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A Theology of Suffering

I Peter 4:12-19,5:6-11

Rev. Alan Taylor

Easter 7, series A
St. John Lutheran Church  
Galveston, Texas

Sun, Jun 5, 2011 

+ In Nomine Jesu +

The message this morning offers "A theology of suffering" based, of course, on God's Word.  Specifically, we'll be considering that portion of God's Word recorded in I Peter 4, the second reading for this morning.  "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed."

In the remainder of the text from I Peter the Apostle speaks specifically of the trials that come to us because we are Christians.  In fact, he writes in chapter 5 about elders and what trials they may face as they endeavor to lead the church.  Still, no matter the source of the trial, when it comes, the Christian is left asking "to what end?" In other words, what purpose does the "fiery trial" serve in the Christians life?  So, we take up this morning "A theology of suffering." 

Please pray with me…

"Finish then Thy new creation,

Pure and spotless let us be;

Let us see Thy great salvation

Perfectly restored in Thee,

Changed from glory into glory,

Till in heaven we take our place,

Till we cast our crowns before Thee,

Lost in wonder, love and praise!"

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

The woman's name was Janet Adkins.  She was a mother of three and grandmother of three.  As such, she had all of the responsibilities and all of the joys that go along with being a mother and grandmother.  She taught piano at home and English at a local community college.  She had a full life and her husband described her as "a very upbeat person.''

At a relatively young age, Mrs. Adkins was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, that fearful ailment that lingers in the back of many of our minds.  After her diagnosis, though she suffered from an occasional lapse of memory, Mrs. Adkins was vibrant and vigorous enough to defeat her son on the tennis court.

She and her husband talked at length with her pastor about their fears concerning the disease she faced.  ''As she and her husband got up to leave their pastor's study, the pastor said, 'If this is the last time I am going to see you, we should have a hug.' And she said, 'We sure should,' and she gave her pastor a great big hug and went out the door.'' Mrs. Adkins and her husband, by the way, were members of the Unitarian church. 

Janet and her husband left their home in Oregon very shortly after their visit with their pastor.  They traveled to Detroit, Michigan, where, at the age of 54, Mrs. Adkins ended her life before the full effect of the Alzheimer's set in.  She was the very first victim of Dr. Jack Kovarkian.  Her body was cremated and her ashes were scattered at sea, a seemingly memory less conclusion to her life.  And yet, her life, and specifically the way it ended, sparked a debate in our country that still goes on today.  Is there meaning in suffering? 

Socrates, the great Greek philosopher, many years ago suggested an ethic for living.  He posed the question, "what would a life worth living look like?" We have, as you know, developed a concept in our own culture, an ethic for living, if you will, that is based almost entirely on a subjective standard called "the quality of life."  In other words, in our culture, Socrates' question, "what would a life worth living look like," is changed.  The question now is, "is a life that includes suffering worth living?" Diminished capacity, diminished ability are both considered detriments to the quality of life.  Therefore, for some, it is better, even more merciful and compassionate to die than to live. 

As Lutherans we believe that, in His death and resurrection, Jesus defeated sin, death and the devil.  And yet, we live in a culture that considers suffering a greater enemy than death itself.  Teaching Christian Ethics to students at Concordia University I ask them if there is any value in suffering?  They are stymied and rendered speechless by the question, indicating that culturally suffering has indeed replaced death as the greatest enemy of mankind. 

Now, as we consider this morning "a theology of suffering," please understand that you and I aren't any different than anyone else in the world when it comes to suffering.  In other words, none of us welcomes suffering in our lives.  None of us desires it.  None of us wakes up in the morning and says, "boy, I sure hope I suffer today."  It's not the way we are wired.  And yet, suffering is part of our experience.  It's part of our lot, if you will, in life.  Therefore, the Apostle Peter says, "do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you."

Again, in the specific context of this passage, Peter is talking about the fiery trial that comes to us because of "whose we are," and, because of "what we confess."  Call it persecution.  Call it rejection.  Call it alienation.  Call it what you like.  The point is it is noble to suffer for the sake of our confession.  On the other hand, there is nothing noble in suffering for doing what is wrong. 

Beyond the suffering we endure for our confession, however, you and I needn't be surprised at any of the other trials that we face either, as if all of our trials should vanish simply because we are children of God through Christ.  The fact is, under "a theology of suffering" Christians endure suffering, as do those who deny Christ, and yet, we are called to "rejoice insofar as we share in our Lord's sufferings."

You and I both know that the only way we can rejoice in adversity, in the fiery trial, is if God promises us that there is purpose and meaning in them, if He promises us that through them our faith will be strengthened, even purified.  The fact is, suffering without Christ is nothing more than suffering.  Suffering under the cross of our Lord, on the other hand, is God's means to purify us, to humble us and to deepen our faith, our hope and trust in Him.  It is, if you will, a divine exercise of faith. 

But, haven't we all exercised enough!?  That's a big part of the problem with suffering isn't it, our insistence that enough is enough, our insistence that we know better than God what is good for us.  "How long, O Lord," the psalmist asks?  "Will you forget me forever?  How long will You hide Your face from me?  How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart?  Enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death."

I'm told, in a German art gallery there is a painting called "Cloudland."  It hangs at the end of a long hallway.  At first sight it looks like a daub of confused color, without any particular design.  As you approach it, the picture begins to take shape; it proves to be an assembly of angels, their faces finally revealed.  One is reminded of a verse in William Cowper's famous hymn, "God Moves in a Mysterious Way:"

"Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy and shall break

In blessings on your head."

"The God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you.  To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen."

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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