“Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. 8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. 9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.” – Colossians 2:6-19
As some of you know, I just back from England a few weeks ago. And as most of you know, a few weeks before that, I threw a disc in my back. When that happened I almost canceled the trip, but my friend and I really wanted to go, so I gritted my teeth and got packing.
So… in the do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do department… I don’t recommend traveling with a bad back, let alone overseas! But I also have to say I’m grateful for the people who, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, fought for the rights of handicapped people to access public places. Because of them, the airports and hotels we visited were well-equipped to deal with my physical issues, and they made us as comfortable as possible.
My friend and I made this effort to get to England because we had signed up to take a class at Oxford under one of the leading theologians of our day: the retired Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright. He’s not as well known in the States yet as in the U.K., but he spoke at Duke when Pastor Matt was there, and both he and I are familiar with Wright and we like his teaching. So given the chance to take a class with him, my friend and I jumped at the opportunity. And we were not disappointed. I’ll be sharing with you the things we learned… probably for the next year!
One of the things I came away with was N.T. Wright has this big-picture view of Scripture: a view that says everything from Old Testament, to the Psalms, to the Gospels, to the New Testament, all works together to tell a story – which is a refreshing point of view when I hear people say things like “the Old Testament so old it’s not relevant any more”. The big-picture story makes the Old Testament relevant. And the big-picture story is the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Our scripture reading for today from Colossians is a great example of a small excerpt of scripture fitting into the big picture, because it points to Jesus’ death and resurrection and how, through it, we can enter into the Kingdom of God.
So… if Pastor Matt preached the sermon he was hoping to preach last week, he talked about Colossae, an ancient city that was in the country we now know as Turkey. It was on a major road used for trade and military travel, so there was a real mix of people who lived and worked there. And Colossae was famous for its wool trade. But it was also famous for the way its people came up with new and different ways of mixing and combining the religions of the people who lived there. They took bits and pieces of the Jewish faith, Greek philosophy, and the Greek and Roman gods, and mixed it all together.
This mixing of religions is called syncretism. Most religions believe syncretism is not a good thing because it waters down the message of their faith, whatever faith it may be. In fact it tends to lead people into a kind of agnosticism, a ‘not-knowing’, because if every faith has the truth how can one be sure of any faith? Comedian Michael Palin of Monty Python put it this way: when asked about his religious beliefs, and he said, “I’m an agnostic, but I’m not sure about that.” This is often the result of living in a syncretistic culture – which we live in, just as the Colossians did.
The church at Colossae, however, managed to avoid this syncretism. They stayed true to Jesus and to the Gospel message. And Paul praises them for this, and he says he thanks God for the Colossians’ faith and for their love for each other.
So that’s how the book of Colossians begins. Today we move on to the next section of Paul’s letter, in which he warns the Colossians about spiritual dangers. He points out (1) the Colossians were living in a prosperous society. They had money, and their culture was becoming powerful and worldly; and (2) because of its religious experimentation, the Colossian culture was losing its sense of direction. And Paul wanted to spare the Colossian church the troubles that might come from these things.
Paul says a lot in this chapter… far more than we can cover this morning. For now I’d like to focus on just three things:
- Paul warns the Colossians against being taken captive
- Paul lists some dangers facing the Colossian church
- Paul explains how the Cross sets them free in Christ
The warning against being taken captive is found in Colossians 2:8. Paul says, “see to it that no one takes you captive”.
This probably surprised the Colossians, because they probably didn’t think of themselves as in danger of being taken captive. It would probably surprise us too, if someone said to us “don’t let anybody take you captive.” We think of ourselves as living in “the land of the free and the home of the brave” – how could we be taken captive?
Truth is captivity happens every day. People fall captive to addiction, for example: alcohol, drugs, sex, pornography – they can’t break free from these things. Then there’s human trafficking – the sale of human beings – which has become the second fastest growing crime, second only to the drug trade.
When people hear ‘human trafficking’ they usually think ‘prostitution’ but that’s always not the case. I remember a few years ago when I was working at another church in Pittsburgh area, a stranger came into the church and asked to talk to the pastor. He said he’d taken a job building houses and he said the construction crew was being forced to sleep on the floor of the house they were building, without electricity, without water, without heat. He managed to escape and found our church and he was asking for help so he wouldn’t have to go back. Turns out the man came to the right place, because our pastor, in his first career, had been a lawyer, so he knew exactly what to do.
These are just some examples of how people in our society can become captives. There are other ways that don’t show as much. Some people are captive to bad habits; or captive to negative thinking; some people are captive to fear. These things may not endanger our lives but they rob us of the joy God intends for us.
So Paul starts out by warning against captivity. He points out that whole history of God’s relationship with God’s people is about setting God’s people free! From the very beginning, with the ancient Israelites escaping slavery in Egypt, to the New Testament where the people of God escape slavery to sin through the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the whole Bible is about freedom… and about the power to throw off our chains, by God’s grace, and move into the Promised Land of God’s Kingdom.
Paul then goes on to warn the Colossians about specific dangers he sees in society. Paul doesn’t list all the possible dangers but he focuses on the ones people are most likely to come up against. And he names four specifically: philosophy; deceit; human tradition, and the elemental spirits. Let’s take a look at each one briefly.
First, philosophy. Most of us have not studied ancient Greek philosophy, but our modern world is more influenced by Greek philosophy than we realize. Democracy, for example, was originally a Greek idea. And in our society, beliefs about what happens when a person dies are often more Greek than Biblical. The idea that heaven is a place up there in the sky where our spirits go after our bodies are gone is purely Greek! The Bible teaches no such thing. Scripture teaches resurrection of the body, not separation from the body, and it teaches a new heaven and new earth. God’s Kingdom is a place where we will live in new bodies on a new earth. That’s just one example of how philosophy can change our thinking without us even being aware of it. Our hope, for this life and the next, is not found in philosophy, but in Jesus Christ.
The second thing Paul mentions is deceit. In other words, lies. Lies are a problem on a daily basis but I think Paul is talking here more about deceit on a cultural level. Miscarriages of justice, for example. Leaders who don’t speak the truth. These things wear on our spirits, they make us angry, or sometimes afraid for the future. Paul says in Jesus Christ we have hope and we have nothing to fear. So beware, Paul says, of being taken captive by lies and by the negative feelings that follow.
The third thing Paul mentions is human tradition. Paul is not saying all traditions are bad – far from it. He’s just saying some traditions can get out of control sometimes, especially if we forget why the tradition is there in the first place. Take for example the tradition of not eating meat on Fridays. Way back in the early days of Christianity, the Church taught the spiritual discipline of fasting. Fasting can be a good thing, it can help us draw closer to God, it can help us to understand God.
And because it can be a good thing, the early Catholic Church taught people the spiritual discipline of fasting. They said to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. As time went on, this rule was relaxed and changed to just Fridays. Later still, it was relaxed again and changed to just ‘don’t eat meat on Fridays’. And so to this day some churches still teach that people shouldn’t eat meat on Fridays.
And so the original spiritual discipline of fasting – of not eating at all on a given day in order to remember the hungry – in our day has become… the tradition of having Fish Frys on Fridays!
Now don’t get me wrong – I LOVE a good fish fry! But there’s a problem (1) if eating fish on Fridays becomes a rule, something people are told God requires, because nowhere in the Bible does it say “go thou and eat fish on Friday.” (2) Fasting in the Bible has to do with our relationship with God, not our relationship with food. It has to do with sharing the experience of the hungry, and praying for the hungry, and giving so that hungry people can eat. Fish frys don’t do this – unless we find some way to, at the same time, remember the poor and the hungry.
Bottom line, there’s a difference between human tradition and God’s commands. And we need to be careful not to get trapped by tradition and dragged off course.
The fourth thing Paul mentions is elemental spirits. This is kind of hard to define; it has to do with the fact that there is more to the universe – and more to our world – than just what we can see and touch and measure. The Kingdom of God, for example, is not something we can see right now, but it exists. Generally speaking we don’t see angels, but they exist. Powers for good and powers for evil exist. The spiritual world is real.
This is why scripture warns us not to do things like going to fortune-tellers or palm-readers, or taking part in séances or dabbling in witchcraft. As Christians we know God is in charge. God is who we turn to when we’re in trouble or need advice. To turn in any other direction is to turn away from God. That’s why the First Commandment is “thou shalt have no other gods but me”. We have one God, the true and living God, and that’s all we need.
Paul goes on to say in verse 10, “Jesus is the head of all rulers and authorities.” Jesus is not just some power or force. Jesus has disarmed the spiritual powers, Paul says, “making a show of them.” Jesus Christ is the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the Power of powers. Paul adds, “we are together in Christ… we are made alive together with him.” “Don’t let anyone rob you of your prize!”
And with these words Paul then proclaims our freedom in Christ. He says we have been buried together with Jesus in baptism, raised through faith in the power of God who raised Jesus from the dead. We, who were dead in our sins, God made alive through Jesus. “Therefore,” Paul says, “let no one pass judgement on you” with regard to traditions or spiritual practices. Let nothing take you captive. Hold onto Jesus who is above all, the head of the body, who brings all the parts of the body together.
This is Kingdom living. We trust God, for all that we need, for all that we do, and for the life to come, because Jesus has gone before us and opened the way.
So what does this all mean to us in practical terms? In spite of Paul’s deep theology, his conclusion is pretty straightforward: every person has a choice. Will we invest our lives, our time and our energy, in the kingdom of this world, or in the Kingdom of God? Will we follow the powers of this world and submit to them? Or will we follow Jesus and submit to him?
Jesus said, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” No earthly power ever said that (or if they did they were lying!)
Where it comes to citizenship in the Kingdom of God, or citizenship in the kingdom of this world, we cannot hold dual citizenships. Either we are citizens of God’s kingdom and just visiting this world; or we are citizens of this world and just catching a glimpse of God’s kingdom from a distance. We can’t be dedicated to both at the same time. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve both God and mammon.” (Matt 6:24)
So the bottom line of Paul’s teaching for today is that we live in a place and a time where two kingdoms are in conflict. The kingdom of this world is passing away. The Kingdom of God is about to come in. That’s why Jesus preached, through all the gospels, “the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news!” That was his message, over and over. Change direction and head for the Kingdom of God.
So which kingdom will we choose? Which power will we serve? If anyone here has not made that decision yet: don’t wait any longer. The Kingdom of God is at hand. And Jesus is calling you.
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church 7/24/16