When I write a letter or newsy email to a friend or family member, I often spend more time at the beginning of the letter with lengthy highlights and then at the end scramble to include all the little tidbits of news. At some point I realize that if I keep going, the missive will be too long to digest in one sitting! I get the feeling that Paul was in that mode with this last passage of his letter to the Colossians:

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.”

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

“Now that we’ve got the doctrine down, and its ethical requirements are laid out, here are a few housekeeping items before I close.” What does Paul include?

Relationship cementing. Appreciate what Epaphras has done for you and your neighbors. I have tagged Luke and Demas in this letter. I see the woman leading a house church—give her a good word! Keep me in your prayers.

Instruction. Share my greetings with your neighbors. Exchange letters with the Laodiceans. Archippus, finish what you started of the Lord’s commission.

Final greeting. Grace be with you! It is I who greet you.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians has contained treatise and testimony. Here it also includes what we used to call touchy-feelies . . . Colossians has everything from lofty doctrinal statements on Christology to thoughts on “things above” as a spiritual discipline. What I find encouraging, challenging, and inspiring is this: as good a thinker and ethicist as he is, Paul loves the recipients of this letter. The relationships that exist between him, his protégés, and the churches of the area, are dear to him. This letter carries the affection of a spiritual mentor to his apprentices, and the hopes that all would carry on in the faith despite his incarceration.

His hope for them—and my hope for my readers now—is that we may stand mature and fully assured in everything that God wills. This means, I think, that we continue to grow in our faith toward spiritual adulthood and that we rest assured that God is working out his purposes. We have not “arrived” anywhere but into the presence of our heavenly Father. There is still the completion of what God has started in our lives to aim toward.

It strikes me that this process of transformation—sanctification Paul calls it elsewhere— would be more steady and fruitful if we were to share Paul’s writings with one another. I imagine the Laodecians reading the letter they got from Paul out loud to the assembly of Colossian Christians, and visa versa: comparing notes, holding one another accountable, thinking about how it applies to the current situation or tomorrow’s demands.

I started this Bible study with the de-churched in mind, believers who nonetheless are out of church fellowship for the time being, discouraged with “organized religion” or otherwise alienated from congregations. This word is for you: the Word of God will dwell more richly in your heart if you share it with others, and, in the bond of the Spirit, hold one another up in prayer. There is a big hole not only in our experience but in our obedience if we isolate ourselves from other Christians. Yes, it can be a drag sometimes when our brothers and sisters in the Lord get side-tracked or we perceive a level of hypocrisy at work. [As one of my friends used to say to people with this objection, “Well, I am aware that some of our folks are hypocrites, but there’s always room for one more!”] But if Paul has taught us anything, it is that Christ is Lord and his supremacy is a reality that affects our life in community. We cannot fully live in submission to Christ without also living in submission within his Body the church.

With that, we will be moving on in the coming days to new topics related to current events in the church and the world. May the Lord bless you for sticking with this study, and I do hope to hear of some of the fruit it might have ripened in your life or in the lives of others.

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A few years ago, in response to the drought conditions then (a chronic problem in California), we re-landscaped our front yard. It involved replacing our driveway and putting in a new walkway directly from the street to our front door. Things were torn up for weeks, but on concrete pouring day everybody’s spirits lifted. A crew of skilled laborers congregated in the middle of the now excavated dirt pathway for the 7 a.m. briefing. With water and tools at the ready, the team turned to welcome the big cement truck of your dreams, and an amazing procedure unfolded.

Given wet cement, the crew had to work quickly and in a coordinated fashion. The job was to direct the heavy flow into waiting forms, level the cement, and smooth it within the allotted time. We watched from the window above, with goofy grins on our faces. One of the reasons we were so enthralled was that each and every one of the crew members looked as though he were back in his boyhood playing in a sandbox. The men were having fun, even as they executed the plan with great skill. They were “all in,” fully committed to the task, and when it was completed, they shared our delight at how well it had turned out.

In contrast, can’t you tell when a person is just going through the motions at the job? What gives them away is the absence of any sense of joy or meaning in what they do. Sometimes you can detect anger, discontent, or mistrust that shows up at the oddest moments. It makes you wonder if the worker is having a problem with his or her employer or co-worker. It has been my observation over the years that a person who is not—in some way, at some phase—enjoying the job is not going to do as good a job as someone who is all in.

We were all designed to work, even in Eden, even before the Fall. Adam and Eve were given responsibilities to carry out as stewards of the marvelous creation God had put around them. Any notion that there is no effort in heaven is mistaken, for John records in the Revelation (the last book of the Bible) that all those in God’s presence shall reign with him over the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 5:10). So work is supposed to be a good thing, a fulfilling activity that bears fruit and offers an opportunity to worship God with one’s labor.

But as we all know, things took a bad turn in the Garden, and hard labor and fruitless toil would become part of the human experience (Genesis 3:17b-19). Not only would the work be difficult, the relationships in the workplace would be twisted by exploitation and injustice. The epitome of this arrangement is slavery, which was present in the Greco-Roman world at the time of Paul’s writing. Slaves were often kept in inhumane circumstances, expected to labor relentlessly, and were abused—all because they were not viewed as human but as property.

In Paul’s worldview, even these people—slaves and their owners—were included in the Colossians 3 instruction to show kindness, compassion, meekness, and humility, as befits the household of the faith. And just like the other power-balancing teaching for husband and wife, and parents and children, it is now applied in the owner and slave scenario:

22Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything;
and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor,
but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.
23Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart,
as working for the Lord, not for men, 24since you know that
you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.
It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
25Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong,
and there is no favoritism.
1Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair,
because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

Pow!

Slaves, do not work just to appease your master, but work heartily for your true Master, the Lord! Though you are not heirs in this life, rejoice that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward for your faithful service now.

Masters, enough of this abuse, favoritism, and injustice! It is time to treat those working for you with righteousness and fairness. If you have trouble with the concept, remember this: you have a Master in heaven who will treat you as you have treated others!

So once again, Paul reminds his readers that nobody can truly flourish unless they understand their position as one in complete submission to and dependence upon Jesus Christ the Lord. We, too, must remember that we—as workers—are not just employed by a human being but are responsible to God for honest labor. Just knowing that what we are doing is appreciated by God goes a long way to imparting meaning to our work, with joy as a result. As employers, we are required to do our work as though Jesus were our boss, too, with the expectation that he is looking for evidence of God’s justice and righteousness in the way we communicate with, direct, and compensate those who work for us.

So, regardless of our station in life, let us all serve the Lord Christ in all that we do. It will demonstrate a world of difference to those who only observe the church from afar. Let us show our culture the difference between the power struggles and dehumanizing relationships it experiences and the life-giving interdependence that is characteristic of the Body of Christ.

 

20Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.
21Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.

Remembering that these two verses follow Paul’s exhortation to the church as a whole, it is a wonderful thing the apostle recognizes: children are a part of the church family, too. Previously, husband and wife were urged to demonstrate to each other the quality of relationship that is to pervade the church. Here, too, we see that children (and their parents) have a special responsibility even as they are given the privilege of participation in the household of faith.

Children are to accept the discipline of their parents, to submit to the rules of the home, show respect to their elders, and otherwise demonstrate full participation in the household’s order. “Honor your father and your mother” is the first commandment of the ten addressed to human relationships, suggesting its fundamental importance.

There’s a tender place in my heart for children, especially right now, because we are about to welcome a new baby into the family. Any day now, my blog will go silent for a time so that I can settle into the role of Nana. In the meantime, my husband and I have been remembering what it was like to become parents for the first time, with all the hopes and dreams parents have for their children.

Our granddaughter, of course, will be one of God’s wonders in the world. She will be a source of delight and fascination, particularly as she grows physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually. As she develops, so will her sense of self and personal power. This is all natural and expected and necessary. What is not desirable is for her to become a tyrant. Try as she might, in some years harder than others, she will learn that she is not the center of the universe.

Depending on their personalities, expectations, and parenting styles, Dad and/or Mom might be tempted to believe that they are the center of the universe. But this too is way off-center. Ultimately, the purpose of teaching children to obey their parents is to prepare them to give that kind of submission to God. The best instructors for this transfer of allegiance are those who themselves have given their hearts and wills to God, that is, parents who are submitted to the Lordship of Christ.

So Paul instructs kids to obey their parents in all areas of life, for this pleases the Lord (who is watching even when parents aren’t). In general, a child flourishes if she lets her family shape her and help her please God. [Paul’s great assumption here is that these families are within the church family, operating in the spirit of compassion, kindness, meekness, humility, and love—Colossians 3:12ff.] But Paul also teaches parents—in that same spirit—to restrain themselves from “embittering” their children—more literally, to avoid provoking their children, which can have the result of discouraging them and demotivating their progress. One can only assume that Paul was speaking to the tendency of parents (fathers?) to come down hard on their children, make their parental love conditioned on good childhood behavior, or be domineering and controlling. In just a few words, Paul grabs hold of the essence of parenting: be firm but loving, and point your children to Jesus.

Parents, you are the grown-ups in the family, and from that position you are representing Christ to your children by being mature, selfless, loving, generous, God-fearing, forgiving, and clear with them. Children, while you are not the center of the universe, your parents love you and are providing for your well-being, sometimes at great personal sacrifice. It’s good to be thankful for them when you can, respectful of them on the tough days, and ready to hear them when they tell you how much Jesus loves you. In this way, both parents and children are accountable to God and—in a real sense—to one another. If humility is part of a family’s demeanor, then parents and children can learn from each other as they adopt faith as a way of life.

 

As we come to the Apostle Paul’s very brief instruction on marriage, there is one point to be made in general. Whatever Paul has been teaching up to this point has direct application at home as well as the church. In one sense, the household is a mini-church, a community of believers centered on Jesus Christ. I picture this centeredness with the following analogy:

Imagine a Chinese acrobat who spins a plate on the tip of a pole. Imagine that pole extending all the way through the plate to become the axis around which it spins. Think about your plate—your life and all its various relationships and activities—as spinning around the center axis, which is Jesus Christ. All analogies have their limitations, and this one does, too. But the idea is that as long as Jesus is at the center, everything else holds together around it by centripetal force.

As long as all other relationships and activities revolve around Jesus, they find order and balance. Marriage is one of those relationships, that, when ordered around Jesus Christ at the center, holds together in a God-honoring way.

Here in Colossians, from verse 12 on, Paul has been giving a positive exhortation to the church on how to be with one another in Christian community. In similar passages, like Ephesians 5, Paul uses the same pattern:

21Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,
22wives, to your husbands as you are to the Lord.
23For the husband is the head of the wife
just as Christ is the head of the church,
the body of which he is the Savior.
24Just as the church is subject to Christ,
so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church
and gave himself up for her, . . .

He exhorts the church community to live in mutual submission to one another, under the authority of Jesus Christ. [In the Colossians context, this is described in terms of compassion, kindness, love, meekness, humility, faithfulness, and forgiveness.] With this as a backdrop, wives are to submit to their husbands as they are submitted to Christ. Their husbands are not Jesus Christ, for they, too are to be subject to him out of reverence for his Lordship. So when, in Colossians 3, Paul writes: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord,” he is applying specifically to the household what is required of the whole Christian community.

This teaching speaks to reality with a biblical understanding of human nature and the stresses possible within a marriage, since Adam and Eve in the Garden. Remember, after their sin against God, God described the kind of life they were going to have together: [to the woman]

“ . . . yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16b)

The word translated “desire” in this context means “fixation,” or “longing,” or even “with an eye to devouring.” The idea is that wife Eve is likely to find ways to manipulate husband Adam in order to get what she really wants. I know I am treading on sketchy ground here with my sisters in the faith, as if we are not aware of how we do this. But people who, by station or rank, do not have imputed power nevertheless attempt to gain power over another by manipulating situations to land in their favor. It’s called “reverse psychology,” and we even use it with our two-year-olds who are in their self-defining period. Given a choice, they will not do what Mom wants, but anything else just to assert their independence, right? It is a smart mother who can use this fact of life to best advantage. Yep, I did it myself. And wives are capable of doing this to their husbands as well.

But Paul says, no, in Christ there is a better way that is based on mutual submission. Do not be afraid to fully invest yourself in aligning your life with your husband’s! With Christ at the center of your life (and, we hope, in the life of your spouse), keep an eye on the Lord Jesus and act unselfconsciously and generously toward your husband.

Some of you are protesting, because your husband is abusive, absent, or adulterous. Are you to submit even to him? No, of course not. Paul conditions his instruction with “as is fitting in the Lord,” and I think that covers a lot of this ground. Unlike some of the early teachers of hierarchy, who used top-down dominance to subjugate and control women, the Apostle Paul—in the Spirit of Christ, I am sure—is not requiring women to be victimized by their husbands in order to show biblical submission. If it’s not mutual, it’s not biblical or “fitting in the Lord.” This will become more clear when our discussion extends to Paul’s instruction to husbands.

 

I have been reading Marilynne Robinson’s novel Lila this week, and am taken in by the character development of the girl without a home. Not wanting to spoil the book for anyone who has not read it (and I’m not even finished with it myself), let us just note a habit Lila started when she landed in Gilead. She pinched a pew Bible in order to gain some insight into what the preacher was talking about. To achieve her other goal—increased literacy—she opened the book at the beginning (Genesis 1) and started writing out verses one at a time, ten times each. It helped her ponder the texts and enter them into her memory for referral later.

On my piano rack stand several pieces of vocal music that must be memorized for a choral concert tour we will be making this summer. My struggle has included listening to the pieces many times, plunking them out on the piano, singing my part frequently, but they are still not memorized. My next step is the Lila method: write out the words, find the patterns, note the changes from verse to verse, and otherwise parse the lyrics in order to get them into my brain. Next will be loading the pieces onto my iPhone so I can practice holding my own with the rest of the choral parts.

Early in my walk with Christ, I memorized one hundred Bible verses and their Scripture references. Memorizing was so much easier then! But it always included writing them out (by hand) a few times, just like Lila did, then saying them out loud. Exposure to them through reading, writing, and speaking them finally enabled me to “hear” them. By this rather pedantic method, I succeeded in storing those verses into my mind and heart, where they reside and are available anytime they are needed, even today.

Of course, in the meantime, lots of homework has supported this early effort. I have read the entire Bible (more than once), studied theological concepts, outlined entire books of the Bible, and explored implications for everyday life. In other words, Scripture has taken root in me over the decades I have been known by Christ.

The Apostle Paul’s lengthy exhortation to the Colossians continues with the urging:

16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly;
teach and admonish one another in all wisdom;
and with gratitude in your hearts
sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.

Paul knows the importance of keeping a firm grip on the Word of God. Something happens internally when we set something to memory. It becomes ours. It speaks to us when we are not expecting to hear from it again. We find ourselves making connections between something happening and what we have remembered. This has been my experience of internalizing the Scriptures. Paul calls it “letting the word dwell in you richly.” Namely, allowing the Word of God to abide in both mind and heart so that and until it bears fruit within. But he goes on to say that this Word is something that we, together as the Body of Christ, share with one another through teaching and correction. When the Word dwells in us, and particularly in our Christian community, in our worship and study together, we become a people of the Word. It isn’t only an individualistic thing, to know the Word of God, it is also a corporate thing to know, experience, taste, and handle the Word of truth among fellow believers.

And a joyous, comforting thing it is. Last week I had the privilege of spending an evening with several of Steve Hayner’s friends, who shared poignantly of walking alongside him on the journey toward heaven. Scriptures just “popped” for them. Old, familiar verses that had brought so much solace in life were now reapplied and richly expanded at the moment of death. I will never read Psalm 116 the same again.

Years ago, the wife of a dying man in his 90s called me for a visit. He was a retired pastor who had been in perfect health until just a few months before his death. My husband and I called on him in the hospital at a time when he was feeling discouraged and down, desiring more than anything for the Lord to take him home. He had been unable to read for several weeks, which further depressed him. As he shared this, his wife gently chided him, saying, “But honey, you have so much Scripture memorized, you hardly need to read now.” And then she prompted him with the opening verses of Isaiah 6:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne . . .

He immediately joined in, and before our very eyes he enthusiastically delivered the entire chapter and Isaiah’s call to the prophetic ministry. It was just amazing. He was a different person when he concluded his recitation: encouraged, seeing heaven, awestruck.

There is a man in whom the Word dwelt richly. Is this not an encouragement to all of us to grab hold of portions of Scripture, memorize them and carry them with us? There will come a day for us, too, when we will be unable to read. But with the Holy Spirit, who Jesus promised would help us remember everything he taught us (John 14:25ff), we can “eat this book” (Revelation 10:9, The Message). Lent is a perfect time to get going on this, don’t you think?

 

Spring training has started! The Giants are warming up their pitchers and catchers in Scottsdale, AZ, this week. Assessments are being made, recovery from injuries celebrated, starting lineups tried on for size. Next week the full team checks in. As of today, Major League Baseball has exactly forty-five days until opening day, April 6.

What we do not hear much about, however, are the umpires. The roster of 68 umpires qualified for “the Majors” is a traveling band of baseball experts. Their calls are sacred—even with official reviews, also made by umpires—and they bear an authority that elicits respect from little kids all the way up to grannies watching the game on TV. [Last June, a fascinating article told the story of a Christian ministry to umpires. The human side of their role—schedules, travel, and stresses of the game—awakens the compassion of a pastor called to minister to them.]

I bring up umpires, because there is a word in today’s Colossians 3 passage that hints of umpiring.

15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,
to which indeed you were called in the one body.

The word is “rule,” and it connotes the overarching judgment and voice of authority, such as an umpire would administer through a game. What is it that is to rule, or umpire, your hearts? The Peace of Christ! So let’s explore this a bit.

When we hear “the peace of Christ,” we are probably more inclined to think of it in terms of personal, inner reassurance and contentment. This is the focus of Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians (4:4–7). There, he talks about trading in worry for prayerful petition and thanksgiving, the result being peace in one’s heart. So this individual, inner peace is certainly legitimate and necessary in the Christian life.

However, in Colossians, Paul takes a different spin by indicating that this peace is a quality to which we “were called in one body.” This points to a corporate condition of peace, relational peace, that is to guide and adjudicate our dealings with each other. Keeping the peace is a virtue in Paul’s playbook.

Thinking about my fellow Presbyterians for a moment, the peace in our ranks has been shaken greatly in the last twenty-five years or so. Discontent and dysfunction have disturbed the peace, unity, and purity of our denomination for almost as long as I have been a member. My desire is not to replay any of those fights, but only to illustrate that peace is truly a precious commodity in short supply. And yet, we are called to it. So how do we manage it?

The conditions in which the peace of Christ can flourish include the following:

  1. single minded and pure hearted recognition of the Lordship of Jesus Christ

  2. an agreement (yes, “being of one mind”) about the essentials of the Christian faith

  3. the exercise of the fruit of the Spirit in community with fellow believers, with love as the tie that binds all others together

  4. in the reality of conflict, discernment of those matters that fall under #1 or #2 above and dealing with them clearly and thoroughly in a timely fashion.

Speaking only for the conflicts of which I have been a part, we have failed to realize the peace of Christ, even yet, because

  1. there is still plenty of human competition for the role of “Lord” in the church

  2. we cannot state and therefore cannot agree on what is essential for Presbyterians to believe in order to remain within the fellowship

  3. we have betrayed one another’s trust and given confusing messages about loving one another

  4. our dealings with the issues at hand have dragged on now for decades, have been ecclesiastically clumsy, and have created mixed messages for the church and the world. The solution currently under scrutiny by the presbyteries will only confuse matters more, for what its new statement about marriage does not say, as much as what it does say.

So I do not hold out much hope that “the peace of Christ” will reign in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) anytime soon. It makes me very sad to say so.

It reminds me of the prophet Ezekiel’s indictment against Israel, which included, “They have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace” (cf. Ezek. 13:8-16). Lest we join the prophets who are making statements simply out of their own imagination, leading to dead-ends, let us submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, hold fast to the faith, and bear with one another out of love for Christ.

For those done with church, this passage probably comes across as a lament. If only the church had let peace rule, we say . . . so now what do we do to promote the peace of Christ, to live in it in community? We are going to have to listen more, talk less, pray more, walk alongside, anguish in the Spirit and long for purity that is wrought by God’s thorough work in our souls and in our fellowships. A tough call, and we may not be up to it yet. But still, we must affirm that Paul’s admonition is on target: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.”

Finally I come ‘round again to the letter of Paul to the Colossians. I left off ten days ago with a general reflection on the idea that we are to clothe ourselves in Christ and his character. This week, I would like to use Paul’s list of admonitions as a springboard for discussion of the sorts of changes you anticipate Jesus might accomplish in you in today’s world. We’ll take this verse by verse through Colossians 3:17.

Though it may seem like a thought coming from left field, I start by expressing my outrage at the anti-Semitism that is rising in Europe. Prejudice is defined as preconceived bias against someone or a group, based on misunderstanding, misconception, or incomplete knowledge. For whatever reason—and I admit utter bafflement—France, for example, is becoming inhospitable to Jews. But please hear me: there is nothing in Christianity to justify hostility towards the Jewish people. If one points a suspicious or accusatory finger towards a Jew, one must point that same finger towards oneself, for we have all sinned—Israeli, Palestinian, Parisian, Jew, Gentile— and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We all like sheep have gone astray (Isaiah 53:6). We have all been alienated from our Creator, and our sin resulted in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Jesus died at the hands of Romans (pagan Gentiles) and Jews who provoked them —no denying this fact of history. But we all bear a common burden of sin guilt. Reception of Christ’s grace and forgiveness does not make a person superior or in any way justify contempt for those who have not received this gift. We are called to treat one other as kin (in the sense that our faith and humanity is grounded in the same Old Testament roots), even as we await the coming return of Jesus Christ to make clear his identity as the Messiah and invite everyone to believe and receive him.

Do hear how Paul begins his admonition:

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness,
humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).

So when Paul calls us “chosen ones,” we stand in spiritual solidarity with the people that were the first to live in covenant with Almighty God. Identifying believers as chosen ones, holy and beloved, puts Gentile Christians like the Colossians squarely in the circle of the covenant between God and the Chosen People. In our generation, it is a great honor to be numbered in the family of faith that started with Abraham. This honor is humbling and dangerous in certain parts of the world (and our country and neighborhoods) where Christians stand up against prejudice. We Christians, like Abraham, were called out of a worldly life into fellowship with the living God (hence, we are holy). We were embraced in mercy by our heavenly Father (hence, we are beloved). We were grafted into the covenant by Jesus’ death on the cross, allowing us to receive the same covenant blessing (hence, we are chosen). You can read more about that in Ephesians 2:11–22.

And since we are chosen, we are to clothe ourselves with virtues that should lead to gracious tolerance of others (more on that as Colossians 3 unfolds). Those virtues would include patience with others’ foibles or cultural practices, humility before God and one another, and costly kindness extended to those who need it.

Questions for your reflection:

  1. Watch this brief video. How would you feel about being this chap’s bodyguard?

  2. Can you cite any instance of anti-Semitism in your neighborhood or city? What can you do to call this out or model Christ’s way?

  3. If you were “clothed with compassion, humility, etc…” how would your behavior change in response to local or common vexations?

  4. Sojourners done with church: is there any element of prejudice embedded in your reaction against the church? How can you show kindness, patience, humility, or compassion to those who have disappointed, disillusioned, or injured you?

 

A few months ago, Andy and I spent the day with a group of singers who are going on tour in June and willing to take on a couple of oldsters as ringers. At the end of a very hard-working day, we gathered at a home for dinner. The banter and cultural references were beyond me half the time; it was the sort of party that makes you say, “I really should get out more.”

Anyway, at some point during the festivities, one young woman said to someone who had been teasing, “Zorba, you are dead to me.” At the time, I recognized it as a put-down like “Get out of my face,” but its hyperbole got me wondering where those strong words came from.

One reference online points to “Old English” as the source, claiming the saying was “used to announce that the person in question was disowned or would never be ‘seen, or heard’ again.” Okay, that much is obvious, but there are not too many more clues to go by historically.

I would love to hear Dan Jurafsky, the author of The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, do a study similar to the one he launched about “tomato catsup.” Why, he asked, does every single bottle of catsup on our market shelves say “tomato catsup”? Like, is there another kind? But I digress.

The statement, “you are dead to me” begs for an historical, linguistic study. But here’s the basic meaning, I think: it is an expression of complete rejection to the point of denying the existence of the person. In the lighter moment cited above, it was used to express disinterest or social push-back. But really, on its face it is the ultimate dismissal or disowning.

I use this story to highlight the major point of the Apostle Paul’s next admonition in his letter to the Colossians:

5Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly (cf. 3:2):
fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).
6On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.
7These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.
8But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander,
and abusive language from your mouth.
9Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self
with its practices 10and have clothed yourselves with the new self,
which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.
11In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew,
circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free;
but Christ is all and in all!

We are not generally comfortable with the idea that something in our personality or practice should be “put to death.” But Paul is using that extreme language to match the urgency of the task. Hanging onto, or keeping alive, practices and attitudes that are sinful is a life and death matter.

If we have died with Christ in order to live in him, what is it that dies? We are still here, living and breathing and talking, but something within our realm of choice must die. Paul lays it out right here, pointing to the things we do, think, say, believe, or feel that are contrary to God’s way. Here’s how I read this:

Fornication (sexual activity outside of marriage), you are dead to me.

Impurity (uncleanness), you are dead to me.

Passion (troubled emotion, “drama”), you are dead to me.

Evil desire (lust), you are dead to me.

Greed (covetousness), you are dead to me.

On account of these things God’s wrath is coming on the disobedient. In other words, the fact that these sins exist is reason for God’s holy and purifying wrath to come upon the unclean. And just in case we think it is only “they” who sinned like this, Paul reminds his readers that we too followed in these ways in our former days. So now, in addition to wanting what we cannot have (the general description of those first-named sins), we are also instructed to forsake several others:

Anger and wrath, you are dead to me.

Malice and slander, you are dead to me.

Abusive language and lying, you are dead to me.

That old life and the old self with its unholy practices, you are dead to me.

Toward the end of this passage Paul points to the alternative, which we will unpack in the next study. In the meantime, friends and sojourners, these things that are “dead to me” are deadly sins, namely, they will kill your spirit if you let them get the upper hand. For those who have perhaps said, “Church, you are dead to me,” my hope is that, before pronouncing that word upon the Body of Christ, you would be able to look within and confess those attitudes and actions only you and God know about. Making this confession may help, when later we want to see the Church in a new light and our involvement in it with new purpose.

Start your work in our spirits, Lord; help us die to sin and live unto you. Amen.

 

 

Last Saturday, my covenant group friend Steve Hayner died in the Lord. As his wife Sharol put it, his life was swallowed up in LIFE. I along with thousands of readers of his CaringBridge site, colleagues there at Columbia Seminary, and family and friends whose lives he touched in decades’ time, were aware that his homegoing was imminent. He was sick only about ten months, from diagnosis of his pancreatic cancer to the end of his life on earth. Occasionally he would share what was on his heart and mind as this process took its turns and twists. We all stand privileged to have witnessed his journey home.

As I learned a year ago, one has the privilege of choosing what one thinks about. Steve chose to focus on finding joy each day and seeking his daily calling, regardless of what his external circumstances would permit him to do. I last talked with Steve and Sharol by Skype in October, when jury duty prevented me from visiting in person that week. Clearly, Steve was choosing to think about what was happening to him with eyes wide open, heart trusting God, and a joyful fearlessness that was so characteristic of his spirit.

I thank God for Steve, for his incredible example of humility, servanthood, brilliance, and purpose. I feel for Sharol and the loss she and her family have now experienced, but even she knows that having died to self, Steve’s life was hidden with Christ in God, and he is alright.

In this life, God has given us the power to choose the focus of our thoughts. We can choose fear, and the content of our thoughts roam around a dark closet of “what ifs” and worst case scenarios. We can choose worry, and the imagination unleashes a horror movie of losses. We can choose anger, and the blood boils at the injustice of it all. Or we can choose godly trust, and surrender ourselves to the Lord who has our days numbered and who anticipates our homecoming even more than we do.

So the question we have to ask is this: how are we to think? Where are our thoughts best lodged, for now, this side of heaven? What should be the focus of our lives? The Apostle Paul begins chapter 3 of his letter to the Colossians with a word from the Lord on this subject:

1So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things
that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,
3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
4When Christ who is your life is revealed,
then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Remember the context: Paul in chapter 2 has been making the case that the Colossians were in danger of a spiritual derailment of sorts. It sounds like they had been harassed by troublemakers trying to convince them that legalism is necessary for their acceptance by God. But if they are in Christ, Paul claims, they are united with the Lord of the Universe, the only One who is himself God. They do not need any external props to hold up their faith, to appease God, or to prove themselves worthy of God’s salvation. They do not need empty philosophies that are deceptively promising but ultimately dead-ends spiritually. Going after mere human wisdom will not produce any gain at all.

Paul makes the great pivot with the word “So.” If you have been raised with Christ then put your mind, your heart, your yearning, your desire in the direction of the throne of grace! Think about what is in God’s realm rather than get bogged down in the weightiness of earth. If you do this, Paul says, you will discover your safety in Christ, the one who brought you to life by the work and word of God. “When Christ who is your life” is revealed, then glory (God’s light and power) will also be revealed. Wow.

This passage opens up a bunch of questions, which I will ask you rather than answer myself. We do not want to misunderstand Paul’s main message here.

  1. Have you been raised with Christ? Paul develops this image elsewhere in his writings, so you can check it out here: Romans 6:4; Ephesians 2:6

  2. If so, then what are your choices about your focus, between “things that are above” and “things that are on earth.” Think concretely here. What would you benefit by focusing on those “above” things in your life today?

  3. Paul is speaking to living and breathing Colossians, so what does he mean when he says, “For you have died, and your life is hidden . . .” What practical implication does this reality have for you as a Christian believer?

  4. And a question for a later day: does choosing to think about things that are above preclude us from really seeing and responding to the needs, the pains, the death, the terrorism, the exploitation, the war, the injustice, the addiction, the violence, or the depravity all around us on earth? How do we continue to seek the things that are above while at the same time trying to be good citizens of the world? I actually think Steve Hayner found the fulcrum of these two polarities. As you read the many tributes being published right now (and undoubtedly attested to at his memorial service on February 23), see if you can point to evidence of his grasp of “above” and “on earth.”

After a sugar fast during the month of January and a rather decadent self-indulgence on Super Bowl Sunday, today began my annual discipline of calorie cutting. I have had a life-long preoccupation with food, which I do not consider a virtue but more a matter of childhood conditioning. As Erma Bombeck wrote once, “I am not a glutton; I am an explorer of food.” No, honestly, I really am a glutton and I am not proud of it and pray regularly for deliverance from this one of the seven deadly sins. In the meantime, I am vulnerable to the promises of this diet or that cleanse; and now that I have had cancer, the cancer-prevention diets beckon as well.

I suppose everyone has that point of vulnerability, into which promises of health or even salvation are poured. If we just cultivate this habit or deny ourselves that food group, we will be happier and God will love us more. Or worse, God only saves vegetarians or those who keep kosher. Anyone who is insecure about his or her standing with God can be swayed into believing that salvation is found in Jesus Christ + {you fill in the blank}.

This is not a new problem in the spiritual life. From the first century, in western Turkey, among Gentile believers in Jesus Christ, people have been harassed by others to think their religious practice is incomplete, uncommitted, or incorrect. In light of what Paul has just written in the previous paragraph, his instruction starting at Colossians 2:16 packs a punch for those tempted to cling to something other than Jesus for their salvation.

16Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. 17These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, 19and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.
20If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, 21“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch.” 22All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. 23These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.

Paul is giving a direct instruction now. To unpack the passage, do a couple of things before reading on:

  1. Go through the complete passage and highlight all the phrases that refer to something Paul is affirming or promoting with his readers.

  2. Go back and underline phrases that indicate what the problems are with the Colossians’ current way of thinking or acting.

  3. What is the underlying problem Paul is pointing out to the Colossians? Considering what the letter has been teaching up to this point, what is Paul suggesting is the solution? [Keep in mind that a direct answer to this question is going to appear in Chapter 3. No cheating! We’re following Paul’s flow here . . .]

  4. Describe any area in your life that is similar to the Colossian issue. What would God be saying to you by way of correction, redirection, or hope?

To sojourners I make the following application. See if it fits. I can only speak from direct experience within the PC(USA), but I have heard it said in presbytery pulpits and General Assembly debates that leaving the PC(USA) endangers a person’s spiritual position. To leave the church is to leave Christ (or something similar). What strikes me, in light of Colossians 2, is that this misplaced warning really presents a temptation to make the PC(USA) either a replacement for or an addition to the salvation we have in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone.

Hear me when I say that participation in a church family is extremely important. There are so many benefits of communion with the saints that far outweigh the liabilities. But these benefits to not rise to the level of “essential for salvation,” even if I think it might be unwise in the long run to maintain a churchless existence.

To be absent from church is “unfinished business,” but I understand the pains that make such a hiatus necessary. For some of my readers who have been decommissioned or de-churched or are simply done with it, taking a respite for a time of healing can be a good thing. I talked with someone today who went through a period like this and diverted her time and attention to Habitat for Humanity for a season. But she is back at church, preparing for full-time Christian work, and ready to labor within the context of a denomination to pursue Kingdom purposes. Neither she nor I have any illusions of the church’s perfection, and keep its very human flaws in perspective.

So whatever it is that contends for “god” status in your life—food, asceticism, denominational loyalty, picayune legalisms, whatever—what does Paul say to do with that? Forsake it, and turn to Christ, who is wholly trustworthy, whose salvation is complete without add-ons, and whose love for you is unconditional. Grab hold, and grow into him!