The Marks of the Church: Suffering

Sermon for Midweek Lenten Service

Dear people who suffer: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The true Christian church, or God’s holy people, is recognized by suffering. Yes, I said suffering. The true church of God is recognized by the fact that she suffers. The other marks of the church are perhaps more understandable. The true church must have God’s Word and the Sacraments instituted by Christ. The church must have men administering Christ’s gifts to His people and people responding in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. But suffering? Is suffering really a mark of the church?

Certainly more popular is the preaching of the theology of glory; that preaching which says that God wants you to be healthy and wealthy; that preaching that says if you have faith, God will give you prosperity and wellness; that preaching which says you can live your dreams now and live your life to the fullest and make it last. After all, Scripture says, “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) Didn’t Christ suffer for me so that I don’t have to suffer?

It is true that Christ did suffer for you. He suffered for you so that you won’t suffer eternally in hell. But God’s holy people must suffer misfortune, persecution, tribulation, and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh. We suffer so that we would be conformed to Christ, our head.

You have undoubtedly heard and seen in all kinds of places that passage from Philippians which says I can do all thing through Christ. Athletes have it on their shirts. Mountain climbers have it on their gear. It’s on motivational posters in sales offices and other places to try to motivate people to accomplish something. Do you know the context of that passage? Do you know what the Holy Spirit was saying through the Apostle Paul? Saint Paul writes from jail, saying, “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

The Apostle is suffering in jail, and the Philippian church is concerned for him. Paul writes that he is content even in suffering and in prison, in hunger, and in need because he can do it through Christ who strengthens him. He can face suffering because Christ strengthens him for it. Not quite the stuff of motivational posters.

This Scripture passage doesn’t mean that you can become a professional ball player because Christ strengthens you to do it. It doesn’t mean you can scale Mount Kilimanjaro because Christ will strengthen you. It doesn’t mean you will be the top salesman in your office because Christ strengthens you. Christ has never promised these things to you or to anyone else. It means that you can be content even in suffering and in prison, in hunger, and in need because you can do it through Christ who strengthens you. You can face suffering because Christ strengthens you for it.

Until Christ returns, the church of God will suffer at the hands of the devil, the world, and our flesh.

The devil will not stop harassing and persecuting God’s people. He will not stop prowling around like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us. He will not stop causing strife and contention. He will not stop twisting God’s Word. He will not stop his temptations. The devil is the sworn enemy of Christ, our head, so he is the sworn enemy of us, the body of Christ.

The world will not stop its persecutions and attacks against the church. The world hates Christ’s holy people because the world hates Christ. Jesus says, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.” (John 15:18-21) The world will only stop hating us if we conform to the world and cease being God’s holy people.

Our sinful flesh will not stop its attacks and temptations either. Our flesh will not stop wanting things that are opposed to God’s will and commands. Our flesh will not stop its desires to conform to the world so that we would not have to face suffering. Our flesh will not stop desiring to jump headfirst into every temptation the devil and the world dangle before us.

The church suffers in these ways so that we would cling to Christ and the Word of God, and so suffer for Christ’s sake. Jesus says, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Matt. 5:11) First Peter 4[:14] says, “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” “Rejoice, insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed.” (I Peter 4:13)

No, this does not mean that suffering is pleasant, but suffering for the sake of the Gospel is an honour for Christians, who know that our Saviour suffered for us. This suffering tests the genuineness of our faith (I Peter 1:7) and helps kill our sinful flesh so that we might learn patience, humility, meekness, praise, thanksgiving, and gladness. We can rejoice in our suffering because it is momentary and not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Rom. 8:18).

Suffering keeps us ever clinging to the cross of Christ. It pulls us away from worldly desires and gives us a desire to be with our Saviour in heaven. It crushes out idols and leads us to cling to the free forgiveness which Christ has earned for us. Suffering draws us to the Gospel and leads us to cling to the sacraments where Christ has promised to give us the medicine of eternal life.

It is a mark of the true Christian church that she suffers as Christ her Lord suffered. Where the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh are attacking, tempting, and persecuting, there must be the true Christian church; there must be God’s holy people. Where people suffer for the name of Christ and for the sake of the Gospel, there is God’s holy people; there is the true Christian church. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

*Our midweek Lenten series is based on Martin Luther’s On the Councils and the Church, as found in the primer A Christian Holy People, which is available from Lutheran Press both affordably in print and free electronically (lutheranpress.com).

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