Christian Community

The Church’s Call to Suffering in Post-Christian America: Preliminary

How can the Church’s suffering make visible the Kingdom of God in America?

Universal Scope: God restores creation’s goodness and newness through the Church’s suffering.

The Kingdom of God in the world is the ongoing work of Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit’s work in the Church, to restore goodness and newness to all of creation.  Creation’s goodness stems from the work of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and reflects the community, image, and glory of the Triune God. The Church reflects this goodness of God in the world through its suffering. This call of the Church is essential for the visibility of the Kingdom of God in world, because Christ gave the call to the Church while He was in the world.

Through the Lord’s Prayer, the Eucharist, and Baptism, the Church lives out Christ’s call and becomes the visible Body of Christ in the world. The Church embraces suffering as living in, what Jewish apocalypticism would define as, the penultimate age which is to precede the full in-breaking of the age to come when God’s presence will infuse all of creation.

The Lord’s Prayer, instituted by Jesus, is the empowerment of His followers to actively proclaim their desire to God in declaring, “Your kingdom come, and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus Christ is the only one who encounters both Heaven and Earth at the same time; therefore, he is the only one who would be able to encourage his followers of the validity of their prayer by his example.  In Jesus Christ’s becoming flesh and dwelling on earth, he made visible the possibility of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. The Eucharist and Baptism are practices Christ instituted for the Church in order to establish the will of God in the world.

While suffering in the world, the Church continues Christ work so that the Kingdom of God may be visible in the world. God’s Kingdom is seen in the world through the Church’s obedience to Christ’s call to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, to love their neighbors as themselves, and even to change the identity of their enemies by loving them.  Even in this commandment given by Christ, the call of the Church is evident. To love one’s enemies while enduring persecution is suffering.

Once Christ’s followers love their enemies, their enemies are no longer identified as such, but are drawn  into the love of Christ whether they realize it or not. Christ’s love transforms the identity of his enemies  in the act of the lover to the loved regardless of the recipients acknowledgment or response. The lover changes the identity of the loved  by commending the loved to prayer before God’s hearing and judgment in obedience to Christ’s decree to, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This model is given to the Church by Jesus Christ, and the Church is only able to follow the model through her empowerment by the Holy Spirit.

This call to suffering is not meant to provoke the Church to seek out suffering, but to endure suffering. The Church encounters resistance and suffering in its proclamation of Jesus Christ’s work in the world. With endurance, the Church suffers in the world through the example of Jesus Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. Polycarp wrote to the 2nd century Church in Philippi, “Let us therefore become imitators of His endurance; and if we should suffer for His name’s sake, let us glorify Him. For He gave this example to us in His own person, and we believed this.”

The Church’s understanding of suffering preceding glory is established in the life of Jesus Christ. The penultimate age, in Jewish apocalyticism, is the time of suffering that immediately precedes the age-to-come. This is evident in Jesus Christ’s suffering and death that preceded His resurrection. Christ is the first to receive glorification in the age-to-come because of His suffering. The Church, as the Body of Christ in the world, is partaking in the age-to-come through the Holy Spirit.

The Church freely suffers so as to eradicate suffering. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in regard to Christ’s suffering that Christ must drink the cup of suffering that was given to Him and in doing so He would relinquish it. The Church embodies suffering in its communion with Christ through the act of Baptism.

In Baptism, the follower of Christ accepts death with the promise of a new life, Christ’s life. Bonhoeffer describes this death as “not the act of an angry Creator finally rejecting his creation in his wrath, but the gracious death which has been won for us by the death of Christ; the gracious assumption of the creature by his creator.” The visible act of Baptism puts to death the individual’s life in exchange for the resurrected life of Christ. The individual, through the work of the Holy Spirit, is then a part of Christ’s Body in the world, the Church.

Through the death of baptism, the Church’s suffering with Christ in the world is a pronouncement of the age-to-come. It is in this hope that Paul encourages the Church in Rome in their suffering saying, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” The Church’s visible freedom in the world extends from Christ’s stipulation, “If any wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

Bonhoeffer describes this daily denying of self in the example of Christ’s own suffering. “It is infinitely easier to suffer in obedience to a human command than to accept suffering as free, responsible men. It is infinitely easier to suffer with others than to suffer alone. It is infinitely easier to suffer as public heroes than to suffer apart and in ignominy. It is infinitely easier to suffer physical death than to endure spiritual suffering. Christ suffered as a free man alone apart and in ignominy, in body and in spirit, and since that day many Christians have suffered with him.”

Christ’s suffering is visible to the world. The world sees Christ’s cross as foolishness, but the Church declares the power of God in Christ’s suffering. Paul communicated the power of God in suffering to the Church in Corinth by describing his own weakness as an avenue for God’s strength. Christ suffered in order to elevate humanity, from created beings with the image of God, to children and heirs with Christ.

It is Christ’s Incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection within the world that establishes the Kingdom of God in the world. N.T. Wright explains, “that the inbreaking kingdom Jesus was announcing created a new world, a new context, and he was challenging his hearers to become the new people that this new context demanded, the citizens of this new world.”

A Challenge to the Church’s call to Suffering:

A view that challenges the Church’s call to suffering is Liberation Theology. Liberation Theology utilizes pedagogy as a way to establish freedom for oppressed human beings. One of the leaders of this view is Paulo Freire. Freire’s vision, to establish a free humanity and human dignity, aligns with the work and call of the Church. Freire says, “Indeed, if people were to become critical, enter reality, increase their capacity to make choices (and therefore their capacity to reject the prescriptions of others), the threat to privilege would increase as well.”

Henry Giroux, a proponent of Freire’s work writes, “Central to Freire’s politics and pedagogy is a philosophical vision of a liberated humanity.” Giroux says that, “The nature of this vision is rooted in a respect for life. The hope and vision of the future that it inspires are not meant to provide consolation for the oppressed as much as to promote ongoing forms of critique and a struggle against objective forces of oppression.”

Liberation Theology brings into question the call for the Church to endure suffering in the world. Liberation theology does not align with Jesus Christ’s subservience to the Roman Empire as a political power, even unto death. Jesus Christ embraced reality, embodied all the knowledge of the Universe, was free to make His own choices, was God incarnate, nevertheless, his freedom came through his crucifixion by his oppressors.

Christ’s submission to the oppression of the Romans indicates His willingness to suffer in obedience to God for the sake of the world’s freedom. Liberation Theology accentuates humanity’s desire to be free, however, it does not appropriate suffering under oppression as a way to freedom. Christ’s suffering and death is the way to His freedom in the resurrection.

Liberation Theology’s focus on education as a corridor for freedom also minimizes the power of the incarnation of Christ to nothing more than an intellectual revelation that empowers the oppressed with information. Knowledge and recognition of oppression is not a guarantor of freedom. Even the Israelites, while in Egypt, understood they were living in oppression; nevertheless, it was God who saw their suffering and caused them to be a free people.

Universal Result: God’s work, through the Church’s suffering, is restoring goodness and newness to all of creation.

In Jesus Christ, the Church continues the work of God to restore creation’s goodness and newness. God’s restoring of creation’s goodness and newness begins with the Incarnation. Through Jesus Christ’s flesh, God is reestablishing goodness and newness to humanity, because it is in the Incarnation that humanity confronts the goodness of God in the world. The Creator embodies the created and proclaims, “See, I am making all things new!”

Paul communicated this restoration of the world in Christ to the Corinthian Church in saying, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!” Paul continues in saying that in receiving the Holy Spirit of Christ, the Church is given “the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” In Christ, there is new creation, because in Christ, God restores creation to goodness and newness.

God continues the work of restoring creation through the power of the Holy Spirit’s work in the Church. Through its suffering, the Church makes visible the Kingdom of God in the world. As the Body of Christ, the Church obeys the will of God in continuing Christ’s work in world. Christ’s work in the world is the extending of God’s community, God’s Image, and God’s goodness to all of creation.

The Church is only able to reestablish God’s goodness in the world through the work of the Holy Spirit. Karl Barth says, “Clever enough is the paradox that the service of God is or must become the service of man; but that is not the same as saying that our precipitate service of man, even when it is undertaken in the name of the purest love, becomes by that happy fact the service of God.”

Goodness only stems from the work of God. The reestablishing of God’s goodness in world must be comprised of God’s work in the Church. God’s work, through the Church’s suffering, is restoring goodness and newness to all of creation.

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