Suffering, Shalom, and Indescribable Joy
On the evening of the day of resurrection, Jesus comes into the midst of his fearful group of disciples, huddled behind locked doors, and says, “Shalom.” Peace be with you. Several decades later, a Christian pastor writing in the name of one of those present in that locked room, Simon Peter, tells his audience of fearful, persecuted disciples the same thing. Nineteen centuries later, the risen Christ comes among us harried and weary disciples here at University Baptist Church in Columbus and tells us the same thing. Shalom. Peace be with you.
It’s hard sometimes to be a person of faith, a disciple of Jesus Christ. One might be tempted to say that it’s always hard to be a disciple of Jesus, because to do it right means to live countercultural lives of grace in the jaws of the domination system. It means to follow the Prince of Peace in a world addicted to war. It means to practice forgiveness when society cries out for vengeance. It means to shine the light of Christ when everybody else is throwing shade.
And then there’s persecution. We don’t really know much about that, despite the hysterical pronouncements of some Christians who think there is such a thing as a “war on Christmas” or who claim their religious liberty is being violated when laws prevent them from discriminating in the name of Jesus. People like us may experience discomfort, mockery, or ostracism from time to time because of our faith, but most of us, with the possible exception of those who have suffered as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity, have not faced real persecution.
The churches to whom 1 Peter is addressed are facing persecution at a level almost certainly more severe than most of us have ever experienced. The first verse of the letter identifies the audience as “the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia”—in other words, a large chunk of what we now know as Turkey. It is to churches in this same general area that John addresses the book of Revelation, which describes in obscure and symbolic detail a wave of persecution happening there around the turn of the second century. It may be this same crackdown that forms the backdrop of 1 Peter.
Whatever the precise details may be, the themes of suffering, persecution, and perseverance run throughout the letter. We see them right here in these opening verses, as the writer uses the metaphor of gold refinery: “In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (vv. 6–7).
For this writer, as for Paul, the gospel writers, and Jesus himself, trials and suffering have the capacity to build character. The testing Jesus went through in the wilderness helped him clarify his purpose and enabled him to utilize the power at his disposal wisely. The agony in the garden, and his betrayal, arrest, trial, and execution are all part of his walking the way of the cross. His faithfulness even to the point of death leads directly, according to Paul, to God’s exalting him and giving him the “name that is above every name” (Phil 2:9). The writer of the book of Hebrews goes so far as to say that Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb 5:8).
As with Jesus, so with us. Suffering and testing are important not only for Jesus but also for all who would follow his way. Jesus tells his would-be disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34–35). And Paul tells the Romans, “We … boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5:3–5).
That is why the writer of 1 Peter is able to say that his readers “rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy” (v. 8). It is because the love of God has been poured into their hearts through the Spirit. It is also why he can offer them this blessing as he opens his letter to them: “May grace and peace be yours in abundance” (v. 2). The shalom of God rests upon these misfits, this marginalized band of persecuted Christians, because “by [God’s] great mercy [God] has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (vv. 3–4).
This is the same shalom that Jesus pronounces upon his trembling band of disciples on the evening of the day of resurrection. He speaks the word of shalom twice: once when he enters the locked room where his friends have been hiding, and again just before he breathes the Holy Spirit upon them. He says, “‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (vv. 21–22). It’s John’s version of Pentecost, but instead of taking place fifty days after Easter, as in Luke’s telling, it happens that very day. Jesus fulfills the promise he made a few chapters earlier to send the disciples a Comforter or Advocate, the Spirit of Truth who will remind them of all that Jesus has taught them and “will guide [them] into all the truth” (John 16:13). To this fearful and dispirited group, justifiably afraid of repercussions after the Romans have executed their leader for sedition, Jesus speaks an empowering word of shalom and pours God’s love into their hearts through the Holy Spirit.
The writer of 1 Peter tells his readers that God has given them “a new birth into a living hope,” but John takes it a step further. When Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon the disciples, he is not just offering them a rebirth. His action hearkens all the way back to the creation account in Genesis 2, when God breathes the breath of life into the person God has formed out of clay, making him a living being. Jesus’s resurrection is more than mere resuscitation of a dead body; it signals something entirely new. In fact the early Christians took to calling the first day of the week the Eighth Day, to indicate that in raising Jesus God has inaugurated a brand-new day of creation. In the same way, when it comes time to bestow the Spirit on his disciples, Jesus performs an act of creation. He breathes the breath of life, the pneuma, the ruach, the breath/wind/spirit that was present at the beginning, sweeping over the waters of chaos as God embarked on the work of creating the world.
What happens when God performs this new act of creation, whether through Jesus’s breathing on his disciples, as here in John, or through the coming of the wind and the tongues of flame, as Luke tells the story? What happens is renewal, empowerment, energy, passion, courage—all the things you would expect when new life comes into the world, when someone experiences a new birth into a living hope. The group of disciples in Acts receive the promised power from on high and are able to speak in other languages in order to proclaim boldly the good news to Jewish pilgrims from all over the Roman world.
Some of those present in Jerusalem for Pentecost hear Peter’s exhortation and are baptized, then return to their homes in Cappadocia, Pontus, and so on, and their children and grandchildren may be among those the writer addresses in 1 Peter. They experience the new creation as an imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance, and they rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.
In John 20, Jesus breathes the Spirit onto the disciples, empowering them with a commission to forgive sins, promote reconciliation, and proclaim the good news of God’s abiding presence and love. When one of them is absent on Easter Sunday, Jesus returns the following week, again declaring, “Peace be with you,” and invites Thomas to examine for himself the wounds in his hands and side. New creation comes to Thomas in a rush, overwhelming all his skepticism and demands for proof. The love of God gets poured into his heart and he offers the most complete confession of faith of anyone in John’s gospel. He says rhapsodically, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas receives new birth into a living hope, and nothing will ever be the same again.
But notice something else about the scene with Thomas. It’s a week after Jesus first appeared to the other disciples, seven days since he spoke words of peace, showed them his wounds, and breathed on them the Holy Spirit, and yet the doors are still shut. John does not specifically say they are locked this time, and does not repeat that the disciples are afraid, but something doesn’t smell right about this group gathered behind closed doors. Where is the courage, the passion, the energy, the life? Haven’t they heard it’s Easter? Why are they acting as if their Lord is still in the tomb?
Which bring us to … us. How often have we done the same thing, as individuals and, more crucially, as a community? How quickly do we forget that it’s Easter? How much do we truly value the new creation God brings us through Jesus’s resurrection and the gift of the Spirit? How often when we go through testing or suffering do we see it not as the gold of our faith being refined in the fire but rather as a punishment or an insurmountable obstacle in our path? How tempting is it sometimes simply to hunker down behind locked doors, wallow in self-pity, lick our wounds, and give in to discouragement and defeatism?
The good news that Jesus brings us today is the same news he brings the disciples and Thomas. It’s the same news the writer of 1 Peter brings his readers in the midst of their persecution and suffering. He brings us shalom. Jesus comes into our midst and says, “Peace be with you. May grace and peace be yours in abundance. Do not be afraid.” And what he means is that we are not alone. He is with us always through the Spirit he breathes upon us. He creates new life where before there was only chaos and death. He shines light into the places that have only known darkness. He brings healing for our brokenness, forgiveness for our sins, hope to lift us out of our despair, and a map to guide us on our journey out of exile. Most of all, he brings love—unconquerable, reconciling, liberating love.
“Have you believed because you have seen me?” Jesus asks Thomas. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v. 29), and then John informs us that his purpose in writing his gospel is “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (v. 31). The writer of 1 Peter tells his readers, “Although you have not seen [Jesus], you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (vv. 8–9).
These messages are for us as well. Jesus comes into our midst, pronouncing shalom and grace, and offering life in his name. We have not seen him—we cannot see him—but if we still ourselves and watch and listen, we just may discern his presence. If we breathe deeply, we may feel the stirring of the Spirit within us. If we love one another, serve our neighbors, and in as many ways as we can seek to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God, we may discover that indescribably glorious joy within and among us.
When that happens, may we have the good sense to fall to our knees in worship and proclaim, “My Lord and my God!”