Discipleship – a call into suffering?

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The Uniting Church Studies Program is offered annually by the Centre for Theology and Ministry as an intensive program. It explores the history, theology, polity and priorities of the Uniting Church. Each year, the program generates a great deal of energy among the students; this year was no exception. In fact, this article is prompted by the energy around a particular expression in the Basis of Union which caused the class of students to wonder at its meaning.

In paragraph 4, the Basis of Union invites us to define our Christian life as a calling into suffering, or to be more precise: “Christ calls people into the fellowship of his sufferings, to be the disciples of a crucified Lord.”

I want to make three points as a way of reflecting on this expression and exploring its meaning.

First, it is notable that suffering lay at the heart of the life of Jesus. The experience of suffering was not simply the final painful consequence of his controversial way of life. ‘Suffering’ is the central feature of his life, from birth to death. According to the Apostles’ Creed, the only description we find of Jesus’ life, between his birth and his death, is that he ‘suffered’ (under Pontius Pilate). The creed gives no attention to the teachings nor to the miracles of Jesus, but only that he suffered, as if this is what Christians need to know more than anything else about this Jesus.

If we were to ask why this is so, then the Gospel writers and Saint Paul would perhaps offer a couple of responses. They might each say, in their own way, that the uniqueness of Jesus was in the fact that he remained faithful in his service of God, within a world which was, in a host of ways, preoccupied with serving and preserving itself.

In doing so, Jesus provoked controversy and opposition, not only among the religious and political leaders of his day, but even among his own family and friends, to the point of an inevitable sentence of death. It was among those who also suffered rejection and marginalisation, religiously and culturally, that Jesus found most frequent welcome.

Second, it is also a key theological claim of the gospel writers and Paul that Jesus of Nazareth identified with the fullness of human broken-ness and took upon himself the fullness of human alienation from God. In this way, he became the source of healing, reconciliation and hope for a broken world.

For example, Mark’s Gospel describes Jesus’ life as one of engagement with evil spirits, of rejection by a world blind to his identity, of acute personal anguish as he contemplated his death on the cross, and of hellish experience of abandonment by God as he breathed his last. It seems to be the purpose of this Gospel to indicate that there is no suffering or hell on earth which is not embraced and overcome in the human experience of this man, Jesus.

In the Gospel of John, where we find a very different description of Jesus’ experience of dying, the crucifixion of Jesus is also seen as an engagement with and defeat of the very sources of the world’s alienation and darkness – the evil, sin and death (John’s terms) that cast a shadow over the whole of life and hold all human life captive.

Perhaps it is the writing of the apostle Paul to the Christian community in Rome which contains the most extravagant witness to the suffering of Jesus, and sees in his death and resurrection, the most profound source of victory and hope. Addressing a community which is under constant threat of persecution (Romans 8).

It is the centrality of suffering in the life of Jesus of Nazareth which then defines Christian life as a calling into ‘the fellowship of his sufferings’.

Perhaps this means two things.That we experience the ongoing sufferings of God in a broken world.

That we are invited into the sufferings of others …because our calling is to be disciples of a crucified Lord. Thus, in the only other reference to suffering in the Basis of Union, by baptism into Christ’s body, we are initiated into Christ’s life and mission in the world, so that we are united with him in one fellowship of love, service, suffering and joy (para 7).

Randall Prior
Principal, Uniting Church
Theological College in the Centre for Theology & Ministry
Professor, Ministry Studies & Missiology,
United Faculty of Theology

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