Monday, February 18, 2008

The Letter to the Jesus Community at Colossae

Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis were ancient cities located close together on the Lycus River, some hundred miles upstream from Ephesus on the coast of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). This letter, addressed to Christians in Colossae, was intended to be read by the Laodicean church as well. There are also links with the letter to Philemon and connections in content, word order, and wording with Ephesus. These matters are involved in the unsettled question of authorship. Many scholars believe that Colossians was written in Paul’s name after his death. If that is the case, the address to the Colossians would be only a literary device, since an earthquake devastated the area in 60 CE, about the time of Paul’s death, and there was probably little left of the city. (New Interpreters Study Bible).

Thus, we have here another New Testament letter ascribed to Paul which may or may not have been written by him. Whether or not it was written by Paul, it is a part of our Scripture and we need to grapple with it. Authorship would help determine date and circumstance for the letter, at least Paul’s circumstance. If written by Paul, it would probably have been written from prison, about the same time as Philippians, Philemon and Ephesians (if that was written by Paul). Even if the letter was not from Paul, it is certainly in the Pauline stream of Christian faith, taking primary cues from Paul’s understandings of that faith. While there are concepts found here that are missing in the undisputed letters of Paul (a focus on the cosmic Christ, the church as a universal community, more than a local community, a focus on the language of principalities and powers), those who argue for his authorship find continuities between Paul’s work and this letter. Many of the themes found here are also found in Ephesians. It should be noted that Paul never visited Colossae, and that might be an argument against his authorship.

While the authorship and date of this letter are matters of debate there is agreement that the letter was written to address “a serious theological and ethical problem that has gained a foothold” in the community. A different spirituality was making headway in Colossae, one offering “perfection and spiritual fulfillment through a mixture of visions, worship of angelic beings, festivals, and rituals based on the calendar, dietary restrictions, and asceticism” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Another characterization of the problematic teachings are that they were “more astrological than theological, involving a belief in the control over human destiny by the stars…. This belief was probably grafted onto a calendar of Jewish holy days: popular religion in the Mediterranean world was nothing if not eclectic.” (New Interpreters Study Bible).

Once again, we encounter a developing Christian faith trying to draw some boundaries around itself. Christian faith is not infinitely elastic, though it has some elasticity. We are often uncomfortable with the idea of drawing such boundaries today. We have seen the difficult history of Christian triumphalism, where those defined as non-Christian were persecuted, forced to convert, sometimes killed. We have no wish to perpetuate such ugly chapters of Christian history. We need not argue that those outside the Christian faith are also outside the grace of God. Nevertheless, it is helpful to understand where the boundaries of Christian faith exist, not to look down on others, but to develop our own faith more deeply. What are some current “spiritualities” not easily incorporated into Christian faith? I wonder if the idea that we attract all the things that come into our lives really fits Christian faith. Does the victim of a rape “attract” such behavior? Has the homeless person put herself in that situation, by the law of attraction? While our attitudes and openness affect our lives, shape our lives, they are not the sole causal factors, and we are not forever bound by our mistakes. Christian faith trusts in a God who can make things genuinely new. An iron clad law of attraction would deny this.

What are the struggles of the Christian community in Colossae, and what can we learn from them and the response to them offered in this letter?

Colossians 1

Colossians 1:1-2: Here we have a characteristic greeting.

Colossians 1:3-14: Also typical of Pauline letters, we have a section of thanksgiving. As with other letters, themes to be developed elsewhere in the letter are introduced. Here, the author will write expansively of the comprehensiveness of Christian faith. Remember, Paul is writing to a church community he has never visited, but writes with some knowledge of them. He has heard about them, about their faith and love and hope. It is important that these be kept together – hope and faith are to be lived in love for others. The gospel, the good news, is seen as a word of truth and hope – a hope that the whole world will eventually be set right - that justice, peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, beauty, all of God’s dream for the world will prevail. When people have that hope, they live in a way consistent with that dream for the world. The deepest truth about the world is that God’s dream for it is alive and active and will eventually prevail.

Hearing of the faith, hope and love in this community, Paul assures them of his prayers. He prays that they might continue to grow in faith, hope and love. He prays that they might be filled with spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that they might lead lives “worthy of the Lord,” lives that “bear fruit in every good work.” Notice the continued emphasis on the development of the inner life (growth in wisdom, understanding, knowledge) and on good works. The Christian life involves both inner development and good works. Paul prays that they might be strengthened by God’s own power. God’s saving work is written of in terms of being rescued “from the power of darkness.” Again, it is important to see the variety of New Testament images used to try and describe what it is that God does in our lives in Jesus. Here we are transferred from one kingdom to another. This must have seemed subversive language in an imperial society. Forgiveness is an important part of what God does in Christ.

Colossians 1:15-23: The author now shifts from a focus on how God is working in the lives of the Colossae Jesus community, to a focus on the cosmic work of God in Jesus as the Christ. Verses 15-20 are often considered an early Christian hymn about Jesus as the Christ. Paul used such material in his writings, as did other early Christian writers.

A central conviction of Christian faith is that in Jesus the Christ, we know God, we see what God is like, God’s image is refracted in a decisive way in this life. There was a developing sense that if Christ was the image of God, that image had some existence from the very beginning. The idea that some reality reflective of God existed since creation can also be found in the Word-Wisdom tradition of Judaism, most clearly seen in some of the Apocrypha. In The Wisdom of Solomon 7 we read about wisdom: She is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty. In Sirach 24 we find these words spoken by wisdom: I came forth from the mouth of the Most High and covered the earth like a mist. I dwelt in the highest heavens, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud. The early Christians used the traditions at hand to try and understand how God’s Spirit was at work in Jesus as the Christ, and how the Spirit of God in Christ was at work in their lives. Shouldn’t we use some of the thought-forms and languages of our day to describe how it is Christ’s Spirit continues to work in our lives?

Not only was Christ the image of God, but being such, there are no other powers that can overcome him. The author is laying groundwork for contradicting those he considers false teachers. All things make sense only when seen from the perspective of God’s love in Jesus Christ. In Christ “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” and through him, God “was pleased to reconcile… all things… making peace.” Eugene Peterson puts it nicely in The Message. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe – people and things, animals and atoms – get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies.

In the sermon I preached on February 10, I said this: The strange, cosmic language used in Colossians is the language of the day meant to tell us that there is no place where God does not bring God’s healing work in Christ. Nothing created, whether visible or invisible, is beyond the scope, beyond the reach of God’s healing power in Jesus Christ. There is no reality too large and distant (thrones, dominions, rulers, powers) or too near and intimate (our own inner lives and minds) where healing is not possible. That is what God is up to in Jesus Christ. God desires the healing of the world. God desires healing in our hearts and minds and lives. And God desires our participation in that healing work. This is the good news being celebrated.
One phrase has not yet received comment, that God has effected reconciliation through “the blood of his cross.” Such imagery is difficult for us. We often think of it only in terms of Jesus death as a sacrifice for sin, understood in light of Old Testament sacrificial theology. That is not the only way the death of Jesus was understood in the early church, as we have noted countless times already in reading through the New Testament. In this context, the phrase about Jesus death is most significant in that it keeps us grounded. The Jesus who is the cosmic Christ was the Jesus put to death by the Romans. What might have been seen as a defeat, has been turned by God into something that fosters peace and reconciliation. That is remarkable.

The writer continues on with the theme of reconciliation. Once the Colossians were estranged and of hostile mind, caught up in evil deeds. We know what it can be like to feel alienated from ourselves, our world, our life and feel caught in patterns of living that are frustrating and border on meaninglessness. Reconciliation has taken place, and the Colossian Christians are invited to continue on in their good work, continue to grow in faith, hope and love. They are encouraged to keep on, and so are we.

Colossians 1:24-28: Paul understands himself to be a messenger of the good news he has just written about in such glowing language, and now we receive a report about his condition, along with theological reflection on his life and ministry. Paul is suffering, and understands that suffering to be of a piece with the suffering of Jesus. This is tricky ground for Christians. We should not welcome suffering lightly, and should be dedicated to alleviating suffering when we can in the world. But sometimes working to alleviate the suffering of others creates suffering in our own lives, and we accept that suffering for the sake of the good work we are doing. In such cases, we might see ourselves suffering as Christ suffered.

Paul’s work has been to make the hidden mystery of God “fully known.” The mystery is that God’s work is an inclusive work. God is not willing to simply work in the lives of one group of people, but wants all to be a part of God’s own work in the world. God wants to make Christs of all. Paul desires that all continue to grow in Christ. For this he will “toil and struggle with all the energy [Christ] powerfully inspires within me.” I remember reading the verse about working with all the energy God powerfully inspires within while I was attending training to be a district superintendent. I took those words to heart and saw my ministry as a district superintendent to work with the churches in my district with all the energy God powerfully inspired within me. When I came to be pastor at First United Methodist Church, I renewed that vow, to be in ministry here with all the energy God powerfully inspires within me – and I am grateful for that inspiring energy.

No comments: