Incomplete: The Crown of Life
Topic: Christ's Love & Power Scripture: Psalm 4–4, Revelation 2:8–2:11
If First Presbyterian Church had its own assigned angel, the angel might say, “Well done, good and faithful servants.” Today we mark the successful three-year conclusion of our “Together toward Tomorrow” Campaign. The angel might slip in a word of encouragement for us to finish our pledge if we haven’t yet done so. Thank you to all for your work and generosity. At the meeting of Great Rivers Presbytery at Blackburn College in Carlinville, our church was commended by name for its consistent participation over the years in all four annual special offerings of the PCUSA. These offerings address human needs and missions, at home and throughout the world.
Next Sunday I’ll begin several weeks of study leave continuing through Monday, Nov. 5. The church will be in the capable leadership of Pastor Matt Wilcox, our fine staff, our session and deacons, and committees—and all of you who do things without being asked. I mean good things. Like the churches of Revelation, we might have a guardian angel. We definitely have Jesus Christ who is our Lord and Savior, and head of the church.
The congregation at Smyrna was in this town near the Aegean coast in what we now call Turkey. The town still exists and is, in fact, a large city called Izmir. Most of the other churches received both commendation and reprimand. Smyrna was given a word of compassion. “I know your affliction and your poverty.” It means more than simply “I’m aware of your suffering.” It means, “I know, I care, and I am with you.” The trial that faced them would include imprisonment for some, and perhaps even death for others.
What is incomplete about this church? There was no deficiency of character, no failure of faithfulness. They had something to endure—a journey yet to make. There were promises to keep, and a mile to go before they sleep. There’s a passage in Colossians 1:24, where Paul writes, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the church.” What could possibly be lacking in Christ’s afflictions? His death was all-sufficient for us—nothing can be added or taken away. Yet, Paul identified so completely with him that he declared, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Whenever a follower of a church suffers, their oneness with Christ means they are sharing in his affliction, and he in theirs. In this sense, we “complete” his afflictions.
It’s a concept that has been a through-line in Christian history—though never enjoying wide popularity: the road to holiness runs through suffering. St Teresa of Avila said, “Those who walk closest to Christ are those who have had to bear the greatest trials.” Our attitude is crucial. One person might grow spiritually through trials, while another does not. Empathy for others is a great spiritual treasure. We can pray for grace to lift up our trials as an offering to God.
Part of my study next week will include a visit to the village of Le Chambon in southeastern France. For centuries, this village has been home to Huguenots—French Protestants of the reformed tradition (they’re Presbyterians). The Huguenots historically have been a suffering church, persecuted so much that today they are a small minority within France. The memory of their own persecution created a sense of empathy toward others who suffer. In the 1940’s, this obscure village became a scene of hope and help for Jewish refugees. Thousands, the majority of them children, were welcomed into the homes and farms of Le Chambon. From there they were led over the Alps to Switzerland and safety. The villagers risked their lives to give food, shelter, and refuge. They gave true friendship as well. Online photos from that era show Jewish and gentile children and youth, smiling, and happy together.
How did the miracle happen? The area’s isolation was part of it. But there was something more that enabled decency to prevail. Magda and Andre Trocme were a wife-and-husband ministry team for the Protestant church there. With prophetic foresight and pastoral care, they sensed the mission that would come to their town. Through Bible study and worship, prayer and training, they helped to prepare their congregation. The amazing response lasted through the war years. It is chronicled in the book, “Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There.” When the moment arrived, they were ready. Past suffering and faith enabled them to respond when the need was right there in front of them. Le Chambon is the only whole town to be recognized by the State of Israel as “Righteous among the Gentiles,” for the lives they saved in the Holocaust.
Be ready; endure; keep swimming; God will help you. Maybe there’s an opportunity, right now, for someone among us to shelter or encourage a fellow human being.