Participation in the Sufferings of Christ

… that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and participation in His sufferings, being conformed to His death – Philippians 3:10

In the second lectionary reading for this Sunday, Paul speaks about participating in Christ’s sufferings. The word “participation” is κοινωνία (koinonia), also translated as “communion” or “fellowship” or “partnership”. This idea of sharing in Christ’s suffering is found throughout Paul’s writings and in the first epistle of Peter, although the vocabulary sometimes varies.

Peter uses this same word that Paul uses – κοινωνία – to describe our relationship to Christ’s sufferings.

But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 1 Peter 4:13

In Romans, Paul uses three words, each beginning with the prefix “sym” meaning “together with”: heirs together with, suffer together with, be glorified together with. The Greek word for “suffer together” is the source, by the way, of our English word “sympathy”.

Now if we are children, then we are heirs — heirs of God and heirs together with Christ, since indeed we suffer together with him in order that we may also be glorified together with him. Romans 8:17

In 2 Corinthians, Paul uses the word “abound” to describe the degree to which both Christ’s sufferings and Christ’s comfort flow to us.

For just as Christ’s sufferings abound to us, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. 2 Corinthians 1:5

Finally, in Colossians. Paul describes his own suffering as an apostle as a kind of continuation of Christ’s own suffering, offered for the sake of Christ’s church.

Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. Colossians 1:24

What might it mean to share in the sufferings of Christ? Permit me to offer some thoughts around the following lines of thought:

Sharing in Christ’s Painful Obedience

The season of lent begins by remembering Christ’s 40 days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness. It ends with the commemoration of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. For the sake of his mission, Jesus suffered privation throughout his ministry. Faithfulness did not bring Jesus ease or comfort or worldly fulfillment. The Son of Man had no place to lay his head. He surrendered his rights as the Son of God so that he could seek and save the lost. In Gethsemane and on the cross, we see the depth of his suffering.Peter reminds that we are called to follow Christ’s example.

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 1 Peter 2:21

Those who seek to follow Christ’s example in a life fully committed to God will find that obedience is often costly. Jesus set the example of sacrificial faithfulness that all Christians are called to emulate.  He used shocking word pictures – plucking out an eye, cutting off a hand, making a eunuch of oneself – to describe the depth of sacrifice that faithfulness sometimes requires. The call to discipleship is the call to take up one’s cross.

In the 18th century, John Wesley called the members of his societies to periodically renew their covenant with God with these words.

Christ has many services to be done: some are easy, others are difficult; some bring honor, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both; in some we may please Christ and please ourselves; in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves. Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.

Sharing in Christ’s Rejection

Many people scorned Jesus and his message, often with great anger and violence. Throughout the gospels, Jesus predicted that his disciples would suffer the same rejection that he himself suffered.

Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. John 15:20

Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Matthew 24:9

The story of the early church demonstrated the validity of Jesus’ prediction. Still today, faithful Christians suffer martyrdom at the hands of the enemies of Christ. Jesus so identifies with his brothers and sisters, that to mistreat Christ’s followers is to mistreat Christ himself.

Whoever rejects you rejects me; and whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me. Luke 10:16

When God’s people are faithfully representing Christ in the world, how the world welcomes or rejects the church and its message is of eternal significance.

Sharing in Christ’s Love for God’s Broken World

Twice the gospels tell us, Jesus wept.

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” Luke 19:41-44

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. John 11:32-35

We are told that Jesus wept for Jerusalem whose time of judgment was at hand, and for the family of his friend Lazarus who had died. The world is broken by sin and death, and the world’s brokenness caused Jesus pain. Christians share Christ’s passion for God’s broken world. It was a passionate love for God’s lost world that motivated Jesus from the beginning.

For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. Luke 19:10

Christians share in Christ’s sufferings as they spend themselves for others as Christ did for the sake of the lost. Christians know the joy of believing in Jesus. Faith in Christ brings hope for the perfection of all creation, freedom from sin, a new and loving spirit within, and the abiding presence of God experienced both within the community of faith and the heart of the believer. Believers long for others to know the blessings of faith that they themselves have experienced. They share Christ’s heartbreak and his passion for the world. For the sake of others, they are willing to pay the price that love demands.

Sharing in the Story of Christ’s Suffering

The church is the community that tells the story of Jesus’ suffering in word and worship. The New Testament begins with four gospels that tell the one Gospel of Jesus. Scholars sometimes describe these books as “passion narratives with an extended introduction.” The story of Jesus suffering and death are at the heart of the gospel story. For much of the church’s history, most believers encountered that story in Christian worship, not in private reading. It is the assembly that the gospels are read and proclaimed. It is also in the assembly that we gather around the table where Christ’s suffering is proclaimed in an act of bodily worship.

For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 1 Corinthians 11:26.

For Paul, the κοινωνία of Christ’s suffering is, at least in part, the κοινωνία of the Lord’s Supper.

The church is also the community that tells the story of the crucified messiah to the world, inviting all to unite with him in faith. The apostle Peter describes himself as a witness of Christ’s suffering.

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 1 Peter 5:1

We, too, are Christ’s witnesses, proclaiming not our own story but the story of Christ and his suffering. The good news we bring to the world is not that of our individual spiritual journeys, but the story of Christ crucified. The writings of the New Testament are the enduring apostolic witness to that story, serving as the foundation and standard of the church’s proclamation.

When Christians tell the story of their Lord’s suffering, when their worship empowers them to live within that story, and when they begin to see their lives through the lens of the gospel narrative, they are sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings.

Sharing in Suffering out of Devotion for Christ

In some places, the scriptures invite us to suffer for Christ.

For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.  Philippians 1:29

From time to time you will read about Christians who inflict pain on themselves out of devotion for Christ, beating themselves with whips as Christ was beaten, or having themselves nailed to a cross as Christ was crucified. Even fasting can be seen as this kind of reenactment of Christ’s suffering. I won’t criticize something I don’t really understand, but I will say that I don’t think that this is the kind of thing that Paul had in mind when he spoke about suffering for Christ or with Christ. Voluntarily suffering pain for pain’s sake is not a meritorious act that accrues benefits either for the sufferer or for others.

To suffer for Christ entails the kinds of things I have already listed: accepting the pain that comes with costly obedience, enduring rejection for the sake of Christ’s name, living with a heart broken by sin and death. This kind of suffering is simply the result one’s whole-hearted commitment to Christ.It has nothing to do with measuring our merits against our offenses. Rather, willingly suffering for Christ – taking his sufferings upon ourselves – is a sacrifice of love, offered in gratitude to the one who saves us.

To suffer for Christ, however, is not quite the same thing as to be united to him in his suffering. The former is what I do out of love for my savior. The latter describes the character of the relationship the he has established with me.

Sharing in Union with the Christ who Suffers

There is, then, one more way in which Christians share in the κοινωνία of Christ’s suffering. Through their union with Christ, there is a now an organic relationship between God’s people and their crucified and risen Lord. To be united to our Savior is to be united to his suffering as much as it is to be united to the power of his resurrection.

Those who belong to Christ participate in his sufferings. Paul describes this union sacramentally. The church’s defining acts of Christian Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are tokens of our being united to Christ in his death.

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Romans 6:3

Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation (κοινωνία) in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation (κοινωνία) in the body of Christ? 1 Corinthians 10:16

Related to the idea of our participating in Christ’s suffering is the idea that we are continually connected to him in his death and resurrection.

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 2 Corinthians 4:10

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Galatians 2:20

In our personal and sacramental union with Christ, we are united to his suffering.

Final Thoughts on Participation in Christ’s Sufferings

As you look at the breadth of New Testament passages related to Christ’s suffering, notice that the scripture’s teachings are almost always set in the context of the bigger picture. The one who suffered and died rose from the dead. The one who rose from the dead also ascended to God’s right hand where he reigns as the Lord of his church. From thence, as the creed puts it, he will come to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. Those who belong to Christ are united to him in his fullness, in his suffering and in his glory.

Notice, too, how the big picture is both communal and individual. To participate in the fellowship of Christ’s suffering is not just something I do on my own. To suffer with Christ is to suffer with and in his church. The church’s current suffering is clearly visible in many parts of the world. Where the blood of the martyrs is shed, Christ still suffers. Wherever Christ’s people suffer, he suffers with them. And if Christ suffers, so do I. In all kinds of circumstances, not just in fields of martyrdom, I am called to help bear the suffering of my brothers and sisters in sisters in Christ. That call is inherent in my baptism and in my welcome at Christ’s table.

The inescapable corollary to the idea that Christians participate in the sufferings of Christ is the idea that Christ still suffers. In taking up his cross, Jesus subsumed all human suffering for all time in a single momentous act. Exalted to the Father’s right hand, Christ’s vicarious suffering now resonates throughout all eternity.  In the days he shared our flesh, Jesus withstood the suffering that living a faithful life required. He endured the pain and the shame of the world’s rejection. He wept at the great harm sin and death were inflicting on God’s good creation. And he continues to do these things today, at least partly through his union with those who follow him.

At Christ’s appearing, the power of his resurrection will transform all creation and wipe away every tear. Until that day, our suffering – and his – will remain. We live in the age of the cross. The world, the flesh and devil sometimes win. Until the day Christ returns in glory, the grave always does. Whether we are speaking about those who suffer martyrdom for the sake of Christ’s name or simply those who suffer the natural consequences of living in a fallen world, Jesus still hurts whenever his people do. For the sake of the church and the world, our Lord still shares our suffering. He calls those who belong to him to share in his.