Rules are not Enough in the Game of Life
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, January 12, 2020
Reading: Colossians 2:6-15
I think we have a paradox in our times; on the one hand, as a society we want to have maximum freedom, we want opportunities, as few constraints as possible, and to live in accordance with our own precepts. We cherish freedom and want to preserve it. The paradox occurs when on the flip side, we want rules for life, we want others to help guide us and give us some sense of direction. We have freedom on the one hand, and rules on the other.
I was doing some research recently and realised a plethora of books have been written about rules for life, even over just the last few years, and not only that; some of these books have become best-sellers. An example: The Rules of Life, by Richard Templar. Seven Money Rules for Life, by Mary-Lou Hunt; From the Heart: Seven Rules to Live By, by Robin Roberts, Twelve Rules for Life, by Jordan Peterson, which we discussed in the fall. This one I find troubling: Fifty-Two Principles - Rules to Live By, by Jerry White. Now, I can see that just flying off the shelves. Finally, the one that really got me, If Life is a Game, Here are the Rules, by Irene Carter-Scott.
Isn't it interesting that some of these are New York Times bestsellers? So, for all our love and our desire for freedom, we actually want some rules. We want people to tell us how we should live, and we pay people to tell us now to live. It’s a paradox. Maybe it’s due in part to this dystopian world we’re in, where those who we’ve trusted to be in positions of power would lead us, and that there would be a sense of order, so we know where things stand and alliances are clearly distinguished. Now it is an amorphous situation and we’re not sure who really exercises real power in the world. Maybe it’s because of that. Maybe it’s because many people have disruption in their live and are crying out for change. Disruptors are those who are seen to be of the highest good, while at the same time, facing this situation where there seems to be no rules, no order to how things are done, which would become troubling.
You've even seen that, have you not, even over the last week, where normal diplomatic rules, normal channels for communication have been broken down for one reason or another politically, and therefore the ability to influence, the ability to change, to create order in the way that crises are dealt with, is made all the harder. This dystopian, disrupted, rules-losing world, I think, causes people to wonder about the paradox of freedom and of rules for daily living. We live in that world. But we’re not unique. In the very first century, when the Apostle Paul wrote from prison in 50 AD via the use of a scribe to the new Christian community that existed in Colossae, their world was similarly torn between the love of freedom and the need for rules and order. He wrote to this newly-formed Christian community that arose mainly within the context of the Jewish community.
Many of them began within the Jewish faith, while others joined them from the Gentile world so they were an amalgamation of both Jew and Gentile, but many of them had come from a historic Jewish community that had existed in Colossae for nearly three hundred years, since the days of the prophet Obadiah. Many of them had gone there because of the Babylonian resettlement after the exile and formed a very strong Jewish community. They were an affluent community. Their synagogues were opulent, and they had been given a tax-free status to encourage them to stay there.
We find the same thing happening today in Tulsa, Oklahoma and in Vermont, where governments are appealing for people to live there by offering enticements. The Jewish community that existed in Colossae for three hundred years, had been privileged and had been given, for a while anyway, this tax-exempt status. The early Christians then emerged from this, and that Jewish community naturally wanted to hold onto its cultic practices and maintain some of its traditions. Knowing that they were a minority faith in a majority Greek area, they had to hold onto their faith.
Meanwhile the earliest Christians had no place to worship. According to new archeological digs, Christians actually met in the fountains around Colossae, and there they worshipped on a Sunday morning. They gathered there because they had no place to go. They were a minority group of people in a very large and a very affluent culture, and they were trying to find their way.
This week I’ve been reading about the Christian community in Iran. We forget sometimes that there are Christians in Persia. They are often a minority and gather in houses. They do not have public places of worship, but just like those early Christians in Colossae, they live within the context of a certain small faith. So, what was the problem? Why did Paul write to them? Why did he say these words: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.”
What was he saying here? What was the problem? Clearly, they were being seduced by all the different traditions around them and starting to forget why they’d become followers of Jesus Christ in the first place. They’d been given this incredible sense of freedom in the fullness of Christ, that liberating sense that their sins were forgiven, that God became one of us and dwelled among us. That liberating moment when death itself was conquered through the resurrection of Jesus. But now they're starting to look at some of the things that are around them and thinking, “It would be nice to have that. It would be nice to have an ornate synagogue; it would be nice to have something socially acceptable, like the philosophy of the Gnostics, who were part of the Greek culture.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have acceptance and be seen as erudite and intellectually recognised people within our culture? Maybe it would be nice to simply belong to a faith that looks at outward things as an expression of inward things, such as circumcision. Whereas Paul had said to them clearly before in other letters that it is not the circumcision of the flesh that counts, but the circumcision of the heart. It is what and who you are, and how you follow God in your heart that matters. Maybe they were just seduced by a thing called Merkabah mysticism, which was an ancient Jewish mysticism that goes back to the time of Ezekiel. Many of you know the story of the Chariots of Fire, which of course was made famous in a movie many years ago. But these chariots of fire come down and they take us in mythological figures back up into heaven. Many people believed in macabre mysticism. Maybe that’s what would be a good thing for them to do.
But deep down they wanted to be accepted by their culture. They wanted their lives and their faith to be recognised. Paul saw that there was a danger in that; “See to it,” he said, “that no one takes you captive by these things.” He saw them losing the very freedom that they had found in Christ and becoming tied down in the traditions and the philosophies established by humankind.
Why does it matter? Why does what happened in Colossae affect us who live in Toronto, or wherever you're tuning in today? Why does it affect us? Well, Paul saw the danger of us developing an incomplete life. He saw these people being seduced by outward things, rather than inward things, and he knew that if they became constrained, if they followed those outward things, they would lose the very freedom that they had found in God and in the fullness of Christ. These things were things like virtue, this was the highest good within the Greek culture of the time. This was starting to wield its way into Jewish mysticism, this notion that we should, by our volition and our own will, and by rules of life, become virtuous. But Paul knew that was a shallow dead-end road because he knew that we do not, despite all our attempts to be virtuous, live up to the very aspirations that we have.
Lori, in her Children’s Moment at our 9:15 service was fantastic. She asked the children about New Year’s resolutions. Some of them had some good ones, like being kinder to people and being more honest. Then Lori confessed that she makes resolutions but has a tendency to break them rather quickly, which was very brave of her to do. But we all do that, because we know that attempting to be virtuous, without any kind of recognition of a divine strength or guidance or forgiveness, is, in the end, a dead road, because what it leads to is people desiring to have the appearance of being virtuous. That’s what Paul was concerned about, not virtue, but the false sense of appearing as virtuous, and then the stress of having to live up to that.
I was thinking about that this week. When I lived in Ottawa, I took a flight to Nova Scotia, to see my family. I could only get a seat on a big plane that was going from Ottawa to Halifax, then on to the United Kingdom, so I only got a middle seat, and that was just for a two-hour flight to Halifax. I had two men on either side of me, who’s policy in life seemed to be to drink lots and drink often. There they were, already well and truly prepared for a long flight, both of them somewhat inebriated, and I'm sitting in the middle. Like a good Canadian, I put on my headphones and listened to CBC news. The two of them started a conversation with one another that was rather free-flowing. One of them talked about how he has been able to save a lot of money as a fisherman, because he has been able to go down to the docks, pay cash for the fish, do things under the table. No one knows how much he’s made; he doesn’t have to declare it. He was bragging about it.
The guy on the other side of me joined in and tried to beat him. He said, “Well, in my business, I hire people, and I don’t bother declaring them as employees and pay EI and CPP, I just give them cash and they do the work for a day.” The two of them were laughing away as if they had really done something special. Then finally one of them said to me, “Are we bothering you by any chance?”
I said, “Maybe a little bit.”
And then they asked, “What do you do for a living?”
I said, “I'm an investigator with Revenue Canada.” (I did. I am so bad.) I have never seen two men look like that and go completely silent.
I couldn’t live with the guilt, I had to fess-up. I laughed, and told them who I was, I'm the minister of Timothy Eaton Memorial Church. Like that’s better, really, hey? Then I watch – and this is the bit that got me – one guy pretended to read a book that he had in his case, by a guy called David Schwartz, and I don’t remember the exact title of it, but it was something like The Magic of Thinking Big (success). I thought, yeah, right, you're going down the right road, buddy.
Oftentimes we put on a pretense of virtuosity, but it’s not always there in the heart. It’s the same with success. There is the sense in which the early Christian community didn’t feel they were particularly successful, because they didn’t have all the outward appearances of success. They were being seduced to see themselves as being successful, erudite, articulate, well-reasoned people who bought into the spirit of the age. Paul says, “See to it that no one takes you captive by this. See to it that no one takes you captive by your desire for power.” He uses the word power more than once and talks about the power of Christ and His crucifixion and His resurrection, and that should be enough for us.
I think those early Christians wanted the power, and its ability to influence. They wanted to be influencers. That is a seductive thing, even for those of us who live today. In essence, my professor from Acadia, Craig Evans, a great scholar of Colossians, said that here was a real struggle for the very soul of the Christian community. They could have this incomplete life by being seduced by the culture around them, or they could maintain the freedom of recognising the fullness of the forgiveness and the grace and the love of Jesus Christ.
There was also a sense that it was an incomplete faith. There were challenges to what they believed. Listen again to what he says: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe.” What is he talking about? Elemental spirits of the universe? Well, these were movements at the time of Paul. One of them was astrology and the belief that the stars determined your life, and that by paying a certain amount to people who have wisdom and insights into how our life is going to be mapped out by the stars. It is pure fatalism, you're in the hands of forces beyond yourselves.
For Paul, this was one of the most dangerous things, because it had people captive to the forces, the elemental forces, the forces of the universe. Paul’s saying no to this, do not become captive to this. They could have also become captive to an asceticism that was very much part of Greek religion and philosophy. In other words, watch what you eat, watch what you take in, watch how you live, and live a simple and ascetic life. Very much the stoic view of things.
It was also part of a mystical tradition, even within the Jewish community of the first century, and Paul says, no, as he does elsewhere, in Corinthians and so on, it’s not what you put into you that matters, it’s your character, your faith, the freedom of being who you are in the light of the grace of God. Don’t let asceticism control you.
Then another elemental spiritual worship at the time, was the worship of angels. Now, anyone who was here on Christmas Eve knows that Timothy Eaton Memorial Church in its pageant, has the most beautiful angels on earth, right – on earth. When those angels come forward and sing “Away in a Manger” I tell you, the whole world just melts, but we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about the worship of celestial beings, not angels in the biblical sense, but celestial beings that are the intermediaries between us and God.
Now, there is a place for angels within the Christian faith, but not the worship of them, and that’s what Paul’s talking about here. It is when we worship those secondary things that our faith is diminished. Paul was struggling, he was imploring those who were in Colossae not to lose their faith, not to be some seduced by other elemental movements.
Why? Because he saw in the cross of Christ a victory over all law, a victory over all elemental spirits, all forces, prove them to be nothing by being raised from the dead. The cross, the suffering of Christ, being the symbol of the defeat of death and evil; why would you want to go back to these other things? Why would you regress to those things that bind you and are stressful?
Be free. Be free in Christ and allow that freedom and the presence and the fullness of Christ in your life to be sufficient, and to give you strength. Paul saw that these other things did not make us more compassionate, did not make for a more just or a righteous world, but they led to becoming constrained, becoming captives.
You see, it is not, and it never will be, a matter of whether God worries about us following traditions, virtue or success. It’s not as if God is hurt by that, it’s what it does to us, and that’s what Paul was concerned about. He was worried about the Colossians, and I think he should be concerned for us in our day and age too.
With all the nonsense of the last week – and it is, it’s awful – in all that’s happened in the world, the fear and animosity, I've been thinking about those who have had and been voices for reason and care, and an order that is based on the heart and the soul. I always go back to one of my favourites, who was a General Secretary of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, a Christian. He said, and I think the world needs to hear this – “God does not die on the day that we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily of the wonder of faith, the source of which is beyond all reason.”
For Hammarskjold, turning to that One who is beyond all, is the hope. Surely the greatest rule for life is the love and grace of God. With that, we are free. Amen.