When Called by a Panther
Seventh Sunday of Easter: June 5, 2008
I Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11
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 see sights or hear reports that our grandparents would have found unthinkable much less printable or viewable. We hear news of atrocities and murder, violence, and we may say, to ourselves and others, that it is shocking. But are we shocked? Try this experiment. The next time you are watching the news or reading the paper and there is a shocking story, look at the faces of those who are watching the news with you, or check their reactions when they get to that same story in the paper. Do they look shocked? Really shocked? Are they covering their eyes and ears, running from the room in utter disbelief? Not likely. In fact, 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 we hear about antacids, new cars, or fast food.
Our news is trivialized by the very media which bring it to us; more than that, its impact is compromised by the sheer frequency of reports of the world’s horrors. 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...”
The writer in 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, the author of the Petrine letters 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.”
How about that? Commonly, people take any suffering we endure as a sign of God’s absence, a strange and unexpected signal that God has turned his back on us, that our prayers have been ineffective. The writer in1st Peter says, “Don’t be surprised.” If we have read the paper, seen the news, how can we be surprised at further evidence from our own experience that life can be cruel, that people are perfectly willing to betray and torment each other, that those in authority can casually turn to vicious reprisals with no more thought than it takes to make the morning coffee?
But here the author of 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 expresses more than that. It 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 evil. Moral neutrality is not an option, as far as the first letter of Peter is concerned.
When people call on the name of Christ in faith, we can be sure that such 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. The assertion of the good comes as a challenge to those whose existence has been secured by habitual resort to evil.
One distant example: if the drug warlords of Mexico and 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, when a citizen or a judge or a prosecutor or law officer emerges to challenge the hegemony of the power of local drug lords, violence is threatened and often brought against them. Judges who dare to dispense justice 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 some other loyalty. “Don’t be surprised...as if something strange were happening to you...” The advice sounds strangely modern. There is nothing strange or particularly modern about suffering and evil.
If – for the sake of our children, for the sake of our beliefs about the trustworthiness of God’s purposes – we would resist the encroachment of gambling halls and state-sponsored games of chance into our communities, we could be called prudes or racists or worse. Would we be shocked? 1st Peter says not to bother being shocked. A resort to name-calling is only the gentlest reaction we might expect in asserting a need for some moral standard. In the first century, Christians were persecuted, even executed, for the “crime” of calling on the name of Christ. One early bishop named Justin wrote an eloquent protest over the execution of three believers who had not been guilty of any illegal or immoral conduct, only that they bore the name “Christian.” Another early church leader named Tertullian wrote “No name of a crime stands against us, only the crime of a name.” Who says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me?” Peter knew that claiming the name of Christ can cause the eruption of “fiery ordeals” for believers.
1st Peter creates a telling image for the sort of feeling we may get when in the middle of an ordeal for our faith. 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. It’s difficult to imagine a more powerful image for the terror that evil can cause, or for the feeling of helplessness that might be the result. Yet, amazingly, 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? Yes, but doesn’t it also call to mind the believers in the lions’ den in the book of Daniel? “Resist!” What an instruction! And, of course, the natural question to follow is: “Resist with what?”
Here’s what. It’s the only “what” that we have been given, but what a gift it is. 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 asserts itself around the world, and no temporary, local setback will extinguish its light.
When missionary teacher Ben Wier was imprisoned by Shiite militants in Lebanon, he reported that one of his chief comforts during those dreary months of captivity was to take a saved 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 as they celebrated the Lord’s Supper. The knowledge that others celebrate with 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 restore, support, strengthen, and establish us. I think I understand what is meant by the use of “restore, support and strengthen,” but I was intrigued by that word, “establish”. What does it mean in 1st Peter that we will be “established?”
The very 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;1 it is the word John used when he spoke about the foundation stones of the heavenly city in Revelation;2 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.3
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. And we are to fly to the strength and support that we can draw from belonging to that very body of Christ which is his church. There is no greater way to be established in our faith, to be supported, strengthened, and restored, than to be part of a mutually responsible fellowship of believers, and to find ourselves in the midst of our family of faith. When we cannot be in the family of faith, even the memory of it can strengthen us.
A friend of mine spoke to me several months ago about his continuing struggle with drug problems. He said he had been sober for 3 weeks, and this time he was going to “make it.” He has been through twelve-step type programs before, including A.A. I asked what sort of mutually responsible group he was part of to help him get through this. He declared that he had tried that, but this time he was going to make it on his own. In honesty, I think we both knew what we didn’t have to say: that neither he nor I gave him much chance of success on his own. Strength is available to us when we take responsibility for each other in a way that individuals can seldom know on our own. This is especially true of the Christian fellowship. Over and over the Bible virtually declares that it is impossible to be believers by ourselves. If we are not in the community of faith, even the memory of that community can be so powerful that we can find strength there.
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 unpreparedness of the townsfolk to defend themselves. But as the boats came near to land they heard a fife and drum on shore. In those days, everyone knew that a fife and drum were used to rally a local militia to defense. Cursing his luck, the commander called back the boats to the warship and they sailed away. In fact, there had been no militia, just two young daughters of the lighthouse keeper playing fife and drum after the rest of the townsfolk had fled in the night. A roaring lion may look like an unbeatable adversary, but the memory of our fellowship of faith can provide enough foundation to sustain us, to “establish” us. Even the memory of the community, continuing to do what we have been called to do, can help redeem what had seemed to be impossible situations.
Anyone who has ever run livestock knows that a single lamb or cow is vulnerable to the attack of predators in a way that livestock in a group is not. If we are confronted with the ravening lion, we may find our strength, support, our very foundations of faith within a community of faith such as this church. It is not a new idea. It comes highly recommended by the apostles themselves.
Are you surrounded by lions of strife, anxiety, family woes, grief, employment worries, failed friendships? Take the advice of the apostle, and remember the community of faith which sustains faith. Take that gift to heart. And give that gift of this community of Christ to others.
© copyright 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
1. Matthew 7:25 (also Luke 6:48).
2. Revelation 21:14.
3. I Corinthians 3:10-12.