Monday, June 14, 2010

Sufferings : Glory

“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”
(Romans 8:16, 17)

I have been meditating on these words over the past few days, while I was on retreat in preparation to be ordained priest yesterday. In particular, I have been reflecting on the connection between sufferings and glory: that the way in which we are enabled to share in Christ’s glory is through sharing in his sufferings.

Language slips and shifts, the usage and meaning of words changes over time, and so we must go back to the roots of words. The root of the word here translated into English as ‘sufferings’ is the Greek word πάσχω (paschō, from which we get our word ‘passion’) which means ‘to be done to’ and which is the converse of the word ποιω (poiō) which means ‘to do.’

The neutral ‘to be done to’ was accurately translated as ‘suffer’ in the English of the Authorised Version, also known as the King James Bible. So we read the account of mothers attempting to bring their babies to Jesus for a blessing, and the disciples attempting to prevent them, to which Jesus replies “Suffer the little children to come unto me...” That is, allow one thing – bring them – ‘to be done to’ them; as opposed to allowing another thing – prevent them – ‘to be done to’ them. ‘Suffer’ is neutral: they may be the objects of something good or something bad, of invitation or hindrance: the point is that they are the objects, the ones to whom something is being done by someone else. But to us, four hundred years later, ‘suffering’ has come to refer almost exclusively to describing the condition of experiencing enduring physical, emotional or psychological pain.

When we look at Jesus in the Gospels, we see him as subject, as free agent, doing things through which God is glorified. But we also see him as object, as one who places himself in the hands of others, the recipient of others’ actions, both good and bad: and through these, his sufferings, the Father is also glorified, and glorifies the Son.

In one account, Jesus is invited to the home of a man of good standing in the community, who fails to do to Jesus what one would expect a host to do to his guest. In contrast, a woman of ill repute enters the house and honours Jesus by anointing him with perfume, an act he describes as preparing his body in advance for his funeral. In other words, Jesus ‘suffers’ being treated dishonourably and ‘suffers’ being treated with honour. The point is not that he experiences pain, but that he allows himself to be in the position of receiving whatever another will do to him, whether an action of rejection or an action of embrace.

As we share in Christ’s sufferings, Paul tells us, so we share in his glory. As the things that were done to Jesus – welcomed by some, rejected by others – are done to us, so we are both allowed and enabled to share in his glory.

This ties in with my recent reflections on tearing and testimony. The thing being torn – the sky, the curtain – is passive: they do not tear themselves. Neither did the paralytic tear through the roof himself, but was as dependent on the actions of his friends as he was on the actions of Jesus towards him.

Why is this important? God is glorified not only through the things Jesus did, but through the things done to Jesus. God is not only glorified through the things we are free to do, but through the things done to us. And this is important because we are not always free to do what we might choose to do. Often, and not least because of our dependence on the response of others, we are not free at all. When Jesus went to his home town, the disbelief he was met with there meant that he was not free to perform the signs and wonders he had performed in other towns and villages. Nonetheless, God was glorified through Jesus’ presence: though he could not perform signs and wonders he was himself a sign and a wonder in their midst.

The same is true for us: there are times when we are able to perform signs and wonders, exercising the power and authority Jesus has delegated to us; and there are times when we are not free to act as we would want to. Nonetheless, sharing in Christ’s glory, we are ourselves a sign and a wonder.

That is why icons (which are properly understood as doors through which heaven can enter earth, rather than windows through which we can glimpse heaven) depict saints with halos. A halo is not the symbol of our goodness (as in “Your halo would appear to have slipped” in response to breaches of good behaviour), but the symbol of God’s glory.

As we embrace our covenant identity as children of God and co-heirs with Christ, so we are able to respond with the obedience of embracing suffering, of allowing others to respond to us as they choose.

As we exercise our kingdom authority (not only to act where we are free but also) to place ourselves into someone else’s hands, to respond to us as they see fit, so we are able to share in Christ’s glory, to participate in and conduct the life-transforming power of God’s glory being revealed in and to the world.

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