A Sermon from Sherborne

Compline Address 1 – Faith under Fire!

Sermons for Compline in Lent 2019, based on the First Letter of Peter

‘Hope in a time of trial’ [1: 1 – 12]: preached by The Reverend Jane Craw, Team Vicar, on Monday 11th March 2019

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,

To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood:  May grace and peace be yours in abundance.

What a way to start a letter!  There is a note of generosity here and Peter longs for the recipients of this epistle to be showered with an abundance of grace and peace. It centres our thoughts on God’s overwhelming outpouring of his love and his unceasing benevolence.

But, to whom was Peter’s letter addressed?  This letter is a message of encouragement to Christian communities in Asia Minor who are bewildered by the treatment and persecution which they are experiencing.

According to Acts, Jews from Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia were among those who heard Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:9; see 1 Peter 1:1), and it is quite probable that Christianity was brought to Asia Minor by these first converts. Many of the Christians in this region of the world were the Diaspora Jews who had come to faith and believed that Jesus Christ was the Messiah. These groups of Jewish Christians combined with Gentile Christians to form churches scattered throughout this area.  They were geographically widespread, under Roman influence and were a diverse community.  Peter describes this whole group as ‘God’s chosen strangers’ or ‘exiles’ (1 Peter 1:1 CEB, NRSV).

Although this letter was addressed to a community in the first century, it has much to speak to us today.  How often do we feel as though we are a small band of believers in a very strange place where the tenets of our faith are no longer received, accepted and lived out?  What it is about this baptismal doxology which Peter includes in his first letter that can help us to rediscover the joy of our Easter faith and sustain us through Lent?   It is almost as though he is offering us, this evening, a foretaste of what we will find at the end of Lent for he speaks of ‘a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ’.  Just as in our encounter with the story of the Transfiguration, the Sunday before last, we can discover that touch of glory which will be our staff and comfort through this Lenten season.

Peter offers praise in the words ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!’  If you have a spare moment, do listen to S. S. Wesley’s wonderful anthem by the same name.  The praise and honour that these words of exaltation carry is brought to their full glory in that musical rendition.  This adulation is for the rich inheritance given to God’s children.  Peter’s letter is a one of substantial food; he is certainly feeding his sheep.  The title ‘chosen by God’ refers to the recipients of his letter but equally applies to all who have committed their life to Christ.  There is no greater compliment and privilege to be called to a life of service.  We are chosen, not to make ourselves feel good or exclusive but quite the reverse.  We are chosen to bring God’s plans and purposes to fruition.  This honourable title comes with the weight of responsibility.  Although we are described as the exiles of eternity, we must not withdraw from the world but be God’s presence within it.  The Greek word for a sojourner in a strange land is paroikos.  He was a man who was away from home in a foreign land but one who constantly thought about his home.  So, the touchstone of the Christian is that he or she considers his or her life as a journey or pilgrimage towards God and sees all things in the light of eternity.  But Peter’s word is not just to individuals but has a corporate sense.  He is speaking to the Church, reminding us of the experience that Peter himself had shortly after Jesus’ resurrection when he and the apostles were confronted by the risen Christ and were themselves given new life in community as ekklesia, those ‘called out’ and set apart for God’s purpose (John 20:19-29).

By God’s mercy his chosen ones will receive an inheritance which is for the future.  It is being stored up for the faithful believers and is imperishable, undefiled and unfading.  Such is the quality of this everlasting gift.   It comes to the heir freely.  It comes not by desert or by the heirs’ own efforts but by the grace of our Lord.  If the inheritance is being guarded with great vigilance, then so are all those who will receive it.   Of course, we will enter this inheritance in the future but currently we have to become God’s Easter people who live in the now and the not yet, in the between-times, living out the new life here on earth.

Indeed this hope of glory is not just for the future; this hope can sustain Peter’s readers in the present when crisis comes.  This pulsating life is seen in his letter when he speaks of a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

John V. Taylor in his book The Incarnate God tells of the wonder of the resurrection in both personal and cosmic terms.  He imagines the small groups of two or three who come to realise that Jesus is alive after the first Easter Day.  This is what he says:

They can no longer speak of him in the past tense.  He is here and now.  Not a memory.  Not an influence.  Even to say a ‘person’ is too limiting.  The only word that conveys this certainty is ‘Lord’, and that is impossible to define.  To say ‘Jesus is alive!’ and ‘Jesus is Lord!’ is to say the same thing.  It means that one can address him and be addressed by him in almost the same way as one can speak with God.  The living presence one meets in that intercourse is unmistakably Jesus of Nazareth, yet his life seems to radiate in everything and fills the universe.  He is alive with an absolute and ultimate life.

How comparatively easy it is to say: ‘I believe Jesus rose from the dead’ and how comparatively difficult it is to experience that resurrection in our daily lives.  But perhaps it needs not be so difficult, so complicated; perhaps it is simply allowing God to change us.  On Ash Wednesday, Eric spoke of being honest during Lent.  Maybe we need to take a hard look at ourselves and to acknowledge our deep need to experience again and again, through renewal, Christ’s resurrection life?

In their book Hope against Hope, Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart consider the ‘impact of hope for God’s transcendent future upon the here and now.’  They speak of this possibility:

In our daily struggles with the patterns and forces of death, the Holy Spirit of life both sets us free from the bonds of the past and empowers us to move forward in hope, breathing new life into our shrivelled capacities and opening them up to receive a flow of power from God’s promised future.  Instead of being constrained by the prolongation of what has been and what is, we act in ways which are genuinely open to surprise, taking seriously the possibility of the new and unpredictable manifestations of what will finally be, in the midst of the here-and-now.

Peter speaks not only of hope but of ‘new birth’.   This is the work of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Some experience a dramatic conversion; others find that the Spirit of God gently leads them into a place of commitment and a desire to be re-created by the work of the Holy Spirit.   Before Benjamin was born, we were encouraged to write a birth plan.  Some parts went according to plan but most of what happened rewrote the text.  Similarly, our re-birth in God is our story.  It is our unique encounter with our loving heavenly Father.  However we tell our own tale, the following words of William Barclay explore what it means to be a new creation:

This rebirth lifts a man out of this world, of space and time, out of this world of change and decay, out of this world of sin and defeat, and brings him here and now into living touch with eternity and with eternal life.

Peter continues by speaking of God’s deliverance in the last days or times.  To begin to fully understand the concept of this word we need to look into the Greek.  The word used here is kairos.  In Greek we have two words for time: chronos and kairos.  Chronos really refers to clock-time, time that can be measured: the milli-seconds, the seconds, the minutes, the hours, the years, the millennia and so on.  It is a quantitative meaning of time.  Kairos is quite, quite different.  It is qualitative.  It values moments, and not seconds.  It refers to the right or opportune moment.  It is that moment when chronos time seems to stop and a new world is opened up.  There is a sense of fullness, abundance and ripeness contained within this word.

Perhaps a visual representation will help our understanding.  The Greeks liked to personify everything.  Chronos was one of the gods and resembled Old Father Time.  He was a weary figure with a bent back, a long beard and he carried a scythe and an hour-glass.

Kairos was by contrast a young man, handsome and lithe.  His statues could be found all across the Greek peninsula, but the most famous stood in now-ruined Sikyon.  He is depicted as standing on tiptoe, always running with wings on his heels.  He carries a pair of scales or a razor and he is ready to run after and catch the opportunity before it disappears.  He has the capacity to make things happen at the right time and he brings that instant, that fleeting instant which has to be made the most of, before it slips away.

I can remember a kairos moment when we first approached the airport in Johannesburg.  The landscape was a deep shade of brown and the green was duller than I had ever seen. We were due to meet my brother-in-law but his flight was a little late, so we waited in an arrivals’ hall.  The scene was a conglomeration of different cultures.  The heady aromas, the huge variety of dress, colours, the mystery of a hundred different languages and the perpetual buzz of it all sent me into a memorable spin.  Soon we found our dear relation and stepped out into the warmth of a South African day.  Awnings of a cream colour moved gently in the breeze.  It was a new culture.  Each of my senses was in a dance, a whirl, delighting in the newness, the freshness, the kairos experience.  It was ripe, opportune and life-giving. It is all that; it is the moment of the first kiss.  It cuts through time but lasts for an eternity.

Kairos is God’s dimension – one not marked by the past, the present, or the future.

Drawing on these ancient mythic images, we can explore the two kinds of time with deeper understanding.  Chronos is linear; it is mechanistic and devours with relentless certainty.  It turns life into stone but by contrast kairos is creative, living and is energised by dreams for the future and presents us with living, unlimited possibilities. It is a life-giver.

Archbishop Christopher Prowse, the Catholic Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn, speaks of this kairos time as ‘the favourable time.’ It is the opportune or right time. It is a great and supreme moment to refresh ourselves and come back to what is really important in life.  He acknowledges that by responding to the grace and invitation of the gentle murmuring of the Holy Spirit, we have a window of opportunity to respond in faith to what has been given. We do not really think about the next meeting or next task – but to the next life – our eternal life in Jesus! To respond to ‘Kairos’ we don’t need a watch or a clock (quantitative time). We need silence, stillness and simplicity (qualitative time)!

He adds that ‘the Church’s liturgical life comes to our rescue as always and offers us the Lenten Season. We need each of the forty days of Lent to enter into ‘Kairos’ (quality) time.’

Perhaps we can spend time finding some of this kairos imagination and creativity.  It may be that we can dream of the ‘not yet’, and believe it can be brought into the ‘now’.

Let us for a moment return to our resurrection hope.  Picture, if you will, our risen Lord standing with the disciples on that first Easter day.  Somehow this glorious scene of resurrection only begins to be fully true when we realise that our living Lord still bore the marks of his suffering.  Those to whom Peter writes are experiencing various trials.  Our Lord in his risen power with the marks of the nails and the sword can stand by them in their suffering.  Of course, those trials still go on today.  As Christians, in our western cocoon of fairly safe Christianity, we need reminding about the daily struggle that persecuted Christians experience the world over.  Barnabas Aid, a charity which seeks to bring hope to suffering Christians, unveils their situations to the public eye. Its most recent publication tells of the sufferings which Christians from India are experiencing:

Attacks against Christians include violent assaults, social exclusion and the sabotage of church buildings and houses which can force Christians to flee villages, damaging communities. Christians also face pressure to renounce their faith under threats of violence and boycotting,

In January 2017, Bartu Urawn, a 50-year-old Christian convert from a tribal area in eastern India, was tied up, along with his wife, and immersed in a cold pond for 17 hours by local villagers who demanded he renounce his faith. Bartu refused, saying repeatedly, “I will not deny Christ … I will continue to believe ‘til my last breath.” He died shortly afterwards – a subsequent police investigation concluded his death was due to “natural causes”.

Peter refers to the trials people of his generation are experiencing.  He does not minimise their effect on his fellow Christians but speaks of them as a refining processThe picture of a refiner is someone who works with metal and wants to make sure that metal is pure.  The refiner looks into the open furnace or pot and knows that the process of purifying is complete and the dross is burnt away when he can see his image plainly reflected in the molten metal.  This is how much God loves us.   He longs to see his image in us.  That is so encouraging and so full of hope, resurrection hope.

And so, as we bless the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for the resurrection hope that he provided for us, may we experience some kairos moments which will lead us to be those who can imagine great things for God and who are prepared to bring them into reality, knowing that we are heirs of a wonderful inheritance: imperishable, undefiled and unfading.  Amen.

The Reverend Jane Craw, Team Vicar 11/03/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne