Easter 5(A): Rebuilding Identity in Christ
By: The Rev. Kim Jenne
David Kessler is an expert on grief. He co-wrote with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss. His latest book adds another stage to the process, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief (published November 2019). In a Harvard Business Review interview in March, he commented that he believes “we will continue to find meaning now and when this [the coronavirus pandemic] is over.”
Most of us have not arrived at the meaning stage. As I write this, I am not sure what state the world will be in by the time the fifth Sunday of Easter arrives. I do know that this Easter season will be like no other we have experienced in modernity. For that reason, you might consider nixing the “do not be troubled” opening line of John’s Gospel and instead pick up 1 Peter for your sermon inspiration.
Peter’s first letter is a good comfort for the distressed. We are suffering on a global scale. The grief, disappointment and hurt is palpable. I have participated in dozens of video calls where, at some point, someone on the call begins to cry. Physical distancing, self-isolation and other coronavirus-induced limitations on life should not be viewed as a trivial form of suffering. N.T. Wright explains: “There is a reason we normally try to meet in the flesh. There is a reason solitary confinement is such a severe punishment…. We can’t tick off the days. This is a stillness, not of rest, but of poised, anxious sorrow.”
This “poised, anxious sorrow” is the perfect reason to pick up Peter’s letter during the season of Easter. As the epistle serves to strengthen Christians in times of distress, it also sets their lives within the history of God’s activity and offers meaning for our experiences of sorrow, distress, and suffering.
Don’t be tempted to use your precious exhortation time unpacking the historical debates around the letter’s authorship. Save that for the clergy lectionary study or the Wednesday night Bible study where you can share the broader context. Rather, I suggest we consider it a piece of early Christian correspondence included among those New Testament writings that Martin Luther remarked, “show thee Christ.”
Peter’s first letter is addressed to a group of early churches that are alienated from the surrounding society, offering them comfort which is why it continues to offer us wisdom today. Particularly, this epistle reminds believers what it means to live out the sacraments as individuals and as a community. From 1 Peter, churches may discover clues to faithful living even while restricted in their public gatherings.
Peter reminds the churches that the Christian life, while not separate from the world beyond our doors, offers more, much more. Amazing promises are made to those who give their life to this new world by placing one’s full confidence in Jesus. As Peter writes to the church, those who love and trust Jesus will “rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.” (1 Peter 1:8)
The author calls his readers to spend their time, despite their distress, renewing their identity in Christ. As we learn to live into a new normal, one of the ways we might make meaning during our suffering, is to spend the Easter season renewing our identity in Christ.
No amount of special facilities, programs, talents, digital platforms and “relevant” messages are required to experience this type of renewal. Don’t tell the finance committee, but it doesn’t even require a line item in the budget! What it does require is faithfulness to the process of becoming more Christlike. Wise preachers, even those weary from intensive on-the-job training as digital pastors, might heed this opportunity to strip away non-essentials and invite disciples into an intensive re-building project. Peter’s message reminds disciples that Christians and non-Christians don’t see different things, but that we see the same things differently. The disciple will make Jesus their bedrock while, for non-Christians, Jesus is an inconvenience, a rock to be tossed out of the way. This Easter season, as we await the remembrance of the Pentecost and invite the Holy Spirit to inspire us anew, believers have an opportunity to take seriously that having been born through water and the Spirit, they may live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.
The epistolary lection is meant to offer affirmation and comfort for those chosen to be a holy people. By using images and phrases from the Old Testament, the epistle simply substitutes the language of Israel for the church. This catena of images previously reserved for Israel seeks to reinterpret the Old Testament for the expanding Christian community in Asia Minor. Any commentary worth their salt can offer an extensive review of the Old Testament allusions in this passage of the letter. If you are preaching this text in 2020, there is a great opportunity to remind the people of who they are and what that means for their daily lives as God’s holy people. If your congregation continues to shelter-in-place or practice physical distancing, providing specific ideas on how to shape their days while at home could serve as the bulk of your message.
One such practice might be in meal sharing since the passage offers a strong food metaphor. Suggesting that community members plan for a special meal – one that takes time and love to prepare – alongside a special prayer. You could write a special, short liturgy for members to offer before their meal or suggest the Moravian-inspired Love Feast. Through the meal, remind believers that we have tasted and seen that the Lord is sweet. The Lord is Christ and Jesus is to be the basis of their growth – they have tasted of him through the Word and through the Sacrament and now they can grow up in him. Because of this, they have chosen to see things as Christ sees them, not as the world sees. Through these new eyes, they can lay the cornerstone of their spiritual house and participate in re-affirming and in the case of many, re-building their identity in Christ.
 Scott Berinato, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” Harvard Business Review. 23 March 2020. https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief. Accessed 2 April 2020.
 N.T. Wright, “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.” Time. 29 March 2020. https://time.com/5808495/coronavirus-christianity/. Accessed 4 April 2020.
 I prefer Luke Timothy Johnson’s preferred translation of chrēstos as sweet: “Taste and see because the Lord is sweet.” Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. Third Edition. Fortress Press: Minneapolis (2010), 430.
The Rev. Kim Jenne is the Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Annual Conference. The Office of Connectional Ministries is responsible for Boundaries, Communications, Conferencing, Discipleship Ministries, Safe Sanctuaries, and Leadership Development through the Nominations Committee. Before her current appointment, Kim served as senior pastor of Webster Hills UMC in St. Louis. She is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, loves NASA and is sorely disappointed we aren’t already living on Mars. She considers herself an inconsistent but persistent disciple of Jesus and is slowly learning to keep company with God on a more regular basis.