Sermon for the Sunday after the Ascension - John 15:26-16:4a
There is some truth to the old sports adage, “No pain, no gain.” When you are working out, or even just performing manual labor, as you stress your muscles you are actually damaging them. When your body recovers, or repairs that damage, you come back with more muscle fibers, bigger muscles, stronger bodies.
When you break a bone, it hurts, but I have been told that when your body repairs that break, the bone actually becomes stronger. Thicker. Tougher.
I say all of this with a warning. This morning is about suffering, and I am not going to make light of anything you are going through today. I am not wanting to tell you to suck it up, or get over it. What I am going to tell you is that our Scriptures hand to us a word in the midst of our trials. They hand to us this promise from God, not that he will save us from all suffering, or make sure life will be easy, but that suffering, especially when it comes to the life of the Christian, is never happening in a vacuum. That when you are hit with pain, heartache, strife, Christ tells you that you are not alone. That the Spirit is with you. That even as a Christian, you are one who has been birthed out of suffering. Given new life off the back of one who suffered and died for your sake.
The Christian life is more than an identity. It is not a membership card, or a political party, or patriotism. The key is that word – life. A life lived. A life in Jesus that tells us that outside of Christ there is no life. There is surviving maybe. Maybe breathing, but not living. Life being more than food or clothing. Life in this world being more than money or free-time. That, in some ways, our lives as we know them are not life.
In fact, what is the symbol of this Christian life, but a death? Think about it. You probably are wearing the symbol right now. A cross. A Roman executioner’s favorite tool and many wear it like a string of pearls. We get marked with it at baptism, though. Sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Marked with a bullseye of death in Jesus for all eternity. The Christian life having suffering be its inaugural event and a continuing truth about our life.
I was with my colleagues in Walker on Tuesday and we were discussing the fact that 80% of young people leave the church after graduating high school. We talked about the necessity of homes being discipleship centers. The necessity of the Christian life becoming exactly that for parents and children. A life learned and lived in this world. Even more, as I left, I wondered – do we teach our young people about suffering as the way of Christ? Do we tell them that they are marked with a tool of death forever so that our entire lives become one’s of repentance, and often hardship and pain? Or do we tell them that God has a wonderful plan for their life, and he will make them healthy, wealthy and wise? Think about that as you leave today.
As we are on the cusp of Pentecost, this Sunday in our church calendar is a waiting game. Christ has ascended into heaven, and he has told the disciples to go to Jerusalem and wait to be empowered from on high. Waiting for this gift of the Spirit, who is also called the Comforter, to come to send us out as witnesses to the death and resurrection of Jesus for the salvation of the world. In our Gospel text this morning Jesus tells us that as disciples, things are not going to go well because of Jesus. Telling us the Spirit will testify of Jesus, of the forgiveness in his blood, the reconciliation he provides for sinners to the Father, and since the Spirit will dwell in us, so we too will testify, but then he says – “I have told you these things to keep you from stumbling. They will ban you from the synagogues. In fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering service to God. They will do these things because they haven’t known the Father or me. But I have told you these things so that when their time comes you will remember I told them to you.” That does not sound all that good. He says in him suffering will come. In our testimony of Christ alive in us, suffering will be with us. That going into the world to tell the world, or to even tell yourself, that life is actually death. That success is nothing. That prosperity borders on idolatry, things will not go well for you as you speak of this Jesus alive in you. But don’t worry, the Spirit will be with you.
Peter is even more so. 1 Peter is all about suffering. Read it this afternoon. We did a Bible Study on it last year. Writing to the churches of modern Turkey, Peter speaks to a mixed church, many Jews who are receiving triple the persecution. Kicked out of their synagogues for following Jesus and they lose their family. Persecuted for being Jews by the Romans because they are Jews, and they have a hard time as an ethnic minority. Persecuted for being Christians because they are seen as unpatriotic. Christians refused to bow the knee to the emperor as Lord, because they have a different Lord. A better Lord. Jesus as Lord. They will bow to him, but not the emperor, and so they suffer. The emperor would expect divine worship. Oaths made. All done in order to do business or work within much of society. Suffering coming to them because of Christ. Because of this life in Jesus. Because of the cross. Because the death of Christ matters to the Christian. The forgiveness of sin matters to the Christian. The defeat of death matters to the Christian. Worship of God alone matters to the Christian. And Peter grants comfort - Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may also rejoice with great joy when his glory is revealed. If you are ridiculed for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. So, don’t worry, the Spirit is with you.
Finally, Isaiah. In Isaiah 32, all hell is going to break loose. The great city will be knocked down. The woods and fields trampled. Trees gone. Burned to stumps. All this happening until the Spirit is poured out on us. That even with the Spirit coming to us, all the other things we trust in, all that we see as life before Jesus will waste away. Be destroyed, then life coming out of death. A rather familiar tune of the Scriptures.
In California we have two seasons – summer and wildfire. The strange thing is that we see the devastations of wildfires. We see trees demolished, homes gone, lives taken, land scorched. In all of that, though, what we have to realize is that fires in the forests and fields might bring death and destruction, but no matter what, in their wake comes life. Fires burn old growth trees down and dried up underbrush, but open up the pinecones so seeds fall and new life comes forth. Old scrubbrush goes away and new plants come up. Out of the old burned up stumps comes new trees. New life. The Creator of the universe using the destruction of something as a wildfire and making good out of it.
Let me read to you one last portion of Scripture. It comes from Isaiah and we usually hear it at Advent. Listen to the words. “Then a shoot will grow from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—a Spirit of wisdom and understanding, a Spirit of counsel and strength, a Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.” We always see this as a prophecy of Jesus, but why not of the Christian life? All that Israel hoped in was destroyed, and out of that stump of destruction came new life. A shoot and a branch. So too, in you. In our lives we will have trouble, Jesus makes it clear. We will have wildfires of heartache and pain. Disease and death. Yet in all of this, through the Spirit and because of Christ, because of his death for the sake of your sin and death, his resurrection to grant life and peace to you, because of all this work of God, no weapons of war or disease can carry you away from him. No destruction of this mortality will keep you from the immortality that is in Jesus. What the Spirit grants to you is the truth of Christ’s life coming to you even in the midst of suffering. A life that lives in Jesus. Secured for you in his blood. All the other stuff is only momentary. The Spirit and the Lord of Lords are forever.