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Ascension Sunday (part 2 of 2)

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In the context of I Peter 4:12-19, is the suffering church. In the first century and for several centuries afterward, Christians were murdered: burned, fed to lions, crucified. In the time Peter was still alive, Nero burned Christians as torches to light his garden at night. When Peter says, “do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you,” it is hard not to think of Nero’s actions against Christians. Peter is more likely talking about ordeals in the sense of, yes martyrdom, but also not being led into temptation in denying Christ, as Peter did years before. But Peter is also referring to gold being refined by fire. That our trials may temper us to become more like Christ. Because Peter witnessed Christ’s resurrection and glory—(Greek Doxa) revealing that he was the Christ, Peter was given fortitude to proclaim the gospel or good news no matter the cost. Peter encourages us Christians to view our trials as sharing in Christ’s sufferings and glory. Since the Spirit of glory rests on us Christians because of Christ incarnate, we are blessed—though trial does not seem a positive. Peter who witnessed Christ raising Lazarus, healing the sick, the blind, delivering those afflicted by spirits or demons, enacting countless miracles, but then being resurrected after what seemed to be all hope lost; Peter lives in the embrace of joy no matter what affliction of the world or the devil assails him. Now by joy I mean, longsuffering and endurance with a burning passion in the heart for Christ, for the heavenly home, while continuing Christ’s mission in the time given to Peter. I do not mean joy as putting on a good face in the midst of trial and persecution.

Peter in hope had faith that no matter what affliction assailed him, a faithful Creator was with him in his trial because he knew Christ—who was God. He knew the trials were part of this journey with Christ. “For the world will hate you because they hated me,” as Christ said.

If anyone has ever read Dante’s Divine Comedy, something may ring of value here. Dante is in the middle of his life—he’s middle-aged and has wandered off the path. He finds himself in a dark forest. In his vision, he meets Virgil who leads him through Hell (in part one Inferno). Dante goes down, he descends. He witnesses the horror, the pitiable reality of sin. He must understand and learn to be disgusted by his sin, but really sin in general. He is then led to Purgatory where he ascends the mountain to be purified or sanctified—this refining of goldby fire or trial that Peter speaks of, so that he may enter heaven. Finally, as Dante’s guide is left in Purgatory, Dante witnesses each level of heaven—truly seeing and understanding goodness. Like Dante, we must descend—seeing that we need help--so that we may ascend with Christ. Christ did the very same, but perfectly. He descended in humility, died, but ascended bringing us up with him—to be in union with him.

As a pilgrim on this journey through faith and toil, I too have gotten lost in the woods descending the road to hell—sometimes realizing daily how pitiable I am in my sin. But I have also been on the mountain ascending while enduring trial like Dante in Purgatory. Being refined like gold in the fire, which isn’t pleasant, but for our good. Part of this Christian pilgrimage is enduring the road of suffering, but with our eyes, hearts and minds looking upward for help, for strength, in plenteous times of struggle. We learn to lift our eyes to heaven. I have to be reminded almost constantly to do so especially through hardships.

For whatever God’s will is for our lives, we trust that our Creator is faithful. Peter knew and walked with the faithful Son of the Creator. We also, though we do not see him, walk with him. Let our hearts be on fire as Peter’s and the other disciples and apostles hearts were. They were so excited about the good news that Christ brought, that they were willing to die for their beliefs.

I caught a very small glimpse of this joy when in Israel. Being in a place where Christ walked, where the apostles spread the gospel lit my heart on fire. If I had to die for my beliefs while in Israel, I would have—though I may have been somewhat idealistic. But in truth, if there were a time in this country where Christians were persecuted, burned, shot, hung, murdered, I pray that God would give me strength to not deny my faith and be a witness to the church—in persecution, the church grows.

Yet not every trial is because we are Christians, but because we are Christ followers, we are prime targets. Later in Peter’s epistle chapter five v. 7 Peter urges us to cast our anxiety on the Lord because he cares for us. He urges us to be vigilant because the devil seeks those whom he will devour. Truly we are not in a time of martyrdom (at least in America) but let us be vigilant in our faith that we do not wander off the path and seek self-indulgence, worldly pleasure or thought, or even flirt with demonic powers. We live in a soft tyranny trying to expunge religion from public life. We live in a world that deems Christians as bigots without thoughtful dialogue, but by assumption. In this post-Christian age, let us not become complacent.

In John 17 we see Christ who is fully God and fully man praying for his followers. By accepting the will of God to endure the cross and a terrible death, Christ redeemed his creatures and creation. By Christ’s resurrection, we too may rise with him because he took on flesh and our fallenness, our sin. The church also rises with him carrying out Christ’s mission to the world caught in darkness. As individuals, we accept Christ, dying with him in the baptismal waters, rising again by the Holy Spirit that dwells in us. The church suffers because the world, meaning those caught in the lie of the devil, hated Him first. The Christians are martyred; the church grows.

Christ at the Last Supper also prayed for unity. The church today is splintered into many fragments, but the truth is that Christ Jesus is the foundation of them. One day at the end of all things, we will be perfectly united under Christ and little quibbles will be chaff and dust, we will see and know firsthand who truly matters in all things, as we are given the mind of Christ. Let us lift our eyes to the heavens as our Lord did, as the Psalmist did and seek our help from above. “Our God is a God of salvation, and to God, the Lord, belong deliverances from death.” Be encouraged when suffering, this is not our end. Though we may be beaten down or trampled on, our glory with the one glorified awaits us. The glorified incarnate Son knows our sin, our suffering—he is our hope and the one who saves us from peril—Hosanna means “come to our aid” or “save, we ask.” Though in the temporal we may suffer daily as Peter, Paul, and other disciples did, our rest is in Christ. Christ is our end. Let us ascend the mountain as Christ guides us to the heavenly kingdom. Like Dante, let us see how pitiable, pathetic, and disgusting our sin is that we may learn through purification—being given the mind of Christ—the goodness, truth, and beauty that is the great I AM. Let us walk humbly with our Lord as he leads the church toward him—leading us up, lifting us up. Christ is our end to be united with him. As we travel this perilous road, as Peter said “let those suffering in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good.”

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