Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother. To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.
Welcome to this series of Bible readings on Colossians, structured around our three themes of a call to be more contemplative, more courageous and more compassionate.
(The following Bible study was recorded at the Living Waters clergy conference. View it here on YouTube)
Never in the history of sacred scripture was such vital and beautiful teaching committed to such an obscure and unknown congregation.
The letter is addressed to the smallest, least important town named in the title of any New Testament letter. Colossae doesn’t feature in Acts. It has never been excavated. It is unknown apart from this letter although it has better known neighbours.
If Paul was writing to the Church in the Oxford Diocese, it is as though instead of writing to Reading or Slough or Milton Keynes or the city of Oxford, he chose Woodstock as though it were the capital of the region. Paul himself never visited Colossae in person though one of his companions, Epaphras, has brought news.
Yet read the letter only once through and you can see why from earliest times it was considered inspired and why it became part of the New Testament. Here is the most precious and powerful perspective on Christ which was to shape the life of the Church and the early centuries and beyond. Here is the most careful description of the very centre of what it means to live as a Christian disciple, from which we never graduate. Here is one of the richest and deepest descriptions of what it means to be the Church.
Here are doctrine and ethics in perfect balance. Here is our baptism unfolded in the powerful images of death and life, of putting off and putting on. Here is Christ as the very centre, the head and source of the life of his body, the Church of God.
The issues which occupy the commentators at great length need not detain us long. Colossians is different from the early Pauline letters: Romans, Corinthians and Philippians. It is either a later Pauline work or someone writing in Paul’s name and seeking to continue his labours. I am with James Dunn, who suggests a letter written at the end of Paul’s ministry, perhaps partly by his collaborators
Colossians is in some kind of relationship with Ephesians and probably earlier. It is fruitful to read both together but we will not have time for that this week. The letter is also in relationship with Philemon. It is written from prison, most commentators think probably from Rome, from the captivity described at the very end of Acts.
There are long debates about the situation underlying the letter and the arguments which Paul is attempting to counter. They are not very interesting. There was something going on in Colossae but Paul probably doesn’t have too much detail about what it is. Colossians is best seen as a general epistle: more like James than Galatians, meant to be read with profit in a variety of situations and churches, recalling the Body of Christ to what is essential.
And Colossians is the earliest of the Epistles to have a household code attached. That’s one of the ways in which it differs from Romans and Corinthians. The household codes anticipate a more settled way of living, a move on from the hope that Christ’s return is imminent. Instead of the instructions that it is better to remain unmarried, we have recommendations of how to live as Christians in marriage and in other states. This is teaching and instruction for a Church which is learning how to live beyond that first generation of witnesses to the resurrection.
So much for the preliminaries. The first major theme I want to draw out is this. Colossians is an Epistle grounded in thanksgiving and in prayer. That thanksgiving and prayer is the very centre of Christian life and for Christian ministry.
Thanksgiving is a thread from beginning to end, which is remarkable given the letter’s genesis in prison or under house arrest as Paul faces a trial and, most probably, violent death. It’s remarkable given the fact that the Colossian Church was facing sporadic persecution. There are six explicit references to thanksgiving, to the verb “Eucharisto”, running through the letter from beginning to end. Follow them through with me.
The first sets the tone for the opening passage: the first substantive word of the Epistle after the greeting in the original:
“We give thanks to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ all the time as we pray for you….” (1.3). The second is the final verb of Paul’s great prayer for the Colossians and introduces his great hymn of praise to God and to his Son: “giving thanks to the Father who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light” (1.12).
The third is in 2.7, at the close of what I believe is the central passage of Colossians (2.6-7) in which Paul sets out the very centre of our discipleship and faith:
“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving”. Our lives are to overflow with gratitude and appreciation.
The fourth and fifth are in the beautiful description of life as the Body of Christ in 3.15 and 16:
“And let the pace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful……And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of our Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him”.
Finally in 4.2: “Devote yourself to prayer, keeping alert in it, with thanksgiving”.
Paul sets thankfulness, gratitude, appreciation, Eucharist, somewhere near the core of what he means by discipleship. Our Christian journey is not primarily about proving ourselves, about hard labour for an ungenerous taskmaster, about grappling with perplexity, about pain and suffering, about filling every part of our lives with worthwhile, productive activity.
Our Christian life is above all about giving thanks: about appreciating what we have been given, about hearts overflowing with the riches we have received in creation, in redemption, in community, in the ministry we have received. Be thankful.
As we come as thirsty pilgrims to this place and to this conference, we come seeking renewal. One of the ways that renewal comes is to practise again the careful discipline of thanksgiving. To give thanks for the beauty of creation. To give thanks for the colleagues and community we are part of. To give thanks for the material goods we enjoy, for our families and friends, for our vocation in the Body of Christ, for the work to which we are called.
It is sometimes possible in pastoral ministry to lose that perspective of grace. Much of our time is taken up with the burdened and the difficult and the argumentative and the defeated. It may be our special calling to deal with them. But some of the grumpiness rubs off on us. Let this be a time when we let those burdens fall for a time, when we hear the song of thankfulness again, faintly at first, and join in.
George Herbert’s great poem is medicine to the weary clerical soul:
Thou that hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more, a grateful heart.
Not thankful, when it pleaseth me;
As if thy blessings had spare days:
But such a heart, whose pulse may be
The General Thanksgiving is probably the most neglected part of Common Worship. It is an alternative prescription, to be taken three times a day for the weary and cynical soul and opening up a stream of grace. The prayer was added to the Book of Common Prayer in 1662.
Paul’s intercession, as we shall see tomorrow, is a key part of his ministry. His intercession flows from his thanksgiving. We give thanks for you….we are praying for you. What are we praying for? The foundation and the heart of Paul’s prayer for the Colossians is to be found in 1.9:
“For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will”.
This word “that you may be filled” is the governing verb of the whole prayer which follows. It is unpacked then through a single infinitive: “Filled with all the knowledge of God’s will”….”to walk worthily of the Lord, fully pleasing to him”. The infinitive is then unpacked through four participles in a single sentence: bearing fruit, growing in the knowledge of God, made strong with the strength that comes from his glorious power, giving thanks to the Father”.
Paul prays that we might be filled with the knowledge of God’s will. Why? That we might walk or live worthily of God’s grace. What will that mean? It will mean that our lives are fruitful, that we are growing in the knowledge of God, that we are empowered to endure and to do so with joy and that we are reflecting back to God thanksgiving and glory. The reference to growth and fruitfulness is I think a reference to Ezekiel 47 and a reference to baptism, though the baptismal references grow clearer as move on in the Epistle.
One further question. What does Paul mean when he prays that we might be filled with the knowledge of God’s will? We are individualists first and foremost. We hear these words as though Paul is praying that we might understand the details of our individual vocation. Are we called to this parish or to that parish, to this ministry or that ministry.
This is not Paul’s prayer or meaning either here or in Ephesians. Paul is praying that we might come to know God through understanding God’s purposes, through understanding the whole story and perspective of our creation and salvation. The prayer is for our full initiation and instruction, our catechesis, our appreciation of all of what it means to be baptised into Christ and part of his Church.
Paul then moves on after this opening thanksgiving and prayer to begin to answer his own petition. He prays that we might be filled with the knowledge of God’s purposes and he then moves immediately to increase our understanding of God’s purposes. Paul give thanks first for the work of salvation accomplished by the Father:
“who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has rescued us from the powers of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have the forgiveness of sins”.
Paul then goes on to focus in the most beautiful and powerful way on an exposition of Christ, most probably using an even older creed or hymn, in a similar way to Philippians 2, most probably from 15-20.
This part of Colossians 1 is older, of course, than the prologue to the Gospel of John. It may be older than the Epistle to the Hebrews. The letter unfolds and explores the mystery of Christ, first in creation and then in salvation.
The verses are universal in scope. They have the widest, highest, longest and deepest perception of the significance of Christ. The word which runs through them is the Greek word for all: Christ is everywhere and everything. First in creation:
He is the image of the invisible God – he has come so that we might see the Father – the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things in heaven and earth were created, things visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all intermediaries between God and humankind are part of the creation. Christ is one with the creator and the means of creation. All things have been created with him and for him.
He himself is before all things and in him all things hold together.
These are profound and significant claims. They are made elsewhere in the New Testament but in a particular and focussed way here which is why this passage will be quoted again and again as the Church seeks to understand the Christ and his significance for the whole universe.
Here is more than a great teacher, more than an anointed king. In the words of the later creeds, here is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father, through him all things were made”.
As we contemplate creation, so we contemplate the work of Christ. As we contemplate Christ, so we are drawn to give thanks for and to live gently within creation. Our understanding of Christ shapes our ecology and our care for the created world is part of our discipleship in Christ.
Paul expounds Christ’s work in creation. He goes on then to explore Christ’s work in salvation, holding both together in a unified and cosmic vision of what God has done.
He is the head of the body, the church.
Colossians is a significant development from the language of the body of Christ in Romans and Corinthians. The word ecclesia is used explicitly. We are his body. We are to be more than Christ-like. We are to be Christ together. Christ is explicitly named as the head: the source and spring of grace and life.
He is the beginning, the genesis, the arch which holds everything together: “The firstborn from the dead” as he is the firstborn in creation. The same word is used in 15 and 18. Christ is the beginning of creation and of new creation, “so that he might come to have first place in everything”. There is an eschatological arc in Colossians 1, beginning with the genesis of the universe and finding its fulfilment when all things are one in Christ.
Paul turns now to the central work of salvation, the significance of the cross and its work of reconciliation:
“and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by his blood on the cross”.
Our salvation is part of this greater salvation. This greater salvation and creation are the context and backdrop for our salvation:
“And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him” – notice again the great arc of salvation tending towards the end times when Christ will return and make all things new – “providing that you continue securely established and staefast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven” – a reference again to the universal faith and also to the whole creation – “of which I, Paul, became a deacon, a minister, a servant.”
This is the good news, the gospel. This is the story of salvation. Paul is praying and writing so that we might be filled with the knowledge of God’s purposes and that we might therefore bear fruit and grow in the knowledge of God’s love and be empowered to stand firm with joy and overflow with thanksgiving.
We come from scattered lives to meet with God, to find again the centre of our faith, our motivation, our hope. We come to find the trickle of a life-giving stream, in the font at the place of our baptism, in Christ who makes our baptism possible.
We begin our journey of renewal in the simple acts of contemplation: in thanksgiving, living eucharistically; in our prayers to understand the purposes of God; in our contemplation of Christ in creation; in our contemplation of Christ in the Church.
The General Thanksgiving:
Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we your unworthy servants give you most humble and hearty thanks
for all your goodness and loving kindness.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ,
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And give us, we pray, such a sense of all your mercies
that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful,
and that we show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up ourselves to your service,
and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be all honour and glory, for ever and ever.
Living Waters Clergy Conference
Swanwick, 1 May 2018