Suffering as the Pathway to Future Unity

“The cross is, for Paul, the sign of the centre: the centre for Israel, the centre for humankind. It is the middle of everywhere, the definite line which refocuses edge-lured minds, the axis of everything.” – N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God

I do hold out hope for unity in the church, maybe not institutional unity, but what Bruxy Cavey calls “relational unity.” I hope to see (or really, I hope my children grow up to see) a less-fractured and more unified church. Some days I have to talk myself into this kind of hope. Some days I sense growing pessimism, like the rolling black clouds of an approaching thunderstorm. On those days I must force myself to imagine what is true: the sun is shining above the clouds; the darkness of cynicism is simply blocking my view. It seems like, most days, my hope overtakes my despair, but my hope for unity in the Church is a sober kind of hope, because I do not see unity without suffering.

The ultimate hope for unity is found in our unflinching attention on Jesus and him crucified. The cross is not only our way to the Father—the physical demonstration of Jesus’ claim to be the way, truth, life and only means by which we come to God. The cross is also the way in which Jesus is the way. Our modern sensibilities encourage us to look back to our recent past or look in the near future towards the next technological breakthrough for what has been, or what will be, a new center-point for human flourishing. For Christians, we do not look forward or backwards into our recent past. We look back, way back, to the cross, back to the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, and we say “There is the fulcrum point of human history. The cross is the axis of everything!”

New creation began at the cross. New hope flooded into the world at the cross. Where Jesus suffered and died, a new day began to dawn. Any hope we have for real, authentic, lived-out Christian unity requires us to look back and be people of the cross, a cruciform people, where we argue less about what the cross means for us theoretically and we strive more towards how the cross shapes us transformatively. If the cross means anything it means we will not be exempt from suffering. “Indeed, I count everything as loss,” writes Paul, “because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings…” (Philippians 3:8,10 ESV). The cross restarts everything. The cross demonstrates God’s co-suffering love for and with a broken world. The cross shows us what God is like. The cross is counter-intuitively how God defeats his enemies. The cross also invites us to participate in his sufferings.

To be honest I don’t want to suffer. I am an American after all. I am the son of privilege. I live in a quiet neighborhood, down from Main & Elm in Anytown, USA. I don’t want to feel bad or sad; I want to feel happy, like a room without a roof. I don’t want the pressure of hostility, insult, mockery, or worse from those outside the faith. Nevertheless, I sense that just such hostility will be the only thing that can tear down the wall of hostility between warring tribes in the body of Christ. Our willingness to be a cruciform people, to resist the urge to fight back against a secular culture growing more and more hostile towards the Christian faith may be what is necessary for us in the household of God to begin to really love one another. As we lay down our social weapons of warfare, refusing to participate in the every increasing culture wars of our age, and instead focus our attention on an ardent articulation and demonstration the Gospel, we will endure hardship. As we suffer for it together as the one Body of Christ, then maybe we can begin to embrace our brothers and sisters in the Church regardless of their tribal affiliation and walk together in unity.

Suffering has a way of bringing Christian people together, because suffering exposes both our weaknesses and our idols. When we suffer the harsh treatment or words of those who hate and malign us, pressure is applied to our character and if there are fractures like unresolved anger, bitterness, unforgiveness, pride, self-centeredness, or malice, we begin to crack and run to our idols for comfort or escape. When we have enough self-awareness and maturity to admit our weakness and cast aside our idols we turn and look to those who are also following Christ and we begin to find in them both solidarity and strength. Suffering is not necessary for solidarity. We can choose now to embrace other Christians in the spirit of unity; we just often lack the motivation. Suffering becomes that motivation and as I peer into a hazy future, it seems like suffering is on the horizon. Or maybe not. If there are other means by which we can come together in unity, I am open to them!

But as I look at the face of God suffering on the cross and I hear Jesus telling us to take up our cross and follow him, there may be no other way.

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