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The Rev. Dr. Irina Dubinski

On Human Dignity and Colossians

Earlier this week, nearly 650 bishops from 165 countries arrived at Lambeth for reflection and dialogue, for the 15th time since 1867. The Archbishop of Canterbury convenes this Conference every 10 years to explore the responses of the Anglican Communion to the needs of the world, contemporary to each gathering. To this end, the conference has lately been transitioning from issuing “resolutions” to “calls.” An appealing term, as it conveys some acceptance of individual discernment in the regional churches and each believer. However, this stance seemed to be undermined before this year’s Conference even got underway, as it came to the materials related to the “Human Dignity” call. I won’t go into detail, but will make a point relevant to what I was going to say about our NT reading today. Which is, that the speaker whom I heard representing the conservative churches seemed to rely on the arguments limited to 1) “this is what we have always believed”, and 2) “the church is growing most rapidly in the non Western world, on which the ideas of the diminishing Western church are not to be imposed”. My thought was that, convincing or not, right or wrong, neither of these types of arguments actually speak to the theological basis of our dignity; which is what the call was supposed to be about and, coincidentally, just what today's NT passage offers us.

As we read in Col. 3:10-11, “the new self is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all.” Fundamentally, this is the theological affirmation of our dignity as the creatures of God: made in the Creator’s image and renewed in it based on the connection with Christ, in whose death our “old self” has died, and in whose resurrection our “new self” is raised to an eternal and perfect existence. The trouble is, of course, that this statement alone does not help us decide how the image of God might be lived into most fully while we still walk this earth. Indeed, almost in the same breath, the author of Col. presents the household code of relationships that would be completely unsurprising in antiquity, but should hopefully be disturbing to us now, as that which condones gender inequality and slavery. Clearly, some of the things that we “have always done” do fall away, eventually.

Even in the earliest decades of the Church, as our sacred texts show us, believers were faced with the diversity of evolving teachings. We might, for example, contrast the theology expressed in Col. with that of Paul – for only a minority of critical historians think that he actually wrote this letter considering the differences with the style, vocabulary, and content of his six genuine letters. Col. itself states that the founder of the church in Colossae was Epaphras; perhaps, an early bishop of the area in Asia Minor better known for its more prominent Christian communities, such as that in Laodicea. More importantly, as late as 50 years after Paul’s death, his followers did write letters presenting their ideas as his; yet with some notable differences. The first, – and from which, I think, all others stem – is that the second coming of Christ wasn’t going to happen as imminently as Paul thought. As a result, these 3rd-4th generations of believers had to formulate the codes of morality and social relations, as well as the new understanding of what baptism does and what the Church is, that differed from Paul. In this, they figured out how they might live this life still out of being “in Christ,” but in the here and now, since the eternal Kingdom wasn’t arriving any time soon. I don’t really want to make it all about how this letter isn’t by Paul, but rather to elaborate on why the author felt compelled to write it. On the first glance, the letter doesn’t seem to have a central thesis, but I would say, it is this sufficiency of being “in Christ” that is key. Colossae was known for combining Jewish, Gnostic, stoic/platonist, and pagan influences with Christian beliefs; which, I think, we have done for centuries and still do today. And in response, the attempts to instill the orthodoxy of belief (such as expressed by several authors in many of the NT epistles) have also been around for the same length of time. How does this affect our lives; sometimes for better, often for worse? The Colossians seemed to have embraced a set of spiritual practices – venerating Michael for providing them with a healing spring of water, worshiping other angels and “elemental spirits,” pursuing visions and asceticism – some of which seemed wise, like when Paul said to stay unmarried, but according to the Col author, they were misguided. Are there ideas in your own system of beliefs that you impose on yourself unnecessarily because “everyone does it” or “I have always done it”, resulting in unhealthy practices?

To counteract these, the author of Col. asserts that in Christ, we have all we need, and in doing so, he builds on Paul’s theology. Paul expressed the idea that the church was the body of Christ (e.g., 1 Cor.) first; but for him, Christ was this body itself, whereas in Col. Christ is now the head of this cosmic entity, as the image of the invisible God through whom “all things in heaven and on earth were created…and in him all things hold together,” which also sounds a lot like John 1, written some 50 years after Paul. Further, Paul taught that in baptism, believers were buried with Christ, but still waited to be raised, while in Col. they are told that their baptism also raises them to complete salvation that affects them in the present life, not only in eternity. These ideas reflect a high view of Christ’s divinity, beyond the focus on his humanity of the genuine letters of Paul (e.g., Philem. and Phil.) that has the real power to change our day-to-day faith.

So theology does evolve, partly as the continuation of the divine revelation, and also because we continue to seek the truth of how to live this life until “our crossing of Jordan”. That’s why our bishops continue to gather in conferences. For us, those who will be asked to heed the various “calls” to belief and action, the task at hand is, first, to pursue the intellectual and emotional clarity re. the central questions of our faith: do we feel that our connection with God is “enough”? Does this motivate us to “seek the things that are above”? How do we genuinely connect with each other and affirm the presence of the image of God in self and others? May we support and respect each other in our discernment, and continually notice and accept the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Amen.