Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 24, 2022
Colossians 2:6-15 (16-19) Commentary
The sacrament of baptism isn’t just a source of almost endless controversy among Jesus Christ’s friends. It’s also sometimes vulnerable to distraction from its importance. When, for example, Reformed Christians think of infant baptism, we sometimes focus on cute babies and their outfits, as well as beaming parents and grandparents. When Christians who practice “believers’ baptism,” we sometimes concentrate on its water and dripping wet people who are publicly professing their faith.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson points its readers beyond both potential baptismal distractions. Its Paul zeroes in on that to which the sacrament of baptism points. The apostle also reminds his Colossian brothers and sisters in Christ of some of baptism’s behavioral implications.
Colossians 2 offers numerous themes around which the Holy Spirit might help its proclaimers prayerfully organize presentations of it. Earlier commentaries reflected on it through the lens of how it offers a guide to gratitude for God’s grace in Jesus Christ, as well as what it means to be “in Christ”.
Proclaimers looking for another approach to this rich passage might focus on its description of baptism as well as its implications. That focus, however, may surprise at least some of our hearers, especially those who assume that the apostle is speaking only of the sacrament of baptism. After all, Paul only mentions “baptism” (baptismo) in verse 12.
Yet the Church has historically recognized that the sacrament of baptism points beyond itself to greater realities. Baptism’s waters don’t literally wash away sins or drown people. Only Christ’s blood and the Holy Spirit cleanse us from our sins.
Yet the sacrament of baptism does point God’s dearly beloved people to the forgiveness of sins through Christ’s saving death as well as the way that the Spirit makes us more and more dead to sin and alive to holiness and righteousness. Colossians 2 especially points to that second reality. In verse 12 Paul speaks of Jesus’ followers as being “buried with” Christ “in baptism, and raised with him through … faith in the power of God who raised him from the dead.”
Part of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson describes some of the characteristics of the sinful life that the Spirit crucifies in baptism. Verse 8 speaks of captivity to “hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.”
Humanity’s persistent and desperate search for meaning easily gets misdirected. We easily drift toward philosophies that have their origin in human thinking or speculating. Yet while those philosophies’ facades may be lovely or intriguing, Paul insists they’re actually what he calls “hollow” (kenes) and “deceptive” (apate). They stand in stark contrast to the Jesus Christ in whom the “fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (9).
N.T. Wright (Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, Westminster John Knox, 2004) suggests that the “hollow and deceptive philosophy” against which Paul warns here is related to the Judaism that at least some of Colossae’s Christians have left behind. Part of the grounds for his assertion is the similarity between the Greek words for being taken captive (sylagogon) and synagogue (sunagogon).
In Galatia, in fact, some Christians insisted that Gentile converts only got half of what they needed when they received God’s grace with their faith. They insisted that new Christians also needed to keep Moses’ law, including circumcision. Colossians 2’s Paul, in fact, may even allude to this through his repeated references to circumcision.
Those who proclaim Colossians 2 might explore with our hearers what sorts of hollow and deceptive philosophies attract citizens of the 21st century. Preachers might explore how, for example, do-it-yourself spirituality, with its inherent resistance to grace, is both attractive and, finally, empty. They might also explore how philosophies that locate human identity anywhere other than in our baptism are deeply deceptive. Paul insists that all such philosophies must finally pass through the “filter” that Wright (ibid) says is, “Does it have Jesus, the Messiah, the Lord, as its center and focus?”
In verse 15 Paul also speaks of the “powers and authorities” that naturally dominate their all-too-willing human slaves. Here he’s speaking of sin, for example, not as something we do, but as a power that exerts deathly control over its subjects. Such powers and authorities demand complete loyalty and obedience from their subjects. Those subjects, including every person who ever lived but One, willing submit to their authority.
Voluntary submission to the forces of spiritual darkness’ authority is part of Christians’ naturally sinful ways of thinking, speaking, and acting that God graciously puts to death at baptism. From those deadly waters, however, God graciously raises God’s baptized children to the life that is grateful obedience to God, as well as God’s ways, plans and purposes.
Paul spends especially verse 6 exploring the shape of that baptismal life. It begins, by the grace of God and through the work of the Spirit, with receiving “Christ as Lord.” That new life involves a rejection of the rule of, among other things, the “powers and authorities” and grateful submission to Christ’s loving rule over our whole lives.
The apostle spends the rest of verse 6 exploring the effects of the new life that’s wrought through Christians’ baptism. They include an ongoing living in Christ. Hoezee (ibid) masterfully explores that new situation. But we might summarize what that new life looks like as being in relationship with not just Christ, but also his Church.
Paul lays out three characteristics of life in Christ. Those whose sinful nature is put to death and whose obedience is raised to life in baptism are “rooted and built up in [Christ], strengthened in the faith as [we] were taught, and overflow with thankfulness” (6-7). Those attributes mark a life that is filled with lively obedience rather than deadly alienation from God and God’s purposes. Only living things are, after all, rooted and overflow. What’s more, in the context of verse 6, it’s living things that are also built up and strengthened.
The biblical scholar Brian Walsh (Colossians Remixed, InterVarsity Press, 2004) says about verses 6 and 7’s metaphors for the baptismal life in Christ, “Roots that do not bring forth dynamic growth and change are taking in no new sustenance and result in stultifying conservatism that grinds the biblical narrative to a halt. Growth and change, however, if divorced from foundations and deep roots are tossed by every new cultural wind and lack identity and consistency.”
In his commentary on Colossians 2, Scott Hoezee (ibid) notes how Bruce Beresford’s movie, Tender Mercies “chronicles the story of Mac Sledge, a one-time country-western singing star whose life later dissolved into a fog of alcohol and shiftlessness. Divorced from his wife and estranged from his only daughter, Mac staggers through life until one night he collapses onto the porch of a small, lonely little motel and gas station out in the middle of nowhere on the Texas prairie.
“The motel is run by Rosa Lee, a young widow who is raising her boy, Sonny, and trying to make ends meet. Even though Mac is a shipwreck of a human being, grizzled, drunk, and despairing, Rosa Lee takes him in, sets him to work for her, and through this, transformation comes to Mac’s life. Over time he kicks his drinking habit, becomes a kind of father figure to young Sonny, ends up marrying Rosa Lee, and begins to attend the Baptist church in which Rosa Lee is a member of the choir.
“In one lovely scene, both Mac and Sonny are baptized one Sunday morning. After the pastor dunks him into the waters of baptism, Mac stands back up, blinking, and drenched, water dripping down off his balding head and glistening on his grizzled beard. It’s a portrait of grace. But after the service, Sonny and Mac are sitting outside the motel and Sonny says, ‘Well, we done it. We got baptized.’ ‘Yup, we sure did,’ Mac replies. ‘You feel any different?’ the lad asks. Chuckling, Mac says, ‘I can’t say I do, not really.’
“But we as viewers know the truth: Mac is different. Deep down on the inside of his heart and soul, Mac is a changed man. But outwardly it’s true: the baptism doesn’t seem to change much, and it surely doesn’t make life necessarily any easier. In the course of the film Mac manages to have a kind of reconciliation with his estranged daughter, now in her mid-20s. But no sooner does this good thing happen and the daughter is killed in a terrible car wreck.
“Near the end of the film, still grieving, Mac stands in the middle of a vegetable garden and tells Rosa Lee that he doesn’t understand life. He can’t understand the tender mercies of God that led him to Rosa Lee and to the transformation his life so badly needed. But then, he can’t understand why his daughter had to die, either.”
Hoezee (ibid) concludes, “We often hear people pondering why bad things happen in life, but Mac is honest enough to admit to being equally flummoxed by the good things. Grace can be as arresting as tragedy.”
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