Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Suffering and the Christian

[This was prepared to be shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, this past Sunday, June1.]

1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11
“I can see that this is coming as something of a surprise to you.”

Those were the words spoken to me by a cardiologist four years ago, after he’d told me that I’d had a heart attack that destroyed 40% of my heart.

I was surprised.

Actually I was shocked.

I had none of the so-called risk factors. And I had tried to take reasonably good care of myself over the years. But a heart attack had come anyway.

When I look back on the events of that June four years ago, though--the 3:00 in the morning trip to a hospital ER in excruciating pain, the news that Superman (how I’d always thought of myself health-wise) had, of all things, heart disease--I wonder why I was surprised.

Did I think that I was exempt from the human condition?

Yes, I think that I did.

I think, in fact, that we all entertain that delusion sometimes. We rubberneck Interstate accidents with two thoughts coming to the fore at the same time: “It could have been me.” And, “That’s what happens to other people; not me.”

At one level, we are aware of our vulnerability to suffering and pain and death.

At another, we live in denial of our vulnerability, of our humanity.

But we live in a fallen and imperfect world. We are born with the fatal of condition of inborn sin, inborn alienation from God, inborn separation from the source of life. That must, inevitably, lead to suffering and death for every human being who draws breath on this earth.

Jesus raised His friend Lazarus from the dead, but eventually, Lazarus would die again, because there can be no resurrection to eternal life with God as Jesus won on Easter Sunday until we all cross the the threshold of death as Jesus did on Good Friday. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead as a sign that He (and He alone as God in the flesh) has power over life and death. But Lazarus still had to die again.

In other words, none of us is exempt from suffering.

Now, it’s easy for Christians to accept that truth when it applies to the the non-believing world. After all, non-believers haven’t trusted in the grace and promises of the crucified and risen Jesus. They haven’t taken Jesus up on His offer to be with them always, to give them life and that abundantly, to hear and act on their prayers. But the notion that no one is exempt from suffering is a hard pill for Christians to accept about Christians, especially themselves.

When cartoonist Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts and Charlie Brown, learned that he had cancer, he was dumbfounded. “How could God have let this happen this to me?” he asked friends, according to a documentary I once watched on PBS. “I taught Sunday School for years.”

His reaction isn’t unique. To a greater or lesser extent, probably every Christian has wondered about why God has allowed their suffering--be it physical, relational, emotional--when they’ve tried so hard to be faithful.

The book of 1 Peter, from which today’s second lesson is drawn, takes on the question of human suffering, particularly the suffering of those who trust in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. It does so, in fact, more than any other book in the New Testament: 42 times in the 27 books of the New Testament a word which can be translated as suffering or sufferings appears; 12 of those times occur in the book of 1 Peter!

As we’ve mentioned before, the apostle Peter wrote this letter to be circulated among the churches in first-century Asia Minor, a region that basically encompasses today’s Turkey.

From the outset of the letter, Peter makes clear that he’s going to deal with the question of sufferings--and he always uses the plural of that word--the sufferings of Christians. As we mentioned a few weeks ago, we don’t know if the Christians in Asia Minor were undergoing official persecution or simply the shunning of friends. But Peter may have had in mind much more than dealing with the opposition of other people to the Asia Minor Christians‘ faith, explaining perhaps the plural usage.

Even if he didn’t have all human suffering in mind, his words on the subject have application to us all, irrespective of the source of our sufferings.

Please take a look at the opening verses of the lesson, 1 Peter 4:12-14 (page 852 in the sanctuary Bible). Peter writes:
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.
For years, some scholars thought that the phrase “fiery ordeal” referred to the Roman punishment of burning Christians to death. But Peter’s letter was written years before that form of punishment was instituted.

Now, I think it’s clear that it refers to the metaphor of the purifying fire that would come to believers in the times before the Messiah, the Christ, fully established His kingdom. Psalm 66:10 refers to a moment of happiness and victory following a time of testing and pain when it says: “For you, God, tested us; you refined us like silver.”

“Don’t be surprised!” Peter is telling us, “when suffering and difficulties come to you. As you bear them with Christ at your side, He is using those moments of suffering and challenge to forge your character, to draw Him closer to you.”

Jesus makes clear in the Gospels that God isn’t the author of our suffering. Satan is.

But God can use the suffering of Christians to deepen our fellowship with God in this life and to ready us for life in eternity. 

And, Peter is telling us, Jesus Christ suffers with us.

And the One Who cried out from the cross, “My God, why have You forsaken me?” understands our questions, even when they can’t be answered on this side of eternity.

“Are you mad at God?” I asked a woman who was dying. “I was,” she said. “But I remember that Christ is always with me.”

The Christ Who suffered for you on His Good Friday is also the Christ Who will suffer with you on your Good Fridays, if you will let Him into your life.

That’s what Peter gets to in the latter part of our lesson, starting at 1 Peter 5:6:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. [Even if this life is filled with the suffering which may come to human beings at any time in this world, we have the hope of resurrection life with Christ, where sufferings will be done and joy will be complete.] Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.
Listen: Following Jesus is not an insurance policy against the realities of this life. “In this world,” Jesus says to those who follow Him, “you will have trouble...” If that’s a promise we’d rather not have from Jesus, remember that there are other promises that go with that one.

One of those is referred to by Peter here when he says: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”

The God made known to the world cares for you. Among all the little gods and godlets, the idols that have sprung from human imagination, in both ancient and modern times, none cared for human beings. The Greek and Roman idols from which Asia Minor Christians had been freed by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, might, in the mythology about them, manipulate or use humans or fall in love with them or abuse them. But they didn’t care for human beings.

God though, the God Who made you in His image, does care for you, even when you sin. Romans 5:8 says: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Give your sins, along with your cares and your sufferings to Jesus. He will bathe you in the grace and forgiveness of God. He will stand with you. He will stand for you in the halls of heaven as you pray. 

In my thirty years as a pastor, it's been my observation that suffering can do one of two big things to people.

For those with shallow faith, the kind of faith that sees Jesus as a rabbit's foot, suffering alienates them from God and embitters them.

For others though, suffering acquaints them with their weakness...and with God's strength.

In Saint Matthew in Logan, where I last served, was a young woman named Sarah. She learned when she was thirteen that she had leukemia. She fought valiantly through seven years, two bone marrow transplants, and five relapses. Once, when she was in the ICU, observing how she held onto Christ, not as a good luck charm, but as her Lord, I asked if she would preach the following Easter Sunday. Later, she joked that since, at the time, she'd been under the influence of pain-killers, she'd said yes to my request. But it was a powerful moment for us all when Sarah did preach the following Easter and reminded us that our hope is in Christ alone.

You may remember that once, the apostle Paul was suffering from what he called "a thorn in the flesh." We have no idea what it was. But Paul reported that he asked God three different times to take it away. God said, "No. My grace is sufficient. I'm all you need." And God explained to Paul that His power is perfected in our weakness.

Why was Sarah's witness for Christ so powerful? Why are those who suffer and die with Christ by their sides always a more powerful presence in our lives than those who seem to have the world by the string and no need of God?

For one simple reason: It's only in those courageous enough to acknowledge their weakness and need and defeat in the face of life that the full power and grace and life of God can be seen!

It's only in those who understand their own vulnerability and humanity and mortality that the crucified and risen Jesus can be fully manifest and exercise His gracious Lordship over a life transformed by His love
. (I hope someday to be such a person of faith!)

Suffering in this life shouldn’t surprise us. But, as we humble ourselves under the Lordship of Christ, we will be surprised by how He can carry us even through the valleys where death shadows us.

Paul, knowing that he would die for his faith in Christ after decades of sufferings and of fighting and wrestling with himself in order to stay faithful to the Lord Who had given forgiveness, life, and eternity to him as free gifts through Christ (the greatest struggles Christians face will be with themselves), wrote this to a young pastor named Timothy back in the first century: “...the time for my departure [my death] is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

Peter's challenge us today is this: To own our weakness and so, let the power of Christ sustain us in this life and prepare us for the one to come. Amen

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