Sermon 11 May 2014: “Unjust Suffering.” 1 Peter 2:19-25 & John 10:1-10

This Sunday, the 4th Sunday after Easter is traditionally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” in the church. It comes from the text we read today…actually, it’s the NEXT VERSE after the end of our gospel text today. Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd….”
I realized there are a lot of places I could go with that this morning….preach about what shepherds and sheep were like in the time and world of the Bible. I could tell you some funny farming stories about sheep, and how we’re like them. I could talk about the fact I hate how pastors and their parishioners think of the pastor as their “shepherd,” that my job is to tend to you, “the flock.” I’ll just say this briefly: Sheep are blind, helpless, and dumb. I don’t think you’re any of those things. Besides, there’s only one “Good Shepherd” – and it’s not me. (It’s Jesus in case you’re wondering) Again, all the shepherd stuff is NOT in the text we read today. Today, Jesus says, “I am the gate.” An Interesting detail, but I’ll get to that later.
What I want to talk about is our text from 1 Peter. It’s a letter that was written to a community that was trying to understand what it meant to be obedient in following Christ in their lives; it was meant especially to encourage and comfort Christians undergoing suffering, especially those suffering unjustly for their faith. That’s a relevant topic today in our lives….unjust suffering, although not for our Christian faith so much perhaps. But there are certainly those who suffer unjustly, for instance:
A man, whose spouse is beating him repeatedly.
A homeless family, homeless because they left their house because it was unsafe to live in – overrun by mold and the roof collapsing – and an absent landlord who won’t fix it.
Those who suffer from physical deformity or mental illness.
A young person who comes into the church, and just can’t seem to bring themselves to come to the communion table because they were told a long time ago in a previous church, communion is only for those who are worthy to be forgiven…and were specifically told repeatedly, they weren’t worthy.
This text has been used as a way to offer a response of comfort and encouragement to those who endure unjust suffering.
“For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly…..you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.”
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
“When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness.”

Let me translate this for you a bit, how it sometimes gets relayed to those that suffer unjustly:
“Enduring suffering is a good thing – it proves you love God and want to be obedient to him.”
“This is your calling perhaps – Jesus suffered beating and pain and deformity and lived uncomfortably – you’re living like Jesus.”
“I know it’s hard to understand why you’re suffering….but everything happens for a reason. Jesus just endured it on the cross, he just took it….and so should you.”
I’m hoping your stomach just turned a bit as you heard that – or you at least felt something. Here’s the question before you right now: How do you feel about the idea that God makes people suffer unjustly as some sort of test, to prove obedience? How do you feel about the idea that Christ was given as nothing more than an example of how to endure unjust suffering, specifically, that you should just lie down, accept it and take it? Now maybe you don’t believe Christians say such things, but I’ve heard sermons, devotionals, and “helpful advice” that says as much. And it takes this text completely out of the context, to the audience it was written to.
The Christians in 1 Peter were people who were being persecuted specifically for their faith, in a world that was hostile to it. Emperor worship was required, and to say you worshipped something else – like Jesus – you were persecuted for that. For the Christians in 1 Peter, the message wasn’t that suffering was somehow favorable and desired as a “Christian” trait, a test of faith. But that’s often how people interpret this text today – in a totally different time and context. But they omit the last part of the text, the part that makes this passage a word of encouragement and comfort that renews and strengthens faith. “By his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”
It is easy to lose faith in the midst of suffering….it’s easy to go astray. But Christ’s death is more than just a blueprint to endure suffering. Christ’s death is to proclaim to us that we are healed through Christ suffering…three days later, he is raised. In the midst of unjust suffering that might cause us to lose faith, we are reminded that Christ suffered so that we might be healed, that resurrection and new life will happen in our lives. And the church – we are the community that not only confesses this good news to the world…..we are the community where people who suffer unjustly come to experience Christ’s healing in the midst of their unjust suffering, and we are the community that voices their unjust suffering to an unjust world – in the name of God’s desire for justice for all.
Which brings me back to Jesus’ saying in the gospel, “I am the gate.” When I was growing up on the farm, we used to put a small electric wire around our garden – about six inches off the ground. What that did is allow us to go into and out of the garden to tend to it, to get produce from it. But what it did was keep out certain critters – raccoons specifically, that would try to come in and steal vegetables from the garden.
I think a church that embodies Jesus as the gate works in much the same way – it doesn’t try to protect people from every type of danger imaginable, nor does it close itself from the outside world. However, the gate does protect people from particular types of harm – like injustice. And the church as gate allows people to come into such a place of safety so that they can heal from suffering, but so that they can go out into the world as God calls them, as God intends them to.
The church that embodies Jesus’ gate, I think, is more important in this world than ever. Perhaps Christian obedience in our time looks like faith – trusting that God doesn’t cause, but heals suffering of any kind. It is through the gate of Christ that people enter, are healed, so that they might go out and live life abundantly again. And in the ways we talk about God and Jesus and the Bible; in the ways we are a community of safety and belonging; in the ways we care for those who suffer in any form;
and in the ways we welcome people who sorely need to hear and experience the message of God’s healing through Christ’s death and resurrection – this, this is the church we are called to be….Amen.

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One response to “Sermon 11 May 2014: “Unjust Suffering.” 1 Peter 2:19-25 & John 10:1-10

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