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Monday, August 01, 2016

What We’re Here For

I don’t know how many people remember Rocky (1976), the boxing drama about a loan shark’s debt collector from the Philadelphia slums who gets a shot at the world heavyweight championship. It was released forty years ago, after all.

I saw it as a kid and don’t remember being particularly impressed by the story or enthralled by the characters. I found it all a bit grimy, if I recall. What stuck with me about the Rocky Balboa character, though, was that he just wouldn’t stay down.

Oh, he takes a beating alright.

Taking the Punches

While reasonably skilled, Balboa is not legitimately world class, but displays an appealing (and apparently limitless) ability to absorb punches that leaves him looking like a side of beef by the fifteenth round — and yet somehow still standing. His dogged refusal to lie down and give it up is what ultimately makes the movie.

That’s a quality that ought to connect with Christians. The apostle Paul says:
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”
Now that’s probably not you, and it’s definitely not me. As pioneers of the Christian faith, Paul and his fellow evangelists and teachers were uniquely under attack from Jews, Gentiles, principalities and powers. When he refers to being “afflicted in every way”, Paul is not talking about suffering through a mild bout of the blues; he’s talking about being pelted with rocks, thrown into jail, whipped or otherwise abused. Any comparison we might draw between his experience and the trials of early 21st century Western Christendom is going to be a bit of a stretch.

The Reality of Our Faith

But whatever level of distress we may encounter on behalf of the Lord Jesus (and some of us encounter more than others), my point is this: it is in that affliction that the reality of our faith is displayed. Without the suffering and the perplexity that attends it there is no testimony of consequence either to angels or men, because without conflict there is nothing remarkable about the fact that we continue to carry on.

Anybody can stand up between the ropes when no punches are landing, but we don’t thrill to the exploits of the announcer, the referee or the ring girls. It’s the guy who’s being hit over and over, whose face is turning black and blue, whose eye is closing from the swelling, whose knees are wobbling and who is sucking air like a vacuum cleaner that provides all the drama.

It is in the middle of the worst kinds of affliction that the life of Jesus is manifested in our bodies. Otherwise, it’s just our life that’s manifested. In fact, without suffering, there seems little reason for us to be here at all.

Sorry, Joel Osteen, you and the rest of your prosperity gospel gang have missed the point entirely.

Counted Worthy to Suffer

This explains the peculiar behavior of the apostles in the book of Acts. They left the Sanhedrin rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus. It explains Paul’s obsession to “share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death”. These people were not masochists, but they recognized that it was in the most painful and humiliating experiences that their Lord and Saviour was to be most clearly seen.

From the perspective of eternity, it’s fine for Stephen to be stoned to death (though surely exceedingly painful), but not at all fine had his fellow believers responded to his martyrdom by doing a risk assessment and concluding it was time they stopped preaching the Word in case the same thing happened to them. The death of his saints is precious in the sight of the Lord; despair, defection and departure are not.

If you remember the ending of the movie, Rocky doesn’t actually win. To the audience it doesn’t really matter. The triumph is that he makes it to the last round. It’s fine for Rocky to be knocked cold. It’s not fine for him to look up from the canvas, shake his head and say “No más” to the referee.

I’m not in Paul’s situation. I may never be. But may I have the same attitude to whatever comes my way as he did, that the life of Jesus may be manifested in my mortal flesh.

That’s what we’re here for.

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