Thursday, March 28, 2013

Colossians 3 - Patience and Forgiveness in a Community of Freedom

Counter Cultural Christianity in a World of Empire 
(part 3 of 7)

In the third chapter of Colossians, Paul applies Jesus' supremacy and our freedom to our unity and community among his followers.

This chapter makes direct reference to different genders, ethnicities, and social classes. Clearly, the church is diverse, and this is exactly as Jesus intended it to be. In him we are made one, and those differences that may have once created inequality have been removed.

Since we have been set free, and all are one in Jesus, our behaviour should change to reflect this. We do not lord it over or control one another. We speak to one another with respect and dignity, not lies or slander. No matter what our previous life or class may have been, we now act in this new Jesus-life with gentleness, patience, and love for all. When we are slighted or offended, we forgive.

Colossians 3:1-2 (ESVUK)
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.

In his resurrection, Jesus was glorified to the highest place in all of heaven and earth. He is King and Lord. Since you were made eternally alive and free by him, don't continue to live as though you value the worthless temporary anxieties and pleasures of earth. Live your new eternal life in and for Jesus.

Most of the letters of the New Testament begin with absolute and complete claims of theology, and end with practical application of that theology in a world of ever-changing realities. Colossians is no different. The first two chapters of Colossians outline first the supreme authority of Jesus over all other authorities on earth, legal, cultural, natural, or otherwise, and then go on to describe the radical justice, peace, and freedom for all those under this authority. We have been created and redeemed for freedom, and manifest that freedom even in resistance to the rebellious agents of the empires of the world that would seek to keep us bound. We approach one another, women and men, slave and free, all ethnicities, as equals, no matter how the empire may seek to keep us separated.

If Colossians were to stop there, it would be a text of ideals with no application. The reality of everyday life lived in the empire is far more difficult than a simple change of mind. The Kingdom of God is not something meant to be accepted simply as a doctrinal statement, but realized in our lives lived out in the empire every day.

Paul, the writer of this letter, had no use for slavery. Outside of his use of the word in theological terms (like when he describes adherence to religious codes for one's salvation "slavery"), he also uses the word negatively to describe any time human beings dare to apply their codes of legality or righteousness on others.

Galatians 4:7 (ESVUK)
So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.

Galatians 5:1 (ESVUK)
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

1 Corinthians 7:23 (ESVUK)
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

But how does one live this reality in a world built on slavery? It may well have been right and good for the early Jesus Followers to demand that all slaves be released. However, in their world, still controlled by the Empire of Rome, this may not do anything to improve the lives of those freed individuals. Slaves and women were denied not only citizenship, but even the status of personhood. They were property. To go only one step toward freedom would leave these former slaves homeless and exiled, forced to flee the law that would continue to keep them bound.

The reality would have to be far more radical. As long as the empire was in power, none were truly free in the practical sense. A radical overthrow of the whole system was necessary, not individual reforms.

And this is still true today.

Among my anarchist friends who see the government as it is as entirely corrupt, and seek an ideal new order to entirely replace it, many still vote. I know many a radical environmentalist that seeks to end all use of fossil fuels, everywhere on earth, yet they still choose to drive a car. These need not be seen as inconsistencies, and accusations of hypocrisy in such cases are more often used to deflect the uncomfortable suggestions of the idealist rather than confront a truth that may convict us to change. However, they may be seen as examples of the reality of ideals as they begin to be made manifest in a world not yet fully redeemed to justice.

Like the Colossians, we also live in a world built on slavery. For most of us with the privilege of literacy to be able to read these words, our clothes, homes, cars, jobs, and lifestyles are made possible because of a worldwide system that keeps hundreds in poverty for the sake of our comfort.

How do we, who claim to be followers of Jesus, truly manifest his complete justice in a world constructed on subjugation of the poor?

This is a difficult question, as are many like it that seek to practically live an ideal in a less-than-ideal world. They do not have easy answers. But such questions are those that separate a truly counter cultural community from empty rhetoric.

The community of Christ is a community of unity and peace.

In all of our relationships, we are to reflect Jesus, loving, forgiving, and serving in the same way as he did for us. In family or work, we seek to reflect the character of Jesus as fully as we are able in every relationship we have, inside and outside of our community of faith.

We are always reminding one another of Jesus in our deeds and our words. We humbly and boldly speak the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ to one another often. Our community looks like Jesus, sounds like Jesus, and talks about Jesus. We do everything for Jesus and in his name.

Colossians 3:12-15 (ESVUK)
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.

You are part of God's family, his people. Since we belong to God, we act as he does here on earth. We reflect his nature of forgiveness and love. In all of your relationships, consider God's relationship with us. He forgave you. Forgive others. He is patient with you. Be patient with others. Love is the key to all of this. If you act according to the love of God toward one another, everything else will follow.

Colossians 3:16-17 (ESVUK)
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Let the truth of Jesus be constantly in your heart, thoughts, speech, and actions. Massage the message of truth, love and freedom deep into every fibre of your community. Talk about it together. Sing about it together. Sing to one another about it, together. Encourage one another. Correct each other. Teach each other. And in everything you do, say, or sing, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, for his sake and glory, humbly giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Everything in community is done in imitation of Jesus, in the power of Jesus, for the glory of Jesus. To authentically love and forgive people as this verse suggests, I need to know Jesus well. If I don't love him, or receive his love for me, I can't love others. If I take credit for my good deeds, I am not relying in him, his power in my life will dry up, and my ability to love and forgive will fail.

The debt of the Kingdom is only love owed one to another. The law of the Kingdom is to minister to each other the same forgiveness, grace, and patience that have been ministered to us by the King. Only when each of us seeks to love others as we have been loved can the Kingdom be truly manifest. Only when we receive the love and freedom offered are we able to share it with others.

Still, the reality of a patriarchal and unjust hierarchical system continues to exist in the world around us. In my next entry, I will wrestle with the difficult passages in Colossians’ third and fourth chapters about slavery and patriarchy.

Next - Part 4 (of 7) - Empire. Slavery. Chains. Freedom. - Colossians 4

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