“Suffering into Hope”
Genesis 50:15-21 and Romans 5:1-5
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
15 When Joseph’s brothers realized that their father was now dead, they said, “What if Joseph bears a grudge against us, and wants to pay us back seriously for all of the terrible things we did to him?” 16 So they approached Joseph and said, “Your father gave orders before he died, telling us, 17 ‘This is what you should say to Joseph. “Please, forgive your brothers’ sins and misdeeds, for they did terrible things to you. Now, please forgive the sins of the servants of your father’s God.”’” Joseph wept when they spoke to him.
18 His brothers wept too, fell down in front of him, and said, “We’re here as your slaves.”
19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I God? 20 You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as he’s doing today. 21 Now, don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your children.” So he put them at ease and spoke reassuringly to them. (Genesis 50:15-21 – CEB)
Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through him, and we boast in the hope of God’s glory. 3 But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, 4 endurance produces character, and character produces hope. 5 This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.(Romans 5:1-5 – CEB)
All that business about confidently turning problems, or suffering, into endurance, character, and hope, how does that really set with you? One might understand how that’s true for someone experiencing vocational turmoil, or how we suffered through the pandemic. But how might that preach today in Ukraine, Syria, or Sudan? How would it preach to teenagers being trafficked for sex? How would it preach to sweat-shop workers in Bangladesh? How would it preach to parents who have lost children in school shootings and who must continue living in a culture that protects the weapons used killed their children more passionately than it protects the children themselves?
Not all suffering is equal, and in Paul’s case, he’s writing to Christians in Rome who are suffering because, in a society that worships Caesar, they worship the God revealed in Jesus. So, that which gives them life could kill them.
Following Jesus can be dangerous because it means more than thinking right thoughts and acting nice. It means learning compassion, which translates, literally, to suffer with others—that is to practice solidarity with those who suffer. So, following Jesus means harnessing both grace and grit and challenging the powerful, speaking out for the voiceless, finding true value in something other than material wealth, and, then, suffering the consequences of embodying that kind of self-emptying, Christlike love for all things. Isn’t that how followers of Jesus witness to “the love of God…poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit”?
To complicate things, in Paul’s day, to find oneself beset with illness, loss, or misfortune means that God—or the gods—are angry with you and are getting even. So, logically, if people are only getting what they deserve, then aren’t we meddling in God’s affairs to try to mitigate their pain? Aren’t we even judging God’s judgment?
Through word and deed, Jesus declares that eye-for-an-eye retribution is not God’s response to anything. Jesus teaches that to share suffering—to show compassion—is to follow him and to love God. For Jesus-followers, then, to offer thoughts and prayers rings hollow. Mere thoughts and prayers almost always avoid the suffering of others because they fail to ask of us anything that will lead to endurance, character, or hope for anyone.
Only through compassion, by entering the suffering of others, do we embody our prayers and participate in the incarnational ministry of Christ—his ministry of presence and empathy.
Presence and empathy are what the work of the Missions and the Congregational Life and Membership ministry teams are about. That’s what much of the Shalom Circle is about. And given the unique struggles that children, youth, and families face in today’s environment of relentless busyness and detachment from relevant faith communities, that’s what much of the work of the Christian Education ministry team is about.
If a congregation is genuinely interested in preparing for a future, if it wants its material assets to provide more than an endowment and a venue, it will enter the suffering of the world around it. It will trust that, come what may, God has called them into suffering, that God is in the midst of it, and that, through the power of Resurrection, God is creating something new out of it. And through that trust, the people will discover something new, revealing, and empowering about the depth of their individual and corporate character. And through their surrender to grace, they will—they can, anyway—become a source of hope to people they don’t know, and to generations they can only imagine.
Over the last 12-15 years, Arlington Presbyterian Church in Arlington, VA watched its numbers decline, and they felt their congregational story easing toward the same slow death facing many churches these days. So, the church leaders began a season of very honest and courageous discernment.
Over a period of about ten years, they stepped back, looked at their beautiful stone church located in a municipality where higher and higher property values were making it impossible for people who weren’t doctors, lawyers, and Pentagon chiefs to live in that community. So, Arlington Presbyterian decided something unthinkable to most congregations—they decided that they didn’t need the beautiful stone landmark known as Arlington Presbyterian Church. What the community needed was affordable housing. So, the church sold its property to Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, and the old church was torn down. Pastor Ashley Goff says, As Jesus broke bread and gave it to his disciples, APC broke its church building and gave it to the community.
In place of the old building, there now stands Gilliam Place, a 173-unit affordable-housing complex. And in it reside teachers, nurses, police officers, firefighters, people with disabilities—none of whom could afford decent housing in that suburb of Washington, DC. Still an active congregation, Arlington Presbyterian gathers and worships in a specially-designed space on the ground floor of Gilliam Place.
While it is getting more and more expensive to live in Washington County, TN, I’m not at all recommending that Jonesborough Presbyterian do what Arlington Presbyterian did. My point is simply to illustrate what kind of Gospel-grounded ministry can happen when followers of Jesus really follow him into the suffering around them. Welcoming and trusting the Spirit’s guidance, they practice a visible, palpable hope that thoughts and prayers cannot deliver. They participate in God’s revelation of God’s household of grace on earth.
No one knows what the future holds for this congregation. And in the very limited time that this 60-year-old pastor has left in the ministry, he’d like to see this congregation poised for a future of ever-deepening, Gospel-grounded faithfulness. And to him, that involves expanding ministries of welcome and empowerment in a society that is contracting in its understanding of what it means to be human, and a religious culture contracting in what it means to be a Child of God.
It involves creating space where seekers can ask mind-broadening and faith-deepening questions that many church leaders have found threatening and shut down.
It involves continuing to follow Jesus into the suffering around us by addressing issues like poverty, hunger, racial injustice, gun violence, and ecological emergency.
Preacher, those are political issues!
Are they? Jesus wasn’t stoned for religious sins. He was hanged on a Roman cross as a threat to the empire because he blurred the lines between theology and politics. In a vin diagram of theological issues and socio-political issues, there would be a huge overlap because they all deal with the health and well-being of individuals and communities. In my opinion, those allegedly unrelated issues are one just as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, just as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer are all one in the Trinity.
And in Christ, we are one. When one of us suffers, all of us suffer. And while we can’t suffer in another person’s place, to whatever extent we are gifted for compassion and allowed to show it, we can walk alongside each other in our struggles, and through shared suffering build endurance, discover new character, and experience, as never before, the hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
*All information about Arlington Presbyterian Church can be found at: https://arlingtonpresbyterian.org.