This is the talk I gave on Sunday at Putney Methodist Church. I shall also be sharing it with my congregations at Barnes and Roehampton Methodist Churches next week. This is part of the Bible Month initiative, which this year focuses on the book of Colossians. We have been working through the entire book during the course of this month. The specific text today was Colossians 2:16-3:17.
On this third Sunday in June, we are continuing to mark Bible Month in our churches, studying the New Testament book of Colossians, together with Christians across the country. In the first week, I gave an overall introduction to the whole book, its author, audience and major themes. Last week, here at Putney, Tina spoke about some of the challenges that the Colossians were facing, living in a multi-faith environment, and Paul’s suffering on their behalf as an apostle.
This week we are going to look at the central section of the book. Here Paul continues to warn the first Christians in ancient Colossae about the dangers of being led astray by “philosophy and empty deceit” (2:8), giving us a few more details about exactly what he fears is happening there, before writing passionately about what new life in Christ actually means.
Millions of people utter of this name with love and deep respect. History knows no other man who influenced people’s fate and the course of world events so greatly as [he] did; who, so many years after his death, is remembered so vividly and with such infinite admiration as [he] is …; whose behests and deeds are continued in the acts of his successors…
Of whom am I speaking? A name uttered and revered by millions, years after his death? Well, of course I am speaking about Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Who did you think it was? Jesus! These words come from a 1979 guidebook to the Lenin Museum in Moscow that I happened to chance upon in Cambridge University Library several years ago. The words that it uses to speak about Lenin struck me then, and strike me now, with the force of their praise and adulation, and their deeply religious tone.
One of the things that many people do not appreciate when we speak about the old Soviet Union is the way in which the cult of Lenin and Stalin sought to take over the language and practice of the Christian faith, which its leaders had sought so hard to eradicate. In many homes, workplaces and schools, you would find a ‘Red Corner’ or a ‘Lenin Corner’, with the icons of the saints that would once have hung there being replaced by images of the great Soviet leaders. One Party publication indeed urged its readers:
If you meet with difficulties in your work, or suddenly doubt your abilities, think of him – of Stalin – and you will find the confidence you need. If you feel tired in an hour when you should not, think of him – of Stalin – and your work will go well. If you are seeking a correct decision, think of him – of Stalin – and you will find that decision.
Had St Paul been writing to the church in Russia during this period, this would have been the false “philosophy and empty deceit” (2:8) that he would have attacked in his letter. Encouraging people to put their faith in the hands of a mass murderer like Stalin or raising a flawed human like Lenin to the status of demi-god were and are an empty deceit. Many Christians died or suffered greatly seeking to expose this false philosophy and to turn people back to the only person worthy of our worship, Jesus Christ.
In a similar way, Paul in the passage we have just read seeks to turn his hearers away from their own contemporary false “philosophy and empty deceit” (2:8). These verses from Colossians present us with two important challenges, though; challenges that we face with most Bible passages but which are particularly acute here. First, what is the context in which Paul is speaking – what is the specific “empty deceit” he is tackling? Second, what is their application – what on earth do these verses have to say to us here today in Putney? We shall tackle the former issue first.
The context in which the letter to the Colossians was written and the problem that Paul, whom we believe wrote it, is addressing, is a particularly challenging one for Biblical scholars. We face the same problem we encounter with nearly all the New Testament letters: we only have one side of the discussion. Like over-hearing only one person in a telephone conversation, in Colossians and Paul’s other letters we only hear what he has to say about the situation his correspondents face, not what they have said to him. We know that Epaphras has come to Paul and told him what has been happening in the church that he had helped to found (1:7; 4:12), but we do not know what he said.
The situation is especially difficult in Colossians as we have very little additional evidence from other sources, Biblical or non-Biblical ones. We have to rely almost wholly, therefore, on the clues that Paul gives us in the letter. (Tina spoke about some of this last week.) Fortunately, there are several such clues:
- it seems that someone is seeking to take the Colossian Christians “captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe” (2:8);
- it has something to do with “matters of food and drink” (2:16), with people being told, “Do not taste” (2:21) certain things;
- also, with “observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths” (2:16);
- there is an intriguing reference to the “worship of angels” and “dwelling on visions” (2:18); and
- seemingly the Colossians are being urged to adopt certain ascetic practices, “insisting on self-abasement” (2:17), denying themselves certain sensual pleasures (2:21) and practising “severe treatment of the body” (2:23).
There are other hints too within the letter about what is going on. The reference to “a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (2:17) for many commentators seems to be an allusion to the world of Greek philosophy, and its distinction between shadows and reality. There is also an overall impression that those who are seeking to lead the Colossians astray, considered themselves to be better than others: they are “puffed up without cause” (2:18) and seem to enjoy an “an appearance of wisdom” (2:23).
Why is this important? Well, it is important because these are our scriptures, and we need to know what they say! The whole purpose of Bible Month is that we all improve our Biblical literacy and understand more about the book that is central to our worship. It is not enough simply to put a copy of the scriptures on our communion table and claim to be a “people of the book”. Over the last two thousand years, so much evil has been done in the name of this book by people who have not worked or prayed hard enough to understand it. They have simply cried, “For the Bible tell us so,” and gone on to wage war, commit murder and enslave whole nations. We are called to make the effort to understand what our Bible is actually saying.
These verses give a good example of this danger. They can be, and have been, interpreted as being anti-Jewish, or even anti-Semitic; Paul telling the Colossian Christians to have nothing to do with those “puffed up” Jews, with their silly food laws, foolish festivals and ridiculous practice of circumcision (2:11). Ultimately, such interpretations of Paul helped lead to the horrendous heresy of the ‘Aryan Jesus’ of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, which denied the Jewishness of Jesus completely. This found its cruellest and most repellent outlet in the ‘Positive Christianity’ movement that combined elements of Nazi ideology, racial theory and Christianity in 1930s Germany.
Whatever these verses in Colossians have to say they must always be read in the context of the Jewishness of Jesus and all the apostles, the coexistence of Jews and Christians for centuries after Christ’s ministry and what Paul, and other Biblical writer, have to say elsewhere in our New Testament, most notably perhaps Romans 9-11.
The most likely explanation, as Tina mentioned last week, is that Paul here is warning against individuals, probably Jewish, within the Colossian community who are seeking to impose additional burdens and beliefs upon the nascent followers of Jesus, drawn from a variety of sources. Judaism is not a monolithic religion today, with many different varieties of practice and belief (just as in Christianity and Islam). This was even more so in the time of Jesus and Paul and the Colossians. The texts that we have from this time, some of which have survived in the Dead Sea Scrolls and from other sources, indicate a flowering of scriptural interpretation and religious practice in this period. This would be curtailed severely (though not stopped absolutely) by the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, and the establishment of a more orthodox Judaism that resembled much more the practices of the Pharisees.
At the time this letter was written, though, it would seem that the Colossian Christians were coming under pressure to follow additional practices from a particular local form of Jewish-based practices that had been heavily influenced by other sources, hints of which we find in the text: Jewish mysticism, with its reference to angel worship; Greek philosophy, with its assertion of the distinction between shadow and reality; local Phrygian folk religions (Phrygia was the name of the region immediately around ancient Colossae); and ascetic practices of self-denial. Scholars disagree as to the exact nature of this belief system and its practices but this ‘syncretism’, as it is known, is probably what is going in in the background to these verses. It would certainly explain the vehemence of Paul’s language here and his desire to write directly to the Colossians, who are being weighed down with a lot of additional unnecessary spiritual baggage.
I have spent longer than I would usually do in exploring the background to this passage but I make no apologies for that. As I said, if we wish to consider ourselves ‘people of the Book’ then we have to know what it says. However, the more important question remains, what does this all mean for us today? We have little problems with Phrygian folk religions here in Putney today, but each generation and each nation has had its own false philosophies and empty deceits. For the people of early Soviet Russia, as I mentioned earlier, it was the imposed adulation of Lenin and Stalin. For those of Maoist China, it was the personality cult of the ‘Great Helmsman’. In 19th Century Britain and Europe, it was the pseudo-science of racialism that taught the inherent superiority of the white man over all other peoples. So often, it is easiest to see the true nature of these false philosophies only in hindsight. When we read about those who were swept up in the adulation of Chairman Mao or Hitler or Stalin, they often speak of it as being in a trance or some sort of hysteria, and later, when the scales had fallen from their eyes, it seemed almost like a period of insanity.
What is it that leads us astray today, and to what are we being called back? The letter to the Colossians once more provides the answers as we begin its third chapter. Paul returns to the central theme of his letter: all the Colossians need, and all that we ultimately need, has been provided by Christ (3:1-4). There is no need for prayers to angel, for mystic practices, or for pointless asceticism. In Jesus Christ, God has not only given us the perfect example of how to lead our lives, but has freed us from the law of sin and death, and revealed to us the depths of God’s love for each one of us. That is why Paul writes, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (3:2). He calls us to concern ourselves not with that which is temporal and fallible, but with that which is eternal and divine. In all things, to fix our eyes upon Jesus and the Cross.
Paul goes on to highlight that which leads us away from Christ; the hallmarks of false philosophy and empty deceit: lust, greed, anger, malice, slander, lies, deceit (3:5, 3:8-9). If we encounter these traits in ourselves or in the philosophies we espouse, then we encounter the antithesis of Christ. To adapt Paul’s imagery, the clothes – or uniforms – of these empty philosophies may have changed over the millennia, but their heart of deception and manipulation remains unchanged.
Then we have that incredible statement by Paul. A verse that seems light years ahead of its time in the depths of its understanding of God and his human creation:
In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! (Col. 3:11)
We think we are so modern with our understandings of ethnic equality, and are only too well aware of how far we have still to travel in our fight against discrimination and hatred. Yet, here we have words that are nearly 2,000 years old and yet which wipe away all the barriers we still cling to with such tenacity. Those false teachers who sought to lead the Colossians astray were “puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking” (2:18). They looked down on others because they were not as enlightened as they, nor following the same rigorous practices they were. In the same way, for centuries, and even in our own day, people have been puffed up and believed themselves superior to others for matters that were of absolutely no consequence: the colour of their skin; which side of an artificial border they happened to be born on; the language they spoke. If we follow Christ, Paul writes, these divisions no longer matter. And if our philosophies tell us otherwise, then they are wrong and they are leading us away from Christ.
For, if we are in Christ, as Paul has already told the Colossians, then we are like a tree bearing rich and plentiful fruit (1:10). Fruit that all the world may see and recognise: “compassion, kindness, humility … patience” (3:12); forgiveness (3:13); peace; thankfulness (3:15); and encouragement (3:16). Most importantly, if we are truly followers of Jesus Christ, and wish to share in all that God has done through his life, death and resurrection, then we must have love in our hearts for all humanity. Not a schmaltzy, Valentine’s Day love but the real kind of love that actually changes us and our world for the better. Paul is warning the Colossians that it doesn’t matter, if they’re achieving spiritual highs by worshipping with angels, or denying themselves food and drink, or all the rest of it. If their philosophies, do not exhibit the essential qualities of kindness, mercy and universal love, then they are false and deceitful. As Paul writes famously in a letter to another church:
“if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2)
As we look at our nation and our world today, it seems a million miles away from the ancient world of Colossae. Yet the challenges remain the same today as we are battered by the competing philosophies of our own age, and as we struggle to ‘be’ church in the 21st Century. Just as before, we have false teachers leading us away from those qualities that Paul hallowed in his letter to the Colossians, the qualities of mercy, compassion and love; and leading us back to those he rejected – to anger, greed and lies. Philosophies that seek to dehumanise and demonise some people, and deny our common humanity. Philosophies that reject anything spiritual and insist that earthly possessions and wealth are all that matter. Philosophies that unquestionably lead us away from Jesus Christ and his will for each one of us. Let us use these precious words in Colossians as the standard by which we judge all the systems and philosophies of our world. And most importantly, let us reject wholeheartedly and unequivocally all that denies Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
 Central V.I. Lenin Museum: a guide (ed.) M. Derzhavina (S. Popova – English version), Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1979
 David Remnick, Lenin’s Tomb, New York: Random House, 1993, 81; quoted from Philip Yancey, Prayer, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006, 5