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Sermon for Ordinary Time, Colossians 2:6-15
Fear is powerful. In a dark and seemingly unforgiving world, we experience it as one, if not the, most powerful of emotions. Yet, St. Paul’s message, the gospel of our salvation, mean we need never fear again. Paul continues to urge the Colossian church to reject the teachings that have been making their way into their midst, and to hold fast to the teachings he and the other apostles have handed down to them from Christ. Central to this is the fact of Christ being the very image of God, whose crucifixion accomplished our redemption, whose resurrection accomplished ours, and who is the ruler of all things.
His appeal continues here, where he says, “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” That is a tall order. In a world so violent, dark, and vicious, how can we possibly be established in faith, and abounding in thanksgiving?
This appeal is rooted in two key points in this section, two historical and theological facts that make it possible for us to rejoice even in the terrible circumstances of our world: 1, That we are alive through our union to Christ, 2, because he is the ruler of the cosmos.
Paul urges the church to resist being taken captive to human philosophies and traditions that lead away from the gospel, so that they can receive and embrace the philosophy and traditions of Christ handed down by the apostles; philosophy and tradition are not wrong, but those which lead away from the gospel are. He also speaks of being led astray by the “elemental powers of the universe”; this is a direct concern of the Colossians, and the false teaching they have been hearing.
In the ancient world, and specifically in the teachings circulating around the Colossian church, there was a belief in “elemental powers”; in their view of the world, there were many powers under God, swirling in the space between earth and heaven, governing nations and seasons and all the world. These powers needed to be appeased, kept calm, or at very least, kept from being annoyed with you. Many of the false practices likely being taught in Colossae were based on keeping these elemental powers happy. If you are familiar with the comic Sandman, it is a decent analogy; abstract concepts like dreams, despair, death all have anthropomorphizations, human-like embodiments of these ideas. That’s essentially what the Colossians are afraid of, these pagan ideas of embodied concepts ruling the cosmos.
But the Colossians need not worry about fearing these powers they once believed in. For they were united to Christ, coming to fullness in him, in whom the fullness of deity dwells. What does this have to do with us? Lest we think this idea of elemental powers is beyond us sophisticated moderns, I think we have our own version; what are you afraid of? What “powers” of this world? We give deference to wealth and we fear poverty. We expect that political power can and will harm us, or exploit us. Disease is now a very vivid danger for all of us. The heat from our changing climate is creating massive environmental problems. Nations, social expectations, environment, pandemics; these are basically the same primal fears, in modern expression. What gives us the strength not to fear these powers, the same as the Colossians were not to fear them? Our union with Christ who rules these powers.
Paul tells us we need not be circumcised, a bloody, ancient practice just for males to indicate that they were included in the covenant of God with humanity. Because, we are baptized into Christ, a spiritual circumcision that unites us with Jesus, so that we actually go down with him in his crucifixion, his death, but also rise with him into life. Circumcision was an ancient practice that represented separating sin from oneself, a sign of cutting away that which separated you from God. Christ’s crucifixion was the final fulfillment of circumcision, itself a complete “cutting off” from God. But because of the finality of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross, his blood ending the need for our blood, we now receive a bloodless sign, going down into his crucifixion in baptism, and coming up to share in his resurrection. John Chrysostom puts it well, “Circumcision is no longer performed with a knife, Paul says, but in Christ himself; for no human hand circumcises…but the Spirit. The Spirit circumcises the whole man, not simply a part…When and where? In baptism.” In baptism, the imagery is meant to convey this; we go down into the water, as into death, and up out of the water, as of those rising from death.
So we are united to Jesus Christ, one with him, part of his body, and because of that, we do not need to fear those elemental powers, because he has already defeated them. “And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”
We humans, without Christ, are helpless victims in a hostile cosmos. The universe, apart from Christ, is hostile, impersonal, and we are left to devour to survive. But the gospel as Paul portrays it to the Colossians is a message of hope in our frustration and despair. We are united to Christ, and his victory is our victory; he has disarmed and rules over the “powers,” and we can enjoy perfect freedom. Nothing can separate us from Christ, and so nothing can truly have any power over us.
I will end with the words of F.F. Bruce: “The redemption that is in Christ Jesus is a cosmic redemption; its healing virtue streams out to the farthest bounds of creation. But it is a personal and particular redemption too: the conqueror who is enthroned at God’s right hand, supreme above the universe and filling it with his presence, is at the same time enthroned as king in each believer’s heart…And here and now those who have already entered into that liberty may share Paul’s persuasion ‘that neither death nor life…nor principalities…nor powers…nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen.
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