Sunday, May 4, 2008

When Called by a Panther

When Called by a Panther
© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder
Seventh Sunday of Easter: May 4, 2008
I Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11

The panther is like a leopard,
Except it hasn't been peppered.
Should you behold a panther crouch,
Prepare to say Ouch.
Better yet, if called by a panther,
Don't anther. — Ogden Nash

Sometimes we pick up the newspaper or turn on the television news only to hear news of atrocities and murder, violence, and we may say to ourselves and others that it is shocking. But are we shocked? Most of us have become so accustomed to reports of the violent cruelty of our world that we only half listen even to the most horrible reports. Perhaps that is because each of them is invariably followed by “And now this...” after which follow ads about antacids, new cars, or fast food.

Our news is trivialized by the very media which bring it to us. Still, when tragedy or injustice strike us personally, or diminish some member of our family, then we are still capable of a state of disbelief. “How could this happen? If only I had seen it coming...”

1st Peter expresses some thoughts on the extreme social and family costs that were incurred by new Christian believers in the first century, yet he found nothing strange in fiery ordeals that overtook the people of the first churches. After all, Peter was weaned from family, career, home, and even the faith of his parents by his own emerging commitment to Christ. The letter is written from experience: “Don’t be surprised,” it says, “as though something strange were happening to you.”

Commonly, people take any touble as a sign of God’s absence, a strange and unexpected signal that God has turned his back on us. 1st Peter says, “Don’t be surprised.” If we have read the paper, seen the news, how can we be surprised at further evidence that life can be cruel?

But here 1st Peter and common wisdom part ways. Common wisdom might say we should not be surprised at the cruelties of humanity, because that’s the way human beings are. But our scripture describes the events of human experience in the world as a contest of sorts. Goodness and evil do not emerge into an otherwise neutral world. Rather, the emergence of one lays claim to moral territory previously assumed to be in thrall to the other; acts of goodness bring upon themselves reactions from those who stand to profit by cruel or bullying behavior. Moral neutrality is not an option in 1 Peter.

We can be sure that an appeal to the goodness of God does not appear in a morally neutral world, but rather exists as a challenge to those who believe they stand to lose wherever goodness stands to gain.

A distant example: if the drug warlords of Central and South America were left alone to ply their trade, we might not hear much about it except for the evil effects on drug addicted people here in the states. Yet, inevitably, judges who dare to dispense justice in those countries are murdered in the streets, prosecutors and their families are executed. The assertion of goodness never comes into a neutral world, but will inevitably be perceived as a threat to those who have organized their lives around another loyalty. “Don’t be if something strange were happening to you...” The advice sounds strangely modern. There is nothing strange or particularly modern about suffering and evil.

1 Peter creates a telling image. He said that our faithfulness may be challenged by one who strikes with the ferocity of a roaring lion on the prowl, looking for dinner. Yet, astonishingly, verse 9 gives us this encouragement: “Resist him”!

Resist a lion? Doesn’t the very image of the prowling lion call to mind the powerlessness of the early believers, thrown to hungry beasts in the gladiatorial arena in Rome? “Better yet, if called by a panther, don’t anther.” Peter’s words may call to mind the lions’ den in the book of Daniel. “Resist!” What an instruction! And, of course, the natural question to follow is: “How?”

Here’s “what” that we have been given. 1st Peter says, “You know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.” The power of resistance is intensified exponentially once we remember we are not in this alone, that the power of the gospel, of goodness, asserts itself around the world. No temporary, local setback will extinguish its light.

20 years ago, when Presbyterian missionary professor Ben Weir was imprisoned by Shiite militants in Lebanon,1 he reported that one of his chief comforts during dreary months of captivity was to save a bit of his weekly bread ration, and on Sundays, in his solitary cell, break and eat it while remembering that Christian brothers and sisters all over the world were doing the same, celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Knowing that others celebrate the same Lord overcomes fear, reminds us that our trials are temporary, that we may call at will on the power of One who is eternal.

1st Peter tells us that God will establish us. The Greek word used there, translated here as “established,” is the one Jesus used when he spoke about the difference between a house with a foundation built on rock and one founded on sand;2 it is the word John used when he spoke about the foundation stones of the heavenly city in Revelation;3 it is the word Paul used when he told the believers in Corinth that the call of a church planter is to lay the right foundation, namely Jesus Christ.4

What are we to do, then, when we are surrounded by lions? We are to remember the very thing on which our faith, our very lives have been built: Jesus Christ. There is no greater way to be established in our faith, to be supported, strengthened, and restored, than to be part of a mutually supportive fellowship of believers, and to find ourselves in the midst of our family of faith.

During the War of 1812 a British warship arrived in Massachusetts to send five boats full of soldiers to take an undefended town. The commander on the warship knew that their success depended on the town’s lack of preparation. As his boats drew near to land they heard a fife and drum on shore. Everyone knew that a fife and drum were used to rally a local militia. Cursing his luck, the commander called back the boats and the warship sailed away. In fact, there had been no militia, just two young daughters of the lighthouse keeper playing fife and drum. The rest of the townfolk had fled in the night. A roaring lion may look like an unbeatable adversary, but the memory of a loving fellowship can provide enough foundation to sustain us, to “establish” us in our faith.

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 Hostage Bound, Hostage Free, by Ben Weir, Carol Weir, and Dennis Benson, © 1987, Lutterworth Press.
2 Matthew 7:25 (also Luke 6:48).
3 Revelation 21:14.
4 I Corinthians 3:10-12.