Like many, I have love-hate relationship with St. Paul, the apostle, not the city. On the one hand, I have no doubt his letters included in the canon of the New Testament reveal God’s word and truth. On the other hand, they also reveal a man struggling to deepen understanding of his new found faith, and struggling even harder to guide Christians newer than he. It means I’m in constant conversation with Paul, sometimes agreeing, sometimes arguing, and occasionally proclaiming he’s just plain wrong. It doesn’t commend me to conservative evangelicals for whom what’s in the canon is God’s truth, period.
Right now, as I work on a sermon, I’m in his letter to the Colossians. It’s engaging me in conversation with Paul, with memories of questions raised in adult classes over the years, and with current social media comments.
Paul wants his new Christians to seek the things that are above, where Christ is,…not on things that are on earth… . For some, it’s an invitation to claim a Thomas Kinkade like vision of Christian faith that has no room in the picture for the realities of life. It’s all make nice, avoid conflict, and try not to talk about unpleasant things. To me, if I’m serious about seeking the things that are above, I have to look for them among Jesus’ earthly words and deeds. Isn’t that what his incarnation is about? The incarnate Christ may have ascended, but he left the rest of us to carry on with the daily work of earthly ministry that he demonstrated for us.
Paul also wants the Colossians to clean up their act by giving up fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed (idolatry), anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, and lying. Conservative friends jump on anything related to sex, and tend to ignore the rest. By his own admission, Paul had no need or desire for sex, and so may not be the best source of advice about it, but he clearly sees that irresponsible sex is an unhealthy attack on the sacredness of the most intimate act people can have with one another. Given the sexualization of advertising and entertainment that saturates society, I can see how conversation can get hung up on it.
To move on, what about all these other things the Colossians needed to clean up? They hit deep into the ordinary ways of everyday life in our day, as in theirs. Some are good in decent measure. Passion is an asset in work, friendship, marriage, justice, and things like that. When passion becomes an obsession, and emotion turns its back on rationality, sanity turns to insanity.
Anger and wrath are the stuff of every action and super hero movie or t.v. show. Anger plus wrath equals vengeance, and we’ve normalized vengeance to define the popular version of justice. God’s justice goes in another direction. It’s restorative, not retributive. Leave vengeance to God, and don’t assume you know what that means.
We’ve unleashed anger and wrath as political tools to be wielded with abandon in tweets and talks. Bullies use anger to intimidate their way through life, cruelly dominating others. But there is true righteous indignation. Jesus was indignant about things that oppressed, excluded, dehumanized, and marginalized. Turning over tables and driving out crooks with a whip was not beyond him. We’re called to name evil and stand against it, but beware. There’s also a kind of self righteous indignation over things of which one does not approve, but are probably just fine with God.
Greed: that’s a tough one. Gordon Gekko (“Wall Street”) says greed is good. It’s what drives the stock market, monopolies, and gospel of prosperity preachers. Private enterprise and capitalism don’t depend on it, don’t even need it. It’s something like nitro fuel that gives ordinary cars an extra kick, but will kill the engine. It’s the wedge that allows some people to separate their Christian life from their business life. As idolatry, it replaces God altogether. With what? See the bigger barn parable in Luke’s gospel.
Malice, slander, abusive language and lying. They’ve been around a long time, distributed rather evenly over history and throughout the population. None of it is good. It’s all a choice, and anyone can choose not to engage in it. We seem to have made the wrong choice. Thanks to modern avenues of communication, they’ve become the standard for public discourse, led by the president of the United States.
I posted a link to a friend’s column on abusive language to Facebook, and got an instant response that it was a good article until it pointed fingers at the president. He should not be singled out, they said, it’s not fair to the dignity of the office, and besides, others are also guilty. I’m singling him out as a disgrace to the office. Yes, others are guilty of the same, but they’re not the president, they don’t command the bully pulpit from which he bullies others, inciting some to vile and violent action. It exemplifies what Paul urged the Colossians to turn from if they are to seek the things that are above.
Having said that, am I guilty of malice, slander and abusive language? Perhaps, but I think not. There is nothing slanderous, malicious or abusive about stating what is observably, verifiably true.