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Transformed Living: Suffering Love

For God is pleased when, conscious of his will, you patiently endure unjust treatment. Of course, you get no credit for being patient if you are beaten for doing wrong. But if you suffer for doing good and endure it patiently, God is pleased with you. For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps. He never sinned, nor ever deceived anyone. He did not retaliate when he was insulted, nor threaten revenge when he suffered. He left his case in the hands of God, who always judges fairly. He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds you are healed. Once you were like sheep who wandered away. But now you have turned to your Shepherd, the Guardian of your souls.

Thank you to the choir. Thank you, Tammy, for covering for Marlane this morning, and thank you to Jared, who usually is upstairs, for accompanying them on the drums this morning and Phyllis as well. That's a great, encouraging, upbeat song to prep us for talking about suffering this morning, isn't it? It's where the text takes us this morning, so we will go there with it, but hopefully we'll come away encouraged and inspired by this message of assurance that the choir has reminded us of in spite of the things the text will share with us this morning. Will you bow with me as we pray together. Gracious and loving God, we give you thanks for all of the ways that you are present in our lives and in this world. Even as we come to a hard topic and address things like suffering, we are reminded that your assurances and promises stand true.

So may that spirit and that joy be upon our hearts, that as your scriptures are read and now proclaimed by your Spirit, may the words of my mouth, the meditations of all of our hearts be blessed and strengthened by you, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

I wanna begin this morning by sharing a story with you about a young woman that lived at the beginning of the third century. Her name was Perpetua. She was a noble woman who lived in Carthage, which is modern day Tunisia. It's one of the northern most parts of the continent of Africa on the Mediterranean Sea, and it was a significant trade route. And it was part of the Roman Empire. Now, in the third century, Christianity flourished around the Mediterranean, and particularly across North Africa. And Carthage was a flourishing Christian community, and Perpetua was a young woman who had come to faith in Jesus Christ.

The problem was that at the beginning of the third century, the emperor of the day, Septimius Severus, if your minds go to Harry Potter, there is a ring to that, but no, this was the Roman Empire, set the Emperor Septimius Severus and he was intent in squashing out Christianity. And he began in North Africa, and he made a decree that it was illegal for anyone to convert to Christianity and for that matter, to Judaism. And to reinforce that, his birthday was coming up, and so the order went out that everyone was to offer sacrifices in honor of the emperor and worship him. That didn't sit well with those Christians. Well, Perpetua, her handmaiden by the name of Felicity and three men were new Christians who were going through the process of learning what it meant to be Christians. They were called catechumens.

So they were students learning about the faith who were preparing for their baptism, and they were arrested. Perpetua was fairly newly married and a new mother. She was best estimate around 20-22 years old, as I mentioned, of noble birth, her family had some means, but she's put in prison with these other Christians. They were abused and treated badly, and her father came to... Were pleading with her and saying, "Just renounce this Christian faith. Offer the sacrifice to the emperor and save yourself. Do it for me, do it for your newborn son." Now, Perpetua kept a journal, a diary of this imprisonment, and while she was there, she and her companions prayed, and she had some visions, and these visions kind of revealed to her and the others that they were going to be dying a martyrs death.

So they gave up any hope that their life would continue beyond this time. And she said, it will all happen in the prisoner's dock, as God wills. The prisoner's dock is that area where those awaiting trial are held and contained, she said it'll happen in the prisoner's dock as God wills, for you may be sure that we are not left to ourselves, but are all in His power. Her faith, her confidence was that God was with them even though things didn't look good. Her handmaid Felicity was pregnant as well. Eight months pregnant. The one saving grace for her was that the Romans would not put a pregnant woman into the gladiators arena, but Felicity wanted to be true to her faith, and she prayed that her labor would begin. And it did. And she delivered her child.

And so when the day of the execution of these Christians came, it was sport for the Romans. They were put into the arena. One of the men said that he wanted God to give him to strength so that he could fight all of the animals that they unleashed upon him, and he did. Another one of the men said that his desire was that he would die by the bite of a single leopard, and the account says that when he was put into the arena, all of the other animals avoided him, except for the leopard that bit him once and took his life. It's a hard story, but Perpetua and Felicity were bound together, put into the arena, and angry cattle were released to trample them. They were gravely and mortally wounded, and ultimately the gladiator came in and took their lives with a sword. Unfortunately, their story is not uncommon for many early Christians.

Their story is well-documented because Perpetua kept this diary that was in turn passed to another Christian secretly in that community who finished the account of her martyrdom. For it is to your credit, if being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. Boy, that puts Peter's words in context. When you consider how hard life was for some Christians like Perpetua and Felicity and countless others throughout the ages. That was so long ago, and yet even in our world today, there are parts of this globe where it's difficult, where it's illegal, where the risk of death is very real for those who put their faith in Jesus Christ, and yet we find that there are those, who like Perpetua and Felicity, stand true to their faith. What credit is it to you if being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly?

Puts it in a different context for us, doesn't it? When we think about our suffering, the challenges that we may or may not face by being a Christian. Peter doesn't lay this out and say, "Okay, the only real Christians are the ones like Perpetua and Felicity who literally die for their faith." I don't think Peter is saying, "Go out and find someone to persecute you to prove how good you are," but rather he is pointing to the fact that suffering, that persecution, those challenges to our faith will come. Our struggles may pale in comparison when we think about what others face and willingly endure, and yet, if we think about it, there are times where we probably have experienced some pushback because of who we are, and more importantly, who we believe in. As I mentioned with the kids, some of that might come simply from mocking, people making fun of us because of our faith.

Oh, you believe in that magic, that tradition, that's legend, that's not real. Criticism if we offer to pray, choosing to be in worship on a Sunday morning instead of the golf course, or work or whatever, because we've made our faith a priority. There are push-backs that we may experience, but they don't have the bite of a leopard or the trampling of cattle hooves sting to them, but it's still a challenge nonetheless. Maybe it has cost you something. We talked about it in Bible study on Tuesday, and someone mentioned this, and I've had conversations over the years with people who, in the course of their work, are put in a position where a supervisor or a boss tells them to lie, tells them to compromise their integrity, tells them to fudge the numbers, or to make something up, or to do something that they consider unethical.

And for many of them, as a person of faith, they do say, "For conscience's sake, I can't do that." And some have paid a price and lost a job, or a contract or a promotion or whatever it is, but they have paid a price by standing true to their convictions. Peter is telling us that being a Christian involves a transformation to change in our life in which our highest priority and our highest commitment is to the one that God has called us to. And he continues and says, "If you endure when you're beaten for doing wrong, what's the credit in that?" Maybe if you've done wrong, you deserve it, I guess is what he's saying, but he says, "But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God's approval." Now, let me say this again.

God is not looking for those only who have been beaten to say these are my best followers, it doesn't mean that we need to go out and find someone that cause some trouble in our lives, but rather Peter's playing into the fact that trouble is gonna come. It may be big, it may be small, but trouble is gonna come. We don't have to look for it. But Peter's talking about, what do we do when it does? He says, "For this you have been called because Christ also suffered for you leaving an example so that you should follow in His steps." And then he refers to the prophet Isaiah, and says, "He committed no sin and no deceit was found in His mouth, and when He was abused, He did not return abuse. When He suffered, He did not threaten. And He entrusted Himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sin in His body on the cross so that free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By His wounds, you have been healed."

Suffering is definitely a part of what Peter is pointing to. The reality that suffering has happened, the reality that Jesus suffered even though He didn't deserve to, but I wanna suggest that rather than focusing upon the suffering, we focus on another word that is in here: Endure. Peter says, "If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God's approval." God's approval doesn't come from the suffering, but rather the enduring, the standing firm, the remaining faithful, the being obedient to God in spite of whatever might be happening, God's approval is when we stay the course. He says, "You've been called to this." I don't think we've been called to suffer, I think we've been called to endure, and he continues saying, "Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example so that you should follow in His steps."

Again, we don't follow in His steps, we don't follow in His steps of being beaten and crucified, but rather we follow in His steps of being faithful every step of the way, being faithful from beginning to conclusion. That faithfulness, that obedience of Jesus is the example that we are to follow, that He didn't deviate, He didn't turn away, He didn't go his own direction, He did as God intended and followed through and was obedient. And in the words of Paul, obedient to death, even death on a cross. That, friends, is the example for us of following in His steps, of being faithful, of being obedient. Final verse there says, "For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and the guardian of your souls. This shepherd, this guardian of our souls is Jesus Christ."

In the Gospel of John, we have those words of Jesus where he says, "I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me." We have that shepherd in Psalm 23, that is the shepherd who watches over and cares for and guides and protects and he tends to the flock. Even though we walk through the darkest valleys, we shall fear no evil, for the Lord is with us. This is the shepherd who has welcomed us and called us back and declared that He will guard and keep us. That He will be the guardian of our souls, much like that quote, that affirmation that I shared from Perpetua, when she said, it will all happen in the prisoner's docks as God wills for you may be sure that we are not left to ourselves, but are all in His presence.

Even facing that dire circumstance, even knowing that she was not going to escape this prison alive, that her family would bid her farewell, that her son would be an orphan, she trusted God to the end. Friends, we don't know what trials, challenges, persecution or suffering we may face. It may be something that we face as a community together, it may be something that we face individually or as a family, it may be something that we face internally in private, or it may never come at all. But the example of Jesus is rooted in that blessed assurance that God has offered his son and then him given us an example and called us to a life of faith, to a life of obedience, to a life in which we will never be alone, because we have that Shepherd who will guard us and keep us, and has already declared that we are His. Thanks be to God for that suffering love of Jesus, but more importantly, for that enduring love that keeps us always near to Him. Amen.

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