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Fellowship in Suffering

"Heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share his glory." (Romans 8. 17 RSV)

In meditating upon the suffering and death of Jesus we might think of Mrs.Alexander's lovely hymn

He died that we might be forgiven,

He died to make us good,

That we might go at last to heaven,

Saved by His precious blood

and it is good that we remember the removal of the death sentence from mankind. We must also be able to say "He died for me". This is a vital legal transaction although we may not fully comprehend the way in which heaven's legal system works. It is also a very personal matter because it affects us all individually. Jesus suffered in all kinds of ways before He reached Gethsemane, the 'law courts' and Calvary. Rejection by His own countrymen began early in His ministry. Their attitude must have been very painful to one so sensitive who always spoke and acted compassionately for those around Him.

Jesus began to explain in the Sermon on the Mount another aspect of suffering when He spoke of the 'bliss' of suffering for doing what is right (Matthew 5.10). Humanly, that is an astonishing statement. There was nothing new about being persecuted for conscience sake. The Old Testament and even secular history bear witness of this ‑ because 'darkness hates the light'. But the concept that there should be rejoicing because one is suffering is new; yet it was shortly to be tested in the lives of the early disciples and recorded in Acts 5.41. It was then that the church began to share the sufferings of Christ. As time went by it also became clear why suffering was a necessary part of the process of reconciling the world to God. Jesus was 'perfected' by His sufferings (Hebrews 4.15,16; 5.8-9) and by His experiences He became a compassionate High Priest and His character became complete. In this way His suffering prepared Him for the work of reconciliation to God and re-education of all mankind. As we ponder this aspect of our Lord's life we can see more clearly why we should follow closely in His steps that we too might become sympathetic priests who will in due time assist the sin-stricken world back to health and life.

The Jewish religious and political leaders, at the time of the First Advent, should have been familiar with the prophecies relating to the Deliverer of Israel. They should have perceived and instructed the people in the knowledge of the Messiah for whom they looked. They wanted a mighty prince or general not a peaceful healer, brought into the world amid the poorest circumstances, reared in a peasant home, ministering to the needs of contrite souls. Comparatively few of the simple folk would understand their intellectual teaching.

Israel had been torn apart by the conflicts of great empires for many generations. Now One had appeared in their midst who healed as many as lay within His immediate reach. Jesus of Nazareth, the wonderful physician, trod the rough roads of Palestine, telling a message of goodwill; preaching of love toward God and fellow man. It was a mission that was undertaken seldom without expense to personal comfort and often He continued His labours weary and foot-sore. He stood out from previous men of God who healed and prophesied. Yet for all that He did and said for over three years among God's chosen people, His own people, they slew him among criminals.

Rich and poor, pious and lawbreaker, young and old, all felt the effects of His work of curing the sick and making whole those who had hitherto not known the joys of vigorous life. The handicapped, who struggled to survive around the Temple for many years, were bidden to rise and walk. Sightless eyes that had never seen God's universe were able to look into the Master's face. Deaf ears heard the voice of Him who spoke as no one had ever spoken and speechless tongues were loosed to praise their Creator. Whether stricken by bodily disease or afflicted in mind, their distress was remedied, not by freak or quack for an hour or day. The captive was set at liberty to enjoy the health in mind and body that the Life-giver had intended. They didn't ask questions as to where He obtained such power for they knew He was from God. He didn't ask them to join His church but many must have done in later years. He came not only to heal but God had sent Him to turn away ungodliness from Jacob and to mend broken hearts. They failed to appreciate the Word of God through the prophets and could not understand that this was the One of whom Isaiah had written "Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him". They failed to recognise that this was the "Man of Sorrows" who was despised and rejected of men.

Their loss of spiritual vision was more costly than blindness of natural sight. Sin had taken a severe toll of human life during the long ages, and in spite of man's relentless effort to combat disease and pain, the struggle was mostly in vain. Therefore it may seem strange to the casual observer that Jesus of Nazareth, one imbued with a living message and blessed with such curative power, should be so wrongfully treated and put to death. There is much more in the story of the Saviour's ministry than an apparently wasted life and needless death; very much more. Jesus said "Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains alone" In giving His life, He made it possible to resurrect all mankind from the dead that they might have health and peace and the promise of reconciliation to God. Without these, mankind could never achieve everlasting life. Harmony with the Creator is an essential part of human happiness. The work of Jesus and His Church in the Resurrection will be to restore conditions that prevailed in Eden when "God created man in his own image" (Gen.1.27).

Before this can happen, God's purpose is to gather a family from among humanity. He planned that those who demonstrate love for Him should be changed into the likeness of their Lord, so that they can share in the work of restoration. Who better to understand the weakness and hopelessness of sinful men and women than those who have walked this way on Earth with their Master? Who could more closely sympathise with fallen mankind than those who have experienced the barrier between themselves and their Maker?

Sometimes the way with Jesus is difficult and sorrows seem to multiply on every side. It is just at those times when we should take a break from life's pressing duties and talk to Him who trod this way before us. Theological books are useful to answer questions but will not comfort us in many of life's circumstances. The simple gospel story of One who endured suffering and death amid the most heart breaking experiences will be more effective balm. Then it is that we can recall the picture of the Master as He provided bread for a hungry audience after teaching them all day or see Him tenderly speaking to a Samaritan woman concerning the water of Life! Catch again glimpses of the centurion's servant being made whole or the widow's son raised from the dead. Was He ever too weary or too bitter to minister even to one poor soul? Were any too foreign or too humble or too young for His healing touch? Did He ever lose His temper with that obstinate and cynical generation? It is interesting to see how His life provided an example of the precepts He taught on the mountainside in the early part of His ministry (Matt, 5.1-12). His words and actions never became hasty even under the intense persecution of His last days on the earth. The nearer He came to death, the greater He showed His love for His brethren and for the World.

But what is all this to us and what does it mean to our hearts and lives? If the words of the Lord are rooted in our minds and if our 'first love' for Him has remained strong through the stress of life's experiences, then slowly the words of another hymn become a reality.

Impress Thine image on me,

Fulfil Thy blessed design

Till others see upon me

That beauteous face of Thine,

Bend me, oh, bend me to Thy will,

While in Thy hand I'm lying still.

Beyond all intellectual knowledge, above the gifts of speech or pen, beside every Christian activity, there must be this process of cleansing, shaping and polishing within our hearts. So there will be a harvest of love that will bring life to the nations and joy to all mankind. It is the inward response to the buffeting and straining in life's battles that makes or mars Christian character. When troubles arise within the very church, godly souls will respond submissively to the Father's will and with affection for their brethren.

Intellects differ widely and cause development of opposing viewpoints about certain doctrines. Personalities have been formed within contrasting environments and they easily clash, causing friction among God's people. How does this affect the Church? Do such experiences draw us closer together by the very fact that we have to learn to be patient and care for each other's limitations and weaknesses or does the reverse happen? Do the differences of opinion produce the fruit of the Spirit within us, drawing us nearer to God and to each other or is the fruit of the fallen nature apparent? These are the opportunities to show the qualities needed by those who share the work of the great High Priest. We serve each other now so that we can serve together in some future day. But patience is not developed in a community where everything runs smoothly, where everyone thinks and acts in the same way. Nor is love developed when those who irritate each other part company. That destroys opportunities to express the joy of "in honour preferring one another". The identification that Jesus gave to His followers was "by this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another".

Looking to the future of His church, Jesus saw this feature distinguish His people from the world. He recognised that while they toiled in a scornful world, their unity and their constraining love would shine as a wonderful witness. Has this been the experience of His Bride through the ages? Does this illuminate our narrow path in this day and age when the Gospel is being preached?

Reviewing history is useful if we are not judgmental. By noticing their faults we may avoid the stumbles of others. But the world is quick to criticise weaknesses and internal strife in Christian communities. The display of leaflets and excitement about "world events" is useless unless there is a living witness of loving concern within our fellowship. These prepare us to go into the world now to minister help and blessing that lie within our reach. Good works done among God's people prepare us to help our fellow men and women in the daily routine. It is easy to talk about brotherly love and shut half of God's children outside Christian fellowship. We may readily explain how we shall "bless all families of the earth" and then fail to bless the few families that we contact every day. Our daily work may not be in any healing or social capacity but most of us have opportunities to express sentiments of love and concern that will demonstrate what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. We are sharing Jesus' experiences when we jostle in the bus queue or shopping market. That is where God placed us to show His glory. He is training His people now to be tender, kind-hearted and patient with those around us. Mercy and wisdom will be needed in future days for those who have lived amid iniquity and unrighteousness for decades. Our training ground is in the uncomfortable experiences of today and the burden of human imperfections. Can we find joy in affliction and not wish for revenge? Do our friends at work, at school and college see in us the gentle and compassionate nature of Jesus or the familiar ill temper of the world? Paul wrote "From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view" (2 Cor.5.16). 'No one' includes fellow passengers in the train, the person behind the store counter or the brother and sister in the home; but most of all, our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our speech and behaviour are now guided by the new vision that God has given to us and not by our 'human point of view' that we claim to have surrendered to Him. Everything must be seen now as Jesus would see it and as a priest of God would see it.

The development of spiritual character in our lives does not occur if everyone gives way to us and our point of view. The fruit of the spirit doesn't grow well in a hot house climate. The storms of life put 'iron into the soul'. If we walk with Jesus the way will be rough going at times. Sharing His cup, as John and James found, is not always easy.

It is our privilege to come to the Master's table and speak one to another concerning the suffering which He bore for us, and meditate upon the joys we have in following His steps. We are part of one great family, one large loaf composed of many grains of wheat. But the loaf is broken and the grapes are crushed that others may be blessed. May the sharing in the bread and wine give us fresh vitality to strengthen our brethren in the bonds of Christian love and bear one another's burdens to fulfil the law of Christ. Suffering with Christ deepens our union with Him (Phil. 4. 10) and it gives us a firmer basis of fellowship with our brethren. Sharing His cross will also bring a share of sovereignty with Him. What we suffer now will be more than outweighed by one glance at our beloved Lord's face. If we labour with him now, if we talk to Him, if we share His sorrows and joys now, we will share His life, when we are beyond in the life everlasting.


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