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The Marks of a Disciple: Suffering
2 Corinthians 1:1 - 1:11
June 12, 2022
Reverend Chris Hildebrand
Nothing challenges our faith in the goodness and power of God like the reality of suffering in our lives. And yet throughout the New Testament, it's clear that one of the marks of a disciple of Jesus is suffering. But the presence of suffering isn't the end of the story. God promises a day when there will be no more suffering, and in the present, offers us comfort that can transcend our deepest pains and afflictions.
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The author Jon Krakauer, in his book from the early 90’s, Into the Wild tells the remarkable, and kind of bizarre, story of a young man named Alex McCandless. Alex was in his mid 20’s. He had come from a pretty substantial amount of wealth, and in his early to mid 20’s, he decided that he wanted to give everything away, and head out into the Alaskan wilderness, and live off the land. He did so for about four months, and then after those four months, his body was found by some hunters. He had died of starvation out in the wilderness.
One of the stories the author Jon Krakauer tells in the story of Alex McCandless is the friendship he had with an older gentleman named Ronald France. Ronald met Alex right before he was about to take this trip into the Alaskan wilderness. Ronald was many years older. Ronald was a military veteran, and a Christian. Ronald had suffered a great deal in his life many years earlier. Many years before he met Alex, he had lost his wife and his child to a car accident at the hands of a drunk driver. Ronald knew what suffering was. He had suffered himself greatly and still up to that point he held onto his Christian faith. He meets Alex, and they have this friendship. Ronald's paternal instincts kick in, and then Alex goes into the wilderness. When Ronald hears of the death of his dear friend, who became like a son to him, the author Jon Krakauer gives us the reaction that Ronald has of the death of his friend Alex. This is what Ronald says, “When Alex left for Alaska, I prayed. I asked God to keep his finger on the shoulder of that one. I told him that boy was special, but he let Alex die. On December 26, when I learned what had happened, I renounced the Lord. I withdrew my church membership, and I became an atheist. I decided I couldn't believe in a God who would let something that terrible happen to a boy like Alex.”
Over the last several weeks, we've been in a series called The Marks of a Disciple. We've been exploring what the distinguishing marks are of those who are following Jesus. In this sermon, we're going to look at suffering, and ask the question, what do we do with suffering? It's part of the question before us, and it's an important one because nothing will challenge the Christian belief that God is all powerful, and that he is good like the presence of suffering in your lives, in the lives of your friends and loved ones, and in the life of the world. You can have all the intellectual certainty, you can have a settled belief on who God is, and who Jesus is, you can have a coherent Christian ethic to which you live by. Then suffering hits, and everything can become undone in a moment. Ronald France's reaction to the death of his young friend is dramatic, but it is not uncommon. Ronald faced suffering and grief. Finally at the death of his friend, he thought there's no way that a good God would allow this to happen, so he said, “I'm out.”
This makes a topic like suffering difficult to explore in one sermon because some of you are going to be suffering, some of you are in a season of suffering now, and some of you have come out of suffering. You're still picking up the pieces of that time and the experience of suffering, or, no doubt, you've been with someone who has suffered greatly. There's no getting around suffering as much as we'd like to or as much as we often try. Avoiding suffering or simply even enduring suffering while oftentimes seems like the best way to go about life, it simply will not do. The presence of suffering isn't even the hardest part of the topic. When the Bible talks about suffering, and it talks about suffering a lot, it's not something to be avoided. Suffering is not something to be endured, but it's something that we are actually called to because we follow a Savior who suffered for the sake of the world. We too as disciples and apprentices of Jesus are called to taste and experience suffering as an aspect of our faith in him. Suffering is a mark of a disciple of Jesus. Jesus suffered for the sake of the world. His first disciples who sat with him, who ate with him, who were apprenticed under Jesus, they suffered as well. So you too, if you're a follower of Jesus will suffer, or are called to suffer for the sake of the world.
In this sermon, we're going to look at what it means to suffer. Let me give you a theme idea as we make our way through this topic. The call to follow Jesus is a call to suffer, but it's also suffering that leads to true and lasting comfort. It's suffering that leads to comfort that then gives us courage and hope to enter into suffering for the sake of each other and for the sake of the world. In Jesus, suffering and comfort go hand in hand, which means that we need a category for life in our world, what some call “redemptive suffering,” so that we will see suffering not as something that we run from, not as something we avoid, not as something we simply endure and get through, but rather, as something we receive, and then we share it with the rest of the world for the comfort of others. As we make our way through this, we're going to look at 2 Corinthians 1:1-11, and listen to the Apostle Paul, who knew quite a bit about suffering.
1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia:
2Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. 6If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. 7Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.
8For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. 11You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.
This is the word of the Lord. It's absolutely true, and it's given to us in love.
O God, as we give ourselves to your word, and to this topic of suffering, it can seem almost absurd, perhaps, to listen to the voice of these children sing of All Things Bright and Beautiful and have their voices cheer us with the good news of who you are. And yet here we are going to talk about suffering. Lord, we know that you hold both things together, and you call us both the beauty and wonder of the world, the joy and the hope of the gospel, and the reality of suffering in the world, we are called to hold together. It is a mystery. It is not easy, but it is yet something that we as your followers are asked to do. The good news for us this morning is you have equipped us to do just that as we follow after you, as we listen to your voice, and as we rely on your Spirit. We pray in Jesus' mighty name. Amen.
We’ll look at three things as this passage helps us make our way through the topic of suffering. First, we're going to look at the suffering we face, then the comfort we seek, and then the community we need.
The Suffering We Face
First, the suffering we face. If you want to learn about what the Bible has to say about suffering, 2 Corinthians is a pretty good place to begin. Here the Apostle Paul spends a good bit of time talking about suffering. Much of 2 Corinthians is Paul's defense of his apostolic ministry. Many people by this time in his ministry were calling into question the validity of Paul's title and status as an apostle because he had endured, at this point, so much suffering. To his detractors that were both inside and outside the church, Paul's life made no sense at all. How can Paul be called by God and filled with the Spirit, and yet live a life that was so filled with affliction, so filled with hardship and suffering? How does that happen? In many ways, Paul writes this letter to the church in Corinth in order to answer that very question. What you will find in this letter is that as Paul defends his ministry, instead of minimizing his suffering, instead of running from it, he actually exalts in his suffering. For Paul, the presence of suffering in his life is a sure sign that he is an apostle, that God is with him. Suffering actually validates his ministry rather than detracts from it.
As Paul is writing his letter, he had just been through a terrible trial that he alludes to in v.8 where he talks about how deeply he suffered. Read it again, “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.”
Paul is most likely referring here to what happened to him in Ephesus in Acts 9. While Paul was in Ephesus, his preaching and his presence had caused such a stir that riots broke out all over the city. City officials were able to quiet them down, but no doubt Paul touched off such a nerve that his life was really in danger. It was in such danger that he actually had to leave the city early. It was most likely this terrible scene upon his departure. His whole life and his ministry were completely thrown into chaos as he leaves Ephesus. He was forced through his suffering, then, to rely on the God of comfort.
Notice for Paul, the presence of suffering in his life doesn't mean that God doesn't love him. It doesn't mean that he's no longer qualified to be an apostle. This is part of his resume. It's part of his story. It's part of his story because it's part of the life and the ministry of Jesus. Suffering is part of the story of Jesus. If at the center of the very life of Jesus was the call to suffer on a cross, for Paul, then so at the heart of those who would follow after Jesus, will be a call to suffer as well.
What Paul is doing here is inviting the church in Corinth, and inviting us, into a life that puts suffering in his proper perspective. Notice in v.5, Paul says, “For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” Paul wants us to see that as we follow Jesus, we don't go around the cross. We don't avoid the cross. Life in Jesus doesn't get you out of suffering. It's not a way to help you avoid suffering. It goes through the cross. It actually calls us to suffering.
Here, perhaps, is the most important thing that you need to remember when it comes to suffering. You are called to suffer because you're called to love. You know this to be true. If you love someone, you are willing to suffer for them. Parents know this. You will suffer for your children. You will do anything for them because you love them. We see this in Jesus. Jesus goes to the cross out of self sacrificial love. He loves something so much that he will suffer and die for it—that something, that someone is you. This is what Jesus means when he says in Mark 8, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” This is a call to love. It is a call to love and to follow Jesus. The way of the cross, which we are called to, is the way of love. This is what we see in the life of Jesus over again, and this is what he calls his followers to as well.
If you read Paul's letter carefully, and even in these verses that we're looking at, you will hear Paul's love for his church. It's his love for God. It's his love for these people and his care for them that has him willing to suffer for their sake. The cross is the call to sacrifice our own comfort, and our own needs for the sake of others, which means we will suffer, but we do it out of love. That is the suffering that we face. It's born out of a call to love God but also to love our neighbor.
The Comfort We Seek
Also, notice the comfort that we are to seek. The comfort that Paul wants us to seek. For Paul, one of the things that is abundantly clear is that suffering leads to comfort. This is nothing revolutionary. It's just human instinct. It's instinct to find comfort when we are suffering. We all do it even without thinking about it. You will find comfort or look for comfort when you're suffering. When Ronald France was faced with the grief of his young friend, when he lost his young friend, he sought comfort by trying to eliminate God from his life. All of us seek comfort when faced with suffering.
The comfort we often seek, however, is by ignoring the suffering, or simply working harder, burying ourselves in other aspects of our life, or simply trying to manage our way through the season of suffering that we might be in. What Paul is calling us to—this redemptive suffering—is to learn to seek God's grace and his kindness as your comfort in the middle of your suffering. This is what Paul is talking about in v.3-4 when Paul starts with this doxological praise, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction.” Notice briefly that God comforts us here—in the middle of—not only after you get through it, but he comforts us in the middle of our afflictions. Also notice what Paul says in that verse, he “comforts us in all our afflictions,” not just some of them.
In much of what Paul is talking about here, and what we're talking about is suffering for the name of and in the name of Jesus, and that is certainly true. There is comfort there to be sure. But Paul also talks about all afflictions: physical suffering, emotional suffering, relational suffering, all of it that comes upon us. The reason Paul can be so expansive with his message of comfort is that as a follower of Jesus, in his ministry, Paul tasted the fact that God was his great comforter. He was the source of all hope and comfort.
The word “comfort'' in this text is a many-sided word. It can mean to call someone to come near, to make a strong appeal or exhortation, or to treat in an inviting way. When Paul is talking about comfort, he is saying that God has drawn nearer to me in the middle of my suffering. Comfort here is really coming alongside someone and giving new hope and courage in the midst of suffering. Paul, through his letter, in a sense, wants to come alongside his church in Corinth knowing that they will experience suffering.
Notice, as Paul seeks his own comfort, and offers comfort to the church in Corinth, he isn't grasping for control. He's not trying to control the narrative. He's not trying to control who knows about suffering. He wants to share it so that it can be a comfort to the church. Our hope in the midst of suffering, as Paul puts it, will remain unshaken.
One of the things that happens when we face suffering is that it has a tendency to destroy our illusion of control. Nothing gives us a false sense of comfort, like the illusion of control—the illusion that we are in complete control of our life, and our world, and our circumstances. Oftentimes, we live with this belief, it is subtle, but it is very present, and the belief is this: If I just have the right education, if I find the right kind of medicine, if I have enough money, if I gather enough power for myself, I can control and manage my life, maybe if I'm really good at that, then I can also control and manage the lives of a few other people who are in my life as well. We do that all in hopes that we can somehow comfort ourselves through the sheer self-reliance and willpower, and ingenuity that we drum up for ourselves. We tend to live our life the way I tend to ride as a passenger in the front seat of a car. It's not a pretty sight. When I'm the passenger in the front seat of a car, I ride the imaginary brake that's in front of me. This brake doesn't exist, but I pretend it's there because I want control. I want to be in the driver's seat. I don't trust whoever is driving, no matter how good of a driver it is. I will sit there like a fool, stepping on an imaginary break. We love the illusion of control.
Suffering in a way tells us the truth. We are not in control. You are not in control of your life. Suffering tells us that we are broken, that our relationships are broken, and that our world is broken. When the comfort we seek is not another form of false control, as it so often is, but a comfort in the God who is in control, we actually open ourselves up to finding and experiencing real true and lasting comfort. This is what is so beautiful about being around someone who has been through suffering and has received God's comfort because they're not grasping for the illusion of control. They're free to live in the reality that they're not governing anything. It's only when you're with them that you see how suffering can actually be a gift because anytime we can move away from our own self-reliance and move towards relying upon God, that's a gift and a beautiful thing.
God uses suffering to free us from our own dependence on false and fading comforts of this world so that we will find true comfort in him. Redemptive suffering does just that. It releases us from the stranglehold that we have for control and frees us to worship the one who actually is in control. Redemptive suffering allows us to cast our eyes on the one who has overcome evil, who has overcome the evil that actually causes our suffering and the brokenness that we face and brings about true healing. That is the comfort that we are to seek. That is the comfort that Jesus offers. The suffering we face is real, and we're called to it. The comfort we seek is in the one who actually brings about comfort.
The Community We Need
Lastly, Paul wants us to find the community and be the community that we need. It's because Paul has found great comfort that we see another really important word throughout this passage, which is “share.” There are three words to pay attention to in this passage, comfort, suffering or affliction, and sharing, and they all go hand-in-hand.
You'll know you're suffering redemptively when you find comfort in the God of all comforts. Guess how you'll know when you're actually being comforted by God, and not some sort of sense of false comfort? You'll know you're being comforted when you find yourself willing and ready to suffer for others. That's what Paul is getting at here as he's bouncing between comfort and suffering. Paul here is calling us into suffering, and he knows that the only way we can do this is if we taste and experience true comfort in God himself. If we can grow in our suffering, then we'll be able to offer comfort in a way that we've never dreamed of. You'll experience comfort yourself, but also then you can offer it to others in the midst of their suffering. Not only will you be able to comfort one another, you'll be able to comfort your friends. You'll be able to comfort your neighbors, and you'll be a comfort to the city. A church that is willing to love our neighbors as ourselves is a church that is willing to suffer for the sake of the world, and in our case for the sake of New York City. That is a church that can bring about unspeakable comfort and joy because you know the path. You know the path in the midst of suffering and you know the way to true comfort.
As we bring this topic of suffering to close, I want to draw your attention back to v.9-10: “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.” Notice when Paul relates his experience of suffering, it's not couched in some sort of super religious or triumphalistic talk. Paul has no time for that. Again, “we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself…we had received the sentence of death.” We felt like we had received a sentence of death. Listen to how raw and vulnerable Paul is. That's Paul's world closing in. That's Paul not knowing if he's going to be able to take the next breath. That's not knowing if he's going to survive the next minute or the next hour, or the next day. We don't know how long this lasted for Paul. Maybe it was just for a few minutes, but maybe it was weeks, maybe it was months, but Paul eventually was able to reorient himself to the truth and the reality of this world. This is an important truth. As Paul says, it's God who raises the dead. He did it to his Son, Jesus, and he's going to do it for the world. That for Paul brings comfort, and helps them seek his comfort in God.
This is really important to understand and to know, especially if you're in the midst of suffering or you're walking with someone who is suffering. Because in our suffering, when we don't understand what's going on, when we can't make sense of why we're in it, when we have lost our bearings, when we lost our way through, and when we're not seeking comfort in God who loves us, we end up telling ourselves a different story than the one Paul is telling us. And it's a false story. It's a dangerous story. It's a story that has no hope. It's one that has us in total control, with the illusion of control bearing the weight of everything around us, one that has us unable to acknowledge our own vulnerability, one that has God abandoning us, one that has got it at best on interest or at worst, powerless to stop our suffering. It's a story that has us left without hope and without help in a wilderness of our own. In other words, we're telling ourselves a story without a resurrection. That is oftentimes the place that we find ourselves when we are suffering.
Very sadly, that was the story that Ronald France decided to tell himself. He decided he wanted to tell himself the story without the resurrection. I know it's a story that is tempting to believe. You must understand that it's a story your friends are telling themselves. It's a story your neighbors tell. It's a story many of you this morning are telling yourselves in the midst of your own suffering. I understand why we tell it. It’s because we're so used to living with the modern worldview that says that we can handle it, that we ought to be able to navigate our way through it. But the reality is that that kind of worldview, and that kind of way to see the world can't stand up to the suffering that you and I are going to face. It never lasts. It can't stand up to the reality of a broken world. But that story ends without a resurrection, and that story is not true. It's actually a lie from the evil one. It's a dangerous and terrible lie, and we need to run from it and flee from it because the story of the world, the true story of the world, is that God does not abandon us. He never will because he has sent his own son—his very own son—into the darkness of our world, into the middle of your suffering, into the middle of your wilderness, so that he would bear it. It's he who suffers. He has gone into the wilderness. He has faced temptation, and he has suffered on a cross. Jesus' story goes all the way to the grave, but that's not how his story ends. His story doesn't end in lament. His story doesn't end in affliction. His story doesn't end in suffering. His story ends in resurrection hope. If you are in Jesus, so does yours. That's the true story of the world. That's the story that we are to cling to.
If we're going to be a church that is attractive to those who are hurting, if we're going to be a church that is for the suffering, for those who are vulnerable, for the skeptical, or those who are just longing for something more, then here is the secret. We must be ready and willing to suffer, but we also must be ready and willing to let the suffering drive us to the God of all comfort. We have to tell a story that ends in the resurrection. We have to tell the true story of the world, even in the middle of our own suffering. The only way we can ever be of people who are able and willing to suffer for the sake of one another, and for the world, is if we find our comfort in Jesus. He is the great comforter because he has been brought near to us in the midst of our brokenness so that we would find comfort. It's Jesus who has gone before us, and it's his life, death, and resurrection that is our hope. It's the hope that we cling to in the midst of our suffering. His promise that he will come again to finish what he started are the promises that we hear and we tell ourselves as we face suffering, for the sake of one another, and for the sake of the world. It's his vision, that at the end of all things, there will be no more suffering, that every tear will be wiped away, that there will be no more crying, and that all things bright and beautiful will come to their full flowering and fruition. That's the vision that we carry with us when we find ourselves in the wilderness. It is a beautiful story to tell. It is absolutely true. We need to remind ourselves of it each and every day, each and every moment of our lives. That's the story we carry with us now as we move out into the world, into the affliction, into the suffering not just for our own lives, but for our neighbors, and our friends and for the sake of the city.
Let me encourage you to let Jesus bring you out of your suffering. Let Jesus meet you in the middle of your suffering and offer you comfort. Then having tasted his comfort—only the comfort he can bring—let him then send you back into the suffering and affliction of the world, so that we can offer his comfort and the true story of the world to those who are looking for it, longing for it, and so desperately need it.
Our great God and Heavenly Father, we thank you that in a service we can hear these words of children singing All Things Bright and Beautiful and singing of You Are the Victory and we've sung of your victory. And yet we can be honest about this affliction and suffering that we face, the wilderness sometimes that we find ourselves in in the suffering of the world. We can carry them together because you and your son Jesus, have both suffered for our sake but brought about a victory and the promise of a new heavens and a new earth that we cling to, that carries us even in the middle of the world in which we live, a world that's broken a world that is fraught with wilderness and suffering. God would you help us to rely on the fact that you are the one that brings comfort in the middle of our suffering and help us to be a people, to be heralds of the true story, the story that ends not in death, not in affliction, not in suffering, but in a resurrection. Give us voices to say that clearly and hearts that love you and follow after you. We pray this in Jesus' mighty name. Amen.