By Ed Little
A Reading from Colossians 2:8-23
8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. 9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; 12 when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.
16 Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or Sabbaths. 17 These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.
20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? 22 All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.
How easy it is to reduce the Christian faith to a kind of skin-deep religion! “Do not let anyone condemn you,” St. Paul warns his Colossian readers, “in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths.” Later he adds, “Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’?” It’s not that ceremonies in themselves are problematic. After all, Jesus commanded us to plunge people into water, to eat and drink in his memory; and by his example we anoint the sick and lay on hands. Even fasting receives our Lord’s commendation, as long as we do not lapse into self-aggrandizement (Matt. 6:16-18). But any practice, grasped poorly and superficially, can devolve into mere formality.
Is it possible to avoid this danger? Yes, says Paul. “When you were buried with [Christ] in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” In other words, something happened in the waters of baptism. Never forget that, he tells the Colossian Christians. Baptism is not simply external, the outward mark of our commitment to Jesus. It’s that, of course, but much more. “You were dead in trespasses. … God made you alive together with [Christ], when he forgave us all our trespasses.” We’ve been transformed, made new. Our whole life as disciples involves discovering what that means.
Baptism is “what God does in you when you are close to Jesus,” Archbishop Rowan Williams writes,
[a]nd that of course means that the path of the baptized person is a dangerous one. Perhaps baptism really ought to have some health warnings attached to it: “If you take this step, if you go into these depths, it will be transfiguring, exhilarating, life-giving and very, very dangerous.
This is light years from skin-deep religion. Paul reminds the Colossians, and he reminds us, that our baptismal identify shapes us, empowers us, and challenges us.
The Rt. Rev. Edward S. Little II was bishop of Northern Indiana for 16 years after serving parishes in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Joaquin. He is the author of three books; most recently: The Heart of a Leader: St. Paul as Mentor, Model, and Encourager (2020).
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Today we pray for:
All Saints Episcopal Church, Winter Park, Fla.
The Diocese of Leicester – The Church of England