Few issues roil the 21st century North American church more than those that revolve around human sexuality. North American Christians spend much time arguing about extra-marital sex, same sex attraction and marriage, as well as gender dysphoria. Churches and denominations are dividing, whether formally or informally, around the appropriateness or inappropriateness of various sexual behaviors.
Christians on all sides of those issues sometimes appeal to Paul for support for their positions. The apostle, after all, in numerous places condemns “sexual immorality.” He, in fact, calls Colossae’s Christians to put to death things like what Eugene Peterson paraphrases as sexual promiscuity that he says belongs to our “earthly nature.”
However, some things sometimes seem to get lost in our appeals to Paul’s writings. Among them is the breadth of his ethics. While modern Christians often focus on his condemnation of sexual sins, passages like this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson reject a wide range of manifestations of our earthly nature. Christ’s Church might look and sound a bit different if it let the Spirit prompt us to faithfully obey Paul’s call to “put off” all filthy clothing, including greed, anger, slander, and filthy language, as well as sexual immorality.
A fruitful path for Colossians 3’s proclaimers to follow might be to ask what binds all of that filthy clothing together – beyond the fact that they manifest humanity’s sinful nature. We might ask ourselves just what prompts Paul to single out these particular sinful behaviors.
The apostle doesn’t, of course, explain why he highlights Colossians 3’s particular manifestations of our earthly nature. So any suggestion that Colossae’s church was especially plagued by, for example, sexual immorality, greed, and rage is speculative. What is clear is that the sins Paul calls his readers to take off harm not just the individuals that commit them, but also the community in which they’re committed.
The Colossian church community to which Paul writes is clearly already under attack from the outside. The Spirit inspires the apostle, after all, to address several heresies in his letter to its members. Among them seem to be “hollow and false” philosophies (2:8), forms of Christian legalism, and the denigration of the person and work of Christ.
When Paul calls his Colossian brothers and sisters in Christ to put off the things that belong to their “earthly nature,” he condemns behaviors that attack their community from the inside. Virtually all of the sins he lists, after all, threaten to weaken the bonds that hold that community together.
N.T. Wright (The Prison Letters, Paul for Everyone, John Knox Press, 2004) notes that the apostle’s call to a rejection of the earthly nature focuses especially on things having to do with sex and with speech. Wright suggests that “sexual immorality” (porneian) broadly refers to any sexual activity outside of the context of marriage. The other terms Paul uses, including “impurity” (akatharsian), “lust” (pathos), and “evil desires” (epithumian kaken) are related to sexual immorality. In fact, Wright (ibid) suggests that even “greed” (pleonexian) is sexual greed.
Christians don’t always think of sexual immorality as idolatry. Even some of Jesus’ friends have largely assumed our culture’s view of sexual behavior as strictly personal. But the strength of the feelings that are part of words like “lust” and “greed” suggest that it’s fairly easy to make sexual feelings our god. After all, Martin Luther once famously said that our god is whatever is most important to us. In our highly sexualized culture, it’s not much of a stretch to think of sex as one of some people’s gods.
But the communal emphasis of the book of Colossians invites its proclaimers to think especially about sexual immorality’s impact on the Christian community. If, for example, Mary can’t trust her fellow Christian Jane to keep her hands and thoughts off Mary’s husband John, how can Mary be in community with Jane? If First Church’s members can’t stay out of the bedrooms of their neighbors, how can they worship God together?
Yet as Wright (ibid) goes on to note, “Paul is just as concerned with sins of speech as he is with sexual sin.” Parenthetically, Wright adds, “It would be good if today’s church could get this balance right.” After all, the sins of speech can be just as harmful to the Christian community as sexual sin.
The list of sins of speech that Paul calls Colossae’s Christians to strip off include “anger” (orgen), “rage” (thumon), “malice” (kakian), “slander” (blasphemian), “abusive language” (aischrologian), and “lies” (the verb form is pseudesthe). Wright notes (ibid) that just as with Colossians 3’s list of sexual sins, these particular sins of speech overlap.
Yet all of them harm not just the sinful speaker and the person who is addressed sinfully. They also loosen the bonds that hold together the Christian community. After all, if, for example, George is enraged at his brother in Christ Mark, how can they lift their voices in prayer and praise together? If Grace can’t trust her Christian friend Faith to tell her the truth, how can they come together to serve God and their neighbors?
Disagreements over things like politics and responses to the COVID pandemic already threaten the Christian community. Sexual sins and sins of speech further threaten the already-beleaguered and sometimes fragile Christian community.
Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might cite examples of how, in fact, Christians’ arguments about sexual sins are sometimes plagued by the sins of speech. All too often anger, slander and filthy language characterize the Christian community’s attempts to discuss what constitutes sexual morality.
Such sinful behavior, Paul suggests in verse 9, is part of what members of the Colossian church have already “taken off.” While Colossae’s Christians still seem to struggle to let the Spirit keep that filthy clothing off them, it no longer has any power over God’s dearly beloved people. Our earthly nature is part of the “powers and authorities” (cf. 2:15) that Christ disarmed at the cross.
As a result, Paul can call the members of the Colossian church to “clothe” themselves in attitudes and actions that enhance rather than degrade the Christian community. In fact, just as the sexual sins and sins of speech that Paul condemns are outwardly turned, so are the virtues that he praises. Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with, forgiving, and loving each other are postures towards our fellow Christians that help strengthen the Christian community into which God incorporates God’s adopted children.
In that community, insists Paul, “there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free” (11). There are only God’s dearly beloved people in and to whom Christ is everything. Any sin that pulls circumcised Christians apart from uncircumcised Christians threatens the unity for which Christ paid with his life to create among us. In fact, any sin that loosens the bonds among freed people threatens the unity that God so deeply treasures.
In his March 16, 2018 article for Bloomberg Business Week entitled “Japanese Prisons Are a Haven for Elderly Women,” Shiho Fukada writes about the startling popularity of prison among some elderly Japanese women. He notes that approximately 20% of all Japanese prisoners are now senior citizens. 90% of the women are shoplifters.
Fukada suggests that’s partly because “Many live alone and say they have nowhere to turn for help. Elderly women are particularly economically vulnerable. But some seek other things from prison life. Some almost seem to shoplift in search of the community and stability of jail.
“’Ms. N, aged 80,’ for example, has stolen a paperback, croquettes, and a hand fan. She says, ‘I was alone every day and feeling very lonely … I can’t tell you how much I enjoy working in the prison factory. The other day, when I was complimented on how efficient and meticulous I was, I grasped the joy of working … I enjoy my life in prison more. There are always people around, and I don’t feel lonely here. When I got out [of prison] the second time, I promised I wouldn’t go back. But when I was out, I couldn’t help feeling nostalgic’.”
Fukada goes on to quote 78 year-old “Ms. O,” as saying “Prison is an oasis for me — a place for relaxation and comfort. I don’t have freedom here, but I don’t have anything to worry about, either. There are many people to talk to. They provide us with nutritious meals three times a day.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 31, 2022
Colossians 3:1-11 Commentary