Sermon: “Humility and Liberation”
Sunday, November 8, 2009
These past few weeks we have been looking at passages in the New Testament that use one or both of two Greek words that mean “to weave” and “to knit.” Often reading English translations, you would not know the words are there because of the way they are translated. Translation is an art, not a science, and sometimes some of the connotations and associations in the Greek get lost in translation.
Today we are looking at Colossians 2, where the Greek word sumbibazo, which means knit, is used twice.
Colossians 2 opens with Paul saying that he is struggling for the Christians in Colossae as well as the Christians in Laodicia, which was a city about 11 miles away from Colossae.
Then he says: “I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love…” and the word he uses that is translated here “united” is sumbibazo, which means knit. So he is really saying: “I want their hearts to be encouraged and knit in love.” Or perhaps “knit together” in love.
For me “knit” is a somewhat different image than “united.” “United” implies more of a sense of unanimity. “Knit” suggests to me that lives and hearts can be intertwined without unanimity. We don’t have to agree with each other on everything, we don’t have to have consensus about everything, but our lives and hearts can still be knit and interwoven with each other in love. That’s Colossians 2:2.
Then in Colossians 2:19, Paul talks about the congregations holding fast to the head, who is Christ, “from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.”
The Greek word that is translated here “held together” is sumbibazo.
So the image is that Christ is the head, the church is the body that is knit together by ligaments and sinews. The word “knit” has a slightly different connotation, I think, than the word “held.” Christ is the head and the church is connected to Christ through an interwoven network of different parts working and growing together.
Now, to really get a sense of this use of the word “knit” twice in Colossians 2, it is helpful to understand the theme and context of the chapter. What is going on here in Colossians 2?
Notice all the disapproving references in the chapter to things like “philosophy and human deceit” and “circumcision” and “food and drink” and “festivals, new moons and Sabbaths” and “self-abasement” and “worship of angels” and “dwelling on visions” and “regulations: Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” and “human commands and teachings”?
This was actually a time in the life of the early church when many Christians were getting hooked on various expressions of intense religious piety, practices and experiences.
Christians were looking for ways to be special. They were looking for ways to excel as Christians. They were looking for ways to stand out and to demonstrate superior commitment and faith.
Some did it through various forms of asceticism… fasting a lot… eating restrictive diets… abstaining from alcohol… practices concerning food and drink.
Others practiced strict attention to religious calendars, praying and worshipping and refraining from work on all the old Jewish holidays, and when there was a new moon and on the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Sunday.
Others studied theology and tried to excel in spiritual knowledge and esoteric understanding.
Others practiced self-abasement, wearing simple clothing, not using make-up, being everybody’s servants, self-flagellation.
Some focused on special visions or religious experiences and miracles and things like speaking in tongues.
It is in the context of all these ways of trying to be special that Colossians says what is really important to being knit into the community of faith, the body of Christ, is not all these attempts to exhibit our religious superiority. As a matter of fact, too often these things get in the way of our spiritual lives rather than enhancing them because we first and foremost find Christ in the community of ordinary Christians—not in religious practices, not in religious ceremonies, not in religious signs and wonders, not in religious disciplines and not in religious study.
If we want to know Christ our goal needs to be to be knit into community with others… our goal needs to be to be knit together in love.
Let me tell you why I think Colossians 2 emphasizes being knit into the community of faith so much.
Like the Colossians and Laodicians, we are always tempted to think there is something we must do to give our lives value and meaning.
If we pray a lot it will give our life value. If we study a lot. If we serve a lot, do a lot of mission. If we give a lot. If we are super-moral and honest and pure.
Or maybe if we work a lot and are professionally successful. Or if we have lots of friends and are popular. Or if we have a perfect family.
But whenever we look for something, anything, to give our lives value, we turn that thing into an idol and we become its slave. Your life has eternal value not because of anything you accomplish but because you are a child of God.
Here’s a mistake lots of us make… including me. We think our work will give our lives value. We are valuable because of our work.
As soon as we do that we become slaves of our work. Our work drives us instead of us directing our work.
If we know that our life has value no matter what because we are children of God, then our work can be an expression of our desire to live out our gifts. It can be an expression of our joy in being who we are.
The reason so many of us are unhappy in our work is because we need it too much. It becomes our idol, not an outpouring from the fullness of our lives in Christ.
Love. Some of us think we need a partner for our lives to have value. We are waiting to find the life partner who will fulfill us and complete us. Some of us are pretty frustrated because our soul mate hasn’t shown up yet.
But if we need somebody to love us in order to feel that our lives have value, we will never really be able to love. We can’t love what we desperately need to feel as if our life has value. The only way we can fully love another is if we already know we are of value and always will be even if Prince or Princess Charming never shows up.
One of the reasons we knit our lives into community is because community teaches us that all of our efforts to give value to our own lives don’t really work and are unnecessary. None of those things save us.
Here’s how it works. I study and study the Bible, do 10 Disciple Bible studies, attend every Bible study weekend. But if I knit myself into community I will find someone whose relationship with God is obviously as genuine as my own, whose life reflects great piety, love and service to others and who spends zero minutes a week studying the Bible. And it becomes clear to me that my Bible study won’t save me because this other person who doesn’t bother clearly reflects the love of God in their lives as much as I do. Bible study will not save me.
Am I saying you shouldn’t study the Bible? No, I love the Bible. I spend much of my week in the Bible. But I am saying it will not save you and being knitted into community will teach you that.
I don’t smoke. Good for me. I am disciplined. Makes me a superior person. And then I am knit into community and I discover someone who smokes and whose life reflects the love of Christ and the love of neighbor more profoundly than mine. And it becomes clear to me that not smoking doesn’t save me.
Am I saying you should go out and buy a pack of cigarettes after church? No. I am saying that healthy physical habits are not what gives your life value. They may, maybe, extend your life, but they do not save you.
When you are born into the world, you are already saved. Your life already has infinite and eternal value. Nothing you do, nothing you accomplish, can give your life more value.
We all try to earn our own value. But that is like trying to buy what you already own.
Being knit into community and into the lives of others can teach us this. Colossians calls it the mystery of Christ. You are already saved.
This is why being a church where it is okay to be open about who we are is critically important. When gay people were compelled to be closeted in church, it was not only not good for gay folk. It wasn’t good for straight folk either. What it really communicated was that we are saved by our sexual orientation. We are saved by being heterosexual. Being heterosexual is what gives our life value. Better work hard at being really, really heterosexual.
But if we attend a church where nobody has to hide, we discover people whose sexual orientation is different from ours whose lives reflect the love of God and neighbor as much as or more profoundly than our own, and we know it is not our sexual identity that gives our lives value.
It is not our race, not our gender, not our means, not our professional status. This is why diversity in our faith communities is essential.
It is important to be knitted into a faith community where there are people who have jobs that society does not treat as though they were prestigious. Because it helps us learn that people the society doesn’t honor vocationally do highly valuable work that can have profound meaning for their lives. It can help us from coming to suppose that our vocational accomplishments save us or give our lives value.
This is what I believe Colossians 2 is saying.
Please, please, please, don’t mistake what I am saying. My pastor said I shouldn’t quit smoking. My pastor said I shouldn’t work hard at my job. Sorry, sweetheart, my pastor said I shouldn’t commit.
No, no, no.
It might be a good thing for you to stop smoking if you do but it will not make you more valuable. You are eternally valuable already.
No job will give your life more value than you already have if you are unemployed.
I infected my son. I really regret this. When he was in school he needed to get A’s. He just needed it. I knew it was something in me that caused this. When he got to high school and I realized how much he needed good grades, I started offering him money if he would flunk a course. $5 for every course you flunk, I’d say. He never did it but the idea of it made him laugh and I think the offer was therapeutic.
The danger of trying to excel above others is that it tempts us to think we are saved and of value because of the way we excel. We find the mystery of Christ—the amazing grace of God—by being knit into community.
Someone sent me a great quote a while ago:
“We don't accomplish anything in this world alone... and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one's life and all the weavings of individual threads from one to another that creates something.”—Sandra Day O’Connor
Humility and liberation. Knowing that we can’t create our own value humbles us, but it also liberates us.
I love to study the Bible but we really don’t find Christ in the Bible. We may learn about Christ but we don’t find Christ in the Bible. I love theology but we don’t find Christ in theology. There are spiritual practices I find very valuable. But we don’t find Christ in practices. I don’t like to fast and fortunately we don’t find Christ by fasting. We don’t find Christ by observing religious seasons and holidays.
There is only one place we find Christ. We find Christ by being knit into his body. We find Christ in the midst of us when we weave and knit our hearts together in love.