May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen
So firstly an apology, some of you know I have had covid this week so if I cough or am a bit quiet or not myself – that’s why.
But what a week it has been to be off work! So much News! Counting the resignations – it’s gone up again – now it’s 32, another one 33 – watching the commentators and Larry the cat on TV and then the resignation speech that managed not to mention resignation at all.
But actually one of the things that has been notable – and fits rather well with the start of our series on Colossians – has been the use of letters. From when Rishi Sunak sent his, the resignation letters flew. And it was interesting that those letters, while addressed to the Prime Minister, were immediately released on social media. Because despite being addressed to him, they weren’t just for the PM, they were the constituents, the wider Conservative Party and the rest of the electorate – they were letters with a wider readership and wider purpose- and that readership and purpose had been decided before they were written.
Not so the NT letters. The writers, notably Paul but there are others, were sending messages to the wider churches but each letter had a specific audience – the church to which it was sent. While Paul and the other writers might expect the letters to be shared with the wider Christian family- other local churches and their ministers and associates – they had no clue their letters were read well, for instance, by us.
When we look at NT letters out of their context, forgetting their original purpose and not knowing the situation or context of both the writer and the church they were sent to – we do them a disservice – we are not reading them with their original intentions in mind and that way it is easy to make mistakes or miss the wider message in the letter as a whole.
And there is another problem in our reading of the letters – language.
You may remember Ed’s sermon where he talked about the use of the word love, and our problem with it in English – that ‘love’ is used for romantic love, sexual love, familial love and love in friendship.
Here the problem is the word you
In french tu and vous- for the singular and plural.
In NT Greek different words for you singular, plural female, plural male and plural all. And in the letters there are a lot of ‘you’s.
Which means, If you pop up to the St Andrews bookshop or have a look at Eden online you will find a myriad of ‘you’ verses from the letters on mugs, notebooks even T towels. But by plucking these little phrases out and making them into – well, sticker or bookmarks – we detract from the letters as a whole
Remember these were letters, probably written over months using a series of notes and records, written by scribes for one or two authors, or even a little group, to a particular person or as in case, a specific church. The writers had no idea that centuries later we would be reading them – while they went into the early drafts of the NT canon that wasn’t until early 2nd century AD.
And, the way letters arrived was so different to now. Once written, the letter wasn’t posted – because advanced through the Romans were in many ways they hadn’t managed that – it was personally delivered by a trusted friend or ally. Who would read it – orate it – to the recipients rather than just let them read. This gave the original recipients an advantage over us too because they had someone they could check things with, ask for further explanation or for clarification of bits they didn’t quite understand. We shouldn’t forget this – they had an interpreter that we don’t have.
So if we are going to look at Colossians – let’s find out the background. Indeed who were the Colossians?
Well Colossae was inland from Ephesus in what is now Turkey and under Roman rule of the Emperor Nero. It had been a successful manufacturing town, making a highly prized cloth but other towns started manufacturing and exporting similar cloths and Colissae started to decline. It had suffered an earthquake in AD 17 and then another in AD 60 only a couple of years before the letter was sent. Lives would have been lost and homes destroyed. The town was again rebuilt but the decline proved terminal. Like a seaside town that tourists don’t go to, with boarded up shops in the high street. This town was on a downward spiral. Colossae was dying.
The church in Colossae had probably been started by Epaphras after Paul’s mission to Ephesus. Epaphras – who Paul describes as a ‘faithful minister’ – probably started the church in Colossae, and Philemon who Paul also writes to was a member too.
Paul, at this time, was in prison in Rome, but despite this he would have received visitors and Epaphras visited him there to tell him about the wonderful things that were happening in Colossae. This was a failing town, a bit run down and damaged after the earthquake – lives there would not have been easy but, but, the Holy Spirit is moving there, and Epaphras is able to tell Paul that, for all the difficulties and the people are facing, their faith is strong. There are some bumps in the road, but their faith was solid.
So how does Paul write to these people? We know Paul can be – dare I say – a bit of grump, a curmudgeon, with some interesting views in some areas, but we get none of that here. Paul writes for the church at Colossae – specifically for them – and he opens his letter affirming both the church and its leader.
Our reading today is a wonderful prayer for the church of Colossae. Paul lifts them to God, telling them, how he prays for them – and is thinking of them. He calls Epaphras their leader his fellow servant – putting himself and Epaphras on the same level – he may be the apostle Paul – missionary for the the Lord and founder of the Christian churches around the Roman Empire but Epaphras is his equal under God – they are both God’s servants together.
Just look at what he says and the words he uses; full of Old Testament imagery that the gospel is ‘bearing fruit’ in Colossae, that they have faith in and love for Christ and hope for treasures in heaven – OT again. They have comprehended God’s grace.
And prays for them, for their knowledge and understanding of God’s will, for the good work that they do. He prays for their strength and forbearance, for what they have been through and to be able to endure with God’s strength on their side. Paul knows these people have difficult lives and let’s them know this by praying directly for them in their situations.
And after his understanding and his joy in their fellowship, Paul prays for himself with them. Like when calls Epaphras his fellow servant , in verses 13 and 14, Paul, that celebrity of the early church, from whom I have little doubt the church of Colossae were delighted to have received a letter writes ‘he has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins’.
And even at this distance in time, in miles or kilometres and in experience and context from those early Christians in Colossae, that us includes us all. We, just like that early church have been rescued, we have been transferred into Christ’s kingdom and through Christ we have redemption.
The world has changed and continues to do so as this week has proved, but we hold true to unfailing truths that do not age, that do not change and that will not fail us. If we read the NT letters without understanding, or we cherry pick the best or easy bits we risk losing their full message and meaning. But underlining them all is the same faith- that faith in Christ Crucified- and in the saving grace of Life with our risen Lord.
Have a read around the letters, find out about the people who wrote them and people who received them. About the world they lived in and the pressures they faced – some of which are not so different from those we face today. I guarantee the more you find out, the greater your enjoyment and meow you will gain. But be in no doubt, for the fundamental truths behind remain the same – and we carry on what they started, those long unbroken lines of Christians, singing our praises to God Almighty until we join them with Him.