Christmas 1: 27 December Col 3:12-17
Is this just an elaboration on the exhortation to "be good"? It could easily be read as such, especially in the way it lists good attitudes after listing bad attitudes in 3:8. One might even take the image of clothing to indicate a series of human initiatives, which could be reduced to: do this, do this, do this, or don't do that or that or that! To read it this way is to miss some important emphases in the context. 3:1 provides important background. It speaks of people having risen with Christ. Something has happened with people or begun to happen and only on the basis of it do all these ethical exhortations make sense.
Our passage begins also in a way that provides an important clue. The author is addressing people who should understand themselves as "chosen, holy and loved". This is not just an appeal to status - as if then to shame people into behaving in a way consistent with that status. Rather these people have an extraordinary starting point: they know that they are valued and loved. If only this could sink into their awareness fully, they would be finding that it would generate a whole new set of attitudes and behaviours and enable them to leave others aside as irrelevant. The latter would include all those attitudes and behaviours which see other human beings as competitors to be outdone or who see them as people to be won to liking us, so that we can feel important. Such attitudes are the seed of aggression when we feel our value is threatened, of manipulation and self obsession when our agenda becomes one of winning people's affection, of power when we sense that the only way to matter is to control or subjugate others.
When we begin to take seriously that we are 'chosen, holy, and loved' by God, then we begin to value ourselves and not need to embark on the array of strategies which keep people busy trying to make themselves special. This kind of change does not happen overnight, but is part of our development in maturity as people. There is a very positive process at work which will gradually produce good fruit, the more free we become from our anxieties and worries about ourselves, and the more energy and space we have for others. It is not, however, fully automatic. It needs working on, because the grooves run deep. We need to be challenged: you are loved; now, believe it, apply it, let it sink in.
So the exhortations here are not just another set of commands to be good, but they are encouragements to let things happen, to support the process of living from love and not fear. Part of this stance is to affirm growth in generosity and openness, one's own and that of others. This becomes central, so failing to forgive should not make sense (3:13). We are not about holding ourselves back from people, holding grudges, but about giving and forgiving. Forgiving is a form of giving, a way of giving up the power we might play with by withholding it.
The author brings it back to love again in 3:14. He uses his own words to say that love is what produces maturity in the individual and unity in the community. 3:15 knows that such love produces a certain kind of peace. This is not about lack of conflict or hardship - Paul had his fair share. But it is about not having to fight to sustain one's self image. Notice how closely the individual and community belong. What makes the individual whole also makes the community whole - and in both cases people need to work on it, so that what is potentially there becomes actuality.
3:16 underlines that part of keeping this process going is continuing to feed on the nourishment given in the word. The 'word', here, includes the tradition, the stories, the sayings of Jesus which can help generate this new life. Notice that the process assumes community as the context for mutual encouragement and teaching. We are being given a mini-definition of the church: a place where love and its fruits are generated. Church must include actual gathering so that there is real communication. As the individual must live in an expansive way which includes much more than the intellect, so the community needs both the exhortation based on the word and the tradition, and also the modes of expression which take us into poetry and music. 3:16 is one of the rare allusions to music, which meets us so often in the psalms.
3:17 is another famous verse. It amounts to an assertion of God's being. Let God be God - in your life, the God whom we know in Christ. In another way it takes us back to the generating force which makes sense of all the exhortations. Out of an ongoing relationship with the God who is generous and active in love, we can allow ourselves be drawn into the same mode of being. In such a context, thanksgiving is like sharing a deep sense of oneness as well as a lasting gratitude. Connecting to God is connecting to freedom. Connecting to such freedom opens to us the possibility of love and enables us to be free from making others serve us and well being.
Paul has an interesting way of saying it in Phil 2:12-13: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure."
Gospel: Christmas 1: 27 December Luke 2:41-52
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