Do not be Surprised at the Fiery Ordeal (135)

There is an old adage that says that someone in leadership should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I suppose this applies to anyone that has influence. Don’t let people get too settled. Unless they’re too unsettled, then settle them. In the ministry of the church the idea can be traced back at least to Gregory the Great. He was a bishop in Italy at the end of the sixth century. Gregory was born just a few decades before the prophet Muhammed. Before he became a church leader Gregory was a public administrator for the city of Rome. Once when he was walking by a slave market he noticed something strange: young slaves with peculiarly pale faces. They were ‘Anglos’. The image of these foreigners stuck with him. Later when Gregory became a church leader he sent missionaries to Britain. Gregory is known for brokering peace with invading armies and for organizing a system of care for the poor. His liturgical reforms gave us Gregorian chant. He has much to his name, but it’s this idea of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable” that grabs my attention today. Let’s think of it as the way scripture embraces us, keeping us from both complacency and despair.

Our reading from I Peter (4:12-14, 5:6-11) leads with comfort, but it follows this closely with affliction. The passage begins this way, “Beloved . . . .” There’s the comfort. It continues, “do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you.” And there’s the affliction. Don’t be surprised, Peter tells his readers. This fiery ordeal isn’t strange or unforeseen. It is your sharing in Christ’s suffering. Those whom Peter wrote to were badgered and hounded. They were persecuted. He was telling them that they shouldn’t have expected anything different.

My guess is that even today many Anabaptist Christians in Ethiopia would agree with Peter. Suffering comes with following Jesus. One of the most interesting people I met when I was in seminary was a pastor from the Meserete Kristos Church (MKC) in Ethiopia. Meserete Kristos means ‘Christ is the Foundation’. Let me tell you a little of this church’s story.

The Mennonite Anabaptist presence in Ethiopia began after the Second World War. The first Anabaptist baptisms there happened in 1951. Eight years later an official church network began. There were five congregations. The missionaries did their best to work themselves out of a job. Most importantly, they turned the church’s leadership over to locals. MKC tried to minister to the whole person. In addition to their congregations, they also ran several schools and hospitals. In the early 1970s the Mennonite church in Ethiopia experienced a profound charismatic awakening. Perhaps it was God’s way of preparing them for the terror that was to follow. In 1974 communists took over the country. Schools and hospitals were taken over by the regime. In 1982 the churches were officially shut down. There public gatherings were illegal. Pastors and others were jailed.

Of course my seminary friend and the Ethiopian believers did not stop being church. They met in small, relatively secret groups. When this began, in ‘82 MKC had 5,000 members. When the communist Derg government fell, less than ten years later, there were 34,000 members. In 1994, when the whole MKC had their first public gathering in twenty years, there were 50,000 members. They had to meet in a stadium. This year MKC reports having more than 295,000 baptized members and a total faith community of over half a million. Meserete Kristos Church is the largest Anabaptist conference in the world.

There are many differences between these Ethiopian Anabaptists and ourselves. Their worship is more lively and charismatic. They practice an active deliverance ministry. They face a different set of cultural challenges than we do. But we do have enough in common for these sisters and brothers to serve as reminders that suffering on account of faith is not just something from centuries ago. The suffering that Peter speaks of would surprise us, it would not surprise these believers in Ethiopia.

Later in Peter’s letter he tells his readers that they are to resist evil and be steadfast in their faith because they know that their “brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.” The Ethiopian Christians challenge us in that way. They remind us that being a follower of Jesus can’t be just another instance of self-realization or ‘slacktivism.’ They remind us that being a follower of Jesus demands a commitment so deep that we lay our comfort on the line.

There are those who hear these kinds of things and speak glowingly about the positive effects of persecution on the church. I can’t do that, and I certainly don’t wish anything like that on this congregation. I, for one, am deeply thankful for the freedom we have here in Canada to live as Christians. We can gather here openly and publicly, complain about whatever we want and nobody is going to lock us up. Passages like this shouldn’t make us long for suffering. They certainly shouldn’t make us valorize abuse or oppression.

And yet—and yet. There must be something to this suffering business. There must be something to the fact that when Jesus talks about people following him he says in Luke 9: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” Talk about afflicting the comfortable. Jesus goes on, “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?  Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed . . . .”

Let’s be careful here. There are many different types of suffering. There is a sort of suffering that comes with the territory of being human. It’s as inevitable as a birthday. It’s the suffering of limitation, of not being able to help the ones we love, of being unable to always get our bodies to do what we would like. This is the suffering of illness and accident. That is not the type of suffering we’re reading about in I Peter or in the words of Jesus. The suffering of limitation and frailty is not suffering we choose. It is suffering we endure with the help of others and God.

There is another type of suffering that we and our neighbours all experience. None of this is fair or equal, but it’s common. Maybe we had better call this second type ‘pain’ instead of suffering. This is the pain that comes with hard work and training. This is the pain of the athlete, the entrepreneur and the student. This is pain we choose. It is pain we choose for a good just down the road: better health, financial success or new job opportunities. The theologian Dorothee Sölle says that all growth involves pain. Without it nothing changes. Furthermore, she says, trying to have growth without pain can make us oblivious to the suffering of others. There is a benefit to this sort of pain. And Sölle worries about a society that tries to avoid it.

Our reading from I Peter points us toward a third form of suffering. What Peter writes about is suffering for the name of Christ, or suffering for being a ‘Christ-ian’. In the New Testament being like Jesus had nothing to do with being single, wearing sandals, eating fish or some pious sense of one’s self. When the NT writers suggested that Jesus is our example, they are thinking of his willingness to face the cross. The cross is not inevitable. It is not a catastrophe. It is not, as we say in the insurance business “an act of God.”

Jesus’ death was not something that came out of nowhere. It was the result of his choosing to live in God’s economy in a world that ran on a different exchange. Within the scope of divine providence Jesus’ suffering was the result of not conforming to social norms. It was the result of countermanding the evil powers. This fits with the lines from Peter. What he had in mind was not the normal bleakness of life. That is suffering—let’s be clear about that. But what Peter was getting at is that which we suffer because we choose to follow Jesus, because our faith makes us choose a certain path.

Let’s think back to that sixth-century Christian leader, Gregory the Great. His leadership was part of a fundamental shift in the church’s relationship with the larger society. We Anabaptists often call this the Constantinian Shift. It marks the beginning of Christendom, which is the time in Western history when the Christian church and that state would be melded together.

The shift began long before Gregory was made a bishop. It was the emperor Constantine, in the early part of the fourth century, who legalized the Christian faith. He gave it official sanction and even financial support. By Gregory’s time the church was so wedded to the power structure that he was virtually a political ruler. He nominated generals and paid soldiers. If you want to understand a key aspect of Anabaptism you should grasp this: Anabaptists view this arrangement not as the triumph of Christianity—a faith finally coming into its own—but as its undoing.

There are several reasons we hold this view. One of them is the way it changed how Christians thought of their citizenship. Early Christians considered their national identity to be secondary to their identity in Christ. If you look at the beginning of I Peter you’ll notice that it is addressed to the “exiles of the Dispersion.” Sometimes that’s rendered as “resident aliens.” The Anabaptist hunch is that being an exile or an alien reflects the abiding reality that more fundamental to our Roman or Canadian citizenship is our citizenship in the people of God. Elsewhere we are always aliens.

Another reason Anabaptists are skeptical of the Christendom model is simply this: in becoming so tightly tied to the tools of violent power we are tempted to avoid the way of Jesus. That is, we’re tempted to make progress by force rather than be invitation and by example. “Witness” is the word our Acts reading uses. Put another way, having access to coercive power tempts us to avoid suffering and instead to inflict it on others.

Actually, that’s not quite right. It’s not just a temptation. It’s what we’ve done. When we’ve sat in the seat of power, Christians of Christendom have harmed others: we’ve tried to force conversions, tortured those who disagree, and knit our faith so tightly with the good of a nation or a culture that we couldn’t tell the difference between the two. The Christendom problem is that we use coercive power to enforce cultural norms under a thin sheen of faith. Its problem is that it leads by force and not by sacrificial love.

Jesus—the Jesus of the cross and the Jesus ascended to the throne—this Jesus calls us to another way. His way is one of humility and one suffering. To suffer with Jesus is not choosing suffering for suffering’s sake. The good associated with choosing to share in Jesus’ suffering is simply because the way of Jesus is at cross-currents with our own cultures. There is much to love and celebrate about our cultures, but there is also that which opposes God’s shalom. There are different values at work. There are different central practices. There is a different goal. The fiery ordeal is simply a consequence of those differences.

I will close with this. If scripture does embrace us, then the passage from I Peter offers us the comfort of knowing that we too are the “beloved.” It comforts us with the knowledge that we can release our anxiety to God and be confident that our creator cares for us. It reminds us that we are not alone and that the Holy Spirit ministers to us. That’s the comfort in our affliction. The passage’s other arm, the one that afflicts our comfort, it asks us to examine our lives. If we find no suffering at all on account of our commitment to Jesus, it asks us why. For it might be that in our search for ease we miss a blessing.

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