Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 10, 2022
Colossians 1:1-14 Commentary
Elements of this week’s Epistolary Lesson are faintly reminiscent of Huck Finn’s experience with prayer. In the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck recounts how his foster mother, Miss Watson, tried to teach him to pray.
“Miss Watson … took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing come of it. She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn’t so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn’t any good to me without hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow, I couldn’t make it work.”
One of Colossians 1’s themes is that of Paul’s prayers for his Christian brothers and sisters in Colossae. Those prayers are just a tiny bit like Huck’s. The apostle has “gotten” a “fish-line” that is God’s “yes” to his prayers for their fruit-bearing faith in Christ. Yet he’s also still praying for the “hooks” that is God’s “yes” to his prayers for the Colossians’ growth in wisdom and understanding that will produce even more fruit.
This Sunday marks the RCL’s first “stop” on its four-stop “tour” of Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae. So those who haven’t recently proclaimed Colossians or who plan to turn messages on it into a mini-series might be wise to remind hearers of a bit of its context.
Paul (or perhaps a very close follower) seems to pen this letter in about 60 A.D. He writes it in response to some heresy that he never explicitly identifies. The apostle also offers the crucified, risen, and ascended Christ as the one who is completely adequate for all of the Colossians’ needs.
In our text’s beginning, Paul is preparing to launch into his breathtaking description of the ascended Christ and the earth-shaking consequences for Christ’s adopted siblings. First, however, he briefly pauses to tell Colossae’s Christians how he both appreciates and continues to pray for them. Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might divide its proclamations into two parts: that for which Paul gives thanks, and that for which he continues to pray.
The things about and for which Paul prays include Colossian fruit (6, 10). The imagery has, as Brian Walsh notes, deep Old Testament roots. In fact, the RCL’s first reading for this Sunday is Deuteronomy 30 that includes verse 9’s references to “the fruit of [Israel’s] womb,” as well as perhaps the fruit of her livestock and land. What’s more, Colossians 1 may even evoke Genesis 1:28’s creation imagery with its divine call to “be fruitful and multiply.”
When, however, Paul writes to the Colossian Christians about fruit, he’s talking about what grows out of the “soil” that is faith in Jesus Christ as well as love for “all the saints” (4). So he’s not speaking of their talent for growing tasty apples, strawberries, or blueberries. The apostle thanks God for the fruit that is faithful obedience to God’s will for their lives.
While Paul doesn’t take the time to give examples of the fruit the Colossians are bearing, Walsh suggests that Luke 10:25-37, this Sunday’s Gospel Lesson, offers a lovely example it. It, of course, begins with a lawyer’s question for Jesus about what he must do to inherit eternal life.
But what we often call the Parable of the Good Samaritan then quickly moves from the lawyer’s follow-up question about the identity of the beloved neighbor to Jesus’ answer about what it means to be a loving neighbor. When the lawyer correctly identifies the man who had mercy on a victim of a crime as the one who loves his neighbor, Jesus tells him to “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
To point to having mercy on someone as an example of what it means to be fruitful is to do more than just encourage Christians to be nice. It also grounds our “fruit-ethics” in the work of God in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ gift of his life and death is, after all, the ultimate neighborly act of mercy.
So Jesus’ friends who bear the fruit of mercy toward our neighbors, especially those who are somehow vulnerable, are acting a bit like God. They are a tiny part of God’s “yes” to Paul’s prayers that Jesus’ followers bear the fruit that is obedience to God.
However, the second part of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson shows that Paul is not yet done praying for the Colossian or any other Christians. He’s grateful for God’s “yes” to his prayers for them. Colossae’s Christians are bearing the fruit of righteousness. Yet the apostle longs for them to bear even more fruit. So he tells them he “hasn’t stopped praying for” them (9).
Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrases part of that for which Paul prays, that God may give the Colossian Christians “wise minds and spirits attuned to his will, and so acquire a thorough understanding of the ways in which God works.”
In a recent presentation sponsored by the Trinity Forum, two thoughtful Christian leaders spoke of a societal shift in North America. We’ve moved, they noted, from a longing for wisdom, to a longing for knowledge, to a longing for information.
Paul summons his readers back to a thirst for wisdom. It’s a wisdom, Scott Hoezee notes, that God alone can and will give by the Spirit. It’s not information. It’s not even knowledge. What Paul begs God to fill the Colossians with is the wisdom that leads to faithfulness. “Knowing the truth of the gospel,” continues Hoezee, “leads to a life worthy of the God who gave his only Son so that we can bear fruit. Knowledge issues in deeds. Wisdom yields righteousness.”
The apostle’s prayer of thanks and prayers of intercession reflect his desire for his readers to grow in the likeness of Jesus Christ. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s first eight verses show that God has said “yes” to Paul’s prayers for them by beginning a wonderful work in God’s adopted Colossian sons and daughters. Its next five verses shows the depth of Paul’s prayers for God to continue God’s fruitful work in the lives of God’s servants.
Why is that so crucial to Paul and the case he makes he makes for Christ’s supremacy throughout the rest of the letter? Because, as Peterson continues, “God rescued us from dead-end alleys and dark dungeons. He’s set us up in the kingdom of the Son he loves so much, the Son who got us out of the pit we were in, got rid of the sins we were doomed to keep repeating.”
Christ’s redeeming work is cosmic in its scope. Yet it also has concrete effects on his individual adopted siblings. God has rescued us from slavery to sin, Satan, and death. God has also moved Christians from spiritual darkness to light. The Spirit has equipped us to live as children of that light. Those who proclaim Colossians 1 are wise not just to proclaim those truths, but also to never stop praying that the Spirit will produce good fruit that’s in keeping with repentance.
In his August 17, 2015 article, “Why We Need to Resurrect our Souls,” Mark Edmundson writes about wisdom. He notes, “It turns out that the problem of wisdom is not easy to solve. Acquiring it is dangerous. The individual who pursues true insight is, to use Nietzsche’s phrase (though the perception goes back at least as far as Plato), untimely.
“That is, he strives to be ahead of his time in his perceptions … He is out of joint with his moment, and the result often is the enmity of others. People do not like his ideas, which seem to be an indictment of the way they are living. The thinker is a walking criticism of the lives of the rest, as Socrates showed. He paid with his life.
“But still — one wants to know. To possess the truth may, as Aristotle suggests, be something like a human instinct. Yet we must satisfy our hunger for contemplation — and for its (possible) result, wisdom — safely. Let the acquisition of information replace thought; let the well-informed individual, brimming with opinions, replace the man or woman, the philosopher, who might actually be wise.
“For information is valuable: Information helps the self [to] navigate the world. What portable wireless device shall I buy? How shall I finance my home? (And what lending-thieves must I avoid?) Where is the optimum place to vacation? How can I get the best-priced transportation there? (And once there, how can I best ignore the plight of the indigenous poor?)
“Where shall I send my children to school so that they can have the best possible careers — make the most money and be the most secure? Whom shall I vote for in the next election — which is to say, who can best serve my interests?
“Plausible answers to those questions now qualify as authentic knowledge, and there is no end of sources to provide them: Turn on the TV, the radio, pick up the newspaper, enter the world of the Internet. That there could be any other kind of knowledge is anathema to our faith in information.
“One knows in order to consume. One knows in order to succeed. One knows in order not to be made a fool of. But one does not learn in order to acquire the only things that real learning offers: virtue and wisdom.
“There are other kinds of ‘knowledge’ that current culture pursues: ‘the news.’ We are bathed in flashing images of events around the globe; where there is war, famine, revolution, religious upheaval, there the cameras go. We are briefed on the international situation as often as a head of state — or we can be if we wish. We are regal in our need to know and our power to be informed.”
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