Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Christian Abides

The Christian Abides
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 19, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:12b
1 Peter 4: 12-19 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show us the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

As we continue our study through the marks of a true Christian after having a look at hope last week, this week we look into a topic that to many of us seems as far away from hope as possible, and that is suffering. This week's passage is "Be patient in suffering" according the New Revised Standard Bible. "Be Patient in Suffering." Let us also take a look back at the journey we have been on this summer. The Marks of a True Christian. So far we have looked at: "Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.e 12 Rejoice in hope," and now this week: "be patient in suffering." To pair with this, I chose a passage from 1 Peter 4: 12-19, labeled in my Bible, "Suffering as a Christian." 

12 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. 13 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. 14 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. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief maker. 16 Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name. 17 For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And
“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinners?”
19 Therefore, let those suffering in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful creator, while continuing to do good. [1]  

There is one truth that I have found in this our American world, and that is that suffering does not sell. It is not a great lead. You never see advertisements offering up suffering. All State doesn't promise to provide mayhem, it tells you that mayhem is all around you, and if you get their insurance you will be safe in their "Good Hands." MacDonald's doesn't advertise that their food is bad for your health, could cause suffering a heart attack, not your hating it, but instead, "I'm loving it." Pepsi is the choice of a new generation, a cooler generation, not one suffering from diabetes. Suffering just doesn't sell, and here I am today saying that one of the true marks of a Christian is being patient in suffering.
Patience is a funny word too. It was one of the first words that Coralee learned, though the concept still seems to escape her. I remember one time she wanted mom really bad, and DeAnna needed a nap, she'd been dealing with her for long hours and needed a break. I just happened to come home from work, and could give her such a break. So I'm holding Coralee and she is freaking out, and I say to her you need to be patient, and she says back to me, "patient, patient" repeating it trying to convince herself. "Mommy needs a break sweatheart, and  you need to be patient." "Patient," she meekly squeaks out again.
Too often I think we see this as patience in the midst of suffering. As Americans we do not know real suffering, and our entire life is built around protecting ourselves from suffering, and I wonder what that does to us. What does it do to us, to try to block ourselves from suffering? Because this mark of a true Christian doesn't say, avoid suffering at all costs, but when it eventually catches up to you, as it always seems to do, be patient and it will end at some point really soon. For Coralee and her suffering she just needed to chill for 15 minutes or so, so that DeAnna could get some peace, is that being patient in suffering? Is our suffering, suffering, and are we patient when it occurs? I'm not sure about y'all, but  you can look at me and you know that I have never wondered about where my next meal would come from. I've also never really known real persecution for my beliefs, real oppression, real restriction on my life and my choices. So what this passage, "Be patient in suffering" means to me is, don't worry things won't be bad so long. You'll get over it. All things come and go. Pain is temporary, but glory lasts. Football practice begins Friday for me, and DeAnna and the girls have gone to the beach, and I'll be "suffering" through long boring beginning of the year faculty meetings this week. To me that is suffering. Hot temperatures, being a little bit lonely, missing my girls, being a little bit bored. Suffering. So let me be patient in it. Yeah I know I can get through. Just a little bit more, then I can go home and take a nap.
But Paul's audience is different, and his meaning of suffering is different, and his meaning of patience is different. For Christians in the beginning, there was real suffering going on. We know in our world that when trouble happens on a national scale, you know like a economic crisis, that people tend to lose their civility and their sense of humanity, and things get divided, and people get blamed, and often groups of people get blamed. On July 19, 64, the city of Rome burned, the great fire of Rome for which the emperor Nero is famous for playing his violin while the city burned. The problem was he was a little less negligent once the fires were o out and the blame needed to be assigned. Like most politicians at this point they looked around and, to quote Mel Brooks, as the governor in Blazing Saddles, "We've got to protect our phony baloney jobs, Gentleman." The spin must begin, and so it did. The strange small, new sect of Christianity seemed to be a good scapegoat. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote it this way:
As a consequence, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians [or Chrestians[18]] by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but, even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. In accordance, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not as much of the crime of firing the city as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. 

Could you have patience in that kind of suffering? Would you claim to be a Christian when they came knocking at your house? I have to be honest that I'm not sure what I would do, but this is what Paul is talking about when he mentions suffering.
Our translation in the NRSV seems to down play it, both in the choosing of the word suffering, and the choosing of the word patient as translations. The Greek word here used for suffering has more to do with oppression and persecution than, mere bodily pain. It has more to do with being in the face of hatred, in the face of those who want you dead because of who you are and what you believe. Can we wrap our minds around that 1950 years later in the safety of America, here in Gordonsville? Can we even imagine what it would be live to live under such a hostile government, rather than the ambivalent one we complain often about?  It's a world foreign to us, yet it exists all around us.
So that's suffering, but what about patience. It is interesting that the NRSV committee chose "patience" as the word here because there are many words for patience used in the New Testament. The word is also translated as "resist, standing firm, holding one's ground." That takes on a much more active role than simply being patient, especially when paired with oppression rather than merely suffering. It also can be translated as "abide." Now abide is a word I love, though typically it is a word that is only used in church. How often do you hear about abiding in our world? Abiding means being there in the midst of it all. Being there, with, through thick, through thin, in the heart of it. Going through, seemingly by choice, just to be with a provide comfort. You could leave, but you have chosen to stay, that's abiding. In my church growing up, the church's mission statement was, "We could care less, but we have decided to care more." It seems to me that that is a statement that gets close to the idea of abiding. You could leave, but you have decided to stay. The emperor has literally thrown your neighbor to the dogs, and you could leave, but you have decided to abide with him, through it.
Again that is what Christ does with us. God sees us, sees our plight, and becomes us, becomes one of us, to show us simply, hey I'm here. Don't forget, I'm here. I'll be with you in  your suffering, no matter what, no matter how hard. I'm there. When the storm winds blow, I'm there, when persecution falls I'm there, when disease strips you bare, I'm there. Awesome, truly amazing, but yet we run from suffering. We run from suffering avoiding by any means necessary. Why? Oh yeah it doesn't sell. Perhaps it's just that we are not buying. We are not buying the fact that God's purpose could include suffering for us, what if it does, what if it does simply because we need to be reminded that God is there, that God is there, abiding, and has us in the palm of his hand, right there beside us in all things. This passage is not saying, hey avoid suffering at all costs, but once in bear it, instead it is saying go find suffering, be there in the midst of it, be strengthened by it, find God in it.
Back in 2006 when I was pondering going to seminary, a student of mine passed away. If you look in the bulletin at the Prayer of Preparation, you'll see William Cowper's "Light Shining in Darkness." That poem took new meaning for me in the midst of that suffering. Some months before he died, I had assigned a poetry response essay, and by providence, Jake, the young man, chose to write his paper on "Light Shining in Darkness," this poem. Now at his funeral with his family and friends assembled, I read his essay. You all who know me so well can imagine how difficult that was for me, but what a moment. It was as if from the grave, Jake was abiding with us, showing that even in the midst of the greatest struggle, loss, and suffering, there is light shining in the darkness. There is light in those moments because God is abiding, Christ abides, and that, not suffering is all that truly matters. God give us the strength, and next week we talk about persevering through prayer, prayer, how we realize that God is there with us. May it be so, amen.

e Other ancient authorities read serve the opportune time
[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Pe 4:12-19). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.