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… Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith..And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 1 Peter 4:12-13; 5:6-10, NRSV
It’s funny how a sentence that seemed quaintly supernatural only a few months ago, for example, “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around,” can suddenly seem almost literal, given our current context. Scripture has a way of sitting in its little box for us to ponder, or to put on motivational posters of sunsets, until one day it up and smacks you in the face with its relevance–someone dies, you have a personal crisis, your country seems to fall apart–and all of a sudden, these Bible stories seem less about people walking around in the desert wearing sandals twenty centuries ago and more like they’re about us right now, today. We’re not entirely sure of the author of Peter’s letter, whether it’s Peter himself or one of his disciples, but whoever it was has popped up out of the scripture like a figure from a picture book to grab us by the lapels and say, “Hey buddy, I’m talking to you, you right now, 21st century America. This message is for you.”
Liturgical Christians shouldn’t be too surprised by that, because that experience of pulling a past event into our present reality and simultaneously being pulled by it into another reality is exactly what we experience in the Eucharist. Jesus said, “Do this and remember me,” and we do and we say he is with us and every so often we feel the inverse truth, that we are with him–we have dipped a toe into his eternal reality. This is, after all, what we seek in the religious quest, the experience of breaking the bonds of time and space and entering into something beyond ourselves.
Getting Our Act Together
So now that “Peter” has gotten our attention what does he want? Despite all that apocalyptic language–the fiery ordeal, sharing in Christ’s sufferings…the devil himself–the advice is simple: be humble, discipline yourself, cast your anxiety on God. In other words, stop focusing on all the turmoil in the world, focus on yourself. It’s easy to focus on others and what they’re doing wrong, but in dangerous times, this text tells us, look at yourself and what you need to be doing. Get your own act together.
That doesn’t mean to retreat from or ignore what’s happening in the world. There’s another short phrase in this text that I would have read differently a few months ago: “resist him.” Maybe some of you have attended protests or town halls or used resistbot. But there’s another short phrase added here to that resistance, “steadfast in your faith.” What if resistbot and all other activists and causes vying for your attention invited you to say a prayer before taking an action? To see resistance as not only something out there in the world but something to cleanse your own soul, an action taken in humility, with a request to God to know and understand the right path?
Some have equated the current state of our democracy with the travails of fascist regimes during WWII, so let’s think about Germany. That nation spent the entire first half of the 20th century under almost complete darkness and evil, it had fallen as low as it is possible to go, but imagine if you had told our fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers who died in trenches and liberated the death camps that someday the world would be looking to Germany for guidance and leadership, would see their chancellor, Angela Merkel, as being the leader of the free world. Germany got their act together. It doesn’t mean they are perfect but neither are they “very bad,” and considering how far they’ve come it’s astonishing progress.
Last week, one of my husband’s and my indoor cats, Clio, got out of the house through a broken window screen, and we were frantic, looking for her. The next day, she still hadn’t come home, and I was a bundle of anxiety. I couldn’t think or focus on anything except fear and worry about her. So finally, not knowing what to do, I did what I should’ve done all along. I prayed, casting my anxieties on God. I hoped that, like in a movie I would open my eyes and Clio would magically have returned. That didn’t happen. But what did happen is that I had renewed my spirit enough to be able to focus again and do what I needed to do.
Clio, thank God, found her way home early the next morning. But the reality is, we rarely have assurance of how our personal anxieties will turn out. We place those anxieties in God’s hands not because we believe in a magical outcome, but for the help it offers our own souls in difficult times. When it comes to our collective anxieties, though, we do have the assurance of history, that even if a situation is at its absolute lowest point, someday God will turn it towards good. By casting our communal anxieties on God and turning towards our work of resistance with faith, we will ultimately get something like a magical outcome, Christ will “restore, support, strengthen, and establish” us, as Peter’s letter promises. Those are not empty promises, they are self-evidently true. We would not be able to read these words and share this sacrament despite the persecutions endured by Christians in the Roman Empire if our forebears were not able to pass them along to us. For that matter, none of us would be here if our ancestors did not survive to birth us into existence. The same holds true for our democracy; it will survive because we will pass it on.
I don’t mean to imply that democracy is in any way equivalent to our Christian faith, but I use the idea of democracy as an analogy because it is reassuring to be reminded that governments have endured worse than what we’re going through now and survived similarly to the fact that our ancestors in the faith endured worse than us and survived. That should give us hope to confront any anxiety, whether it arises from external events or the small shocks of our daily lives.
The way forward involves resistance, it may involve facing the devil himself, or at least something like a roaring lion. But as we move forward, we will humble ourselves, remain steadfast in our faith, cast our anxieties on God and never let ourselves be devoured by them.
Based on sermons preached at Sophia Alternative Worship and St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Los Angeles