Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Colossians 2 – “Do not taste, touch or handle” - How Free May We Be?

Counter Cultural Christianity in a World of Empire 
(part 2 of 7)

The freedom in this passage is astounding. Incredible. In bondage to rules and regulations and old oppressive authorities, we have died. Those old rules will do nothing to lead us toward the freedom, justice, and grace that Christ offers us. He is the king who sets us free.

Colossians 2:8-10 (ESVUK)
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.

This letter makes claims of absolute truth. In it, Jesus is proclaimed to be the ultimate sovereign authority.

To a people struggling under the weight of hierarchical and oppressive empire (both us and the letter's original recipients) such claims may seem outrageous, even offensive at the first reading. However, the authority of Jesus is a different and necessary one if we truly desire emancipation from the empire's control.

Scripture claims the authority of The Kingdom of God is a divine authority, the highest, and Jesus is king. The Roman Empire in the first century, and the empires created by economic globalization today both hold their authority through power and control. That power is administered through economic control and military strength, and is maintained through sophisticated webs of propaganda. Though the just Kingdom of God may very well be growing from within the empire, the strength of the empire still remains. Colossians compares these competing realities, and challenges us to live as citizens of the Kingdom now, in resistance to empire even as its control remains. The good news is in the submission to the authority of the Kingdom, not individual autonomy.

If all individuals are equally free and sovereign individuals unto themselves, there is no reason why in their freedom they should not each choose to use whatever power they command to influence or control others. A dedicated system of checks and balances to govern the "free" community life within a republic of sovereign individuals may itself devolve into a tyranny. With no authority higher than that of the autonomous individual, it will always be in the higher interest of every individual to seek their own benefit, even at the expense of others. This old philosophical idea is called the Prisoner's Dilemma, and its consequences have been observed countless times throughout human history.

On the other hand, if individuals each choose to invoke their own preferred higher divine authority, upon what foundation shall they make that choice? If we do not claim any higher authority that speaks in a voice other than our own, to a standard higher than our own, we have done no more than created a construct of our imagination, an idol. No empire ever need fear idols. In fact, idols have always been under the control of empire. In Rome this was seen explicitly in emperor cults and regional nationalistic gods of personality. Our empires today still use traditions and idolatry to control the masses. Of course we see this in the use of religion to strongarm a population to support parties and policies. But even outside of religion explicitly, the principalities of this world will always use the people's own constructs against them.

The authority of the Kingdom is different. To submit oneself to the King of kings is to acknowledge and walk within an authority higher than that of any power or dominion on earth. Kingdom Citizens recognize an authority that has called them completely, utterly, irreversibly free. Followers of Jesus surrender to a judge that holds every person, every empire, every nation, accountable for their selfishness, indulgence, greed, and injustice. The slave and the slave-owner, father and child, teacher and student, king and subject, will both stand before the same judge and each will be called to account. In fact, scripture tells us that those who claim power on earth will be judged by an even higher standard.

We recognize a freedom purchased for us that cannot be revoked. We share in a community of equals that approaches one another with the humility of those given an alien freedom, with the boldness of those enabled to be utterly and completely and wholly free.

God's wisdom and God's message is entirely about Jesus. Worldly wisdom is no more than vain babbling by comparison. Following Jesus' way is freedom. The world's way is nothing more than legends and superstitions that make you bound to a system of rules and false authorities.
Jesus, the Messiah, anointed of God, is fully God and fully human. In Jesus, you are now free to be fully who God intended you to be through faith. Jesus, who has completed you, is the head over every power and authority.

Colossians 2:13-15 (ESVUK)
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

When we were completely unable in your own efforts to do anything as God intended, he gave us Jesus, and the power to be like him. He forgave us all our sins, letting us off the hook for our previous inability to do rightly. He destroyed all of the laws that stood in accusation of us, controlling us and exposing our imperfection. When he died, it died with him. With it, he took the power away from every false authority to confuse, accuse, or oppress. In his willing death at the hand of a violent empire, he exposed all violence and oppression for what it was. What looked like their victory was actually his. He turned the tables, and took away all the power and authority they ever had, utterly defeating them. 

Colossians 2:20-23
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

The world loves to arbitrarily impose standards and control. It seems like there is a new fad every week about what is or isn't acceptable to say or do. It never lasts, and it never matters. It has nothing to do with the freedom and grace of Jesus, so let it go. Be free.
The world's rules always look like the right thing to do from a certain perspective. It certainly does take discipline to follow all of the "correct" traditions of the culture around us, and there are always compelling reasons to back them up. There is also a pressure to fit in and look cool as well. But no matter what the reasons for restricting yourself, outside of Jesus it is just a lot of emptiness, unable to actually do anything or improve anyone, including the person practicing them. Don't be silly. Be free.

On the other hand, I am free, yes, but so are my brothers and sisters. They are as free to make mistakes and try new things and serve radically as I am. Sometimes, their freedom may impose upon me to join them in their radical service.

I live in community. We share a home, a house of hospitality. Any one of those people in our community could bring by anyone at any time. What if someone brings by someone messy, or smelly, or annoying, or even dangerous? What if someone in my community, out of a desire to help and serve the less fortunate, brings someone difficult by this house, where my children eat and play? What if they come by when I'm not at my best, when I don't feel like serving a stranger?

But I want that same freedom. I want that same freedom, in my own home, to make thoughtful, discerning choices to serve and to love and to help however I am able, in whatever way God has called me to do it. Sometimes, I'll make mistakes. Sometimes, I might bring the wrong person by at the wrong time, and someone might get offended.

Kate and I once started and developed an outreach, drop-in style ministry for troubled youth at a church in Southern Alberta. We had no idea what we were doing. In those first few weeks, we dealt with damaged buildings, police harassment, drugs and alcohol used by minors on our property under our care, violence, the list goes on. It was a steep learning curve.

Many churches would have shut us down after our first attempt. This one didn't. They encouraged us to be free, to explore the difficult regions of loving and serving the difficult to love and serve. And we did learn. And we repaired walls and cleaned up and dealt with consequences. And in the three years that we had the privilege of being a part of that ministry, the actual damages and consequences turned out to be few compared to the hundreds (possibly thousands) of young people who were personally affected by the selfless and loving efforts of the ministry team that served them. Many of the high school aged people involved said that this ministry defined their high school years, and was the light for them in dark times.

The freedom bought for us in Jesus is the freedom to make the kinds of crazy mistakes that we made in that ministry, especially at the beginning. The freedom bought for us in Jesus is the freedom to live our lives in community, real community, with brothers and sisters who are all trying out risky and selfless endeavors of love around and with us.

It's very messy. It isn't just costly because of our own freedom, it's costly because of the freedom of those around us.

It's tempting to put a lid on it. It's tempting to stand up and fight for our own personal rights, thereby essentially pushing our own agenda onto others, limiting them in the ways that we'd prefer not to be limited.

I am reminded, of course, of healthy boundaries. To minister effectively, we each do need to be full and healthy. We need to be ministered too as well as minister. What if this doesn't mean fighting for the edges of our own boundaries? What if we didn't have to? What if the freedom we've received in Jesus is manifest by each of us in fighting for one another instead of ourselves? If I've got a family at my back, suddenly I feel a lot more free to get the back of someone less fortunate than myself.

I am free, yes. But I also must not use my freedom as an opportunity to control others. We're all figuring this out together, this look-like-Jesus stuff. I need the freedom to get it wrong sometimes, or to try it out and learn to do it better. I also want to offer that freedom to others. I want to enable this freedom by incurring the cost of others mistakes with grace. I want to enable this freedom by shouldering the burdens of other's freedom with grace. This is community. We're in this together.

Freedom. Freedom to love. Freedom to serve. Freedom to put others first.

Freedom to be served, and loved, and be put first by others.

Freedom to serve a king who washes my feet.

Such freedom exists in a community that consistently manifests forgiveness, patience, and gentleness together. These are the subjects of Colossians chapter 3, as it explores the practical manifestation of freedom shared with others.

Next - Part 3 (of 7) - Patience and Forgiveness in a Community of Freedom - Colossians 3

v10 – Jesus is King over every power and authority. He is the ultimate authority, the final authority, the highest authority.
v11 – New covenant circumcision is the cutting off of the old nature by faith.
v13 – Though dead in sin, we are made alive by Jesus, and forgiven.
v14 – CANCELED the written code. Interesting.
v15 – The cross displayed worldly power and authority for the foolish mockery that it is. Jesus reigns.
v16 – Paul takes time to make corrections in every one of his letters. He is very, very certain of the grace of God, and will not tolerate one fraction of a hair of compromise into legalism.
Legalism is offensive to Christ.
The POWERS and AUTHORITIES of this world (knowledge of good and evil. our feeble attempts to make ourselves into gods. self-autonomy. etc.) have been triumphed over by Christ. DO NOT FLIRT WITH THEM.
vv20-23 – Worth memorizing.

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