I was listening to Brian Zahnd’s podcast Tuesday while waiting for the rest of my mission team in the Santiago airport. In his May 19th sermon “Mystery Revealed,” he preaches on the cosmic reconciliation of all creation in Christ described in Colossians 1. Brian cautions Christians not to take a triumphalist, hegemonic attitude about the cosmic reign of Christ as through its purpose is to serve as our self-affirmation. He says, “”The way of conquest and domination is the way of the old gods that are passing away… When we absorb enough of the sin and suffering of the world in imitation of Christ, people are drawn to Christ.” It’s a very fascinating claim about the nature of evangelism and what it means to take up our crosses and follow a crucified savior.
Brian is riffing on Colossians 1:24 where Paul says something very enigmatic that has caused a lot of anxiety for many gatekeepers of Christian orthodoxy: “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.” Surely that must be a bad translation. How can anything be lacking in Christ’s afflictions if His death paid the full price for our sins? But the Greek is pretty clear: υστέρηματα from υστερεω (“to fall short”).
Do we need Paul to suffer for our sins too because Christ’s payment was somehow “lacking”? That’s clearly a scandalous claim. The only way this verse makes any sense is if Christ’s suffering does more than the traditional evangelical account of atonement allows for. This is why Brian Zahnd can make his provocative suggestion that suffering with Christ and thus absorbing others’ evil constitutes a form of evangelism.
The way to this interpretation comes through a look at the context of Colossians 1. Earlier in the chapter, Paul writes about the cosmic reconciliation enacted by God through Christ. Verse 20 says “through Him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things whether on heaven or earth by making peace through the blood of His cross.” There are two important things to note here: 1) God is the agent of reconciliation, not the one who needs to be reconciled or satisfied (as in popular penal substitutionary atonement); 2) it is not only sinful humans who need to be reconciled, but all things on heaven and Earth.
I had not noticed the second part of this before. The cross reconciles to God the rivers that have been poisoned and the landscapes that have been deforested by human greed as well as the animals and plants who have been abused directly or indirectly by our disruption of God’s natural equilibrium. It brings back into harmony everything in creation that has been dissonant. If the cross has this power, then any reductionist interpretation of it as a mere transactional “payment” for the moral demerit of sin is categorically rules out by Colossians 1:20. It covers not only the guilt but also the damage of sin to both culprit and victim, which is why the predominantly ubiquitous Anselmian divine honor-based theology of sin falls so woefully short.
Paul expands on the nature of this reconciliation in verse 22 by saying that the means of our reconciliation is “in his fleshly body through death.” This suggests to me the metaphor of Jesus’ crucified body as a sponge for the violence of a fallen world. He does not conquer evil through conquest and domination but through absorbing our evil and suffering into Himself so that it loses its power.
So if Jesus reconciles the universe to God by absorbing evil and suffering into Himself, then can those of us who are no longer “children of wrath” (Eph 2:3) but are instead incorporated into the body of Christ likewise absorb evil and suffering into ourselves as part of the ongoing work of divine reconciliation? Is the gap between the “already” of Jesus’ cross and the “not yet” of the full eschatological manifestation of His kingdom’s glory a space in which God has graciously allowed us to be co-agents of reconciliation? Did God deliberately leave a space for us to complete (an υστέρηματα) with our cruciform evangelism in which we serve and suffer our way into absorbing the world’s evil? This seems a reasonable way to describe what it means to be incorporated into Jesus Himself (what else does body of Christ mean?!) and obey His command to take up our own crosses. It’s a provocative and beautiful proposal that Brian Zahnd has laid before us.