Tag Archives: suffering

Not immune – but protected!

“I’ve been good, why is this happening to me?” Sadly this is a common wail of Churchgoers in trouble. Paul gives some answers in Philippians 1. (We are set to read Philippians 1:21-30, but it may be helpful to start a bit earlier – perhaps Philippians 1:12-30).

Paul is in prison (v13), yet his whole attitude is far beyond duty and courage! Even though some people are trying to make trouble for him (v17), he is happy. How does he manage this?

He has no illusions about the Christian life being a guarantee of no trouble, no hard times, no suffering. Quite the opposite, if his being in prison (not a pleasant experience) will help the gospel, then he is happy for that to happen. The experience is clearing up what is at stake, helping others to confront the challenge of the gospel – as persecution has often been a tool for strengthening the church – “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (as is said in East Africa). Paul draws strength from realism: he knows the failings and weaknesses of other people, but also he knows the God who is in control of all. His trust is in God, and with that he can cope with people.

Life and death! Paul knows the possibilities of his situation, and has come to be able to say

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Philippians 1:21

It is a vital line for many others who face death, whether through disease (as we all do, at some time), or through physical danger. Sadly, we don’t now seem happy to speak positively about preparing for death, preferring to let it creep up on us unawares. Is a sudden heart attack the ideal end? No, for it allows no time to prepare, no repentance, no sorting of finances and relationships. Yes, to prepare for death needs the courage to face dying; and yes, it is a good thing to do – for our own sake as we face God, and for the sake of friends and family, as they adjust to a new situation.

Paul, guarded by armed soldiers, is in no position to avoid the realities, and he has worked through his thoughts and feelings to this wonderful and helpful statement v21. What do we rely on? If Christ, then he will see us through death. If something else, then we need to change – and that brings us to the third paragraph Philippians 1:27-30.

“the important thing is that your way of life should be as the gospel of Christ requires”

Philippians 1:27a

This is your safeguard, in all sorts of ways:

  • if you have enemies, who oppose and ridicule your faith, live it consistently, and they will have no ammunition. More, they will be given fair warning of their own danger.
  • if you are frightened of what may happen in the future, of the uncertainty that is always part of life (health, work, family …) then live as a Christian and you will develop the resources to cope with all these things, as well as to recognise that many will never come.
  • even should you ever be afraid of the “nasties” of the spiritual world, of black magic or vodoo or anything else you should not be involved with – this is your basic protection. Live as a Christian, for Christ does not allow his people to be seriously hurt by the enemy.

So I hope you see that Christians are not “immune”. All sorts of things can and do happen to them, but they are still safe with a God whose work is not stopped. They can face death with reasoned courage; they know that living as Christians is a preparation and protection which will get them through good times and bad.

The God who smiles First

We have many different pictures of God. Sometimes they give stern suggestions of the never-satisfied perfectionist; sometimes they are more tolerant of failure, even expecting our poor performance. Too often they reflect nothing more than our human experience, and the feeling that “you get out what you put in”. But we want – need – more than our imaginings, based as they often are on our experience growing up.

Through this summer in the Revised Common Lectionary, we shall be reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, starting from chapter 5. (Today we read Romans 5:1-8). Romans has had a profound effect on many Christians through the ages, perhaps because it was written to a church Paul had not started, and gives a more systematic account of his belief and life.

At any rate, Romans 5:8 gives us a clear view of God

“While we were still sinners, Christ died for us”

Romans 5:8

Whatever our background suggests God might, or even should be, here is fact. The Christian God is the God who smiles first. Not waiting for us to be ready, or make an effort, Jesus comes to earth and dies for us. It is the most generous welcome to a new life – but without force. The offer is there. It remains open. But it can be accepted or declined.

The Christians in Rome already had some idea of this, and also knew that the Christian life with God was not entirely easy. Free of guilt and confident of being loved, they faced all the ordinary difficulties of life, and the threat of persecution as well. Paul won’t let them be depressed about that:

“we also glory in our sufferings”

Romans 5:3

Hard to justify? Well, read on. These Christians are not just those rescued from danger, as if to remain feeble and traumatised. They are being grown into strong disciples, to share hope and love. The Christian picture of God is of a God who smiles first, and with good reason.

Suffering, Humility and Discipline!

Through the Easter season we have been reading the first letter of Peter, and noticed that he has a good deal to say about Christian suffering. (My computer Bible finds 6 matches for “Suffer” and another 3 for “Sufferings” in the 5 chapters in NRSV). It has come at an appropriate time with the covid 19 lockdown, but perhaps there is never an inappropriate time to remind followers of Jesus that their lives are no more likely than his to be trouble and stress free. Of course it often isn’t fair – but for everybody, life is like that.

Christians get added trouble because of their faith. It comes in many forms – dislike for people who act differently or stand out from the crowd; a reaction of guilt (even without critical comments); or a fear that they might be right! It is something we need to come to terms with.

Usefully, this week’s reading (given as 1 Peter 4. 12-14; 5. 6-11, but it might make more sense to read 1Peter 4:12 – 5:11) has more to say that might help. First is the idea of humility. (1Peter 5:5,6, and throughout). It is important that we have a realistic understanding of ourselves, and our place in the world and the church. That is not the same as saying we are worthless, which is untrue. Every person is made in the image of God, and loved – and so of enormous value. But that is every person, so we have to understand what our particular gifts are, and how they should be used to work in with others. Humility is about being “down to earth”, always remembering that earth is wonderful stuff that enables miracles of growth.

Humility provides some defence against suffering, helping deal with wounded pride and foolish ambition. With it, Peter commands discipline. Again, it is not a fashionable virtue, but one that shows its value in hard times. We have all been advised in lockdown to have a routine, to exercise, and eat and drink sensibly – yes, it’s a discipline. Peter is more concerned that we are alert to temptation, and ready for the service of God. In other texts, Paul talks about the discipline of the athlete in training, or the soldier on active service. We remember that discipline will not earn us God’s love or salvation, but it will enable us to better respond to those things in effective service.

I hope you have found 1 Peter a timely commentary on life after Easter in 2020. Perhaps, as we move towards Pentecost (are you using the Thy Kingdom Come app?) you might like to read the whole letter again?

The Ideal Lifestyle

What sort of lifestyle would you really like? Some years ago David Atkinson pointed out that many people half believe the myths about the problem-free lives of “ideal” people, which does not help at all in facing problems. We all face problems, and many involve fear.

Peter tells us (in our reading of 1 Peter 3:13-22), ““Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.”, which might sound like wishful thinking. But he gives a reason: “in your hearts revere Christ as Lord”. If Jesus is Lord, there is no need to fear anyone else. (Peter means it – he is talking to those facing persecution). It is part of the Easter message. Jesus has faced everything, and won! Since he is Lord of all, if you serve him, there is nothing to fear.

That does not mean you will lead a charmed life. V 17 “ For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” Suffering may come, but cannot take away the really important things, so don’t worry about it.

Why do good people suffer? God knows, but it happened to Jesus, and many others, and sometimes that is how the gospel spreads. V15 “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,”. Christians had, and have, a great impact. Arguably that comes more from simple believers sharing their faith, hope and love in difficult times than from learned arguments. Hopefully that is one of the things which will emerge from the coronavirus crisis. If Christians are known for being unafraid, practically helpful, but always gentle and respectful – that will get attention and raise questions, leading people to Jesus.

It is not about slogans, or advertising budgets, but a reality in our communities. Verses 19-22 might seem unclear, but Peter is talking about the commitment pledged in Baptism, and the grace of God which transforms people through the power of Jesus’ resurrection.

What sort of lifestyle would you really like? Have the myths of happiness in idle luxury, unconcerned with the world around, poisoned you? Or would you value a life without fear, experiencing the ups and downs, but in company with God’s family and travelling to a wonderful destination? Part of the Easter message is that the best lifestyle is yours for the asking.

If you know the truth behind “Jesus is Lord”, and claim it through baptism, then you have nothing to fear. Yes, you may still suffer (which threatens your comfort, not your security). And certainly you will be called on to explain your hope. But I think that gives most of us something to work on.

What’s Good about Suffering?

You might expect this week’s excerpt from Peter’s first letter to start at 2:18, or even 2:13, but no, the given reading is 1 Peter 2:19-25. I guess that the reference to slaves accepting the authority of their masters might make twenty-first century people think there is nothing here for them, but quite the opposite! We are all suffering Covid-19 lockdown. Suffering in different ways, perhaps, but I doubt if anyone much is enjoying it. So the question comes, can there be anything good about suffering?

And in one sense, the answer is no. Our God does not inflict suffering, as if it was a good thing, and certainly does not want us to enjoy suffering ourselves, or making others suffer. But that doesn’t mean that the experience is totally wasted.

Jesus suffered. It was unjust, and nasty – but it set us free! That doesn’t make it “right”; Pilate, Judas and others are guilty. But it is something we need to take note of. Peter speaks to Christians who are suffering, and will suffer, for a number of reasons. Some are slaves with pagan masters, others are oppressed in other ways.

He points them, not to futile rebellion or smouldering resentment, but to being aware of God. With God’s support, both to see them through difficult times, and to reassure them of final justice and the vindication of those wrongly accused, they can endure. That endurance will also be an advertisement for their faith, helping others to find truth and help.

His view was realistic and helpful in the first century – and still holds! We need a way to get through difficult times, and this is it. It helps us, and helps others at the same time. It doesn’t make everything right, or mean that we are going to enjoy what is happening. But it does mean that, in God’s world, nothing is wasted – not even the bad bits!

By the way, there is a well presented overview of 1 Peter at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhP7AZQlzCg&list=PLH0Szn1yYNecanpQqdixWAm3zHdhY2kPR&index=27

Still Thankful

When Peter wrote (we are looking at 1 Peter 1:3-9 ), Christians were not having an easy time; like us, they were people who had not known Jesus during his ministry. Like us they had problems, though theirs may have been from the emperor Nero. Life is difficult for many people, now as ever. I imagine most of you could identify “issues”; perhaps you’d like to think about it as you read. What are the problems, the irritants, the sticking points, the causes of tension. Is there one main one, or two or three together (more than that, and you’re probably missing the point, the root cause). If everybody annoys you, it may be you who is the problem

Have you got some idea? Good, because what Peter has to say may well apply to us, too. First of all, he urges us to “give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” v3 – thanks for the new life we were given through Jesus’ resurrection. That’s important, not least because it tends to get lost when other things get to us. If you don’t know what you are doing, at least give thanks, and remember what you are giving thanks for.

Then he talks about the safety of our presents. Have you ever had something put away for you? The silver mug or spoon at the Christening; the toy that’s very nice, but a little too old for you just yet? Adults may have things in the bank, like the deeds of the house, or a piece of family jewellery – kept safe. Well says Peter, at an unsettled time, isn’t it great to know that God’s good presents to us are kept safe; they can’t be stolen, or spoiled. So even in rough, uncertain times, there is something to give thanks for personally.

So you can face your “issues” with thanks to God, – and with faith. Too often we leave a gap between the difficult bits of life and our faith, but that’s a mistake! We are given a new life, and need to live it, and to apply its energy and principles to our problems and sticking points. Peter is not surprised that the Christians are suffering; he didn’t expect them to escape difficulty because they had been good (verses 6, 7a). Their problems will help them to grow up in faith, showing what is genuine, and what isn’t and needs to be replaced by something firmer.

He doesn’t offer an instant fix. Look at Jesus he will say (in chapter 2:18f), and as his followers you will not expect an easy ride, or immunity from pain, or success. But look at Jesus, he will say, and you will see how worthwhile it all was, and how glorious is the way he walked, even with its pain.

We may be glad that our Royal family is one we can give thanks for. I don’t think I can find a single point of comparison between them and the emperor Nero. But like those first century Christians, we face problems, and need reminding to face them with thanksgiving for God’s goodness, remembering that the worst trouble is not going to make us lose God’s best blessings, and that if things are rough for a time, it should sort out our faith.

Attitude!

Sometime one line seems to say it all. Stuck at home, bored and tired of Covid-19 restrictions? Fearful of illness, running out of money or food, or just the state of the world “afterwards”? Wondering what has happened to change everything so fast?

“The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had” – says Paul.

(That’s the Good News Bible translation of Philippians 2:5, as we read Philippians 2:5-11).

Perhaps this Holy Week you will read again the account of Jesus betrayal and death. Perhaps you will follow one of the many schemes of Bible reading, on paper or virtually on a phone or computer app. However you remember Jesus, for those who follow him, this is our pattern, our example. this is the route that has been pioneered for us, and left for us to follow.

Scholars suggest that Paul was adopting a hymn here. It makes no difference, for whatever follows “The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had” is going to be a hard act to follow.

There is also a question whether Paul was tactfully skating round failures in the leadership at Philippi. Were relationships there not so good? was there disunity, boasting, ambition and selfishness?

Again, the answer is not essential to our understanding. Churches are not perfect – we are a congregation of sinners. But we need to know where we are heading, and what we are supposed to imitate, how we are to work towards our goals. Again

“The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had”

This Holy Week we have more opportunities than any other week in the year. Please take them, even if present conditions are difficult – perhaps especially if present conditions are difficult – not to be distracted, but to think again about

“The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had”

“Redemption” ?

Luke 2:22-40 What do you make of that story? Only Luke tells it – so is it less interesting, or less relevant? It starts as a bit of ritual. Jesus was brought up as a Jew, so circumcised a week after his birth, and then at 40 days old taken with his mother to the Temple. Mary presents him in the Temple, and makes a sacrifice – the 2 pigeon option allowed for the poor – in a ceremony required by the Old Testament.

So far, not very helpful you might think. But hold on. That ceremony came from the Exodus and the Passover. You remember how the slaves in Egypt escaped after a series of plagues, and the last and worst of the plagues was – the death of the firstborn. And Exodus 13 explains how all the firstborn of the Israelites belonged in a special way to God. There is more detail, but it makes sense – Jesus belonging specially to God; a small fee paid to ransom him and return him to his family . .

Then the excitement grows again. Simeon appears. How can he tell one baby from another? Somehow the Holy Spirit makes it possible. He has been promised (and, since God keeps his promises) now understands he is seeing the promised Messiah.

He speaks of a light for the Gentiles – all the world!

And of glory for God’s people

and he warns Mary of suffering, as Jesus will bring some people down, as well as raising others up.

If you feel excited (and perhaps you should), Mary and Joseph are amazed. They haven’t forgotten the earlier messages and promises, angels, shepherds – but how does Simeon know? This Holy Spirit has something.

To reinforce the importance and transforming power of the Holy Spirit, Anna arrives – and she is a prophet. Whether she accepts Simeon’s word, or knows by her own spiritual insight – she now also give thanks to God, and talks about Jesus to all who were still looking for God to do something.

It started with a bit of Jewish ritual. It gained significance as we found a connection with the Passover (don’t forget the Last Supper was a Passover meal, and the Christian eucharist depends on it). God’s people were set free at the Exodus, as they will be again more lastingly by Jesus and his death. The idea of Redemption is interesting.

Then there is the excitement of the Holy Spirit giving revelations and warnings – the same Spirit who will be active in Jesus ministry, the same Spirit who guides and empowers Christians today. It is beginning to happen, and it is good, and we know it hasn’t stopped. Where is the Spirit active today? Who are the Simeons and Annas, praying, understanding, talking about God?

Even at 40 days old, Jesus is exciting, making things happen.

Go on listening!

I like to be right, so I can Identify with Peter in Mark 8:27-38. And Peter is; Jesus is the Messiah, and it is a terrific discovery. A high mid-point of Mark’s gospel; you can feel the excitement. And in the middle of it, Peter stops listening. He doesn’t hear – doesn’t want to, can’t ? – Jesus talk about suffering. If he had gone on, what a disaster that would have been! But Jesus doesn’t let him.

It’s easy to stop listening. I might even have done it myself. But I notice other people doing it much more easily. Perhaps you have seen it too? Someone learns “God is love”. That’s great, true and important. But then they stop listening. If God is love (and it says so in 1John 4:8 (& 16)), then God must do whatever I think is loving? And they find out he doesn’t, and get hurt and confused, because they have stopped listening. God is love, but he defines what that means and how it works, and we need to go on listening and learning to find out.

Jesus is the Messiah – the great King long expected by Jews because of Old Testament prophecy. But if Peter thinks that means he will take over, throw out the Romans, and give him an honoured, easy and rewarding place in the new government – forget it! Peter will find it hard to learn that the Messiah is also the Servant Isaiah talked about – the Suffering Servant. I think I find that hard, too. I know what it means in theory, but theory isn’t enough.

It’s much easier to preach, or hear: “Jesus is King of the Universe; once you follow him as his disciple your life will sort out and work better”.  That’s true, and important too. But somehow it is easier to say and hear than the next bit:

“Jesus teaches his disciples what it means to serve; it is sometimes difficult, embarrassing, or even painful. You may not always understand what he is planning, or why you have to play a particular part.” That’s also true, and important – but it doesn’t have quite the Wow factor. It is still worthwhile, not only because it forwards God’s plan and the Kingdom on earth, but also because it helps you grow, develop in faith and love and holiness, and be what you are meant to be. It’s just not quite so – marketable.

So you might like to think about 2 things from this gospel:

  • Jesus is the Messiah –  the greatest King ever, Ruler of the Universe; but he sets about that in a new and strange way to serve us and free us.
  • Secondly, don’t stop listening to God. Especially when you think you know what’s coming next, or you make some new discovery. You know that Christians keep making mistakes? Remember that they get away with it by keeping listening and following instructions to put things right. It’s very simple.

Peter got it right. Jesus is the Messiah. But it wasn’t a theory test; he had to keep listening to work out properly what it meant. So do we.

Suffering and Supremacy

In several of the Easter stories, including this week’s Luke 24:36b-48, there is reference to the Old Testament writing about Jesus’ ministry.  Modern Christians have largely given up the idea that Jesus can be “proved” from Old Testament prophecy, and that seems right.  However, the fact that you cannot prove Jesus in that way does not mean that there is not a great deal to be usefully thought through and understood from the Old Testament texts.  With the benefit of hindsight, those who accept Jesus as Lord can look back and enrich their understanding.

During his ministry, Jesus was shy of using the title King (Messiah, “Anointed One”, the promised descendant of King David, who would come to rule a golden age).  It is not that he was not the Messiah, but he would combine “Messiah” with the “Suffering Servant” prophesied by Isaiah.  This hadn’t been predicted – or at least had not entered popular understanding.  Indeed, who could have imagined that the victory of the Messiah would come in criminal execution? Only after the resurrection can Jesus use time with his disciples to explain.

We can sympathise with the disciples, who heard Jesus warnings of coming suffering without really taking them in.  Later, they were remembered and recorded in the gospel. We have the benefit of hindsight. We ought to hear, understand and remember.

What do we hear? Prophecies of the King, descendant of David, mix with the Suffering Servant, whose suffering is extreme, yet somehow beneficial.  This is not all!  There are many other elements, both descriptive (eg the prophet like Moses of Deuteronomy 18), and specific (eg Micah locates the birthplace of the Messiah in Bethlehem). It is good to read the Old Testament with an eye open for such glimpses of who is to come, and how his ministry will work.

And it is important that God chose to act in that way. The good news of the gospel is not “We win, you lose, – tough”, but much better news. Hope for all, through repentance and forgiveness, won by a suffering Messiah, who gives those who suffer hope both for the future, and that there may be purpose in what they endure.  Jesus kingship is not yet another revolution, which in time will be replaced by the next group to grab power and rubbish their predecessors.  It is a lasting Kingdom, giving more than it takes, and offering support to those who do not wish to do others down, but long for hope and relief.