Message by Seldon Walker
When I think about the word suffering, I imagine people going through perhaps one of the most difficult times in their lives. I think of my friend who struggled with cancer; I think of the people dealing with the aftermath of the unprecedented chain of natural disasters that keeps bludgeoning the same areas over and over. I think about our brothers and sisters who because of hatred, racism, bigotry, and violence, feel that they aren’t welcome in our society. I think about our Gospel lesson for this morning, and how awful it must have been for the workers who were hired at the last hour, to sit in the hot sun all day long, and wonder if they would be hired even for just an hour’s worth of work, so that they could have something to bring home to the children. When I think about suffering, I can think of a hundred different ways to describe it; a hundred different ways to define it; a hundred different ways to tell someone how it feels. And yet, it seems the only way I have never wanted to describe about suffering, is the way that Paul talks about it in our Epistle from Philippians this morning.
Now, if you listened carefully to our epistle this morning, you were probably as shocked as I was when I first heard how Paul discussed suffering to the Philippians. I will be the first to admit that it isn’t necessarily hard to feel some shock factor after reading some of Paul’s writings and wading through some of his boastful comments, but when I first looked at this scripture in particular, I thought that even he outdid himself on this one.
So what did he say that was so shocking? If you recall, in the very last sentence of the reading, Paul tells the Philippians that God has graciously granted them the privilege of not only believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well. Again, Paul told the Philippians that it was a privilege for them to suffer. I don’t know about you, but if I were the Philippians hearing this letter for the first time, I might say something on the order of “come again…” or “this dude can’t be serious right now.” But Paul was serious, and I don’t know about you, but when I see something that has this kind of “shock-value” in scripture, I tend to try and figure out what it means, because it probably means something important. So let’s unpack this a little.
To begin, Paul is writing this letter to the church in Philippi from prison, and while he suggests within the letter that he is joyous and in good spirits, he also writes in the midst of a struggle. Paul understands that it is his calling to remain in the flesh so that he can serve people like the Philippians, but his ultimate desire is to be with Christ; after all, this isn’t the first time that Paul has been put into prison, and unfortunately he probably knows that it won’t be the last so I can only imagine how he must feel. Given Paul’s past, present, and potential future, it is no secret then, that there is a sense of suffering within Paul.
Now Paul’s suffering is an important revelation because Paul is trying to make a personal connection with the Church in Philippi. You see, Philippi was a Roman occupied city, and so it was very likely that members of the Christian church were suffering at the hand of the Romans through persecution, amongst other things. Thus, at the end of our reading this morning, Paul makes the statement that the Philippians are having the same struggle that he has. But what is so important about struggling, about suffering for Paul? And moreover, why does he suggest that is it a privilege if even he doesn’t like it?
You see my friends, Paul has a very solid understanding of what it means to live a Christian life, and he is in part, writing this letter to the Church in Philippi in order to help them garner a better understanding for themselves. For Paul, the ultimate and supreme example of the Christian life is Christ himself, and thus it is very important that if we say we are “in Christ” we are to live our lives like he lived and share the same attitude that he had. And this is where Paul’s “shocking” comment begins to become more clear.
When we look at Christ in the Gospels, when we read and hear those tragic passion stories; when we hear those stories where people argued, dismissed, and blasphemed Jesus, think about how it was that Jesus reacted? When Jesus suffered, he did not return abuse, with abuse nor he did not fight anger with anger; instead he entrusted himself to the One who he knew would carry him through. He put his trust in God and through his suffering, redemption for humanity ensued. Thus, for Paul, if we are to be “in Christ” we must do likewise when we suffer or when we go through difficult times; we must put our trust in God; and the privilege of this my friends, is that if we do this, if we put our trust in God, if we suffer with and for Christ, we too get to share in the redemptive work of Christ and get to be a part of something that is much grander than ourselves.
It is no secret my friends that we all go through difficult times in our lives. Whether it be dealing with illness, dealing with the loss of a loved one, dealing with a tough financial situation, dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster, or dealing with hatred and racism, we all suffer at some point. But we must remember that suffering my friends, is not an abandonment from God. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Suffering is a sign of grace granted to us by God, and what is more, is that to be chosen by God, doesn’t protect us from suffering, it calls us to it. This is yet another reason why Paul tells the Philippians they are privileged to suffer for Christ; because if we are in Christ, if we live our lives like Christ lived, we are not necessarily delivered from our suffering, but we are given the strength of God to pass through it. What a wonderful thought. Because God loves us so, because God cares so deeply for us, he gives us the strength to pass through; and my friends, we all have to pass through something. Therefore, my friends, the real question we should be asking ourselves, is not what does it mean to suffer for and with Christ, but instead, what are we going to do when we pass through? How are we going to be partakers in Christ’s redemptive work?
So what can we do? My friends, our baptism in Christ marks us differently than the rest of the world, and when we make our baptismal promises, we are promising to God that we are going to live our lives differently, even in the face of suffering. This doesn’t just mean living differently when we suffer; this also means living differently when others are suffering. Because the benefit of living the baptized life is that God is always with us to carry us through, we need to go out there into the world and spread that good news to those who don’t understand; to those who are suffering and yet don’t have the strength and goodness of God to carry them through. Think about how it feels to suffer, to go through a difficult time; now think about what it would be like if you didn’t have God by your side.
My friends, I know that it isn’t easy for us to go through difficult times; I know that sometimes our suffering seems to drag on forever and ever. But I promise you, if you live your life “in Christ” like Paul has told us we should do, if you put your faith in the goodness of the one and holy God, God will never leave you. And with God at your side, with God at our side, the possibilities are endless. So again I ask, what are you going to do when you go through? Amen.