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Experiencing Authentic Ecclesia: “Christian Suffering Is for Realsies”
Lidgerwood Presbyterian Church
Set free, O Lord, any tension or anxiety which may keep us from fulfilling Your vision of what we can be. Fill us with the strength of Christ, the power of Your Holy Spirit, and the faithfulness of all true saints, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
So much pain. I was at what should have been the prime of life. Med school finished, internship and residency done. Two kids and a wonderful wife at home. But there was so much pain.
I was a rheumatologist practicing in Roanoke, Virginia, when I began to have discomfort in my feet. I instituted the usual interventions that I told my patients about every day. But the pain did not diminish. In fact it increased. And strange sensations started to occur in my legs and feet. I quickly became unable to complete a day’s work. On my fortieth birthday I was diagnosed with Charcot Marie Tooth Syndrome, an inherited peripheral neuropathy. My father had this illness.
I remembered praying for my dad for years, even decades, for healing which never came. This illness is expressed as weakness and numbness along with pain in the extremities. My dad always had difficulty walking any great distance. His physical endurance was not good and he could never participate in any type of physically demanding activity. Our family was always the family that was different. While growing up I was always the strong one in the family. If chores required physical activity, they usually fell to me. I had never known I carried the gene, but it had been with me always.
The pain progressed to the point that I had to drag myself to the bathroom. I could not tolerate the searing discomfort that came with standing. I was unable to drive and only left the house on Sundays, when, with great difficulty, I used a wheelchair to get in and out of church. For a year, there was little sleep, little activity, just the constant pain that dominated my life 24 hours per day. I went to all of the major medical centers within a day’s drive. The diagnosis was confirmed but there were no suggestions for treatment.
During this time I did not ask questions. Just getting through each day consumed all of my energy. I had faith from before and I had friends from church and these two things sustained me.
With much trial and error, my neurologist eventually found drugs which gave some relief. I was finally able to sit up and look around and consider life again. I began reading the Bible again, starting with Job. I was still largely confined to the house but I was able to begin to play a little music. And I even started to work a bit, reviewing medical charts and working with computer programs.
One day my daughter, in seventh grade, came in. “My feet hurt” were the only words I heard. Within a few months, she required a wheelchair to go to school.
I had already lived a good bit of my life. I had a faith that had carried me through. But why Anna, who had certainly never hurt anyone. Who had such a gentle spirit. There was nothing I could do. I knew the life she had ahead. Never being the same as everyone else. Never able to participate with the group. So many difficulties. So much pain.
Where is meaning in this situation? This is a genetic problem, it only gets worse. I am trapped in the very situation which non-Christians hold up to argue against the existence of God. How could a loving God allow what seems like such meaningless and undeserved suffering?
The book of Job took me through the options for meaning in the face of suffering. In the end, Job learns to serve God for God alone, with total trust. Suffering burned away Job’s superficial understanding of God.
Then there is Jesus. Jesus came and suffered in a very intentional way. He looked suffering in the face and made a conscious decision. His decision was to embrace suffering—suffering more severe than mine, or even Anna’s– in such a way as to change us forever. And the foundation of his decision was love. Jesus lived a long time ago. However, there is no one else who can walk with us in the depths of suffering. There are no other examples. Though the duration of his life on the earth was long ago, he continues to walk with us. For me, suffering brought his walk to my time on earth.
It is hard to talk about suffering. The subject makes most people uncomfortable. I can’t say I received much help from my brothers and sisters at church. But there were a few books that helped me along my path, including Tim Keller’s Biblically-based “Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering,” Peter Kreeft’s more philosophical approach, and C.S. Lewis’ personal story in “The Problem of Pain.” These authors have been my best friends through this time.
My process of understanding was not instantaneous. But as time went by, I was startled to discover joy. Joy in seeing my Christian brothers and sisters. A new found joy in Sunday services, in the liturgy and in Christian music. All of the hymns and contemporary songs that mention joy, their messages suddenly shot straight to my heart. I have been a Christian for most of my life but I had never felt this. With just a little reading, I discovered I was not alone but in the company of St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, C.S. Lewis. Joy is a sensation past even happiness. It is one of the most sought after things on earth. Suddenly, here it was for me in the most unexpected of places.
Life is still difficult. I still must arrange my day around pain, but I know that is not the point of my day. It is not the point of my life. I don’t know exactly how to communicate this to Anna. In a way it is easy to write the words and it is difficult to walk the walk. Her walk is different from mine.
At least I know there is a way. Total desolation is not our fate. Desperation and hopelessness are feelings of this world that need not define us.
There is love now and, most unexpectedly, there is joy.
This was a true story about Tim Henshaw, a physician from Roanoke, VA.
Today is the beginning of our second full week of the Season of Lent in which we are studying the New Testament letter from the Apostle Paul to the Christian Community in Colossae, Asia Minor (today’s Turkey). These Colossians, while living across the planet, 2,000 years ago, in the Roman Empire, weren’t all that different from we Lidgerwoodians.
Colossae was on the decline, in the midst of a thriving Greco-Roman world – and false teachers and worldly temptations and threats against humanity and fear of domineering governments were all taking over!
Paul writes to remind them who they were, to encourage their discouraged souls, to tell them again of who God is and what God had accomplished in Christ Jesus. In this letter we are invited to experience authentic ecclesia – to practice genuine Christian faith. In today’s reading Paul reminds them of the gift of God and the purpose of suffering.
Listen with me to God’s Word from Paul’s Letter to the Church in Colossae. Colossians 1:24-2:5 ….—-
1: 24 Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. 25 I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— 26 the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
28 He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. 29 To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.
2 1 I want you to know how hard I am contending for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally. 2 My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 4 I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. 5 For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.
Our Thursday Bible Class is in the last chapters of Luke’s Gospel, so in the last three weeks we read about the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the trial before Caiaphas and Pilate and Herod, and the crucifixion, and death and burial of our Lord Jesus.
Someone in the class, tell us what was bigger: Jesus’ physical trauma, or His spiritual suffering? [Because of how it included His separation from His Father, due to our sins that put Him on the cross – the spiritual suffering surpassed the physical pain.]
Christ’s sufferings culminate in His CRUCIFIXION! – because of how it included His separation from His Father, due to our sins that put Him on the cross.
But in this passage of Paul’s letter to the Colossian Christians he says, “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you”. Why does he “rejoice”? What is it about suffering that might be a source of joy? James says in James 1:2-4, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
When James and Paul suffer, for the cause of the cross, for the sake of the Gospel, they realize God’s presence in fuller and fuller ways. And when they suffer simply because sometimes life sucks – right? – they turn it into something that creates joy.
Look at the ways we all suffer just because we woke up this morning – Boris spent 17 years in prison for his faith; Grace can’t drive because she has lost the feeling in her feet and fingers; Sigrun has been feeling sick and depressed for months; Mary’s arm still hurts; Kathy goes in for dialysis three times a week; Jack is facing a potential ‘nother 20 years; Denise wakes up every morning wondering how her husband is going to handle today and how she will make it through another 24 hours; every one of us could find something to complain about – from aches and pains to financial woes to our phones down to 12% battery….
Look at the end of verse 24. Paul writes, “I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions….” What IS still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions? That does NOT mean that what Christ suffered on the cross was not sufficient. Paul never says that! Paul continually tells us that Christ alone is completely sufficient!
Interesting translation fact: The Greek words Paul used which the NIV translates as “what is lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions” really means REMANENCE – that is a word that is usually used when talking about how to magnetize a piece of iron. You rub a magnet against the iron, and the iron becomes like the magnet!!!
How are we “remanent” of Christ’s suffering? When Christ suffered, as He walked from the Praetorium along the Via Dolorosa to Golgatha, from the courtroom to Calvary, after being whipped with a scourge, after a night of interrogation and abuse, to His execution by crucifixion, how did Jesus suffer? He gave peace to the “women of Jerusalem”; He promised Paradise to the repentant criminal crucified next to Him; He prayed that His Father would forgive all those who forced His death. He suffered, by choice, for the sake of others.
Christ’s death WAS absolutely completely SUFFICIENT! Our salvation is not dependent on ANYTHING we have to do! Jesus Christ was of the same substance as God the Father (that’s what we’ve seen over the last two weeks of looking at this Letter to the Colossians) – that’s why His death, the only begotten Son of God, fully human and fully God, His death was able to pay the complete debt of all our sin! That’s why His most grievous suffering was not the physical pain of crucifixion but the Spiritual suffering of separation from God the Father (that is the definition of Hell)!
How does God use our suffering? Listen to this letter from Edina Nekesa Wanyonyi – our CEO Director and Social Worker in Kiminini, Kenya, as she answers my question of the seriousness of the drought conditions in Kenya. She first tells us that our children are all currently OK, but that living has become increasingly difficult because of the lack of water and the lack of resources (the entirety of the letter is posted on my office door). Then she says:
But in all as mentioned above we give glory to God because the Bible says that we have our above-father who is there for us in the time of happiness and hardship, so we are not moved with this drought season. i believe God sees well beyond every one and understands why it is happening and finally he will give us in double ways like he did for Job in the bible. Am faithful to him that he will take control, if God can provide for isrealites in desert place what about we in Kenya? ???? And i thank him for giving us this hard lesson so that we can remember him and do what he want through his name.
Get too much appreciation from me on behalf of C.E.O children and Ridge [her son]. I love you and thank you very much for your concerns, send my greetings to your family especially your beloved wife and church members.
How does God use our suffering? For Edina, she believes it is to help them remember God and do what He wants through His name! CS Lewis uses the image of a megaphone, suggesting that God uses suffering to get our attention! And then to draw us back to Him! Even our daily suffering from aches and pains, from loneliness and lostness, from fears and fights, from unjust judgments and disregard for truth, our suffering from systemic injustice and stupid decisions, can be turned into something that reflects the remanence of Christ! It can even be Dr. Tim Henshaw and Edina Wanyonyi and CS Lewis joy!
How does God use our suffering? When we suffer for the sake of another – by doing the dishes you didn’t dirty to dying on behalf of another who is guilty – or when we suffer in a way that allows God’s light to shine through our suffering onto another who might catch that light and experience its warmth – God will be glorified!
Experiencing Authentic Ecclesia means knowing that Christian Suffering really Is for Realsies and how we suffer makes a difference for the Kingdom of God! This is a Church on the very verge of truly experiencing all of that – and we are blessed, privileged to be in on the ground floor! Let’s join the Colossian Christians and be that kind of church together.
My hope is in [You,] Lord who gave [Your-]self for me, and paid the price of all my sin on Calvary.
[Your] grace has planned it all; ’tis mine but to believe, and recognize [Your] work of love, and Christ receive.
For me [You] died, for me [You live], and everlasting life and light [You] freely [give]. Amen.
Becker, Amy Julia; “A Doctor faces His Own Suffering”; Christianity Today; April 2014.
Carson, H.M.; Colossians and Philemon; Tyndale new testament Commentaries; 1984; Pp. 49-59.
Clayton, Norman J.; “My Hope Is In the Lord”; 1945.
Wanyonyi, Edina Nekesa; Email to Mark Wheeler; 02/28/2017