Editor’s note: On this Memorial Day weekend, we thank God for those who have served our country and given the ultimate sacrifice. We pray for those who suffer in body, mind or spirit. And we gather once again — together in spirit, yet from afar — to worship by way of this pre-recorded video during this time of Coronavirus pandemic.
Thanks to Interim Pastor David E. Mueller, John Lasher, director of music and worship arts, and Barbara Sheridan, worship assistant, who lead us today. Also participating are members of this week’s virtual choir: Dave Herrmann, John Lasher, David McClure, John Nichols, Cheryl Powell and Teresa Stebner, along with vocalists Fred and Jan Meckley. Our pre-recorded service is linked below, with the text of Pastor’s message included here if you wish to follow along.
“The Sanctity of Suffering” (1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11)
David E. Mueller, Interim Pastor
The Easter Season is about to end and next Sunday we celebrate Pentecost, that Festival of Empowerment occurring 50 days after Easter. I have spoken previously of the number 50, which in Biblical numerology means “Jubilee.” Jubilee is an opportunity to start over again, cleansed and redeemed from the past. Read Leviticus 25 for the origins of Jubilee.
The Gospel lesson for today (John 17:1-11) is a portion of Christ’s “High Priestly” Prayer, one of only two times we to get to listen in on the very prayers of Jesus. The other is in the Garden of Gethsemane following the Last Supper and just prior to His arrest. The prayer here is about the relationship between the Heavenly Father and Jesus, that of complete “oneness.” Jesus prays that those who believe in Him, His disciples throughout history, might be “one as He and the Father are one.” Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Christian history is that the Church remains as divided as we do. Christ’s own prayer has not been answered.
I am opting to use as my text today the second lesson from the first letter of Peter. Before we jump into Peter’s words, I believe it best that we first pray:
Heavenly Father, good, glorious and gracious God, we thank You for allowing us still to meet during this viral crisis, even if we do so removed physically from each other. Enable us, however, to be spiritually one, united and knowing the bond of peace, willing and increasingly able to represent You in positive, loving and uplifting ways to the world brought low by all kinds of forces, including right now, a virus. May our words to others and — if possible — our deeds bring healing, helpfulness and hope. We ask as we have been taught and invited to ask, in the Name of Jesus. Amen.
As I have shared on previous occasions, there are various forms of suffering we can experience:
1) Standing for what is right and just (if anything, there is not enough of this);
2) Suffering for Christ (probably not much of that either);
3) Suffering because we live on a fallen planet. Of this we tend to think there is far too much. In living on planet earth, we can suffer from either consequence or coincidence. It must be said that if you go out in public without a mask and don’t keep social distance, you could get COVID-19 or give it to someone else. That is consequence. If you happen unknowingly to get the virus even when taking appropriate and necessary precautions, that is coincidence.
The suffering Peter speaks of, however, is purely because of Christ.
We often incorrectly think of persecution as a common risk for early Christians everywhere. This was not true. Only during the reign of Emperor Diocletian (late 3rd and early 4thcenturies) was persecution universal within the Empire. Prior to that era, persecutions were regional and sporadic. Peter was writing at a time when persecutions could happen. It sounds as if, indeed, they were.
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12) On Sunday mornings we are in the midst of a study on the Seven Churches of Asia Minor as are recorded in Revelation 2 & 3. Frequently in most of those congregations, refusal to venerate the Emperor in some way, thought by Christians to be idolatry, guaranteed serious sanction.
I must admit to becoming particularly upset with those who believe that saying “Merry Christmas” became forbidden with those saying it anyway being persecuted. I never stopped saying it even as I also have said “Good Hanukkah” to my Jewish friends. Rabbi Grumbacher says “Merry Christmas” to me and my family. Jesus warned us about straining for gnats and swallowing camels. (Matthew 23:24). This is a perfect example of such and hardly persecutory.
There were precious few Christians in Nazi Germany and their occupied countries who took the risk of saving Jews from not just persecution but annihilation. The greater masses of “Christians” in those territories either didn’t care or were too afraid to act. Claiming they didn’t know what was going on was pure nonsense. There are eras in Christian history when the Christians were the persecutors, as also in the Spanish Inquisition. This is as sad as it gets!
In our own day, literally right now, we are learning that COVID-19 is having proportionately far greater incidence and impact among people of color and the poor. What is an appropriate and effective manner for Christians to speak out about and act to mitigate this reality? Regardless of government action or inaction, are Christians, in America and elsewhere, willing to risk some form of sanction or persecution precisely because Christ mandated us to care for the vulnerable ones? It is a greater problem with us when we become indirectly persecutors. Ignoring this reality is a deadly sin of omission.
We “rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings … if you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed because the spirit of glory … is resting upon you.” (1 Peter 4:14) Paul wrote the same thing in effect when he also invited Roman Christians to rejoice or boast in their sufferings, speaking specifically about suffering for Christ right there in the capital city. (Romans 5:3-5)
While not seeking to suffer, which would be a genuine sickness of spirit, there is something sacred about suffering, especially suffering for Christ and (or) suffering for what is right and just according to Christ.
Perhaps the sanctity of suffering is most revealed in Peter’s invitation to “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God so that he may exalt you in due time.” (1 Peter 5:6) Humility is the first of the seven saving virtues. Especially Luke the Evangelist employs these reversals like those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted; the first shall be last and the last first. There is that timing issue again in Christian understanding of God, namely, that suffering, injustice and the like may be the norm now, but the promise patiently trusted is coming when the Lord decides.
“Cast your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves … resist him (the devil) … and after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace … will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you.”
We are not in Christian teaching promised immunity from anything difficult, dangerous, diseased, etc. What we are promised is that in the midst of any of those, we are loved, cared about and promised ultimate relief. In the meantime and in the midst of whatever suffering we incur, especially for Christ, we are to rejoice.
There is something holy in such suffering. There is sanctity in suffering. We do not and, indeed, must not, go looking for suffering in order to know sanctity, because as we are living for Christ and what is right and just, suffering will come on its own. The “world” cannot stand true righteousness and justice and all too often will not accept true love and care. Our purpose and our prayer is that the people of the world may come to see the sanctity of our suffering and rejoice with us in the Christ who suffered for everyone everywhere. Amen!