The Suffering Community
In Wayne Oates' The Revelation of God in Human Suffering, Oates has a sermon/chapter entitled "The Fellowship of Suffering." In it, he makes some fascinating comments about the community of Christ — the Holy Spirit drawn church. The paradigmatic event at the center of the church is surprisingly simple — suffering.
The church founded by Jesus Christ is a community of shared suffering,
“This mutual burden-bearing is a fellowship of suffering, stripped of pretense and subterfuge and superficial claims of perfection." (46)
Oates' point mainly being that the church of Christ is easily identified by those who share fault, guilt, burdens, and trials with one another. The church is to be a community of self-sacrificing dependence and dependability. Not only must we be reliable members of the community, but we must rely on others. He provocatively states,
"The capacity to depend and be dependent upon often makes the difference between heaven and hell." (50)
The church is called to be this way because of its Lord and Savior. In the previous sermon entitled "Purposeful Suffering", Oates has tied the purpose of human suffering to the shared suffering of Jesus Christ and the obedience learned there,
"Our comfort, our salvation, our hope—all these are the purpose of the suffering of Him who calls us to participate with him in the fellowship of suffering and the ministry of the word of the comfort of God" (43).
Christ does not leave us orphans. And so we are called in the power of the Holy Spirit to learn obedience through sufferings just as He did. Then we only say the Christian community (the church) is greater than all other associations because it is a community of shared suffering — including its founder Jesus Christ,
"The very covenant upon which the Christian faith is built centers in the sufferings of Jesus Christ. We are bound together as a community of believers in the sacrifice of his death, burial, and resurrection." (45)
Karl Barth had some stern words about suffering in Dogmatics in Outline. There he wrote passionately about the suffering of Jesus Christ in redemption,
"Here there was suffering. Everything else that we know as suffering is unreal suffering compared with what has happened here. Only from this standpoint, by sharing in the suffering He suffered, can we recognize the fact and the cause of suffering everywhere in the creaturely cosmos, secretly and openly." (104)
Thankfully, the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus Christ does not leave us in our suffering. Though we are now a suffering community, we are also a hopeful community. I conclude with the final, hopeful words from Oates' sermon,
"This transformation of suffering into triumph is the durable hope that binds together the Christian community" (52)