What does it take to believe? Perhaps it is a body.
The writer of the letter to Colossae is filled with longing. “I am struggling for you”; “I am with you in spirit.” His letter pours forth with the pathos of someone who wants to bridge the gap of human contact, to bring his body near to their bodies.
The beloved who wait are the new believers of Colossae, struggling to make sense of the world turned upside down by Jesus, who live in the dangerous shadow of the Roman Empire and in an internal struggle to live out the new order of Jesus Christ.
In Colossians, the writer’s concern is that those who have come to trust in God would be turned around from Jesus by an intriguing philosophy or enticing human tradition. His fears are not unfounded.
There was no “religion,” as we understand it, in the ancient Roman world. There was no membership, no order, no allegiances. You were not part of a faith community nor committed to a particular institution. What it meant to be Roman was to dabble in the gods, to throw a few coins at the temple of Jupiter one day and to bathe in the bull’s blood of Mithras the next. The idea of leaving or switching “religions” didn’t make sense. To worship the gods, Rowan Williams reminds us, was to be a Roman citizen.
When the writer introduces the people of Colossae to Jesus, it is more than a conversion. It is a reorientation of their lives, an uprooting of the old order.
In Colossians 1, we see that the God of Israel will challenge the empire’s false peace. Jesus is not another subject, another god to fiddle with, another philosophical point to score.
“For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him” (Col. 1:16).
What the people in the letter to the Colossians need is a body. They need to cling to the body of Jesus — the body they have become as the church.
They don’t need new ideas or interesting teachings, intriguing mysteries or divining spirits. If they want to know God, they have the fullness of God in the person of Jesus (Col. 2:9). That completes them, makes them whole. There are no intellectual mysteries about God left to uncover.
We might expect the writer of Colossians to take a firm stand on keeping pure, steering clear of the cult of Colossae. But the writer cautions the opposite. The believers at Colossae are warned against the corrosive and exacting standards of conduct cropping up within their own gathering of believers.
“Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons or sabbaths” (Col 2:16). There’s no power here. These are silly, meaningless rituals.
Instead, hold fast to the body.
God does not have a body. God is a body. God is not an idea, a series of rules, a set of rituals or a moral code demanding stringent self-deprivation. God is fully enfleshed, loved with arms and legs, hair and muscle, now constructed of other bodies, the bodies of the people of the church, the bodies of the Colossians.
There is nothing left to do, no work left to complete. Instead, the writer uses the phrase “in Christ/in him” an astounding 15 times in two chapters. We are no longer fiddling around within the structure of the old order. What came before has passed. The former reality — the power of sin that oriented the world around death — is gone in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In 1955, Karl Barth preached a sermon, one of many as he led worship in a prison in Basel, Switzerland. Into the remnants of the old order, into the last dying gasps of personal failure and punishment, he spoke these words to the men who gathered — perhaps as the writer of Colossians once penned his own letter from a jail cell:
“Sin and death are conquered; God’s free gift prevails, his gift of eternal life for us all. Shall we not very humbly pay heed to this message? Death — but life! ‘Wake up, sleeper, and rise from the dead, that Jesus Christ may be your light!’ He, Jesus Christ, who made our history his own and, in a marvelous turnabout, made his wondrous history our own! He in whom the kingdom of the devil is already destroyed! In whom the kingdom of God and of his peace has already come, to us, to you and me, to us all, on the earth and in the whole world! Amen.”
Melissa Florer-Bixler is the pastor of Raleigh (N.C.) Mennonite Church and the author of Fire By Night: Finding God in the Pages of the Old Testament (Herald Press, 2019).