“Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange was happening to you. But rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly.”  (1 Peter 4: 12)

No one likes to suffer. In fact, most of us go out of our way to avoid it. We seem to work hard to eliminate any suffering, hardship or even inconvenience from our lives. Many of us seek to build in as much comfort, ease and pleasure as we can into our daily living. But is that the Christian way? Not according to St. Peter, or even our blessed Lord.

As I was reflecting on the passage above from the First Letter of St. Peter read at Mass this morning, I was personally struck by the sense communicated by St. Peter that we should not be surprised at all by the suffering that will come as a result of being a disciple of Christ. In fact, he is telling us that this is the normal state of affairs for a follower of Jesus. So we should not think it at all strange or out of the ordinary that suffering will come our way as a result of being a Christian living in the world.

But St. Peter goes even further with his point. Not only should we not be surprised, but we should rejoice precisely to the extent that we have been given to share in the sufferings of Christ. Rejoice in suffering? Try selling that one to our current culture!

But Jesus Christ himself taught us in no uncertain terms that suffering and hardship will go hand in hand with being his disciples:
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you…If they persecuted me, they will persecute you…In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 15: 18-20 and John 16: 33)

Elsewhere, Jesus gives us our “marching orders” if we are to be his disciples: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9: 23-24)
So, what part of this important aspect of the Gospel message do we not get? I am not pointing fingers, since I find myself at times wishing to have it easy, trying to find the gentler, more comfortable path. But certainly as a shepherd of Christ’s Church and as one configured sacramentally to Christ, I should not be surprised at the price I must pay in this world to remain in Him.

But this goes for every follower of Jesus. Why are we surprised and afraid to pay the price? In the largely secular and relativistic culture that is western Oregon, we are so tempted to “go along to get along.” Why are we afraid to speak up and witness to the truth of our faith before our neighbors? Perhaps we do not believe strongly enough in Christ’s word and in his promise.

Jesus tells us to “be of good cheer” in the midst of tribulation for his sake, because he has overcome the world. He tells us that if we are willing to “lose our life” for his sake, we will actually preserve it to life eternal. Elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus tells us: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 10-11)

There’s that “rejoice” word again! We are supposed to not just accept or be content with sufferings for our faith, but we should be glad and rejoice, not for their own sake, but because of Christ’s promise of the final victory in the Kingdom of Heaven.

All of this is what St. Peter is getting at in the text already quoted. We are willing to rejoice in our sufferings for Christ and the Gospel because when Christ’s glory is revealed at the end of the world, we will receive our eternal reward. The martyrs certainly understood that.

In our world today, in parts of the Middle East and in other places, our brothers and sisters in Christ are being persecuted, driven from their homes, reviled, tortured and even killed, simply for being disciples of Jesus. Even in our own country, Christians are losing businesses, being sued and even jailed for their attempts to live their religious convictions and exercise their religious liberty. Do we really have it so bad when we are being asked to undergo some ridicule or dismissive attitudes for simply being faithful to Jesus?

The next time I am tempted to keep my mouth shut, “soft pedal” my faith, or “go along to get along” with the prevailing culture so as not to make waves or be made to feel uncomfortable, I am going to remember the seminarian from Vietnam I once knew whose brother was skinned alive in front of him in an attempt to get him to deny Christ. As his brother was being thus tortured, he said to his seminarian brother, “Don’t do it! Don’t deny Christ!”