Daniel Semelsberger: A Body Made to Suffer Unity

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Epiphany 3C, January 24, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. Daniel Semelsberger is our invited guest preacher today.

If you would prefer to listen to the audio podcast of Daniel’s sermon click here.

Lectionary texts for today are: Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19.1-14; 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a; Luke 4.14-21.

Good morning!

Well, now this is different, isn’t it?

I stand here in this pulpit on this third Sunday of Epiphany the invitation of Fr. Kevin, who is his infinite wisdom and excellent judgment, has obviously decided that the benefit of not having to write a sermon outweighs whatever potential harm my presence here on this platform may precipitate. I suppose we shall all discover together in due course whether or not he’s right.

As some of you may know, I am currently in the second year of a two-year Fellows program of discipleship, spiritual formation, and Christian apologetics through the C.S. Lewis Institute.  When Kevin invited me to speak, his only request was that I distill something from my time spent in the Fellows program into something that I could share with everyone at St. Auggie’s for our collective edification and benefit.

I have endeavored to do just that, so, I would like to center our minds and hearts this morning on our New Testament lesson, drawn from the twelfth chapter of 1st Corinthians. Before I really kick into gear, let me offer this disclaimer: I make no pretense to being trained at length in Biblical scholarship, and, rather than performing strict exegesis on this passage, I am instead going to contextualize the passage within some of Paul’s other writings on the Church, and do my best to demonstrate their relevance to the topic of suffering.

So, without further ado or shenanigans, let us begin:

The presence of evil, pain, and suffering in this world is almost certainly the most frequently given objection to the existence of God, and, by extension, to the truth of Christianity. If, like me, you have an interest in conversing with people that have serious doubts about, say, the existence of God, or about the validity of the Christian faith, you can expect to encounter this objection at nearly every turn.

It comes not only in clearly-vocalized and carefully-worded questions like “How can a totally good, all-powerful God allow evil, pain, and suffering in His world?”, but also in ways less-easily identified, such as the hurt, pain, grief, sorrow, and fear that each of us, at one time or another in our lives, carries locked away inside of us. It shows up in the anger with which the question is sometimes asked: “How could a good God allow this to happen to me, or to someone I loved?!?” Or, if not anger, then perhaps in desperation: “How? How does a good God, who says He cannot abide evil, not put a stop to this? Why does He allow it to continue? When will it end?”

Whatever the particular guise in which this question appears, you can rest assured of one thing: it will appear.

And it ought not to surprise us when it does, particularly here in the United States and in other countries of Western heritage. When compared to every other great civilization of history, modern Western culture stands almost unique in its inability to account for the presence of suffering as a meaningful part of existence. For, at base, any conception of the world as being utterly material (i.e. excluding spiritual or other immaterial forces) and solely natural (i.e. excluding the possibility of supernatural beings or forces) precludes any belief in the spiritual or the eternal. In such a perspective, all that exists is what is right in front of us—this world, this life, this existence. If the ramifications of such a thought process on the nature and purpose of suffering are not clear, listen to these words from Tim Keller:

“In older cultures (and {some] non-Western cultures today, suffering has been seen as an expected part of a coherent life story, a crucial way to live life well and to grow as a person and a soul. But the meaning of life in our Western society is individual freedom. There is no higher good than the right and freedom to decide for yourself what you think is good… But if the meaning of life is individual freedom and happiness, then suffering is of no possible use. In this worldview, the only thing to do with suffering is to avoid it all costs, or, if unavoidable, [to] manage and minimize the emotions of pain and discomfort as much as possible” (Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 2013, p. 23).

So, as I say, it ought not in the least to surprise us that the reality of suffering will inevitably surface from those asking honest questions about the existence of the infinite-personal God and the truth of the Christian faith. Suffering, quite literally, does not compute to most of our non-Christian peers. At best, it is an impersonal outworking of the cruelty of impersonal natural forces. At best, it is an accident. Or a mistake. But either way, it is horrible, and it means nothing, so let us avoid it! Indeed! Are we all agreed? Good, then this service is adjourned and we can get on with medicating ourselves!

But, in all seriousness: there are good reasons why the truth of Christianity can be such a bitter pill to swallow: depending on one’s understanding of reality, the suggestion that there is an infinite-personal God who loves His creation can seem laughable. Unconscionable, even. If suffering is an accident or a mistake, how could God allow an accident of such miserable consequences, or make a mistake of such a proportion? If it is not an accident, then, on what grounds can we call God “good” and “loving”? The feathers begin to ruffle. The indignity and cursed unfairness of it all gets people all hot and bothered: Who does this God think He is, anyway? How dare He call himself Good, and say that He is Love?!?

As professing Christians, it is easy to be taken aback in the face of these sorts of questions—particularly if—as I will freely admit has been the case for me—such thoughts are not foreign to our own minds.

And, yet… we, the body of Christ, ought not to be discouraged in these moments. Indeed, I now find these moments, when I encounter them, to be strangely comforting. For, the experience of suffering is, I am convinced, universal to the entirety of humankind. In that sense, it is an empathic connector, because we’ve all suffered. And, quite frequently, raising the objection to the existence of a loving God on the basis of suffering is a moment of vulnerability and honesty. It is the moment when the pretense (hopefully on both sides) comes to an abrupt halt, and everyone can get down to brass tacks.  So, my response is almost always: Yes. Yes, let’s talk about suffering. Please, let’s talk about suffering.

So, then, what does the twelfth chapter of 1st Corinthians have to do with suffering?

In order to begin to answer this question properly, we must first acknowledge two things: First, that Scripture does not provide ultimate, complete answers about the reason or reasons that we experience suffering. If you ever grow confident that you’ve cracked that particular nut, I would encourage you to revisit (or perhaps visit for the first time) the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, and, quite literally, read them and weep. Second is this: where the Old Testament draws sometimes stark connections between the experience of suffering and the judgment of God, the New Testament paints a far more inscrutable picture of the nature of suffering now that God’s judgment for our sin has been satisfied at the cross. To be certain, we bring suffering down on ourselves when we transgress against God’s created order. And, yet, God’s originally-created order is now very much fallen, so, one might with good reason say that suffering is best understood as separation from God—and that regardless of one’s preferred adjectives to describe that state of being—fallen, corrupted, depraved, sinful, etc.—our experience of suffering in the wake of Christ’s ultimate victory over death and sin can be understood in far more redemptive tones than that of the people of Israel.

That is to say, though we still reside in this world of God’s good-but-fallen creation, and are still at war with our fallen, sinful natures, restoration to God is freely available to us through the work of Christ, who suffered judgment for our sake. And we, having entered into the Kingdom, now have an inheritance in the new creation to come. This is, as Kevin is wont to remind us, the ultimate hope of the Christian faith. And it is a large part of the Christian’s response to the problem of suffering: someday, suffering will no longer exist, because we will be fully and perfectly restored to right relationship with God. In the new creation, we will no longer suffer because of our separation from God. And amen to that!

And, yet: here we still are, you and I, tucked into this chapel building in Westerville, Ohio, on a gray, cold January day. Here we still are, and, for at least a little while more, it seems, we shall continue to be here. And just what are we to do with that? Shall we all sit and twiddle our thumbs waiting for the new creation? By no means!

For, you see: we are the Church. And the Church is the other part of God’s response to the reality of suffering.

In one sense, the modern Western Church gets this. For the most part, we take seriously Scriptural commands to care for the needy, to feed the hungry, to provide for the fatherless, the widow, and the destitute. Or, at the very least, we understand that we need to do these things, even if we struggle to set aside our self-centeredness and our materialism, and regularly justify our preoccupation with comfort and security. We know that there are people starving to death, people being killed in cold blood, and people perishing from preventable diseases in other parts of the world. And we live with some level of compunction about these things: we know that they are bad, and that we ought to help alleviate things.

But there is another aspect to the Church’s purpose about which we frequently seem not only inactive but also utterly indifferent.

Consider again the New Testament depiction of suffering: what does it mean to suffer? To be separated from the infinite-personal God, the one who sustains and upholds the universe and all things in it, and who loves you. What, then, is opposite of suffering? Unity with God—the one who sustains and upholds the universe and all things in it, and who loves you. Yes, we still suffer, but, as the Apostle Paul—and, indeed,  the entire litany of New Testament authors—are quick to remind us, we are now strengthened in that suffering because of the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Let me put it succinctly: it is Unity that alleviates and, eventually, completely undoes the reality of suffering. It is precisely because we have been restored to a measure of unity with the infinite-personal God that our suffering takes on a transformative character.

What, then, are we to make of what Paul writes in 1st Corinthians 12:14: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body… and all were made to drink of one Spirit”?

Or Verses 24-28: “But God has so composed the body giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

In these verses, Paul paints the way forward for the splintered Church in Corinth, and, indeed, for the Church universal: in unity with one another, our joys and sufferings are shared, and, so, are multiplied and mitigated, respectively. But, why, we are tempted to ask, is there still suffering in the unified body of Christ? Paul does not write that being unified will eliminate our suffering. What, then, is the big deal about unity, if it doesn’t do actually do away with suffering?

The answer, of course, is that it won’t do away with suffering yet. But to fixate on eliminating suffering is to ask the question quite apart from the Scriptural narrative altogether, because one is still fixated on avoiding suffering. We are not given that option in the Christian understanding of the world. Rather, as Christians, we are told that we must share in Christ’s sufferings if we are to be co-heirs of the Kingdom (Romans 8:17). And, therein lies all the difference, for Christ suffered that we might experience restoration to God—Unity with the infinite-personal God. We must, too, suffer, as we grow deep in unity with God and with one another. The Church was made for transformative suffering—both to share the Gospel with those that need to be reconciled to God, and to uphold one another within the body. Paul refers to this in his next letter to the Corinthians as the “ministry of reconciliation” that has come to the Church from God through the work of Christ. Reconciliation not only for those still separated from God, but, continually, ongoing, for those within the Body of Christ.

Make no mistake: unity, if it taken seriously, will bring about suffering as we struggle with our sinful natures. Surely, any of us in the room that are married know this immediately: taking seriously unity with one’s spouse will inevitably bring suffering. But how much more easily borne is the suffering because of the unity—and how much greater is the joy experienced in the bonds of unity and love. Familial relationships are similarly trying and rewarding—and full of suffering because of the sorrow that one experiences by being connected to others.

Why should the Church be any different? To join the Church is to join a body marked by a unity that transcends unimportant differences. The Church is not a country club, where you won’t have to put up with people you find distasteful or with whom you have real disagreements and differences. It is not racially exclusive or economically exclusive. Convenient divisions on the basis of these things, other cultural differences, and, God help us, pet doctrinal preferences will ultimately be exposed as nothing more than feeble human edifice and vanity, swept away in the consuming glory of Christ’s triumphant return. And thank God for that.

In closing, think back with me just one short week to our baptismal service and reception of members, and hear these words from Galatians 3:27-28: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Remember likewise the words we spoke to those newly baptized and received into the body: “There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. By one Spirit we are all baptized into one body. We welcome you into the fellowship of faith; we are children of the same heavenly Father; we welcome you.”

So, as a member of St. Augustine’s, and by extension the Church universal, let me say this:  We welcome you. You can bring your suffering and pain into this body and you will not be turned aside. We still welcome you. Come grow in reconciliation and unity with us. Come grow in love with us. Come share in the sufferings of Christ, for His yoke is easy and his burden is light. Come share in our hope for His return, for the fulfilled Kingdom, and for the new creation.

And, finally, as a fledgling apologist who has spoken with many hurting people outside the body of Christ, let me say this to you, all my brothers and sisters in Christ: As the Church, we must persist in welcoming one another, continually. Inasmuch as we love one another, we must live out that love in bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, and enduring all things for one another. If we are to be ambassadors of our faith to the world, we must answer the question of suffering by being the Church, and understanding that in taking on the mantle of Jesus Christ we are commanded to suffer unity in Christ and with one another. We cannot fall short in this, because God’s beloved creation is crying out in pain, and does not know how to account for its suffering. The last thing that the lost in God’s beloved-yet-fallen creation need is another solution to minimize or avoid suffering. But a Church that embraces—rather than runs from—suffering, knowing that it is transformative and purposeful, will be a light that pierces the darkness and serves as a living witness to the truth.

God bless you all.