I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.
• Colossians 1:24, NRSV
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1. This week, we are focusing on what I guess might be called, “the quandary of the church age.” On Monday, I suggested that one of the most vexing questions for those who read the New Testament has to do with the expectations one might develop when reading the NT, about how history would work out once Jesus launched “the last days.”
The NT presents Christ’s death and resurrection as historically and soteriologically decisive, his ascension as the event by which he took his throne, putting his enemies under his feet, and the descent of the Spirit as the long-awaited gift forming a community of transformed people whose powerful witness would announce the rule of Jesus as Lord over the entire world. Furthermore, it is promised that Jesus would return, the dead would be raised, and all creation renewed — and it appears that the early Christians expected this to happen sooner rather than later.
And here we are two thousand years later, looking back on a tumultuous history and wondering why sin still abounds and the church so often appears at best incompetent at being a sign of Jesus’ reign and a new creation.
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2. Yesterday, we took some instruction from Alan E. Lewis’s book, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. Lewis suggests that the central narrative of Christian faith, which is reflected in the high point of the liturgical year, should form our perspective on the way we view our lives and history itself, as well as the mission of the church.
Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday form the triduan pattern of this narrative and show how God in Jesus loved the world “to the uttermost” (John 13:1) and defeated the powers of sin, death, and evil in the world. The three-fold pattern describes how God’s victory only came as Jesus and his disciples first walked through two days through death, defeat, and despair.
This helps us define the nature of the Christian “hope.” It is truly hope, and not mere optimism. Optimism sees things getting better and better, moving from victory to victory, a more or less consistent upward trajectory of progress. Hope, on the other hand, acknowledges the roller coaster and clings to the fact that love will ultimately triumph in the long term even when it appears too weak in the short and medium term to stand up to the power of evil.
Whatever we expect, then, from the fact that Jesus is Lord, has won the decisive victory, and has promised that the world will be put to rights in the end, we shouldn’t expect that the journey there will be one of quick and unambiguous progress. For God has shown us that the way he wins is not by winning, and that love must risk being rejected or worse in order to transform life.
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3. Today we look at an intriguing statement by the Apostle Paul that gives us further insight into how he saw his own life and mission in the context of the turning of the ages. In Colossians 1:24, he tells the believers in Colossae that his afflictions as an apostle are part of a much bigger picture. This involves the story of Messiah’s sufferings (the triduan pattern) and how that story continues in the church as it participates in the Missio Dei.
Here is N.T. Wright’s translation of the verse and his commentary on it:
Right now I’m having a celebration — a celebration of my sufferings, which are for your benefit! And I’m steadily completing, in my own flesh, what remains of the king’s afflictions on behalf of his body, which is the church.
First, in verses 24 and 25, Paul sees his own sufferings as part of what he calls “the king’s afflictions.” He is drawing on an ancient Jewish belief according to which a time of great suffering would form the dark valley through which Israel and the world must pass to reach the age to come. This suffering would be the prelude to the age of the Messiah, the age of the king. For Paul, the Messiah himself had already passed through the suffering, and had brought the age to come into being. But because this new age is still struggling in tension with the “present age,” there is still suffering to be undergone. This is not to be seen as an addition to the king’s own suffering; rather it is to be seen as an extension of it. Paul is thus content to take his share of suffering, in prison for the sake of the gospel. It will help to complete the afflictions through which the new age will emerge in its full and final form.
Here we have confirmation of one way the church should look at its life and mission in these “last days” and why it might not always appear to be as “triumphant” as one might expect from a cursory reading of the N.T. The church (exemplified by Paul) exists to “fill up the afflictions of Christ,” that is, to “complete the afflictions through which the new age will emerge in its full and final form.”
Some folks in the comments yesterday expressed concern that such an emphasis might promote exalting victimization and a kind of religious masochism. The church has not been immune to this, as in early centuries when it seems some actually courted martyrdom as the path to glory.
However, let it be said that Paul is speaking after the fact. He is reflecting on his sufferings, which he did not seek. What he sought was to follow Jesus and love people, forming them into communities of faith, hope, and love. Paul was about trusting Christ and living a risky life of love for others. This led to him having to endure suffering from those who misunderstood, misrepresented, feared and resented the love he gave. But out of that love and out of those trials, new life was born.
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 made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
• 2 Corinthians 4:8-12
Of course, none of this actually explains why it is taking so long to “complete what remains of the king’s afflictions” or why it often appears that such little progress has been made.
Perhaps too few of us have embraced the risky path of love.