One question of the ages has always been, “why is suffering part of this life?” I am sorry to report, I do not have the answer to this question, even though I have been asked it many times in the midst of pastoral care.
What I do know, are the wrong reasons for why there is human suffering. First and foremost, despite the beliefs of ancient Judaism, physical suffering is not a divine punishment for our sins. The Book of Job refutes this ancient theory. This is not to say that some of our suffering may be a consequence of our behaviors and/or our lifestyle. I can also assure you, however, despite what we have been told over the years, God does not give us our suffering as a way to help us grow stronger or to better connect with the suffering of Christ on the cross.
I suspect most of the suffering we endure today is largely man made or the result of creation’s unraveling due to the infiltration of evil at the time of the fall.
By now I suspect many are beginning to ask, “Okay,”I hear what you are saying but didn’t St. Paul in this morning’s letter to the Romans just talk about suffering building endurance and character?” This is true, however, the suffering St .Paul speaks of has nothing to do with the suffering we endure in regards to physical pain, severe illness or loss. The suffering St. Paul is talking about is the suffering we endure as a result of standing with Christ.
As Paul writes to the Roman congregation, he is writing to a persecuted people. Not only are the Roman Christians being scapegoated by the emperor for all the problems of the empire, as Gentile Christians, they are being ostracized by the Jewish Christians who have yet to accept the gentile church as part of the greater family.
Paul in this section of the letter assures the forming congregation of two things. First and foremost, he assures the Roman church they are saved through faith. Christ died for them and for all others when we were sinners, it was, as he called it, a righteous sacrifice for the unrighteous. Second, he assures the young church their suffering at the hands of fellow Christians and at the hands of the Romans was not for naught. This form of suffering, the suffering they are enduring on behalf of Christ, builds endurance of faith, forms character and unites us with the physical suffering of Jesus. Paul’s discussion on suffering parallels what Jesus proclaimed at the Sermon on the Mount, “‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely* on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Often we forget that sacrifice and faith go together. At least that was the case for the early church. The earliest followers knew, following Christ, accepting Christ as Lord and Savior, to declare Christ as the Son of God, could, and would be construed as an act of treason. The names and even the many catch phrases St Paul uses through out his letters were used as a means of declaring an alternative authority over that of Rome. This morning, when Jesus sends the twelve apostles out to proclaim the Kingdom is near, he knew he was sending them out into hostile territory. Of the original twelve Apostles, only one, John is believed to have died of natural causes, all the rest were killed or executed in some horrible way.
What our tradition tells us is, while the grace of God is freely obtained through faith in Christ, our journey with Christ often comes with a very real human price.
Equating our faith with cost, is something few of us think about. As modern day Christians, even though we live in what is now being called a Post-Christian era, we still enjoy the protection to freely worship as we wish. In fact, most of us take for granted our right to gather in this beautiful Victorian church each week and to leave with the assurance that we will never be harassed or persecuted because of how and to whom we worship.
But we forget, Sunday morning is but a single part of our journey. As the last page of our service outline declares each week, “the worship is over, the service begins.” As the line in Eucharistic Prayer C reminds us, we don’t come to the rail for solace only. We also come to the rail for pardon. While we gather each week to be assured of God’s love for us, we also come to be reminded of how that love has come at a price and as redeemed as we may be, our lives fall far short of what they really should be. And while we may come to the rail for peace and consolation, we also come to the rail for inspiration, and at times for courage.
Being sent into the world as an Apostle of Christ is rarely easy, even in today’s world. While Bonhoeffer’s concept of cheap grace abounds in this time of Christian Freedom, there are times when serving Christ actually does come with a price.
Serving Christ can often mean, as the old favorite hymn implies, the literal standing up for Jesus. This can come in many different and subtle ways. Standing up for Jesus can be as simple as standing in an airport to welcome a family of refugees to their new home while others stand in protest near by. Standing up for Jesus can literally mean kneeling respectfully on one knee during the National Anthem to bring attention to a system racial injustice. Standing up for Jesus may mean being respectfully insubordinate because you are being asked to do something you feel is morally unjust.
All of these are actions which have been taken in recent years by people who felt the call to stand up for Jesus, who were willing to endure the ridicule of those who disagreed with them, who accepted that while they maybe justified before God by their faith alone, this justification came at a great price on the part of Jesus, and now, they were willing to share in the suffering of Christ on behalf of their faith. Because, when we suffer for conscience sake, St. Paul writes, we can boast.
Ultimately, what I find in this morning’s passage from Romans is a challenge. The challenge is to simply ask, what are we willing to sacrifice or how much are we willing to suffer on behalf of Christ?