Former/Future Messages Referenced:
Youtube Video: The Love Map Pt. 1
Youtube Video (coming THIS SUNDAY): The Love Map Pt. 2
Today we continue with 1 Peter.
When Peter was writing, the Church (or the movement of Christ’s followers) were in a bit of an identity crisis. Jesus–the Messiah–had been executed, rose from the dead and actually remained on earth for 40 days. There were figures in Biblical history who rose from the dead, but all of them immediately went to Heaven. They didn’t stick around. They certainly didn’t eat with their friends and didn’t impart words that were both from beyond the grave and yet very much of this earth. When Jesus did finally ascend to sit at the right hand of his Heavenly Father, there was a bit of a “what’s next?” problem.
Jesus had told his followers what it meant to be a Christian and, in my video sermon of last week (The Love Map Pt1)and the upcoming sermon this week (The Love Map Pt2) we know that Jesus spelled it out.
In one word, it was all about L-O-V-E.
Once Jesus had returned to Heaven, Christians found that the execution of this message was a little difficult. Paul, who was a Roman Jew who persecuted early Christians, definitely had his own ideas. Peter, the first Bishop of Rome (or Pope), had some others–which is what we get here.
Everyone pretty much agrees, it’s all about love: love of God, love of Christ, and love of others.
The problem is while Christians pretty much had love of God and love of Christ down pat, it was the “third love” that was proving difficult. You can love your fellow human being all you want, but are they going to love you back?
The answer during the first few centuries of Christianity (and, in fact, in parts of the world today) was a decided “no.”
A Christian can love his/her enemy as much as s/he wants, but, well, what if his/her enemy wants him very much dead because the Christian is–well–Christian. Thus opens the discussion of the persecution of Christians in the early centuries A.D. (or C.E.).
A Little History Lesson on Religious Persecution
This, of course, is a very complicated and in depth topic. I could write a whole sermon series on it, and many preachers before me have done just that. Multitudes of books have been written on the subject. But this, essentially, is the skinny.
First-Century Palestine was a small little country in the Roman Empire that enjoyed certain privileges despite the fact that it was most definitely occupied by a foreign empire. All subjects of the Roman Emperor were compelled to worship the emperor if not other Roman deities. However, Israel was exempt from this law. Jews were permitted to worship the God of Abraham. This was major. There is really no modern equivalent. While they didn’t exactly have the freedom of religion that now most of the Western world enjoys, they had the best deal going in the Roman Emperor.
When Jesus was born in roughly the year 0 (or, to be more accurate, between 6 and 4 BC/BCE), he formed a movement within Judaism. He was attempting to correct what had gone wrong in Judaism, to show the children of Israel what God really wanted, what he really meant. So, Christians (or “little Christs”) were emulating Jesus in all ways.
However, with this belief that they were right and Judaism was mistaken, a bit of a problem arose.
If Christians were in fact Jews who were following the true Messiah (or prophet, priest, and/or king), then they could worship as they chose. They did not need to convert and they would not be executed for their faith. This would have been the more pragmatic choice.
However, Christians (after the death of Christ) chose to publicly state that they were a new religion and as they included more and more gentiles in their ranks, this became more and more obvious.
As a separate religion that did not include Emperor worship, early Christians were suddenly experiencing active discrimination and persecution. With this discrimination and persecution came a decided lack of love from their fellow humans and a great deal of suffering (physical, emotional, religious, psychological, et cetera).
Where is the LOVE? (yes, I did just quote JT)
So, Christians love God and love Christ, and through Christ God loves Christians, and Christians love their “fellow man” (term used in the historical sense and refers to all of humanity) … but “fellow man” is not feeling the love or remotely returning it. This is The Love Map gone wrong.
Early Christians are suddenly in a conundrum. It’s all about spiritual love and this should, in theory, recreate the Garden of Eden (re: earthly paradise) for all Christians to enjoy, but “that ain’t happenin’“. Instead, Christians are persecuted by their family, friends, neighbors, and the Roman Empire at large.
This is new territory. Early Christians, if you remember, are either converted Jews (who had certain privileges under Roman Law in regards to the practice of their religion) and converted gentiles (who were used to being privileged Roman citizens and suddenly, well, weren’t anymore).
The question becomes how do they handle it?
And that’s where Christian suffering comes into play.
To Suffer as Christ Suffered
The early apostles suddenly had to explain why this was happening and why their converts shouldn’t jump ship. When people suffer persecution of any kind, there is a desire to hide or assimilate so there will no longer be said persecution. The third option, however, is to fight back (verbally, physically, or politically, among other options).
Early Christians did not have the option of fighting back in the traditional ways. To openly oppose would mean a death sentence (and this led to early Christian martyrdom).
That’s not to say that early Christians did not have some sort of a game plan, or that they did not develop one pretty quickly.
The Christian religion has gone through several iterations and multiple philosophies during the two thousand years it’s been practiced on the planet. In early Christianity, LOVE translated into non-violence (this is in stark contrast with the crusades of the Middle Ages, to name one example). Love equals non-violence equals “turn the other cheek” (if some hits you, offer the other cheek so s/he can do it again) equals do not verbally fight back equals suffering in silence.
It is very human not to want to suffer in silence. We, as humans, want people to know. It goes against our natures.
So, how did the early leaders of the church manage it? How did they get Christians to not only reconvert to emperor worship/Judaism/something else?
They reminded Christians that they were “little Christs”, that they were emulating Jesus in every way possible.
Jesus undoubtedly suffered throughout his thirty (or so) years on earth, the crucifixion being the crowning glory of said suffering. Whatever we go through, Christians were told, Jesus went through much, much worse and he never complained. Ergo, if Jesus could do it and if we want to be like Jesus, we will accept suffering and not broadcast our emotional pain.
This was serious propaganda at the time–and it was very successful. The idea has endured throughout the history of Christianity.
Modern Psycho-Babble from Someone Who’s NOT a Psychiatrist
The idea that “we suffer because Christ suffers” has proved to be both comforting and able to resist erosion over centuries upon centuries of our history.
Jesus loves us so he suffered.
We love Jesus (and, as a side note, our “fellow man”) and so we accept our earthly suffering.
Powerful stuff. If I were looking in from the outside (and I can only guess), I would wonder who drank the coolaid? And that is an easy attitude to have. It’s simple and dismisses the motivations behind us.
We’re human. No one actively wants to suffer. We don’t want to be in pain. We don’t want to be lonely. We don’t want to be ostracized. We’re social creatures who like to be happy and physically well.
But here’s the thing, here’s why we drank the coolaid, we are not yet in heaven. Although Christ has prepared a place for us, “the time ain’t right.” We’re here on earth, and despite our best efforts to sustain “The Love Map”, things are never going to be perfect. Even if everyone loved each other, there would still be plagues and pandemics and natural disasters (among other things).
And we suffer. Here, in the now. The knowledge that Jesus went through much, much worse and survived to claim his place in heaven is comforting. The fact that we (as Christians) know that God loves us through thick and thin is comforting. The belief that there is something better waiting for us once we leave this world is comforting.
That’s the power of the message of today’s Bible reading. It’s not only true (and we know it’s true as we are believers) but it’s so comforting. And what’s wrong with the truth proving a comfort?
It’s only human, after all.