Today is Ascension Sunday, marked by the Acts text from earlier this morning. Next week, we’ll celebrate the birthday of the Church at Pentecost. But today, we’ve seen the resurrection, and we know that battle against sin and death is won. Christ has gone to heaven to prepare a place for us, and we’re left here waiting.
We’re waiting for a world that will be made right again, for a world where we can see God’s presence in everything we do. We’re anticipating the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth, and we’re surprised that it has happened yet.
Of course, this world in which we are left hasn’t yet heard that the battle has been won, so they’re happy to ignore us until we become a problem and then persecute us when we do, which is where we find ourselves in 1 Peter 4:12. Listen now for the Word of the Lord
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, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.
Continuing in Chapter 5:6:
Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.
The grass withers, and the flower fades, but the Word of our Lord shall stand forever Thanks be to God
Wait, what was that about a fiery ordeal? I didn’t sign on for that. I’m here for the potlucks and the coffee. Nobody asked me about suffering when I joined the church. I thought once I became a Christian that would mean that my suffering was over, and God would protect me forever and ever amen. You’re welcome to your suffering if you like, but now that God’s on my side I don’t need to anymore. That’s how you know I’m saved, because I’m blessed, and don’t suffer...But that’s not what the text says.
We’re American Christians, and whether or not one thinks that we live in a “Christian Nation,” we certainly don’t have to face the same kind of persecution with which the church to whom this letter was addressed lived every day. This letter is addressed to the exiles of the Dispersion, which means these exiled are Jewish Christians living in other countries. These peoples would have lived as second class citizens, if they were citizens at all, and could be banished on the whim of local governors, and were deprived of their own homeland, even if they thought of where they lived as home. This was a time before the Roman Empire made persecuting Christians a national pastime, so these are persistent local persecutions. The kind of thing where merchants won’t sell you their goods, just because you used the name of Christ in blessing your meal. The kind of thing where will slap you with a lawsuit without any proof, just so you’ll go away. The community is pushing Christianity out in every way it can because it is different. Christians aren’t being thrown to the lions, but they might be lynched. So where can we, who live in a wealthy country and in a safe community, stand in this text? Because we don’t suffer like that.
Maybe not like that, but we do suffer. We suffer from all kinds of stress, we suffer from disease, our finances aren’t as secure as they used to be, our families fight, our friendships end, as do our marriages, and we are left needing so desperately to be restored, supported, strengthened, and established, but our suffering for a little while lasts a whole lot longer than we like. And our conversion doesn’t call the cavalry to conquer our doubts and end our suffering.
So why be a Christian then, if we still have to suffer? After all, we, as creatures, are programmed to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Wouldn’t we get more converts if it gave us an easy out from the hardships of this world? And yet it doesn’t. It’s not easy, and it’s counter-intuitive, and it’s risky. Discipleship flies in the face of what we are hardwired to do, because not only does it away from those things that please us, but it tells to pick up our crosses and go to our deaths along with Jesus. God, you love us, why are you asking us to take on some of Christ’s suffering? You’re all powerful, can’t you just make it go away?
Our understanding of suffering is that those who are able to avoid it do so, the association we make in our own minds is that the powerful do not suffer, only the weak do. If a person falls on hard times, we talk about them as the “weaker brother,” and offer to help them only out of our strength, but we preach Christ crucified, which is foolishness to those who desire logic. Our God doesn’t need to follow our logic, our God isn’t bound by what is dreamt of in our philosophy.
Our God is powerful enough to take our sins onto himself, that we might be spared the wages of sin that we had earned. It begins with God taking a share in our suffering. But not just a share, God took all shares upon himself in the crucifixion. And in that moment, God also suffered the profound abandonment that we all fear. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” It wasn’t glamorous, It wasn’t glorious, it wasn’t a superhero moment, it was a man’s desperate cry as Christ was separated from God. Our God loves us enough to suffer at our hands for what we had done, and continue to do. Our God is powerful enough to claim that suffering, go where by definition God was not, and come out on the other side.
And so the suffering is no longer our own. But neither are we our own. Rather we belong to God, who adopts us through Christ’s death and resurrection.
When I was about ten years old, my Dad had us installing some new drainage pipes in the Burke county red clay of our back yard. We of course chose to do this in the middle of July, when temperatures could be described as fiery. Burke County is not especially famous for its red clay, but I can attest that Burke County red clay, when exposed to heat, reacts like any other red clay in the world. That is to say, it turns to brick. So I’m waist deep in a hole that I’ve been working on for hours trying to dig a pipe out of the ground so we can spend more hours putting a new pipe in, and I’m thinking that this is quite the ordeal, out in this fiery weather, and maybe Dad’s testing us. Teaching us the hard way so that we’ll appreciate it that much more when he shows us the easy way, that we’ll shout for joy when the glory of the magical power tool that will make my shovel obsolete is revealed.
So I look up at my father, who was of course, on the back porch, in the shade, with a large glass of ice tea in his hand, watching us work.
“Dad” I say, “Is there an easier way to do this?”
“Sure,” He replies, taking a long slow sip of his drink, “Have sons.”
Like a child learning to do chores, it would be easier on us if it was all just done for us, but we are asked to do it anyway, because our heavenly Father knows that we’re not taking on Christ’s suffering, we’re taking up our own crosses to claim not only our suffering, but also our redemption. We are responding to this act of perfect love out of gratitude for what is already done on our behalf. A child washes a load of laundry, or mows the lawn, or cleans the house, or digs a ditch for a drainage pipe. A Disciple follows this example and takes part in the suffering on Christ’s behalf, not because Christ couldn’t get by without it, or because God will reward us with an extra star in our crown or whatever. We act because we have to respond in faith to what God has done for us, even though it means choosing to the suffering that accompanies that action.
We were suffering before we were in Christ, so in that sense, not much is changed. What has changed is that now we have the Father to restore us when we are empty, Christ to support us when we are falling, the Spirit to strengthen us when we grow weak, and through all this God establishes us as territories of God’s own kingdom, and as members of God’s own household. We still suffer, but we do not suffer in bondage to sin and death, rather we suffer along with all creation in the birth pangs of a new age, and we know God shall wipe away every tear from our eyes.
This passage tells us that while we are suffering, the Spirit of God is resting on us. That spirit resting on us sounds to me like a firm hand, holding us to our task until it is completed, because it is so easy to back away from our calling. It is a weighty blessing, a crown, but a crown of thorns, and it keeps us grounded on this Ascension Sunday, because we still have work to do.
This time last week, I was driving to Savannah, GA on my honeymoon. A number of y’all attended the service where Leah and I married one another. I spent most of that weekend in a haze of excitement and nervousness, but the image that penetrated that haze was of my families, Barnard, Boshell, Potter, and Taber all working together at the rehearsal dinner. We carried food for one another, served one another bread, opened and poured wine, and taking care of all the other minor inconveniences that we do to show each other love around a dinner table. In some small way, the work, and the tiniest bit of suffering that accompanied it, mirrored the Kingdom of Heaven for me. It’s not a state where there is no suffering, it’s one where that suffering is totally overshadowed by the love we hold for one another. We barely even notice that we’re tired, or that we’ve spilled something on our new outfit, we are suffering, but it’s so minor next to what we are doing for one another. This is the work we have been waiting for, this is why we remain in a suffering broken world.
I spent the hours preceding our wedding in a beautiful agony, waiting for the arrival of the moment when I would see Leah walk up the aisle. It’s not the dread of bad news that saps all of ones energy to act. But it is exhausting and debilitating. It’s not the excitement of a Christmas morning where one can’t help but wake up earlier than an uncoffeed parent would prefer, but it is an anticipation of what is to come. It’s not the nervousness that comes with hearing back from a job interview, but it is something on which my life hinges. It’s a suffering in which one can rejoice, because the suffering is not the end of the story. For me, it was a wedding, for the church, it’s being exalted by God, and it all happens in due time.
The suffering is important, and reflects the work we need to do in a world that still needs its savior. We become Christians because we have seen a part of that work, and feel compelled by gratitude to take join in the fiery ordeal that is a part of this task.
We join the church because the community of faith means we don’t have to suffer alone, we have such a great chorus of witnesses telling us, “I remember when I stood there, and I remember when it was hard. I also remember that ours is the God who works wonders, and who’s path to the promised land is through the waters. It is still hard, and we do suffer. But we can, with God’s help, get through this.”
Our brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering, the birth pangs of the expectant mother, the excited terror of the groom waiting for his bride, the weighty blessings of a church called to live in a suffering world. Our suffering is not a sign that God has abandoned us to our sinfulness, it is a sign that our world still needs its savior. Our savior is risen, our savior has ascended to heaven, and our savior will come again to complete the work of creation’s redemption. Because the God of all grace has called us to his eternal glory in Christ, and the end of the story is not a suffering crucified God, or even a rising from the dead. Neither is it an ascension that leaves us staring in wonder, or a gift of the Spirit. Our story will end as it began. The God of all creation shall restore that creation, and will support us as we love one another, and will strengthen the relationships between us and God, and will establish a world where all will know that the Lord is God. When God finishes all the work that God has been doing, God will bless that day and call it holy. And it will be good.