A sermon by, Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.
The Third Sunday of Easter
I Peter 1:17-23
May 4, 2014
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19; Luke 24:13-35; Acts 2:14a, 36-41
When Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, he told one last story to make sure people understood what he was telling them.
Matthew 7:24-27 (J.B. Phillips New Testament)
24-25 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a sensible man who builds his house on the rock. Down came the rain and up came the floods, while the winds blew and roared upon that house—and it did not fall because its foundations were on the rock. 26-27 “And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not follow them can be compared with a foolish man who built his house on sand. Down came the rain and up came the floods, while the winds blew and battered that house till it collapsed, and fell with a great crash.”
When the heat of your life rises and you are sorely tested, some things fall away while other things become more firmly fixed than ever. In those moments of testing, you come to clarity about what really matters. You may come to see your life is an illusion, empty and meaningless. Or when tested, you may discover beneath it all there your values and purpose become clear and you resolve to go on.
This first-century letter is written directly into the face of persecution and severe resistance. In the harsh reality of such suffering, the biblical writers compared those times to the process of purifying precious metals in which a fire would be stoked until its super-hot embers glowed. The precious metal would be heated until it reached its melting point. The hard metal would break down in the heat from its normal hard state to melt down to a thick, gooey, super-hot liquid.
Kept in the heat long enough, the impurities separate themselves from the metal itself and rise to the top where they are skimmed off and discarded. Only in that process can hidden impurities be removed from the metal; only after it has been purified is it considered a precious metal.
The church has always had to interpret harsh times of persecution as a form of internal purification. None of us volunteers to be tested by such conditions. No wants their lives to melt down in order for the impurities to be removed, but that’s the explanation the people of God have given one another when trying times come along.
Someone has to answer the question, “Why are we suffering?” Whether it was the people of Israel in captivity to the Egyptians or the Babylonians or the Assyrians or whether under the threat of tyrannical Roman dictators, the people of faith have always understood that “something deeper” occurs under the fiery tests of persecution.
Peter’s letter points to that “something deeper.” His letter is a word of preparation. It’s a message of hopefulness in the midst of those harsh times. It’s an attempt to answer the existential question, “Where is God when I suffer?” It’s also the encouragement to help the church know how to live together purposefully whether being persecuted or not.
Some might say that it is through persecution that the church learns how to be what it is meant to be in its purest form. Study church history and what you discover are stories of excess and distraction. When the church has existed free from outside domination and oppression, it has not taken long to wander from its mission. The church has taken every wrong turn imaginable.
Yet, a study of the persecuted church throughout the ages shows a paradox of persecution in which the church is alive, vibrant, and healthy. In suffering, the church knows what it is called to be and do. It remembers it is here to serve and to love. The persecuted church has little time for meaningless theological debates and discussions. The persecuted church places its values on different things and remembers it is called by Christ to minister to the world. During times of persecution, the congregation understands how important each member is to the vitality of that congregation. They love one another and look after each other.
We don’t seek persecution, but we understand that when persecution comes, there is something of great value received as the gift of purification.
The church was not immune to oppression and persecution in Central America during the 1980’s when we were secretly involved in the long struggle for democracy in many of those countries. Our own country seemed to be struggling with knowing its role in the protection of the fundamental rights of the people. Consequently, many people disappeared and were known to be victims of the war. They were usually killed and buried. Many were never found.
It was Archbishop Romero’s practice to read at the Eucharist, the names of those members who had “disappeared” or been called during the previous week to the Church Triumphant. As the prayers of the community were spoken, the names would be lifted up, one after another. As a sign of their love for one another and as a sign of their solidarity together in the midst of suffering, the congregation would respond to each name by boldly proclaiming, “Presente!” (Present!). It was a simple sign, but it was deeply meaningful for those who survived that they would not allow silence to be the only response to the suffering and death of one of their own congregation in the face of nationalistic persecution.
Something about the power and principle of resurrection is set free in the church despite the pain of suffering that persecution intends. The resurrection of Jesus was God’s answer to the penalty of death. What man intended for evil God overturned in the resurrection. And that is what we are instructed to believe as well. The principle of resurrection is alive and well among the persecuted church. Despite the fear of death and the agony of suffering, the persecuted church understands that the power of God is still free to do its work.
It’s the power of love that we must discover if we are to have the resources to make a difference in our world. We cannot forget that we are called to love those around us and those within the family of God.
The church has always struggled in remembering this. Dorotheos of Gaza, a 6th century teacher, once preached a sermon for the monks in his monastery who were grumbling that they were unable to love God properly because they had to put up with one another’s ordinary, irritating presence. “No,” Dorotheos told them, “they were wrong.” He asked them to visualize the world as a great circle whose center is God, and upon whose circumference lie every human life. “Imagine now,’ he asked them, ‘that there are straight lines connecting from the outside of the circle all human lives to God at the center. Can’t you see there is no way to move toward God without drawing closer to other people, and no way to approach other people without coming near to God?’
The lesson that persecution had to teach the early church was a radical realignment of their values. Those things they had previously thought were important turned out to be worthless and empty. And those things they had overlooked because they weren’t considered of worth turned out to be the very things needed. Our problem is that we place more emphasis on our things than on the people in our lives. The value of persecution is that we are forced to see them both in a new light.
The salvation of our souls has been bought with the imperishable blood of Christ. We have the experience of our baptism as a sign of God’s grace to help us remember who we are.
Go now back into the world that you may take a courageous stand for God for all the right purposes in all the right places wherever your life goes
 Frederick Trost, “Confessing Christ and the Future of the Church: A Call for Continuing Theological Work,”
found in Prism: A Theological Forum for the UCC
 Quoted by Roberta Bondi, Memories of God: Theological Reflections on a Life, Abingdon, 1995