This month at the churches I serve we are observing Bible Month. This is an initiative launched by the Methodist Church to foster Biblical literacy by encouraging congregations to focus on a particular book of the Bible during June. This year we are focusing on New Testament book of Colossians. Last time I wrote about Colossians 1:1-23 and next Sunday I shall be preaching about Colossians 2:16-3:17. Other preachers are covering the other parts of the book, preaching at the different churches, so I have not produced a sermon for those sections. I thought, however, I would just make a few comments about Colossians 1:24-2:15 today.
Colossians 1:24-2:15 is dominated by a number of key words and two important people. The first of those people is Paul. I wrote last time about the debates over who wrote this letter but, for me and many others, Paul remains the best and most likely candidate. He started the letter (1:1) by asserting his status as an ‘apostle’ – as he needed to do in order to ensure that his words were received with the authority they deserved. In this section, though, he is not afraid to write of his role as ‘servant’ (1:23, 1:25) to the gospel. In Greek this word is ‘diakonos’ from which we get the word deacon. It is a vital reminder to all of those who serve in the church that they are primarily called to be humble servants, leading others to the truth. Hence the ancient title for the Pope: ‘servant of the servants of God’. Such language may make us uncomfortable in the modern world, where we are unused to the idea of servitude, and indeed even find it abhorrent, but Paul is unafraid of the terminology.
Paul is also not afraid to relate how he has suffered and struggled for the church of Christ (1:24, 1:29, 2:1). He is keen to stress that he is working hard for all churches, including the church at Colossae, not just the ones he has founded personally. This is something that Paul writes about elsewhere, for example in 2 Corinthians 11:16-33. Sometimes this can sound like Paul boasting about how hard he is working, rather like the person in the office who is always complaining about how hard they have to work in comparison to everyone else! Again, though, this is an honest reflection of the life of discipleship. Following Christ is hard, both 2,000 years ago in Asia Minor and today in the UK. Standing up for what we believe is never easy, particularly seeking to uphold the values of Christ in an age that does not seem to value them: mercy, kindness, welcome, honesty, love, etc. Paul’s struggles and suffering are a warning to us all about the realities of following Jesus in our own time and place.
Paul’s sufferings, however, point us to the second, and more important, person in this passage; a person who stands at the centre of Paul’s life and is at the very heart of every word of this epistle: Jesus Christ. In the previous section, we had the magnificent Christ hymn (1:15-20) that sought to express the incredible nature of what Christ had done for us. In this section, Paul goes on to remind the first Christians in Colossae that his and their sufferings are only a pale imitation of what Jesus suffered for us all in order that we might know the depths of God’s grace and love. This is what enables Paul to claim that he is “rejoicing” in his sufferings (1:24) for in this way he is participating in God’s work for his body, the church. Indeed he has been commissioned by God for this very purpose (1:25).
The question of why suffering is part of the Christian vocation – why did Christ have to suffer on the cross, and why do we humans have to suffer too – is one that I am continually asked as a minister. It is a question I ask myself too. The answer from the letter to the Colossians is that we may never fully know in this life: it is a ‘mystery’ (1:26, 1:27, 2:2). That is, a hidden thing. Too often we humans claim to have knowledge and understanding far greater than we actually possess. This leaves us vulnerable when we face the truly great mysteries of life; most importantly, the greatest mystery of all – death. With his absolute insistence on the supremacy of Christ in this passage and elsewhere in the letter, Paul is clear that there is only one real answer to the great questions of life: the mystery of what God has done in Jesus Christ. The mystery of why an eternal, infinite and omniscient God would choose to be “incomprehensibly made man” in order to suffer and die on a cross of pain. Yet, this is the good news that Paul brings the Colossians and us: that through Christ’s work on the cross, all suffering, pain and even death itself will one day be no more (2:14). And on that day, as Paul writes elsewhere, there shall be no more mystery; for we shall “know fully”, even as we have been “fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
There is so much more to say about these verses, and I am sorry not to have the time to speak about the circumcision and baptism that Paul writes about here (2:10-12). Finally, though, in this section, we should note how Paul begins to speak about a subject that I shall address more fully in my sermon on Sunday: the “philosophy and empty deceit” that seems to have taken the Colossians captive (2:8). We get several hints in this passage but we shall explore this ancient mystery more fully when we look at verses 2:16-3:17.