Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Apostolic Succession of Suffering, Part III

Part II noted how Christ's vicarious suffering is a model for Christian behavior, especially for the ministry.  Jesus suffered and died for us so that the kingdom might come.  We suffer and die for others so that the fullness of the kingdom comes.  Think about the book of Acts from this perspective.  Peter, John, Stephen, James, Paul, and the entire church had to suffer so that the kingdom of Jesus could grow and advance.  Every time someone suffers or dies in the story of Acts, the kingdom expands in some way or another.

And although this sounds odd to our ears, these sufferings are for the world.  In other words, they are in some deep, mystical sense vicarious.  According to Colossians 1:24, the kind of suffering that Paul rejoices in is substitutionary.  Suffering on behalf of others, in exchange for others.  Paul makes this very clear: “I rejoice in my suffering for you . . . for the sake of his body, the church."  He suffers in exchange for the sufferings that the Colossians might have had.  His suffering means that the Colossians do not have to suffer as much as they might have.

Now, we usually reserve that word “substitutionary” for the sufferings of Christ for us on the cross.  He took the punishment we deserved.  He suffered for our sins.  But that's not the only way one can "substitute" for another.

To talk about our suffering as vicarious is just a striking way of fleshing out what the Apostolic Scriptures clearly teach:
Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2). "This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends" (John 15:12-13).  By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down [our] lives for the brethren (1 John 3:16). Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (1 John 4:11). Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life (Rom. 16:3-4). And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma (Eph. 5:2). Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her (Eph. 5:25).
If you understand “sanctification” or personal holiness primarily as the self-centered cultivation of spiritual disciplines or virtues, then you are radically off track. This is one of Satan’s deceitful traps.  He distorts the message of personal holiness such that Christians turn in on themselves and obsess over their own individual purity.  We then become self-centered pharisees who set ourselves apart from other Christians as being more holy and righteous in our own minds. And all the while we are curving in on themselves, retreating from the church and from real holiness which is always primarily other directed.  When Jesus commands, "Take up your cross and follow me," he is not talking about self-flagellation or self-inflicted regimens of suffering we impose on ourselves to attain holiness.  He's asking us to follow his lead and learn to bear the burdens (crosses) of others.  

Let’s put flesh and bones on this.  Suppose you are asked to help someone in the church.  Let's take a simple example.  A family in the church is in distress and needs someone to deliver them a couple of meals.  You are asked to help.  But when you consider this, you know it will involve some measure of sacrifice (suffering) on your part.  Not much, but some.  You've come to a crossroads.  What will you do?  Will you give up some of your time and money and suffer a bit for this other family.  And it's not just you, but the kingdom of God in this community is at a crossroad. Every time a member of the community makes a decision to suffer the kingdom of God advances and we experience it's fullness.

Let’s take another example: Suppose someone sins against you, someone in the church. Another crossroads.  What will you do?  Will you get on the phone and foment dissension and bitterness by talking about it to someone else?  It will make you feel better.  You can feel superior.  You can promote your own advanced spirituality.  Or will you suffer the wrong as God has done for you?
He who covers a transgression seeks love, But he who repeats a matter separates friends (Prov. 17:9). And above all things have fervent love for one another, for "love will cover a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8).

You see, what is love but suffering for others? That’s exactly what forgiveness is all about.  Absorbing the penalty yourself.  Not holding it against the other person.  Not making him pay. Rather, you pay. You eat the costs.  You release him from the liability by absorbing it yourself.  This is what Christ has done for you.  Substituted for you.  Will you substitute for your brothers and sisters who sin against you?  Isn't this what we pray in the Lord's Prayer?  “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive others."  If we don't forgive others, the manifestation of the fullness of Christ kingdom is stalled because of our self-centered sinfulness.

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