Second Sunday in Lent
March 4, 2012
“The Suffering Christ and His Suffering Christians” (Mark 8:27-38; Romans 5:1-11)
Last Sunday we heard the story of “The Binding of Isaac,” that incident in which Father Abraham was directed, by God, to take his son Isaac and bind him and lay him on a pile of wood, on an altar, and there slay him with a knife, set the wood on fire, and so sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering unto the Lord. At the last moment, though, the Lord intervened and told Abraham not to sacrifice his son. Instead, Abraham looked behind him and saw a ram caught in a thicket and sacrificed the ram in place of his son. The Lord provided a substitute, Isaac’s life was spared, and so it was said on that mountain, “The Lord will provide.”
But now fast-forward a couple thousand years to the year A.D. 155. We go to the city of Smyrna, in western Asia Minor. There an old Christian pastor, a man by the name of Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna–old Polycarp has been arrested. The officials say to Polycarp, “Look, what harm is there in saying, ‘Caesar is Lord,’ and offering up some incense, and thus saving yourself?” You see, all Polycarp has to do to get off and avoid persecution is to go along with the worship of the Roman emperor, Caesar. But Polycarp says, “I won’t do it.” Polycarp is taken to the big stadium in town, full of people. He is told that all he has to do to go free is to renounce the Christian faith. Again, he refuses. The proconsul presses Polycarp hard: “Swear and I will let you go. Revile Christ.” Old man Polycarp replies: “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” And so it continued. The proconsul warns Polycarp: “I will cause you to be consumed with fire, unless you repent.” Polycarp does not repent, he does not renounce the Christian faith, he does not revile Christ. Instead, he boldly confesses the faith and his Savior Christ. Polycarp is tied up, bound, laid on a pile of wood, and killed.
So where was the substitute for Polycarp? Why was there no ram caught in a thicket there in that stadium of Smyrna? Why does Isaac get spared and not Polycarp? What happened to “The Lord will provide”? These are important questions. Polycarp was being a faithful Christian, and yet he suffers. How come? Has God abandoned him? And Polycarp is not alone, either. There have been thousands of Christian martyrs down through the centuries. I thought Christ suffered and died for us. So then why does it seem we have to suffer and die, too? Thus our theme this morning: “The Suffering Christ and His Suffering Christians.”
The suffering Christ and his suffering Christians. Let’s start with the suffering Christ. In fact, let’s start just with that term, “the Christ.” It’s a title, actually. “The Christ” means “the Messiah,” “the Anointed One.” It refers to the promise of the Old Testament that the Lord would send a great deliverer, a king who would usher in an everlasting kingdom of heavenly blessing. For hundreds of years the people of Israel were looking forward to the coming of this savior, the Messiah, the Christ.
Now when Jesus came along, he gathered a circle of disciples around him, to follow him and learn from him. They traveled with him during his public ministry. These disciples got to see the works that Jesus was doing. They got to hear the words that Jesus was speaking. They heard Jesus proclaim, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” They saw Jesus demonstrate amazing, heavenly authority: casting out demons, healing the sick, raising a girl from the dead, feeding five thousand from just a small amount of bread and fish. The disciples heard Jesus teach, expounding the true meaning of God’s law, calling men to repentance, preaching the good news of forgiveness, speaking heavenly wisdom to ears that were open to hear.
The disciples had an extended opportunity to come to an idea of who this man Jesus was and to hear what others were saying about him. And so, after a while, Jesus asks them that very question: “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” Well, close, but no cigar. The popular opinions were all undervaluing who Jesus really is. And so Jesus asks the disciples a follow-up question: “But you–who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Christ.”
“You are the Christ.” Yes, Peter, you’ve got it right. You’ve been paying attention. Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Messiah sent from heaven. No one but the Messiah could be doing the things Jesus has been doing. No one but the Christ, the king bringing in the kingdom of God, could have such wisdom and bestow such blessing. Jesus is the Christ.
So far, so good. But it’s what Jesus says next that throws the disciples for a loop. “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly.” Oh oh. Paradigm shift. Radical paradigm shift. What Jesus is saying here about a suffering Christ, a rejected Messiah, a Christ who is killed–this certainly does not match what the disciples were expecting of the coming Christ. They were looking forward to a king of glory. Jesus is talking about a rejected and suffering and dying Messiah. This does not compute. It shakes their confidence.
So Peter now takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. Imagine that, the disciple rebuking the master. But Jesus turns the tables on him. Jesus rebukes Peter and tells him, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” No, in order for Jesus to complete his messianic mission and to bring in the kingdom of God, it is precisely necessary for him to suffer. There is no Christ–at least in Jesus’ terms–there is no Christ unless it is the suffering Christ. And Jesus is it.
But what’s more, Jesus now expands the circle of suffering to the disciples themselves, to all who would follow Jesus. And that’s us. The suffering Christ–OK, we got that. But now he starts talking about his suffering Christians. Jesus says: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” This does not sound very pleasant. To deny myself? And I think, Jesus, you mean something more than giving up meat on Fridays. To deny myself–this is talking about putting to death me as my own god. Putting my own desires and wishes on the back burner, maybe even throwing them off the stove entirely, and instead seeking first the kingdom of God and what that would entail. To deny myself and take up my cross and follow Jesus. The cross is not just a pretty pendant on a necklace. The cross is not just a decoration on the wall. No, the cross is an instrument of death. The cross is designed to put people to death on. And we are supposed to take it up and follow Jesus–follow Jesus into suffering and death? What am I getting myself into?
The suffering Christ and his suffering Christians. But there’s a promise here, a promise embedded with the suffering. Jesus continues: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” So do we earn our salvation by our suffering? Is that it? No, not at all. It’s just the opposite. It’s because we have been saved, freely, graciously, by the suffering and death of Jesus alone, that now we are freed up to be able to endure any suffering that may come our way.
Paul explains it very well in our Epistle for today, from Romans 5. He explains what is so distinctive and unique about the suffering of Christ, and why it is absolutely necessary for our salvation. He writes: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” You see, Jesus dies for the ungodly. We don’t. In fact, we are those ungodly ones for whom Jesus dies. Why? Here’s the reason: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” That’s what it took, for God to rescue us from our sins, was the death of Christ. Only his holy precious blood, the blood of God’s own Son, shed for us on his cross, could pay the price of the whole world’s sins. God’s love for his enemies, the enemies that we had become, rebelling against our Creator–God loves us so much that he was willing to do this. The Lord did indeed provide a substitute.
And so we are saved. God has reconciled us back to himself. No longer are we enemies, but now we have peace with God. We have been justified, that is, we have been declared righteous, not guilty, for the sake of Christ, who is our righteousness. We have been saved from God’s wrath, saved from eternal death and judgment. And that transforms our temporal death into something far less fearsome.
This is why now we can rejoice, even in the midst of suffering. The big picture has already been taken care of. We are justified, we are reconciled, we are saved. The suffering of Christ did that for us, freed us from the power of death. And because of the resurrection of Christ, we now we have a hope and a future that even suffering and death cannot dim. Paul writes: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings. . . .”
And so, if we have to suffer or even die because we belong to Christ, because we are a Christian, we can handle that. We can even rejoice in it. Like Polycarp did. Like Christian martyrs have done throughout history and are still doing to this day. Christians are suffering in many parts of the world today. Particularly in Muslim lands, Christians are being persecuted. Often, at a minimum, they are facing economic discrimination and social isolation. And sometimes worse. Christians are being arrested and imprisoned, beaten and maimed, killed and massacred. Last Sunday, in northern Nigeria, Muslim terrorists set off a car bomb at a church, killing a woman and a baby. Just in the last two months, this same terrorist group has murdered forty-four Christians in Nigeria. In Iran, in Sudan, in Pakistan–in Indonesia, where I’m going on Thursday–Christians are suffering severe persecution. Taking up one’s cross and following Jesus can literally mean losing one’s life.
What will we suffer for being a Christian? We don’t know. Things are not so bad here, although they seem to be getting worse. Social mockery in the media, and now even government oppression against religious liberty–that’s happening here in America. Will we be able to endure suffering for the sake of Christ? Will we–now imagine this–will we even be able to rejoice in our sufferings?
Yes, we will. Not on our own strength. But in the strength that God provides. Oh yes, the Lord will provide. The strength to endure suffering, even to rejoice in it–this comes with the hope that God has given us in Christ. The big picture is settled. We are justified, reconciled, saved, because of the suffering, death, and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus the Christ. In him our future is secure, no matter what. And so, as we fix our eyes on Jesus, we rejoice and we boldly confess our faith, for the joy that is set before us.