We completed a study of Paul's letter to
the Galatians a couple of weeks ago, and this morning I want to
start a new study of Paul's letter to the Colossians. And so
we'll be looking at that for the next several weeks. I would
invite you to read the letter several times over the course of
the next several weeks. It's a short letter, I promise :), only
4 chapters. Last time I promised there were only 5 chapters of
Galatians, and someone caught me afterward and said there's
really six! I was just testing you to see if you were really
paying attention :).
In any case, it's not a very long letter, so you can read it a
few times each week, as we take a walk through this letter of
Let me make a couple of notes of introduction. First of all,
about authorship itself. Whereas there is no scholar today (of
any note) who questions that Paul wrote the letter to the
Galatians, there are a number of scholars who have raised doubts
whether or not Paul actually is the author of this letter to the
Colossians. Some of the vocabulary, and the theology, and the
themes, are very unlike the Paul of the undisputed letters, and
hence the doubts in the minds of some scholars. And that may
come up for us later, we'll see.
For now, we can just note that there's no consensus one way or
another, either for or against Pauline authorship. And so either
this is written by Paul, possibly late in his life (that might
explain some of the changes) or, it's written by a close
associate of his who knew him well. And had no difficulty, no
qualms, about writing in his name -- which in fact was a very
common practice in antiquity. It was a way of honoring a
deceased person. Hence, the possibility that this may have been
written after Paul's death, in his name.
Whatever the case, I'll refer to the author as Paul, just for
the sake of simplicity, and trust that the authority of the text
rests not in the person who is writing, but in the witness that
Second, the location. Colossae was very much a metropolitan
city, in that same area as Ephesus in what is today modern-day
Turkey. It had a sizable Jewish population, but was largely a
Gentile community. Very typical of Roman cities throughout much
of the Mediterranean world, and had a very diverse religious
community. And in many of those communities, and evidently
especially in the case of Colossae, that diversity evolved into
syncretism, in which those different religious traditions merged
into a combined tradition with many gods, each offering their
own piece (so to speak) of the divine picture.
And thus a common philosophy of the time was that to get the
whole picture of the divine reality, you needed a little bit of
each. Sort of like pieces of a puzzle. And Paul's response, when
such was offered in the Church of Colossae (and in effect,
subjugating Christ to one small piece of this larger puzzle) was
an emphatic rejection. In Christ, the fullness of God was
pleased to dwell, he writes in a section we'll look at next
week. In other words, Christ is not just one small piece of the
divine reality, Christ is the whole picture.
And as we will see next week, Christ is not the last name for
Jesus, as we sometimes think of it (you know, Jesus was born
into the Christ family :). But rather, Christ includes Jesus,
and so much more. But that's a topic we'll explore next week.
Now, one side comment: this syncretism
of the first century was vastly different from the interfaith
work that we see happening today, especially in our community,
such as the interfaith service held this evening here.
In the Roman world, one could be a follower of many different
Gods, and would pay homage to a different God for a different
purpose. In interfaith work, we come as people faithful to our
respective traditions and we engage one another as Christians or
Jews or Muslims or Buddhists, whatever the case may be. We may
learn from one another, we main gain insight into our condition
and into the divine reality from that interaction, but we remain
within our own tradition, and do not take a little here and a
little there, you know, to suit ourselves, like picking fruit
from a tree, whatever suits our desires.
Thus, the religious context of this letter to the Colossians is
vastly different from our own. In this cosmopolitan atmosphere,
there were philosophers who taught a way of life that seemed
reasonable and was attractive (and this may be similar to our
context), but for Paul, it threatened to undermine the message
of the Gospel, and hence the reason for writing this letter to
that community in Colossae.
The letter begins in very typical Pauline fashion. First, the
writer (or this case the writers) and recipients are identified.
Then there is a thanksgiving and prayer in which the themes of
the letter are introduced. And that is our text for this
morning, I'm going to read just the first 10 verses:
So the context of the letter may be
different, but the appeal of Paul is universal. In sum, the
result of faith in Christ is worthy living. Here defined as that
life pleasing to Christ, bearing fruit of good works.
And it is important to note, I think, the relationship portrayed
by Paul between (as he describes it) the hope we have in heaven
and our good works on earth. And as we saw in that letter to the
Galatians, it is not the worthy life that gets us to that
destination. Or, to put it in a slightly bit of a paradox, it's
not the journey that gets us to the destination, rather it is
the journey that reveals our destination.
That is, the hope that we have in heaven, whatever that reality
may be, is made known in how we live on earth. If that doesn't
make you stop and think, to think about that journey that you're
on, well, think again. Living worthy lives, you see, is the
evidence of our redemption, not the means to earn it.
Think how different that is from the message that we usually
hear and practice in our world. If you're in the dog-house with
your spouse because of something you said or did (I see a few
nodding heads :), what do you do? You bring home flowers,
chocolate, make a nice dinner. If it's really bad, season
tickets for the Ducks :). And if that doesn't work, all is lost.
When a convict is released from prison, what do we say? They've
paid their debt to society. In some cases, a person is required
and make or pay restitution. A white transit officer is found
guilty in Oakland for shooting a black man in the back, lying on
the ground, killing him, and then his sentenced this week to
five years for manslaughter. And the outraged community
protests, demanding justice -- meaning a longer sentence in
exchange for life wrongly taken.
My point is that we think of redemption as something that we
earn, something that we have to do, through our actions. And
Paul's point is precisely that such is not God's way. It is not
the good we do that earns us God's favor. Rather, it's more of
the reverse: God's love for us, revealed through Jesus, calls
us, even demands us, to do what is good in return.
Yesterday, one of my favorite
columnists, Nicholas Kristof, wrote in the Register Guard about
the work of Rabbi Arik Ascherman (you can see him there):
In Israel, the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights,
and his efforts and that of his organization to protect the
rights of Palestinians, for which he has been beaten, arrested,
and has received all kinds of death threats. And Kristof
describes his work as the clash between the ugly side of Israel
with the noble side of Israel. This noble Israel, he writes,
"refusing to retreat from its values even in times of fear and
stress is a model for the world". Working to rebuild Palestinian
homes and re-plant Palestinian orchards, Ascherman says: 'Who is
doing more for Israel's physical survival, those who demolish
homes and uprooted trees? Or those who rebuild homes and
Rabbi Ascherman is living the worthy life.
In his book, "Half the Sky", co-authored with his wife Sheryl
WuDunn, Kristof tells another story of an amazing, worthy life,
that of of Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman:
The story you may
recognize. She was gang-raped in 2002, in her village, by
members of a rival tribe, in order to restore honor to that
tribe, in response to an unproven accusation of something done
by a member of Mukhtar's family. So, no accusation against her,
yet she is raped to restore honor to her family. And it is a
common practice that poor, rural women such as Mukhtar Mai would
commit suicide because of the shame that rape would bring upon
her and her family. And thus, you know, it's almost the perfect
crime, so to speak.
Instead, Mukhtar chose to speak out against her attackers, filed
charges against them, won her case in lower courts (although
it's been appealed to the Pakistani Supreme Court) and in the
process Mukhtar became an international heroine. When the
government paid her over $8,000 in a settlement, she used that
money to establish an organization to educate Pakistani women
about their rights. And has just recently built a school for
rural Pakistani women. Her slogan is to end oppression through
She has endured many death threats. Her passport has been
confiscated. She has been under house arrest, in order to
silence her criticism of the government in the case. At the same
time, she has been credited with a significant reduction of such
honor crimes, rape, and subsequent suicide among rural Pakistani
Now, I cite these two examples because the lectionary (if you
were following along, you will note) pairs this reading of the
letter to the Colossians with the reading that John read us from
Luke, that very familiar story of the good Samaritan. It is as
if the lectionary is telling us that that story is the
illustration for the worthy life.
A man beaten by robbers, left for dead alongside the road, a
clergymen and a religious scholar passing by, but the
Samaritan--a person of mixed race, despised by the Judeans, who
are the primary audience hearing this story, and surely were
shocked by it -- is the one who then takes him in, binds up his
wounds, pays for his care.
And so, the illustration of the worthy life, of what it means to
do good works, to bear that fruit.
Kristof tells of a modern-day good Samaritan story, only with
the roles somewhat reversed. A 13-year-old Palestinian boy was
being beaten by Israeli soldiers. Only this time it was a Rabbi.
The Rabbi Arik Ascherman, who rushed to his aid and was himself
tear-gassed, head-butted, arrested by soldiers. And later the
boy recounted in amazement how a tall Jewish stranger rushed to
his aid and comforted him, as they were both being arrested,
telling him "Do not be afraid, I'm here with you".
You see, pleasing to God is not so much about our religious
beliefs as our moral actions. It's not about how right we are,
it's about how loving we are. It's not about what we do for
ourselves, it's what we do for others. It's not about making our
lives just right, it's about making our world rightly just.
As that old hymn I grew up on proclaims, "Living for Jesus a
life that is true, trying to please him in all that I do".
You know, we have a reputation in this town. Is it a good one?
You be the judge. But I hear, frequently, as I hope you do, from
people in our community thanking us for the many things that we
do. A reputation of a church that is willing to put itself out
there for others. Be it housing the homeless on those cold
nights, providing clothing for those in need (now for over 60
years), feeding the hungry in our newest ministry on the last
Sunday of the month (our planning retreat set a goal to move
that up to twice a month), speaking up for the rights and
dignity of the marginalized, honoring and respecting people of
different faiths, taking in a homeless charter school for
teenagers who don't fit the mold of traditional education this
Fall, sometimes just providing a listening ear for those who
have nowhere else to turn, through our Good Samaritan ministry.
And it's a lot, and so much more.
Sometimes it makes my head spin of all
that we are doing. But it is enough? Not by a long shot. Does it
make a difference? Absolutely.
Ask any one of those 60-plus folk who spent that night in our
basement when those temperatures were in the low 20s, possibly
life-saving. Ask any of the families who stay for those three
weeks during the interfaith shelter. Ask those teenage students
in the network charter school of what it means to them to know
that they are going to have a place where they can come to
school this fall if no one else will rent to them.
Robertson's column in our newsletter this month on what means to
find such a church that would welcome her and embrace as a
lesbian. Ask Mary Ann, who spent eight years living in that
trailer behind the church, who is now moved into her own
apartment at Olive Plaza, and we stood by her al those 8 years.
What we do, especially what we do for others, matters. Indeed,
it may be all that matters.
Is God pleased by what we do? When we put our faith into action,
Paul says, God is. God is.
May we so live such worthy lives.