Fourth Sunday after Easter 2008—April 13, (South) Baghdad, Iraq
Readings: Acts 6:1-9; 7:2a, 51-60; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” These are the words of Jesus in John 10:10. Yet we see in our reading from Acts chapter 6 that Steven mentions that the messengers of God are persecuted. Steven is stoned to death. And in our Epistle reading that suffering is a normal part of life.
To one standing on the outside, these events do not sound like the abundant life. St. Peter tells his readers that suffering is what you are called to do. He said in 1 Peter 2, “But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”
This all sounds a little morose to me. It sounds more like the thief that “comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:9). Steven paid the ultimate price, Peter telling his readers that they are called to suffer for doing right, this does not sound like abundant living.
Digging a little deeper we see St. Steven asking God to forgive those that were killing him. Luke, the writer of Acts tells us while Steven was dying that, “…he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’”
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” What grace under fire. What strength of character.
Peter records in 1 Peter 2 concerning Christ saying, “When he (Christ) was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.”
How can this be abundant life? Consider that the ability to endure these things with such courage, strength and grace proceeds from an abundant life.
The scriptures rightly acknowledge that there is suffering in the world. Suffering is a reality that is as plain as day. To deny suffering would be a naive idealistic view that is not present in scripture. What is given to us in scripture is a context for suffering and most importantly—the hope that comes only from Christ.
Peter points out two kinds of suffering. There are other kinds of suffering but they are not addressed here. The first kind mentioned is when one suffers because they brought it upon themselves through wrong actions—this kind is avoidable; and the suffering that may result from doing what is right.
Choosing to follow Christ does not eliminate those sufferings. In fact, in some cases it may bring them on. The Christians in this local community (Iraq) we now serve are a modern day example of suffering. Many have suffered for their faith in Christ. And this is not the first century. It is the 21st century and people still suffer for what they believe. Many have been driven from their homes, their property taken, lives threatened and many have died.
Yet we are told by Christ that he has come to give those who hear His voice abundant life. What is this abundant life? Is it wealth and prosperity? No, not as the world measures these things; but yes, the way God measures them. Is it a life free from danger and hard work? Absolutely no!
Just as in last weeks Gospel reading, the story of the two men on the road to Emmaus, God will be with us every step of our journey. But we must still make the journey. We must recognize His presence.
I believe abundant Christian life is simply this: the realization that the risen Lord is with you at all times and in all places and in every situation, providing the courage, strength, grace and wisdom to face whatever comes your way.
When we learn to hear and recognize His voice we realized that our Good Shepherd is watching over us, His sheep (John 10:4). And know no matter what the thief may do, our Shepherd will provide what we need.
When we grow in that reality we gain new levels of freedom and joy that goes beyond our comprehension. The problems of this life grow dim in the light of His glorious grace.
In the same way, our responsive reading, Psalm 23, we see the Shepherd with him every step of the way—even through the valley of the shadow of death. He was not removed from the valley; he was not removed from his enemy. Nevertheless, he feared NO evil. Why? Was it because he was a good worrier? Was it because he was strong and smart? No. He feared no evil because he knew that God was with him.
Notice it does not say that the evil, danger or his enemies were taken away. The Psalmist says, “Because you are with me, I will fear no evil.”
Our Gospel reading in John does not say that the thief has been bound and banished and that he is no longer active. This, I believe, will be become the reality at the appointed time in history. Here we simply find Jesus stating what He does for those who know His voice.
Suffering will come. Life and individuals will throw all sorts of things at us. It may even come when we are doing all the right things; and sometimes because we are doing the right things.
How did Peter say Jesus responded to wrongs done him and suffering? 1 Peter 2 says that, “When he was abused, he did not return abuse.” Wow. The text goes on to say that, “when he suffered he did not threaten.”
What did our Lord do when these difficulties were taking place? It says that, “he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.”
My brothers and sisters, our Lord is not the only one who behaved this way. Steven did much the same as he was being stoned to death. It is possible for us too. We can respond to suffering with courage, strength and grace. How?
It starts by entering in the gate. That is Christ. He is the gate. When we are in him, listening to his voice, we will find what we need. We are His sheep, we know His voice; but we do not always listen. Perhaps there are times we do not want to listen. Nevertheless, He is there and His voice is guiding us and providing us through the Hold Spirit all that we need.
As we take Holy Communion lets quiet ourselves and listen. Listen to the voice of our Shepherd. Listen as He communes with us and guides us into the abundant live He has provided for us.
We must listen to His voice in the good times and come to know it well. So when the difficult times of suffering come, here or back home, we are in tune to His voice.
We can have the abundant life now. We do not have to wait until He makes all things knew. We can walk in victory now, even as we await His coming again. As we grow and increase our awareness of His presence, we will notice more and more the abundant life that He has provided.
When we, as Peter told us Jesus did, “entrust ourselves to the one who judges justly”, and listen to the voice of our Shepherd we will ever increase in living out the reality of our abundant life. Amen.
(I pray you are blessed and encouraged by reading these thought on Scripture preached during my second tour to Iraq.)