Paul’s Perfect Christian Community
Colossians 3 : 12 - 4 : 1
John Knox visited Geneva in 1554 and 1555 and described it as the most perfect school of Christ he had ever seen. On his return to Scotland he tried to make Edinburgh into the same thing. He was not wholly successful as our capital city’s history indicates. In our reading from Colossians, we see Paul laying out his plans for what he hoped would be a perfect Christian community at Colossae.
We have to realise the kind of world he was competing against in seeking to organise a Christian community in its midst. The Greeks from the time of Alexander the Great (356 - 323BC) had embraced the ‘known world’ and integrated all its many cultures into their own. The product was a multifaceted civilisation. There were many gods and many lords and many in between heaven and earth. In the Greek empire, city colonies were established, with rich culture of art, philosophy, medicine, and science. Entire regions of the Holy Land, like the Decapolis were Greek in culture. Only small, rustic settlements and Jerusalem remained relatively untouched. Some Jews were completely seduced by Greek modernity. A number - in particular landowners and those educated in the Greek language - adopted the values and ethos of the Greek world even though they remained nominally ‘Jews.’
It’s like that in Scotland today. People have been writing in 'The Scotsman' in the past few days saying that most of the leaders and directors of the arts world in Scotland are actually English. Karen Burchill, for example wrote, 'the arts in Scotland tend to be run for us and not by us'. The difference is not as great as that between Greek and Jew but the point is the same. The ‘world culture’ of the Greeks brought Egyptian mythology, Indian metaphysics and Greek philosophy into direct contact with each other. Jewish cities adopted Greek styles of architecture just as Romans did and Europeans and over the centuries, ourselves. Is not Edinburgh sometimes called ‘The Athens of the north‘?
The Greeks applauded the perfected human form, representing it in a thousand different ways, in particular, in idealised images of their gods. In contrast, the Jews, who disapproved of graven images, horrified the Greeks by circumcising as a commitment to their invisible God. Greek sexual licence extended even to a preference for homosexual relationships. In contrast, the Jews had a catalogue of sex crimes, all of them capital offences. To Jews, the Greeks were ‘unclean’. Nudity did not trouble the Greeks and in particular it was the athleticism of the Hellenic world which celebrated the naked display of physical prowess. This appalled the prudish priests of Judaism. Mind and body training in the academies and gymnasia was a direct affront to the supremacy of the Temple.
The Romans had no racist or economic envy of the Jews, but like the Greeks they had unbridled contempt for Judaism, which they interpreted as a primitive religion. But theology was not an issue – securing the Empire’s eastern front was. The first emperor, Augustus, was not slow to recognise the important role to be played by religion in reinforcing cohesion in the newly enlarged empire. It was Augustus himself who instituted ‘emperor worship’ by the elevation of his adopted father - Julius Caesar - to divine status. In so doing he became ‘son of god’!
Christianity was very different from this and at odds with all of it. In verse 11 Paul wrote that 'in Jesus Christ, There is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, Scythian, (an interesting reference to people from as far away as today’s Ukraine and southern Russia) slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all'. Paul wanted to carve out the distinct social identity of those who professed faith in Jesus Christ and followed Him. How could he do this? How could they do this? Lifestyle. The only way to show the credibility of faith in and relationship to the invisible God and Creator and father of Jesus and to the Risen Jesus Himself was by living exemplary personal and collective lives.
'Therefore as God’s chosen people', writes Paul. Christians are now the subject of God’s choice and favour, taking over from the Jews and from Judaism and dearly loved, he goes on. By God he means, by Jesus Christ risen and ascended. The heart of Christianity is God’s serious and effective love for you. Your response matters but it is a response to God’s initiative in your life. Paul says 'clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience'. The word ‘clothe’ makes sense in the context of Greek naturist culture. But Jesus also used that term when he told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they are clothed with the Holy Spirit. When you speak to people who have problems with alcohol or drugs, you sense that they have no protection, they are, as it were, unclothed. Christianity offers garments of love and righteousness to protect us from the elements of self destruction that so often can assail us.
'Compassion' - The culture of the time lacked humanity and mercy. The elderly were not cared for. Sick and disabled were neglected. Mentally ill people were mocked and ostracised. There was extreme cruelty to animals. Those atheists who attack Christianity today are ignorant of its great contribution to human welfare over the past 2000 years. The inspiration to care for others without thought of reward is primarily Christian, rooted in Jesus Himself.
'Kindness' - here this means having a soft edge as well as an upright moral and spiritual life. Some good Christians are harsh and judgemental. Paul urges kindness.
'Humility' - again it is in Jesus that humility is seen and it is a noble thing not a servile thing to be despised as it was in ancient culture and in modern life. The egos of politicians, celebrities, entertainers and sportsmen and women are legendary. Few are humble and it is largely agreed that they could not succeed if they were for they would be trampled upon. It might be said that the Church is the same and if so, that is disgraceful. Christian humility is the common denominator based on Jesus’ work on Calvary and our equal acceptance of His saving grace irrespective of status wealth or achievements. Our Queen will treat you graciously if you meet her because she is a Christian person and a Christian monarch. Richard Dawkins won’t treat you with respect - because you are a Christian. Come to think of it - he has not been awarded a knighthood!
'Gentleness' - the opposite of Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street. The word means self-controlled and moderate in temperament and treatment of others.
'Patience' - this is based on God’s patience and forbearance of us and our sins and failures and disappointing performances as Christians. We are to be likewise disposed to others even if we are tried to breaking point. We are not to become angry or bitter or inclined to revenge. We are to be forgiving. These then are the spiritual clothes that Christians are to wear amidst and within a society and culture which in spiritual terms is naked and defenceless.
'Bearing one another’s weakness' and foibles comes next along with a more proactive social love. Church congregations often do not show this well enough and sometimes not at all. We can be very critical of one another, unfair to one another and far from loving one another, harbouring hatred and resentment over many years to one another. Paul does not want any of that in his perfect Christian community. Baptist Christians fall out and so do Brethren Christians. We are not alone. But that is no excuse. The truth is that few congregations manifest the level of love that Paul envisages and advocates.
'Peace and thankfulness' are to be uppermost in our presence and bearing. So is a positive spirit of helping, educating and encouragement. Are you finding all of this a bit claustrophobic? Are you aware that you may not participate in church life on these terms? The point is that this is the way Christian energy is released in community and in society. This is the way the Holy Spirit gets out and gets to work. Lack of these qualities makes churches retrench and die. We don’t have to look very far to see the truth of that.
'Worship' is to be at the heart of the perfect Christian community. It was daily worship in those days as these new Christian churches were being founded and formed. We don’t worship together every day. Could we stand it? If we were so filled with the Holy Spirit that it was a joy to us to do so we could. Monks and nuns worship every day, usually several times a day and night. Some ministry teams in larger churches meet every day for prayer. But generally speaking, once a week to church is more than enough for us and too much for most in our society today. But if we wanted to seek God’s blessing more powerfully, we could do that. It would impress many. It would increase the temper and height of prayer. It could lead to revival.
'And whatever you do' says Paul 'whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him'. Whatever we say and do we are to precede it with this invocation - the name of Jesus. Our example is Jesus. He was no party pooper, no miserable sod. But - His purpose was redemptive and eternal and serious and wonderful and we should not diminish Him in any way. Or take Him for granted. Or make him legitimise our own preferences.
And that is how Paul thinks the perfect Christian community should be. That is how those who aspire to being perfect Christians should be. It’s not impossible. The centre of our Reformed faith is that Jesus will share our lives and minds in order to make us into his perfect servants, children, followers, disciples and apostles. It is His life within us that makes us perfect not our own character or human nature. So there is the difference. The Christian is justified by faith. But thereafter, we are to aspire to being the very best Christian we can be for His sake.