Why Does The Church Suffer?
9th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST (Proper 11) July 17, 2016
21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. 24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, 25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. 27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.
IN THE NAME OF JESUS.
The church suffers. We know this. We see the obvious. We see the Christian martyrs throughout the centuries and we see our brothers and sisters in the faith even now being martyred in places such as northern Africa.
We see also the not-so-obvious, the church afflicted in our own generation, even in our own society, when, for instance, the children of Christian parents are taught things against to what the parents would teach if our society were to see the parents as the ones with the authority to teach the children. We see also the less obvious suffering for the church—we see the travail and affliction in Christian lives, in our own lives, as we struggle with our own fears, our own anxieties, and our own shame. We are afflicted not only by external enemies such as the persecutors of the church, but also by the devil and our own sinful flesh. These—our fears and anxieties, our shame—they are all addressed by the Gospel, we are cleansed of them, yet while we are in our sinful flesh, we are tempted to turn to our own ways of dealing with them, instead of to our Lord’s Word of Gospel—the one thing necessary.
So the church suffers. This is not, of course, the suffering of the cross, the suffering of the Holy Son of God in the place of sinners, taking away the sin of the world. That suffering belongs to Christ Jesus alone. No sinner suffers for the atonement of his own sin—that would deny the full and complete suffering Christ did in our place and which was total and complete when Jesus said those words from the cross, It is finished, and gave up his spirit.
But if the cross was the full and complete suffering for sin—and it was—then why do we still see suffering for the church? Paul tells the Colossian church,
I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, 25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God.
The Apostle gives the way to understand the suffering of the church. He says that in his own flesh, he is filling up, is completing, what is lacking in Christ’s affliction for the church. But this is not referring to the suffering of Christ on the cross, for that was not lacking, it was fully accomplished and finished.
Paul’s word for lacking, though, refers to what follows the cross, to what’s left over or comes later. It’s not that Christ’s suffering on the cross was insufficient or lacking in any way. It is that Christ, who fully suffered the atoning death on the cross, has appointed suffering, or affliction for his church throughout the generations until he comes again.
So after Jesus ascends to Heaven, we see, for instance, St. Stephen stoned to death by the enemies of the Gospel—the enemies who included Saul who was helping with the murder of Stephen. They were attacking Jesus, though. When Jesus comes to Saul on the road to Damascus, we don’t hear him say, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting my church, why did you kill Stephen?” Rather, he says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” The persecution the enemies of the Gospel bring to Jesus, it hits the church, which is his Body.
So Paul—he used to be Saul, he used to be a persecutor of Jesus, that is, of his Body, the church—so after Jesus calls Saul into the church, cleanses his sin, gives him the new name, Paul, and sets him as a minister to serve his people, Paul is able to say to the church in Colossae,
I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am making complete what comes after in the afflictions of Christ, as those afflictions are brought to his Body, the church.
So as long as the church is the body of Christ—not a human organization, not something we build up and protect ourselves—but as long as the church is the body of Christ, it will be afflicted with those afflictions coming to it after the full and complete suffering of her Lord on the cross.
But we rejoice in these sufferings.
Paul, of course, didn’t mean he rejoiced in the sufferings in a way in which they were delightful—it’s not like the rejoicing over a good dinner or a good glass of wine. But Paul rejoiced in the sufferings as something he was given participation in, as something the Lord was honoring him with by letting him suffer on behalf of the church (maybe a little like the rejoicing of a mother as she suffers in the bearing of a child).
And the church rejoices in these sufferings. For we do not have a Lord who comes by outward power and might, a Lord who comes on a warhorse, swinging a sword, but we have Lord who comes gentle and meek, on the back of a donkey, riding into Jerusalem to suffer for those he loves.
We belong to the Lord who wants to be known for his suffering. How different this is from the false gods of our world. Especially in this week of the terrorism in southern France, we may contemplate how different this is from a god—a so-called god—who wants to be known for bringing bloodshed to those who do not submit to his law. This is a god who knows only about demanding sacrifice, nothing about giving gifts and bestowing life—so he is no god at all, but a man-made idol.
We belong to the Lord who wants to be known for suffering. On the cross, he had no sword in his hand, no secret cells of warriors lined up for vengeance, he had only the voice of God, his own voice, bestowing gifts: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do. By that word of forgiveness, he establishes his kingdom. By that word of forgiveness spoken to you and me, he gathers us into his kingdom.
And when we look around and see the false gods demanding sacrifice, the false prophets teaching the sword and vengeance, we can hear the kind and gentle voice of the true Lord, Father, forgive them, and we must know that that word is sufficient, it is the word of Christ, it is the fullness of the cross being spoken to us, it is the Gospel calling and gathering us into the church, enlightening us with the gifts of life.
In our text from Luke 10, Martha says to Jesus,
“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?”
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion which will not be taken away from her.”
The one thing is the Gospel. It is the word of sins forgiven. It is the word by which Jesus keeps and protects his church.
As we look around and see more than enough to cause us to be anxious and troubled—in our world, against the church, in the church, in our own lives— as we see our anxiety and troubled consciences, Jesus gives us the one thing necessary: His word.
By his word, he forgives our sin; by his word, he is binding us to one another as members of his body, the church; by his word, we rejoice even in our sufferings, knowing that they belong to the church which is the body of Christ, but they will not overcome his church: by his word, he is cleansing us not only of our own sin, but also of the sin done against us; by his word—his word proclaimed in the church, his enfleshed word he bestows in his Sacrament, his word spoken among Christians in comfort and encouragement—by his word of Gospel, he presents you holy and blameless to his Father.
IN THE NAME OF JESUS.