In the previous article we considered the relationship between the gospel as gift and as demand. And what we discovered is that what God requires of us is precisely what we need to become whole and that the demands of God correspond to our greatest needs. But on reflection a legitimate question can be raised from our discovery: What happens when following the demand of the gospel, we meet suffering, persecution, or even death? If the demand of God is what we need (and thus is God’s gift to us), then how do we understand situations when in following this demand, we meet suffering and misfortune?
Now, any approach to these questions must be accompanied by humility. No one can offer an absolute answer to these questions. And in what we will consider today, not all types of suffering will be considered. The fact is, if we knew the answers to all of this, we would be God. So humbly recognizing the limits of our understanding, we approach these questions with more than a little fear and trembling. But I would suggest that we can make three observations based on Jesus’ teachings and the Christian experience through the centuries.
I. God does not bring upon us suffering, persecution, and death. Jesus’ most radical teaching, occurring in the Sermon on the Mount, was that we should love our enemies. Why? Because God does. God causes the sun to shine on the good and the evil and sends the rain on the just and the unjust. That is difficult for us to accept, but this teaching is fundamental to Jesus’ understanding of this One he called Abba. There are those who think of God sitting in heaven and deciding, “Well, I’ll send a little cancer to this person, a heart attack to that person, a famine in that land, an earthquake over there, a war on that portion of the earth.” Though we do not know all of the reasons for much of the suffering and calamity in the world–and though much of it has its roots in bad choices we make in life and in our dealings with others, the bottom line is this: God, the One Jesus called Abba, is not in the “make suffering” business. God is in the “make whole” business. And we do not honor the Lord by ascribing to God that which brings pain, suffering, and death. Jesus says plainly in the Sermon on the Mount that God loves unconditionally and indiscriminately. And those who call God Lord should not blaspheme the divine name with quick conclusions as to the source and reasons for the suffering of others and themselves.
II. A very large part of what it means to be human is to be sensitive to others. We think of the famous English cleric John Donne who wrote, “No man is an island. Another’s death/another’s suffering diminishes me.” And likewise, another’s joy and celebration enhance me. One beautiful result of our humanity and of the way God in divine love and wisdom has made us is the capacity to have fellowship and communion with others as together we share life. And does not this bring us great joy?
Yet this same capacity which brings us joy also brings the risk of pain. If we are going to experience the joy of relating because we can share, we will also experience the pain of being able to feel life with others. Part of what it is to be human is to feel with another. Compassion, the basis of Jesus’ Golden Rule, is the ability to put ourselves in the place of another. Yet in doing so we become vulnerable, open ourselves to uncertainty, and risk the possibility of suffering. Understandably some people who fear this kind of vulnerability decide to live at a distance from others. They live for and unto themselves. They don’t want to risk being hurt. Simon and Garfunkel’s famous hit “I am a Rock” expresses this approach to life, where the singer says, “I am a rock–isolated, insulated, impenetrable–and a rock feels no pain, and an island seldom cries.”
But the truth is, we choose our pain in this life. There is the pain which comes from loving, being open and sensitive, and taking risks as we dare show compassion for others. We all know that pain.
But then there is the pain which comes from loneliness, from never touching or being touched, and from denying our humanity (for after all, it was God who said, “It is not good for a human to be alone”). There is a pain that comes from reaching out in love and compassion and a pain that comes from isolating oneself from the possibility of abundant life. The difference between the two pains is this: the pain which comes from loving and showing compassion can often be redeemed by the future as others finally respond to our love. And this pain–the pain of loving–is usually overshadowed by the joy of times when we do touch others and others touch us, and we know why God has made us as we share in the blessings of communion. But the pain which comes from choosing loneliness and withdrawal is a dead-end street. There is no way out of that pain and no exit from that misery. The future cannot redeem it, and the present has nothing to make it worthwhile. We choose our pain in life. Let us choose wisely. Let us choose the pain of loving.
III. We have already alluded to this observation, but we need to make it obvious. It is what I call the pendulum principle. If we observe the movement of a pendulum, we know that as far as it goes in one direction, it can go the same distance in the opposite direction.
If on the one side we are called into suffering, persecution, and even death, God works in the midst of that so that we can also experience (if we willing and open) joy, communion, and a deeper understanding of life and of ourselves. Think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the last week of his life he had premonitions of his death. There were deep divisions within the civil rights movement. Liberal whites were abandoning King once he spoke about the legacy of “trickle-down economics” which oppressed the poor and people of color. In those last days of his life he experienced the valley of the shadow, and that shadow was dark, deep, and lonely. But was it not in that same week he said in his last sermon, “God has brought me to the mountaintop and from that mountain I have seen the promised land”?
It has been the testimony of those from the Apostle Paul all the way down through history to the saints of our day, that yes, they may experience pain and suffering, but with that comes joy and a profound sense of purpose, peace, and destiny. And yes, they may even experience death, but with and after that comes life of a deeper and more abundant quality.
We fear pain, suffering, and death so much. I know I do. But have you ever known someone who has lived a life with more than his or her share of suffering? Perhaps you might ask that person, “If you had known back then what you would have to go through, would you have wanted to live your life?” But you see, that is not a fair question for these reasons:
* We cannot anticipate the effects life’s experiences will have on us.
* We don’t know what will happen to us–inside us-the center of who we are as we face life’s tests. We don’t know how we will grow and mature or how we may develop character. (Please understand that I am not saying God sends trial, difficulties, and suffering to “grow us up.” A God of pure love would never treat any part of creation in such a manipulative and cruel way. But the reality is that life, with all of its ups and downs, happens. And we cannot know how we will respond until it does happen.)
* We don’t know what strengths we may be given by God as we experience God’s presence. In our fear of suffering and loss, we may sense that we don’t have what it takes to survive and even transcend such pain. But it is only when we actually experience these difficulties that we need strength and grace. In addition, we don’t know what other experiences of joy, love, and communion may come our way at other times to give life meaning and joy.
As Longfellow said, “Into each life some rain must fall.” That is true of every person who has ever walked on this earth. And for the Christian who seeks faithfully to follow Jesus, there may be suffering which comes with the cost of discipleship. There may be even persecution. And for a few there may even be death. But none of this negates the truth that what God requires is what we need. It simply allows us to plumb the depths and scale the heights of our humanity and our fellowship with God and one another. So we confess with joy and thanksgiving that we can trust the gift and the Giver of life, even in the midst of life’s suffering and uncertainty—that what God requires of us is what we need to become whole–and that the God who can take the cross, the worst humans can do to one another, and transform it into an ultimate example of self-giving and healing love can certainly take the cost of our faithfulness and use it in way that can bless us and the world.
A life of abundant joy and purpose awaits us. And it can be ours if we can trust the gift as we trust the Giver–this One Jesus called Abba.
Eugene Peterson in commenting on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus writes the following: “Receive is a freedom word. Take is not. To receive is to accept what the divine largess provides for us. To take is to plunder whatever is not nailed down. To receive is to do what children do in the family. To take is to do what pirates do on the high seas.” May we all have the trust and the courage to receive.
At this table we receive from God the grace which frees and makes us whole. We do not take. In some accounts of the Lord’s Supper we have the words “Take, eat.” But the more basic meaning of the Greek word translated ‘take” is actually “receive.”
Receiving is what children do. Taking is what pirates to. Coming as children to this one we call Abba, let us receive the grace prepared for us from the foundation of the world.
The secret of faithful and joyful discipleship is our openness to receiving God’s presence, strength, and blessings day by day. We who have learned to trust God can show the world a better way than the ruthless taking which so often characterizes human existence. We who have rested in the strong and tender arms of Abba know how to receive and how to let go. May our experience at this table shape our witness in the wider world to the glory of God.
Depart now in the fellowship of the Spirit.
Remember it was in the goodness of God that you were brought into this world.
It is by the grace of God that you have been kept all the day long, even to this very hour.
And it is through the love of God, fully revealed in the face of Jesus, that you are being redeemed. Amen.
(This benediction comes from the Anglican tradition and was used every Sunday by the famous Baptist-become-Episcopal minister John Claypool.)