5th Sunday after Trinity
16.7.17 St Barbara’s
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Today we are looking at Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae. Colossae was a relatively small and unimportant town about 100 miles inland from Ephesus. Paul never visited it, but during his two and a half years in Ephesus he met a man called Epaphras. Epaphras was so inspired by the gospel message Paul was preaching there that he took the message back to his home town of Colossae. Fairly soon, a church was flourishing in the town.
About five years later, Paul is in prison in Rome, and Epaphras comes to visit him. He comes bearing news of how the church is getting on. Paul is encouraged by what he hears and is motivated to write to the church there, to encourage them in their faith and to warn them against possible challenges to their beliefs. As Tychicus and Onesimus (remember him, he is the run-away slave that is is the subject of the letter to Philemon) are travelling to Colossae, it seems a perfect opportunity to write.
Compared to his letters to the church in Corinth and Rome, this is a short letter, but nonetheless packed full of teaching and insight.
He starts in the way of so many of his letters, with prayer. “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love you have for all the saints.” There is a sense here of Paul praying earnestly and with great commitment for his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. It is the same when he writes to the church in Philippi – “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy.” And to the church in Ephesus – “Ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you.”
Paul, much to his frustration, was imprisoned in Rome when he wrote these letters. He must have been champing at the bit, longing to be free so as to continue his greatest passion, the sharing of the good news of Christ in places that had not yet heard the Gospel, but here he is, imprisoned. But rather than lapsing into despair, he prays and he encourages people in their faith.
For all of us there are times in our lives when we may not be feeling that we are fully in the place we would want to be. Maybe we are restricted by age or poor health, or by family commitments, or by the demands of work. But what Paul’s example does show us, is that even in such circumstances we can still do something positive – we can pray.
And we can learn from Paul a few things about what to pray for as well. Occasionally when I am struggling to pray I will go to one of the prayers in Paul’s letters to give me a focus, a direction for prayer. Paul’s prayers almost always start with thanksgiving to God for his fellow Christians. He gives thanks for their faith, their perseverance, their love for one another. When we pray for our church, when we pray for one another, and I hope we do, it is good to stop and give thanks for the faith that we see.
What Paul prays for is worth noting too. He prays that the Christians may know God better; he prays that strengthened by God’s power they may have endurance and patience; he prays that they may be people who joyfully give thanks themselves; and he prays that their lives may bear fruit. What four wonderful things to pray for. Imagine if we were a church where we were regularly praying for each other to grow in our love for God, to be patient and to persevere no matter our circumstances; praying for us to be a genuinely thankful people; and a people who glorify God through what we do. Imagine what a difference that would make. And as we pray for those things for others, so they become more of our heart too.
Paul’s letter to the Colossians helps us to pray for others. It helps us too to understand who Christ is. Paul was writing to a town where beliefs in good and evil spirits were very prevalent. People not only believed in gods but in spirits of darkness that could hold one captive in fear. Some of those who had become Christians were struggling to shrug off these old beliefs. They believed in Christ, but they continued to try and appease these evil spirits too. This may feel a long way removed from us, but you only need to look to other cultures around the world, to see how strongly beliefs in spirits still are.
Paul’s response is to try and open the eyes of the church in Colossae to seeing Christ for who he truly is. Once you know who Christ is, Paul writes, you realise that these spirits, whether real or imagined, have absolutely no hold on you whatsoever, for Christ is so infinite and great. And so he pens some of the most wonderful statements about Christ anywhere in the New Testament.
“He is the image of the invisible God… God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in him… For in Christ all the fulness of the Deity lives in bodily form” – Jesus shows us what God is like. These are extraordinary words. In a world desperately wanting to know what God is like, what love and goodness truly look like, Paul says, look to Jesus.
“All things were created by him and for him… In him all things hold together” – Christ is the creator and sustainer of this world; without him we would not be, and it is in him that we find the purpose for life. In a world of staggering beauty and mind boggling intricacy and complexity, we look to Christ as creator. And in a world of fragility and vulnerability we look to him as the sustainer of life.
And in a world of brokenness and conflict, of fractured relationships between people, and between people and God, Christ is the one through whom “God has reconciled all things to himself… by making peace through his blood shed on the cross.” He is the great reconciler, the healer, the peace-maker, the saviour of the world.
For the Christians of Colossae, wondering whether they needed to hedge their bets and worship other gods and spirits as well as Christ, Paul’s words must have been an incredible encouragement. Look at Christ. How could we possibly need anyone or anything else? For us too, the first half of his letter provides incredible encouragement to focus once more on who Christ really is. To allow him to fill our thoughts and our hearts. Take time this week to meditate on who Christ is.
As with so many of his letters, Paul’s prayers and his teaching about Christ then lead into an encouragement as to how the Christians should live in their daily lives. Paul’s letters were always very practical. In response to who Christ is and what he has done for us we are to live holy lives, lives that reflect the kingship of Christ that is already reigning in heaven and will come to reign here on earth. We are to rid ourselves of such things as anger, malice, slander, greed, filthy language and to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. We are to bear with one another, to forgive each other as Jesus forgave us. Note how these are not a list of rules – do’s and don’ts – but a list of attitudes. Our actions need to be inspired by hearts transformed by Christ.
Paul then applies this to household relationships. In Roman times, the head of the family, always a man, the patriarch, would hold the power of life and death over others in his household, in particular his wife, children and slaves. This was seen as fundamental to the whole stability of Roman life, and to the Empire itself. Challenge this and you would be seen to be undermining the entire Roman world. But this is exactly what Paul begins to subvert. The head of the household, Paul says, is not the patriarch but Jesus – all are subject to him and answerable to him, and therefore their actions should be guided by allegiance, first and foremost, to Christ. For the wife that means obeying the husband only in so far as he is following the lordship of Christ – this is not the blind or passive submission demanded by the social norms of the time. Husbands are called to love their wives in the same way as Christ loves them – an extraordinary reversal in a relationship where culturally the husband had all the rights and no responsibilities.
Paul similarly turns relationships between fathers and children and masters and slaves on their heads too. Children and slaves are to serve only in as far as it is compatible with their service of Christ. Fathers and masters are to recognise that they are subject to Christ’s lordship and treat others accordingly. Paul saw the change of heart and attitude that faith brought as a far more effective way of establishing the type of community where all are one in Christ Jesus than any adherence to particular structures or rules.
Finally on this, Paul is often criticised for being a misogynist, anti-women, and I know that has made his writings off-putting to many. I can fully sympathise with this viewpoint, and there are a number of individual verses in his letters which can be used to support this view. However, I wonder if that is probably an unlikely label to have been attached to him in his lifetime. Many would have seen him as dangerous for the very opposite reason – that he was championing the equality and status of women through his teaching and writing, his conviction that all are one in Christ. And certainly many of his most trusted and key teachers and assistants were women, with roles of leadership that would have been unthinkable, indeed even scandalous, in the culture of his time. Paul’s actions and overall beliefs are consistent with a man deeply committed to valuing and treating as equal the women of his day. I think the greater challenge is for the church and society to do likewise today.
Prayer; a vision of Christ; Christian living. May god help us all to take the lessons of Paul’s letter to the Colossians and apply them to our lives.