The Hope of the Servant King in Trials & Tribulations

The credits begin rolling. You get up from your seat, grab your popcorn bag, and head for the exit. On the way, you notice you are the only person leaving. You secretly judge the people around you for sticking around for the most boring part of the film. But then you realize something. Maybe the story isn’t over just yet. Maybe the reason people are waiting is because they know there is one final scene. Minutes later, the credits are interrupted and you stand corrected in your judgment of these patient moviegoers. A post-credit scene unfolds on screen.

Typically, this experience in the movie theater is a teaser for a future story. It is to give you a taste of what is to come next. Interestingly, this phenomenon that happens in movie theaters also takes place in one of the Gospels of Jesus, specifically the gospel of John. In John 20:30-31, the Gospel writer seemingly concludes his account of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. Cue the credits. However, as you turn the page, you realize there is one final scene, which is often known as “Peter’s Reinstatement.” It is my belief that this story of Peter’s redemption and commissioning by Jesus in John 21 is an invitation for the reader to also experience the redemption and commissioning of our Lord. But this commissioning is troubling.

It is my belief that this story of Peter’s redemption and commissioning by Jesus in John 21 is an invitation for the reader to also experience the redemption and commissioning of our Lord.

After Jesus meets Peter with breakfast, he tells Peter: “‘Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’ Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, ‘Follow me!’”1 What is clear is that the commissioning of Peter would be a life of service through suffering and ultimately death. And this wasn’t just for Peter; it would become the pathway for a myriad of Christians across cultures and moments in history. This is the likely pathway for you and me as well since we live in a broken world.

At Summit Ministries, we are focusing this month on the problem of evil and suffering. To narrow that focus, this article aims to give you a portrait of what suffering might look like and also some encouragement in the midst of great struggle. To do this, I want to turn our attention to a contemporary example of someone who suffered well: Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

For many of us, we have the conclusion of Bonhoeffer’s life in view, which involved participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler. However, many of us are unaware of what formed and shaped Bonhoeffer to resist Nazism and suffer ultimately to his death.

For Bonhoeffer, everything shifted during his brief time of study and teaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York, New York. Before Bonhoeffer moved to New York City in 1930, his vision of Christianity could be described as a blending of German ideals with Christianity and a triumphant vision of how the Kingdom of God goes forth. Yet while he was in New York City, he found himself involved in a church in Harlem known as Abyssinian Baptist Church. It was at Abyssinian that, through proximity to the poor and suffering, his vision of Christ and the Kingdom began to rapidly change. It was in Harlem that one of his dominant theological themes emerged. This theme is summed up in a German term: stellvertretung, which literally means “to step into another’s place.” For Bonhoeffer, the Church was to embody the very presence of Christ wherever it was. The Church was to “stellvertretung” (to step into the place) of Christ for the sake of the world. And for Bonhoeffer, one of the primary ways the Church represented Christ in the world was through identifying with and carrying the suffering of others. The Church was to willingly enter into suffering as an expression of Christ’s own suffering.

The Church was to “stellvertretung” (to step into the place) of Christ for the sake of the world.

It was this paradigm shift for Bonhoeffer that led him back to Germany at the precipice of World War II when it would have been easier and safer to flee elsewhere. He was led, like Peter, to “where he would rather not go.” It was Bonhoeffer’s understanding of Christ identifying with the suffering and the broken that helped him resist the wave of Nazism sweeping through the Lutheran church in Germany, compromising their witness with their loyalty to power and Hitler. What Bonhoeffer reveals to us is a portrait of suffering well.2

But the question is: How can this be encouraging news?

For Bonhoeffer, I think his answer would be simple: We are encouraged in our suffering because we do not suffer alone. Rather, in our suffering, we are able to identify with the suffering of Jesus and recognize that, just like Jesus, suffering is not the end, but resurrection and eternal life await us. This is why after being stripped naked and led to be hung to his death, Bonhoeffer said, “This is the end—but for me, the beginning of life.”3

Many of us have memorized the liberating words of Jesus in Matthew 11:28-30 when he says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” These words of Jesus come as a promise of real relief in our suffering but not removal. The agrarian imagery used here is one of oxen being “yoked” together via a harness to plow a field. To “take my yoke upon you” is not the promise of having the harness of suffering and exhaustion removed, but rather the hope and delight of having someone else carry the weight with and for you. It is a picture of Jesus entering into our suffering and the suffering of the world alongside us. This beautiful picture offers us a promise that our suffering can be carried “lightly” as we trust that our Suffering Servant King is with us and ultimately, Jesus is shouldering the load.

Charlie Meo serves as a pastor with Missio Dei Communities and as the curriculum director for the Surge Network in Phoenix, Arizona. He also contributes as a curriculum creator for City to City North America. He is married to his wife Keaton and together they are raising three kids.