It can be tempting to read Paul's letters as historical documents, as letters written in a time long ago, which may or may not be relevant to our lives today. In fact, if you want to thoroughly understand Paul's writings, it is helpful to understand the people to whom he was writing.
But it would be a shame, a tragedy really, to see these letters as relics from the past. They can be helpful in living the Christian faith today. They can be the guide that guides us to lead holier lives. The Letter to the Hebrews describes God's word as "living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (4.12).
It is in this context that I read St. Paul's letter to the Colossians. Two sections of this letter, in particular, are like shining stars that can help us "lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him" (Colossians 1.10).
First, some background. Paul writes this letter, at least in part, to help the Church at Colossae overcome false teachings. There are only general allusions to this false teaching in the letter and scholars have long speculated over the nature of these heresies.
The best we can say, according to Scripture scholar Father Raymond Brown, is that the teachings Paul finds problematic lie in combining belief in Christ with Jewish and pagan elements. They give reverence to Christ but subordinate him to elements in the heavens, such as angels, to whom the fullness of worship is supposedly due.
Why was Jesus seen as subordinate? Probably because he had a material form, which Paul's opponents saw as inferior to the purely spiritual nature of angels.
Paul responds in two ways:
The first is with a hymn of praise to Jesus Christ (1.15-20) who is "the firstborn of all creation," "the firstborn of the dead" and "the head of the body, the Church." "In him, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell."
It is a hymn of unequivocal devotion to Christ, one that is prayed as part of the Liturgy of the Hours once a week. It identifies Christ with God and affirms that "in him all things on heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers."
He is before all things, and has first place in all things. And a little later, Paul tells us, "in him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form" (2.9).
The message should be clear. There can be no mixing of Christianity with other religions unless it is clearly understood that Jesus is the only Son of God and the only one to whom worship is due.
If the message is still not clear, Paul makes it explicit when he writes that Christ "disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in (the cross)" (2.15). Christ's acceptance of death on the cross is the ultimate sign of his superiority over spiritual beings.
The second response is a call to right living (3.1-17) based upon our new life in Christ through Baptism (2.6-15). If you believe that Christ is the Son of God then you should "seek the things that are above, where Christ is" - not with those other spiritual beings - "seated at the right hand of God."
This too is a central New Testament passage - part of it is read during Mass on Easter morning.
Paul calls us to live out our baptismal call by clothing ourselves in Christ and to striving to live by virtues such as compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Indeed, he gives a rather full sketch of the Christian moral life, calling people to resolve their disputes and to live with peace in their hearts.
At the end of this section, he particularly emphasizes thankfulness, calling his readers to "with gratitude in your hearts, sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God" (3.16). He also urges us to give thanks to God the Father through Christ in everything that we do.
This emphasis on thanksgiving is crucial. If Christians at Colossae were in fact worshipping angels and other spiritual beings, it would most likely be with the purpose of getting their desires met by these beings.
Paul's advice implies that a life pleasing to God is focused not on asking for things, but on being thankful for what we have received. Thanksgiving is the antidote to self-seeking.
Today, Colossians retains a relevance to us as a retort to New Age spiritualities that commune with various spirits. But more importantly than that, it shows a path to true Christian holiness. It calls us to give full honour to Jesus Christ and in chapter 3, it lays out a path for living that can be the task of a lifetime.
Paul's letter to the Colossians is truly living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword in leading us to fullness of life.