Sunday, November 20, 2016

Reign of Christ

Colossians 1
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

It feels unfair to use the pulpit to single out individuals.

People who are convinced of their own certainty.
People to develop a position and suggest it’s the cure for everything.
People who attack elites and suggest they know better.
People who know how to attract a crowd and mesmerize them with their self-made philosophy.

Yes, I’m talking about you, Phineas Quimby. Do you know about Phineas Quimby? You may not know the name—unless you’re time-traveling in today from nineteenth-century New England—but you will likely have heard of some his disciples: Mary Baker Eddy, Norman Vincent Peale, and most recently Rhonda Byrne, author of the insidious—but highly lucrative—book called The Secret.

All of these people, Quimby, Eddy, Peale and Byrne are adherents of the New Thought movement, a movement that begins with the idea that we are imbued with divine intelligence and generally culminates in the idea that we make our own reality. For the New Thought crowd, illness begins in the mind and “right thinking” is the secret to healing and wellness.*

But more about Quimby. Born the son of a blacksmith, he survived childhood tuberculosis without any real help from the doctors of his day, and seemed to discover the pain relief that comes with shot of adrenaline, this through riding his horse recklessly. His interest in alternative medicine led him to the work of a certain Dr. Mesmer (as in mesmerized), and the new practice of hypnosis and soon the general belief that most diseases begin in the mind.

Now, if you think it’s unfair to attack a man that has been dead for 150 years, I give you a tweet from @thesecret sent yesterday afternoon: “Remember, life is mirroring back to you what you are holding inside you. Therefore, your happiness is an inside job.” In other words, what every befalls you, disease, poverty, depression, even violence is your own fault—according to the New Thought people—because “life is mirroring back to you what you are holding inside you.”

And this false belief is so dangerous, and so enduring, that even St. Paul (may) have had a go at it. I say ‘may’ because the scholars can’t agree on precisely what Paul was railing against in Colossians, but “creating your own reality” is a leading contender. I will let you decide.

Colossians begins with the moving passage Lang read this morning, literally a hymn to the ‘firstborn of creation,’ the visible image of an invisible God, Jesus the Christ. He is ‘before all things, and in him all things are held together.’ He is the head of the body, the church. God’s fullness is pleased to dwell in him, and “all things are reconciled by his death on the cross.”

We can’t know for sure if Paul is writing a hymn or quoting a hymn, though scholars suggest the latter. What ever the origin, his words are the counter-argument presented by Paul before he defines the problem. Maybe he knew the readers were self-aware enough that he didn’t need to state the problem, or maybe Paul was practicing some kind of rhetorical strategy—either way, Paul begins in song and then turns to the vexing problem in chapter two.

“See to it,” he says, “that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” (2.8) And then he loops back to his introduction, restating this high sense of Christ and Christ’s meaning:

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority.

So what is this “hollow and deceptive philosophy” from human tradition, a tradition that points to the “elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ”? We don’t know—it’s not clear.

Some scholars look at the totality of Paul and suggest this is another dig that the Law of Moses, another attempt to discredit strict adherence to the law as practiced in homes and synagogues. And there is no question that this was an issue for Paul, particularly since tension between Jews and Jewish Christians was an abiding theme for the group we will come to call the early church. But if Paul is talking about the law, why wouldn’t he just say it? A tradition that points to the “elemental spiritual forces of this world” rather than to Christ sounds different—something more fundamental than adherence to the law.

What we need are clues and context, and maybe then we can find the answer. We need to look for another place where some sort of failure is corrected by the idea that Jesus is “visible image of an invisible God.” So our first clue is found in 2 Corinthians 4:

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake... (4-5)

We do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord. Good clue, since the problem “depends on human tradition” and nothing depends on human tradition more than proclaiming ourselves rather than God. So we seem to have a sense of the direction of the problem, and we have another clue. This one comes in Paul’s closing remarks:

After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans (lay-odd-di-see-an) and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea. (4.16)

And why would he ask that? I gonna go way out on a limb here and suggest whatever was troubling Paul about the church at Colossae was also troubling him about the church at Laodicea. And to follow this clue, we’re going to need a map. Just ten miles downriver from Colossae, in the heart of the Lycus Valley, is Laodicea. Famous for it’s hard to pronounce name, it’s medical school, and (mostly) for this rather unflattering mention in the Book of Revelations:

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ (15-17)

Yikes! And the history back this up. In 60 AD, this area of what we now call Western Turkey was devastated by a massive earthquake, and Laodicea was completely destroyed. Imperial aid was offered—neighbouring Hierapolis took it—but Laodicea refused to take it, they could rebuild themselves.** They didn’t need the help.

So we’re looking for a “hollow and deceptive philosophy” from human tradition, a tradition that points to the “elemental spiritual forces of this world” and I’m going to call it wealth. Or more precisely, the sense of self-possession that comes with feeling self-made, not needing others, and making sure everyone knows. Here we are, 2,000 years on, and we’re still aware that Laodicea didn’t need imperial help. Why? Because they told everyone who would listen. Or as the author of Revelations has them say “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.”

And I’m going to go even further out on a limb and suggest that these lukewarm Laodiceans and their equally smug neighbours in Colossae wore it like a philosophy. The “elemental spiritual forces of this world” was probably just some New Thought nonsense that they were prosperous because they thought wealthy thoughts, or attracted money to themselves through the power of positive thinking.

And Paul understands these people and knows that only the highest sense of Christ and his place at the moment of creation is the antidote to this type of thinking. Writing today he might say ‘don’t call on the universe to answer your problems, call on the ‘firstborn of creation,’ the one who made the universe and all the blessings found there in.

I want to finish with another song, a song I may be guilty of choosing too often, and therefore we aren’t singing today. When the author of Revelations has such unkind things to say, he goes even further than what I shared a moment ago. His critique of the Laodiceans goes like this:

You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.

If these words sound vaguely familiar, it may be because Charlotte Elliot included then in her most famous hymn, “Just as I am.” Those who describe the hymn most often say it was ill-health and depression that inspired the hymn, but reading Revelations, seems more likely it was her wealth. She too understood the peril of Laodicea, and Colossae, and everyone who credits their success to themselves, and she wrote for them:

Just as I am - poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need, in Thee to find,
-O Lamb of God, I come!

**Ross Lockhart, “Lessons from Laodicea”


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