July 17, 2016
Proper 16 Year C
Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42
As I suggested back in my sermon on May 29, we are in the long stretch of Sundays after Pentecost, the “green Sundays” of Ordinary Time. During these weeks and months, the lectionary takes us through more or less sequential readings of three books of scripture more or less independently of each other. We spent several weeks hearing and reading the letter of Paul to the Galatians, and we are now in the second week of reading from the letter to the Colossians.
Galatia was a region of Asia Minor, and Colossae was a town in the region of Phrygia, also in Asia Minor, further to the west. Paul never visited Colossae himself; the church there was probably founded by Epaphras, who worked with Paul. They were converts from various pagan religions.
As we know, many of the letters in the New Testament were written at least partly to address specific issues in the communities to which they were addressed. The problem in Galatia was the teaching of some Jewish Christians that Gentiles had to adopt Jewish law, and especially the rite of circumcision, in addition to their faith in Jesus Christ. It seems that Colossae has been visited by other teachers who are trying to “improve” on the gospel that Paul and his associates had proclaimed. This new teaching seems to consist of certain prohibitions against eating or handling certain foods, ascetic practices such as severe physical discipline, ritual practices from the Jewish tradition, and a reliance on what Paul calls the “elemental spirits of the universe”. The ancient world was a teeming mix of cults and mystical religions, and this kind of blending together, or syncretism, of religious traditions and teachings was common. I guess the visiting teachers thought Paul’s gospel was just too simple, because they started making Christianity a lot more complicated. They taught that there were different powers, elements of the world, or angelic beings who acted as intermediaries between God and people. Each one contained a part or portion of divinity, and they controlled different parts of the earth and different parts of people’s lives. Christ was simply one more divine being among this plethora of powers and spirits. Each person’s task, and the purpose of religion, was to discover or learn the names of all these beings and how to placate them, in order to progress in your journey toward God.
In response to this false teaching, the letter to the Colossians contains one of the strongest statements about the person and work of Christ.
- Christ is the image of the invisible God. There are not many images of God, only one.
- He is the firstborn of all creation. He is not one among many; he is the first. He takes precedence.
- In him all things were created. Everything was created through him and for him. All thrones, dominions, rulers, and powers are subject to his rule.
- He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. In contrast to the fragmentation of creation of the false teachers, Christ brings everything together and holds them in unity.
- He is the first-born from the dead, and so he has first place in everything.
- In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. He alone embodies the fullness of divinity. The believer needs no one else and nothing else. There is no other intermediary between God and humankind. All of God’s power is at work in Christ alone.
- Christ alone has reconciled us to God. And it doesn’t happen through secret knowledge or esoteric practices. It happens on a cross.
It is to this faith that Paul urges his listeners to “continue securely established and steadfast”. If they do, then Christ will present them “holy and blameless and irreproachable” before God. They don’t need any secret knowledge, esoteric practices or the help of lesser spirits. This reconciliation is available to anyone who maintains the hope found in the gospel.
This letter has a message for us in 21st century Western culture. 21st century spirituality is highly syncretistic. You can take a little of this, a bit of that, and weave it together into a belief system that works for you. It’s also highly individual. Sociologists tell us that there is a great hunger in our culture for matters of the spirit, for meaning, for connection to something greater than oneself. It makes me think of the last verse of today’s reading from Amos that prophecies a famine, not of bread, but of hearing the word of the Lord. People are starving for God’s word, even if they don’t put it in those words, starving for the good news of a God who loves them fully, intimately, and passionately. In this context, the message of Colossians is completely relevant; that is, what I believe is important. It’s kind of a balance to the activist message of last week’s gospel, the story of the Good Samaritan – “go and do likewise”. There is a strong current in our culture that says, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you live a good life.” I hear it all the time, from regular church goers and from those who have no interest in organized religion. Now, of course, how we act matters. Marcus Borg reminds us in his writings that if your religion doesn’t make you a more compassionate person, you’re pretty much wasting your time. What we do and how we do it is important. But to say that what we believe doesn’t matter, if we accept Paul, is wrong. It does matter. It is important. Don’t waste your time on the powers of this world. Live your whole life according to Christ. Paul calls the false teaching an empty, rational philosophy. It is a trap.
This runs completely counter to our culture’s view of authority. And as people who are both shaped by and belong to this culture, we share that view to some extent. We accept those rules, beliefs, or standards that we have decided are reasonable and appropriate. We don’t take kindly to someone who tries to tell us what we should believe. In some ways this is healthy, because it makes us personally responsible for our choices, our decisions and our actions. But if that is so, then what we believe remains extremely important. Our actions reveal our beliefs and priorities. Even more crucial, though, is who we believe in, to whom we give our allegiance and our commitment. Ultimately, they go hand in hand. I give my allegiance to a person, Jesus Christ, about whom I hold certain beliefs. Paul is telling us that Christ alone fulfills our needs.
What Paul does through theological argument, today’s gospel reading does through story. For me, it hangs on Jesus’ words, “There is need of only one thing.” This story is about a number of different things, and I almost wrote a sermon reflecting on hospitality in the light of events at last week’s General Synod. But here I want to focus on Jesus’ words about what really matters. Hospitality was a core value in that time and place. Hosts were expected to provide food, shelter, and protection to their guests. Martha is fussing about, preparing food and drink, “distracted by her many tasks”. She comes to Jesus and complains about Mary. “Tell her to help me!” Service that is given grudgingly or resentfully is a burden to both the giver and the recipient.
In later Christian interpretation, Martha was seen to model the active life while Mary was understood to model the contemplative life. Jesus does not criticize Martha’s hospitality. You can hear the affection in the repetition of her name, “Martha, Martha”. But he does gently remind her about priorities in the kingdom of God. Mary has chosen the better part. Hearing the word of God is the most important thing, not providing for the physical needs of the messenger. However important hospitality is in spreading the Christian message, it is even more important to have followers who will listen to the message. Mary has chosen the better part, and in an age and culture when women did not remain in the room with males to whom they were not related, Mary’s part will not be taken away from her. She is welcomed as an equal among disciples. Martha practices the conventional hospitality of her time, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Jesus embodies the far more radical hospitality of God.
When we named our second daughter, I expected some teasing about “Mary and Martha”. I was not disappointed. In spite of my name, I think at heart I’m more of a Martha, more of a doer. I need to be reminded to seek balance in my life, so that my well of doing doesn’t run dry because I’ve neglected the water of listening and being. Both the active life and the contemplative life are needed. But Christ gently reminds Martha – and us – that actions, even acts of Christian hospitality that support the work of sharing the good news of God’s love, need to be sustained by devotion to the word of God and to the one who speaks it. Service that is not rooted in the word will not last. Listening to the word is the lasting good that will not be taken away.
In a time when so much is relative, when one option seems just as good as another, it is good to know that we do have someone in whom we are rooted. And because our belief matters so much, then our conduct, our politics, relationships, ethics and standards – all the rest of our life – matters too. What we do must flow from who we are and whose we are. Amen.