7th Sunday of Easter – 5/21/2023
There certainly seems to be a lot of suffering going on in this world of ours, wouldn't you agree?
The remembrances and continuing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, all the devastating tornadoes in the Midwest and South, acts of terrorism around the world, the decimating war between Ukraine and Russia threatening world peace, destructive earthquakes in various places, and even the unusual and massive springtime forest and grass fires just north of us in Canada, have caused some to question if such catastrophic events are not apocalyptic—that is, are signaling that the end of the world is near.
I wonder what our parents and grandparents, who lived through the turbulent times of the Great Depression with its accompanying Dust Bowl, two world wars, and great plagues, thought about the suffering they could see going on around them. Did it seem like the end was near? What about our fellow Americans who lived through the horrible days of the Civil War? What were they saying about the turbulence and suffering they were put through?
How to comprehend suffering is something every generation has had to come to grips with. After all, every age of human history has been plagued with all manner of civil unrest, economic calamity, natural disasters, wars, and untold horrors of suffering and loss of life, most of which would make what we have been experiencing seems like a cakewalk.
Are we witnessing more disasters and suffering than ever before, or does it just seem worse or more prevalent because the technology of instant communication has made it so that the suffering from around the globe, as well as what is going on in our neighborhoods, is being broadcast in living color into our living rooms and the palms of our hands every day?
The context of St. Peter's epistle, from which we hear today, is that of suffering, both Christ's suffering as well as the suffering of His followers. Peter begins the very section of our Epistle reading today by saying, "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though some strange thing were happening to you."
Why do we always act so surprised when people are made to suffer all sorts of maladies or when disasters of one sort or another strike? Do we honestly think that we people of the 21st century should be spared such "fiery ordeals", as Peter calls them? What makes us think that we should be strangers to suffering?
We are not the first generation to experience floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, or tornadoes. We are not the only people to suffer at the hands of natural disasters or even man-made disasters, like wars or economic collapse!
Such sufferings have been part and parcel of our whole world's existence since that first man and first woman fell headlong into sin and rebellion. "The day you eat of the fruit of that tree, you shall surely die," the LORD said. And mankind has been dying a thousand deaths ever since as a consequence of sin. There is no escape from this curse of sin for any of us.
Likewise, and no doubt more in line with what St. Peter is referring to as "fiery ordeals," why should any of us Christians be surprised when we suffer from persecution, name-calling, or worse? The Christ whom we follow was vehemently opposed by religious as well as secular leaders, spit upon, beaten, whipped, and inhumanely crucified.
Should we imagine that such suffering would not also come our way? Just as worldly sufferings are common to every descendant of Adam, anyone who takes the name of Christ will experience to some degree the torments of Christ.
Once you wear the moniker "Christian," from your baptism forward, you are in the sights of every enemy of Christ.
Though not all suffering is created equal in the sense that we will all experience the same amount and kindness, To be sure, some of us will experience more persecution and opposition than others.
But none of us will be strangers to it.
This is not to say, however, that such suffering for a Christian has no rhyme or reason. "It comes upon you to test you," Peter states. Already in the opening verses of his epistle, Peter had taught his readers: "Now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire, may be found to result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ."
Could God keep every danger, sword, or peril away from you as His beloved son or daughter through faith in Jesus Christ? Of course, he could! He is omnipotent. No enemy of Christ could destroy even a hair on your head if God did not permit him. So why does He allow you to suffer so much? If He loved you, would He be so permissive about your suffering?
Yes, he most certainly would be, and he is! The same love He has for you that moved Him to give His only begotten Son into punishment and death to save you eternally is the same love that moves Him to guard you against forfeiting this free salvation in Christ by falling out of faith in Him. Accordingly, in His love for you and His concern for your eternal welfare, your God uses suffering, like the fire of a refiner of gold or silver, to burn away all false supports and leave behind in you the pure nugget of faith by which, alone, you receive all that He desires to give you.
So, dear friends in Christ, where is the shame in suffering if it is God's good purpose for you?
Now, I suppose one could feel a tinge of shame when he is left homeless, hurt, maimed, or poverty-stricken by some natural disaster or disease. And I know we ought rightly to feel ashamed when we suffer as a direct consequence of our sin, as Peter says if we suffer "as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler." Under such circumstances, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
But we ought to feel no shame when it comes to suffering as Christians; that is, whenever we are made to suffer because we are following Jesus Christ and His Word instead of following the dictates of our sinful nature or the schemes of the world and the devil, After all, if we are "insulted for the name of Christ," made fun of because we won't follow with the crowd in doing those things that offend against God's truth and commands, or even beaten or jailed for sharing the truth of Jesus Christ, Peter says we are blessed!
Now, I know this does not square with conventional wisdom, even among many who call themselves Christians.
In their preaching and teaching, they insist that when all is going well in your life and you are not suffering from a lack of anything, then you can consider yourself blessed by God. They imply that the truly righteous, those who truly believe in Christ, won't suffer from a lack of material goods; neither will they get sick, nor, if they do, will they always be healed from every malady. They will live a blessed and prosperous life.
Holy Scripture says just the opposite. It insists that those who are blessed are those who are suffering, for no other reason except that they are living and being Christians. Like Job of old, they suffer even though they are righteous by faith.
The reason they are blessed is that they are "sharing in the sufferings of Christ."
Peter says it doesn't get any better than this on this side of heaven. Sharing in the sufferings of Christ is like receiving the Purple Heart from God. It's the highest of honors. For you see, when one is suffering the sufferings of Christ, the very Spirit of glory and of God is resting upon him.
As Holy Scripture repeats often, Jesus' greatest glory is His cross, and the Father's greatest glory is in His Son's willingness to be the sacrificial lamb for sinners. The Holy Spirit poured Himself out on Jesus on the day of His baptism precisely so Jesus could be that suffering servant.
Therefore, instead of being ashamed, when you are suffering as a Christian, that is, sharing Christ's suffering, you can be "rejoicing" continuously. For you can be sure that the God of the Cross is already well pleased in you and that the day when Jesus is revealed at the end of days, you, who are sharing in His suffering now, will also be able to "exuberantly rejoice" in Jesus' eternal glory.
Finally, there is one other jewel Peter gives us about suffering for being a Christian. This might be the most sobering, humbling, and yet comforting thought of them all. Listen carefully once again: "Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God, and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And if the righteous are scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?'"
Have you ever thought of yourself as being "scarcely saved? We like to dwell on the fact that in Jesus Christ we have forgiveness and are saved from the wrath of God to come against all the ungodly. And so we should! But how often do we meditate on just how close that salvation is for us? How appreciative are we that we are but a hair's breadth away from hearing the awful decree of the Eternal Judge on that final day of judgment, "Depart from me, O wicked man, into fires of everlasting punishment?" Do we appreciate the immense grace and effort of God, not to mention the great cost of His saving us?
Such appreciation is exactly what times of suffering in the name of Christ are used by God to give us.
All temporal suffering gives us a glimpse of what we have deserved because of our sins and should be ours for all of eternity. But thanks be to God's grace and Jesus' great sacrifice in atonement for us, we are made to appreciate how, by the slimmest of margins, we are spared eternal suffering.
I know I shared this story with you before, but I believe it is worth repeating. Quite a while back, Dennis Hirsch shared with me a real-life story that serves well to illustrate the precarious nature of our salvation in Jesus Christ. He said that he and his daughter, son-in-law, and their two children were out on a family outing, hiking up a high mountain trail in Alaska. At one point, as they took a brief respite in their journey, the five-year-old grandson stood on the edge of the trail overlooking a 200-foot sheer drop-off to do what boys love to do: chuck a rock over the edge to watch it crash to the cavernous floor below.
Unfortunately, his foot slipped, and in the blink of an eye, he fell head-first over the edge to his certain death. In split-second timing and without any regard for his own life, his father leaped forward flat out on his belly in an attempt to catch the young lad, who had already disappeared over the edge.
Thanks to God, he managed to catch the heel of his son's hiking boots. And with what would have had to have been herculean strength, he pulled his bruised and frightened son to safety. That's being scarcely saved!
Dear fellow redeemed, God's verdict has been declared for us. Our sin plunged us off the edge of life, plummeting us into the tortuous cavern of hell. On the peril of His death, Jesus, the Son of God in human flesh, stretched out His bloody hands and snatched you and me up to heaven from the certain, horrible, and eternal pains of eternal judgment. In that same grace, God beseeches those of us who believe in Jesus to be righteous in His sight. We are saved by a breath—the breath of God that bespeaks us as righteous! You and I have been scarcely saved!
How thankful we can be, then, for moments of suffering in this life! By God's grace, each one gives us only a taste of what God in Christ saved us from. Thanks be to God, we can entrust our souls to a faithful Creator who is doing what is good and right to save us! Amen!