A Sermon on Suffering— by CKB


[Preached thirty-four times from S.H.M. on 6/27/43 to 11/17/02 at Wheatley Hill]

But they had troubled him enough in the past. They had well-nigh broken his heart. Just where Galatia was, and when Paul went there are questions about which some of us get more heated than we should, and to which none of us certainly know the answers. But we do know, for St. Paul tells us so, that when he first went there he was a sick man, in a revolting state, through some disease, and yet the Galatians welcomed him as if he was an angel, as if he had been Christ himself. ‘Why,’ he says, ‘if you could, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.’ But that didn’t last. After Paul left, other men crept in, ruining all the work he had done, even undermining the Galatians confidence in their apostle. The whole of the epistle is a groan of pain, over what had happened, a fierce denunciation of those responsible for it, a passionate longing for the restoration of those who had fallen away. And here at the end, Paul turns around to say, ‘you can keep clear of me now, don’t think to do me any more harm, I bear branded in my body the marks of Christ.

What did he mean by that? There are several ideas struggling together, different pictures thrown together on a screen. But we can pick out the details. First, and most simply, if you had looked at Paul’s body, you would have seen marks—weals, scars, bruises. Here were the marks of the stones when they hit him, and he was left for dead at Lystra. Here are the lines of the Roman rods at Philippi. And how many traces of flogging and the hardships of imprisonment, of shipwreck, of the toll of frequent journeying, the perils of rivers, of robbers, of wilderness, of sea? These were the marks Paul bore on his body, the marks of suffering he had undergone for Christ.
But the picture doesn’t stop there. Paul uses these marks in another way. Who, what sort of men had marks on their bodies? Slaves, especially runaway slaves. Never again should that runaway who had been caught, escape. He would have branded on his face his master’s mark, so that wherever he went, people should know at once, he belongs to so-n-so. Slave brandings were the mark of ownership, and Paul says, you see these marks, they show you whose I am. It was for him I was stoned, beaten, imprisoned, they are his marks and they prove what I say, I am Christ’s slave.
There is another meaning too behind the marks. There is a papyrus document which contains a charm, which uses many of the same words as appear in Paul’s verse here. ‘I am So-n-So’ it says ‘and I bear the charm of Osiris, if any troubles me, I shall throw it at him.’ Here a charm, a sign is carried for protection, and Paul is thinking of that also—let no one trouble me for I bear the marks of Jesus’. Thus we find the following three points.

Christian people have sometimes worked with the idea that suffering is a good thing in itself— which it isn’t. There were all sorts of reasons for the growth of the idea. There was, for example, the general ascetic atmosphere in which Christianity grew up. It was an age of extremes. Religious people went one way or the other. Either their religion led to an orgy of immorality such as one cannot readily describe in public, or they mortified themselves, as if the more miserable they were, the more virtuous they were. Then there was also a strange sort of reaction from the days of persecution. People looked back to the old days of fire and sword, and said ‘those were the days, the church was a good church then—it was the persecutions that did it, kept us sound and pure.’ But then, where there were no persecutions, they had to invent sufferings for themselves to take their place. Wild men roamed the deserts, and sometimes would command the wayfarer to kill them. If he failed to comply, he was killed himself! Later in the Middle Ages, you might see a peculiar band of pilgrims trekking across Europe—the Flagellants. As they went, they took it in turns to beat one another. Of course you can see the absurdity of it, when you put it that way. But in our own times it is not always so apparent.

One reason why Charles Kingsley so disliked the Methodists of his day, was that when disease struck down a village, the Methodists would fold their hands and say, ‘it is the will of God, he wanted to clean out the drains.’ So today, there is plenty of suffering in which one ought not to acquiesce, but which we ought to take steps to stamp out. But for many people the suffering is there, a given fact of life. What about it then? For those of us who are Christians, the marks of suffering can be the marks of Christ.
For in the first place, our suffering can be used for the benefit of others. Just as it loosens our hold on our own pride, and makes us, by God’s grace, simpler and humbler, it makes us also gentler and more understanding of others. There is a beautiful passage at the end of Helen Waddell’s Peter Abelard Gillis says to Heloise who has been depreciating herself, ‘The common people, and they are the best judges, say you are a saint. They say that there is no beggar that comes to the gate at Argenteuil but leaves it blessing you; that they bring you wailing children, and they are quiet in your arms, they are wounded and your hands make whole.’ She replies ‘It is only the happy who are hard Gillis… I think perhaps it is better for the world if, if one has a broken heart. One is quick to recognize it elsewhere.’ That is true. The more we ourselves have felt, the quicker we are to enter into other’s feelings, and the slower we are to do anything to add to their pain. Sufferings that have wrought that refining work in us, which, not of themselves but by God’s use, they may do, are indeed marks of Christ.
In the second place, our sufferings may even give us a part in Christ’s own work. In another place Paul is bold enough to say ‘I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.’ This is no easy task to explain exactly what he meant by that. Certainly he did not mean that Christ’s own work was incomplete or by itself ineffective. Rather it leads on to what we are to consider in the next point. It means that we, the Church, Christ’s people, are so intimately united with Him that it is really true to say that our suffering is his suffering. In all this affliction he was afflicted. It is no mere sympathy, a suffering with, it is an actual suffering in. Christ redeems the world by his Cross, and in his mercy he sometimes lets us carry it for Him. But that does not happen automatically, and it only happens when we really are his. That leads to the second point—

This is a fundamental thing with Paul. We celebrate this year the centenary of F.W.H. Myers. His poem, ‘St. Paul’ is not without faults, but it certainly begins in a manner characteristic of Paul—
‘CHRIST! I am Christ’s! and let the name suffice you,

Ay, for me too He greatly hath sufficed;

Lo with no winning words I would entice you,

Paul has no honour and no friend but Christ.’

‘I am Christ’s’. That is where Paul always begins. He knew well enough and so did his readers, what it was to see a piece of property, an estate, a house, or something smaller sealed with the word– ‘Caesar’s’. He knew and they knew what it meant to be the property of a totalitarian owner. And just that sort of possession he applies to Christ, whose brand mark he bore. He was, and he said it again and again, Christ’s slave, not his servant merely, but his slave.

Now that is what a Christian is. That is what his very name declares, for the letters –ian attached to a name are a Latin termination indicating the property, not merely the adherents, but the property of the person whose name is used. We are, if we are Christians at all, Christ’s property, Christ’s slaves. What are the marks of that ownership? What is the imperial seal?
Foremost comes the mark of obedience. If we are Christ’s we must do what he commands. If you really understand that, then there is no playing at being a Christian. Ignatius knew that as long ago as 100 A.D. He said ‘Let us not merely call ourselves Christians but be Christians’. And there is a difference. There are some who have the name and there are some who have the marks. Jesus spoke of the two types— ‘not everyone who says lord, lord… but he that does the will of my Father.’
This obedience involves likeness; as arrogant as that claim might seem, that too is a mark of Christ’s, possession—likeness to Him. Of course, often enough that is wrought out in the marks of suffering. Life like his does hurt, it is bound to.
‘The fire our graces shall refine,
Til moulded from above
We bear the character divine,
The stamp of perfect love.’ (C. Wesley)
But I think supremely the mark of Christ on us is that we are men and women redeemed. ‘You are not your own, you were bought with a price.’ You were redeemed from your vain manner of life handed down from your ancestors. We are Christ’s by right for he has bought us out of slavery and made us his own. That is, we are a people that God has made his own at infinite cost. By the very act of becoming his slaves, we have become set free from everything else. So the marks that stamp us Christ’s are the same as the fruit of the Spirit and they include, love and joy and peace and gentleness. Simply because Christ is making us his own, has moved us away from hatred and harshness, from anxiety and fear. So in the last resort it is not so much true to say ‘if you want to be a Christian you must have the marks of belonging to Christ, but if you are a Christian you will have the marks of belonging to Christ. Again, the next point follows from this. The marks of Jesus are—-

In the last resort that means that you are his and he can be depended on to look after his own property; because we are so near to him, taken into his care, let no one trouble us. Of course we have moved a long way from the charm that first illustrated for us St. Paul’s words and set our thought in motion. The marks of Christ are not a charm, or a mascot or a hex sign to keep away all sorts of trouble. That you can seem from the simple fact that the marks of protection are in the first place marks of suffering. Christ’s protection was not the sort of thing that turned the Roman rods away from Paul’s back when they beat him. It did no such thing. It was protection of a very different order.
It is protection from the things that are really dangerous. It protects us from the danger, for instance, that suffering may make us hard and bitter instead of gentle and understanding. It protects us from the danger of becoming tired and despondent, of cracking under the strain, instead of being refined, purified, strengthened. The real danger is not that the work that God calls us to as Christians may be arduous, the real danger is that we should be cowards. The real danger is not that living according to Christ may be difficult; it is that we may be frightened by the difficulty and not attempt it.

He protects us from ourselves, our misunderstandings and our own sin. It is in another place that Paul gives us the clue to it all. He prayed to God with all his heart that God would take a great pain, a tormenting disability, out of his life. And God left it there and said ‘My grace is sufficient for you.’ His grace is sufficient for us, that is his promise.
If there is one thing certain in life, it is that we shall bear marks of one sort or another. Do you remember how Sherlock Holmes by observing small details about a person could often tell his story and his occupation? We cannot all read the marks but they are there. You see some people with the marks of evil obviously upon them; some with the marks of laziness, indolence, carelessness. You can’t get through life, as some hope to do, unmarked. The question is whether you will take the marks of Jesus or of some other.
And further; if you have decided to take his marks, as most of you have, you will understand them. You will not complain because sometimes they do bite and burn into the flesh and hurt. Forget not, that if they are the marks of suffering, they are also the marks of protection— still he loves and guards his own.

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