02 August 2010

All Divisions Healed

Colossians 3:1-11

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 1st August 2010/ Sacrament of Holy Communion

            I would love to have seen the reaction of First Church, Colossae, when they heard this, when the Colossians heard Paul say that even Scythians should be welcomed into their worship.  The reference comes in 3:11. Paul shows a new future where old divisions are healed and cultural distinctions removed.  In the renewal of the world, with our minds set on Christ, with our lives participating in Christ something new will emerge.  Paul describes a new kind of community – the church – where “there is no longer Greek or Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all in all (3:11).” This verse is very similar to what we find in Galatians 3:28; except there Paul says, “there is no longer male or female.”  Here in Colossae we have barbarians and, what is worse, Scythians thrown into the mix – what a church that must have been.

            What’s a barbarian?  Originally, a barbarian meant anyone who wasn’t Greek.  It’s obviously a pejorative term. It’s never used in praise.  You never hear someone affirming, “You’re such a great barbarian!” From a Greek point of view there were only two groups of people in the world, Greek and barbarian, and barbarian clearly “conveyed contempt for inferior peoples.”[1]  The term literally meant someone who talks funny, or is inarticulate, who speaks a language you cannot understand (because they’re not speaking Greek!), whose speech is unintelligible (because they’re not speaking Greek!).  The Greek word here, barbaros, refers to bar-bar, a kind random hubbub produced by hearing a spoken language that one cannot understand, similar to blah blah and babble in modern English. We could call them blahblahrians.  The definition of the other as barbarian is from the exclusive position of the Greek who divides up the world from the arrogance of the Greek perspective.  They would say there are people “like us,” and then there’s all the rest and all the rest don’t matter.  If it sounds like the Greeks had a superiority complex, they did.  Plutarch (c. 46-120), the first-century moralist, wrote that Greeks should rule barbarians.  Plato (429–347 BC) gave thanks that “he was born a Greek and not a barbarian and human rather than a creature without reason (an animal).”[2]  The Greek adopted an exclusivist perspective and then stigmatized everyone who wasn’t like them.

            Among the barbarians the most contemptible of all, the lowest of the low, again from the “superior” view of the Greeks, were the Scythians.  Who were they?  The Scythian state emerged around the 7th century BC, with their kingdom stretching from just north of the Black Sea (modern southern Russia and Ukraine) east across central Asia, through Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.  This ethnic group came out of the heart of Iran, of Persian descent. The Jewish historian, Josephus (37-c. 100), writing just after Jesus, claimed that the Scythians were descended from Magog, the grandson of Noah.  Josephus describes them “little better than wild beasts.”[3] That’s who Paul expects to be on the membership rolls of First Church, Colossae.  Even the Scythians have a place at the table. 

            How did Paul come to say this?  How did he come to believe this?  Paul had a different view of reality.  It was not the reality he naturally grew up with; it was not shaped by the religious and cultural norms of his community; it was not shaped by the tradition of his household.  There was a time when he viewed the world from the superiority of his own perspective.  There were people like him, Jewish, and then all the rest.  That’s what Gentile means, literally, “the nations,” meaning everyone else.  For him either one was circumcised or uncircumcised, that’s how the world was divided up.  There were other divisions for him too, either male or female, with male being vastly superior to being female.  He also lived within a Roman culture that divided up the world between slave and free.  That was his world; that was his reality that shaped his ethics, the way he moved in the world. It’s what he knew and he assumed he was right, standing firmly in his convictions.  That was until Jesus knocked Paul off his high-horse, threw him, literally, to the ground and blinded him, never again to “see” reality from his limited perspective (Acts 9:1-9).  In time Paul got his sight back, although nothing looked the same, he was given new eyes, new insight into the nature of another reality defined by his new relationship with the Risen Christ.

            Paul was transformed and given a new identity, rooted not in his religious, social, or ethnic identities, but in whom he came to know himself to be in Christ.  The fact that Paul can say that all these traditional, religious, social, and ethnic divisions mean nothing and can therefore be set aside (or “put to death,” as he says), is because he came to see his identity rooted in something far more profound.  These really are extraordinary claims for us to hear from Paul.  I stand amazed by his boldness of vision, how radical and subversive they were for his time (and ours).  In his vision every wall of division is obliterated and every distinction based on perspectives of superiority-inferiority, of exclusion-inclusion that defined the Greco-Roman-Jewish mean nothing in the church of Jesus Christ.  He could imagine a new world for the church, for what the true church should be about, not because he had a good idea and thought this would be a good evangelism gimmick to get people to join.  It was the reality he was compelled to live into because he had already received a glimpse of it in the way Jesus Christ treated him, in the way Paul – a violent persecutor of Jesus’ followers – could be thrown into a new reality of Christ’s grace and freedom.  He was welcomed into a new world.

            That new reality for Paul didn’t involve trying to imitate Jesus.  That was impossible.  Instead, for Paul, to be a disciple is to participate in the very life of Christ – the life, the death, and the resurrection.  It’s right there at 3:1:  “So, if you have been raised with Christ,” with the implication here being that we have – “since” we have been raised.  Actually, the Greek here is since you have been co-resurrected with Christ, then “seek the things that are above.”  Now, this does not mean, keep your head in the clouds.  It means allow your minds (the core of your being), to be shaped and defined from this new perspective we are being given in Christ.  “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God (3:3).”  This, too, is participation language.  Can you hear it?  “For you have died” – already.  From Paul’s perspective, we have already died and now live on the other side of death as resurrection people.  Our lives are hidden with Christ in God, now – not in some far-off afterlife –  already; which means that we are already participating in the new reality of resurrection.  Since we have and are putting on a new life in Christ, forever discovering what it means to participate in this new reality, we are then putting off the old life, the former person, the old way of doing things, the old way of viewing things.

            Taking on and putting off.  Taking off and putting on.  Rising and dying.  Dying and rising.  Sounds like baptism language, doesn’t it?  Baptism in the early church consisted of taking off one’s garments, going naked down into a pool, and then coming up and out, rising up to new life and given a new garment.  Actually, Colossians 3 could have been a baptism text.   Baptism is not so much about initiation into the church for Paul as it’s about participation in the very life of Christ.  For the one baptized all of reality has been and is being transfigured and transformed.  Everything has changed and is changing.  It’s this reality that allowed the early church to become a new kind of community, a community of equals who gathered around one table of the Lord.[4]

            That’s the vision Paul holds out for us; this is what the church should be about.  Yet, we know all too well that the history of the church, even its contemporary incarnation, is rife with divisions.  The church and our nation continue to wrestle with divisions of all kinds, many of which are based on race.  The church and our nation continue to struggle with racism of all forms.  The national conversation about immigration, particularly in Arizona, is full of this language – who is in, who is out, who belongs and who doesn’t. Racial profiling and other forms of racism involve perspective, what we see and don’t see in the other before us.  Do we see the other, whoever the other happens to be in our midst, as stranger, as threat, as barbarian, Scythian?  If they are not “like us” are they then shunned?  Or when we look out to the other – whoever the other is – do we see a baptized child of God, a fellow brother or sister in Christ, a fellow human being created in the image of God?  Now, you won’t hear these questions in The Baltimore Sun paper. Not because there’s something wrong with The Sun.  They’re just part of a secular press.  These are not their questions.  But these are our questions.  When we see the other, what do we see?  Whom do we see?  We see the world from a different perspective, a different reality.  At least we ought to.  Sometimes we don’t.

            In Alice Walker’s short story “The Welcome Table” she tells of an old Africa American woman, tired and thirsty, entering the vestibule of a white church.  “Some of them there at the church saw the age, the dotage, the missing buttons down the front of her mildewed black dress.  Others saw cooks, chauffeurs, maids…Many of them saw jungle orgies in an evil place, where others were reminded of riotous anarchists looting and raping in the street.”  And so the hierarchy of the church mobilizes in defense of the racism of the congregation. [Leading the way was the pastor.] “The reverend of the church stopped her pleasantly as she stepped into the vestibule…. ‘Auntie, you know this is not your church?’ As if one could choose the wrong one.”  [Later,] out on the hot highway, dying as her heart gives out, she sees Jesus walking down the road and tells him, “how they had tossed her out of his church.”[5]  Truth is that kind of church is not his church; it’s a club.

            I don’t think Paul was so na├»ve to think that the kingdom had dawned in his churches because they were all a mess (that’s why he wrote all those letters!), but he had a vision of what the church can be like when it claims its baptismal identity, when the baptized community participates more profoundly and deeply in the very life of Christ who continually seeks to renew us and give us life.  When we do we are welcomed into a new reality. 

            We come to the Lord’s Table this morning as equals.  The Table changes how we see one another.  How we see one another is informed by this meal.  How?  Because we do more here than just “remember” what Jesus did, here we participate in the body and blood of Christ, with him and in him, in the way of life and the way of death and the way of new life that changes the perspective of everything.  Here we can see the Scythian as our brother and sister in Christ, as one baptized and equal to us, and welcomed with the embrace of peace.  May it be so. 

[1] Marianne Meye Thompson, Colossians & Philemon (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2005), 79
[2] Plutarch, Politics 1.2; Plato, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Thales, both cited in Thompson, 79.  Also according to Diogenes Laertius (third century AD), Socrates was grateful to Fortune that “I was born a human being and not one of the brutes; next, that I was born a man and not a woman; thirdly, a Greek and not a barbarian.”   Lives, cited in Thompson, 79.
[3] Josephus, Against Apion 2.269, cited in Thompson, 79. Emphasis added.
[4] Cf. quote from the worship bulletin:  “If the church of the baptized should be a community of a new kind of liberty, so the church that gathers around the Lord’s Table ought to form a community of a new kind of equality.”  William Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God:  Christ, Theology, and Scripture (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 151.
[5] Alice Walker, In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women, as summarized in Placher, 154.

Image:  Mystical Supper, Russian icon, 1497.

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