7th Sunday of EasterJune 5, 2011
1 Pet 4: 13-16
Acts 1: 12-14
Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R.
“Beloved: Rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you also may rejoice exultantly” (1 Pet 4: 13).
The last time I was here, Dennis Wright asked me in jest why a good guy like Frank Wolfram has to suffer surgery and hospitalization, while a devil like me has it so easy.
I dare say very few of us are ready to rejoice in our sufferings. But, as the 1st Letter of St. Peter demonstrates, it’s an ancient Christian theme. St. Francis of Assisi also teaches that to accept being maltreated in various forms is “perfect joy” for the true disciple of Jesus.
As we all know very well, better than we’d like to, suffering is an inevitable part of life. We all have our personal sufferings of body and spirit; I don’t need to give you examples. We all have relatives and friends who suffer illness and injury, which causes us to suffer along with them. Every week seems to bring us news of another natural disaster somewhere: flood, famine, epidemic, tornado, earthquake, hurricane, tsunami, wildfire. Every day there’s news of violence inflicted upon innocents, intentionally or accidentally, in our streets, on our highways, at sea, in the air—not to mention the sufferings of war.
As Christians we believe that God’s Son became a human being like us in order to identify with our condition in every manner except sin. Our 4th Eucharistic Prayer professes to us that God sent his son to be our Savior, “born of the Virgin Mary, a man like us in all things but sin.” Part of that likeness involved serious suffering, horrible death. Without suffering and death, he wouldn’t be like us, wouldn’t be one of us. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us, “Because he himself was tested thru what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (2:18). Because of his humanity, in some manner he continues to suffer with suffering humanity.
Beyond suffering and death, God’s Son found resurrection and eternal glory—the reward for his perseverance and fidelity. The Son’s identification with our humanity is aimed at elevating us to his own perfection and happiness—to glory. When suffering comes to us, and when we can’t shake it off despite medicine or other recourse, we have the option of reciprocating with the Son, i.e., of identifying our suffering with his. I’m sure Frank Wolfram’s doing that, and your brothers over at St. Joseph’s. In one of his more enigmatic statements, St. Paul says that he rejoices in his own sufferings for the sake of his friends and disciples, and in his own flesh he is “filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church” (Col 1:24). (As it happens, that verse is alluded to in the little prayer after the 2d psalm at tonite’s Evening Prayer.*) Somehow, Paul so identifies himself with Christ that his sufferings become Christ’s sufferings and have some kind of a redemptive value from their union with the Lord Jesus.
Peter, here, assures us that our own fidelity thru our sufferings will have the same outcome as Christ’s sufferings did: those who share in Christ’s sufferings will also share in his glory when he reveals himself on the last day, when he raises our long-dead bodies from the grave. Our sufferings remind us of our union with the suffering Christ—and of the eternal life promised to those who are part of him. We remember, as St. Athanasius wrote, “Jesus Christ, rising from the dead, has made man’s life one long festival of joy”—a joy we anticipate even now in this vale of tears.
But how shall we be able to keep all that in mind? Doesn’t suffering—from illness, from pain, from grief, from loss—often shake our faith? Doesn’t it make us doubt God’s goodness, God’s concern for us? Human nature left to itself can’t manage suffering, can’t find any solace in it. The 1st and 3d readings today tell us the only way that we can manage it, find any solace in it, look beyond it with hope. Those readings speak of prayer.
Bereft of Jesus, following his ascension, and at a loss of what to do with their lives and with their memory of Jesus, the Eleven “devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:14). They turned to the Father seeking guidance, seeking strength, seeking courage, seeking wisdom—all of which the Father would shortly supply them with by sending them the Holy Spirit.
In the gospel reading, Jesus prays for his disciples because the Father has given them to him. They are the Father’s and also Jesus’ (John 17:9-10), so he prays that they—which means all of us—might reach eternal life thru their coming to know Jesus, and thru Jesus, coming to know the Father, “the only true God” (17:3).
So we have the Son praying for us, for our perseverance unto eternal life; and we have the example of the 1st community of disciples gathered in devoted prayer. Only prayer will keep us in the union with Jesus that we need when we’re suffering—not to understand the suffering but to see us thru it, as Jesus (who cried out in agony because his Father seemed so far away from him) kept ultimate faith with his Father in spite of his most unjust, most intense suffering of body and spirit.
A final point: Peter is speaking explicitly not of ordinary human suffering such as you and I must cope with from day to day, but of the suffering that comes from being a Christian, i.e., the suffering of rejection, harassment, and persecution. “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you” (4:14). “Whoever is made to suffer as a Christian should not be ashamed but glorify God because of the name” (4:16). Truly we don’t have to do much of that, not even in our increasingly anti-Christian age. The gibes of the New York Times and the harassment of the ACLU and the sneers of Christopher Hitchens aren’t anything compared with what Nero and Domitian were doing to Christians in the 1st century, what our forebears in the British Isles had to suffer for the Catholic faith, what heroic Christians suffered in the 20th century from Nazis and Communists.
St. Peter crucified (upside down, at his own request because he deemed himself unworthy to die exactly as his Master had)--fresco in the church of Quo Vadis, on the Appian Way in Rome
As we know well, the persecution of Christians is still a daily reality in many places. We must be part of those who “devote themselves with one accord to prayer” in solidarity with them. As part of Jesus’ body, we must pray for those whom the Father has given to Jesus—in China, in Iraq, in Pakistan, in Vietnam, in India, in all the places where the followers of Jesus are suffering today because of his name.
* LOH 2:1357.