Suffering Christian Style

1_peter_titleTo read this sermon from The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr. click on “Continue reading” below.

Sermon based on 1st Peter 2:19-25

The subject of suffering is one that we often like to avoid if at all possible. Suffering is defined as the experience of any kind of pain or distress. Suffering is part of the human condition and poses for us many religious and even psychological questions. Suffering can be a result of human grief and loss, injustice and oppression, self-hatred and guilt or even physical pain. In relationship to Scripture we can see many of these characteristics of suffering play out among different individuals within Scripture. The history of humankind reveals that suffering has been around since the time that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and God declared that great suffering would come their way as a result. The good news about suffering is that we do not have to endure suffering silently or alone. The New Testament calls us to a suffering Christian style and our passage this morning from 1st Peter introduces us to a journey. This journey of suffering will share with us how best to deal with those troublesome times that will happen in our lives from time to time.

Yet before we explore this passage it’s important to gain a little perspective on Peter and the time and audience that Peter was addressing in his writing. Peter was not always an admirable person in the early going. We can recall various accounts in Scripture where Peter’s brashness often got him in trouble, even with Jesus. However, once he began to understand Jesus and once he grasped what was expected of him, Peter became a heroic example of the Christian life. Peter suffered a lot in his life. He found meaning in his suffering by offering it up as a sacrifice to God. Peter wrote this letter during the very early days of Christianity. This was still during the time when Romans were persecuting Christians as if it were a sport. Although 1st Peter is a short letter, it touches on various doctrines and has much to say about our Christian life and responsibilities. If we were to ask five members of our church to read 1st Peter in its entirety, chances are each reader might identify a different theme.

For example, it has been characterized as a letter of separation, of suffering and persecution, of suffering and glory, of hope, of pilgrimage, of courage, and as a letter dealing with the true grace of God. During the month of May in worship we will be exploring the book of 1 Peter through a sermon series. Over the next four weeks we will learn how Peter shows us that difficulties and hardships do not have to wear us down in life. We will learn through these sermons that difficulties in life can in fact strengthen our faith.

As we explore our passage this morning we learn that all people will suffer. Theologians have written that all creatures have pain but that only humans suffer. The difference between pain and suffering is the difference between physical discomfort and the consciousness of wondering why we suffer according to these theologians. Research has indicated that our household pets might experience pain but that pet may not wonder why and does not struggle psychologically or emotionally with the pain. People however do. Some of the worst suffering we endure is not physical pain but emotional pain. Think of a time when something in our life went wrong or caused us a great deal of suffering. This could be a relationship that ended, the passing of a loved one or an unfulfilled dream in life.

In thinking of this there is an old Arab proverb that says, “All sunshine makes a desert.” In relationship to that proverb there is a story told of a person walking in their neighborhood as they passed by a neighbor who enjoyed gardening. Their neighbor was placing a dark screen over some rose plants. The neighbor asked why they were doing this, not understanding why they would want to deny those rose plants the sun’s warmth and light. Their neighbor explained that continuous sunshine is destructive. Healthy growth requires both sunshine and darkness. We all know that trees at the highest elevations are the toughest because they must endure the bitter cold winds. So the same is with us. Life’s dark and cold experiences develop a toughness that gentle sunshine hours never can develop. All people, regardless of their religious convictions will suffer. That is simply a part of life on earth. What we do with our suffering matters. Hopefully as we deal with suffering in our lives we learn that suffering can teach us about God.

In our passage we see that Peter is speaking to a group of people who are suffering not because of a natural cause but because someone else was persecuting them. To experience pain and suffering because someone else wants us to experience those feelings is an entirely different feeling and Peter acknowledges this in his writings. In this passage, Peter writes:

For it is a credit to you if, being aware of  God, you endure pain while suffering      unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval

(1 Peter 2:19-20)

 Here we see Peter inquires about someone who endures a beating because that person has done something wrong. Peter asks how this helps someone. Peter also goes on acknowledge that God looks favorably upon those who endure suffering for doing something commendable in the eyes of God.

Sometimes in life we can hear God’s voice loudly and clearly in those difficult times. Perhaps we are familiar with the story of George Frederick Handel and how he drew closer to God. As a result of a recent stroke, Handel’s fame was all but forgotten in musical circles. One particular evening he had gone out for an evening stroll and came back to his apartment rather depressed. To his surprise he found a portfolio by his doorstep. A friend of Handel, Charles Jenner had left text for a piece of music for which he wanted Handel to compose the score. As Handel reviewed the text something deep within his soul was stirred. He recalled reading the words, “And God shall wipe away all tears… The Kingdom of this world shall become the Kingdom of the Lord…and He shall reign forever and ever.” In a sudden frenzy of creativity, he sat down and composed the score for The Messiah. Suffering and pain are certainly not fun but they can transform us. Suffering for the sake of God can build up our character.

Remembering these words from Paul:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus    Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

 As this Scripture from Romans reminds us, Jesus Christ is our sovereign example of suffering. Peter writes:

For to this you were called, because Christ  also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps… (1 Peter 2:19)

In all our suffering, as in all other areas of our lives, Christ is our example. As proven in the example of Christ, when faced with bitterness or anger due to our suffering or pain the acceptable behavior to show love towards others. We should strive to follow the steps of the suffering servant Christ and love others. What a difference this can make in our attitude and conduct. As our Scripture shares this morning, because Christ loved, He did not revile in return when he was reviled; when He suffered unjustly at the hands of others, He did not threaten them. Jesus simply loved them and committed Himself to God. Jesus’ love for us and for all people motivated Him to go to the Cross and die for the sins of our ancestors, our sins and the sins of future generations.

Martin Luther once summarized the example of Christ well. Luther wrote, “When I consider my crosses, tribulations, and temptations I shame myself almost to death thinking what are they in comparison to the sufferings of my blessed Savior Christ Jesus.” In our suffering as in all areas of our lives Christ indeed is our example. Christ knew what it was to suffer but he has redeemed us through this suffering. In the words of Peter through Christ we have returned to the shepherd, the guardian of our souls.

Suffering can draw us closer to God or it can drive us away. Suffering can make us better or bitter. The choice is ours to choose whether or not we suffer Christian style.

The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.

May 7, 2017