From many streams of my reading and study and reflection lately, I keep coming back to something that runs throughout Scripture: Christ comforts us in sorrow, loss, trouble, trial, etc. But he is not interested in making us comfortable. The meaning of life is not the Anglo American suburban dream (I’m writing this as an Anglo American living in the suburbs).
Are we functional Buddhists? In Christianity, the problem that must be dealt with is sin; in Buddhism, the problem is suffering. I’ll be careful here not to venture further into the Buddhist religion than this lest I speak wrongly of its tenants. But isn’t much of what we do with ourselves, even in the name of the gospel, designed to eradicate suffering from our lives and to make our lives not more meaningful, but more comfortable?
One wonders, then, where people like the civil rights freedom riders could come from today. Where might suffering for the sake of the gospel arise? I’m not talking about a masochistic interest in martyrdom here. Rather, I’m talking about persons whose lives are so radically formed and lived according to gospel, kingdom values that, when they are purposefully placed in a milieu that is opposed to that gospel and kingdom–here’s when you should read the freedom riders link if you haven’t already–that suffering for the sake of that gospel and kingdom is practically inevitable.
This is, after all, what Jesus did. His life, proclamation in word and action, and teaching about the kingdom, was so radically oriented around gospel and kingdom values that, lived in a milieu that embraced values opposed to the gospel and the kingdom, the predictable, probable end was characterized by violence and suffering and death. But the suffering and death of Jesus is a redemptive one.
If the problem is suffering, we don’t have a terribly ascetical approach, but we have a seemingly effective one–avoidance. If the problem, however, is sin–that is, evil within the world, including within ourselves–then suffering can be meaningful.
There is a critical distinction to note. In describing suffering as potentially meaningful, we do not profess that all suffering everywhere is redemptive in and of itself. What we are saying is that Jesus’ vocation called him to a life and a life’s work that eschewed comfort and embraced a path that would put him on a collision course with the injustice of suffering. But that suffering would end up being for the sake of others’ reconciliation with God and restoration in God–setting everything right, that is.
This is the part of our United Methodist praying around Holy Communion that has me thinking about this once again: “Pour out your Holy Spirit to bless these gifts of bread and cup. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the Body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.” (my emphasis)
What does it mean to pray this, to receive the sacrament, if not to enter into the very life of Christ in the present world? Would that not press us out of our “functional Buddhism” that solves the problem of suffering by attaining comfortableness and into the gospel of the kingdom that lays “comfortable” aside for the sake of relieving the unjust suffering of others, the power of sin that keeps them in its grip? Yes, we need forgiveness badly. Yes, we need repentance, and we need a savior to deal with our sin. But if our baptism means anything, does it not mean we are cleansed of our sin in order to be fit for this sort of gospel and kingdom?
Best I can tell, New Testament seems to think so.