Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 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, 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.
I’m struggling with Colossians this week – not with the ancient people of Colossae of course but with St Paul’s letter to the Colossians, and not with the whole letter either but with one word in one verse that really has me bamboozled:
Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.
That’s the verse (Colossians 2:19). Can you guess which word it is that is bamboozling me? It’s the word ‘sabbaths’, and it’s not actually the word as such that bothers me but rather the casual way in which Paul drops ‘The Sabbath’ into his list of things that you shouldn’t get too worked up about when ‘The Sabbath’ was one of the ‘big ten’ -. the Commandments of Moses – and if you’re not supposed to get worked up about the 10 commandments, what are you supposed to get worked up about?
In the church I grew up in the 10 commandments were painted on one of the front walls of the church in letters that were each the size of an adult man’s hand! This was symbolic of the importance these commandments held for our religion. Indeed, many people would define Biblical religion in terms of keeping the commandments of God, and not just Christianity either, but equally the other two ‘religions of the book’ – Judaism and Islam – and these two religions of the book are equally religions of the commandments.
Now I don’t pretend to be an expert in Islam by any means, but as my friend Sheikh Mansour has explained it to me it is quite simple. There are certain things that God commands and certain things that God forbids. If you do the things that God forbids (such as lying, stealing and fornicating) these actions will move you further away from God. If, on the other hand, you do the things God requires, you will move closer to Him. It’s pretty straightforward.
If this is true for Islam it is even more obviously true in the religion of Moses. For what was the defining moment for the Jewish people in their formation as the people of God? It was the giving of the 10 commandments at Mount Sinai – the divine passing down of the fundamental rules for life! Follow those commandments and you shall live.
“See, I have set before you today life and death, good and evil. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” (Deuteronomy 30:15-16)
That’s Moses speaking, spelling out to the ancient people of God in no uncertain terms exactly what it means for them to live as children of God and to lives that are pleasing to God, and it’s pretty simple. You follow the commandments and the statutes and the ordinances of the Lord. You live by the rules, and as you live by the rules you get closer to God but if you disobey those rules you alienate yourself form God.
There were of course more rules than those written on Moses’ two stone tablets. Indeed, the archives of divine commandments and statutes and ordinances take up the bulk of the first five books of the Bible. And yet at the heart of all these laws and rules and statutes and ordinances lie the ‘big ten’ – the ‘ten words’ given to Moses on Mount Sinai, including such classics as ‘Thou shalt not steal’, ‘Thou shalt not murder’, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ and ‘Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy’. And yet St Paul says, ‘I wouldn’t let yourself get too worked up about the Sabbath!’
“Do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come”
So far as St Paul was concerned, it seems, some people fasted and some didn’t, some abstained from certain foods – never eating fish on Fridays, etc. – and others didn’t, some observed special religious festivals and others didn’t, just as some remembered the Sabbath and kept it holy and others didn’t, and it really wasn’t a big issue! And the thing that gets me is that if turning your back on one of the ten commandments isn’t a big issue, what is a big issue?!
I used to think, when I first started reading St Paul, that he was making a distinction between the ceremonial law, regarding religious practice, which he was very relaxed about, and the moral law, which he remained very straight about, but I’ve come to realise over time, in my studies of the New Testament, that to the Hebrew mind there was no distinction between ceremonial law and moral law. There was just the law – God’s law.
And I used to think that Paul must have been trying to reform the laws of the people of God in some way, rather than jettison them, as his anti-law focus was generally on rules like circumcision, that seemed rather irrelevant and redundant and peripheral to the real thrust of the Scriptures, and yet here in his letter to the people of Colossae Paul is peripheralising one of the big ten, & surely you can’t get any less peripheral to the law of God than the big ten!
And so passages like these have convinced me that Paul was genuinely ‘antinomian’ – a term that comes from the Greek word, ‘nomos’, meaning ‘rule’ or ‘law’. To be antinomian is to be opposed to rules – not just any particular rule but to every rule! Paul, it seems clear, did not believe in living his life according to any rigid set of rules!
“Now that the time for faith is here, the Law is no longer in charge of us.” (Galatians 3:25)
That’s ‘God’s law’ he is talking about! It no longer has charge over us, Paul says! That seems so juvenile. It seems so much like where I was at as a teenager, and It sounds so irredeemably irreligious, until you appreciate that Paul, who was opposed to rules, was, on the other hand, not at all opposed to having a ruler.
There’s an important distinction to be made between ‘antinomianism’ – ‘no rules’ and ‘anarchy’ (from the Greek word for ruler, ‘arche’) meaning ‘no ruler’. Paul did not live his life by any rigid set of rules, but he was totally determined to live his life in obedience to his Heavenly ruler. He just figured that there was a better way to do that than following a written code, and that better way was to allow the Spirit of Christ to animate you from within, so that your life becomes and outworking of the life of Christ!
“No longer do we serve in the old way of a written law, but in the new way of the Spirit.” (Romans 7:6)
“If the Spirit leads you, then you are not subject to the Law.” (Galatians 5:18)
“It is [God] who made us capable of serving the new covenant, which consists not of a written law but of the Spirit. The written law brings death, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6)
And I appreciate that this can all sound like religious jargon until you realise that this is actually how all really significant relationships work anyway! To be a good partner to your spouse, there are some things that you really ought to do and some things you ought not to do – rules (we might say) that you ought to follow, and yet we know too that being a good marriage partner does not consist in keeping to those rules. Indeed, you can keep all those rules and still be a lousy marriage partner.
To be a good parent, certain things are required (such as listening to your children and spending time with them) and certain things should be avoided (such as belting them whenever they whinge). Again, we could draw up rules, and yet we know full well that good mothering and good fathering does not really consist in keeping to those rules. Indeed, you could keep all those rules and still be a lousy parent!
To be a good friend likewise requires doing some things and avoiding others, such as those outlined in the ‘bro code’ (forgive me if you’re not familiar with it). And yet we know full well that good friendships do not follow as a matter of course from adherence to the bro code, and indeed that it is quite possible to follow the bro code to the letter and still be a lousy friend.
In all such significant relationships we know that the key is not to focus on the rules but to focus in love on the other person in the relationship. Focusing on the rules can actually kill a relationship. “The written law brings death, but the Spirit gives life.” And so we aim to build our relationships (with God and others) not around any rigid code of practice, but rather by focusing on the other in that relationship, and by pouring ourselves into that relationship in love, and let the ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ take care of themselves.
And so we find that good marriages come in many forms, just as we find any number of good parents who nonetheless do their parenting very differently, just as good friendships come in many different forms. And so likewise we find that God’s servants often look very different from one another: some fast and some don’t, some abstain from certain foods and others don’t, some observe special religious festivals, some don’t, and some remember the Sabbath, and others don’t, and it really isn’t a big issue in itself. The only real issue is whether it is a relationship of love, lived in the Spirit of Christ. If you’re doing that, you don’t need the rules, and if you’re not, the rules ultimately won’t help you.
Now of course this doesn’t mean that we can’t make use of rules. When I’m training a guy or girl for a big fight we find that a rigid training discipline (which includes rules about when to train, how far to run, what to eat, etc.) is quite essential. Following such rules can be very helpful in achieving your goals as an athlete, just as setting aside a disciplined time for prayer and Scripture reading can be a very useful discipline for the development of the spiritual warrior. Even so, such rules are never eternal. They are provisional and always open to revision. Spiritually speaking, as St Paul says, they are ‘shadows’. It is Christ who is the ‘substance’!
For it is Christ who is our hope, Christ our guide, Christ our light and Christ our life. It is Christ who brings us to God, and not any obedience to the rules. For it is Christ who loves us, Christ who saves us, and Christ who is the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God. Amen.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, July 2010.