Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 10, 2016

Colossians 1:1-14 Commentary

Paul is just getting warmed up. He is about to launch into one of the single most exuberant sections in any of his letters (this will be next week’s Lectionary text) and go on a verbal tear of breathtaking proportions. But first things first: he needs to greet, give thanks for, and give encouragement to the Christians in Colossae who would read this letter. This is pretty standard letter-writing fare for Paul (with the exception of the Letter to the Galatians, which, as we noted a few weeks ago, skips the usual epistolary niceties in order to get right down to some serious scolding). But even within the standard format, Paul sets the agenda a bit for the letter to come in the face of the specific circumstances he knew any given congregation was facing.

In scholarly circles there is a fair spectrum of ideas as to what the Colossian situation was. It appears, however, that the besetting temptation of the Colossians was a form of Gnosticism mixed in with Jewish mysticism and high-flying spiritual visions. The Gnostic part claimed that our physical bodies—and therefore what we do with them—are not all that important. This was a convenient thing to believe in the first century Greco-Roman world as it was awash in sexual perversions and prostitution and all kinds of practices that could make even some contemporary societies look tame by comparison.

But the physical was unimportant compared to working your way up through the spiritual realms via various archons who could provide the secret words that would give you access to the pleroma or the fullness of spiritual ecstasy and enlightenment. This Gnosticizing Judaism appears to be what a lot of ancient religious ideas appear to have been (and what not a few contemporary religious ideas seem to be); viz., a real hodge-podge of cobbled together beliefs and ideas borrowed from all over the religious spectrum. The combination of downplaying the importance of the physical realm (and of our physical bodies) with secret spiritual enlightenment led to practices by also those who confessed to be Christ’s followers that were very much of the old order of things.

In Colossians, then, Paul is going to work overtime to make it clear that Christ is the pleroma / fullness of God and people should not look elsewhere or into secret realms to find what Jesus so clearly already is. What’s more, the old self and its practices will need to be taken off like a dingy moth-eaten sweater in favor of putting on the shining new garments of Christ and of his holy righteousness.

In these opening verses Paul sets the stage well for what is to come. Yes, he is profoundly grateful for the Colossians, for their faith, for their efforts to live a God-glorifying life. Paul gives thanks for them but also is praying for them, recognizing they face some long societal odds in staying true to the Gospel. “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.”

It is not secret words of knowledge the Colossians need but the knowledge and wisdom God alone can and will give by the Spirit. Embrace that knowledge, Paul urges. But then Paul immediately goes on: knowledge like this does not exist for its own sake or for some ethereal, heady purpose. No, right knowledge issues in right behavior—orthodoxy leads to orthopraxis. Knowing the truth of the Gospel leads to a life worthy of the God who gave us his only Son so that we can bear fruit. Knowledge issues in deeds. Wisdom yields righteousness. There is no separation of the physical from the spiritual. The Son of God who was made flesh is interested in what we do with also our own flesh, and if righteousness and holiness do not show up in every aspect of our lives, something is wrong.

But it is even more dramatic than just that. “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” What we have in the work of Christ is cosmic in scope. We have spiritually and literally been moved from one realm to a whole new place, from darkness to light. “In Christ” is Paul’s favorite two-word summary for the new reality Christians have as a result of baptism. We dwell in a different zip code now, in a different realm and space than before. But you don’t want to import darkness into the light zone and so the old works of darkness—old ways of thinking, speaking, acting—are dead and gone and have no place in the light. The past has been redeemed and our past deeds done in ignorance and darkness are forgiven. But the grandeur of that forgiveness means at minimum that all else changes for us, too.

Of course, then as now the challenge is to lead lives of the light even though we are still surrounded by so many who are in the dark. Physically we still have close proximity to the darkness and that provides an abiding, running challenge for believers not to mix together the practices of neighbors with lifestyles that should be unique for those in Christ. In many ways—and as Paul will make clear throughout Colossians—the Christian life is an ongoing act of discernment as to what is prudent and proper and what is not. Not everything from the larger world or society is to be rejected—Jesus shines in all that’s fair, as the old hymn puts it. But there are so many practices that clearly cross the line and so many more than exist in the shadowlands between the light and the darkness that require serious pondering (and on which Christians of equally good conscience might disagree).

But the point is that this is all eminently practical and ties in with everyday existence. There is nothing mystical or secret about the Gospel. In fact, it should be plain for everyone to see when they take a look at how Christians live.

Illustration Idea

Paul’s use of realms of light versus realms of darkness has a long history in literature and is one of the more common ways by which distinct realities are juxtaposed to this day in books, TV shows, and certainly also in films. When I think of the dramatic and stark contrast between such realms, I am led to Peter Jackson’s final film in the Lord of the Rings series, and particularly the nice visual contrast between the dark and dim realm of Mordor and what the heroic Hobbit Frodo wakes up to in the city of Minas Tirith after the evil Lord Sauron is definitively defeated. This clip shows the contrasts between sorrow and joy, between darkness and light, between a realm of death and a realm of exuberant new life as well as anything I can think of:

You can watch more of the scene of Frodo’s awaking to the realm of light in this clip:


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