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1 Peter 2:19-25
From September of 2001 through August of 2003 I attended a two-year Academy for Spiritual Formation in San Antonio, Texas. The Academy was in session for one week about every three months for a total of eight weeks. During each of those weekly sessions, we attended three worship services each day: morning, afternoon, and evening. During each morning service, there was a time when those in attendance would lift up in prayer those for whom we had concerns.
This was not a SHORT time. There are between sixty and seventy people in these services, and many had prayer concerns.
But not only were there prayer concerns for those outside our little community, there were also prayer concerns for those within our community. One of our members had missed the second session, in early 2002, because she had been undergoing therapy for a brain tumor. The therapy was successful, and she had returned for the third session. But the therapy had its side effects: she had lost all her hair.
And as we were in session we learned that one of our leaders would be undergoing surgery the day after the session was over.
Suffering is everywhere. And, it takes forms other than our physical health. If each of us is not suffering, we know a member of our family or a friend who is.
But how do we contend with it? How do we respond to it? What is our ATTITUDE toward it? When I get sick, I get upset with myself, thinking that there surely must have been something I could have done to avoid it or prevent it.
But frequently there is NOTHING we could have done to prevent disease.
Other times when things go wrong in our lives, we like to find a cause, or, even better, find somebody to blame.
Suffering is pervasive. It has always been so. The early Christians put up with a great deal of suffering, and probably often wondered if the beliefs they followed were worth it.
In the first letter of Peter, in the nineteenth verse of the second chapter, he says, “it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.”
In the New International Version we read, “it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God.”
In other words, we are to be admired if we suffer for what we believe. Now, you may wonder, “so what on earth does this have to do with me? Are we not talking about martyrdom here, or something close to it?” No, I don’t think so. Parents suffer when they sacrifice for their children because they BELIEVE in their children. People suffer when they sacrifice for their friends because they BELIEVE in their friends.
But we may often wonder, as we sacrifice our time, our money, and our energy, and we see no gain for ourselves, but even loss, “is this worth it?” And in the context of our faith, the answer is “Yes.”
But in our text we see this reference to “unjust suffering.” And what IS “unjust”? Well, it is whatever we think we do not deserve, if it is inflicted on us by others.
If it is a suffering we undergo in the process of sacrificing for others, we may wonder if THEY are deserving of what we are doing for them. And is there any among us who has NEVER thought to him or herself, “I don’t DESERVE this! This should not be HAPPENING to me!”
In Peter’s letter, he is actually addressing slaves and how they should respond to their masters. And, we may be tempted to dismiss altogether what he has to say as being irrelevant to our situations. But let’s stick with him on this. He continues:
“If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.”
So Peter is attempting to sort out the deserved and the undeserved suffering. If we commit a criminal act, and we know we have done so, we are deserving of punishment. We might argue over whether the punishment is appropriate, but we nevertheless deserve the consequences of the criminal act.
If we knowingly behave in ways that endanger our lives, we are deserving of the consequences. We are responsible. We cannot blame others.
So if we suffer in these contexts, we should expect no one to feel sympathy for us. Indeed, others will be thinking--if not saying--”he or she should have known better.” And although our God is a forgiving God, that does not mean that our God is going to be awarding us medals for this kind of suffering.
So what IS it that God looks upon with favor? It is suffering when we do the right and the good.
Now, personally I do not think of suffering as only involving physical pain. I think it also encompasses all the frustrations of our daily lives, and I think you know what I mean. How often have you felt that your efforts were without meaning, that you were accomplishing little or nothing. How often have you thought “WHY am I doing this?” How often have you thought, “What’s the point?”
And the answer is, for the faithful, that we do the good and the right BECAUSE it is the good thing to do and the right thing to do.
And Peter comes to the point:
“to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”
Some years ago, I remarked to another pastor about how tiny my attendance had been in worship the previous Sunday. And he answered, “Well, that’s more followers than Jesus had when he was crucified.”
And do you suppose it crossed HIS mind, after almost all of his followers had run away and only a tiny handful stood at the foot of the cross, “What’s the point?” “Why am I doing this?” But Jesus was a visionary. He could see beyond the moment.
He was suffering because it was the good and the right thing to do.
Scripture tells us that he was leaving us an example, so that we should follow. And throughout the following two millennia, huge numbers of people have called themselves his followers. But how could he have known that from the cross?
When the number of so-called followers might be counted on the fingers of one hand?
I think that Jesus set two examples here. The first example is the obvious one, the example of suffering, especially his death on the cross. But the second example is probably less obvious: the example of the seemingly futile act. It is the act we perform even if it seems that no one is paying attention, even if it seems to have zero short-term effects, even if it seems to be an irrelevant act.
We nevertheless perform the act because it is the good thing to do and the right thing to do.
Peter observes of Jesus, “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” This was a person totally undeserving of the suffering that befell him. Even Pilate could find no wrong, no sin in him.
So when suffering comes upon US, when things go wrong in our lives, and we ask, “What did I do to deserve this?” the answer may very well be, “Absolutely nothing.”
Or, we might look more closely at Jesus’ situation and ask, “What DID he do to deserve his suffering? He must have done SOMETHING!”
And what he did can be understood only in a faith context. He did the good things to do and the right things to do, in following God. And doing those things was upsetting to the religious leaders.
So when WE suffer, it may not be correct to say that we have done “absolutely nothing” to deserve it. Instead, we may have upset folks by attempting to do those things that are good and right in God’s sight.
I knew a pastor once who was serving a congregation with an attendance of more than one hundred. And he told them that in order to maintain their vitality, and to grow, there were things they needed to be doing. But they hated what he told them. They hated what he did. They hated the way he lived. And after a mere two years he told his superintendent, “These people do not want me. Please move me.” Within less than ten years, that congregation which was so disdainful of that pastor and his concerns for the vitality of the church had shrunk from an attendance of more than 100 to an attendance of less than 40.
Peter speaks of Jesus’ response to those who caused his suffering: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.”
Indeed, Jesus is practicing what he had preached in the sermon on the mount, when he said, in the thirty-ninth verse of the fifth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew: “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
But to not return abuse, to not threaten--Jesus has burdened us with the toughest example of all. It seems we all wish we could retaliate. We all want vengeance. And we all want it now. If not sooner.
Peter tells us that Jesus entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. But do we trust God’s justice? Do we BELIEVE that God is just? Are we prepared to accept God’s justice, even if it may not be the same as OUR conception of justice?
Now, I can get as bent out of shape as the next person over the injustices of the world; and I can be as vengeful as the next person. But if I am a Christian, I must accept the fact that God’s justice is not mine, and will not evolve according to my timetable. Are we prepared to entrust ourselves to the one who judges justly?
Peter continues, “Jesus himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.”
Now, this language, “bore our sins in his body,” can be difficult to comprehend. So, let me try another angle. And that is the perspective of the MAGNITUDE of the injustice. Injustices can take all forms and sizes.
Injustice may not be understood as such, or be seen as too small to matter.
But in the case of Jesus’ death, we have the worst possible punishment for a Jew, crucifixion, enacted by--and please don’t call me anti-Semitic for this--enacted by Jews upon one of their own people. And it is punishment in the absence of ANY justifiable crime. Even the Roman leader Pilate can find no wrong in Jesus. And in the midst of this preposterous miscarriage of justice, Jesus continues to act with love toward those around him, those at the foot of the cross, those on the other crosses beside him.
The magnitude of this injustice should so shame us, so embarrass us, that we are not so much freed from our sins as we are compelled to acknowledge them, confess them, and repent of them.
“For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”
So, have we been healed by Jesus’ wounds? I think it depends. I don’t think it is automatic. It think it depends on whether we understand what it was that Jesus did. And whether we are prepared to follow his example. Do we understand that Jesus suffered for doing good and doing right? And CAN we, in our own way, and in our own time, do likewise?
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