Suffering for Others
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, February 16, 2020
Reading: Philippians 1:27-30; 3:7-11
On February the 12th, in the year 2000, we lost what was known as God’s cartoonist. Charles Schulz died 20 years ago this week. It’s hard to believe – 20 years ago. The reason he came to my mind was that I was at an event recently where there was coffee served in a variety of mugs. The host handed me a mug with Snoopy on it, sitting in a convertible sports car, with his ears flying backwards and a scarf around his neck. He said, “I don’t know, Andrew, I just thought you should have this mug and no-one else.”
I laughed and thought about it for a moment and said, “Oh, I love Snoopy.” Secretly, I wanted to bring that mug home with me, but I couldn’t, alas. It got me thinking about Schulz and then the realization he died 20 years ago this week. It all seemed to come together. I thought about Schulz and recognizing that if anyone was quoted too much in the latter part of the 20th Century, it was he and Peanuts – way too much at times – there was within his writing, a profound wisdom and realism, and a sense of what makes humanity tick.
Schulz had this incredible ability to deal with the difficult things of life and to put them into characters that you both loved and at times questioned. He dealt with issues of hubris, lies, decent, disappointment, not learning from our mistakes. His characters were a mirror on our society. They reflected the world that we come from. It doesn’t matter whether it was Linus, or Lucy, Charlie Brown, or Snoopy – it made no difference – they all reflected the reality of human life. The fact that there were – within those strands of experience – moments of difficulty and suffering and disappointment, made Peanuts real. The fact that Charlie Brown never got to kick the ball – ever – was a sign that there is a profound disappointment in human life and that it was due to another person: Lucy. Oh, I think he reached right into our hearts, did Mr. Schulz. He did so from a perspective of faith, having grown up very much in the Christian tradition, although he had some unusual perspectives along the way, he tried to bring a sense of reality to our human existence. That’s why it was so profound and so often quoted.
I’ve thought about that, because undergirding every difficulty that the characters face is something redemptive that triumphed above the dismal displays often exhibited. He had a way of bringing good news in the middle of some strange and silly behaviour, which brings me to our text today from the Book of Philippians. There is something profoundly human and honest about it. Paul was dealing with the reality of the human condition, but also, with the power of redemption and of human victory in the midst of suffering. He was writing from a prison cell, awaiting trial in Rome, but he is writing to a Philippian church – who he had previously helped found and a congregation that he loved deeply – who were reaching out to him, in his moment of suffering in that prison.
They sent someone to him – from Philippi to Rome – to bring gifts and minister to him, a person called Epaphroditus. Paul appreciated this and the letter is a response to the Epaphroditus wanting to return home because he is homesick. There is something profound about this letter because all of those who are parties to it, in some way or another was suffering. Paul was suffering, because he was sitting in prison, because of his confession and his belief in Jesus Christ. He was suffering for the Gospel. Epaphroditus suffered because he had made the commitment to leave his home as a young man, to minister to Paul. He had made a huge commitment and had suffered for it. The Philippian church had made a commitment to support Paul in his ministry and they sacrificed, but not only that, they faced opposition for their convictions and faith in Philippi. Philippi was not a benign community. It was a community that was turning on the Christians and they were subject to ridicule and danger. So, Paul, Epaphroditus, and the Philippians were suffering. and Paul wanted to address that suffering. He did so in deeply meaningful and theological terms.
He knew that their suffering could be addressed by their faith. Not only do they believe in Christ, they are also suffering for Christ. There is a purpose to their suffering. There is a reason for it. Now, there are those who were critical of Paul and his ideas. This notion of suffering for something good, seems to be an anathema to those who already see enough suffering in the world. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in First Century Philippi, or whether you are here in our world today, there are those who will say that the notion of suffering for something seems remote and irresponsible.
People say that there are too many reasons people suffer. Haven’t we got enough suffering in the world, without compounding it and by saying that we suffer for something? Do we not have enough death and destruction? Do we not have enough diseases and depression? Do we not have enough natural disasters? Do we not have enough chronic illnesses? Do we not have enough suffering in the world? Why on earth would you ever contemplate adding more suffering to what is already an unbearable reality? But that is to misunderstand how Paul saw suffering. I want to help us find a way into Paul’s heart and mind here because I believe it has profound consequences for the way that we live. Paul was not a masochist. He did not say, “I want to suffer for Christ to get my own thrills, or because of something that I need.” Rather, he understood that his suffering was for Christ and therefore, had a purpose to it. Nor was he a sadist. He was not someone who enjoyed the suffering of others. On the contrary, he was concerned about the suffering of others, but he wanted to find meaning and purpose for those who were doing the right thing and suffering for it.
So, to suggest that Paul was merely compounding misery with misery, is a totally false reading of what Paul is saying here. Paul says, “For if we share in Christ’s suffering, we also share in his glory. It is not then suffering for no sake. Rather it is a purposeful suffering. It is suffering for Christ’s sake.” Paul knew that if you suffer for Christ’s sake, there is a degree of renunciation in one’s life. A degree of putting aside things, for the sake of following Christ. Paul had put aside everything for the sake of Christ. He had put aside his career in the Judicial Department of Rabbinical thought. He was a Pharisee of the Pharisees. He put aside the comfort of his own certainty and a tradition both comfortable and uncomfortable. He put aside his own security when he challenged the powers of Rome, stood for Christ, and then suffered the legal consequences of it.
He was writing from a prison cell in Rome. He knew what it meant to give up things for the sake of something greater than himself. But he said, “I consider all those things – all those things that I could have had and might have had as rubbish – in comparison to the love of Christ and of his ministry.” Paul was writing from a deep place of understanding. When he was writing to the Philippians and he said, “If you share in Christ’s suffering, you will share in his glory,” he knew what that suffering was like. It was to renounce sin. It was to renounce his own self-centeredness. It was to renounce all those things that prohibit us from being true and honest servants of Christ.
You can imagine, for the community in Philippi, this was seen as a ridiculously restrictive way to live. Wouldn’t it be better if they did what they want and had the pleasures that they desired and forget about any sense of suffering or commitment to a higher power, or to a greater good? A lot of people feel that way. They see this notion of laying down your life for Christ as something that is complete anathema to those who want to assert themselves first and foremost. But Paul honestly believed that the world itself was better, if there were those who laid down their lives for something greater than themselves. That the way of Christ was not the way of slavery to some law, but was the gateway to freedom, and a legitimate life of service.
Paul’s suffering and the suffering of the Philippians was for something greater and better than they thought. But this was a foreign concept, particularly in First Century culture. This notion of suffering for something, or someone greater than yourself, seemed so remote. But for Paul, it was the essence of a better world. It was the essence of serving Christ to give up the self-centeredness, for a Christ centeredness. Suffering had purpose and meaning. In our culture, when people talk about suffering, it is seen purely as a problem. Something that needs to be addressed as quickly as humanly possible. We’re in a rush to abate the causes or the influences of suffering, not to embrace it, endure it, or find meaning within it.
I read a fascinating and most challenging essay in a book on God’s Providence, by – edited by Phil Ziegler, who has preached here and who is the Professor of Theology at Aberdeen Divinity School in Scotland. In it there is an essay by John Swinton. Now, his name wouldn’t mean anything to you, but within theological circles, he is a hero of sorts. Swinton grew up in a difficult part of the life within Scotland. He was a person of colour and faced all the challenges that came from that. In his early years he became a registered nurse and worked with those who were fragile, with those who had dementia, those who had illnesses of the mind and the disposition. An incredibly compassionate man. He felt a call to the ministry and joined the Church of Scotland. He became a minister within the Church of Scotland. He did his PhD at Aberdeen University and now, he is one of the leading lights in Pastoral Care in the world and one of the greatest advocates for the care of those who find themselves in great need, particularly those who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s.
He is a hero to many of us, a hero to me. He says that we have lost a sense of the meaning of suffering and because of that we’re in a hurry to deal with sufferers. We’re in a hurry to deal with suffering itself. We do not have really, the ingredients that are needed for true compassion to see people through their difficulties. He argues very powerfully – by using both Psalm 13, but also Paul’s letter to the Philippians, “You know for those of us who are believers, we have something different to say. We have something loving to say, to those who suffer. What we say is that we lament as the psalmist lamented for those who face suffering and difficulty, but we have patience. We have patience with people who are suffering. We understand that people want to have their suffering alleviated, but we have patience with them. He introduced the word – “timefulness.” That we understand that not every problem can be solved immediately and instantly. That there is a need to walk with people through their suffering and to be with them in the midst of it.” This is his conviction. He said, “It is my conviction that the pastoral task in the face of suffering, begins with the issue of learning what it means to love and to worship God. And to learn to recognize God as faithful and loving, even in the face of suffering.” Put slightly differently, the problem of suffering finds its response not in abstract philosophical argument, but within the practices of faithful discipleship – within such a frame, providence becomes of great importance.
His argument is that even in the midst of suffering – whether it is for something good – whether it is an existential suffering in one’s soul – whether it is watching the suffering of someone else – to seek to find the providence of God. That is what we offer. That is what Paul was offering the people in Philippine. “Not only,” he said, “Do we believe in Christ, we also share in his suffering and for Christ.”
There is also this sense in Paul – and this is revolutionary – that we suffer alongside and with others. One of the great problems of the world is that there are times we are disconnected from the suffering of others. As William Sloane Coffin put it brilliantly, “There is a cocoon in which we often protect ourselves from the suffering of those around us.” We’d rather live – I call it a silo not a cocoon – we live in a silo of numbness to the suffering of the world around.
In his incredible book, Through the Eyes of the Heart, one of my favourite writers is the American, Frederick Buechner. He talked about a seminal moment in his family life, when at the age of ten, his father committed suicide. It shook him to his core, so much so, that he and his mother and the other family members moved – ironically to Bermuda – to find some respite and some peace. He reflected on his mother for a while. She shut out any concern for the state of her husband, before the suicide. But also, any sort of concern afterwards. He wrote, (and it shook him because his mother did not have any faith and Buechner did). “The sadness of other people’s lives – even the people she loved – never seemed to touch her while she lived. I don’t know why. It wasn’t that she had a hard heart. I think. In many ways she was warm and sympathetic and generous. But she had a heart that for one reason or another she kept permanently closed to other people suffering, as well as to the darkest corners of her own.”
Buechner suggests that faith takes us out of that cocoon. that silo. Christ takes us out of that cocoon and that silo so that we stand with, identify with, and share in the sufferings of others. It’s not that we’re cold, or remote, or dispassionate, but that out of a profound love, stand alongside them.
One of the great influences on Professor John Swinton’s life, was John Vanier. Even to this day, he does work with Vanier’s Foundation. He made this point and he’s made it over again, that what Vanier saw in people’s lives was this incredible sense of dignity. Vanier understood those who had disabilities and struggles from a very early age, those who wrestled with life. Vanier understand that where the church used to be is where Christ is, and that is with the suffering. Identifying with those who are suffering, recognizing their dignity and thereby finding love.
For Paul, whether it was his own suffering, or the suffering of the Philippians, he saw meaning in it, because he saw Christ ministering to one another, through them. Paul also introduces another revolutionary concept and that is he rejoiced in the suffering. Oh, it wasn’t that he enjoyed it, but that he rejoiced in doing something that was greater than itself. It was a commitment for others. It was a commitment for the world. It was giving a gift of love.
As the great Scottish Theologian, James Dunn, says in his commentary on Philippians, Paul saw suffering and death through the lens of the resurrection. He looked back at life and death and suffering, through the eyes of the victory of Christ in resurrection. That there was and always will be hope, in the midst of suffering. In the giving of gifts, the Philippian church had ministered to Paul at the point of his greatest need, because of the love of Christ.
As I said earlier when I looked at that Snoopy mug, I wanted to take it home until I realized there was a chip in it. I don’t want a chipped mug. But then that chipped mug reminded me of something else. It reminded me of an elderly lady – when I was a little boy in Lancashire – we called Aunt Maggie. Every single one of Aunt Maggie’s cups and mugs had a chip in it. We’d go to her home for tea and I would always hope to find a chip-less mug, but to no avail. They were all old. They were all cracked, and they were all chipped. You see, Aunt Maggie was someone who’s life had been hard. She had grown up during the depression and the war. She had been part of a group of young people who had been hired to work in a cotton mill. For 40 years – from the age of 13 on – she sat on a stool on cold, hard stone floors, wearing clogs, working in a mill.
This woman lived in a home that was given to her by the owners of the mill. It was poor, and it was old, and it had stone floors, and the toilet was outside. All her life, Aunt Maggie lived in this two-room place and she never left the area at all.
She was a deaconess in the church my father served. She served communion. She walked miles on a Sunday to come to church, for she had neither a car, nor any other means of getting to church, but she got there. Aunt Maggie had a great affection for me and until her death – at which time I was 40 years old – she always sent me a £5 note on my birthday. I remember saying to my mother, “Mother, you know, I’m 40 years old. I’ve travelled all over the world. Shouldn’t we tell Aunt Maggie to stop the £5 notes?” For they meant so much more to her than they did to me in monetary terms.
And my mother said, “Don’t you ever ask her not to do that. She is giving that out of love. She has sacrificed over the years to give that to you, out of love and out of love you should receive it, because it is a gift from God.”
I’ve thought about Aunt Maggie many times. I thought about the terrible conditions in which she grew up – the poverty in which she lived – the faithfulness to her church and to her Lord and her profound generosity – and I realized how much that woman must have suffered in her life. Despite that, she understood the power of love, she understood the power of Christ. She said, “In Christ’s sufferings,” but she knew she would also share in Christ’s glory. There is, you see, meaning in suffering and it is profound. Amen.