Saturday, September 13, 2014

Christ did not please himself

One short verse from the bible which has stuck with me for a long time is: Christ did not please himself (Rom 15.3). In five short words is contained the entire message of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah! Someone well acquainted with hardship and sorrow, indeed a "man of sorrows" who pours out his life unto death (Isa 53.12) -- this is our Christ, this is our God.

It seems to me an evident point that Christian ministry is modeled after Christ himself; in fact all of the life of a Christian ought to take its model in Christ, but especially that of the pastor or minister who inevitably embodies Christianity to others. If you wear the collar, you are an unofficial and involuntary spokesman for the church and for Christ himself, a witness unto the nations, even if an imperfect one. This need not be because you want to be such, but because this is how others will see you. Consequently all ministers would do well to follow Paul's words: Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself (Rom 15.2-3).

To what extreme does the minister go? How far can he go on not pleasing himself? There's no sense in talking about the ministers who make of ministry a continuous opportunity to please themselves -- whether because they enjoy preaching or because they make easy money, or whatever. What do we say about the person whose heart and who wishes to serve, and give his life for others as any good minister does?

Recently I completed the fantastic novel Silence by Shūsaku Endō. I have a bit of an obsessive personality, so any time I come across something great it is all I can think about for a week or two afterwards. Silence has had the same effect on me: I cannot get it out of my head, and I am being transformed by it in some interesting ways. Spoilers follow.

The story is about a Portuguese priest Rodrigues who goes to Japan during the persecutions of the seventeenth century for two reasons: first, to perform priestly duties for the underground Christians who are there, who have been lacking a priest for some time now; and second, to investigate the purported apostasy-under-torture of Cristóvão Ferreira, a famous priest who had been present in Japan during a time of flourishing for Christianity there. While attempting to escape from Japanese search parties, he is betrayed by a repeat-apostate who identifies as a Christian and yet apostatizes under every threat of persecution.

Rodrigues eventually meets Ferreira, who has been living a Japanese Buddhist life after the apostasy, writing works on science and medicine in addition to a polemic against Christianity at the behest of the ruling authorities. Ferreira tells Rodrigues that in spite their best missionary efforts and the apparent success of Christianity, the god the Japanese believed in was not that of the Christians but merely their own previous gods under a different name. He tells Rodrigues that Japan is a bottomless swamp; the sapling of Christianity cannot grow here. Rodrigues doesn't want to hear it.

Eventually Rodrigues is held in a very small cell, one that is dark and into which someone has evidently urinated, since the floor is damp with piss. He waits and waits for the moment in which he will finally undergo torture by the pit --  in which they hung a person upside down into a pit, arms and legs bound, with a slit made behind the ear so that blood would escape and the victim would not die for some time. Eventually, as he awaits the moment of his torture, Ferreira comes by and he learns that Christians are being hung in the pit; they have long since apostatized, but they will not be let free until the priest Rodrigues apostatizes by placing his foot upon a crude icon of the crucified Christ.

Ferreira tells him, Christ would certainly have apostatized to help men. . . . For love Christ would have apostatized. Even if it meant giving up everything he had (Endō 1980, 170). Pulling him out of the holding cell, he tells Rodrigues: You are now going to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed. . . . Now you are going to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed. . . . Your brethren in the Church will judge you as they have judged me. But there i something more important than the Church, more important than missionary work: what you are now about to do. As Rodrigues lifts his foot to trample the icon, Christ from within the icon speaks to him: Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross (171).

Rodrigues apostatizes in order to save the lives of those apostate Christians undergoing the horrific torture of the pit. Is this a work of a Christian ministry? Is this an instantiation of Christ did not please himself? To compromise what he had held most dear, the thing to which he had dedicated his very life, for the sake of strangers who were being tortured cruelly? It is a fascinating question, one which I cannot answer at the moment. To give up one's very self for the sake of the other! Isn't that the essence of Christ did not please himself?

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