Worship » Sermons » Why Suffering?

Why Suffering?

with Rev. Laura Sherwood

February 25, 2024

Pastor Laura’s message wrestles with the questions: Why is suffering connected to following Christ? What does it mean to take up our cross?

The Scripture

Psalm 22:23-31

You who fear the Lord, praise him!
    All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
    Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or scorned
    the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
    but has listened to his cry for help.

25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
    before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.
26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;
    those who seek the Lord will praise him—
    may your hearts live forever!

27 All the ends of the earth
    will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
    will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the Lord
    and he rules over the nations.

29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
    all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
    those who cannot keep themselves alive.
30 Posterity will serve him;
    future generations will be told about the Lord.
31 They will proclaim his righteousness,
    declaring to a people yet unborn:
    He has done it!

Mark 8:31-38

31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

The Way of the Cross

34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

Read the Full Text

There is a rule in Bible study that the importance of a passage increases if it is repeated by a second Biblical author and even more so when it is repeated by more than one author.  In the case of the gospels, stories about or statements by Jesus that are found in more than one gospel are considered to be significant clues to what really happened or what was actually said.

Today’s passage is one of those rare occurrences when a statement of Jesus is found almost word for word in three of the four gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke with a phrase from the passage repeated twice in each of those gospels.  The repeated phrase is in verses 34 and 35 of today’s Mark passage and is delivered in the context of Jesus teaching – the disciples and the wider community of people who have gathered.

Finish reading

In other words, according to that Bible study rule, the repeated phrase in this repeated passage is one of the most important teachings Jesus has for all who want to become his disciples and follow him. 

Here it is:

“If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it…”


Suffering = Faithful Disciple?

Last week, the gospel passage relayed the story of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, when he was tempted and where he suffered.  Lent is a season when we focus on the humanity of Jesus, the events, and teachings of his human life leading to Holy Week when Jesus is crucified and suffers greatly on the cross.  This is why Jesus has been described by many as “The Suffering Servant” and the instruction in these sentences that followers must “take up their cross” has often been understood to mean that suffering is necessary to be a good and faithful disciple of Christ.

But I would argue, that is not the point of this instruction and not the point of the phrase to “take up our cross.”

Jesus didn’t go to the cross because suffering was his goal; suffering was the inevitable result of how he was called to serve others.  Jesus was the epitome of a good servant in the way he not only looked after people’s needs, but in the way he paid attention to them. He saw through to their hearts and spirits and brought them what they needed at the deepest level from the spiritual bounty of what he had to share.

He was the suffering servant, not because of his own physical suffering, but because the condition of others was so important to him, that he took on their pain; their suffering became his.  He could not ignore even one person who needed him. This was the good news of God that Jesus embodied; this was the gospel message worth living for and worth dying for.

Jesus never compromised what he had to do to bring his message of God’s love for all people.  He didn’t run away from anything he had to do or say, even when it meant he would be a target for hate and revenge.  He followed God’s call and purpose for his life, and, for him, it did lead to the cross. He didn’t want to suffer any more than any of us ever does and he doesn’t tell his disciples that suffering is a requirement of being his disciple, even though it may be a by-product, when any of us picks up our cross by following God’s call on our lives.

“… ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 

The instruction to deny ourselves is connected to taking up our cross with equally strong language and, to be honest, an instruction I have personally wrestled with in my life of faith and have taken to the extreme to my own detriment.  If you have wrestled with that and would like to talk more about it, please let me know.

What I have come to understand is that denying ourselves is really about opening ourselves to perceive the world and everyone in it – including us – with God’s love. This perspective will help us see those around us for who they are and to pay attention to where we might have what they need and to receive what they may have for us. Through this lens, denying ourselves is about changing our focus – from ourselves and our needs alone, to seeing how we are part of a wider community and a much bigger picture.

The Difference between Heaven and Hell – Story of the splinted arms

Presbyterians don’t typically talk much about the concept of Hell, but it does come up in study and conversation.  And though I personally don’t worry about the logistical reality of hell, I have found some discussions about it beneficial for wholistic perspectives on faith and how we live out our faith here on earth. I heard a story a long time ago that provided one of the most helpful insights I have heard even to this day.

The story is about a man who was granted permission to leave his earthly life briefly to visit hell. When he got there, the sight was horrifying, and the sound of suffering was overwhelming. People sat across from one another at long tables piled high with food. Both arms of every person were in splints. Each person had a spoon but could not eat because he or she could not bend at the elbow. And so, Hell was filled with the groans of people starving even though plenty of food was right in front of them, but just beyond their reach.

Next, this same man was granted permission to visit heaven. Oddly enough, the setting was the same as in Hell: the tables, the food, the people with splintered arms – all exactly the same. Yet, everyone in heaven was content and happily talking with one another. The man saw what the one difference was: each person was able to reach their splinted arms across the tables to feed one another.  So, no one was hungry.

The difference between heaven and hell was not the setting; it was the way people treated one another. The difference between heaven and hell was in how people looked upon one another and what they focused on – serving themselves and their own suffering or serving one another to alleviate each other’s suffering as part of a wider, connected community.

Always looking for the ways we are called to be in ministry

Last week, I talked about the extended period of transition this church has experienced and compared it to the wilderness time when Jesus suffered in the desert and the wilderness times, we all experience in life.  Transitional seasons in a Church’s life can also present us with an opportunity to either focus on what we are missing and how we may be suffering because of that, or to focus on God’s call for our lives and the ways we may already equipped to help each other fulfill it. This kind of question is always good for any church to have before them as a way to remain faithful to ministry as followers of God in Christ.

We’ve been talking about the upcoming mission study for a while and tomorrow a church-wide communication will go out to invite everyone connected to this congregation to participate in the first of 3 Conversation Sessions offered in a variety of venues for the greatest accessibility.  The sessions will ask us to reflect on questions about the Church’s life, ministry, and future.   This study is about preparing for your next pastoral leadership, but it is also a reminder to focus on God’s call, to pay attention to whom we are serving by opening ourselves to the other and who they are at the deepest level. 

The other for us may be members and friends of the Church who are away at school, who are homebound or traveling, those who are in this building regularly and those who are visiting – on a Sunday for worship or any other day of the week for PDO, concerts, PADs, family nights, classes, or counseling.  Neighbors who are living and working in close proximity to the Church building and neighbors in the various areas where each of us live and work – together part of the wider, connected community that may be part of God’s call for us.

What would Church life look like if every one of us spent our time trying to really see the other, to focus on what it might to take so that each one experiences the living Christ through acts of kindness, acts of service, through genuine prayer and loving encouragement?

What if we did it not to get people in the pews, but in an earnest desire to follow the teaching of Christ and to worship God in the way we live every day – with our attitudes, our acts, our words, and our prayers?