Notice how gentle Christ our Lord is with the disciples. He tells them, “You do not know what you are asking.” He could have said, “You are asking based on your desire for greatness and the lifting up of self above others. Woe is you!” Or He could have said, “Because you ask without understanding, no sitting on the right hand of glory for you!” But no, Christ gently answers and leads them. He even lures them. “Are you ready to drink the cup I drink? Are you ready to be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” They answer, “Yes,” because of course every Christian wants to be like our dear Lord. How gentle the Lord is, yet He lures them into agreeing to suffering. How strange!
He does it with us as well. He calls the suffering He endures a cup and a baptism. This sounds like the two Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, yet that is not what He means. He uses names and images of what is common to Christians to say that all Christians must suffer in the image of our Lord. Do you want to be baptized into life and salvation? Then you must have a share in the suffering of Christ that He calls a baptism. Do you want to drink the cup of blessing that gives forgiveness of sins? Then be ready to taste the cup of suffering from which Christ drank.
It is not that we must earn our salvation by suffering. Instead, it is a package deal. If we want to be united with Christ in His life, then we will also be united with Him in His sufferings. We will not suffer so badly as He did. But we will each experience being last for the sake of Christ in our own ways.
The disciples undoubtedly had it worse than we do. Eleven out of twelve suffered a martyr’s death. We see Saint James in the Reading from Acts with his head cut off for the Gospel. The Twelve Apostles were sent out with the message of their Lord on their lips. As the world hated Christ and crucified Him, so they would hate the ones who spoke the same message.
The world hates us too because it hated our Lord, and still hates Him. We may try to rescue a few out of the world with the saving message of our dear Lord. But we must not expect the world thereby to love us.
The problem is, we love our life. The Lord has put a survival instinct in us. We do not want to suffer and die. If we embrace the cup and baptism of Christ’s suffering, then we must act against our own God-given instinct.
How strange and terrible and wonderful, if we have the eyes to see. For here is true greatness, in our suffering for the Gospel and for the Lord’s sake. It does not feel that way, so we have to ignore our feelings and instead embrace the strange glory that the Lord gives us.
Church father Polycarp prayed this prayer as he was about to go to his death for the faith: “I bless you, Lord, because You have deemed me worthy of this day and hour, to take my part in the number of the martyrs, in the cup of Your Christ, for resurrection to eternal life of soul and body in the immortality of the Holy Spirit; among whom may I be received in Your presence this day as a rich and acceptable sacrifice.” What great faith, which we pray that we may be enabled to imitate, to bless the day of our martyrdom for Christ, and to view our lives as a sacrifice into suffering and death.
We will probably not be burned at the stake and then stabbed as Polycarp was. But we also have lives of sacrifice and suffering. We can pray to God to praise and thank Him that He finds us worthy to give our lives for Him and our neighbor, and that in the end we will sit in glory, whatever happens here below.
In the same way, our Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory, willingly became a sacrifice for us. He made Himself last in order that we might be rescued from the ugliness of our fates, we who always wanted to make ourselves first according to our sinful pride. Christ allowed Himself to be covered with shame so that we might be lifted up to glory. He suffered and was treated as nothing. He drank the cup. He was baptized with wrath and punishment. He was immersed in the sin and guilt of the world, so that we might be forgiven and be the righteousness of God.
This is the strange, backwards way that God does things. The last becomes first, and the first last. The glorious one becomes covered with shame so that the shameful ones become covered with glory. All this because the Lord desires our salvation and life.
So we must suffer. May we have the grace to suffer with dignity and peace in our heart, the Spirit willing. If our sinful flesh has its way, we will suffer with whining and complaining and protests. “I don’t deserve this terrible treatment!” our old Adam wants to say. Instead, may we say, “I am not worthy to suffer in the image of my Lord, yet He has counted me worthy. Thanks be to God!”
But never forget that suffering is hard to bear. We may tend to think that suffering is glorious, so it won’t hurt at all. We transform it in our minds into a kind of pleasant pain. Not so! We are talking about suffering that is awful, putrid, humiliating, and crushing. The reason we praise God in the midst of suffering is not because we have overcome it with our indomitable spirit. We do not overcome by blocking out the pain. We feel the pain. We suffer and shudder because we can’t handle it. We are given a cross that we cannot, by our strength, carry. That is why it is called a cross. It is too much for us, and then in the midst of it crushing us we say, “Thank you, Lord, that you think I am worthy to carry a cross as you did.”
This is beyond human strength or wisdom. It can only be by the Holy Spirit. It can only happen when we have already been redeemed. Since we have eternity and resurrection as a free gift of Christ, then we can embrace our suffering.
The world has a poor imitation of this. A man sacrifices himself for his brothers, perhaps on the battlefield. It is by his courage and giving heart that he is able to fling himself upon the grenade, or whatever the sacrifice is.
Noble as such sacrifice is, it is not what the Lord is telling us today. We will not give ourselves so that others will live. No, we will be given, not by our choice or will at all. No one will be saved by our sacrifice. It will look as tragic and meaningless as possible to human eyes.
But if we learn to see with God’s eyes, we see that it is not meaningless. It is a saint living out the kind of life his Lord lived. It is us making ourselves of last importance because our Lord did the same. It is us embracing the bitter cup of suffering because we know whose lips were on that cup before ours – not just our Lord Jesus, but also a long line of martyrs before us. We travel a well worn path and drink from a common cup held by many, many saints. We are in good company.
The Spirit help us to abandon all pride and desire to be first, and instead willingly make ourselves last, and our lives expendable, since glory awaits us. Amen.
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