Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow on 28th July 2019 –
6th Sunday after Trinity
Colossians 2 vv 6 – 15 – Freedom from regulation through life in Christ
Luke 11 vv 1 – 13 – Jesus’ teaching on prayer
Theme: Beware of false teaching
1. Introduction. When I first looked at the readings for this Sunday, I thought, ‘That’s obvious, I must preach on the gospel reading, Jesus’ teaching on prayer, including the Lord’s Prayer. I can’t make much sense of the reading from Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians’. Then on reflection, I thought, ‘If I, with the reading in front of me, am not making much sense of it, how much more difficult will the congregation find it, just hearing it read, albeit it is read clearly and with meaning. I must accept the challenge.’ First though, one little anecdote related to Jesus’ teaching. It is probably not often these days that a neighbour comes round asking for a loaf of bread, certainly not at midnight. I do though recall my Mother telling me that our immediate neighbour came round in the days of rationing in the late 1940s and asked my mother for some tea leaves and could he have them in an eggcup, so that he knew how much to return. He neither returned the tea nor the eggcup! Let us remember to return thanks to God for answered prayer.
2. Colossae. Back to Colossians. The city of Colossae was a Roman colony in the province of Asia, towards the W of modern Turkey. It was not far, about 10 miles, from the Roman city of Laodicea, both in the Lycus valley. Paul refers to Laodicea, just before our reading today, in verse 1 of Chapter 2. You may find it helpful to turn up the reading in a Church Bible on page 215. As far as possible I will quote from the Church Bible. I do struggle a bit because of poor sight, with the size of the print, so may occasionally read something from the larger print of my own Bible, which is in the New International Version. $$. Chapter 2 v 1, “I want you to know how much I am struggling for you, and for those in Laodicea, and for all who have not seen me face to face.” In the final chapter of Colossians, chapter 5 v 16, Paul writes, “When this letter has been read among you see that you read also the letter from Laodicea.” Julia and I have visited both places, when in the course of a holiday on the W coast of Turkey we did a tour of sites of the 7 churches of the book of Revelation. There is no known copy of the letter that Paul wrote to Laodicea and neither is the city of Colossae included in the messages to the churches to the seven churches in Asia in the book of Revelation. They were though in many ways similar cities, prosperous trading cities. Probably the gospel was preached in these cities during Paul’s 18 month stay in Ephesus, near the W coast of Turkey. He would have sent one or more probably two of his assistants, such as Aristarchus, Mark or maybe Timothy to take the Christian message to these two cities.
3. The problems. The two churches probably faced similar influences from elsewhere, giving rise to tensions within the churches. It is not entirely clear what these influences were, as Paul doesn’t name them explicitly, but rather tends to give positive teaching to counter false teaching and practice. It seems that teachers were coming to them with a basic premise that the things of this world, the physical side of life is intrinsically evil. As God is perfectly good, he cannot directly associate with human beings. Rather there is a descending order of spiritual beings from angels downwards, through whom God communicates. Jesus, who came to this earth, therefore becomes less than divine. Paul counters this by saying in our reading today, Colossians 2 vv 6 – 9 $ “As you have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” In other words, ‘Hold on to the teaching and practice that Aristarchus, Mark or Timothy taught you. It is difficult for us in a long established Church with the written scriptures, especially the gospels, to appreciate the situation of these early churches where other peripatetic teachers could so easily come in with false teaching. That is why Paul continues, in v 8, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of the deity dwells bodily.” You will notice there, the emphasis on the divine nature of Jesus. Fully incarnate during his earthly life but also fully God.
When Paul goes on the practical application of his teaching, just beyond our reading this morning, one gets an insight into other problems that had arisen in the Colossian Church. Paul writes in verse 16 onwards, “Therefore, do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or in observing festivals, new moons or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. It seems that there were teachers with a Jewish background introducing an insistence on observances, based on Jewish observances, with the pressure that such observances were part of an essential structure of the way to please God.
4. Application. How then do we apply Paul’s teaching to ourselves and the Church today? In the Church of England many of us have seen in our lifetimes increasing freedom in worship. With increasing freedom comes the possibility of charismatic local leaders imposing their own rigid patterns and teaching. One has to keep in mind Jesus’ teaching, ‘a new commandment I give to you that you love one another’ and the basic summary of the law to love God and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. We need the supportive Church structure of bishops, archdeacons and area deans, or something like it, to avoid well-meaning but ill-judged local direction, without unduly inhibiting local initiatives. I think particular situations akin to those of Laodicea can occur more readily in the independent churches where well-meaning charismatic leaders can impose too much of their own ideas, exercising undue controlling influence on the congregation.
How do we guard against false teaching and wrong emphasis? By being well versed in Scripture. By accepting the full divinity of Jesus and having a personal faith in Jesus. By prayerful dependence on God, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
I notice also in the message of Jesus in the Book of Revelation, to the Church of Laodicea, that they were a prosperous congregation in a prosperous trading city with the associated danger of trusting in their wealth. I expect that the Church in Colossae was much the same. In this country, most of us are wealthy, compared with many countries of the world. In the poorer countries, Christians often have a deep faith and wonderful joy in the Lord. If you have never been to Africa, do think about joining the next group from our Church going to Tanzania to visit our link parish of Kibakwe. I think that you would find it an enriching experience.
I conclude my sermon today by repeating the collect for today, the 6th Sunday after Trinity.
you have prepared for those who love you,
such good things as pass our understanding,
pour into our hearts such love toward you,
that we, loving you above all things,
may obtain your promises,
which exceed all that we can desire;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
1315 words Christopher Miles