The Church has Issues: Colossians 2:6-3:1

Pastor Carrie Baylis
7 October 2020
Wednesday AM worship
Do Not be Led Astray

Brothers and sisters in Christ grace, peace, and mercy to you from Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. 

The question I asked myself when reading and studying this text, especially in the understanding that “the church has issues” is: What does this letter urge the church to believe to hope for, and to do?  And like all the weeks before us, it is amazing how we find ourselves in the same place thousands of years later looking at how we can live fully into the body of Christ without letting the “outside” world distract us, or misguide us, or lead us astray.   

Our faith shall not lead us astray like the world will.  

This letter was written to the people of the city of Colossae who were stretched beyond just the faith and belief of Jesus Christ as the full embodiment of God.  The possibility of religious syncretism was perhaps stronger here than anywhere else in Paul’s world.  (Judaism, local religions, standard pagan cults, gentiles) they could be considered people of a multiethnic church. Throughout the city some were judging others for not following certain dogmatic ideas and self-abasing practices.  There was more than just a faith towards God, but a looking towards authorities and rulers who provide philosophies and promises through practices and beliefs that are not of God, but of human tradition and ideas and that promised good life and needs being met if they put their faith there. 

As Paul heard of this call to faith in people and promises other than in Christ and God the father his response in writing to the people was to urges them to be rooted in the Messiah, in whom the “entire fullness of deity dwells bodily.” Since they too have “come to fullness” in this Messiah — having been baptized into his crucifixion and resurrection — they need not be “dogmatized” by any self-appointed “authorities and rulers” who seek to undermine their faith. 

What might it look like to undermine one’s faith?   

I will venture so far as to say that you can pick up a paper, turn on the news or answer a robocall these days and probably pick out a handful of different places where our faith is undermined by a call to serve the interests of things that are not of God, but of economy, loyalty and tradition. 

Paul warns to beware of anyone who would trap you with deceptive philosophies that strip your experience of life’s fullness and value — whether based on human tradition or ideas about the universe. The writer here is not attacking “philosophy” per se, but rather beliefs and practices (which in this case are clearly spiritual and religious) that are not rooted in the Messiah, those that might undermine one’s faith. 

Looking a little more closely, however, there is another threat to the church, a threat that has been common to the human condition ever since we failed to live our lives in the image of God and embraced earthly/human images instead. While idolatry doesn’t get named until chapter 3, the rhetoric of the argument in chapter two indicates that idolatry is in the author’s sights. Remembering to always read the New Testament with Old Testament eyes, an argument that dismisses an opposing worldview as “empty deceit”, mere “shadow” without substance, a “human tradition”, and a “human way of thinking”? It speaks to our OT understanding of idolatry and reminds us substance is of God. 

So today I invite you to consider the idolatries that continue to have a deathly grip on our lives. Might we need to name something like the financial markets of the global economy as a “shadow” without substance? If our identity is “in Christ,” might it be time to recognize all patriotic nationalism as a “human way of thinking”? Might we need to see where we are living into empty and deceitful practices that don’t provide for the least and the lost, but allow us the self-indulgence of helping the “other” through a self-imposed piety or humility. 

One of the text studies I read this week suggested that this text and the people of Colossae (and I believe us today) were in the midst of trying to understand competing worldviews.  Pastor Karl Jacobson from Good Shepherd in Minnesota identifies three competing views that could be summed up as opposites when trying to understand and live this text.  It includes: 

  1. Philosophy and the true word of the gospel;  
  1. empty deceit and the knowledge of God;  
  1. human tradition and spiritual wisdom and understanding. 

Philosophy is not gospel, nor are human traditions.  Even (and maybe especially) religious, church-related traditions–the same thing as spiritual wisdom or understanding that might be the toughest one for me, I love some tradition but when pressed on the spirituality of all tradition or where we find the gospel in it, I can talk until I’m blue in the face and still just be making stuff up. We don’t need to hold these things in steadfast opposition, but perhaps need to find where it is that they live into the divine reality of Christ for us. Philosophy and the gospel need not be in opposition; nor are human traditions in and of themselves hurdles to wisdom and understanding. When philosophy attacks the gospel, or human tradition, piety, dogma and patriotism becomes a burden to faith it is right to set them aside, but when they serve the church and the proclamation of the gospel they may be embraced. It is only deceit and the knowledge of God which are in pure opposition of each other. 

The tension in Colossians lies in what the governing influence in one’s life is. These opposites we speak of could also be identified as “the elemental spirits of the universe” in one column and t “the Christ,” in the other and it is here that the real tension comes to the fore. Does one orient faith and daily living according to the elemental spirits of the world, philosophy, empty deceit (whatever form that takes) and human tradition or does one orient faith and daily living according to the who fullness of God in Christ through the true word of the gospel, knowledge of God, and spiritual wisdom and understanding (which we are always learning new.)  Will we stumble, will we fall?  Yes, the church has issues, for thousands of years we are still learning to  turn towards God in Jesus Christ, to understand that our loyalties fall to God through the crucified Jesus Christ and authority comes through him, not through people of this world.   

The piece that accompanies this writing to the Colossians and really to all of Paul’s letters, is to remember that there is no embodied faith without forgiveness. When this text comes up with the regular lectionary it echos the OT, Psalm and NT readings and Colossians takes us to the place of forgiveness in the cross. Something remarkable happens at the cross. Our author doesn’t tell us exactly how this works, but at the cross, is nailed all that stood against us, all that held us guilty, all that would strip us of the fullness of embodied life.   Trespasses, transgressions, sins are forgiven and no one gets to rule us out of the kingdom again! 

And if we are to understand this text as a tract against idolatry (and empire), we need to ask today, which rulers and authorities are disarmed at the cross and paraded behind the Messiah in triumphal procession? Dare we imagine these to be our rulers? Our political, economic, military, and even ecclesiastical authority structures? Are we in the captive procession? And if that is where we find ourselves, maybe not all day, everyday, but even some of the time, we should join Paul in learning how to live a life fully embodied in Christ,  and then remembering the final verses of today’s reading, “if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” Amen. 

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