A reflection on Colossians 2:6-19 by Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Folks. I’m exhausted. Mentally, physically, spiritually taxed.
It’s not just that I spent this last week at our Diocesan School for Parish Development – although that too was incredibly demanding. It’s the state of the world. The violence around us. And for me, this week, a not so subtle reminder of the violence within me in a less-than-gracious encounter I had with a friend. I messed up.
But also this week I’ve found it hard not to be overwhelmed by the political and economic rifts in our world. The divisions that seem to be multiplying exponentially around us. I’ve found it hard not to be overwhelmed by my own own complicity in that underlying culture of violence rooted in fear – no matter how hard I resist.
In this moment, I don’t know how much energy I have left. I certainly don’t have enough to keep on top of the stream of opinion pieces hurtling back and forth from one facebook wall to the next, and the seemingly daily challenge to “unfriend me if you don’t agree.”
I just don’t have the bandwidth.
And perhaps because of that. Perhaps because my so-called higher faculties are running on empty, I found myself hearing the 1st Century letter to the Colossians speaking live and direct to our world.
It might seem like a stretch to talk about a Christian community dwelling the shadow of an ego-driven empire. But in recent days, it has seemed more and more plausible, hasn’t it?
This is a letter written in a time and place, under the power of an imperial apparatus seeking to maintain its foothold on power. And for this very reason I’m willing to suggest that an ancient letter written to the fledgling Christian community at Colossae bears some measure of importance for us today.
Written into a world where the supreme leader counted himself the head of the pantheon of Gods. Where he portrayed, perhaps even believed himself to be greater than the mere mortals who propped him up. A self-professed deity whose promise of safety and security trumped that of any we’ve come to see today. You’d be taking your life in your hands if you didn’t believe in the one who promised to Make Rome Great again.
The promise was one of fruitfulness and bounty, expounding upon a rich and glorious future. Those were the words. That was the gospel. But it was good news only for the few. The rest – those who did not conform, agree, or fit into this image of perfection – were chewed up and spit out. Their bodies lined the streets.
Caesar was then, as he is now, the ultimate icon and embodiment of what Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat call “a cannibalistic and predatory culture.” And from this, so the headlines tell me, we are not immune.
Overlaying our time and theirs, you might imagine rallies across the countryside in which the nativist movement has gained momentum in ways no pundit would have believed.
“We’re smarter than that,” they said.
“We won’t be fooled.”
And yet at each whistle stop, each town, suburb, and city, the train keeps rolling. The money keeps flowing, and all we seem able to do is stand by and watch.
The news of the movement is punctuated with other findings. With stories of violence, oppression and abuse. The narrative while it has become about embracing greatness, is equally a story rife with death.
In Caesar’s world, as our own, greatness – of whatever political stripe – is all-too-often built on the backs of those the powerful can’t stand to have in their sight.
And yet, as witnesses, as those observing from behind our screens, our safety is not assured. On most days I feel incapable of creating a safe distance. Not even we are able to remain objective observers of all that’s going on. Caught in the gravitational pull.
We haven’t always felt it directly. And yet, each act of violence has somehow done more than strike a nerve. Story after story, each replacing the next in a seemingly never-ending news cycle of death, destruction and despair. For some, each story, each aggression, micro- or macro- comes as a direct body blow.
Leaving us incapacitated to do much of anything, drowning in the chants and refrains shouted over and over until it all starts to sound the same. Until it all bleeds into static.
The Empire is built on noise, and I can’t seem to turn the damned thing off.
There are those among us with theories. Theories, philosophies, explanations of how this is. And how this has come to be. There are those amongst us who might take us captive through clever stories and empty deceit.
They weave their stories of destiny, stories rooted in the inevitability of political hegemony or the divine right of kings. Others weave their yarns through over-spiritualized explanations that see God’s hand in all that is unfolding before us and within us. As if God has any part in inflicting this accursed trauma on her beloved children.
Held hostage by these explanations, it can feel as though the walls are closing in. As though we are stuck in our chairs, having forgotten that we have bodies and wills.
Having forgotten that the heartbeat of Christ beats in and through us.
Having forgotten that our hands and feet, our mouths and minds are tools of goodness. Tools of light.
That all of these things put together are tools put to use for God’s kingdom of justice and peace.
When the possibilities seem limited. When fear takes over. When our consciousness has been co-opted. When we have allowed the talking heads, and self-proclaimed experts (though they make no blessed sense) to shape whatever’s left of our imagination.
It’s into that world. It’s into our world that Paul writes his letter to the Colossians.
And he reminds them. He reminds us of this: Those who dominate the headlines are not in control. Those who make claims to absolute power are sorely mistaken.
The mercenaries of hate, though they may have recently gained some ground, do not have the final word. Nor will they ever.
“The arc of the moral universe is long,” Martin Luther King declared, “but it bends towards justice.”
This week, I found it hard to believe. And so I listened again.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
I pray it is true. And I pray that Paul’s words are true too:
“You have come to fullness in Christ, who is the head of every ruler and authority.”
Our fullness is expressed and achieved in Christ. Which is to say, they’ve got it all wrong. Beyond the snow and the noise. If we were to listen – even in the midst of the darkest, bleakest of nights – we might find ourselves embracing the vast privilege we have. To take it all.
Put in the words of one of our favourite children’s stories these days: “All of our joys and sorrows, everything we know, and all that we hoped for.”
To take it to God in prayer. In the midst of all the world is throwing our way, it is prayer. It’s the ability to listen deeply to God. That clears the noise.
Beyond the hype. Beyond the quick fixes. It is listening deeply to God and to one another that will send us forth and set us free. It is seeking reconciliation with our neighbours that will bring healing and truly change the world.
And that is what we have come to do here. That is who we are called to be in this world.
For Paul, and for the Colossian church, this is their moment. This letter is the reminder, that in the midst of their captivity of heart, mind, soul, and strength there is one who has come to set them free.
“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,” the apostle writes.
Or put another way:
“Make sure that no one takes your imaginations captive through a vacuous vision of life rooted in an oppressive regime of truth that parades itself as something other than a mere human tradition, as if it somehow had privileged access to final and universal truth about the world apart from Christ.”
Remember the one who came to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind. Remember the one who came to proclaim a year of Jubilee, and to lead the captives out of slavery to freedom. Such jubilee does not celebrate the obliteration of ones unlike us. Jubilee, celebration, unending joy comes when each is made more whole, when as a body we are knit together and made one again. Freedom – true freedom – is realised when we start to see each other as we are. As God created us. As members of the same body. As members with one another, of one another.
For when we start to see that, we will truly see that it is forgiveness, and not violence, that will set us free.
Forgiveness will set us free.
 William Joyce, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (New York: Atheneum, 2012).
 Colossians Remixed, 137