How can First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, celebrate Thanksgiving, given that at least 26 of its members—four percent of the town’s population—were killed two weeks ago? Look at the first Thanksgiving, where 50 percent of the colony’s population was wiped out in one year.
The Pilgrims sailed to America risking life and limb among Indians who, they had heard, flayed prisoners with scallop shells. They braved these dangers in order to work out their salvation. Their charter was to plant the first colony in the northern Virginia.
They landed at Cape Cod. Before disembarking for the frigid shores, the Pilgrims signed a covenant on October 1620—the Mayflower Compact. They swore to honor God, King, Country, advance the Christian Faith, and “combine into a Body Politick.” A year later, half of the original signers were dead.
Dressed for Virginia, the Pilgrims lacked appropriate clothing. By December, six had died. In January, eight more passed away. In February, seventeen more died; leaving only five men to care for the sick. In March, thirteen passed away; bringing the total to forty-seven dead (50 percent of the original number). Only three families remained unbroken.
The next month, April, Squanto taught the remaining Pilgrims how to plant maize, beans, and squash. In October they enjoyed their first good harvest. Governor Bradford declared a public Thanksgiving, celebrated in October of 1621. In the only surviving firsthand account of the meal, Edward Winslow said it “so we might after a special manner rejoice together.”
The rejoicing was for a good harvest and a year of hardship. The Pilgrims viewed suffering as part of working out our salvation (Phil. 2:12-13). They understood salvation as past, present, future. We have been saved (Eph. 2:8), are being saved (I Cor. 1:18), and will be saved (Mt. 10:22). Christ’s afflictions—his humiliations, crucifixion, and death—are 100 percent sufficient for our past salvation. But they’re insufficient for the last two.
Our sufferings, or physical afflictions, fill up “what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions” (Col. 1:24). The Apostle Paul recognized this. He suffered physically for the Colossians yet viewed it as part of being saved. Our present and future salvation require effort (“work out your salvation”) and suffering is often a part of that.
This three-fold view of salvation is often forgotten. Most Christians remember when they trusted Christ and were saved. That’s good. But it’s often the end of the story. To save us, Jesus died for us. To be being saved, we must die to ourselves. We join with Jesus in sharing the suffering of the world. That largely determines the degree that we will be saved: “If we suffer with him, we shall also reign with him” (II Timothy 2:12).
Jesus reigns and will reign in eternity. He longs for a bride who reigns with him, so two become one. That requires filling up what is still lacking in Christ’s afflictions.
For Paul, “filling up” was physical afflictions. For the Pilgrims, it was burying half their company. For First Baptist Church, it is burying 26 members. But this Thursday, the congregation can fill up dinner plates while remembering they’re also part of the bride that often suffers to fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. They can give thanks that there is redemption in the midst of a tragedy.