The Gospel of Suffering

By Elizabeth Baumann

Reading from Acts, 14:19-28

19 But Jews came there from Antioch and Iconium and won over the crowds. Then they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. 20But when the disciples surrounded him, he got up and went into the city. The next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. 21After they had proclaimed the good news to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, then on to Iconium and Antioch. 22There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, “It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.” 23And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe. 24Then they passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. 25When they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia. 26From there they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had completed. 27When they arrived, they called the church together and related all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles. 28And they stayed there with the disciples for some time.


Lest we think that the honesty which led Paul and Barnabas to renounce the godhood imputed to them won them any gratitude, our lesson today opens with the Jews following them among the Greeks and turning the people against them, so much that they were stoned and driven from the city. When someone wants you to be something you aren’t, they aren’t actually delighted when you refuse to play along.

Nevertheless, Paul and Barnabas continue to travel and preach, winning converts, founding churches, ordaining leaders. They are preaching that the way of the kingdom of God is through many trials. It doesn’t sound like it should be a popular message, does it? Here are two men who have been continually persecuted, driven from town to town, have just been stoned, and they’re inviting you to join them and also suffer. If they hung up a banner, it might have been just as likely to say “No good deed goes unpunished” as “Jesus saves.” This was the gospel which swept and continues to sweep over the world: a gospel proclaiming a God who suffered willingly, inviting us also to suffer.

We live in a time and place which despises and has no use for suffering. The idea that people could be evangelized by being told they must and will suffer for the gospel sounds crazy. Yet suffering in itself is universal: illness, loneliness, injustice, guilt. Imagine a gospel that acknowledges this, and goes a step further, giving suffering a meaningful place in the economy of God, inviting us to share suffering with God and to suffer for his sake. It’s not crazy. It’s just as relevant today as it was when Paul preached it.

Elizabeth Baumann is a seminary graduate, a priest’s wife, and the mother of two small daughters. A transplant from the West Coast, she now lives in “the middle of nowhere” in the Midwest with too many cats.

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