Sermon: Participating in the Suffering of Christ
May 21st, 2017 Rev. Betsy Perkins
First Baptist Church, Delavan WI
Scripture passages: 1 Peter 4:1-2, 12-19
As you could hear in the scripture reading and from the title for the sermon, I’m going to talk about suffering today. And perhaps you’re wishing that you hadn’t come to church this morning! Who wants to think about suffering? No one! Unless it’s forced upon you and you have no way to avoid it. The fact is we do almost anything to avoid suffering in our society – we have become experts on avoiding suffering. Just watch TV and count the number of ads for medications that will take care of every imaginable aspect of physical suffering, as well as some mental suffering. The list of pain relievers available is extraordinary! We are so bent on avoiding suffering that we are willing to risk addictions – to prescription drugs, to street drugs, to alcohol, to whatever might being relief, even ever so briefly, from our suffering. And yet, paradoxically, never has there been a society that had so many comforts and privileges and freedoms available to it.
The first hearers of Peter’s letter were suffering as a result of their faith commitment. They had become outsiders from their communities. Their decision to follow Jesus the Christ had made them targets for suspicion, prejudice, blame, oppression and persecution. For the most part, we are not part of a minority – not recent immigrants or outsiders. We have political and social power that these first Christians would not have been able to imagine. We may not feel wealthy, but with a solid roof over our heads, a comfortable chair to sit on, food to eat each day, clothes to keep us warm, and a way to bathe regularly, we are rich compared to most of the world and certainly compared to the people Peter was writing to. We have legal rights and protections.
Here in this country, we, as Christians, do not suffer from true persecution. But times are changing, and increasingly Christians in the western world, active Christians anyway, are having to adjust to living in a more pluralistic society, where your faith may attract scorn or criticism or possibly make you the target of violence. There is a shift happening, so that we are moving closer to the experiences of the first Christians, and those in other parts of the world today. We need to relearn how to be faithful in this new situation and to resist the responses of either just blending into the surrounding culture or separating ourselves in an arrogant and judgmental manner.
Some have called it persecution, here in the USA, when churches have been prevented from putting out Nativity scenes or had their Baby Jesus’ stolen, when prayer has been removed from public meetings, when disparaging comments are made against those who publicly defend their Christian faith. And while those are challenges from an increasingly secular culture that we have not been accustomed to, it does not come close to the kind of persecution that some of our brothers and sisters in Christ are enduring right now.
You may remember that just 6 weeks ago, on Palm Sunday, 2 churches in Egypt were bombed during their morning worship service. The first bomb had been placed under a pew near the front of the church in the town of Tanta. The congregation was singing a hymn when it was detonated. Many of the priests and church leaders were killed, including the whole church choir. The second explosion happened outside a church in the city of Alexandria, because the person wearing the bomb was stopped from entering by a police officer who is regularly assigned to guard the church. About 70 people died in those bombings and hundreds were injured. One of the survivors was a man who had been worshipping in that same church in Alexandria in 2011 when another bomb exploded that killed his wife and one of his daughters. He was alone in the service on Palms Sunday because a daughter that survived the first bomb still suffers from post-traumatic stress and because a surviving son has had to leave Egypt to get a job since many companies will not hire Christians. The most mistreated Christians in Egypt are not even those who belong to the ancient Coptic Christian churches that were bombed, but those newer converts to a faith in Jesus Christ, who are spit on and taunted.
But on the Open Doors World Watch List of the top 50 countries where Christians face the most severe persecution for their faith, Egypt is only #21. The #1 country, the one they call “the worst place on earth for Christians,” is North Korea. Believers there must hide their faith completely from government authorities, neighbors and even from immediate family members. Worship of the ruling Kim family is mandatory for all citizens and those who do not comply are imprisoned, tortured and killed. A whole family is at risk for the Christian faith of even just one member. If someone is discovered with a Bible or closing their eyes in prayer, the entire family is sent to hard labor camps or executed publicly.
Afghanistan is #3 on the Open Doors Watch List. Christians there lose all rights to their personal property and possessions. Their belongings and land can be seized without warning. As a result, many who convert to Christianity are often murdered by their own families or confined in mental hospitals, to protect the family name and inheritance. I read the story of an Afghan man named Saif, who lived in a small village. One of his seven children was disabled and couldn’t walk. In his search for care and hope for the child, he had somehow stumbled on copy of the New Testament. Saif took it home and began to read it. He shared that the moment he brought the Bible into his home, his daughter started to move. The more he read the more strength she gained, until she was walking. Saif phoned a Christian radio station located in a large city some distance away and asked for advice on what he should say to his neighbors when they asked how his daughter was healed. The counselor at the radio station prayed with him and advised him to say “Miracles happen to the glory of God,” and then to share his experience with Jesus. When the counselor called back later to follow up, Saif’s wife said that shortly after he had spoken with his neighbors, Saif had been kidnapped by extremists. His kidnappers got into a gunfight several days later and Saif was able to use that opportunity to escape. He crept home, gathered his wife and children, and they fled. He and his family now live in hiding – unable to return home or to participate in any Christian fellowship and worship. But they have their New Testament and they are able to listen to Christian radio.
In the most recent International Ministries’ Guide to Global Servants, our American Baptist missionaries in Northeast India, Taku and Katie Longkumar, shared about traveling to a mission station that has been established just adjacent to India’s northern border with Bhutan. Bhutan is a country that is closed to the Gospel, yet 13 families from churches in the Indian state of Nagaland have been commissioned as missionaries to a Bhutan border ministry. They live in India, but travel discreetly into Bhutan to share the story of Jesus, and provide training for the Bhutanese people who have responded and who God called to serve as evangelists in their own land. Those evangelists face many risks in leading small underground churches. As Taku and Katie sat with Zulu, one of the missionaries, suddenly firecrackers and gunshots rang out. They dove down but Zulu remained calm, and explained that that was the way the local people were trying to deter a herd of wild elephants from trampling their homes and crops. He then shared that one of the ways God was opening hearts to the Gospel was through that herd of elephants. Since the missionaries had opened a small church on the mission property not one elephant had stepped foot onto that land.
Why does this matter to us? What purpose does it serve to learn about the suffering of others in the name of Jesus, beyond making us feel sad? What can we do?
First, taking the time to pay attention to these stories matters because these people who are suffering are family – brothers and sisters in Christ. We are called to defend them, to be their voice. Last weekend there was a large gathering of believers from over 130 nations in Washington DC. They came together for a World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians. You may have heard about it if you follow Franklin Graham. There are varying opinions on the numbers of people who lose their lives each year as a result of their Christian convictions, but it is in the thousands, and what is universally agreed on is that the numbers are on the rise. We must not forget these members of Christ’s body. We need to take time to earnestly and faithfully pray for them. I’m glad to lend out the 2017 Open Doors Watch List booklet. The Voice of the Martyrs organization has a website, a facebook page and twitter account to help you stay informed. When Missionary Jeni Pedzinski here this Wednesday, we can ask her what kind of suffering she and those she serves in Thailand experience.
Second, this matters because we must not become complacent and take for granted the freedoms that we have. We are greatly privileged and should remember that with tremendous gratitude. We have done nothing ourselves to deserve this blessing, it is the purely the grace and mercy of God and the result of others who have sacrificed to win these freedoms.
Lastly, we can find ways to enter into the suffering of the wider body of Christ, and to participate, even in small ways, in Christ’s suffering. One idea I’ve had this week is that I could choose not to immediately reach for the thermostat to turn on the air conditioning, but rather allow myself to suffer a little and to use that as a reminder to pray for those who suffer in much more significant ways. You might allow yourself to feel hungry without immediately reaching for a snack to assuage the hunger pang, and let that tiny bit of suffering remind you of those who are starving in the world – particularly those Christians in South Sudan where starvation is a weapon of a civil war based on Christian faith and tribal allegiances. I don’t want to sound trite, but there are small ways in which we can choose to embrace suffering. Fasting is a spiritual discipline that very few Christians in the western, privileged world enter into because it involves some suffering. Yet Peter writes in verse 1-2, “Think of your sufferings as a weaning from that old sinful habit of always expecting to get our own way. Then you’ll be able to live out your days free to pursue what God wants instead of being tyrannized by what you want.”
Peter urges the Christians he is writing to not to be surprised by persecution and not to think that God is somehow failing to do His job of protecting you. If, as a result of your faith, you are criticized or mocked, don’t be offended or give in to the temptation to give it right back to defend yourself. When Christians repay slander for slander, we no longer display the distinctiveness of Jesus Christ. We are behaving like everyone else and it scores another victory for the hostile world. Instead we learn the habits of heart that Jesus demonstrated. You rejoice because someone in fact noticed that you are a Christ-follower. You count yourself fortunate because God’s Spirit in you brought you to the attention of others.
I am not suggesting that we deliberately go looking for persecution, or that we glorify suffering for its own sake. Rather when suffering comes to you, which it inevitably will, simply try to lean into it rather than to run away from it. Experience it, mindful of how God can use suffering to transform you, to refine your character and make you ever more like Jesus. Allow the suffering to deepen your trust in God and to give your faith some exercise. Jesus the Messiah has indeed defeated the powers of evil that are responsible for hateful and destructive acts. Jesus has won the victory! But until that victory has played out fully in the world, we continue to persevere in prayer and in love, confident in the living hope of God’s love and care.
Pray with me: Father God, we come now in prayer for your children who are on the front lines of this confrontation with evil and hatred. We ask you to send your Spirit to strengthen and comfort believers in North Korea so they might not feel abandoned or alone. We pray for Saif and his family that you would allow his witness on behalf of Jesus’ healing power to change the hearts and minds of people in Afghanistan. We pray for our Egyptian brothers and sisters who face the very real possibility of injury and death each time they go to worship – give them courage. I pray for Zulu and the evangelists in Bhutan, that you might continue to give them cover while they share the Good News of Jesus. And now, Lord God, I pray for each person here this morning, that we will be ever grateful for your blessings, that we will not become complacent or forgetful of our mission to pray. Bring to us the measure of suffering we need to grow and mature in our commitment to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who has won the victory. Amen.
We sing to encourage one another and to encourage the wider family of God:
Closing song: # 619 “God Will Take Care of You”