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Texts for the 7th Sunday of Pentecost, Year C (July 28, 2019): OT – Hosea 1.2-10; Psalm 85; NT – Colossians 2.6-15; Gospel – Luke 11.1-13

All biblical quotations are from the NIV unless otherwise noted.

Texts cited:

Colossians Remixed: Subverting Empires, Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat (IVP, 2004) – cited as CR

Texts For Preaching: Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year C, eds. Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, J. Clinton McCain, James D. Newsome (Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) – cited as TFP

“The Letter to the Colossians,” Andrew T. Lincoln in The New Interpreters Bible: Volume XI (Abingdon Press, 2000), pp. 551-671 – cited as TNIB 

Our OT text continues with the so-called “minor,” or “pre-exilic” prophets, with the often baffling text from Hosea, which presents Hosea with the task of enacting a “living parable” depicting the relationship between Israel and Yahweh as a marriage that has been ruined by an unfaithful spouse. Even though Yahweh has patiently pursued Israel and given Israel his love, Israel has scorned that love – and, indeed, Yahweh himself. The result will be judgment, but not as the final word. In Hosea, as in all the judgments of Yahweh announced by Israel’s prophets, the end is not destruction, but redemption.

Psalm 85 displays the characteristic situation of God’s people who are a community that is suspended between “the already” and “not yet” (TFP 439). That is, the people of exist through memory of God’s mighty acts of redemption in the past (vv.1-3) and their great need for God’s future merciful redemptive acts in the life of their community (vv.4-7). Verse 10 contains one of the most beautiful and poetic enunciations of God’s gracious redemptive acts (most pre-eminently displayed on the cross): “Love and justice have kissed each other; righteousness and peace kiss each other.” Because the people of God have known God’s grace and mercy in the past, they can trust God for the mercy and grace they need for the future. But none of this is a “done-deal.” They live in the messy and uncertain world where their (final, full) salvation has not yet arrived. And yet through the anxiety and concern of it all, God meets them and their faith is rewarded with the assurance that God will continue to be to them in the future the God he has been to them in the past.

Our Gospel lesson for today presents Luke’s account of Jesus’s teaching on prayer. The disciples come to Jesus, concerned that he has not taught them to pray as, apparently, John the Baptist had instructed his disciples to do. Jesus responds to their request to teach them how to pray saying, “When you pray, say…” (v.2). Jesus then goes on to teach them what classically has been called “The Lord’s Prayer.” There are a couple of interesting things to note about this prayer as it appears in Luke, though. First, there are some things missing from Luke’s version, which are in the classical version (which is drawn mostly from Matthew 6.19-13). To begin with, in the opening, Luke’s version is addressed only to “Father” (v.2), not to “Our Father who is in heaven” as Matthew’s does. This version also ends at the line, “lead us not into temptation” (v.4), and does not continue on with the traditional “for the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours…” (which was added in a later, less trustworthy manuscript of Matthew’s version). Finally, this version also completely omits Matthew’s phrase: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” The second thing to note is that this prayer uses 2 different words in v. 4, which are typically translated as “sin” in the phrase: “Forgive us our sins [Greek: ἁμαρτίας, harmartias – a common NT word for sin meaning to err, be mistaken, or to miss or wander from the path of uprightness], for we also forgive everyone who sins [Greek:  ὀφείλοντι, opheilonti – a less common word for sin literally meaning to owe money, be in debt for] against us.” This has led anabaptist theologian, John Howard Yoder (in his The Politics of Jesus, Eerdmans, 1994, 61-62), to interpret the prayer’s petition for forgiveness in light of Luke 4.18 as part of Jesus’ inauguration of the jubilee as a precursor of the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ prayer insists that we are bankrupt debtors struggling to survive in a moral Great Depression, and announces that judgment and forgiveness are God’s new creation of those formerly barren relationships. There is much, much more that might (and perhaps should) be said about this passage, but I will simply note that this prayer becomes a vehicle shifting the disciples focus onto their real needs and the source for meeting those needs – their “Father” (TFP 440).

Our NT lesson from Colossians is where I want to focus most of my attention this week (again). The passage begins in v. 6 by reminding the Colossians that they are part of a living tradition, through which they received Christ and which handed on to them a distinct manner of thinking and living. What Paul no doubt would have thought of in terms of a “philosophy” (in the sense that Pierre Hadot thinks of an Ancient philosophy – as a way of life). Paul says to them: “just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord” (v.6). The focus here, as TNIB states, is on the receiving of a tradition that has been passed down to them, and does not refer to their subjective experience of receiving Christ into their lives through the exercising of faith (620). The Greek word here is παρελάβετε [parelabete] and is a quasi-technical term that refers to the transmission of tradition. As TNIB notes, “the title ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ can serve as the effective encapsulation of this tradition” (620). As it is made clear in v. 8, Paul uses this reference to the reception of tradition to set his Gospel and the Colossian philosophy over and against each other. “It is not that one is seen as gospel and the other as tradition, but rather that both take the form of tradition. The difference is that whereas the gospel is regarded as the apostolic tradition about Christ, the philosophy is depicted pejoratively as merely human tradition” (TNIB 620). It becomes clear, then, that this letter places a high value on the role of tradition and catechesis in the process of appropriating the reality of Christ’s lordship (TNIB 621). The Christian faith is not simply “me and Jesus and the Bible.” Those who confess Jesus rightly continually engage in the practices and postures of the community of the faithful in order to learn how to confess Christ as Lord faithfully and to have that confession supported and nourished.

TNIB identifies three characteristics of the Colossian philosophy that is opposed to Paul’s Gospel (622). First, it is in opposition to the faith in which the readers are to be rooted and built up (v.7); second, it is without truth in comparison to the Gospel (1.5); and third, it is in according with human tradition rather than the faithful apostolic tradition that has Jesus Christ as its source and content (v.6).

So the “hollow and deceptive” (v.8) Colossian philosophy seems to have been a form of gnosticism (which is a word used to describe a cluster of similar philosophies), which devalued the physical body, believed in spiritual elites who could achieve privileged access to truth, and dualism (of spirit/body, upper-spiritual/lower-physical reality). This philosophy seemed to have combined the worship of “angels” (perhaps something like demonic powers) with ascetic practices, such as fasting, which produces visions that helped to purify people so they could ascend to the upper spiritual realm where they could purely apprehend spiritual truths (called gnosis). We might summarize the negative spiritual effects of this philosophy, then, as involving (1) spiritual elitism, (2) legalism, and (3) a sort of spiritual “short-cut” to personal power – the worship of god-like beings who could give spiritual power.

This philosophy is, as described in v. 8, according to the stoichea (Greek) of the universe – translated in the NIV as “the basic principles of this world,” and in the NRSV as “the elemental spirits of the universe” (both are good translations) – rather than on Christ.  The point of the text is that these things are from fundamentally different sources and depend on completely different authorities – in the case of the philosophy, the cosmic spirits or powers, and in the case of Paul’s Gospel, Jesus Christ. They cannot be melded together. Paul reverts back to the language of the hymn in the first chapter (1.19) and reminds the Colossians that in Christ the fullness of God dwells in bodily form and that they, in turn, have been given fullness (vv.9-10). This means that (1) there is zero reason for anyone who confesses Christ to look for fullness elsewhere, and (2) that there can be a dualism in which God is seen as inhabiting a spiritual upper realm and the body “the prison house of the soul” in a lower, physical realm (as in some Greek philosophy, inherited from Plato). Instead, “[t]he apostolic gospel holds together the two concepts the philosophy deemed incompatible, because all the fullness of the deity not only dwells in Christ but dwells in him bodily” (TNIB 623).

Once again, as Keesmaat & Walsh draw out, the problem is that the philosophy threatens to impoverish the imaginations of the Colossians. Their paraphrase (or “targum”) on Colossians 2.8 reads like this: “Make sure that no one takes your imaginations captive through a vacuous vision of life rooted in an oppressive regime of truth that parades itself as something other than a mere human tradition, as if it somehow had privileged access to final and universal truth” (CR 137). Paul is critiquing those practices and forces (powers) that have a hold on their lives (CR 136).

Paul’s appeal to the Colossians is for them to remember their baptism, their union with Christ. This is the core Christian practice which challenges the philosophy derived from the stoichea and human tradition. Here in Colossians, though, unlike Paul’s appeal to the Roman church in Rom 6 where he describes unity of believers with Christ in baptism in terms of death -> burial -> resurrection, Paul speaks of this unity in terms of circumcision -> burial -> resurrection. The metaphor of circumcision – which, of course, is a spiritual one, not done “by the hands of men” – brings the focus more on the philosophy’s “harsh treatment of the body” (2.23) and its general denigration of the body and seeking to leave it behind. The point is that (1) we do not have to rid ourselves of our bodies or modify it in any way, because (2) we already in Christ have been empowered to live (in the body) righteous lives, pleasing to God – without any further dealing with “the flesh.” It has been dealt with.

This sets up Colossians 2.13-15, which is one of the most fascinating passages in the NT for atonement theory. Continuing on the theme of their unity with Christ through baptism, Paul argues that the same power of God operative in Christ’s resurrection is available to the Colossian Christians. They were, prior to Christ, dead in their sins (v.13). And it was by forgiving their sins – which involved “cancelling the written code, with its regulations, that was against [them] and stood opposed to [them]” – that “God made [them] alive with Christ.” It seems clear that this does not refer to the Jewish Law, but to a “book of indictment held by an accusing heavenly power with regulations designed to deal with the body of flesh” (TNIB 625). In this case, the philosophy would have included the belief that the angelic powers kept a list of grievances and Paul is literally saying that this has been ruled out of court. It was cancelled; nailed to the cross. This has the application, then, of saying with 1Jn 3.20-21 that when our hearts condemn us, “God is greater than our hearts.”

Paul then draws this out in v. 15 in military terms used by the Roman Empire. He paints a scene of a Roman general or Caesar triumphally processing into Rome in a victory parade, with the generals he has defeated in battle being humiliated and marched through the streets as part of the parade. God, in other words, by Christ’s death, has triumphed over the cosmic powers and on the cross he made the same sort of public spectacle of these powers that military victors make over their enemies. The hostile powers are defeated and are paraded in God’s train. So those in Colossae who held the powers in such awe that they thought it necessary to appease them, have their view of reality completely turned on its head. As TNIB explains: “The true attitude for Christian believers is to hold the powers in contempt as having been totally disgraced by God’s redemptive activity on behalf of humanity and to celebrate and appropriate the victory and liberation God has achieved in Christ” (626). This means that “a major test of authentic adherence to the gospel and to the confession of Christ as Lord is whether they are convinced enough of the sufficiency of God’s action in the crucified Jesus to gamble their lives on the paradoxical power of the way of the cross rather than making compromises with other powers” (628).

As Keesmaat and Walsh observe, whatever else might be said about the philosophy circulating in Colossae that Paul is opposing, its root theological problem is idolatry: they are placing something less than Jesus Christ in Jesus Christ’s place. The cross Christ and Jesus Christ himself are fundamentally misconstrued. The cross is the location of the victory over the powers of this age and the victor is Jesus Christ, who in everything has the supremacy (Col 1.18). What is at stake on the cross, then, is a power struggle. “And,” Keesmaat and Walsh say, “Jesus takes precisely the principalities and powers that placed him on the cross—the idols of militarism, nationalism, racism, technism, economism—and on that very cross disarms, dethrones, conquers and make a public example of them” (CR 138). Paul wants the Colossians to remember the story: “His most potent weapon against the idolatrous worldview that threatens to take this community’s imagination captive is precisely the re-telling and remembering of the community’s found story. Having laid the foundation with reference to the local story of the recipient of the gospel in Colossae (Col 1:3-8, 21), rooted that story in the new exodus effected through Christ (1:12-13), and then related that new exodus and the new community’s own story to the cosmic tale of the redemption of all things through the cross (1:15-20), Paul then delights to tell the story of Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and promised return (2:12-15, 20; 3:1-4). He retells this story in the heart of the attack on the philosophy because this philosophy, like all idolatrous worldviews, would take the community captive through a process of amnesia.” (CR 144).