A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master (Matthew 10:24)
Irenaeus lived during the second century and was one of the most significant thinkers and leaders of the early church. He was a student of the great bishop Polycarp who was said to be a student of the apostle John. The significance of the student– teacher relationship can be heard in this brief excerpt from Against Heresies (c. 180 AD)
If he did not really suffer there was no grace . . . and when we begin to endure real suffering he will clearly be leading us astray in exhorting us to endure scourging and to turn the other cheek, if he did not first endure the same treatment in reality; . . . in that case we should be ‘above our master’ . . . but as he, our Lord, is our only true master, so he is truly the good and suffering Son of God, the Word of God the Father made the Son of Man (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, cited in Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers, 107).
In Irenaeus’ day there were some sincere, very intelligent Christians who simply could not accept the fact that the Son of God died the excruciating and ignoble death of crucifixion. Jesus’ death on the cross presented them with an uncomfortable theological problem. They dealt with the problem by maintaining that the “human” Jesus was crucified while the “divine” part of Jesus was taken to God before things got really nasty.
Irenaeus would have none of it. Jesus is the suffering Son of God. He didn’t escape the cross by leaving the husk of his body on the tree while spiritually whisking away to the heavens. Jesus was there in his fullness. All of him: feeling every lash of the whip, every nail, the tongue cracking thirst. Jesus suffered.
And this matters precisely because we too suffer. Jesus never asks us to endure what he himself has not endured. And when we try to avoid or deny suffering, we elevate ourselves above our master, student seeking to surpass teacher.
What does suffering look like in your life today? Does the reality of Jesus’ suffering change what you are experiencing? What would it mean for you to enter into the suffering of others?
Lord Jesus, we’re thankful that you entered fully into the experience of suffering; we’re thankful that you understand fully the sufferings we experience. Help us to find you in the midst of our own anguish. And when our days are bright and blessed, teach us to follow your example as we enter into the suffering of those around us. Amen.