Pentecost 8: 14 July Colossians 1:1-14
Colossians belongs to a few letters attributed to Paul about which there are doubts. The doubts are not that these are forgeries, but rather that they may come under the category of letters written by someone else in the name of the apostle in order to convey what he would have said. The practice was not uncommon, often done out of reverence and respect. It could even go so far as the writer imagining what Paul may want to convey about his own personal situation, as happens in Colossians. Such letters also belong to the treasury of early Christian writings because they reflect the wisdom of the early period and have their own inspirational quality.
The letter follows a standard format, common to Paul's letters and generally characteristic of letters of the time. A greeting takes the form: Sender to Recipients, Greetings! Thus here we have Paul and Timothy to .. at Colossae, grace and peace! More reflective hearers may well have thought about the words "grace and peace". Others might have heard them as little more than, "Hello!" What follows in 1:3-8 also follows a standard pattern. It was customary to give thanks to the gods for the recipients and assure them of prayers. Within this standard pattern we see particular concerns. The author gives thanks for the community's coming to faith at the hands of Epaphras.
The rather elaborate reference to their faith emphasises some other elements which were deemed foundational to a Christian response. They have not only come to faith in Christ (1:4), but they have also become characterised by love towards "the saints", which may simply mean other Christians, but could mean Jewish Christians in particular. 1:5 emphasises hope. Later we hear that this hope was being unsettled by some who were making it depend on fulfilling certain rites and rules. "Truth" appears twice in this context (1:5 and 1:6) because the intrusion of mistaken ideas is part of what has been unsettling the community. The writer is wanting to say that grace, shown through Christ, is enough. The words are encouraging and complimentary, acknowledging both the coming to faith and its growth, so that they can see themselves as part of something which is expanding in the world of their time. The mention of Epaphras might indicate that he is the real author of the writing who is using this to underline his belonging with Paul, but this is speculation.
1:9-14 continues the traditional thanksgiving which belonged to the standard letter form, but tells us more about what will later emerge as a key theme. Against the claims of intruders who unsettle their faith with new theories and demands, the writer prays that they may have wisdom. It is rather wordy, but the goal is clear. The author prays that they may have knowledge and strength to hold fast against the dangers. He also wants them to be relieved of the stress and anxiety which these troubles have brought so that can have joy and thanksgiving (1:12) . This is about a sense of peace. It depends on believing in God as the one who alone holds the future and makes a place of belonging for us.
The issue of belonging uses imagery of inheritance. Will there be a place for us? For us it may widen to a fundamental question of belonging and worth, and we may hear the strains of the West Side Story's song: "There's a place for us". Beyond existential language it is also the language of Israel's tradition. Colossians is written to Gentile Christians and its author is alluding here to the fact that there is a place for us Gentiles among the holy ones of Israel. We find similar language in Acts 20:32. In 1:13 this place of light is contrasted with darkness. Coming to faith means moving from a system of authority and power which is destructive into a new realm or kingdom where Christ rules and where Christ's rule is characterised by love. For the author a major component of that liberation (church word: redemption) is forgiveness of sins.
This needs to be set against the backdrop of what is bothering the community. Some are saying that God's love is not so free, but depends on religious rites and achievements which must be performed if we are to be sure of getting past the powers which hold sway in this universe. The result can be religious preoccupation with our own destiny. We can become busy trying to justify ourselves. We can do that by performing religious rites or doing many other things "religiously". We can even make ourselves busy with overwork (even with church work!) to achieve that sense of being valued and ultimately coming through and finding a place of worth. Colossians is acclaiming a generous love which says: stop all this and believe in grace! You don't have to become religious in this way. On the contrary, you can be liberated from such religion to be free to respond to God and others and yourselves with joy!
Gospel: Pentecost 8: 11 July Luke 10:25-37
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