The Crucible of Change
Scripture: Luke 22:31-34
My undergraduate degree is from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. It’s a small, Catholic University and I could not have afforded to attend without scholarship money, grants and loans. Even so, it was a stretch for my family. That’s why one summer I opted to take my science elective, biology, at a nearby state college. I enjoyed biology in high school and did well. I have to confess, another perceived perk in taking my course at the local college was that my letter grade did not transfer. So long as I got at least a C, the credits would transfer and I’d be set. I imagined that getting a C at this state school that was far from renowned for its academics, would be a breeze. I was very wrong. I happened to get a professor who was notorious. The semester began with about 60 students in the course. After each quiz, more students would drop out. They were dropping like flies. I knew I couldn’t afford to waste those tuition dollars so I was determined to get that C. By the end of that summer intensive, my entire life was consumed with biology. The last three days before the final, I ate my meals with a book propped open in front of me and did barely anything but study. I pulled an all-nighter, pumping myself full of caffeine. The test was at 8 a.m. I arrived and took my seat. I looked around the room. Only about a dozen other students had even bothered to show up. The professor passed out the exams and I stared down at the paper. My foot was tapping against the chair. My fingers were moving nervously across the pencil. With all that caffeine in my system, I felt like my heart was going to burst right out of my chest. I remember having the fleeting thought that, perhaps a cardiac event would come with an automatic exemption from the test or at least an extension. I had spent other late nights studying and had consumed my fair share of college coffee; but never to that extreme. That was the hardest test I ever took. By the skin of my teeth, I got my C.
Many of us, I imagine, can remember a particularly demanding test at some point in our lives. Perhaps it wasn’t of an academic nature. Perhaps it was an athletic competition or a music audition. If you served in the military, you may feel that basic training was your most rigorous test; a test of physical and mental endurance.
To live is to experience testing. It comes with the human experience. But the most demanding tests are the ones that test our spirit. Whether it is a life-threatening illness, financial disaster, a child’s suicide attempt; those are the tests that we find most difficult to bear. They are crucibles that change us. But, as followers of Christ, we are never left alone in our times of testing.
If you’ll turn to the center of your morning’s program, you’ll see a question there: “When has there been a time in your own life when you were undergoing difficult change or testing and felt God carried you through?”
This morning’s gospel reading may have surprised you. It is a strange passage unique to Luke. It is set within the context of Jesus’ final night on earth. Sharing a last supper with his disciples, Luke – like his gospel comrades – tells us of Peter’s impending denial of his Lord. But Luke gives us an additional detail unique to his account. It is this peculiar couple of verses in which Jesus warns Peter that what is about to occur is the direct result of the work of Satan, the adversary. Peter is about to undergo a test, sifting is how Jesus describes it… with a word that implies great agitation or shaking. Peter’s whole world is about to be shaken apart by Jesus’ impending arrest, trial and crucifixion. But Jesus adds this assurance: that he is interceding for Peter so that his faith or trust in Jesus won’t be destroyed. Peter will get through this and, when he emerges on the other side, he is given the assignment of strengthening his brothers in the faith, his fellow disciples.
Now, as a quick aside, we need to be cautious as we look at these brief, but peculiar, verses and not make assumptions. We must be careful not to place blame upon Jesus as if he has tossed Peter to the enemy. Peter is not Job and Jesus does not say that this testing of Peter is some peculiar thing that Jesus has negotiated. Jesus’ announcement is that and nothing more. He wants Peter to be made aware of what lies ahead.
Perhaps as hearers of Luke’s story we should not be so surprised. The devil has been lurking in the shadows of this story since the close of chapter four.
While Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell of Jesus himself being tested by the devil for forty days in the wilderness before his public ministry begins, Luke is – once again – unique in his account. While Matthew and Mark provide an encouraging conclusion to their temptation story by telling that angels came and ministered to Jesus, Luke closes with these ominous words, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.”i So, when Jesus faces arrives at these, his final hours of life here on earth, the devil is back with a vengeance for round two and we should not be surprised that his work of testing has extended beyond Jesus to encompass those who are a part of his inner circle.
So Jesus does not mince words in letting Peter know what he is coming up against. But Jesus also provides the assurance that his intercession on Peter’s behalf will get Peter through this test. It will be no blazing success… after all; his fear will cause him to deny even knowing Jesus. But this test, this adversary, will not destroy him because Jesus is interceding on Peter’s behalf.
Friends, when we face testing in our own lives, as disciples of Jesus, we never undergo it alone. Jesus is continually interceding on our behalf. The author of Hebrews puts it like this:
Because Jesus himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.ii
It is the job of a priest to intercede for God’s people and, the writer of Hebrews tells us, Jesus is a priest like none other. He knows what it feels like to be tested and to suffer the battering of this sinful world. But Jesus defeated the adversary; he emerged from his testing victorious and now he lives eternally in the presence of God the Father to make intercession for us in our times of testing.
Jesus assures Peter that his intercession on Peter’s behalf means that Peter and his faith will not be destroyed. Peter will outlast this test; it won’t be the end of him. But, perhaps even more importantly, when he does emerge from it, he is not called to simply breathe a sigh of relief and put it behind him, moving on as if it never happened. That is our human inclination. We don’t want to think about our painful past. And we don’t want to speak of it. We’d like to pretend it never happened. But we shouldn’t; and here’s why: our brothers and sisters in the faith are walking this journey with us and they – just like us – face times of terrible testing and, when they do, they not only need Jesus to intercede for them. They need us to strengthen them. While the pressures of the crucible may harden our resolve and fortify our faith, those personal experiences of testing should also soften us toward our brothers and sisters. They should cultivate within us a deep compassion; a willingness to share the strength we have gained from our victory with them; a readiness to remind them that they are not alone and that Jesus is interceding on their behalf and he will bring them through it.
Friends, when we are in the midst of spiritual testing, it is hard to hang on and so we must strengthen one another as Jesus calls us to do. If the merciful intercession of Jesus has brought you through a divorce, a bankruptcy, a life-threatening illness, a family member’s death, or any other grueling test, don’t keep that to yourself. Use it, speak of your experience, so you can bring strength and hope to your brothers and sisters in the faith who are now facing similar tests and trials.
Many of you are aware that I was in Dayton last week teaching at United Seminary. As Methodists in a connectional church, United uses ordained clergy to facilitate spiritual formation courses for ministry students. The spiritual formation courses are designed to help students integrate and balance their personal spiritual lives, their ministry contexts, their studies and their relationships in healthy ways. One of the assignments that take place when we are together on campus involves sharing a reflection on ministry that requires students to analyze, evaluate and theologically reflect on an event or experience in their lives. Every year, at least one student shares a reflection that is hard for the rest of us to hear because it reveals an intense struggle. We may hear in it evidence that a student feels guilt that their family is being hurt by their ministry context. We may hear in it evidence that the denominational hierarchy threw a young, naïve pastor into a cauldron of conflict. We may hear in it stories of self-doubt or fear or even regret. Now, the learning model requires us to draw out the student and push them to explore healthy ways to face their challenges. Yet often, when the presentation time has ended, in those breaks between assignments, we speak to one another words of understanding and compassion. Some of us have been there and we know what they are experiencing. And we want them to know that they’re going to make it even though right now, they might feel completely overwhelmed and crushed. We pray with them and we remind them that the God who called them is with them and is faithful to them. And it gives them strength for the journey ahead.
And friends, that kind of an experience shouldn’t just be a seminary class assignment for people going into ordained ministry. That should be something that happens regularly among all of Jesus’ disciples. We should be ready and willing to share our struggles with one another. And those of us who have been there should be ready to respond with prayer and with words of encouragement that strengthen our brothers and sisters for the journey.
Friends: no doubt, testing changes us. But it doesn’t need to change us for the worse. As disciples of Jesus, it should change us for the better because, when we encounter Jesus, when we know that he has brought us through that crucible, then we emerge with a strength we can use to strengthen our brothers and sisters. Thanks be to God!
i Luke 4:13
ii Hebrews 2:18
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