Our epistle reading this morning from Paul’s letter to the Colossians is preceded by a few verses in which Paul expressed a concern that there might be persons trying to delude the believers with “persuasive argument” that contradicts the “true knowledge of God’s mystery, the Messiah, in Whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Then, having rejoiced over their “good discipline and the stability of (their) faith in Christ,” Paul moves on to today’s passage, exhorting his readers not to settle in too complacently with the fact that they have received Jesus the Messiah as Lord, but that, having done so, they should go on to “walk in Him!”
This decidedly is not an issue limited to believers in the early Church. This is a matter that remains contemporary within every generation of Christians in any century, and will remain contemporary until Jesus returns for the Church as His bride for all eternity. Always there have been and will be persons who consider themselves to be Christians, who name the Name of Christ, who attend church with some regularity, who try to live their lives with “good discipline and the stability of faith in Christ,” but who stop considerably short of walking in Christ. This requires a whole other level of discipline and the exercising of faith, and many Christians prefer not to accept such demands on their lives.
What sort of persons are we expected to be if we are to walk in Christ? In the next 13 verses, Paul provides vivid characterizations of how we should not just “talk the talk,” but also “walk the walk.” He makes it clear that he is not addressing baby Christians, because he states that his readers already are “firmly rooted,” “built up” in Christ and “established in (their) faith.” They are even “overflowing with gratitude!” What more could God demand of us?
Apparently quite a lot! Here are Paul’s points:
1) First, vs. 8: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.”
You can’t get more contemporary than that! The very existence of the Anglican Church in North America is a decisive statement that many American Anglicans have capitulated to philosophy, deception, human tradition and the base principles of the world. They have strained Christianity beyond its limits, claiming that everything needs to be updated and made “relevant,” “contemporary,” “appealing,” and “entertaining.” Such a perversion of Christianity is certainly devoid of what Paul is finding praiseworthy among the Colossians: “good discipline and stability of faith in Christ.” Discipline and stability are not traits contemporary American Christians are embracing. We are much more interested in a form of Christianity that makes ever fewer demands on our “real” lives, our day-to-day existence. If walking in Christ requires the sort of discipline and stability Paul is describing, we would gladly carry on without it.
Why does our faith need to be so demanding? Because, writes Paul, in Jesus “all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete” (verses 8 and 9). In other words, the person who identifies himself or herself as a Christian yet shirks the discipline and stability of walking in Christ is an incomplete Christian! Why is that so? Because, as Paul moves on to make his second point:
2) “(Christ) is the head over all rule and authority” (vs. 9b). How often, in any real, practical sense do we acknowledge that? Seriously, how does the “rule and authority” of Christ touch our daily lives and govern our walking in Him? We acknowledge many sources of authority in our lives, consciously or unconsciously, but acknowledging the rule and authority of Jesus requires a conscious submission to His will in all that we do. Already in chapter 1, Paul admonished the Colossians to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (1:10). And before he is through, Paul will tell them, “whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the Name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (3:17), then adding, “Whatever you do, do it heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men” (3:22).
Does this sound like the way we live our daily lives? Would these words be used about us by others, by objective outside observers? Yet this is exactly what Paul is saying the Christian should look like: someone whose every action is measured by whether it is done in Jesus’ Name, pleasing Him in all respects and being done for Him rather than for men. That’s a tall order for most of us, isn’t it?
3) What else? Paul’s third point is this: we should live as persons who acknowledge all that Christ has done for us in conquering sin and death and evil powers and authorities, as persons who have become identified with Christ in our baptism and persons who, through His triumphant Resurrection from the dead and His having nailed our sins to the Cross, have now been made “alive together with Him” (verses 11-15). Our baptism is a reference point, a point of identification, an entrance point, an active participation in the life, death and Resurrection of Christ. But as a reference point it is an incipient reality that the great Anglican theologian Richard Hooker called an “inchoation” of our lives in God’s grace. Baptism was never meant to be an end point, only a starting point. It’s not something we rest on, imagining that our baptism alone is sufficient identification with Jesus. It’s the beginning of what it means to be “walking in Christ.” But there’s so much more!
4) Now comes a fourth point that we easily could see as one of those legendary Pauline digressions where he seems to lose his train of thought and move on to something else. He writes, “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his carnal mind, and not holding fast to the Head (that is, the Lord Jesus Christ)” (verses 16-19a). Apparently this is a serious list of issues that were indeed confronting Colossian believers. And while not all of them have a familiar ring in terms of contemporary issues, most of them have rather obvious parallels.
What about judging others on the basis of food or drink? That seems to be an issue for all time, one that is altogether contemporary. Clearly Paul has something much broader in mind than the issue of “meat offered to idols” that he had to address in earlier correspondence with Christians in Corinth (I Cor. 8 & 10) and Antioch (Acts 15). While we cannot be certain of the specific matter at hand, the principle is absolutely clear: we are not to sit in judgment of each other with regard to what we eat or drink or what we choose not to eat or drink. Paul makes this same point clearly and emphatically in Romans 14, concluding that God is the One Who has accepted those who eat certain things as well as those who refrain from eating them.
What about festivals, new moons and Sabbath days? Again we find Paul having to address these issues in Romans 14, where he writes, “Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God” (14:5b, 6). Whatever the specific references may have been, and they might not even have been the same among the Colossians as among the Romans, the same principle applies: we are not to sit in judgment on other persons’ diets and observances, as these things are a matter of individual conscience before God, Who alone is the Judge.
Paul adds three more things to the list: false or ostentatious self-denial, worship of angels, and posturing over one’s own private visions. Here we find Paul uncharacteristically and bafflingly succinct just when we might wish him to be more expansive. But the message he is trying to convey is crystal clear: anything that distracts us from our focus on the Person and work of Christ is never to be allowed to take precedence over our walking in Christ. This is how it was possible for Paul to write “therefore” before his apparent digression: it’s not a digression at all! According to verse 17, all of these foibles that false teachers may throw in our paths are “mere shadows,” while “the substance (the reality) belongs to Christ.”
In more contemporary language, we could use the phrase attributed to the late American educator, Stephen Covey: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” The main thing here is that simple phrase, “the substance belongs to Christ.” Most church fights are unbecoming exercises in “shadow boxing,” unfortunate distractions that keep us from our focus on “walking in Christ.” But if we go back to Paul’s essential directive to the Colossians on how to walk in Christ, we are reminded to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (1:10). If we do this, if everything we do is done “as for the Lord rather than for men,” then Paul tells us we will know that we will receive the reward from the Lord, because it is the Lord Christ Whom we serve (Col. 2:24). The formula is simple, and Paul repeats it often in his writings. In Colossians 3:14 he writes, “Above all things, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.” And in Ephesians 5:2, he writes, “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” And finally, in Romans 12:1, he writes, “I urge you by the mercies of God to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.”
Paul’s point, again and again, is that walking in Christ is an expectation. It’s part of our progress along the path toward being more like Jesus. It’s what makes our transition from this earthly life to our heavenly life with Him much less jarring. If we were created in the very image of God, and if at least part of that image can be restored by our walking in Christ, then this indeed should “be our song, in the home and in the throng, be like Jesus all day long: I would be like Jesus.” If every Christian were to live out his or her life walking in Christ, imagine the difference it could make in our world where hatred, strife, violence and fear hold sway and seemingly have unbridled control over how we live.
If instead we had a world where millions of people were serious about walking in Christ, about being like Jesus, it would be a different place. Evil would continue to exist, but we would see the evidence of what Jesus said when, after receiving back only 70 disciples who went out to proclaim the Word of God against the power of demons, He exclaimed, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). The potential for victory over the prince of the power of the air resides in us, were we only to exercise it on a more consistent basis. May we respond to God’s Holy Word through the apostle Paul and determine to live in the “good discipline and the stability of faith in Christ” by walking in Christ, not just through our reference point of baptism but through our lives of commitment to living out the grace that God has bestowed on us in Christ Jesus and with which He desires to empower us by the Holy Spirit.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen