Listening In

Colossians 1:1 – 14

Imagine two people. Both are listening in, as these words of St Paul that we heard are read out in two church congregations. Yet neither is a regular member of these congregations: each has slipped in at the back, after the service has started. Not quite sure why, not quite sure what they are doing here, not quite sure of the welcome they will receive. There are similarities between these two people’s lives. But they are separated by two thousand years. The worlds they inhabit could not be more different, at one level. Yet both grapple with similar concerns, and both are searching for the same solace. Will they find it, I wonder, as they listen in to St Paul?
Our first character comes from a small town in what we now call Turkey. A town that has seen better days, frankly. Its economy more or less collapsed a while back, when a new road was built, and its passing trade disappeared. But Colossae is still part of the Roman Empire. An empire whose economy is built on slavery and military conquest. Whose stability and order depend on the worship of the gods. And there are lots of gods in the Roman Empire; and your main aim in life, apart from staying alive and free, is to keep on the right side of them. You appease them with ritual and sacrifice: doing precisely the right things in the right order, and saying precisely the right words, also in the right order.
If you need help of some kind, you invoke the aid of the appropriate deity: staying on good terms with Neptune would be a good idea if you intended to take a sea voyage, for instance. With sea travel as precarious as it is, that’s got to be worth the sacrifice of a kid goat or two. But most of all, you try not to get noticed by the gods. It’s a stressful way of living, really, because religion pervades every area of public and private life: you can’t get away from it. And though the congregation listening to St Paul’s letter are not yet persecuted as atheists for forswearing all these Roman gods, they will be soon.
Our second character comes from our own time, and from somewhere in Britain: you decide where. On the face of it, our world now is very different. We live in a democracy, not an autocracy; and religion seems to be in full retreat from both public and private life. No rituals have to be observed unless you want to observe them; no gods appeased nor sacrifices offered in temples and domestic shrines. But it’s a similarly stressful way of life, in many ways: there are still gods out there. There is still slavery, and economic uncertainty, and military threat.
The Romans constantly skirmished with Barbarians beyond the borders of their empirical expansion. (Perhaps that’s why Hadrian built our wall, long before President Trump had the idea.) We in our time face the threats from other world power-blocs, rogue states, terrorist groups and cyber-criminals.
Colossae lost its economic base, perhaps because of better trade routes elsewhere. We in the north-east know only too well the effect on communities when industries wane and jobs disappear. The Romans became prosperous off the backs of their slaves; we’re becoming aware of just how many people have been isolated and enslaved, across the world and even in twenty-first century Britain, trafficked and exploited by unscrupulous gang-masters. And many more are enslaved by drugs or alcohol, by incapacity or illness, by debts that mount up week by week, perhaps as they wait for long-delayed benefit payments. Many more feel ground down by target-driven management models and oppressive inspection regimes, that undermine the vocation to which they once devoted themselves as teachers or medics or police officers.
And the gods out there, that have to be worshipped? The god of the perfect life, for instance. Social media, if you believe in them, demand a constant flow of posts and pictures to show that your life is as well-tuned, well-toned and well-tanned as all the other bloggers and influencers and instagrammers. You have to appease the god of the perfect life by being on trend, by staying ahead of the curve. And whatever you do, you mustn’t allow others to see that it’s all a charade; and that inside, you hurt and struggle to keep up. To the god of the perfect life, you have to sacrifice not only a lot of your time and your money, but also a lot of your integrity.
Then there is the god of more stuff, appeased by acquiring more and more and more stuff, having more and more and more stuff, and having to throw away more and more stuff, because our economy relies on us buying and having and disposing of stuff, even if it does mean having to sacrifice the planet. And so on: our modern pantheon is as well-populated as the Roman one.
But each of our two characters has met someone, or perhaps a group of people, whose outlook on life seems to be different, and who question the worship of false gods. These people seem more grounded, more at peace with themselves more at peace with others; and our two characters have seen the difference it makes to their lives. So that here they are, shyly, uncertainly, listening in at the back as Paul’s letter is read out.
For the one, his words tell of something utterly new. Because you didn’t have a relationship with the gods of the Roman pantheon. You tried not to upset them; and you ritually thanked them whenever things went well, and worried about what you’d done wrong when things went badly. But you didn’t feel you had any kind of personal faith in them. You didn’t feel that you mattered to them. You certainly didn’t expect them to send their son to spend his life proclaiming a message of fatherly love, and giving his life in order to show that he meant it.
So when Paul talks about living lives worthy of this love, and fully pleasing to God, and being enabled to share the inheritance of the saints in light, and deliverance from the power of darkness; this solace is all utterly new. And utterly life-transforming.
And what of our modern-day counterpart? For him, or her, Christianity is receding into the past. Something they briefly studied in RE back in school, along with a selection of other religions; God was something you learned about, rather than someone in whom you believe and trust. Because ancient words and ancient buildings; do we need these any longer? Haven’t we progressed beyond such superstitions, now that we are scientific, rational, grown-up human beings?
But people take Christianity for granted, don’t they? The progress that we’ve made; the values that we take as given: that each person is uniquely valuable, for instance, because Christians would say they are a child of God. That we should strive for justice and for peace, because Christians would claim that loving each other is the second commandment after loving God himself.
These seemingly unshakeable pillars of our common life are being eroded away. Eroded by the despots and the populist politicians who demonise convenient minorities. Eroded by self-absorbed greed and individualism, eroded by the power of economic systems that benefit the few far more than the many. So that many are now left at the mercy of implacable gods and impersonal economics: stressed and anxious and wondering if there is any solace to be had.
Paul’s message of love, and hope, and faith in a God who is concerned for us. I wonder whether this won’t sound as equally refreshing, as equally life-transforming to our modern-day listener as it did to our unknown Roman back in Colossae? But who will tell the story? Who will live a life that bears fruit, as Paul puts it? A life which shows that God’s love makes a difference, and attracts them to find out more? Who will help them to hear the solace of St Paul, which might just transform their lives?
© Jon Russell 2019