First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 9

William Loader

Pentecost 9: 21 July  Colossians 1:15-28

Opinion is divided about whether this is Paul's own letter or one written by someone who reveres him greatly and writes in his name. In any case the writer has been underlining the hope in which the Colossian Christians may have confidence. It is not under threat, as alleged by some intruders who appear to imposing special requirements and speaking of respect towards other heavenly powers beside Christ. The ideas seem to reflect a form of Jewish Christian belief according to which one must meet the requirements of these heavenly angels who have laid down certain rules, probably a variant form of retaining obedience to the biblical law.

This context partly explains the first five verses of our passage which hail Christ's superiority over all. The words here were probably not composed for this occasion but are or include a quotation from existing material which may have been used as a hymn in worship. It is rich in imagery and careful patterns, indicating a poetic work in the broadest sense. There are two parts. It begins by speaking of Christ in relation to creation. Then half way through 1:18 it changes its focus to the resurrected Christ and what he has done. There is some matching between the two parts.

The two parts reflect two important strands which helped people think about Christ. One very early interpretation of the resurrection was that in raising Jesus from the dead, God was enthroning or appointing him as the Messiah, the Christ. Many Jews looked forward to the coming of such a liberator. Christians were rather daring in calling Jesus, the Christ, because the term had some political, even military associations, which did not fit Jesus well and so needed reinterpretation. Anyone called a Messiah was likely to be lumped in with other subversives of various kinds. The story of Jesus' death shows this clearly: he is crucified along with two revolutionaries; he is treated as roughly the equivalent of Barabbas; he is accused of wanting to be a Messiah, a "king of the Jews".

As Christianity spread beyond the world of Jewish hopes, the acclamation of Jesus as the Christ became more an acclamation that God had made Jesus king in a much broader sense. Christians began to declare that Jesus will be lord of all. He will unite all people, indeed, everything in one single realm of God's goodness. We see this way of thinking in this "hymn" in 1:18. "Who is the power or rule or beginning (arche)": this means God has enthroned him, but the word, arche, also means "beginning". This association of ideas is present in the next phrase: "the firstborn from the dead". It means, he was the first to be raised from the dead and also that he is God's firstborn son. Traditionally, the firstborn inherited the major power in a household. The word, "firstborn", also appears in the first part: he is "the firstborn of creation". The rest of 1:18 underlines the meaning: "so that he might become the first or leading person among all people and things".

In other words, the old messianic hope has now been transformed, so that it affirms Christ's resurrection as the moment when something new began: Christ was raised from the dead, the first of many to come, but as the first he is also the leader and will bring about the rule or kingdom of God throughout the whole created order of things. 1:19 shows that this was not just because he was the first to be raised, but rather because God's fullness chose to live in him. That makes a huge difference. On that basis he will seek to bring about peace in the entire universe: peace with God and peace among all peoples and things. All this is possible because of his death, which our author sees as the critical moment when the problems which blocked peace were dealt with. We shall return to that.

A second strand of reflection about Christ derived from Jews who had long speculated that wisdom was not only an attribute of God, but could be seen as God's companion from the beginning of creation. We find such thought first expressed in Proverbs 8:22-31. When Christians tried to explain the present status of Christ with God, it struck them that they were really saying things about him which they used to say about Wisdom. Just as the Messiah was God's son, so wisdom could be seen as God's child, God's firstborn. Applied to Jesus, they acclaimed that Jesus, like Wisdom (sometimes described as God's Word) was in the beginning with God, God's firstborn, reflecting God's very being, active in creation and now the means by which God held things together and through which God would bring everything into unity. This fitted so well that people said Jesus was not just like Wisdom and the Word, but he was Wisdom or the Word. We may be more familiar with this though from the opening of John's gospel: "In the beginning was the Word", but here we have it in Col 1:15-18. It also appears in Hebrews 1:1-3.

In our passage Jesus is hailed as the image of God, the firstborn of creation, and the agent and sustainer of creation. We might see this as rather typical of the high flying language of hymns and poetry without much concrete relevance, but for the Colossians, bothered by the suggestion that all kinds of spiritual powers had to be negotiated before one was acceptable, these words have direct relevance. Put simply, if Christ created whatever such powers there are, then they must be inferior to him and as long as we have a relationship with him, we need not be bothered by their power. This is a rather complicated way of applying the insight: God's grace is enough. We don't need to embark on heroic journeys of achievement to make ourselves acceptable to God. We can stop that religious enterprise, start trusting, and be free to live life for ourselves, for others and for God.

The writer - and perhaps the source he is quoting - also mentions the church (1:18). This is far from an afterthought. The big vision is that the church is the name for what Christ created at his resurrection. It is wherever God's goodness comes to rule. Perhaps inspired by Paul's image of the church as a body, the author envisages Christ's influence as being like a huge expanding body which incorporates all who become part of it. The ultimate dream and conviction is that one day this body will come to include absolutely everything in one single unity.

These are grand thoughts. They are easily open to abuse. Some have seen the church as destined to control all political power on earth as part of this vision, often with disastrous consequences. But if we allow the abstractions of the poetry to settle and see beneath and beyond them, the vision is really about God's love through Christ filling the universe, an echo of the notion that the earth shall be filled with the glory of God. It is a vision of reconciliation with God and among people. It also invites us to include in this the whole creation. It is also very confronting of any and all powers which set themselves up as above love and above God, including both political powers and our own inner regimes of religiosity.

1:21-23 comes back to the concrete reality of the Colossians. They are Gentiles. God has reconciled them. The message of Christ's coming and death is that love is as much there for them as it was for the Jews. 1:23 encourages them again not to be rattled by those who want to impose restrictions on them. Such people may even have been among those who equated Wisdom with the biblical Law and sought to reinforce its demands that way as well. Our writer makes it clear: Christ is God's wisdom and word, and that wisdom and word is about a loving relationship which will bear the fruits of love, not about a system of obligation which will command them.

1:24-29 presents Paul and his special role. It is a kind of reinforcement of what has been said and a reaffirmation of Paul's key role and so of the authority of the letter. Within it we hear further reflection on what in many circles was controversial: the inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God. It had always been God's plan, but had only come to light recently through Christ (1:25-26). The goal was: "Christ in you", Gentiles, too! This is for you "the hope of glory" (1:27). Perhaps some Christian Jews still resisted the idea or, more likely, were insisting that these Gentiles must keep the whole Law. Not so, according to Paul and not so, according to this writer. The goal is mature human beings and this will be achieved through people having an ongoing relationship with the God of love through Christ (1:28), not through imposing restrictions on them.

This is a big expansive vision which needs a big expansive interpretation if it is not to collapse into religious imperialism, especially in our context when we are able to be much more aware than this writer of the complexities of different cultures and different religious traditions. Our visions of unity will want to affirm diversity, but not at the cost of injustice. Ultimately love and peace identify the goal and determine the strategy. They also authenticate what we do, whatever labels we may claim. They will also confront whatever undermines love and peace. To affirm the love and peace which we see in Christ will make us generous enough to see them wherever they are embodied, with familiar labels or not, and will make us courageous to recognise their absence, even where we might most expect them. 

Gospel: Pentecost 9: 21 July Luke 10:38-42
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