“The Sharing of His Sufferings” / Philippians 3:4b-14 / 7 April 2019
“For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings.” Wait. What? No way. That’s too weird. This? This I do not need in my life. I just come to church because I want my children to learn how to be good people. I come to church because I need a break; I need a place to escape the crass ugliness of the world out there. I come to church because the old hymns are reassuring, and the memorized words are comforting, and it’s good to be reminded from week to week that my life is more than a collection of random emergencies, punctuated by moments of boredom. I appear at church because it helps me. But this suffering stuff? It’s too weird. Who needs to suffer? That stuff’s for medieval saints and monks with their hair shirts and the self-flagellation—Jesus freaks, religious zealots, weirdoes. All the other stuff, sure. Gain Christ, be found in Christ, know Christ, the power of his resurrection. Those are nice—if a little abstract. But then in the same breath, “share in his sufferings.” Don’t push it. I’ve got other places I can be on Sunday mornings. But! But in order to be found in Christ, in order to know him, we must share in his sufferings. No, followers of Christ cannot expect an air-conditioned tour bus ride through this world of suffering. If we are to have a part in Christ, Jesus then we, like him, must suffer.
But how shall we go about that, this whole business of suffering with Christ? We could manufacture suffering that isn’t real, claim that we’re being persecuted for our faith whenever the world goes a direction that we do not prefer. I have a relative—by marriage of course—who finds such suffering everywhere she looks. She’s forever claiming to be persecuted for being an evangelical Christian—which to her is the only kind. When Justice Sotomayor was appointed to the Supreme Court, it was just evidence that Christians in this nation were being persecuted. When asked how this harmed her, she explained that it might mean that Roe vs. Wade would not be overturned, and if such was the case, then women would still be allowed to get abortions. Someone pointed out that legalized abortion does not mean mandatory abortion. And besides, she’s too old for one anyway. But the logic of that did not speak to her; she believed that she was suffering for the sake of Christ. She cried oppression when it was determined that gays and lesbians should be allowed to get married. Someone tried to reason with her, gently, that it would only be persecution if such marriages were made mandatory, if she were forced to marry another woman against her will. Allowing basic freedoms to others does not take away from her freedoms. But she would have none of it. She called oppression when medical marijuana was legalize in this state. Again, someone pointed out that there’s a difference between allowing some people to use pot under some circumstances, and a soldier holding a gun to her head and forcing her to have a toke. But the fact that others were allowed to do it was, to her, a sign that Christianity is under attack. Indeed, some years ago when daylight savings time fell on the night before Easter, she claimed that it was merely the government trying to keep people from going to church on Easter Day. Now, I know that it’s a poor rhetorical technique to set up a straw-woman at the beginning of the sermon, only to be pushed over. The point is simply that it’s hard to make a case in modern America that you are sharing in the sufferings of Christ. Big Christian holy days are legal holidays. We can practice our religion as loudly or as publicly as we please. Churches are not taxed, though clergy rightly are.
It’s not like we’re St. Stephen—one of the first deacons and the first Christian martyr. You’ve seen the famous paintings of Stephen, bound to a pole with arrows piercing his flesh, gazing beatifically to the heavens. It’s not as if we’re Mother Mary in those old Latin American sculptures—with seven swords sticking out of her broken maternal heart. It’s said that St. Andrew was crucified on an X-shaped cross, which later became the symbol of Scotland. But whether your cross is shaped like an X or a T, you and I know it mostly as jewelry. The Apostle James was first stoned and then clubbed, just for good measure. According to tradition, Jesus’ favorite follower, John the Beloved, escaped martyrdom and died of old age only after being submerged in a vat of boiling oil—a fate far worse than death in my book. Many believe that St. Peter was crucified upside down because, when it came his turn to take up a cross, he insisted that he was unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus. We cannot lay claim to any of these sufferings, can we? Even a fellow named St. Simeon Stylites decided to crawl atop a 30-foot high pillar in the Syrian Desert, where he spent well over 20 years—though the purpose of that suffering is unclear to me. Popes and kings used to burn Protestants at the stake, and in England, Catholics suffered the same fate. The early leaders of our own Presbyterian Church, in its birthplace in Switzerland, persecuted the Mennonites without mercy—and how anyone would persecute such peace-loving people, I do not know.
More recently, the Coptic Christians of Egypt have been subject to terrorist attacks, which despite the fear-mongering of some, have yet to be visited on white Christians in America. We’re not exactly the Presbyterians of Iraq, you and I, pursued by ISIS, forced from every place, washing up on the shores of Greece in leaky rowboats, only to be packed away in hopeless government-run refugee camps, with nothing to do, very little to eat. Some people in this world have truly suffered for their Christian faith, and some are suffering still. It’s blatantly wrong to count oneself among the suffering faithful just because the laws of the land protect people of other faiths and lifestyles. But then what does it mean to “share in the sufferings of Christ” in leafy suburbs in this 21st century? For you and me, the call is as clear as it was in the days of X-shaped crosses: to know Christ, to have a part in his resurrection, we too must have a part in his sufferings. But in our prosperity and freedom, how? How can we share in his sufferings?
In this passage in the wonderful Book of Philippians, we find the Apostle Paul as an old man, taking an inventory of his life. He’s looking back and counting the losses against the gains, the sheep and the goats, the dreams owned and the dreams forever lost. He may sense his own martyrdom on the horizon. In typical Pauline style (you know you’ve arrived in life when your name gets an adjective—Jacobean, Elizabethan, Pauline!), he cannot seem to decide which thing is better. He brags about the wins: his lineage, his devotion. But he goes on to say, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. I’ve lost everything by becoming a Christian. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings.” For there is no knowing Christ, there is no sharing his resurrection…until we’ve shared in his sufferings. In your life, in my life, as in the life of Jesus, there is no Easter without Good Friday.
Now, there are a few things that this Christlike suffering does not mean. It does not mean—frankly—living atop a 30-foot high pillar in the desert for 20 years. For the question of suffering is always, to what end? Sharing in the sufferings of Christ does not mean remaining in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship. For there again, to what end? What purpose would that serve—when God has created us for lives of joy? Suffering for Christ does not mean becoming such a strange religious wing-nut that people avoid you, or mock you, or stop answering your texts. Suffering must never be sought out. Like happiness and money and fame, suffering will never be kind to those who chase after it. It comes in different flavors, too. There’s random suffering that life just hands us. There’s needless suffering that we bring upon ourselves. And then there’s the holy kind that we neither seek nor desire, but which we endure when it comes to call because we can do no other. This third kind of suffering comes as a blessed byproduct of living our lives for something more than ourselves. This is the suffering that unites us to Christ in his sacred suffering, for it occurs when we care so much about something or someone other than ourselves that we throw our energies, our bodies, our souls into their wellbeing, come what may. Holy suffering is the reckless abandon that borders on ecstasy, that feels almost like joy, that asks not how much the cost will be to ourselves, but only seeks the happiness of something more than we can ever be. No, we never need to make sure that we’re suffering our share for the sake of Christ. Our share of pain will seek us out; it will come and find us if indeed we are living the ways that he taught us. To share in the sufferings of Christ is to love the world and give yourself for it till it hurts.
E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, said, “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If the world were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between the desire to save the world and a desire to savor it. This makes it hard to plan the day.” Archbishop Oscar Romero did not say to himself, “I think I’d like to suffer for my faith, so I’ll do all that I can to get myself shot.” No, he probably thought to himself, “I know it puts me in danger, but as a leader in Christ’s church, I cannot keep silent when those without voice are being oppressed.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not want to be killed in a Nazi prison for opposing the Third Reich. He knew well that suffering and death were possibilities for anyone who opposed the Nazi regime, but nor could he be faithful to Christ without opposing it. That’s the way it works. We don’t seek holy suffering, but it comes to those who would take up their crosses and follow in the way of Christ.
And so, I ask again, how shall we—you and I—share in Christ’s sufferings as privileged, comfortable citizens of a poor, and broken, and unfair world? Oh, friends, are we doing enough? If our lives do not attract some discomfort, are we living into the image of the one we claim to follow? If we do not experience hardship, or deprivation, or any degree of anxiety for our faith, then are we doing it right? In these last days of Lent, as we prepare for Jesus’ own suffering for our sakes, let us think about the ways that we suffer for his sake, if at all. Suffering is a sacred thing, a holy and transformative state that comes into every human life. God is especially near to those who suffer. In the suffering of the Christ, God shows solidarity with the human lot. We are called to live in ways that sometimes inconvenience us, deprive us, pain us—but which bring us deep, abiding joy. How do we share in Christ’s sufferings? Amen.