Seventh Sunday After Pentecost: July 28, 2019
Over twenty years ago, when I was serving an internship at a small Presbyterian church in Benson, NC, the church’s Sunday school class was working its way through a video series called Genesis: A Living Conversation. It was an exploration of 10 stories from Genesis hosted by Bill Moyers. Each episode began with a simple reading of the story by actors—Mandy Patinkin and Alfre Woodard—and continued with a conversation among Bill Moyers and a rotating cast of seven others—scholars from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, novelists, teachers, artists, preachers. Like the Sunday school here, we were a very small class. Our teacher was a young man named Dale. He would introduce the episode for the day, and then we would watch and discuss it. It was a fun class in which we would grapple with some of the most engaging and challenging stories in the Bible: creation, temptation, Cain and Abel, the flood, Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, the sacrifice of Isaac, Jacob and Esau, and the exile of Joseph into Egypt. We asked and discussed questions like: What is the character of God? How does God seek to shape our character? What does it mean to be created in God’s image? Is human nature essentially good or essentially flawed and fallen? To what extent are we free and to what extent are we bound to the demands of a good God or our flawed nature?
One morning a young man joined our class. He was well dressed—maybe even better dressed than most of us—and something about his manner led me to think that it had taken a real effort for him to show up that day, like he had finally determined to make it to church and followed up. He came in and took a seat quietly and politely during Dale’s introduction. He watched the video with us. But as we moved into our own discussion, he stood up and spoke. “Excuse me,” he said, “I don’t mean to be rude, but I have to go. This isn’t Christianity. This is philosophy.” And he left, and we never saw him again.
I always wondered what he meant by “philosophy.” He came and went so abruptly that I never got a chance to speak with him. What in our discussion struck him as “philosophy,” and what would “Christianity” have sounded like to him? I suppose I never will know. What I do know however, is that some in the class felt we had been harshly judged, that the young man had deemed our discussion, or perhaps even the content of the video series as somehow lacking, somehow missing the mark of what a Sunday school class should be. I didn’t take it so badly; I just assumed that he was looking for something else in a church and that we couldn’t and shouldn’t try to meet the needs or expectations of everyone who came in.
Philosophy, foolish deception, human traditions, the way the world thinks and acts, circumcision, stringent rules and regulations about food and drink, festivals, new moon observances, Sabbath keeping, harsh self-denial, angel worship, visions. These are the challenges that confronted the Colossians, a small, nascent Christian community at Colossae in Asia Minor to which Paul wrote the letter that we just read from today.
The church in Colossae was founded by a man named Epaphras. But sometime between its founding and Paul’s letter, Epaphras was arrested and imprisoned with Paul, perhaps in Rome. Paul and Epaphras had heard disturbing reports from Colossae about some “philosophy” or “foolish deception” that had led the church at Colossae to abandon the faith that they were taught and take up Jewish practices like circumcision, the observance of dietary laws, the observance of Jewish feasts and festivals, and keeping the traditional Sabbath from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, instead of worshipping on Sunday, the Lord’s day, the day of resurrection. Some of these requirements, like circumcision and dietary laws—had been waived for Gentile converts to Christianity by the apostles in Jerusalem. They considered these practices too much of a hardship for converts to the faith. Other practices, like angel worship, harsh self-denial, and visions, were introduced as an obscure and esoteric kind of Jewish mysticism. These practices were exotic, ethereal, and other worldly. And those who practiced them made themselves out to be highly spiritual people immersed in secret knowledge accessible only to those who were accomplished in the practice. But in Paul’s eyes, all of them were an abandonment of the faith that they were originally taught by Epaphras.
Live in Christ Jesus the Lord in the same way as you received him. 7 Be rooted and built up in him, be established in faith, and overflow with thanksgiving just as you were taught. 8 See to it that nobody enslaves you with philosophy and foolish deception, which conform to human traditions and the way the world thinks and acts rather than Christ.
Paul calls on the Colossians to go back to their roots, and to refuse to be enslaved to a law which cannot save. The faith that they were taught was not obscure or esoteric or other worldly, but firmly and inextricably bound to this world:
9 All the fullness of deity lives in Christ’s body. 10 And you have been filled by him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.
Ours is a faith in which we do not have to seek to ever higher and loftier planes of spiritual experience, because God came down to us and inhabits us. All the fullness of God lives in Christ’s body and Christ lives in us, so therefore God lives in us. We do not have to strive toward God with angel worship, visions, or super-spirituality, because God is already as close as our breath, as close as our heartbeats, as close as our skin and bones and muscles and tendons and ligaments. Just as these things bind our bodies together, so does Christ bind us to God.
The result of God’s descent to earth in the body of Christ is threefold:
- Freedom: It makes superfluous and redundant all of the requirements that the Judaizing mystics in Colossae tried to enslave them with. God in Christ results in radical freedom from the requirements of the law because Christ has already fulfilled these requirements. Circumcision, adherence to dietary law, observance of rituals, sacrifices, festivals: all of these things are completed in Christ.
- Life: It gives new life to a people who were once dead. Through the waters of baptism, we participate in the death and resurrection of Christ. The early church often baptized by immersion. That act of being submerged in water cuts us off from the air we need to live. It is a symbolic burial in the tomb with Christ. When we emerge from the water, it is a symbolic resurrection with Christ. Our human failings and frailties made us dead, but God made us alive with Christ.
- Redemption: It destroyed our debt of sin. As Paul puts it, God “canceled it by nailing it to the cross.”
Freedom. Life. Redemption. All of these treasures are ours through God’s gracious gift of God’s very self in the body of Christ. Far from being ethereal, exotic, other-worldly, or esoteric, God’s grace is tangible, earthy, and bodily. No one has to mediate it to us, no one has to give us secret knowledge to claim it, and no one can claim to have a greater share in it than anyone else.
The super-spiritual mystics who gained influence in Colossae were not only trying bind the Colossians into slavery, death, and the debt of sin, but they were also trying to impose on the community a spiritual hierarchy, in which some were more advanced, more perfect in their practice of faith than others. In response, Paul wrote,
16 So don’t let anyone judge you about eating or drinking or about a festival, a new moon observance, or sabbaths. 17 These religious practices are only a shadow of what was coming—the body that cast the shadow is Christ. 18 Don’t let anyone who wants to practice harsh self-denial and worship angels rob you of the prize. They go into detail about what they have seen in visions and have become unjustifiably arrogant by their selfish way of thinking.
Paul rejects striving for spiritual perfection as arrogant and selfish: arrogant because it causes us to judge each other; selfish because it draws our focus away from Christ and towards our own most un-spiritual impulses: anger, rage, malice, slander, obscenity, lying. He likens it to chasing after a shadow while ignoring Christ, the body that cast the shadow. And since, as Paul says later on, “Christ is all things and in all people,” then it is also pointless, because there is nothing more we need to strive for. “Christ is all things and in all people” means that no one has any more access to God or to the workings of the Holy Spirit than anyone else. “Christ is all things and in all people” means that none of us is in a position to judge any of us, including ourselves.
My aunt Dean, my mom’s little sister, died way too young at age 61. They were eight years apart in age, but as they aged this difference grew less and less important. Mama and Dean were best friends, and Dean’s was hard on my mom. Their brother, Roland, the middle child, seemed to be holding up a little better through the funeral preparations, and one afternoon Mama remarked on this: “I guess Roland just has a stronger faith than I do,” Mama said, full of sadness and self-judgment.
If there is any human flaw or frailty that does us the most damage, it might be our judging and comparing minds. It is easy to fall into the trap of convincing ourselves that someone else’s faith is stronger or firmer or better or more correct than our own, and to wish that we lived out our faith as others do. But not only is that an impossible aspiration, it is a God-denying aspiration. For each one of us is a unique and particular expression of God to the world.
God did not choose to mask Godself, or remain distant and aloof, or hide behind a veil of mystery. The only mystery that God chose was the mystery of incarnation, the mystery of a tangible, earthy, and bodily revelation to the world in Christ. Because Christ lives in each of us, God finds a particular expression that is unique to us and is found in no other.
- For me to want the faith of Jeffery is to deny the particular expression of God in Susan
- For Jeffery to want the faith of Erma is to suppress the particular expression of God in Jeffery
- For Erma to want the faith of Peggy is to disguise the particular expression of God in Erma
- For Peggy to want the faith of Betty is to deprive the world of the particular expression of God in Peggy
Paul ends his letter to the Colossians by teaching them how to make God in Christ manifest among them. He writes:
Christ is all things and in all people. 12 Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. 14 And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15 The peace of Christ must control your hearts—a peace into which you were called in one body. And be thankful people. 16 The word of Christ must live in you richly. Teach and warn each other with all wisdom by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him.