The Epistle: Colossians 3:1-17
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). 6On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. 7These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. 8But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
The Gospel: Luke 2:41-52
41 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it.44Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.48When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ 49He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ 50But they did not understand what he said to them.51Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.
What breaks the Church?
With thanks to my friend Lynley, whose conversation is always inspiring.
I was never broken. My peers taught me I was worthless and wrong. I was chosen as a scapegoat among my school companions, and isolated. I was hurt and scarred more than I knew, I struggled to survive, but I was not broken. Instead, I fashioned a life where I was the victim who was nonetheless right, and who held the high moral ground. I became the mirror image of the bullies, more like them than I was unlike them. But always seeking something more, never able to escape the feeling that something was lacking in life.
So I was baptised. With Christ, I died "to the elemental spirits of the universe." (Col 2:20) The imagery of dying with Christ comes from baptism: Those being baptised put off their old clothes and donned a new baptismal robe. I was baptised, but still belonged to the world. I was still in the thrall, and the darkness, of
Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch. All these regulations refer to things that perish with use, they are simply human commands and teachings... [although they] have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety... but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence. (Col 2:21-23)
I was in that place where "compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience" (Col 3:13) were still human regulations; indeed, they were my indulgence in self-imposed piety. I used that piety, that veneer of humility, meekness and patience, to clothe my prejudices, to justify what it suited me to call love and kindness, but which, at least in the beginning, could happily damn you to hell and not notice the contradiction, because I was right, God was on my side, and you were wrong. And therefore— I did not have this language at the time— I was unbroken, I was safe, the "school kids of life" had not destroyed me. And I was proud of it.
There was a quiet desperation in all this. A slowly growing part of me knew, even though I could not properly articulate it, that I was trapped in something. You had to be wrong, or something in me would be broken— my great fear of losing everything would be true for, if you were right, then perhaps the kids at school were right. I could not fully believe myself about this, but I had nowhere else to go.
There is more to say here. I knew about the foolishness of rules and observances. I understood what Paul was saying. I simply could not comprehend that what I thought were doctrinal imperatives, sin qua non, were rules I was choosing to hold for my convenience in navigating all the angst of life. Indeed, they were the best I could do and be. But they meant I once went to friends who were in a pickle and excoriated them, sliced them open, killed them softly with words of loving condemnation. This incident absolutely shook me— I left trembling— for a part of me knew, even then, what I was doing to them, but I was driven. My own rules about God demanded it of me lest my salvation faded away.
Paul calls this place a "darkness." (Col 1:3) In the darkness, the grace of God for me was that those friends remained friends, something far more than I deserved. The grace of God is now inviting me to bear the similar blindness and darkness of those who are driven to excoriate me, in order that they may remain in that gathering of grace called the church.
At that time, as much as Christ may have rescued me from darkness in some objective cosmic sense, I had not been able to step into light and freedom. Of course I could not do that: I was unbroken. I was still "in control" of myself, and therefore, a slave to myself. Which meant I was still controlled by the violent dog-eat-dog worldview of my school childhood, an elemental spirit, a basic way of being, which necessarily fled from God even as it cried out for salvation. For to meet God in Christ means to stop winning, to admit to brokenness, and my whole being believed— had learned— that to stop winning would mean to be destroyed. I knew that if I had believed the kids at school, I would not have survived.
And then one of my congregations did me the great favour of utterly breaking me.
I was almost destroyed, and sometimes wonder if I am alive "more by chance than good management," as we say. Limping back into life and a semblance of health, I had no words to say to church, and barely any for myself. Perhaps I was in a resurrection dawn, and discovering that the whole landscape of the world changes when we are raised again. The old language-map simply did not work. It showed me something of where I had been, but not yet where I might go. I had nothing I could say about my conviction of the presence of God.
The change, the re-birth, began in sweet irony. Fata, my Muslim taxi driving friend, was telling me of the great love of Allah during a long trip across the city; how Allah's love had freed her; how life was lighter and joyful. And my heart was warmed: This is the same God; this is the love without boundaries; this is the deep freedom, this is what is Real. I began to learn that putting on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, is not a command in Colossians. It is an invitation to step into a reality that already is.
That invitation is also an invitation to be broken and raised again— multiple times. Why this invitation? I slowly learned that to be broken is to be healed. It cannot happen otherwise. We need to be undone to be redone. To be broken is to find not that there is a bottom to deep water, not to find that there is always a morning after, but to find that there is a Love in which we are always held. Regardless. Even as we drown. We are safe. We are loved. We will not be destroyed. Our life is hid with Christ. (Col 2:3)
As I look at the struggle of our Synod, and at the agonies in our individual lives, I wonder if our underlying problem lies in a fear that God might not love us, and therefore lies in our refusal to be broken; to be undone, and remade, and so... healed.
I recognise something of my former self in the crusade against same-sex marriage. There is a deep and genuine desire to serve God, but also a deep current of fear about what God will do if we compromise and let everyone marry. In such a place, salvation depends upon keeping same sex marriage out of the Gathering. This may not be said explicitly, but it's what underlies the refusal of the grace of marriage to some folk.
Such a place is a darkness. Yes, it contains a deep desire for peace and certainty and for the reality of faith. But it is also a seeking for power. It is a seeking to get and to hold onto something— an assurance of God— which is never gotten; that is, we cannot attain it, it is only... given. There is nothing we can do but step into it, put it on. When I am scandalised about the behaviour of others, it is always about me. It always has underneath it somewhere my desire to be safe, my denial of my own brokenness, which is projected onto the scandalous one so that I do not have to face the terror of being broken yet again.
What I learned from my congregation all those years ago was that I was already a broken human being. There is no fixing that. I am not, and never can be, sufficient of myself. There is no shame in this; it is what we all are, it is how we are being made human, and it is what we most deeply resist admitting.
When you see a relaxed and self-assured Andrew, what are you seeing? Are you seeing a man unconscious of his brokenness; that is, are you seeing a deeply buried denial? Are you seeing a desperate pretender, perhaps wishing he were not so, but still basically lying about who he is; that is, a very good actor in public, and perhaps even basking in a moment of forgetfulness? Are you seeing a man deceived in his scapegoating of others, foisting the blame for his own brokenness onto them, so that he can bear to live with himself, and then naively thinking he is not so bad, after all? Or are you seeing a man who has relaxed because he understands— he knows— that God has always liked him and does not mind that he is not sufficient, is not good but sinful. A man who has finally seen (a little) that God who does not mind that he is scared, paranoid, and all the rest of it, but wishes only for him to grow into more joy? What I have begun to feel, to be, some of the time, is that last kind of relaxed. And it's glorious.
And I know that every time I lose that peace to being scandalised by something about you, I am the problem, not you. And I become one of those other Andrews again.
My early crusading was about issues other than sexuality, but the current crusade within Synod sounds and feels the same. And I know that when I begin to crusade in the other direction, when I seek to guarantee that the folk hung up on sexuality will not break me and my friends all over again, I lose the peace. I become again what I once was, and still too much am: Someone who refuses to be broken and who is therefore not able to receive love; someone who is not able to remain clothed with "compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience," or to remain within that Real which has given them peace and security... for all of these things come from the same place. We cannot get them. We cannot own them or secure them. We can only step out of them or stay within them.
We are at a Colossians moment in the church. It's not really about marriage; marriage is simply the occasion or place where we are working out something else. It is where we are deciding if we will trust God and step into freedom and wear the garments of freedom, or if we will hold onto rules and theologies which aim to keep us safe and guarantee our salvation. History will show if we continue into freedom, or if we are stiff necked and proud like the misogynists and racists whom we have begun to see were mostly about defining their own holiness, and were refusing God's offer to undo them, break them, and heal them, and let them step into a deeper and more whole humanity.
In the gospel for the week, twelve year old Jesus has come to the temple: "After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers..." In that word sitting we are told he is Rabbi, not child. Already "all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers." His questioning of them is not out of ignorance; the text implies an authority on his part which demands to be answered. Already the temple is being questioned, and the question is if it will be unbending or be able to let itself be broken.
Young, brilliant, grave, and yet naïve, he could not understand how his parents did not know where he was. The three days' searching is the clue to the reading. Satlee says
After three days, Mary and Joseph found Jesus alive and well in the Temple at Jerusalem among the teachers of the law, the very company where it all will all end as Jesus is tried, convicted, and handed over to be killed."
His growing up to be human— to be the Human— was to return to Jerusalem to be broken, knowing he would be broken, learning and realising that those who need to be holy must win, cannot let their own selves be broken, cannot lose control despite all they say about faithfulness and discipleship. So we will read in Luke of the same journey to Jerusalem which we have followed in Mark over the last year. A journey toward the brokenness which we fear because its anticipation is anguish. "His sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground." (Luke 22:44) This may not be in the original text of the gospel, but it captures our fear: to be broken is to be close to dying, that breaking of us beyond which we can only trust God and, finally, have no control at all.
Yet it is in risking the brokenness and losing of life that all the stories of Luke which we have heard so far, all the unlikely births and angels engineered by God, are found to be true. It is in giving ourselves that we step into this Reality and clothe ourselves with the new self.
Mary and Joseph find Jesus alive and well after three days in a place they didn’t expect. This sounds like Easter. Yes, Luke’s hint here is of resurrection. Jesus, dead and buried, is raised on the third day, and there is a new temple, Christ’s resurrected body.
He went to this. He let them break him. If he had resisted, if he had raised up a great Bar Kokhba army, even if he had won, he would not have been the Messiah. He would not have been the Human One. He would have been destroyed, not broken and remade, and made whole.
Will we follow our rules, or our Christ?
Andrew Prior (2018)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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