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Here are the People

Sermon - 8/15/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Colossians 4:7-18

It's been 6 weeks since we started this study of the letter to the Colossians, and we finally now come to the conclusion of the letter. Like last Sunday, the text for this morning is not in the lectionary readings for this Sunday, but unlike last week, the reason for that exclusion is not because of some difficulty with the text, it's more just because the text is just sort of 'so-so', doesn't seem to be anything pressing or urgent, just a list of greetings to some individuals.

So, reading then from chapter 4, verses 7 through 18:

Tychicus will tell you all the news about me; he is a beloved brother, a faithful minister, and a fellow-servant in the Lord. 8I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts; 9he is coming with Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you about everything here.

10 Aristarchus my fellow-prisoner greets you, as does Mark the cousin of Barnabas, concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him. 11And Jesus who is called Justus greets you. These are the only ones of the circumcision among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me. 12Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you. He is always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf, so that you may stand mature and fully assured in everything that God wills. 13For I testify for him that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis. 14Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you. 15Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. 16And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea. 17And say to Archippus, ‘See that you complete the task that you have received in the Lord.’

18 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.

 

Well, to explain the full meaning and the deeper significance of this text, I need both hands, so I'm going to set my Bible down, and I'm going to use a little help from one of the great treatises of all time -- one of the deeper theological reflections into all things ecclesiastical. You may want to write this down, because of its profundity:

Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the door, and see all the people!

Yeah, there it is. You're thinking your minister has lost it :). He's using nursery rhymes for sermon illustrations! After 19 1/2 years of preaching in the same pulpit, you begin to run out of material :).

Well, the truth is, that nursery rhyme pretty much sums it all up. I could quit now, but you know me, I won't :). I mean, we could go through this text line-by-line, name-by-name, review what we know about each one, look up the references to Luke, and to Mark, and to Archippus and all the rest, and that would be a half a sermon right there. It would be just about as exciting as a summer in Topeka Kansas, right? If there are any folks from Kansas here, please don't take offense at that remark :).

There are a few intriguing things to uncover here in this text. I mean, take Onesimus for example, he is, you may recall, the subject of a letter to Philemon. He is a slave of Philemon. And here he is called a faithful and beloved brother. Are we to take from that that Onesimus has indeed been freed, and is no longer Philemon's slave? That he is now recognized as an equal brother of the Lord?

And how about Nympha, the only female in the list, but apparently the one with the largest home in Laodicea, where the church meets. And would that not make her a pretty prominent leader within the congregation? And I wonder how she responded to that text that said 'wives be subject to your husbands'? How did Nympha take that?

And then there's the peculiar case of Aristarchus, a fellow prisoner with Paul, and Epaphras, who is a fellow servant. It is peculiar because these two, along with several others in this list, are mentioned in Philemon as well, only in the book of Philemon, the roles are reversed. It's Epaphras who is the prisoner, and Aristarchus who is the servant. I get them confused too :). Did they trade places in-between the two letters? Or is the author just a little confused?

Lastly, there's the unique instruction to the recipients to read this non-existent letter to the Laodiceans. What happened to that letter? Did they just misplace it?

By the way, these last two items, are examples that scholars point to as things that are very unlike Paul. And, hence indications of someone possibly writing after Paul's death (in his name), carrying his message forward to the next generation, but making a few changes along the way (some intentional, some unintentional).

And again, as I've said before, the authority of the text is based not on the person writing, but the witness given.

And now that I've told you the things that I told you I wouldn't tell you (because they really aren't all that important in the final analysis), let's get to the real heart of the matter -- which is the people, that I told you I wouldn't tell you about :). Are you as confused as I am?

You see, it is about the people -- but not about the persons, at least not these particular persons. Now, recall first of all, if you were here a few weeks ago (and you can retain that long), what I said back then that Colossians is the most mystical of all of Paul's letters. Both those written by him, and those written in his name.

And the overall theme of this letter is the 'cosmic Christ', in whom all things in heaven and earth were created and have their being. And so the writer tells us that we are 'in' Christ. And given the grandiose vision of this all-encompassing scope of Christ in whom all things are reconciled to God, everything on earth and everything in heaven (that pretty much sums up everything that is), given this cosmic vision, what is most striking, then, is that it all comes down to this: the people inside the church, who are the ones who are called to be the body of this cosmic Christ.

Tychicus, Aristarchus, Mark, Luke, Demas, Nympha, Onesimus, they are the ones given the responsibility and the privilege to make it all real people for the people of their time and place.

And thus the very first lesson of the text is the reminder that whatever else the Gospel message is, it is a personal message. Sometimes we talk about the transformation of Christianity (as last Sunday), sometimes about the transformation of the world, but this morning we're talking about the transformation of lives, of persons. That this cosmic role of Christ, uniting all creation, bringing together the spiritual and physical into one unified reality occurs in everyday, common relationships that we have right here, and it changes us.

For all that we say and teach about the wonderful things Christ has done for us, about how we have been forgiven, about how we have been welcomed, about how we have been accepted into the body of Christ and the realm of God, about how we have been transformed, about how we have been given new life, about how we see things from a new perspective, it still comes down to this: how we are now going to do for others what Christ has done for us.

St. John of the Cross, one of the great mystics of the church, said 'We do not know God by thinking, but by encountering'. It's not thinking about God that draws us closer to God, that gives us a God experience, it's doing the things of God, doing the things that Jesus showed us, feeding the hungry, loving the forlorn, welcoming the stranger, befriending the outcast, visiting the prisoners, serving the poor. This is how we encounter God.

Richard Rohr, that Franciscan priest I've cited a few times, says that one of the great mistakes we make is to think of Christian faith as a belief system, rather than as a lifestyle. And he says a belief system asks almost nothing of us, in terms of loving the poor, in terms of stretching our hearts to include people who are not from our country or group, it asks nothing from our pocketbooks or from our social calendar. We can live 24/7 taking care of ourselves while still saying 'We believe'. It's amazing and sad that the idea of Christianity as a mere belief system, instead of a lifestyle, has lasted this long.

So to change our thinking, from our faith as a belief system to a lifestyle, and for Rohr, and I hope for us, Christianity then is living a life in which the love of God naturally flows from us, and ultimately that is what matters, that is what is important, more-so than any belief system.

I was visiting this week with a couple of our new members, and they related to me how they came to this church from another congregation out of state, where they found over time they shared nothing in common with their beliefs. But they kept attending because they loved the people. Anybody here want to say 'yeah, yeah, I can relate, here I am'? :) And what this couple said that was so wonderful about coming into this church is that they loved the people AND they could share our beliefs as a progressive, forward-thinking church.

So it's not that belief systems are unimportant, but that relationships come first. And our relationship to this exalted cosmic Christ has to be manifested in the real everyday relationships of this world and in human interactions of this life if it is to have any meaning and significance for us and for anyone else out there.

Now, if this letter indeed was written after Paul's death (as I think it was, but that's not essential) but if it was written after his death in his name, that would mean Paul, in a manner of speaking, is speaking to us from the grave. That after being executed by Nero in Rome (as tradition says) his witness to the grace of God, that extended to him even while in chains, transcended and not just prison but rose up after his death, so do you get this: that someone writing in his name, who knew full well what happened to Paul, could still write of the grace of God, fully present in him.

How? Because of those very people named here, and the many un-named ones who carry on that witness.

Because Onesimus, in defiance of Roman law on slavery, dared to believe he could be free in Christ.

Because Nympha, contrary to the patriarchal customs of her day, could be the leader of that church in her home.

Because Luke would seek to collect those stories of Jesus and his followers, to put them into an orderly account for others to read.

Because Archippus would indeed complete that task given to him by the Lord.

So to follow-up on my message from last week, on the importance of updating the text to be consistent with the transformative work of God, building communities of increasing equality and greater unity, if we are going to update this text to bring it into the 21st century, there's one more thing we need to do.

Last Sunday, I suggested that we probably should drop the submission language of the text, which no longer works in our democratic societies with their emphasis on civil rights and equality. This morning I want to suggest we drop something else. The change to the text I'm proposing may be even more radical.

All those funny names? You know, we don't know how to pronounce them anyway. Just throw them out. I mean, who's going to name their kid Aristarchus, or Epaphras, or Archippus? It sounds like a medication for erectile dysfunction.

So, forget those guys. Not Nympha, I want to keep Nympha, she intrigues me, the only woman in the bunch, I kind of like her name too, but we'll forget the rest :). That's why I say this text is about the people, not the persons, at least not these particular ones.

And so in the place of those names, here's what I'm proposing (I'm going to use my hands, I'm going to put down my Bible, because I think this is what the text says [Dan looking to the congregation in front of him]): Welcome William, brother of the Lord, and April, who is a fellow servant. And Karen who is the Grandmother of Avery, God bless them. And John, the beloved Plumber (you should put that on your truck!). And Robin, the beloved photographer. And Judy with her wonderful stories of Ecuador and children. And Chuck and his witness. And Karen and her singing. And Clark and the Good Samaritan ministry. And all of these people.

Here is the church. Here are Christ's people.

 


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