Summary: The folly of false religions. Only fullness and freedom are found in Christ.
The setting is the front of a small church. The pastor says from the pulpit, ‘I’ve misplaced my sermon notes, so I’m just going to read from this devotional—if I can find it here. While I look, maybe the choir can lead us in a hymn’. He glances at the choir which has one person.
The choir director says, ‘We thought the service started at noon, so only Mrs. Marsden is here right now’. A parishioner leans over and whispers to a pew mate, ‘I love this church. I’ve never been much into organized religion’.
We live in a highly, unorganised religious society. The modern quest to replace ‘reason’ with ‘religion’ has failed. This side of modernity, new religion isn’t called ‘religion’, its called ‘spirituality’. The social researcher, Hugh MacKay, makes an distinction between these two terms. While ‘spirituality’ is the personal quest for a higher and more self-fulfilling existence, ‘religion’ is the old ‘institutional’ and ‘mainstream’ religion with its too frequent quest to exercise power and its immoral desire to control others. As Lord Acton said in 1887, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Napoleon once said that ‘religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich’.
The new word is ‘spirituality’ which is the personal, postmodern quest for meaning in a vacuous world. And what sort of spirituality? Well, life is about having choices, whether it be at the supermarket, the next partner, the next job, or the next system of beliefs. And when an Australian becomes tired of one belief, he simply moves onto the next because we must be constantly morphing ourselves in order to stay relevant in a changing world. Be Buddhist, be New Age, be scientific, be a strange mix of everything when it suits. There’s no shortage of beliefs and different types of spirituality in the market place of ideas.
But the one thing which cannot be done is speak in absolutes. We are all at sea and no-one can say they have the right to be the captain of the ship. Our world is suspicious of all life-guiding stories that claim to have ultimate authority over us—including the biblical story from creation to new creation. There are only opinions and points of view in a shifting and shifty world.
As Christians, we live in this market place of ideas. The Colossian Christians also lived in a world full of new ideas and seductive spirituality. And so we have very much in common. For in a cosmopolitan and complex world we are tempted to consider spirituality beyond Christ.
The quest for a re-invigorated spirituality usually arises from an ongoing dissatisfaction with life and with relationships at church. When the pastor does something stupid. When life becomes dry and dull. When things at church become difficult or when someone close to you dies. It might happen if a relationship fails or if you lose your job. When low points come and God seems and far away, we are vulnerable as we struggle to get our life back together again.
The sect pressuring the Colossian Church was promising a full and more satisfying Christian life. So Paul’s warning in verse 8 is timely, ‘See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ’. But aren’t we confident in our faith? We know Christ and we know who we are in Christ and we appreciate the majestic splendour of the gospel. So do we need such a warning?
At some time or another we will all get caught short. We need correction as well as encouragement. We need carrots as well as sticks. We need fences as well as fields. So Paul reminds us what pasture we should be grazing in and it is where the grass is greenest, for it is where Christ is Lord. In verses 16 to 23, Paul holds up the new spirituality and he systematically dismantles it. ‘Freedom’, the apostle says. ‘This new teaching offers no freedom. It’s an allusion, it’s a shadow’, Paul says in verses 16 and 17.
‘Fullness’, the apostle says. ‘This new teaching offers no fullness, no completeness. Its hot air, it’s unspiritual and its proud’, Paul says in verses 18 and 19. ‘It attacks the fullness we have in Christ and it attacks the freedom we have in Christ’. Fullness and freedom arise from the victory at the cross. From the triumph of the resurrection. ‘When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ’ (Col 2:13). At the cross, powers and authorities were rendered impotent and Christ was raised to sit at the right-hand of the Father and rule the world.