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Sermon for May 14, 2023 – 6th Sunday of Easter

Program Transcript

Speaking Of Life 5025 Not An Orphan
Michelle Fleming

When I was growing up, I remember reading several books that had an orphan as the main character. Maybe you did, too. Remember Cinderella, Anne of Green Gables, and even Harry Potter? The children in these stories were left without parents, and their plots revolved around how well they fit into another family’s dynamic. Often, they felt like outsiders – unwanted and alone.

At the Last Supper, Jesus tried to prepare his disciples for what was coming: his betrayal, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. He reassured them that while things would be different without him present, they would not be alone. Let’s look at John 14:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

John 14:15-20 (NRSVUE)

Notice that Jesus refers to “another Advocate,” the “Spirit of Truth,” who would always be with the disciples. Jesus was their first Advocate; now the Holy Spirit would be another companion who would always be with them. The Spirit’s goal is not to replace Jesus, but to share the presence of the Father and the risen Son to those who trusted them.

Since the Bible often refers to people as the “children of God,” it makes sense that Jesus would use the word “orphaned.” We’ll have the constant companionship of the Holy Spirit, and because of the triune relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit, we’re brought into their fellowship. We’re not like Cinderella who was mistreated and forced to become a servant. Instead, we’re welcomed into the family of God as cherished members, never to be left on our own again.

By sharing with the disciples about the Spirit of Truth, Jesus is telling them that life will go on after the heartbreak of the crucifixion. He says, “You will see me; because I live, you also will live.”

The resurrection was not the end of the story but the very beginning, thanks to the Spirit of Truth who will never leave us as orphans. May you know how completely you’re loved and accepted by the Father, Son, and Spirit, and may you trust that you’re never alone.

I’m Michelle Fleming, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 66:8-20 • Acts 17:22-31 • 1 Peter 3:13-22 • John 14:15-21

The theme for this week is suffering and the nearness of God. Psalm 66 recounts the ups and downs of life, and it speaks of God’s faithfulness during the most difficult times. Paul explains the “Unknown God” to the Athenians in Acts 17:22-31, reminding them and us that “in him we live and move and have our being.” In John 14:15-21, Jesus promises another Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, who will never leave us as orphans. Our sermon text is I Peter 3:13-22, which explores the theme of suffering and the unspoken assumptions we make about it.

When Life Is Beautiful and Hard

1 Peter 3:13-22 (NRSV)

Author Kate Bowler seemed to have it all. At 35 years old, she was married to her Canadian high school sweetheart and had a one-year baby boy. She had landed a faculty position at Duke Divinity School and had finished her first academic research book called Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. And then she started having stomach pains, and no one could tell her why. When she was at work one day, she received a call from a physician’s assistant who told her she had stage IV cancer and needed to come to the hospital right away. All she could say was, “But I have a son. I can’t end. This world can’t end. It has just begun.”

As a historian, Bowler had researched the prosperity gospel for her book. It’s the idea that God wants to reward you based on your level and quality of faith, usually in the form of material wealth, good health, and other external signs of favor. Though she thought of herself as an observer, not a believer of the prosperity gospel’s promises, when she received the cancer diagnosis, Bowler recognized in herself the unspoken belief that being a good person and receiving blessings were somehow causally related.

In 2016, Bowler wrote an opinion-editorial (i.e., op-ed) article for the New York Times called “Death, the Prosperity Gospel, and Me” where she suggested loosening our grip on the need to figure out why things like stage IV cancer happen to 35-year-old mothers with no inherited risk factors. The response to her article was surprising to her: thousands of readers wrote to support, even defend, the idea that there had to be a reason for bad things happening. Whether it was evidence of unrepented sin, or an opportunity for her to use her writing skills for God’s glory, readers wanted her to know there was “a hidden logic to this seeming chaos.” “Everything happens for a reason” was a quip she heard often.

These responses probably aren’t much different from what we might think or say when confronted with a tragic situation. It’s important to consider our thoughts about suffering for two reasons:

  • We will all face suffering in this life because that’s the human condition.
  • As we can see with Bowler’s story, we hurt those who are suffering by suggesting they deserve it, or that there is going to be some kind of positive outcome.

These are things we simply don’t know. When we try to get the sufferer to “look on the bright side,” we run roughshod over the pain they’re experiencing – often in an effort to make ourselves feel better about the situation. This is why we must think deeply about how we respond to suffering, others’ and our own.

Our sermon text today comes from 1 Peter, and the context of his letter indicates that Peter was writing to a group of Christians living in Asia Minor who were experiencing persecution for their faith. Some scholars suggest Peter wrote this letter at the beginning of Nero’s persecution of Christians. The Resurrection and Ascension happened years before, and Christ still had not yet returned. Some have called 1 Peter the “Job of the New Testament” because it encourages believers to persevere and endure during suffering. Let’s read I Peter 3:13-22:

Read 1 Peter 3:13-22 NRSV

Though 1 Peter may have the context of suffering persecution for the faith, we can understand broader truths about suffering and our human condition:

  • Suffering is not necessarily related causally to what we do. Because we tend to see the world in terms of stimulus and response or “garbage-in-garbage-out,” we try to make sense of what happens to us, and then we take control of it by logically determining the reasons why it happens. This approach works pretty well if your car won’t start, and you realize that you forgot to fill up the tank with gas yesterday. Sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, human beings make mistakes and must deal with the consequences. That’s how we learn. However, this “everything happens for a reason” mindset falls short when we’re dealing with children with cancer or other tragedies that fail to provide a logical path back to the “cause.”

The believers Peter was writing to were suffering, not because they had done wrong but because they were doing right. Notice v. 13, “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?” Sometimes people who do good are harmed. This suggests that “being good” or “doing good” does not ensure that we won’t endure suffering or at the very least, obstacles, “Maintain a good conscience so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame (v. 16). In The Message, this is translated, “Keep a clear conscience before God so that when people throw mud at you, none of it will stick.” The believers’ suffering had nothing to do with wrong actions.

  • Suffering is not divine punishment. Jesus suffered, and he did nothing wrong. Verses 17-18 point out that Jesus suffered for others’ sins, and it’s possible that we do, too. Through no fault of our own, we can be affected by others’ bad choices and mistakes. V. 19-22 take the story of the Flood and Noah’s faithfulness and compare it to baptism. We are presented “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him” (v. 21-22). Jesus has the last word on everything – including suffering. Sin has no hold on us; therefore, believing that our suffering is connected to divine punishment disregards the reconciliation we have in Christ.

Understanding that suffering sometimes happens for no discernible reason can make us afraid and uncertain, but it also can help us stop blaming suffering people and ourselves. Since we are “meaning making” creatures, we try to make the random and sometimes tragic events that happen mean something. We look for and construct a greater purpose as if having a greater purpose makes it “worth it.” While we can examine that for our own suffering, it is not our place to discern that for others. In our efforts to be helpful and encouraging, we can inadvertently say things that come across as blaming, judgmental, and unsupportive. We need to think about how we can better support others and ourselves during times of suffering.

After her cancer diagnosis, Kate Bowler went on to write another book, Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved).  She talks about her struggles with deeply held beliefs she never realized she had (she calls them “Lies I’ve Loved”), and she offers ways we can support someone who is suffering:

  • Instead of saying “Let me know what I can do to help,” take a meal, drop off a gift, or send an email with links to funny YouTube animal videos. By taking the initiative and offering to drop something off (depending on your talents and interests), you remove the burden of thinking from someone who already is overwhelmed.
  • Instead of saying “Tell me the details about your latest procedures,” let them know you’re supporting them by sending a card or saying, “I support you. I’m on your team.” Having to go through all the wretched details for the hundredth time does not give the sufferer a respite. Try asking about other parts of their lives, or their other interests. Their suffering does not define who they are or what they love.
  • On the other hand, let the sufferer talk if they need to talk, and be willing to listen to the ugly parts of what they’re enduring, without trying to fix them or solve their problem. Bowler says, “Be willing to stare down the ugliness and sadness. Life is absurdly hard, and pretending it isn’t is exhausting.”
  • Instead of saying, “Everything happens for a reason” or other trite and unhelpful clichés, say, “Dear friend, what you’re going through – that’s so hard.” Acknowledge their suffering and don’t try to minimize it.
  • Instead of avoiding the sufferer because you don’t know what to say, try asking, “Are you up to a hug today?” For some, physical touch is a comforting reassurance.

Suffering is part of our human existence. It was part of Jesus’ existence when he lived as a man. We can learn from him that suffering is not divine punishment; sometimes it is simply a random event or collateral damage from someone else’s bad choice. It might be the consequence of our own mistakes, but we don’t have to beat ourselves up. The world is full of contradictions: light, dark, joy, pain. They are all true at once, and our job is to understand how to hold the tension these opposites create without blaming ourselves or others when we don’t know why tragedies happen. Bowler says, “Life is so beautiful, and life is so hard.” We can face our beautiful and hard lives knowing the comfort of our Triune God, and offering that same comfort to others when they suffer.

For Reference:






The Chosen w/ Cherith Nordling W2

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May 14 – Sixth Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 3:13-22, “Good Suffering”

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Program Transcript

The Chosen w/ Cherith Nordling W2

Anthony: Let’s move on to our next passage, which is 1 Peter 3:13-22. It is the Revised Common Lectionary passage for the sixth Sunday of Easter, which is May 14. Cherith, would you read it for us, please?

Cherith: Sure.

Who will harm you if you are zealous for good? 14 But happy are you, even if you suffer because of righteousness! Don’t be terrified or upset by them. 15 Instead, regard Christ the Lord as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. 16 Yet do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience. Act in this way so that those who malign your good lifestyle in Christ may be ashamed when they slander you. 17 It is better to suffer for doing good (if this could possibly be God’s will) than for doing evil. 18 Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous. He did this in order to bring you into the presence of God. Christ was put to death as a human, but made alive by the Spirit. 19 And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the Spirits in prison. 20 In the past, these Spirits were disobedient—when God patiently waited during the time of Noah. Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water. 21 Baptism is like that. It saves you now—not because it removes dirt from your body but because it is the mark of a good conscience toward God. Your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who is at God’s right side. Now that he has gone into heaven, he rules over all angels, authorities, and powers.

Anthony: Thank God for the rule and reign of Christ, Cherith. I personally believe there is good suffering and bad suffering. And all of it is how we see pain, I think. But good suffering from my perspective is our participation with Christ (and you’ve touched on this) and his suffering by embodying who he is. But bad suffering is the consequence of hurting others and ourselves. And it seems to me, we’re doing a lot of bad suffering these days. What would you have to say?

Cherith: I think that’s really true. It’s probably always been true, but I think that our bad suffering is so often tied to wanting a different storyline and getting enticed into believing that there is a way to consider a Christian storyline that just falls in line with the ways that we have flatlined a few biblical texts and feel like now we’ve mastered Scripture and now we mastered how Christ works among us.

And if somebody disagrees with us, then they just need to get more saved and more in line with our position. And suddenly we end up defending things and weaponizing even the way of Christ as we perceive it, and then can’t figure out why we’re constantly paying a price.

Because actually, the powers of this world over which Jesus just said, at the Father’s right hand, I’m over it all. And you have a choice to participate in the powers—just like I did in my temptation and every day from the wilderness forward—to play the games of the world and try to put a God stamp on them and see if you can get broken power to work for you. Or you can actually let the suffering that is a world that even finds those things appealing because they can relieve something temporarily or give you an identity that makes you feel like more of a human than someone else.

Whatever that is, these are the things that God is putting to death, and the reason he is doing it is because they will kill you. They’re killing you. So, it’s his joy to kill them so they can stop killing you. But the more you hold onto them and try to make them work for him and him to work for them, you will suffer and so will those around you.

Because you cannot but do harm when you’re actually looking for a way to secure yourself or to alleviate your fears or to find a position that you feel like secures you against all the deepest fears that you’ve never even seen or named. Or whatever the world tells you is the better spot to be in, and so just come over here and be part of our club, and then we get the bennies [US slang for benefits] and everybody else is wrong.

All of that is so contrary to Jesus. But it’s all the stuff that people dug up who were leaders at the time to try to get him to shut up or to play by their rules. And we kill a God that looks like Jesus in the face of these kinds of things. And so, in the kindness of Jesus (like one of our other texts), I’m putting this to death.

He says, it’s my joy to put these things to death so that they stop killing you. And you can actually live in the life of the Spirit, the truth of who you are in me instead of these fake truths (as we’ve come to know that term) that seem to work for you better or rescue you out of suffering or whatever it is that is in the moment. But that actually, in the end, will not just kill you, but those who you love, and especially those who you don’t care about because you don’t even see them.

Anthony: Whew! There’s a lot to unpack there. And what I’m struck by, and I’m looking at verse 16, we need to approach suffering, others’ suffering—when we speak of the hope within, we do it with humility, right? That it just requires such humility. But thanks be to God that his final word to suffering is resurrection, and it’s ours in the here and now.

Peter wrote that salvation is a result of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. But also wrote baptism saves us now. So, help us understand the dynamic nature of God’s salvation that this pericope seems to point to.

Cherith: Yeah. So, it’s never baptism … Well, I’ll qualify that. There’s always mystery, right? And so, I don’t want to [inaudible] the mystery because the mystery is always just Jesus. Salvation is Jesus. The gospel is Jesus. Our hope is Jesus. Resurrection is Jesus. Ethics is Jesus. It’s all God with us, showing us both God and our true selves.

I think when we hear the language of baptism, both in Peter and in Paul, it’s a beautiful metaphor for our dying with Jesus, That already, to become children of the resurrection, to become those who wait for the hope of the redemption of our bodies, for those who are sitting literally with him at the right hand of the Father in terms of authority and humility, with him, all of those realities come through him.

And so baptism is the language of both the taking off and the cleansing and the dying to all the other powers and stories and internal narratives and external narratives that become sort of a wedding of a national identity and a Christian identity or any identity with a Christian identity. Whether it was the Jews plus Christ, Paul’s encountering those kind of things too.

But to say, anytime you add something to Jesus, then you better get down in the waters of baptism again, because this is where he just washes this away. And when you come up, it’s always to come up again into the life of a resurrected Lord who says, now I can empower you to live your baptism.

You are going to live your baptism every single moment of every single day. If your baptism truly represents your dying and rising life as a child of God, as an heir of God, as a co-heir with me, this dying and rising is going to be just the way of your life all the time. I think when he uses that metaphor, it’s not to think of the dunking or the sprinkling per se, it’s to say, this sign reminds me all the time that there’s a world that wants me to live into something else.

And God loves this world and the only way he can love it, with and through me, is if I die to the world’s own understanding and sense of itself and live into the love of God for this world, in the way that God would love this world and will through us.

Anthony: One of the things I appreciate about you, Cherith, is your high Christology, that all of this points to Jesus and what is already true.

It’s like Karl Barth said, “The gospel does not indicate possibilities but declares actualities.” So, as we are baptized and as we live baptism, like you said, we’re just reflecting on the truth that Jesus was baptized for us to fulfill all righteousness. Hallelujah. Praise God.

Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life

  • Have you ever read a children’s book about an orphan, such as Anne of Green Gables or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? What do you think would be the hardest part of being an orphan?
  • John 14:15-20 tells the good news of the gift of the Holy Spirit who would share the presence of the Father and the Son with those who trusted them. How do Jesus’ words “I will not leave you orphaned” provide comfort? Describe what that comfort looks like.

From the sermon

  • Have you ever examined your own unspoken beliefs about suffering? Have you blamed yourself or felt as if your suffering was divine punishment? If so, how does reframing suffering as an inevitable part of being human help?
  • If you had a friend who was suffering, what ideas do you have that could be supportive, helpful, and encouraging? What have others done for you when you were suffering that you found particularly meaningful?

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