Romans 8: 10 – 17But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
“The Strange Gift of Suffering”
We are going through the Apostle’s Creed this summer, piece by piece, and spending a Sunday on every single phrase in the Creed, as we explore together what it is we believe, what we hold in common, what we hold dear. And it’s one of the most curious things about the Creed that when it talks about Jesus, this in-breaking of God into the world, this fully human, fully divine savior, the one whose birth we celebrate at Christmas and whose resurrection we celebrate at Easter . . . when we look at his life, as it is expressed in the creed, we go from “he was conceived by the holy spirit and born of the Virgin Mary” . . . to “he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified dead and buried.” The New Testament scholar in me sort of says, “wait, whaaaat?”
It’s like you don’t even need the rest of the Gospels, which are pages and pages of things Jesus taught and did between those two phrases, you know, the first moments of his life and the last two weeks of it! And none of it is reflected in the creed, this historic affirmation of faith, this most historic affirmation of faith.
It makes you wonder why Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John bothered at all to tell the story of Jesus, if, in its collective wisdom, the church has decided we can go straight form the birth to the days just before the death.
It is as if those early church fathers who crafted the creed quickly forgot that Jesus says things that are very radical, like “sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, and feed the hungry and clothe the naked and give drink to the thirsty and shelter to the homeless,” and you start to understand that it’s a lot easier to focus on the cross, on Jesus’s death, than it is to take seriously, to wrestle with the radical events and teachings that come out of his life. Yet in some ways, the Creed would seem to do that. It would seem to cut out, to take an exact-o knife and cut out everything but the first and last page of each of the four Gospels, and you’d go from being born to suffering, just like that.
But then, in many ways, life is like that. I remember listening to Emmaline howl in the moments after she was born. We go from birth to suffering very quickly in this life! And when I run up against suffering in my own life, or in the life of others, I start to become awfully glad it is present there in the creed! Friends, I will tell you, as I go about the work of Christ, as I seek to be a participant in that work, there are few things I encounter more than suffering. Oh, how we need a word on suffering. Oh, how we, God’s people on earth, need some words, some trustworthy guidance on the concept of suffering.
It may not be the most pleasant thing to talk about, but then, pleasant things are easy to talk about. Happiness, eh, I never met anybody who struggled with the fact that they had too much happiness. Or contentedness. Nobody’s ever come into my office and plopped down on a chair and said, pastor, I am just simply too content. Please help me.
But suffering . . . suffering is something else altogether. In fact, I would venture to say, that in ministry, in my role as a pastor, there is nothing in which I engage in more, than dealing with suffering. For it is the time in people’s lives in which they most need a word, most need guidance, most need God.
I hope you don’t hear me complaining about this. I really don’t mean to. I find it to be one of the most meaningful parts of my life, one of the highest privilege I know if, that I am invited into people’s lives, in these holy, difficult moments, in which what they are experiencing doesn’t match that which they hope for in their own lives. We call that suffering. And it can wreck you. It can make you feel like somebody has grabbed you by your feet and started shaking you until everything falls out of your pockets and, ultimately, out of your heart.
This is what suffering does. It blinds us to everything else. It brings us to our knees. It makes us ask difficult questions about God, about who God is and how God works and how we are called to respond to the suffering in our lives and, in particular, the suffering in the lives of others. And for as much as we try to avoid suffering, it can be a teacher. It can be quite a teacher.
You may know this if you are a student of comparative religion, but suffering is not one of those concepts that Christians have such a great track record with. We do a terrible job talking about suffering, especially compared to our sisters and brothers of other faith traditions. We want a reason for everything, and we have this tendency to say that because God is in control, all things that happen, even suffering, are God’s will. And it’s just not true. Some of our most meaningful revelations about suffering have actually come from other religions. Jewish theologians, in the days and years after the Holocaust, said, wait a minute, no, what has happened to us is beyond any meaningful rationalization. This is not God testing us. It is simply life. How profound. And so the proper response is not to get stuck on why, or in trying to avoid suffering altogether, but to work for a world in which love will win, in which good will win, and this seems to me to be an entirely reasonable response to suffering.
Or you look at those in the Buddhist faith, who view life as suffering, and have built their entire system of belief around the concept of suffering, around making peace with it, moving past it by working for greater understanding in their lives and the world. You don’t have to buy the whole cow to realize that there’s truth in that.
It seems that other religions deal with this better than we do, and yet I don’t understand why that is, because all you have to do is look to the life of Jesus to understand suffering. Here’s a guy who lived in occupied Palestine, who was greeted as a political messiah by a people hopeful he’d bring a sword and deliver them from their oppressors, in a day in which healing was rare if it happened at all, and of all the things we affirm together as people of faith, we remember that he suffered under Pontius Pilate, the provincial governor who ruled that part of the world with an iron fist and with, what, today, you’d call an itchy trigger finger.
Incidentally, Pontius Pilate is one of the ways we can identify the story of Jesus historically, as we know from accounts other than scripture that Pilate was a real person, and while he ended up with a reputation for having an unwillingness to treat people with different religious beliefs well, he never went after Jesus as such. He tried every way he knew to spare him, saying, “I find no fault in him,” but knowing that in order to keep his political power, he had to give into the crowds that were shouting “Crucify him, Crucify him!” And for this, the Creeds enshrine him as Public Enemy # 1, the only human mentioned in the Creed besides the Virgin Mary, full of Grace, and certainly not nearly in such glowing terms.
But getting caught up on Pilate isn’t the point, because the point of the creed isn’t humans. It’s God. And so we learn, in very specific, historical terms, that Jesus suffered, that God incarnate suffered and knows what it is like to suffer. And so when we suffer, when we experience suffering that blinds us to everything else, it is not that we are somehow far from God but in many ways, we are actually closer to God, we are right with God, for God knows what it is like to suffer.
Now, I want to pause and make sure we aren’t getting into dangerous territory, because it isn’t a far jump in some ways to get from where we are, which is that God understands suffering and suffers with us, to the idea, completely untrue, that God causes suffering. You see that a lot when somebody watches their enemies suffer, as in, you know, God must have wanted this to happen. But when we suffer, you know, not me! There’s no way God wanted this for me! So we need to be careful how we talk about suffering, because God doesn’t cause it. God didn’t cause the Holocaust. God doesn’t make people die, doesn’t make people suffer. That’s a lie. Don’t believe it. Just because God suffers along with you doesn’t mean that God causes you to suffer.
And it is likewise not true that when you are suffering, that God desires that you keep suffering, for this, too, is bad theology and it has led to all sorts of awful things: oppression, staying in an abusive relationship, that sort of thing. Just because God suffers along with you doesn’t mean that God wants you to suffer.
Even with that said, we still have this weird thing about suffering, like it’s the worst thing there is, like it is to be avoided at all costs, as if suffering was evidence that God has turned against you, and it sounds crazy to say, but we believe it! There is this idea—and I will tell you, in my experience this is a uniquely American idea—that anything that involves suffering is bad, as if suffering itself is the opposite of God, and that’s just not true, for we affirm every week, in churches all over the world, that even Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate.
I am reminded of the Roman Catholic writer Thomas Merton, one of my favorites, who was a student of Buddhism before his conversion to Catholicism, and ultimately, his entry into a monastery. Through the events of his life, he was one who understood suffering more than most. And he said this: “The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.”
These are difficult words. And yet they ring true for me. I don’t like to suffer. I mean, does anybody? I try to avoid suffering whenever I can, thank you very much. It’s why I have to psych myself up before going on a mission trip, if I am honest. I mean, those experiences are rich and exciting, but I know when I am headed to Haiti, or rural Appalachia, or what have you, that I’m going to encounter suffering, might even have a little bit of suffering rub off on me, and I’d just rather live my life blissfully unaware that that sort of thing exists in this day and age, in this modern world in which I have a refrigerator and a thermostat and a Sleep-number bed! And yet if I didn’t go, I would miss out on the strange gift of suffering, for it is quite a teacher.
I have the same feeling of needing to psych myself up before going to a funeral. In a way, going to funerals is one of the most counter-cultural things we do, for when we go, we are willingly walking into a place of suffering, and in the church there’s joy, too, but as I have discovered, even when the person’s lived to be 98, nearly two lifetimes worth of life, there’s still suffering. And so when I have the occasion to go to a funeral that I’m not officiating, I often have to think long and hard before I decide to go. It’s not easy, making the decision to walk into that kind of situation.
In fact, I want you to know I have had the hardest time finishing writing this sermon. Maybe that’s why it is a little longer, because I have been stalling, because as I put it together it became clear to me that the sermon was moving toward an inevitable conclusion involving a story I’d rather not remember, that being the funeral of my friend Christopher, who died on January 2 of this year at the age of 40.
I think about Christopher whenever I think about suffering, because for the last few years of his life, he served as a therapist who counseled other pastors, so he heard stories of great suffering, great loss. But I also think about Christopher when I think about suffering because Christopher was one who suffered himself, who suffered from depression, who suffered through bipolar disorder, and whose suffering ultimately led him to take his own life.
Christopher was a pastor, and we served on staff together at one time, became the kind of friends who drove one another crazy and then could sit for an hour discussing some silliness just so that we had an excuse to spend the time. And when he died, I felt a lot of things, as tends to happen in these circumstances, but I did not feel surprised. Suffering, particularly suffering in the form of depression and mental illness, is an insidious thing. It is not to be avoided at all costs, but neither is it to be taken lightly.
And when they announced the day for the funeral, I wasn’t sure I could go. I didn’t have anything on my calendar; I just didn’t think I could. I didn’t think I was strong enough. And we went, of course, but I dreaded it all week, just felt total dread.
I wish I could tell you that the service was happy and everything was great and I felt redeemed by the whole deal. It was many things, but it was not happy. Christopher left behind 2 kids and a wife and many, many devastated friends.
And yet the reason I feel compelled to share this story is not to draw out sympathy, but to note one dynamic of suffering I think is particularly apropos to this morning’s scripture lesson. The apostle Paul writes that we suffer with Christ so that we may be glorified in Christ. Let me tell you what I think this means.
One of the traditions at funerals for United Methodist clergy is that when a pastor dies, oftentimes fellow clergy will wear robes for the service, will put on robes and white stoles as symbols of the Resurrection, and for this funeral, because Christopher loved exquisite vestments, loved the symbology of the church, his fellow clergy were invited to wear their finest vestments, of all colors and fabrics. I wore a red stole, a symbol of the Holy Spirit. It was, in fact, the very stole that Christopher had been given at his ordination. When I was appointed to this church, he gave it to me.
I don’t remember much of what was said at his funeral. Oh, I remember some things: his daughters, the story of the prodigal son my friend Dana read and preached from. What I do remember was the sea of clergy, dressed to the nines, so many that the church had to block off its fellowship hall just so we could all have room to get dressed. We milled about before the service, not knowing what to say, having no words to make sense of such a tragedy other than to call out the name of God.
I don’t remember much of what was said. What I do remember is that sense of solidarity, that sense that though we suffered together – no – because we suffered together, we were being saved together, we were bearing witness to the great power of love, the kind of love that grabs hold of your heart and refuses to let go.
You might say that of all things, that day, it was suffering that led to our salvation,
For when we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
In the name of the one who suffered under Pontius Pilate, Amen, and Amen.