(shared with the people of Friendship Church, July 17, 2005)
Shortly after my wife and I were married, her father told her and me about a relative who had just passed away and what funeral arrangements had been made. He looked at her with that matter-of-fact smile he sometimes affected and said, “These are things that happen in life. It’s part of being a grown-up.”
There are unpleasant truths from which the adult world may try to shield us when we’re young. But facts, as someone has said, are stubborn things.
As followers of Jesus Christ, you and I are called to childlike faith. “Let the little children come to Me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” Jesus tells His disciples. "Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it," He says.
But repeatedly, Jesus and the Bible also call His followers to grow up and mature in their faith. After His followers failed to get an important point for the umpteenth time, Jesus sighed with exasperation and asked, “How much longer must I put up with you?” In the New Testament book of Hebrews, the preacher complains to believers that they haven't grown up in their faith:
...though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil. [Hebrews 5:12-14]As I’ve said before, the call to childlike faith is not a call to childish faith. We’re called to trust God, not to view Him as a Sugar Daddy.
Being a follower of Jesus Christ is the most wonderful thing any of us can be. When we turn from our sin and receive Jesus’ forgiveness and lordship over our lives, we become part of God’s kingdom. We have a hope and a joy that nothing can destroy.
But Christian faith is more than Christmas and Easter. There are certain unpleasant truths that must be faced and accepted. We must all grow up. If we refuse to do that, our faith won’t stand the tests of this world. At the first signs of suffering, difficulty, adversity, or pain, we’ll stomp off in a temper tantrum, shaking our fist at God, and turning our backs on the only One Who can give us comfort, help, or hope.
(It isn't, of course, that God can't take our complaints. The lament Psalms in the Old Testament are full of faithful people railing against God. But after we've had our tantrums, we need God or we won't make it through the tough times!)
Today’s Bible lesson, written by a man who knew far more suffering than any of us have either experienced or are likely to be able to imagine, acknowledges some unpleasant truths about our lives. In fact, just before the beginning of our lesson, Paul says that followers of Jesus are children of God and “heirs with Christ—if in fact, we suffer with Him so that we may be glorified with Him.” (Romans 8:17)
You see, the follower of Jesus Christ is called to suffer in at least two ways. First, we’re called to suffer the death of our old lives apart from Jesus. Paul says in Romans 6, that in Baptism, the old sinful self—the self born into this world—is drowned and the new self rises to live with Christ. After that, from the moment we’re capable of understanding what God finds pleasing and displeasing, what’s right and what’s wrong, we’re to renew our relationship with God in what Martin Luther called, “daily repentance and renewal.” Luther even suggests that when we confess our sins to God and ask Him to kill off the many vestiges of our old sinful selves, we should make the sign of the cross, remembering what God accomplished in our Baptism. We’re to suffer the death of our old selves, which clings to life as long as we still live on this earth.
But there is a second kind of suffering to which we’re called. That’s what Paul was talking about in the verse I just quoted and our lesson for today really unpacks the sort of suffering he’s talking about. We are to suffer with Christ.
But what does that mean? Jesus suffered because the whole human race, including you and me, don’t want to have a boss. We want to be our own bosses. We want to be gods unto ourselves. I include myself in that indictment. I am, after all, an American: John Wayne and Thomas Jefferson, baby. I want to do what I want to do when I want to do it. Never mind that 6-billion little gods roaming around the planet is a nightmare that will never work. Never mind that I can’t even control myself, let alone the rest of the world.
When Jesus came into this sin-plagued world and told all of us little gods that it was time for us to surrender to Him and enter His kingdom of love, we—all of us, because our sins were already in the mix—nailed Him to a cross. But after He suffered, Jesus rose again gloriously.
Paul is saying that unless we’re willing to share in Christ’s sufferings—willing to patiently go through the rejection of others and the senseless pain that is the common lot of all humanity, be it from disease or aging or whatever—unless we are willing to bear that with Christ, we cannot experience the glory of His resurrection. There is no Easter without Good Friday...no glory without a cross. But then, Paul writes [I’m going to read it now in The Message paraphrase]:
I don’t think there’s any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times. The created world itself can hardly wait for what’s coming next. Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in until both creation and all the creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens.Right now, Jody, a member of our congregation, is sitting, rather bored, at the hospital. She’s had a tough pregnancy with more than the normal difficulties. She may still undergo labor if she can carry her son to full term. But the funny thing is, he’s not here yet: She and Eric are already/not yet parents.
All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.
That’s the way it is for us as Christians. We already belong to Jesus Christ for all eternity. But His Kingdom, which will be fully ushered in at the end of time, hasn’t gotten here yet. In the meantime, we will suffer, Paul says. All of creation, which operates under the burden of human sin, will suffer. But these are just the birth pangs of the eternal Kingdom that will one day give way to Jesus’ never-ending kingdom.
I’ve told the story before of a man named Arnold from my former congregation. He was a wonderful man who loved his wife and family, his friends and his garden and flowers. Some years before I knew him, he’d suffered a major heart attack and he knew that he could die at any time. That never dampened his spirits or quelled his faith. One summer day, in his yard inspecting his flowers, he collapsed from another massive heart attack. I ran to the hospital ER to see him. I grabbed his hand. “Pastor,” he asked, “how are you?” “Arnold, the more important question,” I told him, “is how are you?” He smiled. “Well,” he said, “I’ve felt better.” We prayed together. Moments later, he died.
You see, Arnold understood the hard—and ultimately wonderful—truths to which Paul points us today, truths that Christ calls us to grow up and accept. Here they are in a nutshell:
First: The hope that we have as followers of Jesus is bigger than our suffering because the Jesus is bigger than every adversity we face, including death.
Second: When we willingly suffer with Jesus by our sides, we share not only His suffering, but His everlasting glory.
Third: When, not if, we suffer, we can do so with patience; we know how the story of those who belong to Christ ends.
Fourth: When we, like Jesus, willingly suffer with and help others, we make it possible for them to experience the same miracle of hope and life we’ve received. The Kingdom can be born in them, too.
Arnold could smile on that hospital gurney because He knew He belonged to the Savior Who makes all things—even us—brand new. May we live with that same hope of ultimate glory through all the moments, good and bad, that come our way.