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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.