Sermon: Merited and unmerited suffering

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
The Seventh Sunday of Easter, 28th of May 2017

First Letter of Peter

This past Thursday, forty days after Easter Sunday, was the feast of the Ascension. The Orthodox Mission that worships in the old Methodist Sunday School is named ‘Holy Ascension’ and they had a special service on Thursday morning. I attended the service at the invitation of Father Kyril.

The Orthodox do serious worship! The service went for two and a half hours. There are very few chairs in an Orthodox service, so most of those two and a half hours I was standing – I did occasionally sit down on one of the chairs set aside for the elderly – and by the end of the service my legs were aching. (I can only imagine how you would react if I tried to lead you in a two and a half hour service during which you couldn’t sit down! It’s not an experiment that I’ll be trying any time soon.) The Orthodox also have a reverence for their clergy that I found disconcerting. Bishop George was greeted by children throwing flowers in his path, and by people kissing his hands.

Everything was beautiful. I have some vestment envy when we have joint services with the Anglicans, but Anglican vestments are nothing when compared with those of the Orthodox. The liturgy is long and repetitive and sung and glorious. During the service people move around and occasionally talk to each other – I got to practice both my Russian and my Australian Sign Language, and if it wasn’t for my aching legs I could have wanted it to last longer, because it took me right away from my everyday life and into a realm of communion with God.

I’m mentioning all this because it was quite remarkable that I was able to be there. I was wearing my clerical shirt and collar and pectoral cross, the very model of a Protestant woman pastor. At the end of the service I was introduced to Bishop George who thanked me, as your representative, for offering the Holy Ascension Mission hospitality. I am absolutely certain that a century ago, maybe even fifty years ago, the idea of that sort of interaction between an Orthodox bishop and a Protestant woman minister would have been unbelievable. I’m going to give you some history to explain that.


For the past 500 years the church in the West has been divided into Catholic and Protestant. But for about a thousand years there has been just as great a division between the Western and Eastern Churches, between the Orthodox and the rest of us. In 1054 Pope Leo the 9th excommunicated the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople over the question of whether or not the bread used in the Eucharist should be unleavened. Pope Leo sent his friend, Cardinal Humbert, to Constantinople, where he strode into the Hagia Sophia and slapped the declaration of excommunication on the altar. In response, the Ecumenical Patriarch Michael Keroularios excommunicated the Pope. The Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch didn’t revoke these mutual anathemas until the 7th of December 1965, 911 years later. Other divisions were over whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, or only from the Father; and whether the Pope has a special leadership role or is only the elder brother of the church’s other bishops. But what caused the greatest division between the Western and Eastern churches was the sacking of Constantinople in 1204.

In 1202, plans were drawn up for a Fourth Crusade to ‘liberate’ the Holy Land from Islam. A consortium of crusaders struck a deal with Venice to build them ships and transport them to attack Cairo as a first step to conquering Jerusalem. But not enough people turned up to fill the ships and the Venetians didn’t want to lose all the money they’d spent on the fleet. So they convinced the crusaders who had turned up to attack not Islamic Cairo but Orthodox Christian Constantinople. The Western Christians looted the city and installed a Venetian as Patriarch of Constantinople. A lot of religious relics went West, which incidentally is how the king of France ended up with the Crown of Thorns and built the Saint-Chappelle to house it.

Hagia Sophia

The Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453; we now know it as Istanbul; the Hagia Sophia is now a museum; but the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch is still based there and the Orthodox world still remembers the Fourth Crusade.

The first letter of Peter was probably written around the end of the first century to small communities of Gentile Christians who found that their conversion left them marginalised and abused. They probably had a fairly low status before their conversion, the letter seems to be particularly addressed to women and slaves, and because they chose not to follow the religions of their masters and husbands and neighbours they were scorned and rejected. The persecution seems to have been verbal rather than physical. The author refers to non-Christians blaspheming Christians for not joining with them in dissipation – the sort of mocking that can happen here in Australia rather than the violence that can happen in Egypt.

The author offers his readers and hearers the encouragement that they are: ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.’ (1 Peter 2:9-10) They are currently living as aliens and exiles, but through Jesus they have an eternal home to look forward to; an imperishable, undefiled and unfading inheritance kept in heaven for them. (1 Peter 1:4) The author also reminds them that any suffering they experience can only bring them closer to Jesus, who himself suffered for them. Jesus’ experience of suffering provides them with an example of how to live under it.

There are parts of this letter that we find very difficult today, and which have been misused throughout history: ‘Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference’ and ‘Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands’, but at the time, writing to powerless people, in a society in which masters and husbands had the power of life and death, this only makes sense. Telling Christian slaves and wives not to obey non-Christian owners and husbands would have been dangerous.

The letter talks about how Christians are to live while in this time of exile. They are to ‘rid themselves … of all malice and all guile, insincerity, envy and all slander’. (1 Peter 2:1) They are to conduct themselves honourably among the Gentiles. (1 Peter 2:12) They are to keep their conscience clear. (1 Peter 3:16) All of this is so that those who malign them might be put to shame when seeing their good deeds. There is also the hope that those who abuse them might be won over by their honourable deeds and the reverence of their lives. ‘Above all,’ the author writes, ‘maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.’ (1 Peter 4:8) They are to ‘have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart and a humble mind.’ (1 Peter 3:8) It’s not bad advice for how we are to live, today, since we too live in a context in which practicing Christians are an occasionally mocked minority.

When talking about the suffering that Christians might face, the author of this letter makes it clear that the suffering in which they are to rejoice, the suffering that shares Christ’s suffering, is unmerited suffering. Today’s reading from the letter jumps from 4:14 to 5:6, and one of the verses we miss out on is: ‘But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief-maker.’ (1 Peter 4:15) Christians are blessed if we are reviled for the name of Christ, but not if we’re reviled for sins and crimes. This week, as I was reading 1 Peter and commentaries on it, and thinking about Christian suffering, a couple of things happened that made me ponder merited Christian suffering. The first was the service at Holy Ascension, which reminded me of all the violence Christians have done in the name of our faith, even against other Christians. This history of religious violence was raised again after the bombing in Manchester this week, when I saw people condemn all religions as promoters of violence and argue that we would live in a better world if, in the words of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, there was ‘nothing to live or die for/and no religion too’. Having to acknowledge the truth of the history of violence in the name of religion can be deeply painful for those of us with religious faith, but it isn’t unmerited suffering.

WWCC - Avril Hannah-Jones

This week, I also received my new Working with Children Card. In Victoria only those people who are doing child-related work, whether paid or as a volunteer, require Working with Children Cards. Except for ministers of religion. If you go to the relevant website you’ll find a special section for ministers of religion that says: ‘Child-related work for ministers of religion is defined more broadly than for everyone else.’ Every time I am reminded of this, as I was this week when my new card turned up, I feel sick to my stomach. The thought that I could be suspected of abusing children nauseates me. The thought that I am less trustworthy than other people because I’m a minister makes me want to cry. But, again, that’s not unmerited suffering. There are some commentators who have accused the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse of being an anti-church, or anti-Catholic, witch hunt. Listening to the Royal Commission hearings; reading the findings made so far; looking at the statistics; there is nothing unmerited about the pain that Christians are experiencing as the crimes and cover-ups are revealed. And none of the suffering we feel as the crimes of our fellow Christians are revealed can compare to the suffering of the children who were abused.

The author of the first letter of Peter tells his readers that: ‘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.’ But this is only true when the sufferings we experience as Christians in imitation of Christ are unmerited. In order to make sure that any sufferings we experience as Christians are unmerited, we can follow the author’s advice to us: ‘Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind … For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.’ (1 Peter 3:8, 17) History shows us too many times when Christians have utterly failed to do good. Let’s never add to that history by doing evil. Amen.

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