Sermon for May 21, 2023
Anyone who promises you a life without suffering is a damned liar.
Seriously, anyone who says that you can have a life of unmitigated happiness, without pain, without suffering, without struggle, that person is a liar and I say damned liar very intentionally because that message doesn’t come from God. It comes from someplace or someone else. And it is a message we hear all the time.
Politicians, clergy, journalists, activists, ad executives…there are good people in all of those professions, with good intentions, but they are all prone to falling into the devil’s trap, and the trap is this: confusing making the world a better place with making the world a perfect place. They confuse alleviating suffering with eliminating suffering. Alleviating suffering and eliminating suffering may sound like similar goals, but the truth is they couldn’t be more different. Because one of them is a commandment of God and the other is a temptation of the devil.
In our epistle this morning, Peter says to the church “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings.” Do not be surprised that you are suffering Peter says. Do not be surprised. Jesus told us that we would suffer. If we didn’t have any suffering or any struggle in this life, then Christ would be a liar and our faith would likely be in vain. Don’t be surprised. Especially if you are following a crucified man, don’t be surprised to find some crosses in your life. That’s the bad news, but the good news is that if we are sharers in Christ’s sufferings then we are also gonna be sharers in his glory. Christ does not promise us a life without pain or struggle, but what he does promise us is the Holy Spirit. Having the Holy Spirit means that we never have to struggle alone. We are never abandoned by God when we have his spirit. That spirit is his presence with us in the midst of suffering. It is his spirit which gives us strength and patience. It is the spirit that heals us. And it is his spirit that gives us wisdom and courage to respond to suffering when we encounter it. That is why Peter can say that if you are feeling rejected and reviled right now, especially if you are being rejected for being a follower of Jesus, you are still blessed, because you have the Spirit of God resting on you.
But, Peter has more to say, and as usual the lectionary tries to cut all the good bits out. Immediately after Peter says you have the spirit of God resting on you, he says: “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief maker.” Some suffering we bring on ourselves and some suffering just happens. Now, I am not a believer in Karma, which is the idea that people get what they deserve. I am a believer in grace, which is the idea that people don’t get what they deserve and that that is a very good thing. But still I do believe in a world of cause and effect, and sometimes we do cause our own suffering. There is a difference between suffering for trying to follow the commandments and suffering because you’re not trying to follow them or can’t be bothered. Like Peter, I think that it would be a very good thing if you weren’t the chief cause of your own suffering. Now you may be thinking that you’re not a murderer, a thief, or even a criminal, but I will warn you that mischief maker is a pretty broad category that not many of us are going to escape. Because we are all sinful humans, we are all gonna have some of both types of suffering in our lives, we can all be mischief makers from time to time, and I trust the Lord to forgive and judge righteously, but we need to be careful not to blame God when we are suffering for our own bad behaviour, and dare I say, stupidity. And we should try to avoid that as much as we can. But there is plenty of suffering we are never going to be able to avoid.
Peter says, “let those who suffer in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful creator, while continuing to do good.” Trust God and do good. That’s the answer. Whether you are suffering or not, trust God and do good. Trust God, not yourselves. Don’t be too confident that your suffering is from your good behavior and someone else’s suffering is from their bad behavior. Don’t be proud or arrogant. Trust God, do good, but be humble about it. Peter says “all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
I think the idea that we, through our own good choices and our own good deeds, are someday going to completely eliminate suffering, appeals to our pride. We want to save the world and somehow we keep getting this idea that God has somehow promised us a life without suffering. We think it is an achievable goal. We think it is a right. But Jesus doesn’t promise us that. He promises us the Holy Spirit, he promises us grace, he promises us his love and protection in the midst of our suffering. But we will suffer. Here is the problem with mistaking alleviating suffering with eliminating suffering: one of them is something that all of us can do, and one of them is something that none of us can do. One of them is achievable, the other isn’t.
You can alleviate suffering by handing someone a glass of water. A kind word, a thoughtful gesture, showing love, compassion and mercy, these things alleviate suffering and we all can do them. They alleviate suffering, but they don’t eliminate it. If your goal is eliminating suffering, small acts of compassion and love won’t really help. So why bother with them? That’s the problem with trying to eliminate suffering: the goal is too big. And we end up focusing so much on achieving the impossible that we usually end up neglecting the possible. It is the same with every type of suffering we try to eliminate: poverty, racism, sexism. We all have the power to make someone’s life better through small acts of compassion, mercy and kindness. We can all do some good, and even if there isn’t much we can do, we can be present with people who are suffering and even that does some good. But if the only way we think we can be victorious in this fight is through the complete elimination of suffering, then we are setting ourselves up for failure. We will give up on the little acts of kindness altogether if we don’t see in each one of them a little victory over the evil and suffering that is present in the world. That is how we truly fail. This is how some revolutionary regimes end up perpetrating some of the greatest evils on the world. People become convinced that a perfect, suffering-free world is achievable and then somehow it doesn’t matter how much suffering has to be inflicted to make it happen. But Jesus didn’t command us to fix the world. What he commanded us to wash one another’s feet and to love one another.
We are all going to suffer in this life. Our Lord told us that that would be the case. And you never know how someone might be suffering, because it doesn’t always show on the surface. There is deep physical pain, there is psychological pain, there is always stuff going on in people’s lives that you know nothing about. Our job as Christians is to respond to suffering when we encounter it with mercy and grace. Our job is to alleviate suffering when we can, doing what we can, but not being overwhelmed or distracted by the misguided desire to fix everything or everyone and not falling prey to the false notion that God’s people are ever going to be able to eliminate suffering from their lives or the lives of others. Following Jesus will not eliminate suffering from your life, so we don’t need to be surprised when it comes along. But the cross is always a reminder to us that we don’t suffer alone. Our Lord is with us in our suffering and promises us grace and glory on the other side of suffering.
Redeemed and alleviated suffering is the promise of Christ. Eliminated and avoided suffering is the someone else’s lie.