Sermon: St. Matthew 16:21-28 (ILCW A Gospel)
THE SUFFERING CHURCH
Prayer: Through this hearing of Your Word, uncover for me how I set my mind on the things of man and not the things of God. Send Your Holy Spirit so that I follow You, willing to bear Your disgrace and live in the joy of repentance. Amen.
Dear people loved by God even in suffering: Grace be unto you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Christian church on earth is a suffering church. People don’t like to hear that. In American Christianity, people avoid this subject. Maybe you don’t want me to talk about it. It won’t show up in an evangelism program. Who will be drawn to a suffering church? Won’t that turn people off?
Well, the fact is, the Bible from beginning to end shows God’s church suffering. One of the most comforting books of the Bible, 1 Peter, speaks of this often. The apostle Peter says in chapter 2: “When you do good and suffer for it, if you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this [suffering] you have been called.”
Now maybe someone would say, that’s just Peter’s opinion. Of course, the answer is no, these are God’s inspired words. But setting that aside, this is definitely not Peter’s natural opinion. Quite the opposite. We see here that the Peter we meet in Matthew 16 would not say it’s a good thing if you do good and suffer for it. This Peter rejects that we’re called to suffer.
It’s what happens here, when Jesus tells the disciples they are going to Jerusalem, and there He will suffer many things, be killed, and rise again. Peter rejects even Jesus must suffer! He takes Him off to the side and says, “Far be it from You, Lord! This shall never happen to You!”
Jesus then gives Peter a harsh rebuke: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a hindrance to Me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
The issue here is suffering, represented by Jesus going to the cross. The cross represented shame and disgrace. To Peter, this contradicted what he had just confessed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” He felt that what belonged to Jesus was honor, not shame. He thought that it wasn’t good for Jesus to suffer, and as God, He could avoid it.
Jesus, in His response, revealed what couldn’t be seen. That Satan was behind this. That Jesus’ suffering was necessary to fulfill God’s plan. In fact, Jesus used the language of necessity and “must,” in speaking to the disciples: he “must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things,” etc.
Now, Jesus’ suffering is one thing. We understand that. We have the whole Bible. We know Jesus had to suffer in order to save us. We know it was good. It obviously wasn’t too much or too hard for Him; He endured it. It’s not unreasonable to us that He suffered in order to save us.
But us on the other hand? We don’t understand our sufferings. We don’t know why. We think it’s too much. We think it’s too hard. We don’t think it should be necessary. And if it is, what does it say about God?
Now we should learn from Peter, that this is wrong-headed thinking. All he could think of was how Jesus could avoid painful, distressing things. He just wanted Jesus to survive longer, to not be taken from them yet. They were short-term goals. They were earthly. Selfish and self-serving, too.
This also tends to be our response. All we can think of is how to avoid painful, distressing experiences. We have short-term goals. They’re earthly. When we look at our suffering, it’s all about us. Our eyes are on ourselves. We’re full of our own pain, our own loss. This attitude has an effect on how you live, how you treat others, what priorities you have.
Avoidance Of Suffering may help preserve your own temporal life. But it will put temporary happiness above eternal joy. It can lead to losing your faith and salvation. And it leads you to lacking care for others.
So Jesus says: “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find out. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”
We first hear this from our individual perspective. We need for Jesus to teach us about the troubles we face and the trials we experience. We need Him to contrast our quest for our temporal happiness with our eternal joy. He places these promises in front of you to comfort you. He won eternal life for you by His own suffering. He suffered for you. He suffered in your place. He suffered perfectly. All your sins are died for, paid in full. He places His cross – not your cross but His cross – before you for your own comfort as an individual soul, precious to Him. He gives to you the body that was pierced for you and the blood He shed for you, to forgive you.
Then He holds your cross out to you. He calls you to believe and trust. He calls you to follow Him and to dare everything. He says you can do this. You do it with His help. You deny yourself. You live for Him. You make sacrifices. You refuse to be conformed to the world, and you aren’t perfect at this, you may struggle to bear the world’s scorn, and you get tired of it like Jeremiah in today’s Old Testament reading, but you are transformed by His cross. You don’t do it perfectly, He keeps picking you up when you fall. He who suffered walks with you in the midst of your suffering. So you go forward, walking after Him, in His footsteps, with Him beside you. Your sanctified life is just getting better at suffering, with His help.
But while all this happens first at the individual level, what we especially want to see today is that it’s also the church that is called to suffer. As He does this for us individually, He’s doing it for and in His Church.
What is the Church on Earth here to do? Jesus summarized the church’s task right before His ascension this way: “that repentance and remission of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations” (Lk 24:47).
The instructions in the New Testament to pastors, such as “preach the word” (2Ti 4:2), are instructions for the church too, since the pastors serve on behalf of the church. When He called Paul to be an apostle in Acts 9, God said it this way to the man Ananias who was to baptize him: first “he is a chosen instrument of Mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.” So first, what the church and its pastors do is to bear or carry the name of Christ and His teaching, and put it before people. But then second, God says to Ananias, “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of My name.” So secondly, the church is called to suffer. Putting Christ’s name before others means that by God’s grace, many will accept it, but also many will reject it.
This does often bring persecution; it has in the past and it does today. But also there are other responses: the pure teaching of Christ is ignored and considered irrelevant by many, or some take offense, or some fall away from regularly attending church where the truth is spoken, or faithful preaching and worship just doesn’t result in great success or numbers. Then what happens? This lack of outward success becomes a form of “suffering” that people in the visible church refuse to accept.
It isn’t real suffering on our part. When people don’t accept what the Bible teaches, it’s a response to God, not to us. But people do take these things personally. It affects how they feel about church. So these things become a temptation to change the church’s actual teaching or practice – to change or eliminate uncomfortable parts of God’s teaching – in in an attempt to manipulate or produce the results that are desired. Also in the personal lives of Christians they may change how they confess the faith at work, at school, or with friends, in order to become more acceptable.
These are refusals to suffer how the world responds to the pure teaching of God’s Word. But God’s answer is what He said to Jeremiah.
Jeremiah wanted to stop preaching the Word because the responses to it were too hard on him after all the years of receiving scorn from others. God said Jeremiah wasn’t authorized to change the message or stop speaking it: “They shall turn to you, but you shall not turn to them. I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you.”
This is God’s message to His Church and its pastors. He calls us to believe and trust Him, to follow Him and speak His Word faithfully. Only the preaching of His Word straight and true will save us and all who hear us. He says we can do this. We can do it with His help.
His church on earth – including our congregation – won’t do it perfectly, we may struggle to bear the world’s scorn, we get tired of it like Jeremiah, but He keeps picking us up when we fall. He comes into our midst every Sunday to fortify us with His Word, to give us His body and blood to strengthen us in this faith and to strengthen us in love for the world He sends us to. He who suffered walks with us. So let us go forward, walking after Him, in His footsteps. Jesus, lead us on, till our rest is won! Amen!