“The Cross is Sufficient”
St. Thomas Memorial Episcopal Church
This morning’s lesson from the Epistle to the Colossians is dense. It’s jam-packed with what you might call theological gold. I’m only going to focus on one of its themes. In fact, I’m going to narrow it down to one verse--verse twenty-four. In it the author of Colossians writes that in his suffering, Paul is “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” A few years ago I heard a famous Christian public figure at a large gathering say that this passage is “almost heresy.” The people listening to this speaker looked confused. “How can you say it’s ‘almost heresy?’ It’s Paul. It’s the Bible.” I was right there with them wondering the same thing.
Over the course of the two thousand year history of the Church, Christians have interpreted this passage—that Paul was “completing what is lacking in the Christ’s afflictions”—in different ways. Some have come to the conclusion that Paul—and, therefore, we—“complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” through our good works. Christ’s afflictions—or the Cross—gets us most of the way toward peace with God, but we—of course—have to do our part to bridge the remaining gulf.
I still hear people talk like this today. In the hospital whenever I talk to a patient who does not have much time to live, they tell me that they hope they’ve lived a good enough life to make it to heaven when they die. This is the way of salvation by grace plus works. It’s not that any of these patients would deny the power of the Cross, they simply believe—to put it in the words of the text at hand—that they are “completing what is lacking in Christ’s affliction” by living a good life—by being good enough.
This morning I’d like to make it clear that being good enough is not what the author of Colossians is saying when he writes that Paul was “completing what is lacking in Christ’s affliction in his sufferings.” And the reason why the famous Christian public figure that I mentioned earlier said that this passage of Scripture is “almost heresy” is because so many have taken it to mean that we are made right with God by doing our part.
Has everyone in this room heard of the famous Irish rock band, U2? Well, believe it or not, Bono, the lead singer of the band, has one of the most succinct and accurate descriptions of the Christian faith I have ever encountered. (Now I know he’s a polarizing figure, so if you can’t stand him I understand, but bear with him for a second.) In a book-length interview he starts by saying what the Christian faith is not. He says that “at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma… what you put out there comes back to you; and eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” He says that he thinks it’s one of the principles of the universe. He then concludes, “[But] along comes this idea of Grace to upend all that ‘as you reap, so you will sow” stuff… [In fact,] I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge... [The Cross] doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my religiosity.”(Note to self: be sure to say end quote.)
In sum, Bono is simplifying what theologians have been saying for centuries: that you and I are not saved by what we bring to the table, we are not saved by works… our good works do not “complete the afflictions of Christ.” Instead he says he says the opposite. He says that Grace trumps Karma.
Not too long ago I heard a story about a burnt out man who went to his younger brother’s college graduation ceremony. It was shortly after the economic collapse of 2008. No matter what he did, nothing seemed to go right for him. No matter how hard he tried, he simply could not get a job. So he’s sitting in this huge auditorium with thousands of others feeling sorry for himself, when the valedictorian at this Christian college comes on the stage and gives a vulnerable, heartfelt speech. She talked about her neurotic tendencies and her perfectionism and how they had led her to occasional nervous breakdowns. Her message was that she only found peace when she reached the end of her rope. She only found serenity when she was hit square in the face with the fact that this whole business of maintaining her identity and justifying her existence through her work was unsustainable, impossible even. She only found peace when she died to the rat race. For, as she made clear, the Cross alone is sufficient. At every transition in her speech it was her refrain—“The Cross is sufficient.”
My friend told me that while listening to her speech his heart was strangely warmed by this message. It gave him hope and freedom.
You see the message of the Cross is that you and I are not defined by what we do, how many friends we have, or how successful we are. Our identity is not in transient things like our work or our popularity, our socio-economic status or even our level of education. Our identity is in Jesus Christ—the one who was and is victorious over sin and death. The one who in the words of that same author of Colossians, “reconcile[d] to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” So that we “who were once estranged and hostile in mind… [might be] reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present us holy and blameless and irreproachable before him.”
The message of the letter to the Colossians is consistent with that of the other letters in the Pauline corpus: Christians have been made righteous, not by their works, but by the work of Christ. This is all to say that when the author of Colossian writes that Paul is “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” he is not saying that the Cross is insufficient for salvation. That famous Christian public speaker that I talked about at the beginning of the sermon made it clear that what is lacking is not the work but the knowledge of the Cross. What is lacking in Christ’s afflictions is the knowledge that Christ’s Cross has made the world right with God.
St. Paul, a man suffering persecution for the sake of the gospel, writing to those who are also suffering persecution for the sake of the gospel, says that in their proclamation of this good news that Grace trumps Karma—this good news that is too good to be true and yet it (somehow) is--they are “completing what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ." By telling others that you are not defined by what you do, but by what Jesus has already done, you are “completing what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.” For, as the author of Colossians writes at the conclusion of this lesson, “it is him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we might present everyone mature in Christ.” (Col. 1:28)
And this message is just as true for you and I today as it was for the Colossians two thousand years ago. We do not contribute anything to our salvation, we are still not defined by what we do, but we “complete what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ” by telling our neighbor about his great love made clear in the Cross.
We—like St. Paul and the Colossians—may undergo persecution for proclaiming this message in word and deed. In fact, the Scriptures say that we will. But it is in those unfortunate moments that we, like Paul, take heart, because we have been counted worthy to suffer for the sake of Christ—to “complete what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.”
The Cross is sufficient for salvation. Let us “complete what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ” by echoing the valedictorian’s refrain to a hurting world in need of the gospel—to a burnt out world in need of respite. The Cross is sufficient.