Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Amos 8:1–12; Colossians 1:15–29 & Luke 10:38–42
If you had to describe the Apostle Paul in a single word, what would it be? For me, the word would be committed. That is to say that Paul was totally committed to carrying out the mission he believed God had called him to; to bring the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ to all Gentiles in the known world. This included the city of Colossae.
In Paul’s time Colossae was located in the region of Phrygia and in the Roman province of Asia, in what is now modern-day Tukey, some 120 miles east of the city of Ephesus. It was a city of moderate importance, certainly not as notable as cities such as Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, and Rome, but it was well positioned on a major trade route, and was well known for the purple colour of its wool.
Colossae was populated primarily by natives of Phrygia and by Greeks. There is also evidence that suggests a Jewish presence in Phrygia as well. The church in Colossae, which was more than likely founded by Epaphras, whom the Apostle Paul describes as “our beloved fellow servant”, was more than likely comprised of both Gentiles and Jews, with the Gentiles perhaps representing a majority in the church.
Paul learned, presumably through Epaphras, that even though the Colossian church was flourishing in faith, love, and hope (1:3–8; cf. 2:5), there were those in the church who were under the influence of what Paul referred to as a “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (2:8), which he feared might undermine the stability of the church. It is possible that this particular “philosophy” was a form of Gnosticism. Gnosticism is a collection of religious ideas and systems which came together in the late 1st century AD among Jewish and early Christian sects.
These various groups believed that spirit alone was good, and that matter was essentially evil. They believed the universe was not created out of nothing, which was the orthodox belief, but that it was created out of this flawed matter. This basic belief had certain consequences that flowed from it:
- If God was spirit, then he was naturally good, and could not have possibly worked with this evil matter. By virtue of that thinking, this then meant that God could not have been the creator of the world. The Gnostic belief was that a series of beings originated from God, with each more distant from God than the one before. As each being became more distant from God, they in turn became more ignorant of God and eventually became hostile to God. It was one of these ignorant and hostile beings that created everything out of evil matter.
- If matter was totally evil, then it was not possible for Jesus to have had a real flesh and blood body. The Gnostics believed that Jesus must have been some sort of spiritual phantom. Gnostic stories say that when Jesus walked he left no footprints.
- Following on from the previous point, if matter was evil then human bodies were evil too. If the body was evil, that meant there was one of two possible conclusions. (a) the physical needs and desires of the body must be resisted, or (b) people could satisfy their body’s desires to the full, and it would make no difference.
- Gnosticism was a very intellectual way of life and thought. Gnostics believed there was a long series of steps, a bit like a ladder, between human beings and God. In order to progress through each of these steps, people required all kinds of secret knowledge and private learning. They believed this knowledge was available only to a select few, and not to ordinary people.
In today’s passage from the Letter to the Colossians, Paul sets out to correct any misunderstandings about Jesus that members of the church in Colossae may have.
The first thing he does is to describe Jesus as the “image of the invisible God”. Paul states that the fullness of God dwells within Jesus, and that God is made known to humankind through the person of Jesus. And while the fullness of God dwells within Jesus, Jesus is also fully human. Revealed in and through Jesus is the perfect embodiment of what it means to be human.
Paul then refers to Jesus as the “firstborn of all creation”. Paul is not using the term firstborn in a time sense to say that Jesus was the first act of God’s creation, rather he is using it as a title of honour. As the “firstborn of all creation” Jesus is awarded the highest honour that creation holds.
Paul also says that all things in heaven and earth were created by Jesus. They were not created by some distant, hostile being that originated from God.
Paul then makes it clear that through his death and resurrection, Jesus has enabled all human beings to be reconciled in a right relationship with God, so long as they believe in Jesus.
What might all of this mean for us today? After all, the world we live in today is very different to the world the church in Colossae experienced. At least then, people believed in God, or a god. Today we know that the world we live in, or at least the world comprised by the developed countries, is fast becoming a much more secular one. We have seen the evidence of that in the release of data from the 2021 Census, which revealed that 40% of Australians now identify as “non-religious”.
For me, today’s passage from the Letter to the Colossians is a timely reminder of what it is that we as Christians believe in. We believe there is a God who created the heavens and the earth; we believe that God was revealed to us in and through the person of Jesus Christ; and we believe that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have all been reconciled to God, which means that we are in a right relationship with God both now (in this mortal life) and forever (in the eternal life to come).