1 Peter 1:3-9
He has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
It probably goes without saying, that being a Christian now is a very different experience from being a Christian when Peter first wrote his letter. And not simply because of the massive historical, social and technological changes that have taken place in the intervening 1900 and some years. There is of course the whole history of the Church that stands between us. Peter writes within a generation of the events that sets the Church in motion. That means, of course, he writes within living memory of the resurrection. The Christians he wrote to were few in number and the faith which the held was new, handed on to them directly by those who had experienced its founding events first hand, We stand at the end of a long succession of predecessors who have handed the faith on from generation to generation. Above all, for the earliest generations of Christians, Christian life was experienced as “new birth.” The first generations really felt themselves born again. Not in the sense of some relatively narrow experience, but as an utterly changed reality in their lives. One was not born into a faith community, the Church. That community barely existed. Christians didn’t live surrounded by other Christians. Almost none of the people who Peter wrote to were born into Christian families and raised within the Church. They were not brought into church from the earliest moments of their lives. The Christians Peter wrote to chose to become Christians. That choice often, usually, involved leaving behind an old life, its securities and its certainties. It meant leaving behind a settled relationship with neighbours and community, and often meant setting oneself in opposition to them. It meant beginning a new life with whole new set of priorities that brought with it risk and insecurity but also great blessing They had consciously entered a new life, for them becoming a Christian really was being born again.
For us probably the reverse is true. For most of us being part of the Church is the only life we have known. I certainly can’t remember when I wasn’t part of a Church. Like most of us my natural birth and my “rebirth” as a Christian through baptism happened at virtually the same time, no more than a matter of weeks or months between. There was no life to be left behind to become a Christian. The only experience we could have, that would create that sense of a transformation so dramatic that it would be experienced as a new life, a rebirth, would be to leave the church or to convert to another religion. Not that I am suggesting that we should. It is just that our experience is the opposite from that of Peter’s first readers.
One aspect of being a Christian that is different for us, and we are probably very glad about it, we don’t really have to suffer for it. Despite our frustrations, despite the loss of prestige and influence that the Church has experienced in the last couple of generations, despite all the discouragements we have experience, our faith does not come at the cost of suffering. One of the clearest markers that becoming a Christian was to take on a new life was that to enter the Church was to join a persecuted minority. Peter was writing to people who were suffering. His letter is one of encouragement. He is trying to help them to see their suffering in the light of their faith which sustains them. Holding onto faith in the face of all that would prevent them, even destroy them, this Peter says is like a refining fire. They can only come out of such experiences with a purer and stronger faith. We are rightly glad that we don’t have to suffer for our faith like the first Christians did.
But on the other hand because our faith has seldom been put to the test in that fundamental, life threatening way, it may not have had the opportunity to become as strong as their. The dynamics of their church and ours is perhaps instructive: Theirs was persecuted, but it was rapidly expanding and spreading, ours is largely ignored and dismissed as irrelevant, and it is aging and declining. The problems which the first generations of Christian endure, the suffering they bore gave a clarity to their experience of faith which ours lacks. In the face of their suffering they needed encouragement, which Peter provided. Our experiences are different but we need encouragement just as much, maybe even more. Which actually Peter provides, from the same place: The Resurrection.
Another thing that goes without saying is that the Resurrection is at the very heart of Christian faith and hope. This is the Good News: God has raised Jesus from the dead. That Good News brings an end to despair, either to the desperation of those facing persecution, or to the discouragement that we experience. Jesus is raised, the first fruit, the pioneer of the general resurrection from the dead that always figured as part of how God’s kingdom would be established. The great surprise on Easter morning was not that Jesus was raised, as such. But that only one person should be raised in this way, at least initially. The expectation which this creates, and which replaces fear, and despair and discouragement. The expectation is that if Jesus is raised, his followers will follow him in due course. Jesus’ resurrection becomes the guarantee of the resurrection for all the rest of his followers. This begins a new life of hope, which regardless of the circumstance we find ourselves in, amounts to rebirth, being born again. There is a clear parallel between the resurrection of Jesus and the new birth of Christians. Both move from death to life. Jesus was resolute in the face of death, the challenge he faced was greater than any we are likely to face. His resoluteness was sustained by his trust in God, his faith, his hope in the promises which God has made. His life becomes the model for our life. The resurrection demonstrates that Jesus’ faith and hope was not misplaced. And demonstrates neither is ours misplaced
One of the things we might try to do is be optimistic. Look on the bright side, try to convince ourselves that everything will turn out for the best. We do it in church. In the face of decline, try to reassure ourselves that something will turn up. People will come back to us, some how. And the church we love and everything it entails will be able to continue as we want it. But in life more generally; in the face of financial difficulty, we expect to turn a corner; in the face of breaking relationships, we anticipate reconciliation; In the face of illness, we look for recovery. But so often our optimism is merely a denial of reality. Churches close. Financial woes may continue and deepen. Relationships do break down irretrievably. And for all of us there will be an illness from which we won’t recover that will end in death. Optimism is dangerous and harmful because it disappoints. It is unrealistic. Reality crushes optimism and leaves despair behind. Which is only shorts steps from frustration and anger that might follow as a destructive wake. It was not optimism that Peter encourages and which sustained the first generations of Christians. It is not optimism which will sustain us. It is hope. The difference between the two is that hope is not founded on an illusion. It is founded on truth, on a reality, on the Resurrection. Christ’s resurrection is the source of that hope, because it brings us, as Peter puts it:
Into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.
Jesus resurrection demonstrates that God offers us something that cannot wear out, will never be corrupted and will always be bright. It is out of the reach of the circumstances of this world, the up and downs of history, the vagaries of Church growth and decline, economic hardship, the fickleness of human relationship, health and even mortality. None of these can remove or even reduce what God holds out for us in Jesus’ resurrection.
There is a now and not yet quality to being a Christian. The not yet is what God promises, a final and everlasting indescribable and glorious joy. The now is something very different. The first generations of Christians endured an outcast status and frequent persecution. They did so, to everyone’s astonishment, rejoicing. Not because they were optimistic, but because of the hope they had in Christ’s resurrection. Our difficulties are perhaps sometimes rather less dramatic but no less real. It would be easy to become dispirited and downhearted, but our hope is the same as theirs, that God has prepared for us something that nothing can overcome or take from us. Which offers the possibility of a transformation of our lives so great that we would have to call it “rebirth.” As Peter encourages us:
In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have to suffer various trials.
Another sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter of Year A, based on the Thomas story, can be fond here.
Hope and Rebirth by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0