Saturday, October 28, 2006

colossians and communion (a teaching)

Here is a teaching I gave a while ago that gives an overview to Colossians and highlights an ancient way of looking at communion. I hope this helps you in some way.


Remembering Christ and his Cross
a teaching by Troy Cady

As we dig into our study of Colossians, it is important to have an understanding of its big themes and the conditions under which it was written. That's what this teaching will touch on. Then, after that, we'll take a look at the subject of communion and its significance as it relates to Paul's teaching in this letter.

So, without further ado, let's dig in:

The letter to the Colossians was written by the Apostle Paul when he was under house arrest in Rome. While there, he was allowed to receive visitors. On one occasion, Paul received a runaway slave named Onesimus. Onesimus was owned by a man named Philemon who was a member of the church that met in Colosse. Through Paul’s ministry, Onesimus came to faith in Christ and matured in his faith. There was another man named Epaphras who came to visit Paul. Epaphras started the church in Colosse and he visited Paul in Rome. When Paul heard some of the things that were happening in Colosse and other churches, he decided to write letters to them and send them with a man named Tychicus to deliver. When Tychicus left Rome to deliver the letters, he took Onesimus with him to bring back to his master Philemon who lived in Colosse. Because of the new-found faith of Onesimus, Paul wrote a special letter to Philemon, asking him to (first) not punish Onesimus and (second) receive him as a brother in Christ. This letter is called Philemon and you can read it in the Bible. Tychicus also carried with him letters to the church in Ephesus and to the church in Laodicea, which was only 12 miles from Colosse. And, finally, another letter was sent to the church in Colosse, which is what we're looking at in this teaching.

As I’ve been studying the background concerning the delivery of the letter to the Colossians, something hit me: I learned that Tychicus had to travel more than 1,000 miles to deliver these letters! That was quite an accomplishment in his day! Just imagine what it would be like to walk all that way with those letters in your care. (I wonder if Tychicus “took a peek” along the way. I know I would have!)

And, as I thought “I wonder what it would have been like to be Tychicus?” it struck me: “In some ways, we are Tychicus. “ We are now the bearers of this letter, and God is entrusting to us the care and reading of it for our soul’s benefit and for the benefit of believers assembled everywhere throughout the world. What an awesome privilege! We are Tychicus! We have the chance to “take a peek” at this letter and learn from it while we are on our journey to deliver it to others. (So, I think I’ll change my name: don’t call me Troy; call me “Troychicus!”)

That was a pun, in case you didn't notice. You can laugh now. Thanks.

Okay, one final note about the history of this letter: shortly after the Colossians read it, their city was destroyed by an earthquake. It’s a miracle we even have this letter! God went out of His way to save it for us. That means, that when you open up the Bible and look at the book of Colossians, you are looking at a miracle. What a privilege to be here 20 centuries later reading this!

So, let’s take advantage of this opportunity. Let’s dig into it together. Let’s look now at the actual content of the letter.

A couple of notes here:

One, the letter to the Colossians is a lot like Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In fact, as I’ve been studying Colossians, I’ve thought: “Wow! Did Paul use a form letter?”

For starters, Paul uses the same general structure. In Ephesians, the first half of the book (chapters 1, 2 and 3) contain some general principles about our faith and the second half (chapters 4, 5 and 6) contain the everyday practicalities of those principles. Paul does the same thing in the book of Colossians. Chapters 1 and 2 (the first half of the letter) contain general principles about our faith and chapters 3 and 4 (the second half) contain the everyday practicalities. So, the general structure of Colossians resembles that of Ephesians.

But, the similarities apply not just to the broad strokes of the two letters but also to the tiny details: Paul uses either

A. identical phrases, words, and sentences
B. very similar phrases, words, and sentences in both letters.

Beleive it or not, because of this, I composed a chart (which I can make available to you, if you want. Just ask.) to show the parallel structure and wording between those two letters. If you’re a nerd like me and you get into stuff like that, you’ll be amazed at the similarities. In particular, I’m comforted by this because it reminds me that no matter where you live, whether you are in Ephesus or in Colosse (or in Madrid or London or Timbuktu), there are some things you can always count on! These letters contain truths that apply to everyone, including us. They are both timeless and universal in application.

Those are some similarities. Now, I’d like to look at what distinguishes the letter to the Colossians from the letter to the Ephesians. In light of all the similarities, the fact remains: Paul saw fit to write a separate letter to the Colossians. Why? I believe part of the reason is because there were some particular things going on in Colosse that Paul needed to address separately. Specifically, the Colossians were struggling with two groups of Christians that were getting “off the rails” a bit. They were departing from the course Jesus intended for us.

The first group was called the “Judaizing” Christians. These were Jewish people who became followers of Jesus who had questions about their old traditions. Specifically they were asking, “Should we continue to observe the laws God gave us in the Old Testament?” “In order to be saved,” they asked, “do we need to keep obeying all the laws in the Pentateuch?” In Colossians 2:16-17 we can see Paul’s advice to the Judaizing Christians: “…do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

The second group troubling the church in Colosse was called the “Gnostic” Christians. Gnosticism was a complex philosophical thought-grid. Adherents to Gnostic thought believed they possessed a “secret” knowledge about the nature of the spiritual and material worlds. They called this secret knowledge “The Gnosis” and they believed that only a select few possessed it. Of course, this was probably true on one level: Only a select few did possess the true “Gnosis” because the average person had difficulty deciphering their web-like philosophy!

Gnosticism tried to understand things through diagramming the universe. These diagrams included detailed descriptions of different kinds of angels and “gods”, placing the earth and its inhabitants at the bottom echelon of existence. So Gnostic Christians started to develop “sophisticated” exercises to acquire this secret, spiritual knowledge. They included prayers to angels in their disciplines.

Paul addressed the Gnostic Christians when he wrote: “Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head…” (which Paul identifies as Jesus Christ).

You can see that, though Paul was dealing with two very different kinds of problems (Judaizing and Gnostic Christianity), he was able to address both with one revolutionary truth: “Don’t forget: it’s all about Jesus!” And, though we feel we can’t relate to the problems the Colossians had, I would assert: the issues we face today are really just the same things in a different century…

How many times do we try to add to the basic message that “it’s all about Jesus”? Like the Judaizing Christians of the first century, we Christians of the 21st century say the same thing in a different guise: “Knowing Jesus isn’t enough,” we say with our actions if not with our words. “You’ve got to do this and do that to be a true Christian. What’s more: you shouldn’t do this and you shouldn’t do that if you want to be a true Christian.” (We may be more like the Judaizing Christians than we realize!)

So, remember: it’s all about Jesus. He sets us free from all those petty rules. Paul says: “[Jesus] forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.”

This begs the question: what does Judaizing Christianity look like in your life? Think about that, then remember: Jesus forgives. He has canceled the written code. It’s nailed to the cross. He’s not “keeping track” of your right and wrong. Let him set you free.

Now: in a similar fashion, we also resemble the Gnostic Christians. Not only do we say (like the Judaizers), “Here’s what you have to do in order to be a true Christian”, but sometimes we also say (like the Gnostics): “Here’s what you have to know to be a good Christian.”

Some Christians do this in over-emphasizing “correctness” of doctrine. We draw lines: “This is what you must believe about baptism or communion or the spiritual gifts or women or the rapture or the millennium. And if you don’t believe my way, you must not be a Christian.”

And, if doctrinal distinction isn’t your thing, sometimes we generally behave as though the Christian with the most up-to-date repository of “secret Christian truths” is the best Christian. If you doubt this assertion, here’s what it looks like: “Have you read this book yet? Have you heard this speaker yet? Wow! They really know their stuff!” We idolize people based on what they know and their ability to pass on “deeper” truths. We have our little “clubs of Christians-who-know-things-that-others-don’t-know.” And, while we don’t keep this knowledge secret like the Gnostics of the first century, we must admit there is an air of exclusivity to it all.

In the midst of this, Paul reminds us: “Let me clue you in on a little secret: there is no secret!” All you need to know is found in Jesus! “In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form”! You don’t have to wonder anymore, feeling as though you’re “missing something.” We can “know the mystery of God.” That’s because we can know the one “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”: namely, Christ.

So, if you’ve ever felt weighed down by how much other people know about the Bible or Christianity, and how “little” you know: take courage! You know all you need to know: it’s all about Christ. And if you’ve been investigating Christianity and wondering what it’s all about and you’ve been “Studying” topics like prayer and what the church is and suffering and how to read the Bible and all kinds of deep philosophical questions, this is to say: look no further! Jesus is the one word that puts to rest all the words, words, words that have been rolling around in your head.

Jesus is the center. Around Him the universe draws its circumference: He is the One Person all others use as a point of reference. And his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead is The One Event towards which all history is directed: past, present, and future. Paul tells us it all comes down to a single Person and a single Event. In the letter to the Colossians (and to us!), Paul reminds us of the sufficiency of Christ and his cross.

That leads us to what we’re going to do next: Communion. Taking the Lord’s Supper reminds us of the sufficiency of Christ and his cross. Communion reminds us that Jesus is enough. His death on the cross for us is enough. His body and blood is enough. He is all we really need.

Now: since we’re studying the book of Colossians, I thought I’d interface the topic of Communion with our study. In Colossians, Paul doesn’t address the topic of the Lord’s Supper directly, but there are images that can help us understand it better. I’d like to point out two of those images.

Both images are found in one place (Colossians 1:21-22): “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation…”

When I read those verses I’m reminded first off that we were once God’s enemies, but through Christ and his forgiveness we can be God’s friends. That’s what the Lord’s Supper is all about. We were created to be God’s friends (the story goes), but we decided to walk away from God. God could have justifiably punished us with a death sentence for this, since any time we walk away from the One who gives life, we lose life. But, the good news is: God wasn’t indifferent about our decision to walk away. Because God loved us so much, He decided to chase after us by sending His Son Jesus to bring us back to Him. Rather than strike back at us, God chose to forgive us.

The Bible tells us that Jesus’ death on the cross was the vehicle through which God chose to forgive us because, through the cross, God at one and the same time showed justice and mercy. He was just in that Jesus as a Man paid the penalty that all mankind should have paid by dying in our place, and he was merciful in that Jesus as God paid the infinite penalty that only God could have paid. Jesus, the innocent one, sacrificed Himself so we could be friends with God again.

And, since the Lord’s Supper reminds us of the Body and Blood of Jesus, it reminds us how God and Humanity became friends again. That’s what the Lord’s Supper means, according to these verses. But, that’s not all: there’s another image here!

The thing I love about Scripture is that you can get multiple things out of a single passage. So, here’s the other thing I saw: Christ makes us not only God’s friends; His Body and Blood also make us whole, complete, and healthy. That’s what the words “holy” and “without blemish” signify in the text under consideration here. These words contain the idea that God is our healer. Body and soul. Thus, God’s medicine to cure our sickness is both spiritual and physical. This idea had big implications for the Gnostics and it holds significance for us today, too. Here’s how:

One of the features of Gnosticism was their unique view of the physical universe (including our bodies): they believed that all material things were either evil (at worst), or peripheral to our existence (at best). This resulted in several “brands” of Gnostic spirituality; one brand was Stoicism. The Stoics believed that our bodies were evil and should therefore be tamed with extreme asceticism. We could call the path to salvation in the Stoic system “The Road of Self-Flagellation”. To tame the body, the Stoics did things like whip themselves.

Another brand of Gnostic spirituality was represented by the Epicureans. They believed the body was peripheral to existence and therefore they could do whatever they wanted with their bodies. Because of this, they held drinking parties, took hallucinogenic substances, and engaged in sexual orgies.

If those two groups represented Gnosticism outside of Christianity, it took on a different form within Christianity. One group of “Christian” Gnostics was called the Docetists. Because of their belief that the body itself was evil, the Docetists taught that Jesus wasn’t really a human--he only seemed to be human.

This was a big deal for the early Christians because, first of all, they believed that

A. Only God could save,
B. Only that which God became could be saved.

Therefore, if Christ wasn’t human, humans aren’t saved by his work.

Second, it was important that Jesus was human because they believed that Christ’s redemption extended to all of creation. Indeed, they believed that Christ was the creator of creation: “…by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…” This flew in the face of the Gnostics who believed that creation was evil or peripheral.

That’s why early Christians emphasized: if Christ is the Savior of the world, He is not only the one who saves our souls; He is also the one who saves our bodies. The creation, far from being evil itself, has simply been “subjected to frustration” by Satan and sin. So, Paul taught the early Christians that creation (which had been marred and wounded by Satan and sin) experiences healing by God’s participation in creation in the real person of Jesus.

This is where communion comes in: Our participation in the saving life of Jesus Christ is not just something we experience in our soul, but something we physically partake of in the communion elements. That’s why Paul tells us that we appear before God “without blemish”. We were once sick, blemished; now we are healed, whole and holy.

That’s why when leaders in the ancient church thought about communion they thought of it as medicine. One leader (Gregory of Nyssa) wrote: “Man has a two-fold nature, composed of both body and soul. Both must therefore play their part in joining those who would be saved to him who leads them to life. The soul is united with him by faith…But the way in which the body comes to participate in its saviour and to be united with him is different. Those who have been deceived into taking a poison use another drug to counter its harmful effects. Moreover the antidote, just like the poison, must enter a man’s system, so that its healing effect may be thereby spread throughout his whole body. Such was our case. We had eaten something that was disintegrating our nature…” [Here he is referring to the “forbidden fruit”!] “It follows, therefore, that we were in need of something to restore what had been disintegrated; we needed an antidote which would enter into us and so by its counteraction undo the harm already introduced into the body by the poison. And what is this remedy? It is the body which proved mightier than death and became the source of our life.”

As you read this, imagine that you are sitting in a hospital ward. In fact, you are sitting in an emergency room. And all of us have a sickness that must be cured or we will die. Our root illness is the same: we’ve all been infected with the same disease: sin and rebellion against God. This sickness has even, in many ways, affected our bodies, literally. The communion elements, signifying the physical body and blood of the Lord Jesus are the antidote. Jesus’ forgiveness is the remedy. He is the healer, body and soul. In taking Him inside (in believing) you partake of health, life, and wholeness because His “is the body which proved mightier than death and became the source of our life.”

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