“And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him”
This is Paul, writing in his one and only letter to the Colossians, and it’s all good stuff.
But I expect that for some of you, like me, reading Paul’s letters can be a bit like reading a phone book sometimes – not because what he says isn’t all true and significant, but just because we’ve heard it before, and after a while it all starts to sound the same.
Is that being irreverent? Perhaps.
I know I personally prefer the stories of Jesus and the stories told by Jesus, because they capture my imagination, whereas the doctrinal teachings of St Paul often seem to take me back more to miserable memories of the lecture hall than they do to the joys of salvation.
And then you trip over a line like this:
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, this is, the church.” (Colossians 1:24)
And you think, ‘hang on, what exactly is he taking about?’
“I rejoice in my suffering” – that sort of statement, while possibly a bit bizarre, is by no means atypical of St Paul. He always seemed to manage to see the positive side of his pain when he knew that it served a constructive purpose. But he goes further: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”.
He goes beyond just saying that he rejoices in his suffering. He also sees his own suffering as a meaningful involvement in Christ’s sufferings, and, more than that, he sees Christ as having a quota of suffering that still needs to be endured – “in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.”
What does he mean? Christ suffered once upon the cross and that was it, wasn’t it?
You may have seen the review I wrote of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” movie that appeared in our local paper. Through the publication of my article I soon discovered that not everyone share my positive assessment on the movie. On the contrary, quite a number actively hated it, including a number of people I respect.
One of the most articulate critiques I received was from an Irish friend of mine who is on my Internet mailing list. His criticism was that the movie was obsessed with suffering. “Why did the movie only focus on the sufferings of Christ?” he asked. And, more pointedly still, he asked, “why are we supposed to admire somebody simply because they suffered?” There was no serious explanation in the movie, this man pointed out, as to why Christ suffered. Surely we are not supposed to admire suffering for its own sake?
Surely not, we would think, yet in my response to my friend I pointed out that if the movie, ‘The Passion of the Christ’ is obsessed with the sufferings of Jesus, it is doing no more than reflecting the gospels. For the gospel stories too spend an enormous amount of time focusing on the sufferings of Christ, and often, again, without any real explanation!
The Gospel of Mark, in particular, is often whimsically referred to by scholars as a ‘crucifixion narrative with an extended introduction’, as the Good Friday narrative itself makes up about a third of the book. And there’s not even a resurrection account in Mark!
And this obsession with the sufferings of Jesus doesn’t just stop with the Gospel stories either, for we find it here too in the writings of St Paul.
St Paul, who never met Jesus in the flesh, who did not see him physically suffer, and quite possibly never even heard about the crucifixion and death of Jesus until well after it had happened, nonetheless refers to the pain of Jesus repeatedly, and nowhere more pointedly than here, in his letter to the Colossians, where he says that not only is he (Paul) sharing in the sufferings of Jesus, but that this Jesus still has more sufferings to complete!
It is mysterious, isn’t it? And it’s a mystery that is reflected in the history of the church, which has always taken as its symbol the image of the cross, rather than a picture of a ‘rolling stone’ or an image of Christ ascending. It’s a mystery that is reflected in every piece of Christian art that takes for its theme the cross or a bleeding heart, rather than an image of God on high or one of the miracle stories.
Is it all simply a passive recognition of the fact that the Christian path, like the path of the master, is always a pilgrimage along the ‘via dolorosa’ (the ‘way of sorrows’) or is there something more to it than that?
I want to suggest to you, on the basis of my reading of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, that it might simply be tied up with the fact that Christianity is very much a religion of the flesh.
Yes, you heard me correctly. Christianity is a religion of the flesh.
By this I mean first and foremost that Christianity is not a religion through which we rise above what is fleshly and human in order to commune with God, but rather a faith wherein we recognise that what is fleshly and human is sanctified and blessed by God.
This is at the heart of Paul’s agenda in his letter to the Colossians – a church that was being heavily influenced by the Greek philosophical agenda of the day that said that what was fleshly was bad but what was spiritual was good, and that the goal of life on earth was to escape the flesh and be freed to be a spirit.
Despite the enormous historical influence of this way of thinking upon Christians over the centuries, this metaphysic is not compatible with Biblical thinking and has never been!
The Bible does NOT teach the immortality of the soul. The Bible teaches the resurrection of the body. It was Socrates and Plato who taught the immortality of the soul. Jesus both taught and demonstrated the resurrection of the body.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that these two beliefs equate to roughly the same thing. They do not. They are very different.
Our hope is not that we might be freed from our physical bodies, any more than we hope to be born into a ‘spiritual’ (read ‘immaterial’) world after death. No. We wait for God’s Kingdom to come, which is defined for us in the Lord’s Prayer as that day when ‘His will will be done on earth as it is in Heaven’.
We wait for that day and we wait for the final resurrection of the body, for that day when the ‘earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’. We wait for that day when, in our bodies, we will experience the ‘lamb and lion lying down side by side’, in that renewed creation where men will ‘study war no more’ and where ‘every tear will be wiped away’.
Our hope is a very fleshly hope, as our faith is a very much a fleshly faith, as our Lord was very much a man of flesh and blood.
This is indeed a part of Paul’s polemic in his letter to the Colossians, where people were tending to ‘spiritualise’ the Christian message. Paul says, “and you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death.”
You can’t get away from the fleshly body of Christ or from the fundamental importance of that fleshly body in the whole process of salvation, which takes us to the very heart of the whole doctrine of the incarnation that states that in Jesus the Word became flesh.
Think on that for a moment, if you will. Think on it, not only for what it says – that God encountered us by entering into our humanity – but think on it too for what it does not say!
What it does not say is that God, when He decided to really make contact with us, did so by lifting us above our humanity, so that we could meet Him ‘up there’ – up above and beyond, in the Heavenly places, in some spiritual realm.
No. God did NOT make contact with us by helping us to rise above our humanity, but by coming down and entering into our humanity, and so it makes sense that, if we want to fellowship with Him still, this encounter will again take place in our humanity, in the flesh.
Let me now pull this out of the theoretical realm and put it back into the realm of the practical.
‘Christ still has more to suffer’, says St Paul.
‘But he doesn’t have a body?’ someone will say.
‘Oh yes he does!’ says Paul. His body is the church – a very human, fleshly body indeed!
‘But surely Christ doesn’t simply experience whatever pain is taking place in the body?’ someone may say.
‘Most assuredly He does’, says St Paul. ‘He is the head of the body, and He is completely in touch with every trauma and pain that is taking place within the body!’
And the other side of that is that we, who are also a part of the body, should also be in touch with the pain that is taking place in the various parts of the body, and in sharing that pain we share in Christ’s pain, and actually share that burden with Jesus until the work of the Kingdom of God is complete!
You see, it’s all about the flesh, and it’s all about being ‘connected’.
Because we are all part of one body, we are connected in the flesh.
This is fundamental to the Hebrew understanding of the word ‘basar’ (‘flesh’ or ‘body’). Our flesh is our humanity. Our flesh is our point of contact with one another. When we touch each other we make a connection between each other as human beings.
That’s one of the reasons I love wrestling – flesh to flesh is the most fundamental way to connect with someone!
Our humanity is in our flesh and our connectedness is in our flesh, and if we are really all part of one body, then we will feel those connections in all their joy and pain.
‘When one member of the body rejoices, we all rejoice’ says St Paul, ‘and when one member suffers, we all suffer together’. (1 Corinthians 12:26)
Why? Because we are connected as a part of the same body. And the converse of that is, that if we’re not feeling the pain that’s going on in other parts of the body, we’re not fully functioning members!
I remember many years ago now Rev. In Myung Jin of the ‘Urban Industrial Mission’ in Korea talking to my university group about the suffering of factory workers in Korea (he’d been in prison a number of times for protesting the treatment of factory workers). He said ‘if you can’t feel the pain of your brethren who are suffering in the sweatshops in urban Korea, then you’re not a fully functional member of the body.’
I thought at the time that this was a bit rough, but my reading of the Old Testament prophets reminds me that they were rougher.
The attacks made by the prophets on those who oppressed the poor, were often made on persons who were not directly involved. Maybe they just kept silent, or maybe they just profited indirectly on the misery of others (eg. Amos 4:1).
As with the story Jesus told (in Luke 16), about the rich man who had a beggar named Lazarus sitting at his gate, the problem was not that the rich man was directly responsible for Lazarus’ poverty, but simply that the rich man failed to share anything with him. The pain of poor Lazarus did not affect the rich guy in the slightest. The two were simply not connected!
And we can easily accomplish the same thing. Turn off the TV, close your door, shut your eyes, and cocoon yourself within your little castle, and you can detach yourself from the pain that is going on around the world and within your own community. The problem is that when we do it, we cut ourselves off as members of the body, for we are no longer connected to our brethren!
It really amazes me when I think about it, that so much religion is designed to elevate us above the realm of the human and the mundane, whereas with Jesus, He told us quite plainly where we could meet him. “When I was hungry, you feed me. When I was thirsty, you gave me a drink, when I was sick and in prison, you visited me. When you did it for the least of my brethren, you did it for me.” (Matthew 25:31ff).
It’s as if we keep looking up for Jesus while He is calling out to us ‘hey, I’m down here!’
So much religion seems to be designed to take us out of our bodies so that we can commune with the eternal, whereas all of us here know where He is to be found – in our needy neighbour!
St Paul says, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, this is, the church.”
For it’s all connected – the body, the pain, Christ and the church. You can’t have one without the other. To be joined to Christ is to be a part of the community, is to take on the burden of care for the body, and so begin to share in the sufferings of Christ.
I remember my dad telling me of a time he remembered better than I did – the time when the Beatles were on their spiritual pilgrimage to India, to study under some great guru, who would teach them to rise above the material world through meditation, and so leave behind all earthly pains and passions. Dad told me that apparently next to the great palace of that guru there was a small Christian mission, dedicated to helping local girls get out of prostitution.
For me this contrasting image of the transcendent palace of prayer alongside the all very fleshly and human Christian mission to the local girls illustrates the point of departure between the Christian faith and so much religion.
Transcendent religion tries to move us beyond the world of flesh and blood to God’s world, whereas Jesus enters in to the world in the flesh, sheds His blood, and tells us that we don’t have to leave the flesh to find Him.
Is that Good News? Perhaps the best news is that which is there at the tail end of the very verse we have been looking at this morning – the promise that Christ’s afflictions will one day be completed, and indeed they will!
Christ’s sufferings and ours will one day be completed, and then the body of Christ will become the bride of Christ, as the earth becomes as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
That’s good news, and that’s a good note to end on today.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, July 2004.