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Sunday Worship 12 February | Colossians 3

Updated: Jan 19

Colossians 3:1-17 (NIV)
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

 

One thing I didn't say when introducing the Letter to the Colossians two weeks ago is that the verse markers and section headings we now see in the text are not original. Perhaps that seems obvious, because that's not generally how we write letters, but when we rarely see scripture without them, it's easy to take them for granted and forget that they are a later addition to provide a simpler way of referencing the text. There are clear themes and breaks, but the letter was written as one piece, and so we need to keep in mind what we have read before. That's a good principle for reading scripture generally, as we read a bit at a time but need to keep stepping back to see the bigger picture. I appreciate that not everyone will have heard the readings and reflections from the previous two weeks, and so I encourage you to listen to the recordings online if you can, or at least read the first two chapters for yourself. I don't want to spend a long time recapping now, although we will look at an overview of the letter when we reach the final chapter next week, but in exploring the passage we have just heard, I want to refer back to a couple of things I said last Sunday, so hopefully you can still pick up a sense of where we've been and how it informs where we're going.

 

The first thing I want to return to is my comment that I had some difficulty with the legal and transactional language that Paul used to speak of the forgiveness that came through the cross, what we might call salvation (because we are saved from the eternal consequences of our sin) or atonement (because it becomes possible for us to be at one with God). My unease comes first from a sense that if we focus on Jesus' death as fulfilment of the law or payment of a debt, we can very quickly reduce his saving work to that single moment on the cross, but I don't think we can truly understand it without the life that came first or the resurrection that followed. We need to hold the whole thing together in order to understand that the cross is only part of a story which tells us that death and pain and suffering are not the end. I worry too about an implication that often follows from legal and transactional models of atonement, which is that the cross was the only way that God could forgive us, and therefore that God demanded the torture and death of an innocent man, because that doesn't accord with my understanding of the compassion and creativity of God. I do believe that Jesus' death was sacrificial, because no one could have lived as he did and not have been crucified for it, and still he chose that path out of love for us, because he knew we needed to see and hear the things he did and said. And I do believe that his death brought about a change in our relationship with God, because it opened our eyes to humanity's sin and God's grace. But to say it was powerful and effective is not the same as to say it was what God required.

 

My final concern, and the main reason I have come back to this today, is that a purely legal or transactional view of the cross seems to take any responsibility away from us by suggesting it was all the work of Christ. And yet Paul himself seems to mitigate against that here by presenting a more participationist model of salvation, in which we are saved not by Christ's death alone but by our sharing in it. We have died and been raised with him, and so we put to death our sinful ways and we raise our eyes to the ways of God, both of which are conscious and deliberate actions. It's not that we have to earn our redemption, but that we have to be genuine about our repentance, which means turning away from wrong and towards right, or we undermine what Christ has done. (A quick note here on what is characterised as sin in this passage, because phrases like  "sexual immorality" and "impurity" have been made to do a lot of work over the centuries, and caused all sorts of trouble and disagreement. If we look at the other behaviours to be cast off, they are those that harm others and damage relationships, while the qualities that we are to clothe ourselves in are those that bless others and strengthen relationships, and I think they are the standards by which we are to judge whether something is immoral or impure.) But to come back to my difficulty with legal and transactional language for the cross, I'm not rejecting it entirely, because there is something profound in its simplicity and certainty. Instead I'm suggesting that no one way of speaking of salvation will ever be completely adequate to the task, and so we need to recognise the limits on our language and be prepared to hold different models in tension. A debt was paid, death was defeated, love was made known, a new way of life was chosen. None of it is entire but all of it is true.

 

Speaking of holding things in tension, last week I said that commitment to the life of faith will bring certain demands, but it should also be deeply and joyously liberating, and that is a tension that runs throughout scripture. Jesus told his disciples that they must "take up their cross and follow", but he also told them "my burden is easy and my yoke is light". Those two things sound completely contradictory and yet somehow they are both true. We see that same tension again in the passage we have heard this morning, as Paul outlines clear expectations for how the Colossians will live, and yet it does not feel like censure or control for there is thanksgiving and love and peace woven through all of it. In the previous chapter he encouraged the Colossians to throw off human commands and teachings, so this isn't about tying them up or weighing them down with rules for the sake of rules, it is about helping them to live well for their own sake and for the sake of others. Kindness and patience may not always come naturally, and sometimes it will be a struggle to bear with one another, but if we can find the grace to do it we will all be better for it. Perhaps Paul's particular turn of phrase may be helpful here. Perhaps each morning as we prepare for the day, we might think of dressing ourselves with compassion and kindness and humility and gentleness and patience, with love over all of them, deliberately choosing those virtues to take with us into everything we do. We will end our reflection on this first half of the chapter now, but I leave you with an encouragement to reflect on that image, and ask if you might form it into a habit of prayer.

 

Colossians 3:18-4:1 (NIV)
Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favouritism. Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

 

Some of you may be feeling quite uncomfortable right now, and I ask that you bear with me. Others of you may be feeling rather easier about these verses, remembering that we tackled a very similar passage from Ephesians four years ago. And some of you may think this all sounds like very sensible advice, in which case you will probably feel rather less comfortable by the time I've finished. I don't apologise for that because sometimes we challenge scripture and sometimes scripture challenges us, and we have to be able to deal with both. I will be honest and tell you that given just how similar this text is to the household code in Ephesians, I have drawn heavily on that sermon, and so if some of what follows sounds familiar, it's probably good memory rather than deja vu.

 

As I said then, this is a passage I find deeply problematic, but we can’t just junk the parts of scripture we don’t like, because they are a part of the story of the church, our collective and often fumbling attempt to live in the way of Christ. Instead we need to wrestle with them, to ask why they make us so uncomfortable. Is it that they are too difficult or too inconvenient to live by? Or do we truly believe that there is something wrong with them? Did the writer misunderstand something? Were they writing out of a context that has now changed? Have we added our own misunderstandings? These are good questions for us to ask of scripture, and asking them doesn’t mean we’re not taking it seriously enough. On the contrary, it means precisely that we are taking it seriously. If you swallow something whole, you barely taste it. You have to chew it up a bit to really get the most out of it.

 

So I have chewed on this passage over many years, and I believe it is significant not for what it says but for what it points to. The context Paul was writing into was deeply patriarchal, with husbands and fathers and masters holding absolute authority within their household. He doesn't redress that imbalance completely, as there are still calls to submission and obedience, but he does nudge the scales a little, as these are tempered by calls to act with love and fairness. The relationships described here are far from equal, and they do not fulfil God's vision for our flourishing, but they are more mutual than they had been, and so a new direction of travel is set. Remember that Paul may give advice to slaves and masters in this second half of the chapter, but in the first half of the chapter he declared that there was no longer slave or free. He recognised that those distinctions persisted in society, but he was also clear they did not exist in Christ, which surely had to mean a change in practice. And I think it's interesting that the instructions to slaves are much longer than the instructions to the other groups, as if Paul felt a particular urgency to make clear that they now lived in two realities, in one of which they had the freedom and the dignity to choose to serve God who saw them as no less. I wish he had gone further in condemning the injustices in his society, but whether he held back out of caution or cowardice is between him and God. What I am more interested in is what the church has done with this passage since, and what we do with it now.

 

For too long in too many places, the instructions to act with love and fairness have been minimised or ignored, while the instructions to submit and obey have been fossilised into rules and hardened into weapons, and so these verses have entrenched inequality and domination instead of leading to justice and freedom. They have been used to keep women in abusive relationships, to justify the harsh discipline of children, and to excuse the horrors of slavery. Having arrived at this passage on Racial Justice Sunday, it seems right that we give particular thought to that last error. In a shocking abuse of scripture, the 'Slave Bible' retained this passage while removing the story of the exodus and Mary's song of the mighty brought low and Paul's declarations that all are one in Christ, lest they "instil in slaves a dangerous hope for freedom and dreams of equality". Few would now use this passage to justify slavery, but the effects of the historic misuse of this text have been long lasting. Even when slavery was abolished, such was the power of the slave owners that it was them and not those they had enslaved who received reparations, which were only paid off in the last decade. And the disgusting and discriminatory ideas about race which had underpinned the slave trade did not disappear overnight, and have left a legacy of injustice and inequality, with people of colour disproportionately caught up in the criminal justice system and experiencing worse outcomes in healthcare, to give just a couple of examples.

 

This is not what God wants our society or our relationships to look like. We were made for companionship not control, and we should always be moving towards love and fairness, so I cannot accept any reading of this passage which emphasises total submission or unquestioning obedience as good or true teaching. It is bad theology, and at its very worst it kills. In fact, I reject it as blasphemy, because to tie God to anything that demeans and endangers another person is to tarnish God's name. These verses really underscore the importance of reading the Bible well, not just taking each word as it comes, but looking at where those words have come from and where they are headed. Read out of context, these verses have led to centuries of oppression and abuse. Read sensitively, they can lead us to a new dawn of liberation. Rather than fossilising or weaponising this passage, we need to see the trajectory it is on, and we need to keep following it until our human relationships reflect the love of God. And may we do that with a little more haste than has been the case, because it's taken too long already.

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