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1 Peter 4:1-8

A parishioner who was doing a personal study through the book of First Peter once asked me what “licentiousness” means, which is understandable because it isn’t a word we commonly use in conversation. It’s also not helpful that many other translations use the word “debauchery” in the same place. Licentiousness and debauchery aren’t very colloquial terms, so I couldn’t fault this person for asking about their meanings. Though, I was slightly confused why this person—a millennial like myself—hadn’t simply Googled the terms because, well, that’s just what people do these days. But, I was thankful this person approached a human pastor for conversation about the Bible rather than asking Pastor Google from the church of the world wide web.

 

There was at least one challenge I felt in answering this person’s question. This parishioner was, at the time, openly cohabitating with their partner and they attended our church on a regular basis. This couple was fairly new to our worshipping community, so those deeper conversations about how our lifestyles are reflections of our faith in Jesus hadn’t come up yet. I imagine you who are reading have been in similar situations, and you know exactly what I’m talking about.

 

Despite the challenge I felt in engaging this person in conversation about a passage that so acutely described their current situation on their faith journey—for the simple reason that they were still new to our church and I didn’t want them to turn around and walk out—we dove in and had a truly meaningful conversation that led to many other meaningful conversations that led to the beautiful celebration of marriage for this couple. It was a grand celebration, indeed!

 

Why do I share this story?

 

When passages such as this, from the epistles in the New Testament, come up in any context whether it be the lectionary cycle or a simple conversation, pastors and leaders have a tremendous obstacle and opportunity. Because of the nature and historical reality of these epistles—be them from Paul or Peter or John or whoever—they can often be read and heard as messages of condemnation rather than opportunities to instill messages of hope and celebration for the life of faith. When I am preparing to preach, one thing that completely changes the tone of the message is how many times I use the word “should.” Rather than filling my messages with “shoulds” (i.e. you should take a look a your behavior or you should stop behaving this way), I try—though sometimes fail—to incorporate more “coulds” (i.e. we could experience abundant and joyful life in Christ or we could see the work of God in the world when we change our perspective).

 

My conversation with this parishioner who asked me about this passage could have gone in a completely different direction in a matter of seconds. As pastors and leaders, the authority and power we hold is only given by God for the purpose of love, not condemnation.

 

Let’s look a bit more specifically at the verses for today, Holy Saturday.

The theme of Peter’s first letter is weaved with the call placed on believers to live a life differently, a life that flows from the desire to please God rather than please the world or “human desires.” And this passage from chapter four is no different. However, we do need to consider Peter’s call to “suffering” carefully, especially in the context of Holy Saturday.

 

The commission of suffering being given to the believers by Peter is not one of mindless suffering, of enduring pain and suffering with no purpose or simply allowing oneself to undergo the consequences of a world racked with sin. Rather, Peter’s invitation, stated clearly in the first two verses, is that of having the same intentions that Christ did. Christ didn’t plan to encounter suffering on earth, and yet he recognized it’s inevitability. Christ didn’t see suffering as a hindrance to his mission but a consequence of the world’s lack of wisdom. We know from reading Paul’s writings that, to him, the suffering encountered on behalf of the gospel of Christ is actually beneficial to believers because it creates endurance which leads to character which leads to hope (Romans 5:3-4). The invitation is simple in theory, not so much in practice; be like Christ in that he shed human desires and pursued his mission—salvation for the world—no matter the cost.

 

No one wants to be told that doing what is right will cost them something. It goes against what Peter, and others, would consider “human desires.” The flesh craves “licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry” (v. 3) but those things will only lead to needless suffering, a life apart from God. To set these things aside and be “finished with sin” would come at great (temporary) cost, but that cost is nothing compared to the joy and wholeness found in living in Christ. The suffering encountered because of devotion to the gospel is far less permanent than the suffering that comes with a sinful life. This is Peter’s caution to those on the fence.

 

Interestingly, and probably intentionally, Peter’s call to “arm yourselves…with the same intention [as Christ]” seems all too relevant for us today, perhaps even more so than for those who were in Peter’s initial audience. In a world in which humans have always—in majority—resorted to violence in the face of suffering and clung tightly to comfort and luxury, the call to arm ourselves, instead, with a willingness to suffer as Christ suffered, to take up our cross and follow him, is not a call that is greeted openly. Even today, we within the body of Christ fight and struggle against anything that would threaten our personal rights and safety. We white-knuckle our “right” to hurt those who hurt us, to inflict pain and suffering on those who cause us pain and suffering. But this was never how it was supposed to be. We have always been called, as those who praise and proclaim the name of Jesus, to lay those rights down and live a life modeled after Christ.

 

Holy Saturday is uncomfortable for those reasons. It’s uncomfortable because it reminds us of the cost of following after Christ. It reminds us that we are mortal, that we are dust. It is uncomfortable because Christ hasn’t risen yet, and we have to sit in the dark, cold, musty tomb. And, yet, there is comfort to be found in that Christ is in the tomb with us. Christ endured suffering beyond what we have ever endured so that we wouldn’t be alone. Cling to the hope that life triumphs over death. Hold tightly to Christ’s example of humility, for it is that humility—the emptying of himself—that leads to an empty tomb.

 

As pastors and leaders, that is the hope we get to share with our people. That is the hope I got to share with the parishioner who approached me about this passage, because a life of faith is about so much more than “not doing this” or “not doing that.” It is an invitation to abundant life.