Text: Acts 9:1-20
I’ve been into a song recently: “I Vow to Thee my Country,” a British patriotic song, created in 1921, when a poem by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice was set to music by Gustav Holst. I’ve loved the tune long before I ever knew it is also a song because the music of Holst has so long entranced me. The words are very obviously an English patriotic song:
I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.
I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me.
Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,
And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead.
I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns,
I haste to thee my mother, a son among thy sons.
And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.
“Her pride is suffering.” This line jumps out at me. Just like this phrase jumped out at me in our Text, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 1:16) God will show Saul how much he will need to suffer after taking the name “Paul.” In other words, “don’t worry about making Saul suffer Ananias, I’ve got that well in hand.” God, in order to accomplish God’s work on Earth through this newly minted Apostle – will show Saul suffering.
Is God’s pride suffering?
Suffering does in fact become a point of pride for us. Why do we do that? We even give it badges and tabs – airborne badges are not significant because someone jumps out of a plane (anyone who goes to a vacation spot can skydive with minimal instruction) it becomes something because of the school that goes with it. The suffering.
This is true across cultures. Suffering is worn as a badge of pride. If, somehow, a group can attach some kind of ribbon, award, t-shirt etc to suffering – hey, if we take your picture and put it on the wall, would you eat some kind of “ghost-pepper-habanera laced-pure gasoline-donut?” We do this because there is a measure of pride in our suffering. It’s that pride one gets when they are like, “I had all my children in a barn on top of hay with no anesthesia.” Look at me – I suffered through. See the badges on my arm? See the ribbons on my chest? I was there!
Suffering is a way to distinguish the truly motivated from the “posers.”
Suffering has been, for ages, a way to prove your worth. Show you are serious. Demonstrate that you are for real. Something to aspire to. Something to revel in.
Those who have “been there” often minimize the sufferings of others since they “weren’t there.” Sometimes suffering becomes politicized and abused – images of suffering become the stuff of commercials.
Suffering is cheapened. The video of the Soldier coming home to see their loved ones becomes something used to sell cars and insurance. A cheap shot – appealing to the emotions.
There is physical suffering. Mental Suffering. Spiritual suffering.
But the best suffering, the suffering deified in books, plays, and movies is that which suffers for another. We tend to see suffering as a way to get past politics and religion. Suffering somehow validates the message and the messenger.
It was suffering that brought down the british empire in India. Suffering that ended eras of discrimination in this country. Collective suffering has ended bitter wars. Of course, it is also suffering that extends them when people talk about the idea of “we can’t end it – think of the blood and treasure already spent…”
There are really only two kinds of suffering:
1. The Suffering that is a part of the human condition – the suffering that we all have because it’s just a part of life. The suffering that is necessary because to have happiness, you must have sadness. To have pleasure, you must have pain. To have the beautiful flowers of spring, we must have clouds and rain. One does not exist without the other.
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism recognizes the reality of human suffering. The first truth is that there IS suffering, the second is the origin of suffering, the third is the cessation of suffering and finally the path to cessation of suffering.
Life is full of suffering. To suffer is to live. We can fight it, we can avoid it, we can shape our lives so as to discourage it as much as possible, we can muddle through it but in the end, everyone will suffer.
I spent Friday at Kansas University listening to a professor talk about depression – how it is actually, like obesity, a disease of civilization. It is a disease of affluence and abundance. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors (we know this by studying those who still live in those types of societies) knew nothing of depression. Depression comes because of our comfort. Even when we shape our lives to absolute comfort, that pursuit alone can be suffering.
2. The second type of suffering we experience is the suffering that comes as a natural consequence to the choices we make. Those choices can be good and we can suffer as a result or bad and suffering can still be there.
All this is in anticipation of a phrase from our Text this morning that jumped out at me. In Acts chapter 9, Luke recounts the salvation of Saul on the road to Damascus. Saul has been about the business of persecuting those Jews who are challenging the established norms of power. Those people who are challenging the powers that control Jewish life through religion. Their leader was dead, they have been driven out of Jerusalem and now, Saul gets permission to pursue holy war against them in Damascus.
Of course, the more power is applied to the problem, the greater the problem becomes. Saul, on the road to Damascus has a classic trance experience. He sees a bright light, hears a message from God that changes his entire paradigm about the world around him, and finally interprets the experience as a calling to do something about it.
Of course, no one would believe him, why should they? He went all Gestapo on them! He CAUSED great suffering.
Ananias is afraid and should be. There is nothing about this situation that is a good thing. The man God is telling him to visit has been killing his people. Killing. In that situation maybe I would be tempted to rebuke this evil spirit that is calling me to interact with evil. Clearly can’t be a message from God!
Ananias goes. He accepts the calling by faith. In so doing, he plays a pivotal role in the Christian story. With Paul, the whole thing changes. With Paul, the whole thing shifts. What if Ananias had said, “no?”
Here’s the phrase, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” God will show Paul that suffering is a part of this calling. The Message puts it this way, “And now, I’m about to show him what he’s in for – the hard suffering that goes with this job.”
The suffering that goes with this job.
Why does Luke want us to see this? To know this? Because so much suffering has already happened. Think about it, there is really only one way for Paul to show that he’s not up to evil purposes and the testimony of Ananias is only going to go so far! All this hearing messages from God isn’t going to convince people who are full of fear! Paul will suffer as a natural consequence of his choices and that suffering will validate that his has truly been called of God.
You see, over the centuries, one of the things that has consistently validated the testimony of Christ-followers has not been dogma – it has been “suffering well.”
It is a hard saying no doubt but that does not make it any less true – when we suffer and maintain our testimony, our beliefs are validated.
Suffering is talked about, recorded, and struggled to be interpreted throughout the Scripture and it is beyond the scope of this morning to address it fully but we will look at one passage – I Peter 3. In this text, Peter writes to a church that is starting to experience what suffering really is all about. He assures this new Church that when they suffer for God, it is good. It is right. It is a blessing – so long as it is done with a clear conscience. So long as they are in the right and suffering it is a privilege.
Maybe you could even say, “Her pride is suffering.”
Of course, if you are suffering, as Paul notes, because of murdering, theft, or “meddling in others business” then you’re on your own! Good luck with that because there isn’t much to be gained there!
Here’s the thing: We love to claim that our suffering is of Christ, for Christ when sometimes we’re just suffering the natural consequences of our poor choices or the ramifications of our actions. If we are jerks and people don’t like us, it doesn’t validate the message of Christ, it just makes us look like jerks. When the Body of Christ acts like little children and throws a temper tantrum every time we don’t get our way and people start treating us accordingly, it does not have much to do with bearing the Cross.
Cancer is not a test from God. Diabetes is not a test from God. Failing one’s APFT is not a test from God. It is suffering, but not from God. How you respond to these types of suffering is, however, a profound testimony of faith.
Saints, suffer well. Know that Christ has suffered from you and before you. Many have walked the paths you now tread. Some have walked them and validated the message of their faith, others (like me) have walked those paths and come up a bit short. That’s ok. Everyday is a new opportunity to be the Body. To demonstrate the Love. To enjoy the blessing of walking through this life with Christ.
We all suffer. Anyone looking at these words are either recovering from, about to start, or are deep in the throes of suffering. Part of being in the Body is that we do not have to suffer alone. We are in Christ and with each other. Let us support one another and encourage each other as we muddle through this life, suffering well.