The Suffering Christian

1 Peter 2:19-25

Today is May 3rd, which means tonight will be the eve of what is one of my favorite annual holidays.   I am, of course, talking about Star Wars day.  This holiday is on May 4th every year.  If you were unaware of this, or unsure why it is Star Wars day it is because May the 4th be with you.  So that means tomorrow I am absolutely going to be celebrating by watching Star Wars movies.   I am not sure which ones I will be watching, but whatever I go with I know that it will likely have C-3P0 in it.   The golden protocol droid and his counterpart R2-D2 are the only characters to appear in all nine of the episodic films.  In fact, in the original Star Wars the very first line spoken is by C-3P0.  A lot of what C-3P0 says though fits in the same category.  He tends to be negative and whiny.  Someone made a YouTube video of every time C-3P0 complained or whined in the original Star Wars trilogy and it is over three minutes of negativity.  The general outlook of C-3P0 can best be summed up by something he says early on in the original Star Wars.  The droid says, “We seem to be made to suffer.  It’s our lot in life.”  

Chances are in your own life experience, you have encountered someone who shares a similar outlook on life.  It is likely you have interacted with people who seem to always go straight to the negative, who always vocalize their suffering, and who seem to miss the positive because they are so focused on the opposite.  These outlooks are common enough that we have names for them such as Donnie Downer or Negative Nancy.   Typically we do not see always highlighting the negative as a positive character trait.   Yet, that is more or less what Peter does in this scripture.   Honestly, looking at a few of these verses it almost seems like Peter is expressing the same sentiment as C-3P0.  He seems to be saying as “Christians we are made to suffer, it’s our lot in life.”   However, what is interesting is that even though Peter freely acknowledges suffering he does not do so as a negative.   In this morning’s scripture Peter lifts up that trying to faithfully follow Jesus will lead to times of friction and possibly opposition.  During those times, this scripture can give us some guidance on how to suffer positively.  

Like last week, this morning’s scripture comes from 1 Peter.   This is a letter that was written to the churches in the region that makes up modern day Turkey.  The letter was written to by a cyclical letter that would travel from church to church.  1 Peter was written just a few years before the first sustained Roman persecution of Christians, but we get the impression that the Christians of the regions that Peter was writing to were going through a bit of a rough time.   The major theme of 1 Peter is to stand firm in one’s faith in the midst of suffering a persecution.   We have divided 1 Peter into five chapters, and every chapter deals with the idea of faith in suffering.   

For the first century Christians it does seem that it was their lot to suffer.  From a cultural perspective this makes sense.   When 1 Peter was written, Christianity was less than a generation old.   Those who had hearts changed by encountering the love of Jesus were the minority.  The Greco-Roman culture is one that flowed  in a very pluralistic way, but these new Christians claiming there was one God and one savior swam against that stream.  The Greco-Roman culture is one that marched to an imperial beat that venerated Caesar, but the Christians marched to the beat of a different drum.  Going against the norms will always lead to friction.  It can even lead to persecution and suffering as it did for the first century Christians that Peter was writing to encourage.  

Our modern day, American experience does not compare to that of the first century Christians.  We are living in a culture that is moving towards post-Christian, and there is some evidence of an increase in hostile attitudes towards Christianity.  However, a loss of privilege is not the same as persecution.  Happy holidays replacing Merry Christmas in stores is not any way a type of persecution.   Our context does not line up with the context with the original audience.   However, even if we do not experience any persecution in our American Christian context, we can and we should still suffer for our faith.  This morning’s scripture is a guide for how we do that.  

First, Peter straight up tells us that doing good in following God is going to lead to some form of suffering.   He states this plainly in verses 20-21, “But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.  To this you were called because Christ suffered for you.”   It is worth acknowledging the place of experience that Peter was writing from here.   After all, he was in the room at the last supper when Jesus said to his disciples, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” and then “I have chosen you out of the world.  That is why the world hates you.”  Peter wrote this  a couple of decades after the crucifixion and resurrection.  He likely had a decent amount of firsthand experience, and he was sharing out of that experience.   Following Jesus, having compassion on others like Jesus, reaching out to the vulnerable and marginalized like Jesus, will lead to suffering like Jesus.  This is exactly what Peter writes in this morning’s scripture, that Christ left us an example, that you should follow in his steps.   This means that if we are going to truly follow Christ, we are going to suffer like Christ.  So what exactly does that mean?  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a man who knew a bit about suffering.  After all, the German theologian died in a Nazi concentration camp.  In his outstanding work The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer does a great job at framing what suffering like Christ looks like.   Christ suffered physically through crucifixion, but his suffering was more than a broken body.  Bonhoeffer writes about Christ suffering: “Suffering means being cut off from God.  Therefore those who live in communion with him cannot really suffer. . . [Jesus] bears the whole burden of man’s separation from God.”  Peter makes the exact same point in this morning’s scripture when he states in verse 24: “He himself bore our sins, in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.”  

Jesus sacrificially bore the sins of all, so that it is by his wounds we are healed.  By his suffering we are returned to the shepherd and overseer of our souls.  We are to follow the example of Chris, not through physically suffering but through sacrificially bearing for others.   This is what Bonhoeffer writes as well:  “But the church knows that the world is still seeking for someone to bear its suffering, and so, as it follows, Christ, suffering becomes the church’s lot too and bearing it, it is borne up by Christ.  As it follows him beneath the cross, the Church stands before God as the representative of the world.” 

In Bonhoeffer’s definition suffering is being cut off from God, and in that regard most of the world is suffering.   Most of the world is lost, devoid of grace and forgiveness.   Even if they do not fully realize it, most of the world is suffering in sin and is in desperate need of a savior.  The world is suffering and is in desperate need for the Good News.   As disciples of Christ bearing the good news to the world is more than just proclaiming “Jesus saves” and putting a Jesus-fish bumper sticker on our car.  In order to bear the good news we have to sacrificially give of ourselves to meet the needs of others.  In order to end the spiritual suffering of the world we have to first alleviate the physical suffering of the world.   Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa put it this way, “The good news to a hungry person is bread.”  When we give ourselves sacrificially to meet the needs of others we bear their sufferings, we act as the hands and feet of Christ, we become the living, breathing love of God on earth.    We follow the example of Jesus by sacrificially bearing the needs of others so that they can experience God’s love through us and ultimately end their truest suffering by repenting and believing the good news of Jesus Christ. 

We like the idea of giving to help others, but we do not always do the best job at it.   We do not always give sacrificially.   This point was driven home to me a number of years ago when I took a youth group on a mission trip to Huntsville, Alabama.  One of the primary activities we did was volunteer in a UMCOR distribution center.  UMCOR is the United Methodist organization that is responsible for disaster relief and recovery.  This warehouse was full of items that United Methodist Churches had donated to the cause.  For multiple days it was our job to sort through and help organize these donations.  We had to check every hygiene kit because sometimes they were missing items, but also because sometimes they included things like half-used tubes of toothpaste.  We also sorted through clothes to find shirts with holes in them, shoes that were falling apart, and clothes that were older than I am.   It was honestly a bit of a disheartening experience for me and the teens, because of how much junk there was.   People gave, but they only gave out of their excess.   What they gave to help others was what they could part with that was not a personal burden to them.   Bearing the needs of the world to bring them the good news should not be a side benefit of cleaning out our closets.   

The example that Jesus was gave us was to suffer sacrificially.  Jesus sacrificed and suffered to end our spiritual suffering, to reunite us in communion with God.  We can follow that example by compassionately meeting the physical needs of others.  In doing so we show God’s love and we lay the foundation for a heart be changed by saving grace.  However, to follow this example we must give sacrificially.  When we give our excess with the expectation that the less fortunate should be happy with our cast-offs then we are really transforming the world, we are not providing a venue to make disciples, and we are not following the example of Jesus Christ.   There are many ways we can sacrifice of ourselves to bear the needs of others.  We can do it through our financial resources,  but we can also do it through our time and through our effort.   The guidance that Peter gives us and by extension Jesus, is that we do this in a way that is sacrificial.  We give up, we suffer in some small way, so that someone else does not.   

I know this leads to the question why?  Why should we give up what we have worked hard for and earned?   Because it is what Jesus would do.   As Peter wrote, “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps.”  All of us can give sacrificially.  For some this might mean making the sacrifice to eat at home instead of ordering pizza so that the saved money can be given to provide food for the hungry.  For others might mean giving up watching a favorite TV program so that the time can be used instead to intercede in prayers for the needs of others.   Another possibility might be volunteering your time and talents with our outreach ministries or something similar.

   We are fortunate that we do not live under the cloud of persecution that the first century Christians had over their head.  Despite that, we can still find this scripture as something to teach us.   May we have compassion for others and may we be willing to bare their suffering to share with them the good news.   May we not just meet these needs out of our excess but may we be willing to give sacrificially.   In doing so we will love others like Jesus, we will die to our sins and we will live for righteousness so that more people might return to the loving care of the Great shepherd and overseer of our souls.  

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