Lectionary Reflection—24 July 2016
So live in Christ Jesus the Lord in the same way as you received him. Be rooted and built up in him, be established in faith, and overflow with thanksgiving just as you were taught. See to it that nobody enslaves you with philosophy and foolish deception, which conform to human traditions and the way the world thinks and acts rather than Christ. All the fullness of deity lives in Christ’s body. And you have been filled by him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. You were also circumcised by him. This wasn’t performed by human hands—the whole body was removed through this circumcision by Christ. You were buried with him through baptism and raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead because of the things you’d done wrong and because your body wasn’t circumcised, God made you alive with Christ and forgave all the things you’d done wrong. He destroyed the record of the debt we owed, with its requirements that worked against us. He canceled it by nailing it to the cross. When he disarmed the rulers and authorities, he exposed them to public disgrace by leading them in a triumphal parade.
So don’t let anyone judge you about eating or drinking or about a festival, a new moon observance, or sabbaths. These religious practices are only a shadow of what was coming—the body that cast the shadow is Christ. Don’t let anyone who wants to practice harsh self-denial and worship angels rob you of the prize. They go into detail about what they’ve seen in visions and have become unjustifiably arrogant by their selfish way of thinking. They don’t stay connected to the head. The head nourishes and supports the whole body through the joints and ligaments, so the body grows with a growth that’s from God.
Have you ever had a thought or idea that you felt was, perhaps, a little “out there”? That is, do you ever feel like you’re probably the only one to think of something or see things in a certain way and, if others discovered it, they’d probably laugh at you or try to “bring you back” to where everyone else is? That happens to me sometimes and this passage is one of those times.
In the late ‘90’s, I was invited to speak at a conference on the subject of eschatology (the study of end times). I gave a two part presentation on the time statements of the New Testament and understanding 2 Peter 3. My presentation turned into a paper titled “Time Keeps on Tickin’…”. In it, I discussed the passage above and focused on the word στοιχεῖον (stoicheion), translated in the CEB as “human traditions”. A better translation of stoicheion is “element(s)” (Mounce). My position was (and still is) Paul wasn’t referring to the nature elements of air, earth, fire, and water. No; he was referring to the “elements” of the Old Covenantal system.
Fast forward to just a few years ago. As many of you’re aware, I’m a big fan of N.T. (Tom) Wright and his work. Tom wrote a series of New Testament commentaries titled, “…for Everyone”. The ellipsis indicates the book(s) of the New Testament Tom focused on in each commentary (Matthew for Everyone, Mark for Everyone, etc.). I highly recommend this series. They’re some of the best and, more importantly, the most accessible commentaries of the New Testament. They’re not just for the scholar, but are intended for, well, everyone!
In his book, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, Wright covers Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. In the chapter on the passage above, Wright focuses on the word συλαγωγέω (sylagōgeō) from verse 8 (translated as “enslaves” in the CEB). After telling a story about the philosophies of John Locke (1632-1704) and the word play used by his detractors (“Take care that nobody Locks you up with their philosophy or empty deceit!”), Wright states—
“Paul has done something like this in verse 8. Take care, he says, that nobody ‘takes you captive.’ But the word he uses for ‘takes captive’ (sylagogon) is very close to the word ‘synagogue’…Why would he do that? Well, think of what had happened in Galatia. There, Jewish zealots had told the new converts that in becoming Christians they had only got half of what they needed. What they now ought to do, to complete the experience, was to be circumcised and to keep the law of Moses. Paul spent the whole of the letter to the Galatians arguing that this was a complete misunderstanding [of Christianity]…[The Galatians] would be buying into a system which wouldn’t do them any more good than the paganism they had left behind. And now he’s anxious—Colossae wasn’t, after all, that far from Galatia—that similar people would come…with the same dangerous message” (pp. 165-166).
In other words, the passage from Colossians is about first century Judaism. All of that to say, Tom Wright agreed with me! And I hadn’t even heard of him when I was studying eschatology! That’s just a good feeling.
So, back to Colossians.
As I stated above, this passage is about the first century Jewish system. Paul’s contrasting God’s plan for the world coming to fruition with the then current Jewish system (or “Old Creation”). That old system, Paul stated, was only the “shadow”—not the reality. Now that’s an amazing critique coming from one who claimed he was “blameless” under the Law (Philippians 3.1-7). In other words, the Old Creation was temporary. The reality, Paul states, was Christ. But not just the physical person of Jesus of Nazareth. No, the age to which Jesus was the link—the New Creation, the Realm of God.
Paul states that the Colossians were part of this reality, too, for they’d been baptized into Christ. They’d died to their old way of living and they didn’t need to get trapped again in some temporary religious practice that was only a shadow.
I think this speaks volumes to us today. Too many of us get caught up in our religions—going to church or temple or synagogue or whatever. Doing all of our religious “stuff” that makes us feel like we’re somehow better than some other religious group because “we” have the truth.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying those things aren’t important. Of course they are. What I’m saying is that all of our faith traditions are pointers—shadows—that should be pointing us to God. All of those things and more (studying sacred texts, choir practice, giving to the building fund, teaching Sunday School, etc.) are only tools to help us in our journeys with God. They’re vehicles, instruments. And just like vehicles that help us get somewhere and instruments that help us play a piece of music, our religions should only be seen as tools that point away from themselves to God. That’s what Paul’s talking about. If we’re getting too hung up on how many times someone talked about Jesus or read their Bible or prayed in a week, we’re becoming enslaved with human tradition. Going to church isn’t what it’s about. It’s about our being Christ in the world and seeing Christ in other people.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC