Summary: Christ still has more sufferings to complete, says St Paul. Really! I thought He died once for all upon the cross, and that was it? Apparently it’s not that simple!...
“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.