Matthew 12:46-50; Colossians 3:1–4:1
Sometimes Jesus said things we find difficult to hear. Take today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, for example. Someone tells Jesus his family—his mother and brothers—are outside wanting to speak to him. Nothing unusual about that, I suppose, not at face value. But Jesus’s response is astonishing: ‘That woman, those men—they’re not my mother and brothers; you are!’ Matthew doesn’t tell us if Jesus’s mother and brothers heard him say this. If they did, we can only guess at the levels of confusion and hurt and anger they must have felt. But Jesus’s point is clear: in God’s kingdom, Jesus’s family has nothing to do with blood ties or biology, but has everything to do with obedience to God the Father whose Son is Jesus. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is redefining human relationships around his own relationship with God his Father. In the kingdom of God, everything is radically different, radically new, radically equal—and all based on Jesus.
But nobody seems to have told the apostle Paul this, at least not judging by part of today’s reading from Colossians. ‘Wives,’ he commands, ‘be subject to your husbands’; ‘children,’ he adds, ‘obey your parents in everything’; ‘slaves,’ he goes on, ‘slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything.’ If Jesus sought to redefine human relationships around his own relationship with God his Father, then Paul didn’t get the message. It looks for all the world like Paul is keeping the Roman Empire’s status quo: women should play the dutiful spouse, children should be seen and not heard, and slaves . . . well, how on earth can Paul approve of slavery, anyway? Paul says a lot of good things about Jesus; but his attitude towards human relationships, and about how families and households should conduct themselves, leaves a lot to be desired.
Before I say more, let’s try to get into the flow of what Paul’s saying in Colossians 3. You Colossians, says Paul, you Colossians have died with Christ, and you have been raised with Christ. Both things have already happened to you, and so you don’t need to look elsewhere to know and experience God. You already have everything you need in the risen Jesus, who is above you and seated at the right hand of God the Father. But get this: because you have died with Christ, because you have been raised with Christ, there is a very real sense in which you are also there with him. You are hidden with Christ in God! But one day, you will no longer be hidden, because Jesus will be revealed for who he is, and you with him.
Given this, says Paul, you Colossians must put to death—kill—anything and everything you do that damages your relationships with one another. Impurity, evil desires, greed and idolatry—kill them off. Wrath, slander, lying—kill them off, too. Anything like this should be killed. And why? Because this is the life of the old, corrupted age of death; and because in baptism, you have already died to this age of death in Christ, and you have been raised to the life of the age to come with Christ. Your life is hidden with Christ in God—you are alive with him, and you are alive in him!
Think about it like this, says Paul. It’s like you used to wear a really old, manky coat: moth-eaten, worn and torn, stinking of sweat and smeared with excrement; the sort of coat that made everyone around you recoil in disgust and gag uncontrollably. But when you were baptised, you stripped off this coat and dressed yourselves in a completely new kind of coat: weather-proof, bug-proof, unstainable, and gloriously shimmering with light. Listen, says Paul, you are already wearing this coat—so why, why, why do you mope around, hands-in-pockets, living as though you’re still wearing the disgusting old one? You are not clothed like that any more and you have no need to act like you are. And why not? Because you are in Christ and in Christ you are wearing the clothes of God’s kingdom and the clothes of the age to come. You just need to grow into them!
Paul’s image is a powerful one. But what does all this have to do with wives subject to husbands, children obedient to parents, and slaves obedient to masters? It’s almost as though Paul says one thing—you are all in Christ!—and then, in a colossal collapse of self-awareness, says that being in Christ really doesn’t make any difference to the way we live our lives at all. So what’s going on? Is Paul really so lacking in self-awareness? Or is he planting seeds deeply to crack the foundations of Roman—and even our own—society?
Let’s go back a little. By the time we get to this point in his letter, Paul has already claimed that baptism in Christ has freed the Colossians from human traditions and religious techniques. Jesus is enough—that’s what last week was all about. And in the first part of today’s passage, Paul explains that in Christ, ‘there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; [for] Christ is all and in all!’ And so because Christ is all and in all, Paul encourages the Colossians to ‘do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.’ These are important stages in what Paul’s saying. Notice once more how central Jesus is for Paul: Jesus is central to who we are and central to how we act. At this point in Colossians 3, then, Paul seems to insist on a radical equality among Christian believers, as well as on a radical reshaping of what counts as appropriate behaviour. In Christ, everything we think, everything we do, everything we say is radically different and shaped around him. In Christ, who we are and who we shall be is radically different.
And this radical difference also shapes how we relate to one another: in our families, our households, even in church. Despite appearances to the contrary, Paul, from verse eighteen onwards, is actually drawing out what it means to live as though everyone—everyone—is equal in Jesus Christ. All those who are in Christ are dressed in the unstainable and beautiful clothes of God’s kingdom and the age to come. Paul is sure that the Colossians—and we, too, if we can hear this—Paul is absolutely sure that each of us is redefined in Christ and through Christ to such an extent that all our relationships are redefined as well. If Christ is all and in all; if we do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus; then through Jesus, all our relationships without exception are in the Lord. Putting it crudely, Paul is encouraging the Colossians to conduct all their relationships as though Jesus actually makes a difference.
What does this mean? Well, if Christ is all and in all; if we do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus; then through him wives will be subject to their husbands only to the degree that they are both ‘in the Lord’ and so both subject to the Lord Jesus. And the reason why Paul tells husbands to love their wives is because they are both radically equal in Christ.
And what about children? Well, if Christ is all and in all; if we do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus; then through him children need obey their parents only to the degree that they are all ‘in the Lord’ and so all subject to the Lord Jesus. This doesn’t mean that parents may abdicate responsibility or neglect their parental duties; but in a Christian household, children are just as much disciples of Jesus as parents because they are all ‘in the Lord’. And so the reason why Paul tells fathers not to embitter their children is because they are all radically equal in Christ.
And slaves? If Christ is all and in all; if we do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus; then when Paul speaks about doing things ‘for the Lord’ and not for their masters; when Paul speaks about slaves serving ‘the Lord Christ’ and receiving an inheritance from him; and when Paul tells slave masters to treat their slaves ‘justly and fairly’ because they ‘also have a Master in heaven’; then surely Paul is undermining the whole foundation of slavery because he is disempowering slave owners and setting both slaves and masters on the same level. According to Paul, slaves and their masters are all radically equal ‘in the Lord’.
Notice how radical Paul is being. His simple phrases ‘in the Lord’ and ‘in Christ’ carry a lot of significance even today. In most societies, including our own, men and women are not equal—but Paul says men and women are radically equal in Christ. In many families and households, and even in churches, children are ignored or treated as irritants to soothe—but Paul says children and parents, and children and adults more generally, are radically equal in Christ. And slavery and exploitation are still the foundation of modern life—but Paul says slaves, their masters, and all those who depend on or profit from some form of slavery are radically equal in Christ. So we must ask ourselves some questions: What does such radical equality in Christ mean, really mean, for us?—for our families, for our households, for our nations, for our world? What does such radical equality in Christ mean for all of us here at Holy Trinity? And how can we live out our baptism in Christ in a world of radical inequality?
There are areas in my life that need to change, habits and attitudes I need to put to death and kill. Reading the Bible together as the body of Christ constantly challenges me to rethink where I’m at—and it’s painful. But it’s necessary, if I’m truly ‘in the Lord’; it’s necessary for all of us. But God has not left us to struggle alone: Jesus promises to be with us and has sent his Holy Spirit to empower us as we think through what being ‘in Christ’ and being ‘in the Lord’ means for us.
So with this in mind, come to the table. Celebrate the goodness of God and our radical equality in Christ. And be encouraged, for at this table we are all radically equal. None of us is less worthy or more worthy to be here, because God’s Spirit makes us all one in Christ. And let this meal be something we do in the name of the Lord Jesus as we give thanks to God the Father through him and through him alone.