Complain or proclaim?

Complain or proclaim?

February 21, 2021        Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

Complain or proclaim?

              A 2018 article by two psychologists started with these words: “Americans find an alarming number of things to complain about.” Apparently, the rate of complaints in American conversations ranges from 70-84 percent. And yet, none of us likes to hang out with a complainer. According to the authors, we were born with brains that have a negative bias. “We tend to focus on things that are not right, rather than attending to all the rightness around us”, says Dr. Bea, one of the authors. When this tendency to complain turns into a habit, the world quickly becomes an unpleasant or dangerous place. And our fellow human beings become a constant source of irritation instead of a companion on life’s journey. The authors give seven strategies to be more aware of your own complaining, to hear yourself complaining:

  1. Step back. Look at the bigger picture. Will this still matter in five months or years from now?
  2. Look within. Does the small irritating issue represent a theme or larger issue in your life?
  3. Make a game of it. Wear a bracelet or rubber band on one wrist. When you complain switch it to the opposite wrist. Try to go 30 days without switching it!
  4. Choose the right channel. Privately share your issue, not on Facebook!
  5. Air valid concerns. Your complaint may address a genuine need that can lead to a solution.
  6. Find the positives. When you have a complaint, start and end with a positive.
  7. Practice gratitude. Remind yourself each day about one thing you are grateful for.

These are helpful suggestions and we all could probably benefit implementing them.

              At the same time, the last year has been a difficult one for all of us. We were collectively challenged and one could even say that 2020 was a perfect storm. The definition of a perfect storm in short is a “particularly bad or critical state of affairs, arising from a number of negative and unpredictable factors.” I can think of a number of negative and unpredictable factors that happened over the last 12 months: the pandemic, political, economic, and social factors come to mind. The world has become a bit hostile to all of us. And for human beings born with brains that have a negative bias, we certainly can find a lot to complain about.

              I think that the beautifully written letter of 1st Peter is helpful to live with gratitude and joy in spite of a world that could be unfriendly, hostile and outright dangerous.

              Peter’s letter gives a profound view on who Christ is, a clear vision for the Christian church, and instruction on what Christian life in the world should look like. And it does so against a backdrop of persecution and physical suffering. I think that, once again, God’s word, comes to us as a living word, relevant for our time and right for our circumstance.  Peter’s first readers had good reason to complain, questioning their fate, and even wondering if it is all worth holding on to.

Peter calls them exiles and aliens. This is to be understood that their real home is heaven and they are exiles in this world for the time being. Some scholars suggest that the first readers were not Roman citizens, foreigners who are on the margins of society. It is possible that some readers were indeed non-citizens or foreigners. But Peter is affirming that all of them, Roman citizens and non-Romans alike, are citizens of  heaven.

              They are undergoing suffering and Peter is giving them advice on how to deal with their suffering. The word suffering appears in this short letter more times than any other book of the NT. So, the recipients of Peter’s letter would have had enough reasons to complain!

              How does Peter comfort and encourage them in their difficult situation? Peter does so in various ways. He points out that they have been chosen and destined by God (1:2), they are not alone, they all belong to the body of Christ. He reminds them that they acquired a privileged status when they joined God’s household. He reminds them that they are children of God, their Father (1:14, 17), they are purchased by the precious gift of the blood of Christ (1:19). They are a people set apart from the rest of the world, belonging to God alone (2:9). He tells them that they are the place of God’s residence, God’s temple (2:4). He continues that they should expect to suffer and not be surprised when they do (4:12) for Christ himself suffered (4:13).

              Peter thus, points out that even though they are suffering, they have many reasons to rejoice and to be grateful. God, who has called them is holy, therefore they too should be holy (1:15).

              We too are the recipients of this letter. We too can hold onto Peter’s words of comfort and encouragement. We are not alone, we belong to the body of Christ. We too are children of God. We are part of God’s household. We too have received a new birth into the living hope through the resurrection of Christ. 

              For the same reasons, we need not complain when we feel like aliens and foreigners, living in a hostile and dangerous world. During this Lenten journey towards Easter, we are reminded that new life comes through the suffering and death of Christ on Good Friday. It is possible to rejoice and be grateful even as we are trying to make sense of life and the world.

              This letter comes to us and we have to admit: When the world throws curve balls at us we complain. When people who knowingly or unknowingly make life difficult for us, we often want to retaliate. We want to hit back and show them a thing or two. Peter suggests that his readers conduct themselves “honorably so that though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God” (2:11).  He continues: “If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval……because Christ also suffered for you…” (2:20-21). His words back then are as relevant today: “…have unity in spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.  Do not repay evil for evil or abuse with abuse…repay with a blessing.” (3:8-9).

              We know, as surely as Peter’s readers knew, that to repay evil with good and abuse with a blessing is never easy. We know, as they knew back then, that the natural and normal response to intimidation and unkind actions, is to strike back. Today it is almost expected to show strength otherwise people may think that you are weak. So, we often resort to the philosophy of an eye for an eye.

              But such an approach has its own consequences as Ghandi said: “An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.”

              And this is where Peter presents his most convincing argument: “For Christ also suffered for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteousness, in order to bring you to God.” Yes, Peter continues, “Jesus was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit…” (3:18).  He is presenting the suffering Christ to them as an example. But Christ is more than an example: His suffering was unique- once for all!

              Peter falls back on the theological cornerstone for the church: Christ is the innocent and righteous One who gives his life for sinner and for the unrighteous!  And, here is the purpose of Christ’s sacrifice: “In order to bring you to God” (3:18).

              Christ, through his suffering, death and resurrection brings us to God. This theological truth is meant to strengthen the readers, and us, when life treats us unkindly. Christ has brought us to God and God has embraced us. Each and every temptation, hardship or challenge pale in comparison of what Christ has already done for us!

As people of faith we find strength and comfort in this theological truth. However, there are times when doubt seeps in. There are times when life’s burdens are too heavy and we question these theological truths. Sometimes we question the reach of Christ’s work. Then we ask: “Did Jesus bring me to God too? Why don’t I feel this? Why am I not sure?” To those of you with these questions the answer is clear: Yes Christ did it for you!

              Other times we want to limit the reach of Christ’s work to those who think like us, who live like us, and who are like us. In other words, instead of finding hope, comfort, and strength in what Christ accomplished for us through his suffering, death and resurrection, we want to ration God’s grace. The fact is that God’s love, in the words of the Apostle Paul is wider and longer and higher and deeper than we can ever imagine. In fact, God’s love surpasses our knowledge (Ephesians 3:18-19).

              Peter comes to the same conclusion albeit in different words. Actually verses 19- 20 are a bit confusing. It states that Jesus “..went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey…”

              Most scholars agree that the authors of the Apostle’s Creed used this text when they wrote: “Jesus…was crucified, dead and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead….” He descended into hell to proclaim his victory to those who are dead.

              Scholars do not agree who these spirits in prison were. Some say these are the faithful in the Old Testament. Others say they are the ones who perished in Noah’s flood. Others suggest that these are the so-called sons of God in Genesis 6.

              I agree with NT scholar, Karl Herman Schelke, who suggest that Jesus’ proclamation to the spirits in prison reveals the saving grace of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. God’s love in Christ penetrates the depths of all the earth. In other words, there is no limit to God’s grace. Furthermore, God’s love and grace in Christ is for all times – the past, the present and the future!

              Any and all efforts then to place limitations on the reach of God’s love and grace in Christ do not do justice to Peter’s words.

              Peter is presenting this powerful message of God’s unlimited love and grace for all times and for all as a comfort to those suffering Christians. All they had to do was to hold onto this hope even as their world, their enemies and life itself challenge them.

              This is a message that has strengthened and encouraged millions of people for two thousand years. It still does the same for us.

              Peter continues his letter urging them to respond to their challenges by maintaining love for one another (4:8) for love covers a multitude of sins, to be hospitable to one another without complaining (4:9), and to serve one another with whatever gift each has received (4:10).

              And this reflection would not be complete without referring to a few more verses as example what to do instead of complaining: “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exult you in due time (5:6). Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you (5:7). Discipline yourselves, keep alert (5:8) knowing that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kind of suffering (5:9). And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you (5:10).”

              As we are hopeful that things will be better soon, let us remind ourselves of God’s unlimited, loving grace in Christ. Let us remember we belong to the body of Christ. Let us focus on doing good deeds instead of complaining. Let us embrace with joy and gratitude God’s gifts to us. Amen.