Shortly before the “Brexit” vote at the end of June, while flipping through the New York Times over breakfast, my eye caught on page A6 the famous portrait of Henry VIII painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. Being an Episcopalian and a student of the English Reformation, I had to read the accompanying article. The gist of the article was that the English have a history of questioning their “fit” with the rest of the continent. Are they Europeans, or are they not? And if they are, under what conditions, and to what extent? The article quoted Winston Churchill who expressed sentiments still resonant today:
We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked, but not comprised. We are interested and associated, but not absorbed.
This morning our lectionary begins a series of readings from the letter to the Colossians. As I read Colossians, I am reminded of Britain’s question of how it fits (or not) with its neighbors across the Channel. Colossians was written to a community that was predominantly Gentile – they were “with Europe,” as it were – but which also included a minority of Jewish Christians – they were “not of it.” The letter uses Gentile terms such as “knowledge” and “spiritual wisdom” and “understanding” – they were “linked” with their Gentile neighbors – but the letter also uses Jewish concepts such as “redemption” and “sins” and “forgiveness” – they were “not compromised.” Paul uses Gnostic images of “light” and “darkness” – the community is “interested and associated” with its neighbors – but also delivers a specifically Christian message of Jesus, and of faith, hope and love – the Colossians are “not absorbed.”
Galatians – by way of comparison – was written to an almost exclusively Jewish community; and Ephesians to an entirely Gentile community. Colossians – written to a predominantly Gentile community, but with a few Jewish Christians mixed in – was written to community living in a context very similar to ours in Newton. We in Newton – like the Colossians – live in a city that is almost entirely secular… but not quite. We have a few “believers in God” who faithfully attend weekly worship; but for the most part people in Newton seem to find other things to do during worship time. And not just to find other things to do, but to find other things to believe in and guide their lives. Given the similar contexts of Christians in Newton and Colossae, Paul’s letter to the Colossians has much to teach us about what it means to live a faithful Christian life in a secular context.
As we begin to hear from this letter over the next few weeks, here are at least a few of the things we may learn from Colossians:
1) We are like our neighbors. Paul uses “Gentile” language to speak to the Colossians. He uses words like “knowledge” and “philosophy” and “elemental spirits of the universe.” Paul uses these words because the Colossians are like their neighbors and Paul wants to meet them where they are. We are called to be like our neighbors, too – to “smell like the sheep” (to quote Pope Francis) – so that perhaps, through us, our neighbors might meet the Shepherd.
2) We are not like our neighbors. We have “faith in Christ Jesus.” Our lives are marked by “love… for all the saints.” We have “hope… laid up… in heaven,” and have been “rescued… from the power of darkness and transferred… into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” We are like our neighbors… and we are not like our neighbors. We Christians have our own distinct identity. (And in just a moment I’ll say why this distinct identity is important.)
3) It is not easy to live as Christians. We are in the minority! (We are one small nation across the Channel, as it were.) Knowing how difficult it can be to be a Christian in a secular setting, Paul prays for the Colossians: “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience.”
4) How we live – the example we set – makes a difference in the world. In his letter Paul urges the Colossians to: “Clothe yourselves with compassion” (3:12). “Bear with one another” (3:13). “Forgive each other” (3:13). “Clothe yourselves with love” (3:14). “Devote yourselves to prayer” (4:2), and much more. Paul urges the Colossians to do these things because Paul knows that the best way to make a difference in the world is for individual Christians and their communities to live the Gospel in their lives! The neighbors will notice; and perhaps they, too, will meet the Shepherd.
As I read Colossians, I know that – even though we are a minority – we can make a difference in this world. By our faithfulness, by our hope, by our strength, through our love – even as we live among “outsiders” (4:5) – as we live true to Jesus’ example, as we are “mature in Christ” (1:28), God will use us “to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you” (1:27).
I think we all know, from the events of this past week, how much our world needs the Shepherd. How much our world needs us to be followers of our Shepherd. We may not live in Louisiana, St. Paul or Dallas, but what we can do here in Newton is to live among and like our neighbors, to enter fully into the reality of our shared human existence – to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep. We are to be “with them,” “linked,” “interested and associated” so that we might “smell like the sheep.” AND… we are also called to be distinct: not “of them,” not “compromised,” not “absorbed.” For they – our world – is counting on us to be different. The world is counting on us to live lives faithful to the gospel, to know Christ intimately, and to be agents of his hope and healing in our fallen world.
Yesterday in the Roman church’s calendar was the commemoration of Augustine Zhao Rong, a Chinese Christian martyred in 1815. Augustine had been a soldier and came to the faith because of the witness of another Christian, an elderly bishop whom Augustine was assigned to guard as the bishop was transported to the place of his martyrdom. Augustine was so moved by the humility and kindness of this holy man that he quit the army and became a Christian himself, eventually being ordained to the priesthood and then himself martyred.
To manifest Christ in this world is not easy. We are a minority and may be called to “endure everything with patience,” as Paul writes. But as we live faithful Christian lives, manifesting Christ in our own lives – our neighbors will take notice. Like the elderly bishop and Augustine Zhao Rong, who knows what may be the impact of our life on those around us?