The apostle Paul on his travels was directly or indirectly responsible for the founding of many of the first Christian churches. The church at Colossae was apparently not one that Paul himself had visited, it was a preacher and companion of his called Epaphras who brought the Good News to this city, and we read about this in the first few verses of this letter.
It is of course more than probable that Paul himself sent Epaphras to Colossae, as it would have been almost impossible for the apostle to have preached everywhere in those early heady days of Gospel spreading.
A lack of intimate knowledge about this congregation didnt stop Paul from keeping an active interest in all that was going on in such a church, and this letter might well have arisen out of such an interest.
It looks as if hed received word that the congregation were getting some bad teaching, and although the details are faint its probable that some of the Colossian Christians were exhibiting a rather unhealthy desire to show themselves superior to their fellows. They were also being influenced by certain cults of the day, and tying themselves up in rules and regulations. One could of course say cynically that nothing changes.
Despite the problems springing up in this fledgling congregation, its clear that Paul was generally satisfied with the Colossian Christians. All he really wanted to do was point out the dangers of false teaching and protect them from this threat, and he does this by emphasising the supremacy of Christ, "the firstborn over all creation,.... the head of the body, that is the church."
Its from our knowledge of Pauls motives for writing this letter that we can begin to make sense of the passage we heard read from chapter three, which is entitled "Rules for Christian Households."
Paul believed strongly that God had made the world and placed mankind on it in order that they might support each other and enjoy its fruits in peace. Noble sentiments indeed, and isnt that just what we see around us, love and harmony, an equal sharing in the good things that the earth produces? Im inclined to think not.
The difference between a Jew and a Gentile in those days divided all mankind into two unequal portions - the Jews on one side, the Gentiles on the other - and as long as this difference existed, there was no hope of ever persuading mankind to treat itself as a family. The wall that divided the court of the Israelites in the temple from the Court of the Gentiles bore a notice......... threatening death to any Gentile who dared to trespass over it.
When Paul became a Christian he was able to look with new eyes, and was able to see that as far as believers were concerned, this wall had been broken down. There was, in the words of Chapter 3;11 ".....no Greek, or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all."
He knew then that within the Christian church, the body or family of Christ, that all these barriers were ended and every believer became through baptism a member or limb of that body - an essential unity which bound them together in the love of Christ.
To Paul the Christian it no longer mattered what the social status of an individual was, the imoprtant thing, the most important thing, was that they knew the love of Christ in their heart and knew that they belonged then to the family of God.
Paul doesnt seem to have been any sort of political reformer in the same mould as Wilberforce or similar activists who have campaigned for women and childrens rights or freedom from slavery. He lived at a particular time in a particular place, and was immersed in the multicultural society in which he moved and preached - this much we must appreciate when looking at what he has to say to us today. In no way did he try and improve conditions through change in government or constitution. He seems at least on first reading to be happy enough to live in a society which condoned slavery.
What Paul did believe strongly was that if you could get mens fundamental attitude to each other sorted out and adjusted, then you could make even the seemingly unequal society of the day to work.
So what was it like living in Pauls day?
It was a much different world to that which we know today. It was a male dominated world where husbands and fathers had rights to be exercised, and wives and children had duties to be performed. In early Old Testament (OT) times the father could if he so wished even sell his daughter into slavery, have his disobedient children put to death, divorce his wife without any reason and without providing for her, and arrange his sons marriages.
In the OT, the wife was owned by her husband, and looked up to him as master. This attitude still prevailed in later times, and although they did much of the hard work the wifes reward was still a lowly place in society. But the law did now protect a divorced woman, and her children were taught to respect her. Jesus own dealings with women contrast sharply with the prevailing attitudes of the day (remember the story of Jesus talking to the woman at the well), and the Christian teaching is clear: "There is no difference... between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus" Gal 3:28
In the OT we have a picture maybe of slaves being used as labourers on building sites and major projects, and this was sometimes the case. But it was always under the shadow of God reminding the people of Israel that they too had once been slaves in Egypt, and they were therefore required to free their slaves after a period of six years service.
In the New Testament we find both Jewish and non-Jewish slaves in Palestine, but for the most part they were servants in the households of the wealthy. Workers for large projects tended to be hired by the day (as in Jesus story of the workers in the vineyard) In fact when the temple begun by Herod the Great was completed around AD64 more than 18000 men lost their jobs.
So here we have Paul developing his ideas within the accepted social pattern of the day, based firmly on the conviction that in the eyes of God, all are equal. "Christ is all, and is in all." and that this concept is the key to unlocking all the inequalities which abounded in his world.
This passage has also been called "Pauls Household Code", and the first section concerns relationships between husbands and wives, and parents and children - naturally enough as these relationships are fundamental to family life. Pauls contribution to this was to stress that responsibilities are a two-way thing.
So in verse 18 of our reading wives are instructed to make sure that they fulfil their appropriate duties within the Christian home. The new freedom which they had in Christ didnt mean that they could neglect their responsibilities towards the household and their husband.
Husbands are told to make sure that they provide a climate of loving support within the household, which would enable their wives to fulfil their obligations happily. When these two are put together, each taking their responsibilities seriously and acting out of love for each other and for God, then the marriage can work, Paul tells his readers.
This two-way responsibility also finds its way into the relationship between parent and child. In the Ten Commandments God set before the people of Israel a requirement to honour father and mother. Paul now reaffirms that this is still a requirement of God in the new life which they received through Christ.
Christian fathers are encouraged to respect their children, to use understanding in the use of their authority, and to avoid always finding fault. All that does is discourage and embarrass them. How often have we as parents failed to give a word of encouragement when it would have meant so much, but found ourselves picking up on the negative instead of the positive points. We all need the occasional pat on the head and a "Well done!" even as we get older. How much more so do our children and grandchildren.
Paul tells us that our children must know that they can live in a home where they are recognised as persons in their own right, whom God loves and cares for.
In the first part of our reading were concerned with people who generally would consider themselves to be free as members of a household. The larger part of the reading actually concerns those who would consider themselves anything but free - and the relationship between slave and master.
Since many of the early converts to Christianity were slaves, and presumably many others owned slaves, this was an area of life which needed clarification by someone of Pauls stature, and he deals with the situation as it then existed. In fact he takes a wider look at work than just the area involving slaves. He tells his readers that a Christian can serve God in any social status.
"Whatever you do," he says. "Work at it with all of your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men." What a difficult concept to grasp and even more difficult no doubt for some of his readers to put into practice. He must have been keenly aware of the sense of injustice which the condition of slavery provoked, and what he tries to do here is look at the whole subject from a Christian perspective - a viewpoint which goes against the thinking of the day.
Paul tells slaves to obey their masters wholeheartedly - as an act of reverence to the Lord. When it is the love of Christ which impels slaves to work well, then they have their assurance of reward from God. "A share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light." (1:12) and as we saw earlier, they become citizens of a kingdom which refuses to distinguish between men in terms of bondage or freedom.
Again Paul stresses that the responsibility is a two way thing. The responsibility of masters is to treat all their slaves with equal fairness. Theres no room for favouritism or for action based on a whim or flare-up of temper. They are reminded that they too have a master in heaven, and will be held responsible for the way they treat their slaves.
Although in the 20th century the prevailing attitude towards family relationships and social responsibility seem to be a lot different than that prevailing in 1st century Palestine there is, I hope we can see, a lot within this passage that we can relate to our own society - even without dwelling for long on the individual and important subjects of Christian dating, marriage, the family, divorce, exploitation and discrimination in the workplace.
If we only were to take the stance that Paul took and say that it isnt absolutely necessary to attack the problem by voting out a government or changing the constitution of a country, but rather that the important thing is to change peoples individual and fundamental attitudes to each other, then its possible for the teaching and the love of God to make a difference in our world.
It will make a difference because it will happen through individual Christians living according to the instructions we have been given through Jesus and the apostles teaching.
And as family life becomes centred on Christ, and those in the workplace - either white or blue-collar- take their Christian responsibilities seriously, then changes will happen. And it is these changes - small though they are individually - that will add up and multiply and eventually force society as a whole to sit up, take notice and act.
But the responsibility is on all of us, whether wife, husband, child, servant or master, and could so easily be summed up in those words of Jesus as he restated the Law "Love the Lord your God..... and love your neighbor as yourself."
It is, as Paul reminds us, the Lord to whom we are ultimately responsible. Jesus has told us how we are to treat others, Paul merely reinforces the message. It is a message which in a world of broken marriages, child abuse and pornography, exploitation of workers in the third world by companies based in the developed countries, moral decline and insecurity in the workplace, seems all too relevant. Our example to follow in all our relationships, whether easy or hard, is that of Jesus, and as our reading tells us "It is Christ you are serving."