Long-suffering in the Free Church (it’s not about the pews)

Going to church can have unintended consequences – unintended by yourself, that is, of course. I went this morning, thinking that after a week on antibiotics for the mother of all dental abscesses, I knew the meaning of long-suffering. Indeed, perhaps I could even be perceived as the living embodiment of it myself. Three sleepless nights, endless pain which didn’t respond to any amount of ibuprofen, salty mouthwashes or stern talkings-to, and yet I had retained my sanity and even some humour. Perhaps, I allowed myself to think, I am a paragon of putting up with adversity.

You know, though, when you’re leaning towards seòladh àrd of any description, there’s always a Calvinist minister, just waiting to take you down. ‘Think you know what it is to be long-suffering’, they mutter as they stab their sermon notes out on ancient typewriters (in my imagination), ‘just wait till you hear what I have to say’.

Now, let me be clear on something. The take-down for myself this morning was in the substance and message of the sermon, not the delivery. I am in no way suggesting that a Free Kirk service is an object lesson in fad-fhulangas, however hard the pews.

This is all the more remarkable because it wasn’t a sermon on long-suffering, but on unity. It was Ephesians 4, and Paul’s call for unity in the church of Christ. Lack of unity grieves the Spirit, and it grieves him because he is a person of the godhead. In a quite beautiful image, the gift of unity was compared to the gift of Eden: just as the garden was given to Adam to tend, unity in the Spirit was gifted to the church for us – all of us – to nurture.  I am tempted into a segue here, but some things don’t need to be repeated, far less hammered home. We are all capable of meditating upon our own role in caring for what we have been given, and growing it to God’s glory.

I can and have picked holes in how we are as a church. Not gratuitously, I hope, but out of a real, prayerful concern that we are not as we should be. In reality, no Christian needs me to point that out – and there has to be some measure of gratitude for the fact that, to paraphrase Newton, we are at least not as we were. Crucially, though, we are not as we will be: we are the Spirit’s work in progress. And, listening to that sermon today, the unintended consequence for me was that I was both reassured and comforted, yet chastened and humbled also.

Christ did all that he did. He lived a life of service, putting everyone else first. A deserving everyone else? An impeccably behaved everyone else? Far from it. He poured himself out for a world that despised him. Even his own followers were not always faithful, taken up with a wrong vision of the Kingdom. James and John even jockeyed for a status of power within a government that was never intended to be built on any such thing. It must have been so disheartening for Jesus, not to have one wise friend, one close confidante to whom he could go for counsel. There was not one he could trust implicitly to do the right thing. 

This was why the answer to ‘whom shall we send’ and ‘who will go for us’ inevitably came back round to Jesus, for there was indeed no man.

Add to all this that he had no place to call home, no door he could close and be alone with his Father when disappointment and disillusion assailed his heart. Yet this same Jesus went willingly to the cross for those inconstant disciples, for a world that bayed to see him crucified and chose a criminal to be his substitute for mercy. Still, he elected himself our substitute for punishment, in the full knowledge that we deserved no reprieve.

And we fall out over the merest thing. Ironically, while waiting for the service to begin today, I overheard a whispered conversation regarding another congregation who are ‘together, but with undercurrents’. We are not long-suffering in the least. I forgive and excuse my own bad behaviour most readily, but I’m not so merciful to others. The slights and insults, the wrongdoings of my brethren are placed under my magnifying glass, while my own shortcomings, well, they’re easily excused.

What an absolute plate I have. Unity is a gift of the Spirit to which all of us who profess union in him must tend. The only way to that, the only way to anything worth the having, is through Christ. I am going back to one of the books I read assiduously as an apprentice secret disciple, ‘The Imitation of Christ’. Surely I should remember these words of Thomas a Kempis: 

‘Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be’.

Christ can, though, for all of us – and he will finish the good work once it is begun.