I have learned, the hard way, that today’s Gospel about Martha and Mary is not appreciated by many giving and talented women. It just doesn’t seem fair. Often I have tried to address that feeling. But this year I want to address our second reading, from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians. This seems a rather dense piece of Scripture to tackle on a warm July Sunday, but here goes.
St Paul makes a rather dramatic, indeed shocking, statement: “now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ...”
First of all Paul sounds masochistic: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake,” And in the second place he sounds heretical: “I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ...” What could possibly be lacking in the redemptive work of Christ? Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the once and for all, complete and definitive act of salvation.
So, Paul’s statement is bold, to put it mildly. What was Paul smoking? Well, I think we are into some rather deep aspects of our incorporation into Christ - our being part of the Body of Christ.
St Paul was familiar with suffering: especially suffering that came from preaching the Gospel. In the second letter to the Corinthians Paul gives us a list of some his sufferings: “Five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes minus one.
Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep; on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure. And apart from these things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches.” 2 Cor 11:24 ff
How was St. Paul able to bear all this? Did he just grin and bear it? Just suck it up and deal with it? Just get through it as best he could, and hang tough till it was over?
I don’t think so. Paul has a much deeper appreciation of his sufferings. He even can state: “now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake,” We need to pay attention to the language. Notice Paul does not say he “enjoys” his sufferings. That would be sick. But rather he “rejoices” in them. Because even though they are painful, and frustrating, and discouraging, and difficult to bear, and they hurt, still St Paul sees great value in his sufferings for the sake of preaching the Gospel.
St. Paul, in this letter to the Colossians, today’s reading, is not so much doing systematic theology as he is doing spiritual direction. He is giving the Colossians, and to us, the example of his own life in order to teach us. Because every one of us, like St. Paul, has to face suffering for the sake of the Gospel. In the chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel before today’s Gospel reading, Jesus bluntly tells us: "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Lk 9:25)
Have you taken up your cross yet today? Maybe your cross was squelching the cutting word or the racist comment. Maybe it was forgiving the person who cut you off in traffic. Maybe it was speaking the unpleasant truth that needed to be said. Maybe taking up your cross was an act of generosity that grated on your natural selfishness but you did it anyway. Maybe it was that very difficult sacrifice of moving to the center of the pew so that those lesser Christians, the latecomers, could easily find a seat.
The Lord tells us that EVERY DAY we have to take up our cross and follow Him. And crosses hurt. They are hard.
How do we handle that? Do we just suck it up and deal with it? Endure it as best we can? Or do we - like St Paul - find deep value and meaning in our suffering?
St. Paul tells us that: “in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church,” This is a difficult statement. Christ has already and fully achieved the redemption of the world. And yet St. Paul clearly sees that he, and we, are members of the Body of Christ. What happens to us also happens to Christ in a way. Therefore we are invited - and are able - to enter into Christ’s redemptive work.
Jesus has provided a new meaning for suffering by giving it redemptive power. By His grace we are able to unite our pains and sufferings to Christ’s redemptive passion.
This is deep and rather dangerous stuff. It has been misused many times in the course of history. It is not that suffering is a good thing that should be sought in itself. Nor can we ever permit the suffering of others because it would be good for their redemption.
These approaches are perversions of this truth. Suffering always remains an evil that we must battle against. Jesus went about healing the sick, feeding the hungry and relieving suffering.
Rather this teaching of the redemptive quality of suffering is a deep understanding that in this sinful world, to live the Word of God, and to preach the Gospel both by the example of our lives and by our words, will generate opposition, resistance, ridicule: in short, suffering, as well as go against our natural sinful inclinations.
But this suffering, and indeed any pain and disappointment, born with the attitude of Christ: that is, an attitude of not hurting back, of not seeking revenge, of not trying to push it off on someone else by becoming grumpy, irritable and angry, of not giving up in despair, but rather bearing suffering in trust of God’s Love for us; suffering born this way is HEALING. Somehow it heals the estrangement between us and our neighbors and God. It is redemptive.
Every one of us, as a member of the Body of Christ, has the privilege of participating in Christ’s redemptive work. We bear suffering in Christ and in so doing we bring God’s love closer to the world.
To “bear” also means to give birth. From suffering “born” in this way a new way of life is “born”: beyond revenge, beyond violence, beyond despair. And for this Paul rejoices. “now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ...”
We must do the same.