With the winter finally subsiding, spring in the air, and summer on the way, more of us will be heading outdoors. Perhaps we will walk our neighborhood, head to the park with the kids or grandkids, ride a bike, maybe even take a hike like the Youth Group will today.
These leisure outdoor activities are great, but there are some who take active lives to unprecedented levels, evident by the growing popularity of obstacle course races, which have taken summers by storm for the last several years. At these races, athletes seek to complete obstacle courses that challenge the willing to run, climb, jump, and crawl their way to glory filled achievement. A few examples are…
The “Tough Mudder”, which draws thousands for its weekend-long events. It is all about teamwork and community, with the goal being simply to get through the course more so than be the first to finish. Oh, and get muddy doing it.
The “Spartan” offers the “easier” Spartan Sprint— a 3 mile race over rough, maze like, terrain where participants face unexpected obstacles without a map. For the more adventurous, there is the Spartan Beast, a 10 mile course that only sees about half of the participants finish.
The “Run For Your Lives” race adds drama by featuring a course set up like an episode of The Walking Dead where racers have to not only navigate and endure obstacles but also dodge lurking “zombies” who try to steal the three “health flags” attached to competitors. You need to have at least one health flag at the finish in order to be counted among the living and be eligible for prizes.
Simply surviving these courses seems to be a worthy goal for anyone who lines up at the start. To do so, you need to train your body and your mind, and it always helps to have a few friends to give you a hand along the way and help you get to that glory filled achievement. For many of us, we might just assume to forgo the obstacles and merely sit on the sidelines—knowing that if we attempted such endeavors we’d probably quit half way through.
But even if we’re not in the kind of physical shape to tackle a Tough Mudder or a Spartan Run, we might consider upping our game for a different endurance race we are already running—the Christian life. We should be mindful of course, that just as there has been before, there will be, still, obstacles. Including, as Peter alludes to, Jesus obstacles. But if we are even the least bit willing, we can run this race confident that our faithfulness in the one who runs with us will show us the way to glory filled achievement—for us and for others.
Today’s epistle reading offers a course description of the obstacles and challenges followers of Jesus face, and Peter asserts that Jesus himself presents a kind of obstacle. After speaking to potential beatings and suffering, Peter then says, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you follow in his footsteps.” That’s an obstacle isn’t it?
And we can easily stumble over these “Jesus obstacles” because for many of us the obstacles of potential beatings and suffering is enough to want to forgo the race, and simply sit on the sidelines knowing that if we attempt such endeavors we’d probably quit half way through. And it’s not because Jesus is an obstacle, but his ways of mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and grace are just so counter to the prevailing culture that they become obstacles.
It’s easier to condemn than be merciful. It’s easier to ignore than be compassionate. It’s easier to hold a grudge than to forgive. It’s easier to offer rejection than grace. Not only are the things of today’s culture easier, but the Jesus obstacles also seem to make us weak in the eyes of others. We run the risk of being seen as push overs, as those who can, and maybe deserve to be taken advantage of. But we would do well to remember that it was in Jesus’ weakest moments when he was the strongest at serving and saving.
If the potential beating and struggles weren’t enough Jesus obstacles, there were also the social norms of their non-believing neighbors that made being a Christ follower in the Roman world an obstacle course.
In his book “Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World”, New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado cites several reasons why the rest of the culture saw Jesus followers as obstacles. Hurtado explains, Christians didn’t honor the Roman gods upon whom the empire depended. And failure to honor Roman gods, while claiming a crucified man raised from the dead was king, was not only foolish but downright dangerous.
Next, in the Roman world, religious texts were read only by religious authorities, and then, read only to an elite few. Christians, however, read to men and women of different social classes, all gathered together as equals.
And lastly, Hurtado discusses how the early church challenged the social behaviors of the Roman world. For example, Romans enjoyed the bloody gladiator arena, but Christians refused to consent themselves to such entertainment—that is until they were forced to be fodder for the arena gladiators.
When we consider all these obstacles for early followers of Christ, the argument can be made that it’s not so different from today’s culture that expects us to worship the gods of consumerism, wealth, sex and violence; has created division of inequality between socioeconomic statuses, as well as race and the like; and pushes us into the arenas that value what is new and novel over that which is ancient truth and whose social norms are those of the self-centered rather than service to others.
The fascinating thing, however, is that the early church grew exponentially in spite of these obstacles—they thrived in this adversity. It wasn’t because of excellent preaching or attractive worship—things we value today—but because of their willingness to stand true to their call for mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and grace—even if it meant suffering amid persecution.
And as a result, the Roman non-believers observing these early followers of Christ maintain their faith and their virtue in the face of terrible suffering, wanted to know why and how they did it. They were attracted to these Christians who had a greater kingdom in mind and who didn’t play by the usual Roman rules—rules which left people ultimately empty.
And for Peter, this was the real finish line for the Christian life— the goal to which every follower of Jesus should aspire, saying earlier in verse twelve, “Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes.” For Peter, living as good citizens and enduring suffering for the faith was the key to introducing others to Jesus.
When the Roman world came up against these Christian communities, they saw them as obstacles to be removed rather than an opportunity to listen and understand. This is often the case today—although conversely. When the Christian world comes up against the non-believer communities, we often see them as obstacles to be removed rather than an opportunity to listen, understand, and then be listened to as well.
This is when we must remember, Jesus was tempted, as we are, to follow the path of least resistance social norms, but he didn’t, “he committed no sin.”
Jesus spoke the truth, never bending his truth to sound better to the itching ears of the culture, “no deceit was found in his mouth.”
Jesus did not use violence, even when abused physically and verbally. In fact, in the midst of such abuse, he only uttered forgiveness. That’s a lesson we would do well to learn in a day when social media all but begs us to retaliate!
Jesus did not use threats. When he suffered, even on the cross, he did not threaten people with his wrath, but instead relied on God’s justice and mercy to set things right.
Jesus did all of this, and provided the example for those who would follow him. Yes, they are obstacles that are challenging and demanding, obstacles that will make life in this world a lot harder—but they are obstacles and challenges that to lead to glory filled achievement that makes our world on earth as it is in heaven.
In a world that is increasingly hostile to people of faith, it takes faith, willingness, and even guts to want to engage in the Jesus obstacle course that is the Christian life. It is easy to quit, to forgo the obstacles and stand on the sidelines—because we can if we choose. Peter, however, urges us to run with boldness, being patient in suffering and being an example to others in our conduct. After all, it is what the world needs, even if the world does not know it.
For Jesus, the goal was saving the very world that crucified him. For his followers, it is doing our best to join him in that effort by being examples of Christ, and leading others to him.
So may we follow his example, face the obstacles of the Christian life head on, and keep our eyes on the finish line. May we run the race, knowing it isn’t about staying on the sidelines, bypassing obstacles or retaliating against those who malign us, but rather it’s about running with perseverance knowing it will take us to the glory filled achievement of making our world a better place.
Yes, the ways of Jesus fill a life of faith with obstacles. But when we work together in community as the body of Christ, then there truly is no obstacle we cannot overcome. Amen.