Monday, May 27, 2013

Suffering and Discipleship

The Trinity Sunday lectionary texts included the following from St. Paul, which I focused on in yesterday's sermon:
Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)
I argued that the focus here is on suffering as a consequence of our decision to follow the way of Jesus. We can embrace suffering, not as an end in itself or even a means to an end, but as a result of our determination to resist evil.  This opens us up to suffering in two senses:  1) the breaking of heart that occurs when we allow suffering into our awareness, rather than denying it, avoiding it, justifying it or projecting it onto others and 2) the resistance we encounter in our attempt to ameliorate suffering; in particular the suffering that we endure when we refuse to resist this resistance with anything other than love.  The way of Jesus is the way of the cross.

Thus, St. Paul can speak of boasting in suffering in the same breath with which he speaks of boasting in our sharing in the glory (the reputation) of God.   God in Christ suffers with us for our salvation.  Suffering for the sake of the new creation, the in-breaking reign of God, is something we may choose.  It is in this sense that St. Paul can say, "I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church."  (Colossians 1:24).  This is quite different from suffering that is imposed on us, or the suffering we experience willy-nilly simply by virtue of having been born.  

Such suffering is not "necessary" or required by God.  It is contingent upon our decision to follow Jesus.  John Howard Yoder powerfully expresses the relationship between suffering and discipleship when he writes,
The believer's cross is no longer any and every kind of suffering, sickness, or tension, the bearing of which is demanded.  The believer's cross is, like that of Jesus, the price of social nonconformity.  It is not, like sickness or catastrophe, an inexplicable, unpredictable suffering; it is the end of a path freely chosen after counting the cost.  It is not, like Luther's or Thomas Muntzer's or Zizendorf's or Kierkegaard's cross an Anfechtung, an inward wrestling of the sensitive soul with self and sin; it is the social reality of representing in an unwilling world the Order to come.  The Word: 
"The servant is not greater than his master.  If they persecuted me they will persecute you."  (John 15:20)
is not a pastoral counsel to help with the ambiguities of life; it is a normative statement about the relation of our social obedience to the messianity of Jesus.  Representing as he did the divine order now at hand, accessible; renouncing as he did the legitimate use of violence and the accrediting of the existing authorities; renouncing as well the ritual purity of noninvolvement, his people will encounter in ways analogous to his own the hostility of the old order . . .  
It is quite possible to refuse to accept Jesus as normative; but it is not possible on the basis of the record to declare him irrelevant. (Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 2nd edition, 1994, pp. 96-97)
North American Christianity in nearly all of its expressions has cut the nerve between suffering and discipleship.  We've retreated into social withdrawal or conformity to established authority; or what is even more tragic - and ironic - we've opted for a new Crusade (the line between established authority and Crusade has become blurred since 9/11).  Jesus was faced with these same options as well, but chose instead the path of nonviolent resistance to evil in solidarity with the victims of "authorized suffering."

On Memorial Day, it is important for us to remember this other path and to honor those who have suffered and died for the sake of the reign of God.  The Church does not exist for the celebration of "Heroes," but for the formation of saints and martyrs.  "Do this in memory of me."  The "this" is the way of the cross.  That is what we need to remember.  


janinsanfran said...

I have found myself of late meditating on the chosen suffering of the hunger strikers at Guantanamo -- on desperate non-violent action in response to appropriate despair. Not exactly what you are writing of here, but not irrelevant either.

Theo said...

Gandhi's hunger strikes come to mind as well: in protest against British domination prior to India's independence and to protest communal violence between Hindus and Muslims in post-colonial India.

Gandhi had a platform denied to the Guantanamo inmates and he had other options. Still, I wonder if the inmates' hunger strike is an act of despair (as in the case of straightforward suicide).