A Servant of THIS Gospel
by The Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, July 21, 2019
How many of you love sushi? You either love it or you hate it. I love sushi. One of the things I like best about sushi is the wasabi…it’s that little green paste that comes with the sushi, and you just put a tiny little bit of it into the centre of your piece of sushi. You have to be careful with it; you don’t want to use too much of it, because it’s hot, and if you get too much you’ll be very sorry. But it’s not hot in the same way we usually think of spicy, hot foods like Indian food. It doesn’t burn your mouth for long. It just sends this flaming arrow up through your sinuses and out the top of your head! And for about 5 seconds you think your head might explode. It’s awesome!
You’re probably wondering what sushi has to do with the book of Colossians. Well, these verses are a little bit like the wasabi that comes with your sushi. Just a few verses are packed with so much about Jesus – who he is and what he came to do – that at the end of it you can’t help but say, “whew!” It’s kind of intense.
Where a lot of Paul’s letters deal with Christian living and words of encouragement for new believers, these verses contain strong doctrinal content; that is, they clearly state the foundational aspects of Christian belief, of the faith that we profess. In these particular verses what we’re looking at is Christology, which is the study of Christ – our understanding of who He is, what He came to do, etc. Christology is everything that has to do with the second person of the trinity.
So, if Paul is writing to a group of Christians, why does he have to tell them – especially in such powerful language – who Jesus is? Don’t they already know? Isn’t that how they became Christians, by hearing about Jesus and his death and resurrection, and his miracles and teachings, and then deciding to believe in Him and become a Christian?
There are a couple of things to know about the church in Colossae (the name of the city where the Colossians lived) that explain why Paul is writing to them in this way. First, it was not Paul himself who evangelized the Colossians and started the church there in their city. In many of the New Testament epistles, Paul is writing to churches that he founded, where he already knows and loves the people he is writing to. According to Chapter 1 verse 7, the Colossians were evangelized by another apostle, someone who was from that city whose name was Epaphras, who we know little about, other than that he worked with and was probably a student of Paul’s. So Paul is taking this opportunity to spell things out to them; he wants to do that himself, to make sure everything is clear to them about who Jesus is and why they should believe in him.
The second thing to know about Colossae – and probably the most important reason he wants to write to them – is the religious context of the time that was confusing the new Christians. In the second chapter of Colossians, Paul says that he’s writing all these things to them, “So that no one may deceive you with plausible arguments;” and he issues a warning to them, saying, “See that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.”
What are these “plausible arguments” and the “empty deceit of the elemental spirits of the universe?” It sounds like it’s right out of the latest Spiderman movie!
Well, the kind of teaching that was prevailing in the Roman Empire at the time – especially in a place like Colossae, located in Asia Minor, or the Western region of what we now call Turkey – was not of one particular religion, but was a confluence or fusion of various religious and philosophical streams of thought. The intelligentsia were especially fond of “novel ideas” – as long as they didn’t have to change the way they lived. They would hear something interesting and immediately take hold of it and incorporate it into their system of thought.
On the plus side, there was a certain amount of what we would now call “religious tolerance” (a lot of different religions and philosophies co-existing). But it was a false sense of tolerance, because nobody had any real conviction, and if you did there wasn’t much tolerance for that. The Christians did, and they talked about things like “repentance,” and they suffered a lot of persecution for it. It was a little like a theological buffet – you could pick a little bit from this religion and a little bit from that philosophy; just take what you like and pass by the things that seem distasteful or unfamiliar or that meant you might have to change your life; and because it’s a buffet, you don’t have to really commit to any one dish.
One of the philosophies that came out of this situation, and left its mark on Christianity for a long time (arguably right up until today), is Dualism. Dualism – in a nutshell – is the belief that the body and spirit are separate and independent of one another. They’re not holistic or interconnected as we mostly tend to think of them today. Dualism would posit the spirit as superior to the body, and in fact the body is almost unimportant – we don’t need to give any thought to the body, we just need to focus on spiritual development, because the body will die and the spirit will live.
With dualism, because God is spirit and we are material, it gave rise to the question, “Can we know God?” It’s an important question, “Can anyone really know God, know what God thinks, what God wants from and for us?” Because if we can’t know God, then we can think and do whatever we want, right? Anyone’s opinion is as good as another, unless God has spoken. What Paul writes here is that God has spoken. God has spoken in the person of Jesus, and we can know God by looking at Jesus.
Some of these syncretistic beliefs were permeating the Christian community, however, through the “false teachers” that Paul warns about, and it’s possible that in the face of these teachers who came with all their “plausible arguments,” as Paul says, Epaphras was not as confident and clear in his thought and teaching as Paul, to be able to confront them and their ideas head on. So Paul wanted to state very clearly to them who Jesus was and what He did, so that there would be no confusion amongst believers.
This passage reflects the importance for Christians to intentionally reflect on and be able to articulate clearly what we believe about who Jesus is, the way Paul did, and not just accept what anyone says as a perfectly valid option, as though it’s all the same thing anyway. Sure, everyone is entitled to believe what they want, but each of us needs to be discerning and thoughtful, because the times we live in can be just as confusing as first century Colossae. There are all kinds of people who say all kinds of things about Jesus, and they all seem to know what they’re talking about, whereas we often feel like we don’t really know anything. Whenever we hear something about the Christian faith, or think we know something about Jesus, it’s a good idea to stop and consider all of the implications of that belief.
For example, 20 or so years ago I was convinced that it didn’t really matter whether Jesus was actually, physically raised from the dead. I told people that I could still believe he was the Son of God, even if he was only “spiritually raised” (which is dualism, by the way) or if he wasn’t even raised from the dead at all.
Except that there are a couple of really important implications if that were the case. The first is that if Jesus wasn’t physically raised from the dead then we completely lose the credibility of the eyewitness believers and apostles who said they saw him, and whose martyrdom for the sake of what they saw is a big part of what makes this whole, seemingly crazy story actually worthy of our belief. If we can’t count on the testimony of the eyewitnesses about the resurrection, then can we believe anything they said about Jesus? But the fact that they were willing to be martyred, to die for what they knew they saw, really solidifies their credibility. So if they say they saw him bodily raised from the dead, then I guess I have to believe them.
The second implication of the erroneous belief I held is that if Jesus was not physically raised from the dead, then the Gospel holds no hope for us of the power of Almighty God to defeat death. These two points are essentially what Paul was saying when he wrote the following verses to another Christian community, the Corinthians: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God (not credible), because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. 17 If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” (1 Corinthians 15)
Being clear about what the Bible tells us about Jesus is crucial to our faith, because it’s easy to become confused, and to be deceived in these times we’re living in. That’s a pitfall of living in a so-called “Christian culture,” where everyone just assumes they know who Jesus is and what He said and did, and everyone who wants to write a book thinks they have the authority to make proclamations about Jesus, even though they may not go to church or may never have read the Bible.
If we’re not clear in our convictions, if we’re not informed about what Christianity really teaches about who Jesus is, then we may approach our faith like a spiritual buffet – taking a bit of this and a bit of that – and then we end up with a watered-down understanding of him; and a watered-down understanding of Jesus and what he did can only offer us a watered-down hope, not an everlasting hope.
This week when I was out running along St. Clair Avenue I ran past Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church. They have a sign out on their lawn, as we do, and as I ran by the sign read: “We serve a risen savior…who do you serve?” I thought it’s a bold statement of their faith, and also a good question for all of us: who do you serve? Because, like it or not, we all serve someone or something, and sadly a lot of people just go along without ever really thinking about it and they end up serving popular culture, or their own selfish impulses, or the almighty dollar, or they become people-pleasers and try to keep everyone happy.
Paul tells the Colossians who he serves, and there is nothing watered-down about it. Listen to these verses again:
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;” That is, God is invisible, but Jesus, His son is His image.
“16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, all things have been created through him and for him.” With a Word God brought all things into creation, and Jesus is that word.
17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.” The church is the body of Christ, those who are being saved from death, and Jesus is the firstborn, the head of the church, the Lord of the universe.
19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” The fullness of God came to dwell in Jesus, and then God himself gave His life on the cross, in order to reconcile all things. Nobody else could do what Jesus did.
This is who Jesus is: the image of God; the head of the body; the beginning; the firstborn from the dead; the one wherein the fullness of God dwells. That’s who Jesus is!
Paul goes on to tell the Colossians what Jesus has done: “21 And you who were once estranged … 22 he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him—“ Jesus has made us able to come before Almighty God, acceptable and perfect! – and then he continues: “23 provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.” Don’t be tempted by the spiritual buffet! Be strong in your convictions!
And then he drops the mic: “I, Paul, became a servant of THIS gospel.”
Which gospel? Not the gospel of a spiritual buffet; not a watered-down gospel. Not a gospel of dualism – where our bodies – our health, our experiences of pain and pleasure, our physical death – are unimportant and only our spiritual lives matter – but a gospel of incarnation, where God comes to live in a human body in order to show how much he loves us, and to redeem everything he has created: us, our bodies, which will be raised from the dead on the last day, and the whole created order – animals and nature, God loves it all, and sent Jesus to reconcile it and make it new.
And so that answers the question of the philosophers about whether any mortal, physical being can know an immortal, spiritual God: because God became flesh in Jesus, when you look at Jesus, you can know God; if you’re wondering what God is like, you can look at Jesus. There is a definitive answer about who God is, and it comes from God’s self-revelation in Jesus.
This is the gospel that Paul gave his life for; this is the gospel he calls the Colossians to believe in; and this is the gospel that offers us hope. Jesus is the only one who could do what He did, and the only one who can give us confidence in our standing before God. Paul didn’t want the Colossians to be deceived and he couldn’t have made things clearer for them.
During the Reformation period, many people fought, and some even sacrificed their lives, so that we could read the Scriptures in our own language, so that we could have firsthand access to God’s self-revelation in Jesus. In fact, the reformation teaching about “the priesthood of all believers” did not mean that any uninformed opinion is just as valid as the opinion of the people who have studied the scriptures – which is how it’s often understood today – but that all believers should have access to the scriptures and the right to study and know God firsthand, not just the clergy and scholars. So, it makes sense that all of us would want to devote at least some of our lives to finding out for ourselves who Jesus is and what He does, and what He thinks and says, not just from books or by listening to what other people say, but from the Scriptures where God reveals Himself to us in the person of Jesus.
I have this strange dream that if I were to get up in the pulpit and say something heretical, that the congregation would all stop me and say, “wait, Lori, no you’re wrong…that’s not what the Bible teaches; that’s not true Christian doctrine.” I guess that’s why I love my teaching role in this church! Nothing makes my day more than when someone says to me, “I was reading my Bible, and I made this new discovery about Jesus!”
It makes sense that we would want to make sure that it’s THIS gospel – the gospel of Jesus, the gospel of the Bible – that we’re serving with our lives, because this is the only gospel that can give us the assurance of God’s love and forgiveness and the promise of eternal life.
Now that we’ve had our biblical wasabi, I think I’m craving a sushi lunch! Thanks be to God.