“Signs Visible and Invisible”

A sermon on Colossians 2:6-19

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Are we in danger? And if we are, what should we do about it?

That probably sounds a little alarmist. But Paul thinks the Colossians are in danger, or are about to be. This letter to the church at Colossae is all about warning them about that danger, and getting them prepared to stay free of it. The part of the letter we read this morning is focused right on that concern.

So just in case we ourselves might need some similar preparation, let’s take a look at the kind of danger the apostle Paul is warning the Colossians about, and at the precautions he tells them they need to take.

Although, as everyone here probably already knows, when it comes to the precautions they need to take, the short answer is going to be Jesus Christ. Everyone probably noticed that he talks about Jesus Christ in every paragraph we read.

In fact, “Jesus Christ the Lord” is how he begins. Literally, he says (and I’ll paraphrase a little bit here, to give a sense of what some of these words mean, literally, in Greek): “As you-all therefore have taken Christ Jesus the Lord, walk in Christ, having been rooted in Christ and having been built up like a house on a foundation in Christ and being made firm (in the sense of reliable) in the faith, (of Christ) just as you were taught, superabounding or overflowing with thanksgiving.” [Thank God for Jesus Christ!]

That word “thanksgiving” that he uses there, by the way, is the word that gives Christians the classic word for communion, “Eucharist,” the word eucharistía. So, the word thanksgiving itself would remind the Colossians of their ongoing communion with Christ – which is something to be thankful for.

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Paul is really mixing his metaphors here, as the English teachers in the room probably noticed! He’s got the Colossians walking in the way of Christ like pilgrims and sending down roots like plants and being building projects with built up on solid foundations and being stabilized like – you name it, something you can lean on or stand on or pull on that will not give way – all trying to give them a way to picture what he means.

But I have to admit, the one metaphor that sprang to my mind, when I was reading verses 6-7 back in Corydon this week, was the flowers in the back row of the perennial bed behind our garage. I don’t know how many people here are gardeners; of the gardeners, I don’t know how many have echinacea, also known as purple coneflower, in their gardens. But we have four echinacea plants in that back row, and they’re doing really well this year, which is their third year. The thing about purple coneflower is, they grow BIG bright flowers with BIG centers, on tall, slender stems, so as the summer goes on and those center cones get cony-er and more full of seeds, they get heavier, and then they really want to fall over. Especially when it rains. So, I’ve taken to standing a couple of those curly green wire border panels in front of them, to give them some help standing upright –

Which is, I think, a little like what Paul is trying to do here … just keep these Colossians supported, standing nice and tall, because they’re in a slightly precarious state, just at the moment … in their new life of following Christ.

So Jesus Christ the Lord is the key truth here, always, but how and why Jesus Christ keeps them safe from the danger they face is an important part of the story Paul wants the Colossians to know here.

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Because Paul thinks the Colossians are in danger specifically of being “taken captive” – hijacked, we might say, tricked, or scammed. They didn’t have phishing emails in Paul’s day, but they DID have human traffickers, like for instance, the people who trained and managed troupes of gladiators. Gladiators were most often slaves drawn from among the subject populations of the Roman empire, but they could also be volunteers. Volunteers were usually poor people or non-citizens who’d been induced to volunteer by the equivalent of a sign-on bonus, and the promise of things like housing and food and even some prospect of celebrity. Managers and other rich, powerful people in the Roman world – like the Caesars – would maintain big troupes of these gladiators, housing them, feeding them, training them, until it came time to parade them into the stadium and make them fight each other, to the death. The gladiators themselves, once they took the oath, the sacramentum, that made them gladiators, were effectively the slaves of those managers.

That practice would have been well-known to the Colossians. So it could well have been what they would have thought of when Paul says “don’t let anyone take you captive” – especially by means of the “empty deceit” he refers to. He’s not talking about them being taken captive in battle, but by persuasion, by trickery.

And Paul has a whole laundry list of things – signs that they are dealing with hijackers or scammers. Signs like: they have to follow a special diets, or attend particular festivals, or celebrate special days in a special way, or observe restrictive sabbath regulations, or let other people lord it over them and make them join some special group or “worship angels.” These are warning signs of bad faith.

The Colossians need to recognize these so-called philosophers are bad actors. And they need to be aware that no rulers or authorities have any real power over them or any legitimate claim to their allegiance or their obedience, apart from Jesus Christ.

Because don’t forget, all the rulers and authorities of this world have been decisively defeated by Jesus Christ. Thanks to Christ’s atoning work on the cross, any “legal claim” they might have had has been nullified, has been “nailed to the cross.” Because even God’s legal claim has been nailed to the cross!

Furthermore, the Colossians have been thoroughly incorporated into Christ’s own death and resurrection, through the sacrament of baptism, because they have died with Christ in baptism, and they have been raised with Christ in baptism, so now they are living with Christ, in the new life that Jesus Christ the Lord is living, as the first born of all creation and the first born of the dead. Which they already ought to know, because they just read chapter one of this letter where he was making that point.

They may not be able to see all that – it might sound a little abstract – but it’s true.

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This problem comes up a lot in this letter, this problem human beings have of confusing what’s visible with what’s real, or confusing what’s invisible with what’s not real

One of the things Paul has got to get the Colossians to realize is that visible signs are not always good indicators of what’s real, and that things invisible can be really real, the most real. We almost want to call them invisible signs – if that made any sense, because the whole point of signs is that we can see them.

As an aside, this is exactly the point of what we Christians call our sacraments – that they are signs, things we can see and touch and taste. They are, in the words of St. Augustine, “outward” or visible signs of something “inward,” of grace that operates invisibly, and spiritually. So, for instance, water is an outward, visible sign of the inward, invisible grace of dying and rising with Christ, and so, of being brought into the body of Christ, the church. The bread and juice of the little meal we call communion is the outward, visible sign of the ongoing relationship of participation in and nourishment by the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which is made possible by and through the grace of Jesus Christ. I am sure everyone knows that …

But I mention it here to point out that, yes, those sacraments when we celebrate them really are visible. But most of the time, as we go about our Christian lives, they are invisible. We don’t look any different after baptism than we did before. No one can pick us out of a crowd and say “hey, you look like someone who takes communion!” So, in a way, for most of us, most of the time, our status as baptized, communing people is, just like the Colossians’ was, an invisible reality. The Colossians didn’t have a uniform or a a badge to identify them as people who are walking in Christ, rooted and built up in Christ, …

That’s exactly why Paul is sending them this letter: to remind them that this invisible reality, those invisible signs – of their memory, of  their love for Jesus, of their faith and so on – are the real thing. The Colossians need to know this, because those bad actors, those philosophizing powers and authorities, are going to try to exploit that human confusion about visible and invisible, real and unreal. They are going to try to get control by means of “philosophy and empty deceit,” according to “the elemental principles of the world.”

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And what are these elemental principles of the world?

That depends, a little – on who’s answering the question, and also on which world we’re talking about! Are we talking about the ancient Greco-Roman one, in which people believed there were four primary elements, earth, air, fire, and water? Or, the material one we know from modern physics, that has a periodic table of elements? Or … ? Hopefully we get the idea, that people at different times in different places might have a different list of “elements.” But … according to me, in general, a pretty useful way of thinking about the “elemental principles of the world” is as “first premises” or “basic assumptions.”

Because Paul is talking here about the fact that people’s philosophical arguments, anybody’s philosophical arguments, and people’s stories about what’s true and necessary and important and urgent, always start from somewhere, and always build on some basic premises, some things they take for granted.

And as everyone knows, who’s taken a class in logic, or who has any experience being logical, the validity, the truth of our conclusions depends on the truth of our starting points, our first premises, our basic assumptions.

If those are wrong, … our conclusions are almost bound to be wrong, too.

So Paul seems to be trying here to warn the Colossians to pay attention to those first principles. Be sure to examine those. Are they the elemental principles, the basic premises, of the world? Or are they the good news of Jesus Christ? Or, at the very least, are they compatible with that good news?

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Which brings us back to that question we started with, how much danger are we in, ourselves?

Because no doubt the “elemental principles” of Paul’s world and the Colossians’ world were DIFFERENT from the ones that characterize our world. But all of us can probably think of a few basic premises that are the starting points for some very persuasive lines of reasoning today, that would easily have the effect of “taking us captive” if we really bought in to them. “Taking us captive” in the sense of pulling us away from our participation in the body of Christ, or at least knocking us down, the way the rain does those purple coneflower in my back garden.

A big one, honestly, is the idea that the only real things, the only real reality, is reality we can see or hear or touch or taste or smell. Empirical reality that every other human being, any other human being, would see or hear or touch or taste or smell exactly the same as we do if they were standing where we’re standing. And anything that doesn’t fit that description is not real, and not worth talking about.

We could call that empiricism, or materialism, or logical positivism, but whatever label we slap onto that way of thinking, it’s a basic premise that will make it very hard to treat Christian faith as being about something real. It’s an elemental principle – one we sometimes, falsely, equate with “modern” or “scientific and technological” – that makes it very hard for people to take the idea that inward, invisible, spiritual, gracious realities are … real.

That rule – that we’re not allowed to trust anything we can’t see or touch or taste or prove – would disqualify the reality of everything we know by faith. So, the forgiveness and the experience of grace that we encounter in church – hopefully, we encounter that here – and the love and joy and peace and care we experience in our relationships within the body of Christ, and our conviction that justice for the least matters, that care for the widow and the orphan and the stranger, is demanded by God, and we can’t shrug that demand off by saying “people who make bad choices aren’t our problem” – and all that vital connection we feel with the Word of God and the Holy Spirit and the Body of Christ … all that inward grace of those sacraments that are so often invisible, but so meaningful to us … all that would all be ruled out by that particular elemental principle.

No doubt Paul would say the same thing to us that he said to the Colossians: don’t let those arguments disqualify you-all, that’s nothing but being puffed up by a human way of thinking.

In the end, however wise that way of thinking might look now, it will be shown to be as insubstantial as a shadow. Remember that a shadow only appears at all because there is somebody there to cast it. And in the case of the shadow that we know as the story of the visible, knowable, finite world, that somebody is the Christ, who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, in whom all things, visible and invisible, were created and in whom all things hang together.

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So don’t be confused, Paul says, to the Colossians – Christ is the inward reality you want to hold fast to, the reality that enlivens everything good you see, and everything you don’t yet see, but trust and hope for.

And that warning, and that reminder, and that advice to those Colossians, looks to me like it’s still just as good today, for us, as it was then.

So let’s affirm our faith in what is real – namely, Jesus Christ – and let’s continue to hold fast to the world that takes Jesus Christ as its elemental principle – its basic premise – and the foundation of its inward, invisible grace.

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Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; Remains of the ancient city of Colossae, with sheep, near Denizli, Turkey, A.Savin (WikiCommons), FAL, via Wikimedia Commons

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