I found a story within this past Monday morning's UCC Stillspeaking Daily Devotional, and I didn't like it—especially at first. Well, I mean I liked it at first. The story pulled me right in and I had an idea where it was going as I moved through the first sentences...and then...well, I wonder if you will have a similar reaction in a moment.
The devotional was written by Matt Fitzgerald, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's United Church of Christ in Chicago. This is what Fitzgerald writes.
"Here is a great Christian story. Dirk Willems was a Dutch Mennonite imprisoned for refusing violence and arguing against infant baptism. After his arrest in 1569, Dirk was held in the prison tower of his hometown.
"After months of little food and constant prayer Dirk Willems escaped. He tied together strips of cloth to make a rope, which he used to slide down the prison wall. As he raced across the countryside, a guard spotted him and gave chase. In Dirk's path was an ice-covered river. It was late winter and the air was warm. The ice was thin. Dirk took the risk and crossed safely, aided no doubt, by his prison emaciation. As he ran atop the ice he could hear the frigid water gurgling beneath his feet. His pursuer was a well-fed man. He broke through the ice and fell into the deadly water.
"Was this God's rescue? No. For Dirk knew that it is Christ's peace that saves us, not our violence. He turned back, waded into the icy water and saved his enemy. That was God's rescue."
Matt continues writing, saying, "It is a great story. But it is a Christian story. Which is to say it has a cross in it. As soon as his pursuer was on dry ground Dirk was arrested. Later that year he was executed near his native village."
Did you have a reaction similar to mine? Did you immediately engage the story and root for Dirk Willems? Did you silently cheer when the prisoner took the risk and made his way over the ice-covered water that was undoubtedly thin and dangerous, and think what I did in that God's justice and God's plan was present in the starving prisoner who had lost all that weight and therefore could make this dangerous path with more ease? Did you predict what I predicted when you learned that Dirk's pursuer was a well-fed man? Did you instantly think of Moses who was also fleeing and the story of the parting of the Red Sea? Did you make the connection between Moses' escape and the pursuing Egyptians that drowned with this story? Did you want Dirk to win? Did you want this man of God who refused violence and argued against infant baptism to be blessed, flee to freedom and, as a result of pain, fear and suffering, live some sort of happily ever after life?
It doesn't turn out that way. Since Dirk tried to escape, they probably took away all cloth assessable to him to teach him a lesson—no more bed covers, no more clothing—and even though he turned back to save a man from an icy death, it's not hard for us to imagine they punished Dirk more by giving him even less food. Our hope of God's plan being one where service and suffering are rewarded is not the moral of the story here. Instead, we get a different message. We get the message of what it means to have the character of a Christian.
In an online article written by Joseph Scheumann, we can learn more about the character of the Christian. As our scripture lesson today speaks to humility, Scheumann speaks to our humility by addressing what unites Christians, servanthood and suffering.
This is what Scheumann writes. "All Christians suffer. Either you have, you are, or you will — "through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). This reality is a stark reminder that we have not reached the new heavens and new earth. The new Jerusalem of no tears and no pain, of no mourning and no death, hasn't arrived yet (Revelation 31:1,4)."
But just because we experience suffering as Dirk experienced suffering and we await the redemption of our bodies, it doesn't mean that our suffering is random or without purpose. And neither does it mean that Scripture doesn't tell us how to think about our suffering now. If you embrace the Bible and its teachings—and I invite you to do so—you will come to this understanding. Suffering is multifaceted.
In other words, suffering has many faces. The Bible doesn't whitewash our experience of suffering by saying that it's all of one stripe. Rather, God's holy Word recognizes the multifaceted ways suffering can come upon us. The apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 the following, "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed."
In these verses, Paul lists several types of suffering — mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual. Each of these are different ways we suffer, and when suffering comes, several types of suffering are involved.
Hear the good news. We don't suffer alone. The church is not meant to be a loosely bound association of functional Lone Rangers. Paul confronts that type of thinking when in Galatians 6:2 he writes, "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ."
The church is to be a refuge for those suffering. When a member is hurting, the church applies the bandages. When a member is down, the church encourages. When a member is in need, the church comes alongside to help.
When you own the character of a Christian this happens. This church is to be a refuge for those suffering. When a member is hurting, this church applies the bandages. When a member is down, this church encourages. When a member is in need, this church comes alongside to help.
Dirk understood suffering. His pursuer was drowning in icy water. So a character of a Christian is to embrace suffering and understand it. When we understand suffering, we are so much closer to Christ who suffered for the sins of the world on the cross. And understanding Christ? Being Christ-like? When, as we read in today's scripture, we take the lowest place at the foot of the table, we embody the character of a Christian. When we, who understand what it's like to be in rigid, horribly painful water, and we, who are starving, dive in to someone else's pain, embrace the character of a Christian. Consider today's story about the wedding feast. The character of a Christian is not that we live for ourselves. The character of the Christian is that we elevate others.
This "what's in it for me?" business doesn't work here within these walls. This thinking that we become Christians so that we live the happy life is garbage, too. I've seen this mindset. "I started coming to your church here, Will, and, well, after a couple or weeks (or a couple of months), it isn't working for me."
I ask this question. Why isn't it working?
"Well, I'm not happier. Things still hurt. I thought Christ would take away my pain, not make me see more of it in others."
Did I hit something here? Is the following thinking something you have, or have had? The church should be perfect. It should be pain-free. I'm coming here now to get something out of it now. In your less mature Christian days—and we've all been less mature Christians at some point—and we are all still growing in Christ, each and everyone of us—did you ever embrace the "what's in it for me now?" attitude?
We all have. But that's not what Jesus says in our scripture today. To have the character of a Christian, embrace humility. Understand suffering. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind here to church and let Christ do what Christ does—He changes us. He charges us.
This is what David Powlison in Suffering the Sovereignty of God says. Powlison speaks to the character of the Christian. He writes, "When you've passed through your own fiery trials, and found God to be true to what he says, you have real help to offer. You have firsthand experience of both his sustaining grace and his purposeful design. He has kept you through pain; he has reshaped you more into his image. . . . What you are experiencing from God, you can give away in increasing measure to others. You are learning both the tenderness and the clarity necessary to help sanctify another person's deepest distress (Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, 166)."
Own the character of a Christian. This life of humility is our course, it is or action plan. Turning our suffering into service is only the promise of the new world, the new world to come. Firsthand experience in suffering is essential in equipping us for ministry. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:4 that "[God] comforts us in all afflictions, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort which we ourselves are comforted by God."
We naturally try to avoid suffering at all costs, but God brings suffering in our lives for the sake of our eternal joy — and His glory.
Put yourself back into the story that started this sermon. What has held you prisoner? What have you had to tie together to scramble to freedom? What leap of faith—or step of faith—did you have to cross? Was it an icy river on a warm day? And speaking of the cross, what has Jesus' death done for you? What does His death still teach you?
Paul also says this in 2 Corinthians 4:17-18. "This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal."
This is what today's passage means. This is what a story about a man who died after saving his pursuer means, and it's this. Suffering prepares us for more glory. That is what Jesus is saying here today. Suffering prepares us for more glory.
This is how Matt Fitzgerald ended this past Monday's Stillspeaking Devotional. He writes, "In our violent world just how crazy is Christ's insistence that we practice peace? Tough question. But we ought to remember that Jesus doesn't promise peacemakers will make sense. All he guarantees is that they will be called the children of God."
Own the characteristic of a Christian. Serve others with humility. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." - Matthew 5:9