DISCIPLESHIP & SUFFERING
For our discussion about discipleship this week, let’s take a look at the role suffering plays in our call to mirror Christ, the one who suffered and died — and then rose again — for us.
Holy God — our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer — guide us this morning by your Word and your Holy Spirit, so that in your light we might see light, and in your truth, we might find freedom, and in your will, we might truly discover peace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
2 Corinthians 4:7-18
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” — Bernard of Clairvaux (YouTube video for in-home worship: https://youtu.be/UgkVTtT-0xg)
O sacred Head, now wounded With grief and shame weighed down Now scornfully surrounded With thorns, Thine only crown How pale thou art with anguish With sore abuse and scorn How does that visage languish Which once was bright as morn What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered T'was all for sinners' gain Mine, mine was the transgression But Thine the deadly pain Lo, here I fall, my Savior 'Tis I deserve Thy place Look on me with Thy favor Vouchsafe to me Thy grace What language shall I borrow To thank Thee, dearest friend For this Thy dying sorrow Thy pity without end O make me Thine forever And should I fainting be Lord, let me never, never Outlive my love for Thee
On Sunday, April 8, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was marched to the gallows at Flossenbürg on the charge of treason against the German Reich. Standing there, about to be killed for what would amount to following Jesus’ call to love everyone, Bonhoeffer gave his final sermon. It was a mere ten words: “This is the end. For me the beginning of life.”
Bonhoeffer was no stranger to the idea of discipleship, describing it once as a life of suffering and sacrifice. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die,” he writes in The Cost of Discipleship. This certainly fit the Apostle Paul’s experience. Just as Bonhoeffer suffered for faithfully following Christ, so too did Paul suffer under Gentile and Jewish persecution for doing the same thing. Throughout 2 Corinthians, he seeks to defend his apostleship against mean-spirited (jealous?) opponents in Corinth who looked down upon his shabby appearance and poor speech. According to these self-assured critics, Paul’s afflictions and weaknesses proved that God was not with him. Why would God allow one of his messengers to look so bad and to suffer so much trouble? Why would God choose a poor, old fool who couldn’t even speak well?
But, in chapter four, Paul explains just how wrong his opponents really are. As ministers of the gospel, we are nothing but fragile bodies made of cheap, thin clay, but God works through us anyway. In fact, it is precisely this trait that God uses to reveal his surpassing power. Maybe Paul had Isaiah 53 in mind here: “He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not…After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied.” If that’s Jesus, then maybe discipleship means we are to mirror that, too.
Paul’s point is quite simple: God wants us to embrace our weaknesses because then the power of the gospel that works through us can and will only be seen as coming from God (4:7). Who would ever credit a physically afflicted, mentally perplexed, socially persecuted person as having any power of his own? Well, definitely not Paul’s Corinthian opponents! They saw success and power in personal ability and material and social success. Paul, on the other hand, saw success and power only in the person and message of Jesus Christ and him crucified (4:10-11).
When Jesus calls us to be his disciples, he bids us — like Bonhoeffer so well put it — to come and die. In the life of the everyday disciple, this means dying to ourselves and embracing our own weaknesses because it is through suffering sacrifice that God has chosen to work the real power of the gospel. Thus, rather ironically, through our “death” God brings life (4:12). Indeed, for Paul, our suffering and weakness mirror Jesus’ suffering and weakness, just as our ministry mirrors his ministry.
Suffering is not the end, however; it is the means. Though Jesus suffered and died, God raised him from the dead and glorified him. Paul continues on in chapter four to tell us that our minor sufferings are nothing compared to the eternal glory that Christ has in store for us (4:16-18). The proof and promise of this glory is found in Jesus himself. Just as we mirror Jesus’ sufferings, so we will also mirror his resurrection. Paul took comfort in this, and he encourages us to do the same.
Questions for Reflection
- How does Bonhoeffer’s description of discipleship as “dying” make you feel? Have you ever experienced God working through your suffering to help heal others from theirs?
- What might be some hidden or denied areas of suffering in your life that God can use to minister to others around you? Where do you need to show humility so that God’s power may shine through you?
Holy God, help us to be your disciples who through your power and grace proclaim your truth with boldness, perform your justice with compassion, and love all of our neighbors and strangers with faithfulness and sacrifice. We ask this in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
For further reflection on today’s theme, check out Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship.