – these lions, like puppet masters commanded the herd, but not by strings, through the fear that they inspired. As the water buffalo ran, as fear of their hunter gained authority, as their self-control was completely replaced with self-preservation, the lions were able to split the herd apart, isolating one or two sick or young buffalo, and the herd could only watch as one of their own was devoured.
And what could they do about it? They were at the mercy of the lions.
It may be that suffering, like a lion, is unavoidable, and that we can only continue running with the herd, not looking back, knowing that the cost of life is high, that the relationship between predator and prey is a reality that cannot be avoided.
For Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, it was. These two women were thrown to the lions – as defenseless as a young buffalo – they paid the price for their community, a price paid to a bigger and more powerful beast – the lion that was the Roman Empire.
However, history tells us that the Roman Empire eventually stopped sending Christians to the lion’s den. That the road paved by Saints like Perpetua and Felicitas led to AD 313 when the Edict of Milan was agreed, ending persecution under the great emperor Constantine, himself a convert to Christianity.
And so the threat of the lion was no more, though suffering continues to test our faith, and our fear of it has not gone anywhere.
We are the audience and participants in a troubling world, and the news blares in our ears like the roar of a lion, filling us with fear and worry, convincing us more and more each day that the world is getting worse and worse – that terrorism is an ever present evil, that immigration is a plague that this country must free herself from, that society is failing.
We come to this church, seeking another message, but even here it seems we are in the midst of change.
As though it were addressed to us, 1 Peter reads – “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” And like a lion our worries prowl around in the back of our heads and the lion’s roar begins to fill our ears.
The lion roars and the foundation of our faith seems to shake.
We lose faith in ourselves, fearing that we are not good enough, that we are not loved, and out of a fear of rejection we isolate ourselves.
We fear the changes that go on all around us, as the streets get busier, we see faces we don’t recognize, we fear what we don’t know and directed by the roar of the lion we retreat to find people who think and look like us.
Hearing the lion’s roar of economic instability we cling to what we have, finding less and less for others, fearing the time when there won’t be enough to feed ourselves.
The roar of the news reaches our hearts, and out of a fear of crime we stay in our homes, fortifying our neighborhoods with gates and electronic codes, our houses with alarms.
Made afraid by the lion’s roar, we shut ourselves in, attempting to fight our battle alone, not realizing that this is exactly where the lion wants us. Like a buffalo separated from the pack, we are defenseless.
There is another picture that captured my imagination in the National Geographic magazine. It is a picture of a bull, wounded by a fierce lioness, strong with rippling muscles, menacing sharp teeth in full view, now retreating from her pray. The herd, led not by their fear of the lion’s roar, but by something else, formed a wall, and with their horns pointed towards the lioness like scimitars, forced her to give up, and walk away.
Today, we are not free from trials, we are not safe without a fear in the world, but because we believe that God works in all things, we are invited to see our trials as opportunities for the full expression of love.
We may never be without the lion, but we are called to resist our fear of his roar, we are called to resist the temptation to allow his roar to separate us into factions – to isolate us so we are weak in our solitude - we are called to stand together for our unity is required of every trial we encounter.
Should our foot slip, should our hearts wander, should our worries take hold, we must trust that the foundation of this church is not built on the strength of individuals, but on the love of Christ that joins us together.
Trusting the words of the hymn: that “though all hell should endeavor to shake, (our God) will never, no never, no never forsake” us.
To God be the power forever and ever.