Andy Stanley - Showing Love In the Midst of Suffering
So here are three phrases that, well, they're not my favorites, and I own the fact that, well, 100% of this is on me, okay? These three phrases, they fuel my selfishness, they feel like an interruption, they force me to detour, they impede my progress. So, I'm owning all of that, but maybe you can relate. Here they are. While you're there, would you mind picking up? While you're out, would you mind stopping at? And, while you're at it, would you mind going ahead and?
Now, over the years, over the years, I have taught myself to respond to these questions with, happy to. Happy to, and I am happy to, once I get over the fact that there's no real reason not to be happy too. And, since, in most cases, Sandra is the one asking, I should be happy to. Well, because she does so much for me. And in most cases, whatever I'm being asked to do, isn't really that big of an inconvenience anyway. It just wasn't what I had planned to do. And when I'm being my very best version of me, I actually call her and say, "Hey, while I'm there, do you need anything else? While I'm out, while I'm at it". Besides, and you know this, like taking out the trash, or cleaning out the dishwasher, it's a lot easier when it's my idea to begin with.
So pray for Sandra. Anyway, we have been navigating the drama and the trauma facing first century Christians as described by Luke in the book of Acts. And over the past couple of weeks, we've discovered two really interesting, and I think instructive characteristics of the early church, two things that we should take to heart. First of all, and you'll remember this, when disaster struck, their first instinct was not to try to figure out what God was up to, instead, they focused on what they should be up to, in light of, and in response to what was going on. Specifically, they asked what they should do to help the people most impacted by the disaster.
So when Jesus' followers in Antioch heard that a famine would sweep through the entire Roman empire, well, they immediately started collecting money for the people far away in Judea, a group that would have a really difficult time surviving a famine of that scale. And, in an unprecedented move, this is so amazing, they began collecting funds for people they had never met, in a part of the world that most of them would never visit, whose culture was nothing like theirs. And never before, this is historically accurate, never before in recorded history had a local multicultural group felt responsible and responsibility for a group of people with whom they virtually had nothing in common. And this unique approach to generosity was fueled and informed by the message of Jesus.
God loved, so he gave, and Jesus instructed his followers to follow suit. To give, not just to the people who could return the favor, or to people who would look and act like the people around them, he said we're to give to strangers, to Gentiles, to Samaritans, even to Romans, even to our enemies. And as that brand of generosity marked the early church, it should mark us as well, corporately and individually.
Then, the last time we were together, this was amazing, in fact, this was shocking. The last time we were together, we were confronted with their seemingly irrational faith in the face of random acts of violence, tragedy, persecution. I say irrational because when bad things happened they turned to God for comfort, even though they were confident that God could have kept those bad things from happening in the first place. Like us, they wondered why, but they kept believing, and they kept praying. Things didn't always add up, things didn't always make sense, but they maintained hope. They maintained hope, even when they didn't have explanations. And not because they were crazy, and not because they were desperate, and not because they were superstitious, because their leader, Peter, to whom many bad things have happened, Peter assured them that their hope was not in vain because their hope was anchored to an event, the resurrection of Jesus.
And, as an eye witness of both Jesus' crucifixion and his resurrection, Peter's words carried weight. They carried weight then, and they carried weight today. So, natural disaster, political upheaval, religious persecution, it was just another day in not paradise. And their death defying confidence in God, fueled by the teaching of Peter, is why, while there is no Roman Empire, there are churches in almost every major and minor city, town, and village, in the world today. And to the degree that our faith is anchored to what their faith was anchored to, we too can live with hope, that even though we don't always have good explanations, there is reason to believe.
So, when we left off last time, just to catch us up real quick in the narrative, when we last left off last time, James, the brother of John, was executed by Herod. You'll remember that. The crowd went wild. They wanted more Christian blood. So Herod had Peter arrested, but before he could be brought to trial, he was miraculously delivered from jail. Herod was embarrassed and went to the beach and was eaten by worms. You should read the Bible, it is very exciting. Anyway, so after Peter's miraculous escape from jail, you'll remember this, he immediately went to the home of a woman named, no surprise, Mary.
Now, this is important. When you read the New Testament, when you read the New Testament, it appears that every single woman in the New Testament is named Mary. And the question we should ask is, what is up with that? I mean, think about it, if you were making this stuff up, you wouldn't confuse your audience by naming all the women Mary, and all the men either John or James, right? But this is actually one of the reasons we believe the New Testament documents are reliable accounts of actual events. As it turns out, as it turns out, Mary was in fact the most popular female name in Palestine in the first century. And if you were making this stuff up, many years after these events, from another part of the world, you wouldn't know that.
Now, for more information on this, because this is so fascinating, I want to recommend a book that I've actually recommended before, it's entitled, "Can We Trust the Gospels"?. "Can We Trust the Gospels" by Peter Williams. This book is a fascinating look at the evidence for why we can trust Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the stories of Jesus. I highly recommend that. Anyway, back to the story, so Peter hightails it to Mary's house, he tells everybody there what had happened to him in prison, but in order not to endanger Mary and her guests, he slips out while it's still dark. And here's his final statement as he disappears into the streets, he says, "'Tell James,'" James, the brother of Jesus, "'tell James and the other brothers and sisters about what happened,' he said, and then he left for another place".
Now this is interesting, and we referenced this last time, Luke doesn't say where Peter went. In fact, nobody knows where Peter went. He lived his life on the run for about eight more years, he eventually makes his way to Rome, where he taught Christians, living in the shadow of the emperor. He was eventually arrested again, and while he awaited his trial in Rome, he dictated his memories of the life and teaching of Jesus to his traveling companion, John Mark.
Interestingly enough, this is the same Mark whose mother Mary was hosting the prayer meeting that Peter interrupted after being sprung from jail. Apparently here's what happened, imagine this moms, apparently, when Peter slipped out that night, Mark went to his mom, now moms, imagine this conversation, and Mark said to his mom, "Hey mom, is it okay if I go with Peter? He's got a price on his head. You'll probably never see me again, but please"? Right? As we've discussed before, Mark's account of Peter's exploits, as dictated in Rome, would eventually circulate around the empire as the gospel of Mark, but it was the story of Jesus. And I think Mark's mother was probably so proud.
Anyway, Peter is eventually executed during the reign of Nero, while in Rome. And the author of a late second century work claims that Peter, you may have heard this before, that Peter actually requested to be crucified upside down, but seeing as Roman soldiers didn't generally take requests from condemned criminals, it's highly unlikely, but who knows. But here's what we do know, while he was on the run, Peter dictated at least two letters to Christians. They come to us as First and Second Peter, and they're written to first century Christians who had been scattered throughout the empire because of the persecution that originated in Jerusalem.
So all over the empire, imagine this, these little house churches led by Christians, they're popping up all over the place, and no one knows exactly what to make of these things. I mean, these people, these Jesus followers, they weren't Jewish, but they weren't pagan, they worship the Jewish God, but they worshiped him on the wrong day of the week. They were good people, they were good citizens, but they weren't kosher. They formed their own little communities, but they weren't exclusive, they weren't elitist, they invited others in. And most amazing of all, they went out of their way to take care of people who nobody else was willing to take care of, but, there was a problem, and this was the sticking point.
One thing these Jesus followers, these followers of the dead Galilean would not do, is they would not sacrifice to or acknowledge local deities, local gods, and that was a problem. And here's the thing, in ancient times, adding a God, not a problem, right? People did that all the time, but ignoring the existing Gods, big problem. The last thing, the last thing ancient people, living on the edge as it was economically and nutritionally, the last thing they wanted to do is upset the gods, because fundamental to Roman religion and fundamental to culture, was the assumption that Rome, Rome, the empire of Rome, was eternal, but it was only eternal as long as Rome enjoyed the favor of the gods.
And the gods were infamously fickle and easily offended. Maintaining the favor of the gods really was a national security issue for Rome. If too many Roman citizens neglected the old gods and old ways to chase after some new God on the block, it would only be a matter of time before the old gods got angry and withdrew their favor. So, in fact, this was so embedded in ancient conscience, the ancient conscience of the Roman empire, that as Christianity began to spread locals began blaming Christians for anything and everything negative that happened in their neighborhood or the empire. Whether it was earthquakes, or floods, or military defeat, famine, plague, it's human nature, right? It's human nature to look for someone or someones to blame when things go bad, and the last place we look is in the mirror, and ancient people were no different.
In fact, scapegoating Christians was so common that Tertullian, an adult convert to Christianity, and the son actually of a Roman Centurion, made this observation. He wrote, "If the Tiber rises too high", now the Tiber River was the river that ran through the city of Rome. It was the source of their fresh water, it was a source of trade, but it was also part of their sewage system. And when it flooded, which it did quite often, it created problems on multiple levels. He goes on, he says this, "If the Tiber rises too high, or the Nile is too low", now, the Nile basin in Egypt was where Rome purchased the majority of its grain, and the Nile River was the source of irrigation in that region of the world.
So, when the Nile River ran too low, it resulted in a bad harvest, which would drive up grain prices, and oftentimes trigger civil unrest, and possibly even famine. And then here's what he says, he says, "If the Tiber rises too high or the Nile to low, the remedy is always feeding Christians to the lions". In other words, when anything, when anything went wrong in the empire, clearly the gods were upset, and the best way to appease the gods was to rid the empire of those who did not recognize the gods. So as you would imagine, this put these Christians in a very precarious position, wherever they lived in the empire, and Peter knew this.
So he writes to Christians throughout the empire to comfort and encourage them. We looked at a portion of his first letter last week, where he assured them that their suffering was not God's judgment on them, they hadn't done anything wrong. In fact, on the contrary, he said, "You're suffering, your suffering and your response to suffering, is a tool that God is gonna use to draw attention to himself". Now granted, speaking for me, speaking for you, we would rather that God provide us with a different tool, right? But think about it, you may, or maybe a friend of yours, or maybe a family member, but back to you, you may have actually been drawn to faith, or back to faith, after watching someone with faith navigate a difficult season, or navigate a tragedy.
So Peter wasn't wrong. So he says to these first century Christians, "This suffering that you're going through, this uncertainty that you're going through, these difficult times, it is a tool that God will use if you will respond correctly". Here's how he wrote it, he said, "These sufferings have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith", in other words, he said, if you get this right, people will not have any margin to doubt the genuineness, the authenticity of your faith. "These sufferings have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith, which is of greater worth than gold, will result in something, will result in praise, glory, and honor, when Jesus Christ is revealed".
This was basically his version of what Jesus said when he said, "Hey, let your light shine in such a way that people will see your good works, and look up, and discover, and give glory to your Father in heaven". But, and here's where we're going today, not only did Peter try to explain or contextualize their suffering, then he gives these suffering saints something to do, something to do while they're navigating the suffering that came along with simply being a Jesus follower. These were his, hey, while you're there, while you're out, and while you're at it, instructions.
While you're suffering, while you're being mistreated, while you're being misunderstood, there's something you should do in the meantime, and there's something you should not do. While you're suffering, while you're being mistreated, don't circle the wagons, and don't just sit around praying that Jesus returns soon. Instead, and this is what he asked them to do, and honestly, I think this is what our heavenly Father is asking all of us to do, he said, "While you're suffering, therefore, since Christ also suffered in his body", and since you are following Christ, he says this, "arm yourselves also, arm yourselves also with", and he says, literally, "I want you to go equip yourself with, I want you to go find this particular tool, this particular weapon, this particular item, and I want you to arm yourselves with it". To which we would say, "Arm ourselves with what"?
And listen to what he says, he says, "While you're suffering, I want you to arm yourself with the same attitude", the same perspective, the same way of thinking, the same way of thinking that Jesus had. In other words, consider Jesus' approach to suffering and ask how you can adopt that approach. But Peter does not leave it up to their imagination, or our imagination, as to what that looks like, he spells it out. Skipping down to verse eight, here's what he says, he says, "While you're suffering, while you're navigating the complexities of being a Christian in a pagan world, where you're blamed for everything that goes wrong in the neighborhood and the empire" he says, "while you're navigating all that, above all", above all, that is priority number one.
And what comes next shouldn't surprise us, especially coming from Peter, because what comes next he heard come from the lips of Jesus. He was there the night that Jesus established this command that replaced all the other commands. He was there that night that Jesus gave his apostles their marching orders, our marching orders. Peter says, "While you're suffering, while you're navigating the complexities of what's happening around you, love each other deeply". Unwaveringly, earnestly. Why Peter? Well, I mean, what does that have to do with suffering? What does that have to do with what we're going through? "I'll tell you", Peter says, "because love, this unique kind of one another love, this deep love actually covers over a multitude of sins".
His point was this, sin will divide you, love will unite you. Sin will divide you, love, the way that Jesus loves you, will unite you as a community of Christians. "You can't afford to be divided", he would say, people are watching and you need each other more than ever in this season of suffering. So while you're being mistreated, love each other deeply and don't let anything divide you. And then, he gets painfully specific. He says this, "And while you're loving deeply, here's what it looks like, offer hospitality to one another without grumbling". In other words, when you see a brother or a sister in need, whether it's food or a place to stay, provide them what they need, and take them in as Christ took you in.
And then he continues, and he says this, "While you're suffering, while you're navigating the uncertainty, while you're being tempted to circle the wagons and focus only on yourselves, each of you, each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, to serve others as faithful stewards". That is, you have gifts that are on loan from God. "As faithful stewards of God's grace in its various forms". So, as we say, "Wait, wait, wait, Peter, Peter, come on, do you have any idea what we're going through right now? I mean, that's a lot to ask, right? In fact, Peter, we don't even know where you are. I'm not sure you really realize what's going on right now". To which Peter May have replied, "Hey, it's true, I have asked a lot, I am asking a lot. Then again, the Father asked a lot of the Son on your behalf. While you were still a sinner, Christ died for you. And here's some good news, you don't have to die for anyone, just love them deeply, serve them, and offer hospitality. Love people in such a way that they look up".
And here's what's amazing, and we know this from history, that's exactly what these Christians did, they did exactly what Peter instructed them to do based on what Jesus had instructed his followers to do. And without raising an army, without really even raising their voice, they raised the dignity of the people around them, in the midst of the misery, the poverty, and the illness that characterized most ancient villages and cities, Christians, Christians in the early centuries, provided an oasis of mercy and compassion. Mercy and compassion are self evident to us, but it was so counter-cultural in that culture, but they embraced it anyway.
Again, while they were yet sinners, while they were yet sinners, while they were yet pagans, Christ, God, had died for them. And it wasn't his threats that led them to repentance. As Paul would write later, it was God's kindness that led them to repentance. Now, this change, this shift, was most evident when a series of epidemics laid waste to the Roman empire. Entire cities, entire villages, became graveyards. In fact, these regions were abandoned for a generation for fear that maybe the pestilence or the plague remained there.
And during one of these epidemics in the late second century, it's reported that there were over 5,000 deaths a day, just in the city of Rome. And when the pestilence broke out, the pagan priests, the civic leaders, and the wealthy, they fled to the countryside, but many Christians chose to stay. They had literally lost their fear of death. And when they stayed, they cared for one another, and as a result, the Christian communities fared far better than their pagan neighbors, but these brave Christians took things an unprecedented step further. They took what Peter said about hospitality to a level that no one expected, they cared for their pagan neighbors whose families had abandoned them. Neighbors who, in many cases, had previously refused to have anything to do with these Christians because they refuse to worship the gods, and they chose to worship a dead Galilean. And these astonished men and women were stunned by the kindness of this strange but powerful faith, these strange but compassionate people.
In fact, at the height of the, I guess it was the second great epidemic, which I'm sure in the ancient world felt like a pandemic. Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria actually wrote a lengthy tribute commending Christians who had remained behind to care for the sick, and in many cases, had given their lives to do so. Here's what he wrote, he said, "Most of our brothers showed unbounded love". There it is again, most of our brothers loved deeply. "And loyalty, never sparing themselves, thinking only of one another. Heedless", this is amazing, "heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life". He said, "Many of the Christian stayed behind, and as a result, lost their life". "The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation, so that in death in this form, the result", this is amazing, "the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal to martyrdom".
Now here's why this is so powerful, these men and women, these brave early Christians, did not die for what they believed, they died because they acted on what they believed. It's a reminder, as Jesus taught so often, that application, application is what makes the difference. Application, application is what gets noticed. That's why it's not enough for us to believe correctly, we must act on what we say we believe. We must behave courageously, selflessly. Our first century brothers and sisters took others first to a whole new level. In fact, in the same letter, Bishop Dionysius talks about the havens, the pagans.
Here's what he writes about them, he said, "The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the suffers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them, throwing them into the roads before they were even dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt". The selfless behavior of Christians became impossible to ignore. The pagan world took note. Christians showcased a category of compassion and generosity that got the attention of those in need, and eventually grabbed the attention of those who had gotten tired and grown tired of a culture characterized by greed. A culture that reflected, well, it reflected the values of their gods.
The pagan gods had no interest in what people did or how they fared. They were greedy for sacrifice. They threatened famine, and plagues, and war if they weren't satisfied, but the God of the Christians, the God of the Christians was different. The crucified God, the nailed God, as some would later refer to him, had come to earth to die for his subjects, and his subjects, in turn, gave to and cared for those who could not care for themselves.
Now eventually, and you know this, with the conversion of Emperor Constantine, which was like almost 300 years after the resurrection of Jesus, the empire, think of it, that crucified Jesus, embraced him as a living God. And whether Constantine's conversion was sincere or political, or maybe a combination of both, we will never know, but what we do know is that what began as a disenfranchised persecuted minority influenced the majority by refusing to employ the tools of the kingdoms of this world. Instead, they employed the way of their king. They gave, they served, and they loved, and the world changed. In fact, about 20 years after Constantine's death, a relative of his, Julian, became emperor. And at about the age of 20 Julian had abandoned Christianity and he reembraced the Roman gods, the gods of his ancestors.
In fact, he was convinced, like so many were, that the problems in the empire were the result of the gods being ignored. So he defunded the churches and he re-instituted the pagan priesthood, as well as pagan sacrifice. In fact, he tried to create pagan charities. Now there had never been a pagan charity because the pagan gods weren't charitable, but none of this worked, the return to paganism never got traction because the roots of Christian compassion were already too deep in the culture of the empire.
Julian, also known as Julian the Apostate, was so frustrated by his failure, nothing he instituted caught on. In fact, in a letter to the pagan high priest in Galatia, he was insisting that they distribute free grain and wine to the poor. And he said this, noting that, "Those impious Galileans", that's how he referred to Christians, "the impious Galileans, in addition to their own", in addition to taking care of their own people, "they support ours as well. It is shameful that our poor should be wanting our aid". But, there was no response to Julian's proposals because there were no doctrines, or traditions, for the pagan priest to build on.
Others first, give to those who cannot or will not return the favor, love your enemy, God is love, these were distinctly Christian ideas, and they appealed to the soul, they rang true. They pointed to a better way, to a better world, but, and this is so important, this is so important, when Peter originally, way back before all of this, when Peter originally instructed early Christians to practice hospitality, and generosity, and to love deeply, it wasn't a strategy for change, it wasn't a way to start a revolution, Peter did not, in fact, Peter could not have envisioned Rome capitulating to Christian influence. I mean, that was unimaginable.
In Peter's time, Rome was winning, and as far as Peter knew, Rome would always win. I mean, he didn't see compassion and virtue as a way to gain influence or to topple an empire, compassion, kindness, hospitality, love, for Peter, these were just the logical responses to the teaching of Jesus. Jesus' followers weren't instructed to be generous and compassionate in order to gain something or to win something. Peter was clear, they had already won. They had already gained something that you couldn't put a price on. Here's what he said, remember this? He said to these first century suffering Christians, he says to you, he says to me, "In God's great mercy, he has already given us new birth into a living hope", that cannot be taken away, "through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead". And there's more, "And to an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade". But in the meantime, while you're there, while you're at it, while you're up, live as if that's true. Live in response to God's gracious gift, eternal life.
Think of it, our right standing with God, the freedom, the freedom to forgive because you've been forgiven, the freedom from bitterness and rage, knowing there is a just God who will exact justice in his time and in his way. And in the meantime, while you're up, give, serve, love, not to change the world, although it might change, we give, and we serve, and we love, because that's our heavenly Father did for us, that's what your heavenly Father did for you, and that's all the reason that you need. Now, at the end of Peter's letter, there's something so subtle that most readers miss it, and I don't want you to miss it.
Here's how he closes this first letter that we call First Peter, he says this, he writes this, he says, "With the help of Silas, whom I regard as a faithful brother, I have written to you briefly", this means, I didn't actually write it, I dictated it, "I've written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it". And then something really interesting, some first century code. Now remember this, Peter is still on the run, he doesn't want anyone who intercepts this letter to know where he is or who he is with, less they fall into the wrong hands. So as he closes the letter, he closes with this, "She who is in Babylon. She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, send you her greetings, and so does my son Mark".
Now, when you get to this, of course, the first question is, who is she? And Babylon? He's in Babylon? Why would he be in Babylon? By the time that Peter wrote this letter, Babylon is now an insignificant city, hundreds of miles east of Jerusalem. So why was he in Babylon? Well, he wasn't, this was all code. Here's what he was saying, she refers to the church, and Babylon refers to Rome. He was hiding in the last place anybody would suspect, because the church was growing like crazy. The church in the city of Rome, the heart of the empire, was growing like crazy and long after the miracles, and long after the miraculous escapes had subsided, the counter-cultural generosity of the church continued to erode the old ways and to establish a better way.
A new kingdom, a different kind of king, and thanks to you and Jesus followers like you, that kingdom, the kingdom of conscience, the kingdom of generosity, continues to expand to this very day. And here's the thing, when it gets dark, when it gets dark it's easy for us to be consumed by and distracted by the darkness, right? That's when I'm most tempted, that's when I'm most tempted to just think about me, my family, my finances. The darkness, the uncertainty, the change, it tempts us all to pull up the drawbridge, to circle the wagons, to take a defensive posture, to close our hands, and to close our hearts.
And while there's wisdom in planning for the future, while there's wisdom in thinking ahead, there is nothing Christ-like about allowing uncertainty and instability to close our hearts and to close our hands toward others. In the darkness, the uncertainty, that's when our light matters most, that's when our light shines the brightest. Why? Because it stands in contrast to everything around it. So church, let's not withdraw, let's look for ways to shine even brighter. To give more, to serve more, to love more. When the only thing, when the only thing that's certain is uncertainty, that is our opportunity.
And as I've said on multiple occasions, if we, the church, get this right, people may always roll their eyes at what we believe, the resurrection of a first century rabbi, really? But they should be envious of how well we treat each other, and they should be amazed at how well we treat them. According to Jesus, it is by that unique, selfless expression of love, and by that alone, that people will know that we are in fact his followers, his disciples. And in that way, we, like our first century brothers and sisters, will have allowed our light to shine in such a way that people notice, and look up, and perhaps, come face to face with our Father, their Father in heaven.