Sermon for Pentecost 7 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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.

Thus, the Apostle Paul warns the Colossians against false teachers, but there is some debate as to who these false teachers were and who actually wrote the letter. This morning, I want to explore this issue of authorship, not just because I personally find those arguments fascinating, but because I think it bears on how we read this morning’s Epistle as affecting our lives as people striving to practice Christianity as best we can. This is a sermon heavy in exploring biblical criticism and exegesis, so buckle up and be assured there is a point I’m coming to.

For the sake of full disclosure, I recognize I hold a prejudice in this regard, which some biblical scholars with whom I disagree would take to be disqualifying, in that I am one-hundred-per-cent committed to the claim that scripture as a whole and our study of it is necessarily prescriptive (or normative), rather than purely descriptive (or idiosyncratic).

So, with that disclaimer behind us, I believe that the Epistle to the Colossians is an authentic product of Paul of Tarsus – not a later addition to the Pauline school, not a forgery, not a collection of some authentic sayings of Paul heavily shaped and annotated by a redactor. This is, I believe, Paul himself with his young apprentice Timothy writing from a Roman prison to their brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae, full stop.

This places me on the side of the minority of mainstream biblical scholars, which does give me pause. Like most issues about which Christians disagree, I don’t think this matter is central enough to the Christian message to get bent out of shape about, but I do think it’s important enough to engage in a good-natured debate with those on the other side of it.

One of the chief arguments made by source critics to deny Paul’s authorship of Colossians is the presence of something called hapax legomena, or words which only appear once. The idea, put very simply, is that authors tend to reuse words and phrases throughout their corpus, so a wildly different vocabulary between works, as highlighted by hapax legomena, suggests a different author. Just like Updike particularly likes the word “lambent”, and Thackeray “artless”, and Cheever “inestimable”, so too does Paul have his favorite words and phrases- sarx and soma and nomos and hamartia, for example- flesh and spirit and law and sin.

Those seeking to deny the authenticity of a particular biblical book or passage will point out where different words are used or, failing that, the same word with a different sense. So, a couple of words we heard in this morning’s Epistle (philosophia for philosophy, theotes for Godhead, neomenas for new moons) are only found in Colossians. Fine, but might this not be because Paul is dealing here with a particular issue which requires bringing these matters up? All of Paul’s letters are occasional, each is a response to a situation in the church to which he’s writing, and there will necessarily be some terminology more well-suited to the argument he’s making here than would be in, say, his Epistle to the Romans.

Or take the “words being used differently” approach. I already said that Paul frequently used the word hamartia for sin, and indeed so does the author of Colossians. I happened to notice an annotation in one of the bibles I looked at this week (I like comparing different versions ofn the same translation for just this reason) for a verse a chapter earlier made an assumption quite out of keeping with a careful, plain reading of the text. Colossians 1:14 – “in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” – in the Harper Collins Study Bible includes this annotation from none other than the Society of Biblical Literature: “In the undisputed letters, Paul views sin as an enslaving power, not a misdeed.” Indeed this is true but it implies that this is not the sense in which hamartia is used in Colossians 1:14, despite the fact that the first half of the verse makes it clear that it is!

Further, there is language here which I would argue places the Epistle well within Paul’s theological wheelhouse. Perhaps the best example is found in the passage we heard this morning- ta stoicheia tou kosmou, the elemental spirits of the universe. The Greek word stoicheia is used outside the presumptive Pauline corpus, but always to refer to something much more quotidian. In 1 Peter it refers to the basic elements of creation- ordinary, physical stuff. In Hebrews it refers to basic teaching, like your catechism. Here there’s something more funky going on and you can also find it in one other place- Galatians, which as far as I know hardly anybody disputes as being written by Paul:

While we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world (ta stoicheia tou kosmou)… Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits (stoicheia)?

I will return in a moment to what precisely this means, but two things are clear. Firstly, in both Galatians and Colossians the author is referring to something much different from and more menacing than basic principles or fundamental physical elements, the sense of the word elsewhere in scripture and in extra-biblical sources of the period. Secondly, as far as I can tell, nobody had used the word to denote a spiritual force (as Paul seems to do) since it was coined, apparently by Euclid in the Fourth Century BC, nor had anybody outside the Church used it in this sense until the Fifth Century of the Common Era. It was, I am convinced, a Pauline theological innovation, and it is much more likely that Paul was making use of this concept in two of his Epistles than that an imposter thirty or forty years later was accurately recalling and utilizing one of the apostle’s most obscure, baffling theological moves in a vastly different context.

So why does this matter? I think it’s important that Paul wrote the words that we heard this morning because it gives the necessary context for understanding precisely what he’s railing against, what in heaven or on earth he means by the “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe.”

Once again, the Society of Biblical Literature got it wrong in my footnotes, claiming the danger to the Colossians was Greco-Roman pagan beliefs that held these elemental spirits in high regard (not recognizing that those Gentiles, for all their faults, meant something very different from what Paul was on about.)

I think what we see here is a prosecution of a nascent gnostic movement in both Christianity and Judaism in the middle of the First Century. Many biblical scholars don’t want to entertain this possibility for other reasons, among them the fact that it would necessitate taking the potential historicity of John’s Gospel more seriously (a rant into which I’ll launch some other time) and the implicit suggestion that proto-Orthodox Christianity, which would later give us the Canon of Scripture, the Sacraments, and the Creeds, had more-or-less won the day on its own merits in the first century rather than revising Church history in retrospect having won merely by force of the political realities of later centuries. These are issues beyond the scope of this sermon.

More importantly for our present purposes, seeing Paul’s argument as an indictment of an otherworldy, body-denying, overly-ecstatic religion of unbridled passion would not only have been a warning to the charismatic spiritual charlatans of his own day and to their potential victims, but Paul might have been the only person in the world who could do so from a place of perfect measure and integrity. This was the man who was blinded on the road to Damascus, who heard loud and clear “Saul, why do you persecute me,” and who allowed that experience to make him the greatest missionary the world has ever known. This was the man who was caught up to the third heaven yet did not rejoice in this, but in the Cross of Christ alone. Paul warns the Colossians not to worship angels (that is, to focus exclusively on the experience of the messengers of God rather than sharing the message), not to dwell on visions, not to be puffed up, but to parlay those experiences into something good and wholesome and edifying for the people of God who are and those who have yet to enter the holy fellowship. Perhaps you have felt the body too limiting, you want to float above it all and live in some spiritual reverie, Paul is saying, but that’s going about it the wrong way. You are here on planet earth. You are flesh and blood a part of the creation God at the first called good. You have died in Baptism and been raised to new life, free from the bondage of sin, and that’s a whole lot more important than getting your kicks from spiritual athleticism, which can so easily turn to spiritual elitism.

I am reminded here of a passage from the Parochial and Plain Sermons of John Henry Newman:

And here I might speak of that entire religious system (miscalled religious) which makes Christian faith consist, not in the honest and plain practice of what is right, but in the luxury of excited religious feeling, in a mere meditating on our Blessed Lord, and dwelling as in reverie on what He has done for us;–for such indolent contemplation will no more sanctify a man in fact, than reading a poem or listening to a chant or psalm-tune… I call all formal and intentional expression of religious emotions, all studied passionate discourse dissipation,–dissipation the same in nature, though different in subject, as what is commonly so called; for it is a drain and a waste of our religious and moral strength, a general weakening of our spiritual powers… and all for what?–for the pleasure of immediate excitement. Who can deny that this religious disorder is a parallel case to that of the sensualist?

Now, just as in the case of the Apostle Paul, one needs to know a little bit of Newman’s context. He was no spiritual slouch. He wrestled with great joy and sorrow in his experiential relationship with the Holy Spirit. Yet in his younger days, before he came to champion the renewal of the catholic faith within the Church of England for which we modern Episcopalians have much to be grateful, Newman found himself an outcast among outcasts. Unsatisfied with the “high and dry” church of the early Nineteenth Century, Newman found himself a part of the evangelical renewal within the church – a movement known for its seriousness and championing of important, Gospel issues in this country as well as in England: abolition and women’s suffrage, and temperance in an age when women and children had no recourse against husbands and fathers who spent their livelihoods on gin and came home surly and violent. This was the religion of the Wesleys and William Wilberforce, the religion of Amazing Grace, and Newman took great lessons from his experience practicing it.

But there was an underbelly to this kind of religion, not necessarily endemic to it, but at least close enough in concept to infect its less humble practitioners- namely an overemphasis on intensely emotional spiritual experience, a precise definition of what the nature of that spiritual experience must be to be salutary, and an attendant underemphasis of both social engagement and ordinary Christian living. This was the gift of 18th Century evangelicalism and religious enthusiasm more broadly being thrown back in the face of its forefathers in the 19th Century by folks with more charisma than theological grounding and, in many cases, more ambition than sense.

So the young John Newman never had the experience he was supposed to have. He believed in the Grace of God in Christ Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit as much as any of us, but he kept being told that he had to get knocked upside the head by Grace, to have some very specific, emotional experience of redemption or he could not be confident in his salvation. But Newman just wasn’t wired that way, and besides, maybe that could make some people better Christians and maybe, if that emotional moment were taken as the end-all and be-all of faith, it might even make some worse.

So Newman, like the apostle, is not saying that spiritual experience is bad or that we ought not feel deeply for Christ and the sisters and brothers we have through him. Rather, he too is providing an argument against unbridled, selfish enthusiasms, attempts to achieve spiritual highs (as if the Holy Spirit were a drug) rather than a holy life, to believe that one can have a passionate love affair with the godhead without caring a whit about his people or even the most basic obligations of corporate worship or Christian mission or even just simple human compassion.

Listen, I get pretty moved sometimes when I’m at that altar. I never understood really when people said things like “that experience [of doing something amazing] humbled me,” meant until the first time I stood at the altar, holding bread in my hands, and saying the words of Jesus which make it his body. I guess I had to become a priest to become humble, and that’s an emotional thing. But, I’ve not ever seen a literal burning bush or heard the voice of God as if he were standing right in front of me. Maybe that’ll happen someday, maybe not. I honestly don’t know what I’d want if I had the choice of having some mystical experience; I’m glad that’s up to God.

What I really think, for what it’s worth, is that some people do have honest-to-God, “Road to Damascus” experiences. I believe some are taken up into third heaven or see a burning bush, or talk to God as if he’s on the other end of the phone line. I believe it because people I love and trust have told me as much and I choose to believe they are neither liars nor delusional. It is not a very scientific, modern historical critical view to take, but I feel I must take it. But I also believe that this is a dangerous thing to happen to a person, because it means they sure as heck had better do something about it rather than just enjoy what they’ve taken as God’s special favor or use it to see themselves as somehow superior. If I take the joy and peace and holy terror (all three of which I assure you, can be experienced at once) that I feel at the altar and I’m not more loving, more giving, more tolerant, more committed because of it, then, my friends, I’ve thrown a tremendous gift back in the face of God and convinced myself he wanted it that way, convinced by the elemental spirits, no doubt, the base spirit of pride and selfishness which I still fight despite having been freed of its stain in Baptism, that I should be puffed up rather than sharing light and life and the Spirit of God with friend and stranger.

Wherever you are on the spectrum between spiritual desolation and ecstasy, know that God accepts that, and will give you what you need to mediate his Grace to those around you so long as you’re willing to give that which you receive, for it is only in dying to ourselves, to our own need for affirmation both spiritual and social that we are able to give an offering of our lives, risen and renewed, to share that gift with others.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.