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Sun, May 03, 2020

Suffering Shared

Duration:17 mins 52 secs

“Suffering Shared”

Sermon on 1 Peter 4: 12-16

            “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal taking place among you as if something strange were happening to you.”

          The early Christians Peter was writing to would not have been surprised at the general level of suffering that goes on in the world. Here in the U. S. most people try to do their suffering behind closed doors, but in the ancient world, as in many countries today, human suffering was often on display. Beggars wandered the streets waving the stump of a limb in the hope that passersby would be moved to pity and give them a few coins. Mourners formed up parades on the public roads, not the silent hearse-led processions you see today, but crowds of people on foot, wailing and beating their breasts. Punishments of criminals were public and ingeniously painful and humiliating. (The cross is Exhibit A on this kind of public suffering.) There were very few medicines or treatments that did any good, so a certain amount of physical suffering was just part of life for most people. And of course, they suffered in the ways people have always suffered: they knew grief over the death of loved ones, they knew disappointment in love, they knew economic hardship, they knew the pain of being mortal.

          What seems to have come as a surprise to Peter’s congregation was that they were suffering as a result of being Christian. After all, Christians were good people, weren’t they? They prayed and gave alms and tried not to hurt anyone. They were God’s children. So when things started to go bad for them they thought it was “strange,” meaning hard to understand.

          We don’t know exactly what the “fiery ordeal” Peter refers to was. We know that the early Christians endured a certain amount of scorn and ridicule for their beliefs. We know that many of them were cut off from their families for choosing the particular path they were following. And we know that during the reign of the emperor Domitian, in the last 20 years of the first century, there were organized persecutions against the church. There would have been public shaming, perhaps boycotts of Christian-owned businesses, and, less often but often enough, physical abuse and threats to life.

          Whatever their ordeal was, Peter tells them that their suffering is just part and parcel of being a Christian. After all, he says at the beginning of Chapter Four, “Christ suffered in the flesh.” Why should you be any different? 

          To a large extent, the New Testament is a book about the meaning of suffering: first and foremost, of course, it’s about the meaning of Christ’s suffering, but also, and as a natural follow-on, it’s about the meaning of the suffering of Christians. For Christians, it is the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus that have given meaning to the universal human experience of suffering.

          In spite of this connection, we modern Christians often experience suffering as something “strange” and therefore a serious threat to faith. When something really bad slams into us – a divorce, a job loss, a frightening diagnosis, the death of a spouse, or parent, or child, or a pandemic that comes too close to our doors – we may suddenly find it difficult or impossible to pray. We feel God-forsaken. In the midst of deep suffering, the whole Christian enterprise may begin to seem suspect, and God seem less like a friend.

          Although the New Testament treats suffering as a given in the life of faith, the premise that suffering is a normal part of Christian experience is disturbing, possibly even offensive, to many North American Christians. Maybe that’s because there is no place for suffering in the American definition of success. We are used to having drugs and technologies that are effective against many of the most common forms of human suffering. With enough money, time and ingenuity, we believe, there is nothing that can’t be fixed. The fact that we really have succeeded so well as a society in keeping ourselves healthy, safe, and whole makes it all the more shocking when something that is not easily fixed comes along to derail us.

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely tested our American image of ourselves as people somehow less subject to the calamities that beset the people of other countries. We now see daily the terrible, disturbing images of this pandemic: overflowing emergency rooms and ICUs, doctors and nurses near breakdown, a field hospital in the middle of Central Park, the makeshift morgues, the long lines of cars with hungry people waiting to get food. We see these things with a mixture of heartbreak and incredulity: it seems hard to believe that this is happening in America. And for people who think of the United States as a Christian country, and that God gives special protection to Christians, it must be even harder to believe.  

          Our Christian predecessors, like the community Peter was writing to, learned not only to accept suffering but even to put a positive value on it. They came to understand that in their own hard experiences they were sharing in a mysterious way in the sufferings of Christ and so coming to a more profound knowledge of Christ, a deeper friendship with him. And not only did they come to this deeper knowledge and friendship with Christ, but they also found that by sharing in each other’s suffering, taking on some of the burdens their fellow Christians were bearing, they became more closely connected to each other and to God. So for them suffering was not a place of God-forsakenness, it was a place where God was mysteriously and powerfully present.

          It needs to be said again that the suffering the New Testament talks about is not, for the most part, the suffering that comes to all human beings in the ordinary course of life. The New Testament writers were talking about the specific suffering that came from choosing to follow Jesus Christ in a world in which that was not a safe choice. And yet, at the same time Christians realized a long time ago that that there is a way to deal with all negative experiences that is distinctly Christian, and that living a Christian life necessarily means sharing in the suffering of others. As Paul put it, “God consoles us in our affliction so that we may be able to console others in their affliction” (2 Cor. 1:4). The church has never lost that conviction. It is the conviction behind the Stephen Ministry, which is active here at MPC. Stephen Ministers understand that suffering can be borne when there is someone who comes alongside you to travel just a bit of that path with you – not to judge you or try to fix you, and not to take the pain away, because there are certain kinds of pain that can’t be taken away -- but to simply be there, to listen and pray with you and cry out to God with you if that is what you need to do.

Pain that is shared is borne a little more lightly. The most unendurable situation may become a little more endurable if there is someone there with you who is not afraid of your pain, who won’t change the subject when the conversation gets a little too close to the center of that pain, and who doesn’t treat whatever fiery ordeal you are going through as something strange that is happening.

I have recently been reading some classic and contemporary literature dealing with epidemics. I was struck by a feature of the two most recent novels, “The Plague” by Albert Camus, about an outbreak of bubonic plague in a North African port city, and “Nemesis” by Philip Roth, about a polio outbreak in Newark, New Jersey, in 1944. Instead of having a first-person singular narrator, an “I” who is telling the story, both novels are written from a first-person plural perspective, representing the experience of the whole community: “We” experienced this fear, this calamity, this sorrow. We were in this together.

If anything good comes out of the COVID-19 epidemic, it may be the way Americans are learning and practicing solidarity in suffering. As we are forced to be more physically distant from each other, we seem to be drawing spiritually closer to each other, as we recognize our common human vulnerability.

          Emily Dickinson, writing to her friend Louise Norcross said, “I wish it was plainer, Loo, the anguish in this world. I wish one could be sure it had a loving side.”

          The suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus show us the loving side of the anguish of the world. He is the one who has taken on that anguish so that we could know that we are not forsaken. Whenever we walk alongside someone who is in pain we witness to the loving side of the anguish of the world. And when we are in pain ourselves we experience the loving side of the world’s anguish if someone will walk along with us, sharing our pain with us in some small way. That is what it means to suffer as Christians. That is the way through the fiery ordeal.  

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

May 3, 2020     

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