Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Suffering as Discipleship

Reading through early church history has reminded me of the unwavering faith of the early Christians. The examples of martyrdom and suffering are difficult to read without tearing up. Usually, those martyrdoms occur somewhat suddenly. Typically, a Roman festival occurs and the patriotic spirits of the city are high. Christians are viewed as a subversive group and so the mob turns to violence. It's all rather quick. Ignatius' martyrdom, however, occurs in a context of protracted reflection. As he travels to Rome to die he writes to churches. In the letter to the Ephesians he emphasizes his suffering as identification with Christ.

In his now classic book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "When Christ calls a man he bids him 'Come and die.'" Indeed, Jesus exhorted his followers to carry around their own crosses on which to be executed (Mt 16.24-26 || Lk 9.23-26 || Mk 8.34-37; Mt 10.38-38; ||Lk 14.27, 33; cf. Lk 17.33 ). There are not many sermons on suffering that invite participation as a means of identifying with Christ, and yet that is precisely what Jesus called his disciples to. Similarly, Ignatius considers suffering a crucial part of his own discipleship. He even asks the Ephesian church to pray that he might "be allowed to fight the beasts in Rome, that by doing so [. . .] be able to be a disciple" (Ign. Eph 1.2). Ignatius links his discipleship to his willingness to die for his faith in the vicious spectacles of the Roman arena.

Suffering pervades his short letter to the Ephesians. In his exhortation to the Ephesians to be subject to the Bishop, he qualifies, "I am not giving you orders as if I were someone. For even though I have been bound in the name, I have not yet been perfected in Jesus Christ" (Ign. Eph. 3.1). Later, Ignatius exhorts the church to unity and describes himself as "a sacrificial offering for you Ephesians" (8.1). Ignatius sees his suffering as something done for the Ephesians (21.1). In addition to his discipleship, suffering is for the church to follow his example in willingness to suffer before being deceived into disunity! This paradoxical suffering as salvation is not lost on Ignatius. He recognizes it is a "scandal to those who do not believe but salvation and eternal life to us" (18.1). I wonder if the scandal of my Christianity is that it is simply not scandalous to non-believers?

What might it look like for the Christians where you live to take heed to Jesus' words and follow Ignatius' example?

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