Colossians 4:2-end (NIV)
Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.
My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.) Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me. Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis. Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings. Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.
After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea. Tell Archippus: “See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord.” I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.
Chapter four is the shortest and least dense of the four chapters of Colossians, being composed of personal greetings rather than complex theology, so I want to take the opportunity to look back over the letter as a whole, ending with the passage we heard earlier. There is an image that I’ve seen online a few times, of a lecturer standing next to a screen with a summary of every letter Paul ever wrote. I couldn’t find it again this week, but it went something along the lines of “hello, I’m praying for you, Jesus is awesome, be good to each other, pray for me, say hi to everyone”. It was clearly intended to be a bit tongue in cheek, but it’s not so far off. Paul does tend to bookend his letters with greetings and assurance of or requests for prayer, and I don’t think it’s purely formulaic, but about rooting the letter in relationship. Paul has never met the Colossians, but we get a sense that he feels deeply connected to them through their shared faith. I think that sense of connection, or what we might also call covenant, is really important to everything else that Paul has to say. Because it may be reductive but I don’t think it would be wrong to say that Paul’s main themes are the glory of Christ who holds all people together, and the life of faith as it is worked out alongside others.
I said when we started that there is some dispute over whether or not Colossians was written by Paul, but I would suggest that it is certainly Pauline even if it was written by an imitator, as we see that same pattern and those same themes. If we think back to the first chapter, the focus was on faith in Christ as supreme and sufficient, seemingly countering tendencies towards syncretism and Gnosticism within the mixed religious demographic of Colossae, by which I mean attempts to bring Jesus into a kind of pantheon or argue that salvation depended on hidden knowledge available only to a select few. Christ is all we need for he is “the image of the invisible God...and in him all things hold together...for God was pleased to have his fullness dwell in him”. I think Paul wants his readers to be awestruck, but not in a way that holds them at a distance. There is no sense of fear and trembling here, but rather embrace and joy, for Jesus has “reconcile[d] to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood...to present us holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation”. It’s a passionate and positive start to the letter, which promises both freedom and unity, two things we don’t always find it easy to hold together. We think freedom means we can do our own thing and unity means we keep in step with everyone else, but in Christ somehow we find both, as the reconciliation of our relationships with one another as well as with God liberates us to find new peace and joy.
And so the glory of Christ leads us on to the life of faith, which emerged as a significant theme in chapter two. You may remember that I picked up on the phrase “in Christ you have been brought to fullness” and suggested we may come back to it as I was still pondering how I would express what that means. Well in the course of my ponderings, I was reminded of a quote from an interview with Rev Richard Coles, following the death of his husband. Reflecting on his grief he said this: "We get life in its fullness. Not serenity or fulfilment or happiness, but life in its fullness, which is what Jesus actually promised." I remember saying at the time I would never read John 10:10 the same way again. Life in its fullness means we get everything. Joy and heartbreak and everything in between. That then reminded me of a quote I wrote down in one of the notepads I filled with song lyrics and poems and snatches of prose as a teenager. It is from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith: “Dear God, let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be happy; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry, have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed...Only let me be something every blessed minute”. It is often said that ministers preach first to themselves, and this is definitely the word I needed this week. God does not choose heartbreak for us but life will bring it anyway, and so to hear that everything we experience is part of the fullness Christ brings us to moves me more deeply than any promise of health and wealth, because it says that even the stuff I would not choose to fill my life with is held within God’s grace.
Back to Colossians, and this grace and this fullness release us from rules that bind without blessing, but they also call us to live “as those made alive in Christ”, and so the third chapter moved to consider what life in Christ means for life with others. This began with putting off behaviours which harm others, and recognising that none of the barriers and boundaries and binaries we have created for ourselves mean anything, for “Christ is all, and is in all”. This was in tension with some trickier stuff towards the end of the chapter about relationships within households, but I hope we could see that there was a move towards love and fairness which we are to keep following. And there was this wonderful passage, which I just want to let speak again: “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.” What a brilliant picture of community, and perhaps something to take into our discussions in the church meeting, as we reflect on the values that shape the community we are and want to be.
And so we come to the fourth chapter, and while these final greetings may feel like an administrative task, I read them as a practical outworking of life in Christ, which flows out of and demonstrates much of what Paul has written. There are expressions of deep respect, requests for hospitality, assurances of prayer. The letter is to be passed to the church at Laodicea, and the Laodiceans are to pass a letter on to them, because even in its earliest days the church knew it was bigger than the community that gathered in a single place. Paul notes that there are only a few fellow Jews among his coworkers, which tells us that the others he mentions are Gentiles, suggesting that the distinctions are still apparent but no bar to working together, so that they are already moving towards the truth that there is no Gentile or Jew. And all of this is prefaced by a call to pray. Life in Christ is being lived out in this network of relationships sustained by prayer. Our life in Christ is also lived out in a network of relationships, and it too must be sustained in prayer. Earlier I invited you to identify people and places for each of your fingers and commit to praying for them, and perhaps you might also commit to praying for another church as Paul prays for the church at Colossae. Perhaps you might even write to them, to encourage them and to echo his blessing that grace be them.
We’ve come to the end of this study of Colossians, and so let us bring everything together in prayer: Thank you for this letter, passed down the centuries and still speaking wisdom to discerning hearts. May your Spirit guide us to take what is true and move past what was temporary. Thank you that in Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. May we recognise that all the fullness of our lives is held in your grace. Thank you that we are called holy and dearly beloved. May we clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and over all things love. Thank you that you have brought us into covenant relationship with all who seek you. May we pray for one another and may all our conversations be filled with grace. Amen.