Shadow and Substance


            The apostle, Paul, writes to many congregations whose main problem is not the lack of religion, but too much of the wrong kind. The church at Colossae is one of them.

            In the lesson for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, Colossians 2:6-19, Paul urges the people who have “received Christ Jesus the Lord” to “live…rooted and built up in him,” not being distracted, deceived or destroyed by religion gone sour.

            Paul knows his audience is diverse. Some may well have roots in Judaism. Others are part of the culture of Greco-Roman mystery religions. Thus the apostle can use terms such as “circumcision” alongside terms such as “elemental spirits of the universe” and “rulers and authorities,” which refer to the mystery religion idea of a pleroma, or fullness between us and the supreme God or gods that is filled with many ranks of lesser divinities. These are indeed super-human authorities.

            Paul has an effective, practical strategy. Instead of needlessly alienating his gentile correspondents by simply denying the existence of such spirits, he declares that they are completely penultimate in power and importance. They, and all systems of placating them, are the shadow and Christ is the substance. So also, Christ is the “head, from whom the whole body (of both the church and the living universe), is nourished and held together.”

            We all know it is easy to waste ourselves majoring in minors, making mountains out of molehills, sweating the small stuff. But few of us have managed to figure out which is which. And when we first understand that there truly is a difference between penultimates and the one, single, Ultimate, we are sitting ducks for sick religion.

            In our lesson Paul uses a number of terms for the effects of such a religion: It takes you captive…uses philosophy and empty deceit…condemns you…disqualifies you with its insistence on self-abasement…dwells on visions…is puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking.

            Yet I myself am skeptical about any offer of a way of thinking that is not human. How can the Colossians or I or anyone give themselves to any religion or spirituality that is not human? Tricky! I think something close to non-human religion is religion that is fallible, humble and open by its nature to God’s revelation. It is religion that works hard not to be held captive by mere human concepts.

            In Zen Buddhism there is a concept that, in a sense, is an anti-concept. There is the promise of a philosophy that is an anti-philosophy—a religion that is an anti-religion. It is the concept of emptiness. It is the notion that anything you can say about ultimate reality is not ultimate but dependent and derivative and therefore it is always at least one big step away from the ultimate you are groping for. A good proverb in Zen is, “Open mouth, already a mistake.” So even the great goal of Buddhist religion, Nirvana, is empty of meaning or empty of independent existence—just as the soul of the individual is said not to have any ongoing existence.

            If I understand this thinking correctly, for Zen Buddhists it is always wrong to cling to any concept in your mind as an ultimate; because it is in your mind, and your mind is changeable and completely vulnerable to misapprehension.

            I think Paul is saying something similar to this. He is saying that whether you are a child of Jewish ways of thinking, full of thoughts of a sin and Messiah and circumcision, or you are a child of mystery religions, full of rulers and powers and elemental spirits, you should use your philosophy and religious rituals to serve you. You should not be captive to them. You should remember always that all religious concepts and all spiritual practices are penultimate. They are to be used as tools to point us along the way.

            And yet, the Apostle is also saying that vagueness can also be an existential trap. Religion can often be sick. It is not religion that saves us. It is not religion that is ultimate. But there is something that is. That something, the Apostle is convinced, is Christ Jesus the Lord. The ultimate in life is to be rooted and built up in him as the one true ultimate we have access to. Christ has the whole fullness of deity living in him bodily; and through him we have a God-given fullness—that ultimate thing. When we are baptized in Christ we experience a death and rebirth that allows us to turn a corner—away from sick religious captivity toward a healthy use of religion to grow and to be free. We join in the self-sacrifice of Christ by dying to our need for the infallibility of our words and our ways.

            We Christians cannot afford to forget that the entire Bible, and especially the mission of Jesus, are focused on treating the illness of religion. Bad faith is very nearly the core problem of all human history.

            When we make our religious concepts or our religious practices the ultimate thing, then we very easily use them as weapons. We make people prisoners and we condemn and disqualify them with our religion. We quit listening to them. We quit sympathizing with them. We cannot compromise with them. We cannot think practically with them. We harden ourselves to their suffering because we are fighting for God and they are in the way.

            Only being rooted and built up in Jesus the Christ will allow us to die to all of that—to be crucified with Christ so that we can  allow the Ultimate One to be the vine and we the branches—to allow Christ’s self-sacrificing compassion flow through us that we may grow in Him.

            Then we can use food and drink, festivals and Sabbaths, and our doctrines too, not to insulate us from Christ’s compassion, but to draw us more deeply in.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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