December 20, 2014

Completing the King’s Afflictions

Martyrdom of st-stephen

The Martyrdom of Stephen, Lotto

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

• • •

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.

• • •

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.

• • •

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.

Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters

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.

Comments

  1. I’ve been following this discussion with interest and thank all who have contributed. However, it just seems to me that explanations for how the world is and why are beyond most Christians understanding, especially the “triduan” one. I can’t image too many people I know even having exposure to such an idea let alone understanding it, I had to read it about 3 times to even have an inkling of what was being said. I don’t wan to dismiss it, but it seems a strange way of viewing things and certainly doesn’t answer any of my questions. Paul was Jewish and understood things in that light, that doesn’t necessarily translate for us Gentiles, indeed it is a foreign concept. I just can’t imagine why God would work the world in that way. I think the concept that there’s nobility in suffering is a crock quite frankly.

    • “Nobility in suffering”? Where did you get that idea?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        St Rose of Lima?
        (Though most of her sufferings were self-inflicted from over-asceticism; still better than those who preach “nobility in suffering” while making sure they’ll never personally suffer — “He who passes the sentence should be the one to swing the sword”.)

        • Perhaps I should’ve have said that the idea that somehow suffering is redemptive, that I’ve heard over and over again doesn’t wash with me.

    • Robert F says:

      CB, I, too, worry about how intelligible to the vast majority of people, especially the masses of poor and uneducated, both Christian and non, such ideas can be. If the core of the faith I hold, its essentials, are not as readily grasped and understood by a poor, undereducated truck driver in Lima, or a day laborer working in the fields of India, as by me, then I wonder if it what I believe is really the Christian faith, or only a tissue of abstractions made possible by a certain level of education, and a certain amount of leisure time to fill up with subtly self-aggrandizing speculations.

      • Maybe it’s the other way around. I suspect that the uneducated and those who are more childlike in their thinking habits actually “get” the simple core of the gospel more easily than people (like me) who think too damn much. It is the religious intelligencia that has spent centuries propping up their faith with complex theological constructs. Religious scholars may spend a lot of time and trouble fine-tuning their theological machines, but nobody gives their flesh to lions or the fire or the cross for a mere “tissue of abstractions.”

    • Faulty O-Ring says:

      Christians are like pot smokers. They have their own jargon, which helps them get lost in their own little worlds.

  2. Chaplain MIke: How does 1 Cor. 15 inform your thinking on these matters you have been raising this week?

    From the ESV: “20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.”

    Paul seems to clearly say there is going to be an “end”. That Christ must reign “until” all enemies are put under his feet. Then even death will be destroyed. Do you think the “until” part is where, like Miguel said yesterday, the long church age was hidden even to Paul’s understanding?

    And then Paul writes: “35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36 You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” Is here where the necessity of the cross comes to play. Eveything to be redeemed must “die” first.

    Finally, Paul says: “51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” 55 “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

    That does not sound to me like a gradual coming, or a metaphorical coming, or the long, slow, heat death of the cosmos. Am I missing some kind of cultural context here? I know that given what we now know of the immensity of the cosmos this seems like a quaint idea. But what if God means what He starts here grows to fruition throughout the whole universe and even the “heat death” itself is swallowed up in victory?

    • Mike, I only have time for a brief answer at this point. I still hold to a “glorious appearing” of Christ at the end of history. What is intriguing to me with regard to the current subject about the text you quoted is verse 25: “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” This may indeed cover the entire current age and give us a clue as to its ultimate purpose.

      My posts have focused also on how Christ puts his enemies under his feet. Though this particular text sounds rather militaristic, in fact I believe the NT affirms that it happens, at least in part, through a people who love to the uttermost as Jesus did when he laid down his life for us.

      • “People who love to the uttermost as Jesus did” Yes, this. I like the Phillips translation of 1 Corinthians 13:8-10:
        1 Corinthians 13:8-10 J.B. Phillips New Testament (PHILLIPS)

        7-8a Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. It is, in fact, the one thing that still stands when all else has fallen.

        8b-10 For if there are prophecies they will be fulfilled and done with, if there are “tongues” the need for them will disappear, if there is knowledge it will be swallowed up in truth. For our knowledge is always incomplete and our prophecy is always incomplete, and when the complete comes, that is the end of the incomplete.

      • I too see militarism but rather than Western-style, it seems to me more like to tai chi (for eg), which uses the opponent’s power to defeat itself. We can war in love, I think, a battle that rejects and dismantles destruction. It is defense that is also offense.

        ITSM that the war metaphor is the answer to repeated complaints against the “nobility of suffering” (which I suspect will be inevitable unless this aspect accompanies it). We are never called to submit to destruction (and its sensual consequence: suffering) but fighting it doesn’t look at all like Western ideas of the term.

        Jesus, too, didn’t really submit (except to his own communal decision to endure a human life/death), but fell into the punch and got back up, thus winning the central battle. In this long interim, we are fighting the rest of the war, societal battles and internal skirmishes, to beat back a God-determined quantity of destruction (of which our own deaths are part) and also help God complete our own formation. It is a gigantic project. It makes sense to me that it would take a long time.

        And how could Paul et al know of this? They had the elements correct but the vastness of it was never relayed to them. So much happened in a short time in their lives, it’s a normal human conclusion that the intensity would continue to the finish. There is so much that God doesn’t tell us and it must be for a purpose, if God is a good God, because some of it we would be able to process just fine, even in our limitedness.

        Thanks for letting me put my two-bits in, Chap. Mike.

        • Robert F says:

          Patrice,
          People in the East kill each other in war, too, so its not just a Western problem. Even Asoka, the committed Indian Buddhist prince, fought his enemies in wars violent and deadly. When, in the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna recoils from the idea of fighting the enemy he faces across from him on the front lines, it is very much war as we in the West know it that repels him, and it is this very much this kind of war that Krishna tells him is his duty, as well as the spiritual war against illusion.

          • Patrice says:

            Well, yeah, war is a human propensity. I mention Western militancy because we are Western and because Christianity has grown in Western civ.

            Christians are called to destroy destruction but what does that mean? How can that be done? How can it be “love”?

            I am beginning to think of the “war of love” as a discipline requiring wile, wisdom and creativity. And the principles underlying practices like tai chi might make an additional set of useful analogies because they involve creative battling. Proponents don’t initiate battle and they don’t design/use weapons of destruction. They are not interested in doing violence but in wasting the violence coming at them. They are devoted to thorough knowledge of their own body and mechanics, and also to intimate knowledge of their opponents, staying alert and focused on vulnerabilities, catching them off balance, letting them fall so the destructive energy is wasted.

            And when the opponent has wasted himself, there is a window for healing/restoration.

            I don’t know, just trying it on and sort of liking it.

          • Robert F says:

            Oh, my, being a Christian warrior of love sounds like a whole lot of work, the way you describe it. Although I used to enjoy watching the TV series “Kung Fu” when I was a kid, at this point you’d have to count me among the aged, feeble and weak when it comes to learning anything as ambitious as the martial art of love. I’ll have to sit this one out, and hope that “to conquer death, you only have to die, you only have to die.”

          • You may not come back for this, since life got away from me and I’m just now returning to thread.

            This proposal isn’t more work than we already do every day in personal lives, relationships, jobs, church community, larger world. And we regularly consider what/how to go through our lives as Christians in posts here at imonk, books read, sermons heard, courses taken.

            This is merely a different way to approach what we already do. It could offer another analogy for going forward in necessary love while also taking proper responsibility of battling against evil.

  3. “Perhaps too few of us have embraced the risky path of love.”

    Quite true.

    And fewer of us have embraced the life of faith.

    “Though He slay me, I will worship Him.”

    (not saying, at all, that I am any good at it, either)

  4. “Perhaps too few of us have embraced the risky path of love.”
    Very interesting line. The individual is critical to the out working of God’s plan. Not in the all-American, pampered, ego sense which can lead down the slippery slope of haughtiness but in an even bigger and much wider sense which is only found through emptying one self. The individual running of our race is essential in God’s economy and in bringing to pass the church’s becoming of Christ to the world. It never seems to have required the grand revival and the great moving of the spirit. It is usually the story of individuals or small groups. What we do with our apportioned talents actually and really affects things, I have come to believe, in ways we don’t see under normal circumstances. It matters if I repent or if I give or if I submit or if I protect the helpless or if I pray. These things are recorded in the Lambs book of life, not for mere record keeping purposes but because they have taken form in eternity and are actively pulsing in the life blood. Things are going on and we are integral, for better or for worse. It all matters.

  5. David Cornwell says:

    The first chapters of Ephesians, I think, speak to this in a very expressive way. In the first chapter Paul uses phrases such “as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” And “that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.” Leading to the grand statement that “God … raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name … not only in this age but also in the age to come.”

    At the beginning of chapter two he speaks of what we have been delivered from, namely “the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.”

    But in order to understand the context of these chapters ringing with such wondrous victory, it is necessary to know that Paul is writing as a prisoner, namely “a prisoner for Christ.” So he is talking about not only spiritual suffering, but also the physical that goes along with being in prison.

    In a partial summary at the end he writes that our struggle “is… against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers … against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

    So even though to Paul, Christ is now victorious, there are still sufferings that must be endured “for Christ.” These struggles are both local against the evil that we confront each and every day, those embedded in the systems of corruption, power, and greed that permeate the world, and the cosmic “spiritual forces” that are undergirding structure.

    And there are those Christians, right now in our world, who are suffering for Jesus.

  6. Off Topic, I guess. When Eric Cantor lost his reelection, he quoted a Holocaust survivor. In this life we will always have suffering; misery we choose.

  7. Robert F says:

    It does seem that in the early church, an unhealthy idea formed that by dying a death like Jesus’, one was somehow securing one’s salvation, and claiming a place in heaven for oneself. Some of those early martyrs practically committed suicide, even as their Roman captors and judges did everything in their power to help them. It’s not hard to see how even a relatively sensitive and intelligent Roman magistrate might come to the conclusion that Christian’s hated life, and loved death. I don’t think it would be a good thing for contemporary Christians to emulate the early church in this area.

  8. How long did Israel wait for the Messiah? I know it was long enough for some to build up a well rounded doctrine on how he would appear and what action he would take. I could see him doing exactly the same thing on the return. He is long suffering, “not willing that any should perish” and a thousand years is as a day so He will return at the appointed hour for a bride who has finally gotten the hair, the gown and the makeup in order. Looking at the surface of things that seems a distant dream. Then again, He doesn’t look at the surface of things.

  9. Robert F says:

    Re-reading the excerpts from Lewis, and reconsidering, it seems to me that perhaps the triduan shape of history that he proposes may in fact be compatible with Bonhoeffer’s proposal that a world-come-of-age requires a religionless Christianity. If at least part of what Bonhoeffer meant by a world-come-of-age is one in which the potentialities of human freedom are set loose by God to outwork both in maximal human creativity and maximal evil; if, by religionless Christianity, he meant that in such a world the Christian does not stand apart from the condition and fate of humanity, but shares completely in that condition and fate, in both its greatest depths and heights, as a fellow traveler and sufferer on the way, different only in that he carries in his heart through the very depths of a seemingly godforsaken history and existence the eschatological secret of the Crucified and Risen One: then, despite the certainty that this world-come-of-age will one day become a world-gone-over-the-hill, and finally a world-buried-beneath-the-hill, it may be that the triduan shape of history is the one in which a Christian may “live before God and with God…without God,” and live for and towards his fellow human beings in love and service.