First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 10

William Loader

Pentecost 10: 24 July  Colossians 2:6-15 (16-19)

Already Colossians 1 gives emphasis to the reliability of the gospel hope. The people at Colossae should not let themselves be bothered by those Christians suggesting otherwise. In Colossians 2 the danger is named, although without telling us all we would want to know. If we take our passage as a whole and include the verses in brackets we can see that these people are concerned about observances in relation to food, drink, festivals, new moons, and sabbaths (2:16). They are also concerned with heavenly powers and authorities, including some kind of veneration of angels and mystical connection with them (2:18). The allusion to spiritual circumcision in 2:11 suggests that this was also one of their concerns. This looks very much like we are dealing with a form of Jewish Christianity which still upholds the Law and insists that Gentiles observe it.

The link between the Law and angels is traditional. Already Paul alludes to the role of angels in the giving of the Law to assert its inferiority (Gal 3:19), but mostly the angelic connection was meant to emphasise the opposite: its authority (Acts 7:38; Heb 2:3). Something rather unusual appears to be playing a role. These angels are deemed so significant that failure to uphold their Law has the potential to block one's path to God. What is being played out here in a spatial sense is not very different from what Paul had to confront in relation to the Galatians. Here it seems as though salvation is pictured vertically as ascent to God via a series of steps. At the lower steps of the journey one has to show one has observed the Law, then one comes via Christ to God. In its horizontal form it says: a right relationship with God is possible only if one adheres to the Law.

One common bone of contention was circumcision. The Bible reports God's instructions to Abraham and to Israel to circumcise Gentiles who join the people (Genesis 17). Those whom we might see as fundamentalist in their approach to scriptures were doubtless arguing that it was as simple as this: do we obey God's word or not? For the troublemakers at Colossae any refusal to keep the whole Law offends the heavenly angels who passed the Law on to Moses and blocks future hope. This combination of Law and reverence for the angels explains why the writer keeps alluding to these two aspects.

Thus in 2:6-7 he urges the Colossians to stick with the gospel they first heard. They should beware of these other teachings which claim they are representing the divine order of God's law, the fundamental structure of reality (2:8). "Elements of the world", a term which also occurs in Galatians, may well be a reference to the angelic spirits. It can also mean something like rudimentary principles. The two meanings come together if we think of the angels representing and administering the basic order of the universe, according to these people. It was their rather speculative way of speaking about the Law.

2:9 shows what is at stake. Does the power and authority lie with these spirits or totally with Christ? 1:19 asserted that God's fullness dwells in Christ. 2:9 repeats this. That fullness of God dwells in Christ in such a way as to create a huge body of life and influence into which we are incorporated. There is no half-way house or foyer run by angels where we first have to pass a preliminary examination. We are complete, have all we need, in this new body (2:10). This Christ is the head both of the body and also of all subordinate powers, including those to whom the troublemakers give such deference. Again the conclusion is clear: so you can trust the message of God's free grace in Christ and stop worrying about these other teachings. They have no validity.

The writers presses the point further by reminding the Colossians again (as he had in 2:6-7) of their conversion, which included their baptism. Their baptism was the only circumcision they needed. What was stripped off was not a piece of foreskin, but a lifestyle, an old "body", that is, a set of influences to which they turned their backs (2:11). Their baptism represented their joining with Christ and the event of his death and resurrection, so that as he died and rose, so they died to their old lives and rose to a new life, incorporated into Christ's risen body and being (2:12). That major transition included the forgiveness of their sins. This was a key element of liberating them from the old lifestyle in which they were spiritually dead.

The writer uses the word, trespasses or transgressions, in 2:13. That was a term commonly used where people were thinking of breaking laws. The writer is giving some validity to parts of the Law, probably the mainly ethical parts rather than the ones now being insisted upon. 2:14 suggests that such transgressions warranted a charge sheet which could be brought against the hearers. Nothing suggests such a charge sheet would have been invalid or irrelevant. In a graphic image 2:14 suggests that the charge sheet no longer applies because God took it away and nailed it to the cross. This reflects the common interpretation of Christ's death as an atoning act, on the basis of which God forgives sins. It is an image, but always in danger of being pressed too literally, as if God nailed Jesus instead of nailing us and without doing so could never have forgiven us.

Even more strange is the image in 2:15. He describes the act of atonement as something in which God stripped the powers and authorities. This relates to the act of forgiveness. Where people have assurance of forgiveness these powers no longer hold sway. Their power is broken. They are left naked. They are defeated. We might transpose these thoughts into a different key. Freedom from guilt frees us from destructive forces which hold us in captivity. As we allow ourselves to be loved, we can dismiss the fears and anxieties which plagued us about our worth and which made us so busy trying to be good. In fact it is not really our initiative but God's. Love creates possibilities. The author celebrates this in what might seem as something of mythological flourish. It is certainly a mixing of images (nailing, stripping, triumphing).

The troublemakers might well agree that Christ's death brought forgiveness of sins - past sins. They would insist that the Law remains valid. Now as Christians we are to obey the biblical law all the more. Many Christians still understand Christian life in this way, but, frequently without much consistency, exempt themselves from some biblical laws while insisting on others. There have been many Christian heroes of sabbath observance, or its equivalent, Sunday observance. Our author sees matters differently. Christ's death not only achieved forgiveness of sins. It also liberated us from the Law with its particular demands. In this Paul and author are one (if they are not one literally).

2:16-19 (and 20-23) show that the author rejects the validity of the Law's demands. Christian ethics comes not from the Law (2:17), but from living as part of the body of Christ, being dynamically connected to its life (2:19). It is not that the writer denies the Law ever had validity. Somewhat like Paul in Galatians 3 the author acknowledges the Law had a role once - after all the charges which Christ wiped off by his death were valid and were based on the old Law. The Law was a kind of shadow of the real thing which has now come (2:17 - a very similar thought to what we find in Hebrews and John). But now all that matters is the body of Christ (2:17). So those powers which had their authority in association with the Law have that authority no longer. 2:20 is more confrontational suggesting that some Colossians had succumbed to the troublemakers. They had become obsessed with a series of "don't"s (2:21). These were human traditions (2:22, a term used also in 2:8 and echoing Mark 7, which also disparages such laws).

Colossians works on a broad canvas. We are dealing with what makes best sense of the universe. Its unity and peace is at stake. The energy which pours into it is none other than God's compassion. Ask the author about it and he will point to Christ and his death. That life liberates people from sin and frees them from all the powers to which they had surrendered themselves. Only one power matters and that is God, as we know God in Christ. Christ's body given for the world becomes a microcosm of God's life now seeking to incorporate all things into this body of love. The meaning of life is to be engaged in that life and love. All ethics flow from that, not from biblical law and its human interpreters. The challenge is not to justify ourselves against elaborate demands, but to engage in filling the earth with the glory of God. That challenge both sets our religious self-obsessions at rest and sends us to confront within ourselves and our world the possibilities of freedom and the forces which deny it.

Gospel: Pentecost 10: 24 July Luke 11:1-13
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