Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Astronomy, Paul, and Birthdays

One of the major spiritual influences that Paul may have been contending with in his letter to the Colossians was Iranian astrological speculation.

While reflecting on these this possibility, I was suddenly inspired to see what the northern sky might have looked like the morning I was born. As luck would have it, there is a nifty online application at called Starry Night Online. The configuration options allow you to pick everything from your exactly latitude and longitude to the date and time of your view. I chose July 25, 1969, at 3:15 a.m. (I was born at 3:10 a.m., but this was as close as I could get using the online applet).

Here's the view of the northern sky the morning of my birth, as seen in Salt Lake City, Utah (click the image to enlarge):

With the stars labeled:

Monday, July 23, 2007

Clarity from Chaos

Clarity from Chaos
Colossians 1:21-28
July 22, 2007
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

© 2007 by Christopher D. Drew

Sermon Focus: Paul’s letter is a response to the concerns he has heard about competing spiritual influences in Colossae. We live with a similar spiritual milieu, confronting competing truth claims. The resulting confusion requires a clear statement of what we believe, just as Paul has done in his letter to the Colossians.

Sermon Function: To encourage listeners to take Paul’s technique to heart and to explore more fully what it means, as the Body of Christ assembled in Portland, Texas, to proclaim the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ amidst our own contemporary spiritual milieu.

[Click to Show/Hide Sermon Text]


We’re in the middle of a discussion about Paul’s letter to the Christians in Colossae. We talked a little bit about the situation in Colossae, and we spent some time discussion the idea that happiness is a different thing than joy. You might remember that I said that happiness was the product of human circumstance – it is a fleeting, emotional response we experience when things turn our way. Joy, on the other hand, is rooted in Jesus Christ, and has its source in Him. Joy has with is an associated permanence. Joy is also differs from happiness because we can encounter joy even in the midst of sorrows and suffering. Joy can therefore be considered a tremendous gift from our Father in Heaven. I concluded the sermon last week with the great hymn about Christ, verses 15 and following in chapter one, which is really an early confessional statement about the person and nature of Jesus Christ.

This week, we will look at some of the practical implications of our faith in Jesus Christ, and of our suffering, along with Paul, for His sake.

Listen now to God’s word as it comes to us from Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

[Read Scripture - Colossians 1:21-29]

The News this Week

Dominating my thoughts this week were two stories that have recently made the news.

First, there was the rather horrible reporting surrounding the recent document entitled “RESPONSES TO SOME QUESTIONS REGARDING CERTAIN ASPECTS OF THE DOCTRINE ON THE CHURCH,"1 produced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Vatican City, home base of the gigantic Roman Catholic church. The document was written in a question and answer format. One of the questions had to do with the classification, among other things, of different ecclesiastical bodies with which the Roman Catholic Church maintains varying levels of relationships. Naturally, the claim is made that the only true apostolic succession finds its home in the Roman Catholic Church alone. The Eastern Orthodox churches, while “churches” in the proper sense, are nonetheless unable to enjoy full communion with Rome because of the inability of the eastern churches to acknowledge the primacy of the Roman bishop, the Pope. Other churches, includes those children of the Reformation, because they lack the fundamental apostolic lineage, cannot be referred to, according to the Vatican document, as “churches” in the “proper” sense of the term.

While Pope Benedict XVI approves the release of such documents, the work was a product of the Roman curia, and was not directly written by the pontiff.

The document was quickly labeled by the Associated Press and other news outlets as “controversial.” And I suppose it would be, if the Vatican was saying anything different in this document that it hasn’t been saying since the dawn of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. The fact is that the document says nothing doctrinally new. But the reaction to the document tells us much about our prevailing faith climate. I’ll get back to this in a moment.

The next story that’s been on my find this week is about an Episcopal priest in Seattle, Washington, who for six years was responsible for faith formation in her parish, and who recently announced to the local Seattle paper that she was both “Muslim and Christian.”2 This news comes notwithstanding certain obvious theological issues, including the fact that Islam decries the divinity of Christ as idolatry, and views the concept of the Holy Trinity as polytheism. Although until recently working at the Seattle Parish, the priest in question was actually ordained in Rhode Island. The bishop there has temporarily relieved the priest of her duties, inviting her to reflect on Christian doctrine for the next year.

Competing Claims of Truth

Now, why am I bringing all of this up?

I mentioned earlier that these items say something about our prevailing faith culture. In a word, we we’re uncomfortable with competing truth claims. We don’t like it when a group says that they are in possession of the truth, and that we are not. The multitudinous claims about morality, and the various flavors of Christianity, all of these claims are staking out territory in our mind. And in some corners of the Christian world, there is such uncomfortable with the truth of the gospel that faith becomes a muddle, resulting in statements such as the one give by our friend the now inactive Episcopal priest.

Given the nature of our world, and the premium placed on the trading the stock we know as diversity, we can expect to see further stories like these in the press for the foreseeable future. My guess is that they’ll come at us with increasing frequently.

But as I’ve said before, none of this is news. Paul, in fact, is reacting to the muddled world of intermingled and co-mixed spirituality in Colossae. It is likely at the time of writing that Paul’s letter is speaking to a very mixed, poly-ethnic and cosmopolitan crowd. Multiple religious influences were present in this Hellenistic landscape. Three in particular likely proved to be quite influential, even on the fledgling Christian church in the area. You may remember from last week that Paul, when he wrote this letter, had not visited the Colossian church. Instead, he was relying on the account of Epaphras, the minister in their area. Epaphras has likely forwarded on to Paul the situation the largely gentile Christians in the area faced. The triple influences of nature worship, Iranian astrological speculation, and wisdom teaching from the so-called “mystery cults” were adversely impacting the faith of the Colossians.3 Paul had to respond to this emerging crisis.

So, as you can see, the persistence of the human spiritual condition is striking. Whereas Paul is contenting with the spiritual heresies of his day, we also contend with our own. Nature worship remains a force today. I was always astonished to see, during my time as a hospital chaplain in Salt Lake City last summer, the number of people to profess “Wiccan” as their faith. Astrology remains popular, particularly if you’ve ever visited California or Sedona, Arizona. And the mystery religions of the Greeks seems to have been supplanted by the mysterious knowledge offered for sale by our Scientologist friends. The spiritual milieu we find ourselves in is ripe for just the kind of message Paul is sending to the Colossians.

Obedience and Holiness

In our text for today, Paul reiterates the importance of what Christ has done for us through the Crucifixion. He has “reconciled us in his fleshly body through death, so as to present [us] holy and blameless and irreproachable before him” (v. 22). The message here is one of holiness. To be in communion with the holy means we must strive to be holy, but it also means that, because we’re not perfect, we cannot be perfectly holy. The Gospel message is that in our weakness we have been made holy, so that we may stand before God. Definitely good news, particular for this pastor and sinner, who, along with many of you, is always keenly aware of the times when I’ve fallen short of the mark, and despite my best efforts, persistent in my estranged and hostile mind. The road is hard, and thank God we have Christ to save us.

But now notice this next word in the text – “provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven” (v. 23). This phrase can be a tricky one for the contemporary Christian, because it brings up the old dichotomy of law and grace. Grace, we proclaim, is not contingent upon us doing anything. It is the overflowing grace of God. But that grace can only give us hope when we respond to this grace through our obedience, not to the law, but to Christ, our Lord. It is “Christ in [us]” that gives us “the hope of glory” (v. 27).

The μυστήριον

Paul tells us that he became a servant according to God’s plan, what we read in today’s translation as a “commission … to make the word of God fully known” (v. 25). He then goes on to talk about something which in Greek is pronounced “mysteœrion” – a word commonly translated into the English word “mystery.” But we need to be careful here, because a mystery to us commonly means something that we’ve tried to understand but cannot grasp. That’s not exactly what is meant here. A possible translation might also be “that which was not known before.”4 The mystery has been disclosed, and it is this – that Christ is in those who are his saints. Moreover, and this is the really exciting part, this revelation is open to everyone, including, yes, us Gentiles. It is Jesus Christ whom we proclaim as the universal source of all salvation. This is our radical claim amidst the spiritual smorgasbord of our times. And we proclaim this not out of a sense of superiority or self-satisfaction, but out of our earnest and deep concern for our neighbors, which includes the Wiccan, the Scientologist, and, yes, even to our Roman Catholic friends in the faith.

Implications for Our Community

Friends, I actually believe it is a credit to our Roman Catholic friends that they would make the stakes in the discussion so clear with their recent pronouncements about the nature of the church. As reformed Presbyterians, we simply do not accept the theological conclusions about the nature of the church. We adhere to a different doctrine, that of the priesthood invested in all who proclaim Jesus Christ. The need to clearly and distinctly proclaim Christ in our contemporary spiritual environment has always been of paramount importance. The degree to which the proclamation of the gospel has been effective is largely determined not by the Office of the General Assembly, but in each individual community of believers, including this one here in Portland, Texas.

This church, just prior to my arrival, elected a Pastor Nominating Committee to begin the work of identifying the next permanent pastor for this church. A broad cross-section of our community’s membership has been selected to serve on this committee. They will soon be meeting, and one of the first things the PNC will likely consider is the theological characteristics of this congregation – that is, the distinct ways in which this community of Presbyterians proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only after they have done this will they begin the intense process of identifying candidates who will help our community realize its calling in the community of faith, and its vision for the future.

These are exciting times for this church! If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to look at the “special offering” dollar amount on the back of your bulletin. It now reports over $30,000 of special funds already donated to this church specifically to call its next pastor. If you’ve been keeping track, you will have noticed that the total amount this week has jumped by $10,000. There is excitement and hope building up for this community of faith. And as the PNC soon begins meeting, I invite you to pray for them and for the future of this church, so that we, too, can join in the work of proclamation, “warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (v. 28).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Texas.

1I strongly encourage those who are interested to read the text of this short document, which is available online here.

2See the full article here.

3Martin, Ralph. Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching). Richmond: John Knox Press, 1991, p. 82.

4Louw, J. and Eugene Nida. “μυστήριον.” Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1989.