God’s Salvation More than a Peaceful life.
Acts 9: 1 – 20; John 21: 1- 19
Today I want to offer you some of my musings (my pondering / my reflections) on suffering. I am not offering any definitive theological explanation. My musing arises from what I have noticed in the Bible – almost between the sentences. They are the things I see that we often read as secondary to the main story. In one sense they are secondary! For example, take the story of Paul’s Damascus Road experience. We note the blinding vision, the fear of Ananias when asked to go and heal Paul and the amazement of the people that this prosecutor of Christians has become the Christian proclaimer. But did we notice what God said to Ananias about Paul? God said; “I am going to show him how many things he is going to have to suffer for the sake of my name.” [Acts 9:16 NTW*] Yes, God chooses Paul to be the prime apostle to the nations and kings – and the children of Israel [Acts 9:15]. However God knows that Paul will suffer for the faith. From the very beginning of Paul’s call to follow Jesus suffering is forecast. I wonder if this understanding that the call of God involves suffering helps Paul understand that to suffer for the Gospel is a great honour. Paul saw his suffering as a sharing in the suffering of Jesus. In Paul’s letter to Timothy he says; “I was made a herald, apostle, and teacher for this gospel; that’s why I suffer these things. But I am not ashamed, because I know the one I have trusted, … ” [2 Tim 1:11-12].
When you heard the story of Jesus’ appearance by the seashore of Lake Galilee to seven disciples did you skip over the same point? We have heard John 21: 1 – 20 read and preached many times. It contains that wonderful encounter between Jesus and Peter where Peter is given the opportunity to renounce his three-fold denial of Jesus with a three-fold declaration of love. There is also the miracle catch of fish in the story. You might be surprised to know that many hours have been spent and much ink ‘spilt’ deciding the significance of the number 153 of fish caught. One scholar tells of an incident in his lecture theatre. The students had debated the meaning with no satisfactory conclusions. There are none. Then one quiet student said. ‘My hobby is fishing and fishermen count fish!’ That’s what fisher folk do. But how many of us have heard sermons on or thought about verse 18 and 19 where Jesus says to Peter; “I am telling you the solemn truth. When you were young, you put on your own clothes and went about wherever you wanted. But when you are old, you’ll stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you up and take you where you don’t want to go.” He said this to indicate the sort of death by which Peter would bring glory to God [Jn 21: 18-19]? Church history tells us that Peter was crucified for his faith in Christ. When he came to be crucified he asked to be crucified upside down as he felt unworthy to be crucified exactly as Jesus had been.
Jesus said to Peter follow me, I have an important task for you and you will suffer a painful death for what you do for me. Do we expect to follow the Truth and witness to the Truth and not be challenged, ignored or rejected? To tell the truth is usually uncomfortable for others. Suffering for the Faith is to be anticipated. And it is an honour to suffer for the Faith. Writing to the Philippian church Paul says; “Yes: God has granted you that, on behalf of king Jesus, you should not only believe in him, but also suffer for his sake [Phil 1:29]. Our love for our neighbour [Mt 22: 34-36] ultimately leads us to empathy for the needy. To care for others is costly. Christianity is about care, compassion and costly service.
The first thing I want to say about suffering is that suffering is part of the Christian life. We can’t expect to be a follower of Christ Jesus and not suffer at all. If we have never suffered any rejection at all for our faith and if we have never given to others to the point that it begins to hurt then maybe we have never witnessed for Jesus?
The second observation I have made is that as you mature as a Christian and grow in compassion for others, you encounter another level of suffering. We see that in Jesus. Luke tells us that after the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday Jesus came near and saw the city and Jesus wept over it [Lk 19: 41]. Jesus could see that the stubbornness of the Jerusalemites would end in great suffering and disaster for them. He was deeply saddened. Jesus was moved by the suffering of others and healed and fed the crowds even when he was tired [Mt 14:14; Mk 1: 40-41]. We are called to carry the burdens of others and mourn with those who mourn [Gal 6:2; Rom 12:15]. To love always carries the potential for suffering.
Our compassion leads us to empathise with others. The evil of the bombings in Christchurch and Colombo deeply saddened me. I am saddened by the loss lives, by the grief and suffering of those left to mourn, and by the hate and anger that so blinded the perpertrators. Can one begin to understand how hate and anger imprisons? I am saddened by the growth of fear. Grief, hate and fear must be redeemed by the love of God or else the downward spirals of grief, hate and fear continue. God calls us to be with each other. Florence Nightingale said; ‘My mind is absorbed with the sufferings of humankind. Since I was twenty-four there never has been any vagueness in my plans or ideas as to what God’s work was for me’.
My third observation about suffering is our response to suffering. Just to be alive means there will be things that cause pain, disappointment and sadness. Some of that suffering relates to the natural changes we experience in our bodies. This suffering is inevitable. Some suffering is caused by tragic accidents, unjust behaviour and bad personal and political choices. Many examples spring to mind: the unexpected illness or accident, the stages of life, ageing, the evil acts of others and our desire for punishment. I can’t overlook the terrible outcome of collateral deaths in war. Western weapons have destroyed the lives of civilians.
There is so much unnecessary and undeserved suffering in our world. What do we make of all this? Clearly some suffering we encounter is a result of either our personal or political bad choices. None of us escape being part of that. I immediately think the suffering caused by Apartheid and quickly move on to the equally racist treatment of Aboriginals. And I am not that naïve to think that racism is limited only to the few.
How do we respond to all this? Respond we must! In fact no response is in fact a very definite response. No response means one is indifferent and we don’t care. But Christians are expected to care if they love their neighbour.
Now our Christian faith doesn’t provide answers for everything, rather we are to work out each situation. Jesus’ response to why a man is born blind provides us with a very good principle. The disciples of Jesus ask if the man born blind sinned or his parents sinned [Jn 9: 1f]. Jesus says no one has sinned and goes on to say the suffering can give glory to God. We must be careful about thinking that suffering is a good thing. What Jesus is saying is don’t keep looking for the reason but live your life in a way that it glorifies God. Now as a pastor I have received much blessing at the bedside of a sufferer and those close to death. Their faith, their positivity and their generosity of spirit speak of the compassionate and companionable God they worship. I’ve observed how medical and nursing staff have been blessed by the suffering person’s positivity and generosity of spirit. Paul, who suffered much, reminds us of giving thanks in all situations [1Thess 5:18]. The person who is full of praise is a person who is passing on the blessings of God to others. I firmly believe that in the face of suffering the best we can do for ourselves and for others is to place our faith in God and praise God remembering that death is not the end of our life, but the gateway into a new relationship with God.
Suffering will give us the opportunity to express our faith, to practise compassion and to experience the deeper meaning of life.
In closing I offer this quote from Rollo May the existential psychologist.
Suffering is nature’s way of indicating a mistaken attitude or way of behaviour, and to the non-egocentric person every moment of suffering is the opportunity for growth.
People should rejoice in suffering, strange as it sounds, for this is a sign of the availability of energy to transform their characters.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 05/05/2019