“The Fellowship of Suffering”

Categories: M. W. Bassford, Sermons

When we hear the word “fellowship”, we recognize it as having a positive connotation. At its most basic level, it makes us think of good time shared with others. As we grow in our biblical understanding of the concept, we might add things like worshiping together or being generous with our money to the list.

However, not all that the Bible says about fellowship is pleasant. This is apparent to us when we read about the unfruitful works of darkness in 2 Corinthians 6. Another, even more challenging, use appears in Philippians 3:10. Here, Paul expresses his desire to know the fellowship of the sufferings of Christ.

This would strike the world as an utterly strange goal. Suffering is bad; who wants to seek it out? Nonetheless, if we want to be conformed to the image of our Master, we also must be conformed to the suffering that was such an important part of His earthly life. This morning, then, as part of our quarterly study of fellowship, let's explore the fellowship of suffering.

Today, I'd like us to consider three primary ways in which we ought to have fellowship in the sufferings of Christ. The first of these is fellowship in self-denial. Let's read together from Matthew 5:38-42. This is a text that we often like to break apart. In particular, we like to focus on v. 39.

However, if we want to appreciate the Lord's meaning, we need to read vs. 39-42 as his response to v. 38. “An eye for an eye” was originally a judicial precept of the Law of Moses, but by the time of Christ, it had evolved into a justification for self-willed retaliation. As Jesus commonly does, He addresses not only the practice of retaliation but also the self-will that underlies the desire to retaliate.

Thus, we should read all of the scenarios Jesus proposes as a critique of worldly selfishness. The worldly want to hit back, counter- sue, give only what is required, and give nothing if not required. All of us can appreciate the feeling of satisfaction that comes with these things. We are standing up for ourselves!

By contrast, it's hard to stand there and take it, let the jerk win his lawsuit, carry the soldier’s burden farther, and see our money go to someone who didn't work for it. There is suffering involved! All the same, we see this behavior modeled by our Lord, who didn't look out for His interests but for ours. When He was required to give us nothing, He gave us His own life, and His self-denial gives us our example.

Second, we have fellowship in the sufferings of Christ through submission. This is not a popular topic! I've been maintaining my blog online since early 2014, and in that time, I have learned what things will lead to hundreds of people in the comments yelling at me. First, I create controversy when I illustrate a post using a picture of a woman. Second, though, I make a bunch of Christians really mad when I write about submission. We do not live in a submissive society, so it is hard for us to submit to God, to human authorities, to elders, or to our spouses.

Even so, we must pay attention to the word of God in 1 Peter 2:13-25. This is a long reading, but I think we need to read the whole thing to appreciate Peter's argument. He is discussing an ugly truth about the Roman Empire. Under Roman law, slaves were legally the property of their masters, and those masters could do whatever they wanted with the slaves, beating them or even worse.

To modern-day Americans, the solution is obvious. These slaves who are being abused should run away! However, that's not what Peter says. He urges first of all submission to the government, and as part of submission to the government, slaves must submit to their masters even when those masters are beating them.

This is a hard saying, and I think Peter knew that it was a hard saying when he wrote it. He was commanding innocent Christians to stay in a situation where they were suffering even though they were innocent. In doing so, they entered into fellowship with the sufferings of Christ, who Himself suffered unjustly just like they were doing. Ironically, the last part of v. 21 often is quoted as generic justification for imitating Jesus. However, the text explicitly is about following in the steps of Jesus in enduring suffering.

Thankfully, we do not have masters and slaves in the United States today, so none of us are required to stick around even though our legal owner beats us. However, the Biblical principle here is so strongly stated that it should lead us to reconsider our attitude towards submission. Too often, Christians disobey the law they don't agree with, ignore the elders they think are wrong, and walk out on the jerk spouse.

That is not the truth that Peter taught, and it is not the example that Christ gave. The counsel of both is to submit, even when it's painful, and even when it's hard. When we bear up despite suffering unjustly, we participate in the holy suffering of Christ.

Finally, we share in His sufferings when we accept ostracism. let's read here from Hebrews 13:10-14. I know Clay preached a sermon on this a few months back, but it fits so neatly into this topic that I couldn't help myself!

The Hebrews writer here is addressing a problem commonly faced by Jewish Christians in the first century. 2000 years ago, Jews were not “worship at the church of your choice” kind of folks. If you were a Jew, and you claimed Jesus as your Lord, your friends and family would cut you off. They wouldn't protect you from persecution, and they might even persecute you themselves. Not surprisingly, a lot of converts found this pressure unbearable and returned to the synagogues, which is why the book of Hebrews was written.

Here, the writer urges Jewish Christians to embrace the social stigma and shame. He notes that on the Jewish day of atonement, the bodies of the sacrifices were to be burned outside the camp, signifying that sin had left the camp. Like that, Jesus himself literally suffered outside the gates of Jerusalem. It also was a sign that He had been cut off.

In the same way, the writer tells his audience to go outside the camp, even though it meant not being associated with their people anymore. After all, outside the camp was the only place they could find Jesus.

The same is true for us. Even though we are not necessarily ostracized because of our faith in Christ, we constantly face pressure to conform to the world. Life is much easier for us if we hold our peace on certain issues, booze it up at the office Christmas party, watch the same trashy stuff on TV, and generally live lives that are indistinguishable from the lives of those around us. The more we stick out, the more we will be ostracized.

We must remember, though, that Christ is not in the camp with the world. He is outside the camp, and if we want to go to Him, we must show the world that we are not like they are. We don't have to manufacture issues by dressing funny or refusing to celebrate certain holidays. Instead, obeying the will of God is all that is required. When the world sees us fearlessly living for Him, they won't like it one little bit, but He will, and that's all that matters.