September 16, 2022
TODAY’S SCRIPTURE REFERENCE:
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with one another and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. ” (Colossians 3.12-13,16)
Of all the descriptions of Paul- he who was chosen by the resurrected Jesus to be an Apostle for Christ, the former Saul of Tarsus and persecutor of the Followers of the Way, I have not read any that included the title or job assignment of worship leader. This means, of course, that in this reflection I am sailing in uncharted waters. But, I have no other way to explain this penchant for music which Paul promotes in his letters such as the passage we read today. The 16th verse of the third chapter in the letter to the Colossians (remember, the letter was never divided into book/chapter/verse) speaks of the vitality of music in the circle of Christian living. In one of the letters to the Corinthians (there were at least four letters collected together to make two books of the twenty-seven in New Testament canonized by the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.), Paul calls to mind a popular worship song. We do not know the “group” who wrote it, performed it and took it on the road in concert across the Empire. We do, however, know some of the lyrics. We may even know the title of the hymn as “Death is Swallowed Up in Victory.” The lyrics we are familiar with enough to repeat them often as a verse of confident hope go like this:
“O Death, where is your sting?
O Hades, where is your victory?
The sting of death is sin,
and the strength of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory
through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
A more modern presentation of this ends with:
“Faith is the victory that overcomes the world.
Sound familiar? I am not sure of the tune of that ancient worship lyric but it had to be catchy enough to be remembered so easily. I do know the tune of the added line and sing it often to myself silently and out loud in affirming worship. It guides my walk and lightens my step. It may even do that for some of you. I wonder how many other “lyrics” Paul includes in his writings to the communities of faith throughout the Roman Empire. With them all, he encourages the Gentile believers to adopt a certain cadence in their discipleship promoting the understanding of “worship” as an act and art of Christian service. Especially this is true, I believe, in the ministry of discipleship as they encouraged one another to be built up into the full measure and stature of Christ. Discipleship is, if you recall, the instruction and teaching of all that Jesus commanded us to be and to do as His followers. That teaching included not only the “facts” of His teaching, the applications and consequences of His gospel ministry but the rubric of what was righteous behavior and unrighteous behavior. This means there was also the teaching pedagogy applied called admonishment.
And Paul, here in Colossians and again in Romans, chapter 15, speaks of admonishment with a certain “lilt” in his works. It is so easy to take admonishment to the extreme and have it sound with the full measure of pharasaism and condemnation. Who better than the former Saul of Tarsus to recognize the danger of such extremism. He himself had fallen prey to it as “the way, the truth and the life” of being a super-righteous Jew. Such devotion to being a well-schooled and discipled Pharisee under the tutelage of Gamaliel empowered him to take on the purification ritual of persecution of Christ followers endorsed by the Temple leadership, the Sadducees (that is why they were “sad, you see.”) This was the same leadership, mind you, that took great pleasure in manipulating Pilate to crucify Jesus as well as inciting “a certain crowd” to stone Stephen and lock up Peter and some of the other apostles. If it were not for Gamaliel, however, far worse may have happened to the apostles. Strange that his example and teaching did not have a softening effect on Saul who was filled with a righteous indignation toward this Christian infestation of Judaism. I suppose this is what happens when you have a personal meeting, confrontation, admonition and reconciliation with the Resurrected Jesus to knock you, literally, off your high horse. And that is what happened to Saul on the Damascus Road filled with the authority to render lifeless those who were followers of The Way. I can nearly imagine that the resurrected Jesus may have well sung to Saul struck blind by His glory the very words:
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?
Why do you kick against the goads?
It is I, Jesus of Nazareth, whom you persecute,
now go into the city and learn what I have for you to do.”
The words themselves can be identified as an admonishment. Jesus does not condemn Saul of Tarsus but transforms him by the renewal of his mind. Jesus sets him straight with an up-close and personal encounter. Saul was rendered powerless. He had to be led into the city and there was fed and nurtured, physically and spiritually, by Ananias whom he would have probably first arrested and persecuted. Jesus admonished Ananias, too, in a vision. Jesus taught him the benefits of doing this ministry while Ananias knew full well who he would be dealing with. He calmed his fears. He allayed his doubts. He empowered him with wisdom, truth and compassion. By His faith in Ananias, Ananias was able to lead Saul into owning his new name and reality: Paul of Jesus the Christ.
And because of all of this which happened to Paul, he was able to sing a new song (Psalm 96.1 and Isaiah 42.10) and “dance” to the beat of a different drummer (Matthew 11.17). Paul’s message was definitely “singing a different tune.” We see it in his words to the community of faith in Colossae. Colossae was set among twin peaks in the province of Asia Minor along the Lycus River. It was built in a similar fashion of the ancient Hittites using two mounds mirroring a “cello-shape” configuration. It was as if the “sound of the town” had a music all its own as the hills were alive with the sound of their industry and the river rolled on its way to the Mediterranean Sea. It was to this community of faith he gave instruction to:
“…teach and admonish one another with all wisdom
through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit,
singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.“
Ah, “the music that soothes the savage beast,” the oft misquoted line attributed to English playwright William Congreve who wrote “Music has charms that can soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks or bend a knotted oak.” I can see, though it is merely a poetic assumption on my part, how Paul stands in contradistinction to another noted worship leader- Lucifer. The songs of the fallen Lucifer, who once led the angels in glorious praise of God an eternal 24/7, now stirred the breast of human hearts to riot, hopelessness, insurrection against God and death. Paul, on the other hand, saw the value of singing the new song of the gospel, its truth about God through Jesus Christ and invite others to dance to the beat of a different drummer- the Good Shepherd who conquered death and the grave. Mighty ones of God, followers of the Way of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, God’s only begotten Son, our Lord and Savior, our Brother in faith and faithful friend, is this not the way we should consider building up one another in spirit and in truth. In the words of Mary Poppins, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” No sweeter word is there than that which is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Word of God intended for our salvation and our eternal hope.
Father, continue to sing us a new song so that we may see that death, fear and bitterness are put to rest because sin and the grave have been defeated. Let the new song of Jesus our Christ fill our hearts, mind , soul and spirit with the good news that challenges us to be renewed, revived and transformed into living sacrifices. Let our worship become music to the ears of those who feel the imprisonment of Satan’s captivity. Let our new song be the key that unlocks the fetters and the prison doors and set the captive free. We ask this in the name of the One who has done this for us, Jesus the Christ. AMEN.