Free in Christ

Synopsis: Just as in Paul’s day, many Christians today are trying to keep Christ for themselves by distorting the gospel. How can we remain free in Christ when heretics claim that we must first be like them and follow their made-up rules?

Scripture: Colossians 2: 6-19

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In Jesus’ time, there was a great deal of concern about political freedom. Living under the heavy yoke of Rome, the Jews had very little ability to influence laws and policies or to advocate for themselves. They were just pushed around like pawns on a chess board by those in power. Some of us might be feeling a similar sense of powerlessness with the current political climate in our country.

Political freedom is important, but there is something far more powerful than political freedom, and that is the kind of freedom Jesus was concerned about. Jesus came into this world because he wanted everyone to reclaim their spiritual freedom in Christ.

Yet, as the Christian church grew, Paul was constantly dealing with people attempting to nullify the gospel. How can we remain free in Christ when people keep messing with the gospel? That is what today’s scripture reading is all about.

Our scripture reading for today comes from the epistle of Colossians. Paul and his coworker Timothy wrote this letter to the church at Colossae. This small city was located about 15 miles east of the Denizli province in modern-day Turkey. Paul had never been to Colossae, but he had received reports from Epaphras, a missionary who probably founded the church there.

Epaphras reports some problems with false teachings that scholars have named the “Colossian Heresy.” Where the heresy came from is debatable. Some scholars believe it originated from Greek philosophy; other scholars believe its source was Jewish philosophy.

The Colossian Heresy undermined the gospel – the Truth that we are saved through faith in Christ alone. There were several components of this heresy, and Paul deals with each of them in turn. But first, he grounds the Colossians in the True faith.

As we learned from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the Torah was a temporary covenant given to Moses in order to constrain the Israelites and to make them aware of their need for salvation until the time that perfect salvation was accomplished through the work of Jesus Christ. To receive the Christ is to receive perfect salvation. Once we receive the Christ, we no longer identify with the flesh; we identify with the Spirit. We become a new creation – a son or daughter of God.

Paul uses the words “rooted” and “built up.” When we are rooted in Christ, our spiritual resources are literally infinite. When we are built up in Christ, we have a sturdy foundation. As the offspring of the Creator of All That Is, we have an equally indestructible essence. Whether times are good or bad, we can always draw upon the Christ for nourishment and support. There is nothing more we need.

Paul advises the Colossians to hold fast to what they were taught. What we believe matters because we perceive life through the lens of what we believe. Jesus said in John 8:32 that “the truth will make you free.” The opposite is also true.

Lies rob us of our freedom because they cause us to perceive ourselves, others, and the world through a distorted lens. Under those circumstances, our vision is limited. We can’t see clearly, so we respond to life in ways that hurt us, other human beings, and all of life.

Paul reassures the Colossians that they can be thankful that they are rooted and built up in Christ through proper instruction. As long as they hold fast to what they have been taught, nothing can rob them of their freedom in Christ.

Paul then attacks the heretical beliefs that are threatening to rob them. Some fellow Christians were teaching that the Godhead does not dwell fully in the Christ; therefore, human beings cannot approach God through faith in Christ alone. They must use certain props to “elevate” themselves spiritually.

This reminds me of a husband-and-wife team in Easton who dress up in costumes and walk around on stilts for the city’s festivals. Now, plenty of people approach them to talk to them and to get some pictures with them apparently without feeling the need to first find themselves a pair of stilts.

Why don’t they feel the need to “elevate” themselves in order to approach these two? Well, because they know that the stilts create an illusion. These two are not superhumans; they are ordinary humans. Anyone who would go through all the trouble to find themselves a pair of stilts and to put them on before feeling “worthy enough” to approach these two would probably be viewed as insane.

And so it is with God and the Christ. They are essentially the same. When we have joined with Christ, we do not need any “stilts” to approach God. To think we need them is not humility. It’s ignorance.

Returning to our reading, some heretical Christians were claiming that in order to approach God, people needed to elevate themselves spiritually through observing several practices. One practice was circumcision. Another was the observance of certain ceremonial laws pertaining to what they could eat and drink as well as the observance of the sabbath and certain festivals.

Sound familiar? Many Jewish Christians believed that gentile Christians had to become Jews like them in order to approach Christ, so I think it’s obvious that these ideas originated with the Judaizers.

This was similar to the legalism imposed by the Pharisees in Jesus’ time. It wasn’t enough for them that the Jews were already required to follow 613 Torah laws. In Mark chapter 7, the Pharisees criticized Jesus’ disciples for not performing the proper hand-washing ritual before eating bread. This ritual was nothing more than a Pharisaic tradition. It was not part of Torah law.

Jesus criticized the Pharisees for requiring such burdensome traditions like this one and treating violations of them as if they were violations of Torah. He also exposes their hypocrisy and wickedness for breaking God’s laws in favor of their own “Traditions of the Elders.”

Returning to our reading, a third way these heretics claimed people needed to spiritually elevate themselves was through the worship of angels. They taught that Christians should not arrogantly assume that they can reach God directly or even through the mediation of Christ. They needed to humble themselves by reaching lower on the totem pole.

This is a misunderstanding of who angels are in relation to us. It’s inappropriate to worship the angels. God created angels to serve us, not the other way around, and we are supposed to worship only God.

It’s appropriate to ask the angels for help. They respect our free will, so they won’t become involved in our lives unless we ask. So don’t hesitate to ask. They are powerful beings. It’s also appropriate to love and respect the angels for their dutiful service to us. They will do anything for us as long as it doesn’t interfere with God’s Will.

Finally, these heretics claimed that people needed to spiritually elevate themselves by practicing a form of asceticism including severe self-discipline and avoidance of all forms of indulgence. This is the idea that the body is evil and that only the soul needs to be preserved. But without the body, God would not be able to express His Love in this world. The body is God’s Temple, so we should take good care of it. Certainly, that requires some level of self-discipline and avoiding self-indulgence, but nothing extreme.

Both of these ideas originated with the Essenes, a mystical Jewish sect that existed in Jesus’ time. Essene thought influenced the Gnostic Christian philosophy that was developing among Christians around this time. So, I believe that the most likely source of the Colossian Heresy was Jewish philosophy.

How can we apply this lesson in our world today? Are there any ways in which we are we being robbed of our spiritual freedom in Christ?

Imagine yourself as pure energy floating safely in unlimited space. Within this space, you can be, do, and have anything you want. You decide that you want to experience being human, so you are born into this world. You are immediately assigned a gender, and you begin learning who you can and can’t be, what you can and can’t do, and what you can and can’t have based on your gender.

That unlimited space suddenly becomes a box. You also inherit a race, and you begin learning who you can and can’t be, what you can and can’t do, and what you can and can’t have based on your race. Now, you’re inside a smaller box within your gender box. 

You also inherit a socioeconomic status, and you begin learning who you can and can’t be, what you can and can’t do, and what you can and can’t have based on your socioeconomic status. And now, you’re inside an even smaller box within the race box.

Over time, you adopt many more identities, with each one forcing you into smaller and smaller boxes until the unlimited freedom to be, do, and have whatever you want is gone, and after some time, you have forgotten you ever had that kind of freedom.

At that point, the very thought of losing these identities becomes extremely frightening because you think that you will cease to exist without them, and so you do everything you can to protect these identities without realizing that what you’re really doing is fortifying the walls of your own prison.

What I have just described is the development of the mind of me and how it becomes prominent over time, pushing the Mind of Christ further and further into the background.

Now, it’s all part of the game. We need the experience of individuality to function in this world, and we use identities and roles to structure human life. They are the costumes we wear in this play called Life. But when we start to believe that we are these costumes and nothing more, we begin defending them tooth-and-nail, and life becomes very painful for everyone.

Anyone who behaves in ways that do not conform to them becomes an extreme threat because they are making it clear that they are not-so-solid – that they are nothing more than illusions. These brave souls are treated as if they are public enemy #1 when the truth is that they are the ones who are taking a sledgehammer to our prison walls.

Yet those who are trapped inside tiny prisons vehemently criticize everything that these truly Christ-like men and women are doing to set us free while giving carte blanche to men and women who engage in mind-blowing levels of corruption designed to keep us all in prison.

Because you see, when someone doesn’t accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ, they have no other choice for an identity, and so they feel they need to prove their worth and entitlements based on these things rather than simply on their status as sons and daughters of God.

That is why the Pharisees created the “traditions of the elders.” They created these burdensome traditions so that Jews could be more distinguishable from non-Jews. They didn’t want to make the unthinkable mistake of treating a non-Jew as an equal. They were attempting to fortify their religious and cultural walls, and Jesus was taking a sledgehammer to them.

The Judaizers in the early Christian church were attempting to do the same thing. They wanted keep Christ for themselves, and there are many Christians today who are attempting to do the same. They make up their own rules and treat violations of them as if they are violations of Scripture.

They may call themselves Christians, but they have not accepted the true Gospel. When we accept true Gospel, we become aware of our true spiritual nature, our essential unity with All That Is. We became aware that, as Paul writes in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

We realize that our personal characteristics like our gender, race, religion, and socioeconomic status are all part of the illusory personal self – costumes that will be shed when we leave this world.

In John chapter 13, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. Peter objects saying, “You shall never wash my feet.” He said this because in his culture, teachers didn’t wash their students’ feet. It was the other way around. But Jesus replied, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.”

Jesus taught us here that in order to join with Christ, we must be willing to let these roles go. The biggest reason why we feel unable to be, do, or have whatever we want isn’t so much due to external forces; it’s more due to internal forces, and the biggest internal force is that we don’t feel we deserve it.

Just like Peter, we believe we are unworthy. And we believe that because we identify more with these roles instead of with the Christ, and we try to follow the gazillion human-made rules that go with these roles instead of with the Christ’s one rule, and that rule is “Love one another.”

Indeed, there are countless cultural and religious rules designed to keep us within the boundaries of our identities and roles. But listen to what Paul writes about the Lord: “having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.”

He canceled the bonds. We are free in Christ. The powers that be have no real power over us. As One with Christ, we are still floating safely in unlimited space. We still have the freedom to be, do, and have anything we want. There is no one on the spiritual level judging us.

Of course, on the worldly level, there are plenty of judges. But if you’re a guy, you’re free in Christ to wear pink. If you’re a woman, you’re free in Christ to be a firefighter. If you’re poor, you’re free in Christ to go to college. And regardless of your race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation, you’re free in Christ to have a lucrative career and to own nice things and to enjoy your life as much as everyone else. Because the Truth is that, as far as God is concerned, no one is more entitled than another to the gifts of His Creation. No one!

We can choose to experience whatever we desire because God gave us free will. He gave us free will so that we could freely learn from our experiences – both the good and the bad. We are Life learning how to master Life. Life in the process of self-mastery.

If we make a not-so-good decision, God set this world up in a way that we will eventually learn from our mistake. It’s called Karma. Karma is a teacher, not a judge. So, we are free in Christ to break the law, but we might end up in prison – literally – like behind bars.

But if through that experience we learn some good lessons about life, then there’s nothing to be ashamed of because that’s what life is all about! Our soul knows exactly what we need to learn and how we can best learn it, and sometimes, it picks the School of Hard Knocks.

That is true on both a personal and collective level.

Paul tells the Colossians not to let anyone judge them, and he’s telling us today the same thing. We are One body in Christ growing in the way God wants us to grow. So let us let go of the modern legalism that binds us, keeping us separate from one another and our True Nature, for it was from these bonds that Jesus Christ came to set us free.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we accept the wonderful truth that our Father loves all his sons and daughters equally. Through the power of Your Holy Spirit, help us to let go of any identities or roles that make us feel unworthy or entitled so that we can be truly free in Christ. AMEN.

Resources

Donovan, Richard N. “Biblical Commentary (Bible Study) Colossians 2:6-19.” sermonwriter.com, 2013, sermonwriter.com/biblical-commentary-old/colossians-26-19/

Epistles: the Colossian Heresy. Grace Communion International, archive.gci.org/articles/the-colossian-heresy/

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