First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 11

William Loader

Pentecost 11: 31 July  Colossians 3:1-11

The author has finished his warnings about misleading influences and turns now to exhortations. The reference in 3:1 to being raised with Christ recalls the allusion to baptism 2:11-12. The emphasis now is not on the defeat of powers, but on the positive. The hearers are to set their minds on what lies above. In a scale of values where above is superior to below, the author pictures Christ as above. He employs language familiar to us from the creed: Christ sits at God's right hand. This has its origin in Ps 110:1 in God's word to the king at his coronation. Christians acclaimed Jesus as the new anointed king and so pictured him as seated as the royal messiah at God's right hand. This is an assertion of faith, that Christ, all that he was and is, reflects God and represents God, so that the call to the Colossians is nothing less than to focus on God, to let God be God in their lives.

Setting one's focus on something creates its own dynamic, like when two people set their hearts on a marriage. Many actions follow from that single goal, most of them spontaneous and all of them motivated by this single aim. In the same way, to set one's focus on God, is to create a dynamic with consequences which touch every part of life. There is an element of the automatic, but there is also the need to keep focused. The writer is aware of this and therefore gives this exhortation. We need, he is arguing, to be what we have become, to realise our potential. Turning to Christ meant changing our focus, indeed, changing the goal or God of our lives. That meant dying to the old life and beginning anew (3:3). The newness is not as simple as a new resolution. It is a new relationship. It actually means finding ourselves in a new space: inside or within the body and being of Christ which seeks to reach out with love into the world. One day that will become plain for all to see: the author means the climax of history when, he believes, Christ will return (3:4). In the meantime it is still reality, but hidden. There is almost a sense of security in the statement that we are hidden in Christ.

3:5 turns to the logical consequences of beginning this new life: the old must die. Beside the elements which naturally cease to matter as we change our focus and change what matters to us, there is still the need to give attention to well grooved habits and behaviours which conflict with the new life. At the head of the list is sexual immorality. It often got top billing because it was seen as a major problem in the pagan world. It also headed the list of the ethical commandments in the Greek version of the ten commandments. One might even interpret all the vices mentioned in 3:5 as related to abuse of sexuality except the last: greed. It is striking that the author describes it as idolatry. Putting oneself first is idolatry. If God is the God of compassion and not the God who gives me what I want all the time, this makes good sense.

3:6-7 reminds the Colossians that they once participated in the pagan culture of greed and abuse, but no longer. 3:8 repeats a list of evils to be set aside. Here the focus is on negative attitudes towards other people (incompatible with a God who is compassionate - but not with a god who is happy to destroy and despise others). Respect and love towards others has to be fundamental to the Christian life because it is fundamental to God's being from the beginning. Straight and honest open communication  (3:9) is also a way of showing regard for others. People need reminding about these things, because many things block what can otherwise be a dynamic process of change. There are still deep grooves and powerful systems of thought to which people can be captive, even without knowing it. Spiritual growth means allowing oneself to become more and more transformed and conformed to the one who is now the focus of our loyalty and love.

3:9-10 return to language used about baptism. A few weeks ago we found the same images in Galatians 3:26-28. It speaks of shedding on old garment and putting on a new one. The new garment is a new being. This is not, however, just a statement about my individual new being, but about Christ as the new being. As in Galatians, we have the image of baptism as the time when we put on Christ. It is a different image for saying what the author describes in 3:1 as our being hidden in Christ. We allow Christ and so, God, to envelop us, to be the space in which we find our life and being. This new being is nothing other than what we were made to be in the first place: bearing the image of God (3:10). So the vision is not about some religious experience which takes us away from our humanity, but about our humanity becoming full alive because it has now found its way back to what it was meant to be in the first place.

As in Galatians, so here we read of unity of diverse people. There the list included male and female. Here those elements are missing. Instead the focus is on different nationalities and cultures, but also still on slaves and free. Perhaps people were finding the notion of male and female in Christ too controversial to handle, especially in the light of the problems which had arisen in Corinth and possibly elsewhere where some were demanding that sexual differentiation be denied altogether. Colossians will go on to make statements about each which have retreated from the equality which Galatians apparently assumes. But at least among those mentioned there is a unity to be celebrated in diversity. It fits the emphasis in the letter on the Colossians as former Gentiles who should not allow themselves to be forced into particular observances of Law before they can become acceptable before God and certain angels.

To say that "Christ is all and in all" is cryptic. We might say he is all that matters. It is also saying that he dwells in all. The preceding image said all dwell in him. These are only images, but they emphasise intimate belonging. Christian faith is not about a religious adventure on the side of daily life, but about a total orientation of one's being in which, through Christ, God is back being God for us, and we are back to being human in the way we were made to be. The reference to "all" may also have a much wider focus: all people and all of creation. That is at least the goal of this love which flows from the heart of God and that needs to be the goal of that love in and through our lives as well, so that no one is beyond it and no part of creation beyond our care and concern.

Gospel: Pentecost 11: 31 July  Luke 12:13-21
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