Minister's Sermon - 21st July 2019
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenSermon for Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church

Sunday 21st July 10.30am

Introduction to the reading

Today we are looking at the last section of the letter to the Colossians. It begins with 10 verses known as “the household code.” And I’ll say more about what that is after we’ve heard the reading. But as you listen, you’ll need to remember that the letter was addressing a community in a very different time and place. So, it’d be wise to suspend judgement, until you understand more. One of my commentaries begins by asking how we should preach on the household codes that also appear in Ephesians, Titus and 1st Peter. “One answer,” it says, “is follow the lectionary readings, and you” won’t have to! (1) They weren’t included in the lectionary because the compilers of the lectionary thought they weren’t suitable for our time. ‘Though Christians and churches who read the bible literally think differently. One of the purposes of preaching is to interpret scripture for our time and place. And when necessary, to acknowledge those parts of scripture that are rooted in cultural norms and patterns of relationships, that our society no longer accepts as legitimate.

Reading: Colossians 3.18-4.18

Sermon

Introduction

I want to begin this morning by summarising the main points of the letter to the Colossians – as I see - because they provide the context for today’s passage. The writer wrote to support, encourage and challenge a small Christian community, struggling to remain faithful to Christ, in the face of a rival philosophy or religion. He emphasised the importance of their lives being rooted in Christ. For in Christ, he said, “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Christians are to embody Christ’s wisdom in every aspect of our lives. In our beliefs, our worship, out teaching. In everything we do and in all our relationships. We’re to seek the things above, to put to death earthly things, and to put on the love and peace of Christ. For when we embody Christ’s wisdom, we are witnessing to the wisdom that created everything there is, and everything that will be. So, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,” the writer says, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another… clothe yourselves with love… And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…” And then, dropped into a rich passage, we read “wives be subject to your husbands…” It’s the beginning of the passage known as the household code, that many people – not only women - find extremely challenging. And it’s that that I want to focus on this morning. Because we need to wrestle with the parts of the bible that we struggle with. We need to consider what it is we want to hold onto. And how we should interpret them in the world today. But before I say more about that I want to tell you a story that has affected the way I come to passages like this one because it’s used to justify such behaviour.

A story

Before I met my first husband, he belonged to a lively evangelical Anglican church, in South London. In the mid-70s, there was a theological split, over how they should interpret the bible. He didn’t agree with those who left, but remained friends with some of them, and stayed in touch. He was particularly close to one couple. They visited us and we visited them. I think they saw me as a project. If they could convert me to their way of thinking, my husband would follow, and then we’d be back on the true path. We had one particularly memorable visit to them. Sandra was heavily pregnant, and trying to look after two children, and getting dinner was tiring her. We’d not been allowed to help because we were guests. And Martin has sat and entertained us. When we sat down, he realised the bread wasn’t on the table, so he asked Sandra to get it. As she struggled to get up, I jumped up, fetched it and sat back down. He shouted at us both. Her for not getting up quickly enough and allowing a guest to show her up. Me for doing her work and undermining his authority. I think you can probably guess that I was not impressed.

Introduction to the household code

The household codes in Colossians and the other letters were not originally Christian. They were developed out of a wider concern for household management in the Greek and Roman world. And there, the issue at the heart of household management, was the maintenance of a hierarchical relationship between husband and wife, parents and children, masters and slaves. Because when this was upset, they thought it would undermine and threaten the order of the whole society. This made household management a matter of political concern and the codes were written to enable the male heads of households to uphold order. One aspect of these codes were instructions on religious affiliation. In Greco-Roman culture, wives, children and slaves were expected to accept the religion of the head of household. So, any religious groups that attracted women and slaves or questioned this traditional structure, was seen as subversive and likely to endanger social stability. They included Judaism when slaves refused to worship their master’s gods. The Roman cult of Isis which attracted women. And as women and slaves joined the new Christian movement in ever large numbers, it too, became the object of suspicion and criticism.

The letter to the Colossians is the first piece of writing to a religious community that contained a household code. The writer doesn’t say why he’s included it so anything I say is speculation. But there are three possible reasons. The first, as he responded to accusations from the outsiders that the Christians were threatening social stability, he decided to set standards for Christians that were consistent with the norms of the wider society. Second, he may have wanted to distance Christianity, from practices of the philosophy the Christians were contending with. And third, he wanted to make Christianity less threatening to those who found it unsettling, and believed it might destabilise society. Undergirding all three reasons might be a desire to ensure that the witnesses of the community was not affected by behaviour that might place it at risk, and that’s perhasp supported by the verse that says, “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders.” This need to “fit in” with the wider society, rather than disrupt the status quo, might feel surprising given what we read in the Book of Acts where Christians were accused of turning the world upside down! But after Paul’s death, and with the realisation that the end of time wasn’t coming as quickly as they’d anticipated, the Christians found that they needed to assimilate into society while still maintaining their Christian identity. And the household code may have helped them to do this. One writer who compares them with Paul’s writings says “they reflect a more conservative attitude toward the… household; and they leave much less room for ambiguity…. But on the other hand, [they]… are not incompatible with Paul’s own teaching on women and slaves.” (2)

What is clear, ‘though, is that the writer didn’t simply adopt the household codes of the wider society. The Christian household codes are distinctive. Each group within the household is treated as “moral agents in their own right.” (3) And the instructions for each link back to their relationship with Christ. So, unlike the codes they are adapted from, where wives, children and slaves were subject to the head of household. In the Colossians’ code, the head of the household, whether acting as husband, parent or master, as well as their wives, children and slaves, are also subject to Christ. For the writer of this letter, everything he’s written before, applies to every one of them equally. And not to one more than another. Over and over again, he has written about wisdom, beginning with his prayer that his readers be “filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord.” And he expects them to wisdom teachers themselves and live wisely in relation to outsiders. But none of this is new. And it’s not surprising that household duties and relationships were understood as living a wise life. Because the Jewish wisdom tradition – particularly in Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus – also contained practical advice for the same three household groups. And all of this is now included in a Christian reflection, on the accumulated wisdom of Jewish and Greco-Roman religion and cultures, in the form of a code that will shape the believers’ conduct in the light of Christ’s lordship.

The handmaid’s tale

Over the past three years, I’ve been watching the TV series that has grown out of Margaret Atwood’s book, “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I first read it 30 years ago. But over the past 3 years, it’s had particular resonances in the US, given the way President Trump speaks about women and is accused of acting with them. In an imaginary North American state called Gilead, fertility has declined, and most women don’t have children. A group that reads the bible literally comes into power. Takes control of women who have children. And gives their children to an elite who bring them up according to their understanding of scriptures. Women of low status – called Martha’s - become slaves in the homes of the elite. While those who rebel get sent to the colonies where they mine radio-active products from waste. The way Gilead works is rooted in practices that could easily be from the household codes of the ancient world. And even ‘though it’s only a story, there’s a truth in it, that speaks of the violence and abuse perpetrated against women, children and slaves, that becomes acceptable in societies structured for the benefit of some and not of all its members. You may think it’s an exaggeration, and the highly structured society Margaret Atwood has imagined for Gilead, is. But the impact of similar behaviour has been experienced throughout history. In the feudal systems of the middle ages. In the way Victorian missionaries reinforced some African and Asian cultural patterns with their reading of scriptures. In the practice of slavery, not only in the 18th and 19th centuries, but today as well. And in attitudes still embedded in many Western culture and that are emerging from the shadows in cases of child abuse, modern-slavery, and the hashtag Me-Too movement.

Moderated by the Lordship of Christ

So, you might wonder, if I have anything positive to say about the household code? Andrew Lincoln, highlights some of the ways that the household code might have supported women, children and slaves in his commentary. He identifies three things. The first, is that it moderates the behaviour, of the male head of the household. He no longer has freedom to treat them as his property. Husbands are to love their wives and never treat them harshly. Fathers are not to treat their children unkindly. And masters are to treat their slaves justly and fairly. The writer doesn’t explicitly say why. But the reasoning behind this is evident in his instructions to wives, children and slaves.

This is Lincoln’s second point. Each person is under Christ’s lordship. So, each is subordinate, to another. Wives are subject to husbands, “as is fitting in the Lord.” Children are to obey their parents, because it is their “acceptable duty in the Lord,” and as slaves obey their masters and do their work, it is “done for the Lord… and not for men.” And because their relationship with the Lord is the more important, the head of the household, must treat people in their own right. So, wives aren’t required to be subordinate, simply because it is what society demands, but because, just as they chose voluntarily to be subject to Christ, they choose to be subordinate to their husbands. The same is true of slaves. ‘Though, like children, slaves don’t have much choice. And it’s this lack of choice that means we have to be careful about how we translate this teaching into our times. Because when people who do not have real choices, are instructed to behave in particular ways, those instructions can turn into abuse. If, on the other hand, masters use their power to treat their slaves justly and fairly, slaves, their wives and their children, any who “fear the Lord” might come to see themselves first and foremost as slaves of Christ, and decide to obey their masters. Their place in society remains the same. But choosing to see themselves differently, and choosing a different motivation for their work and relationships, might have transformed their conditions from within. And this was probably the only choice for a powerless minority in 1st century Asia Minor.

The third positive thing Andrew Lincoln points us to is the way that the household code connects our religious and our everyday lives. In the 21st century, there is a growing gap between what we do during the week, and what we do and hear when we come to church. Yet, here was a small, powerless community, asserting the connection between the sacred and the secular. Recognising, that the way they lived their lives within households, could be a powerful witness to the Gospel.

Translating it…

Having said all this ‘though, Andrew Lincoln also draws our attention to way, “the patriarchal marriage pattern is reinforced” and justified in the household code. (5) And even ‘though, it might have been best that could be said and done in this situation and time, I don’t believe it’s consistent with the Gospel. Listen to Paul in his letter to the Galatians. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” For me, and for many others, practicing this household code in our time, would be a distortion of the Gospel. For those who read the bible literally this statement will be challenging. But I don’t think it’s inconsistent with the way household code was developed in the first place. Walter Brueggemann is an Old Testament theologian. And he reminds us that those who wrote its wisdom literature, and whose writings were adapted by the writer of the letter to the Colossians, were constantly faced with new experiences. Experiences that they needed to incorporate into their writings. So, they constantly revisited the wisdom writings, in the light of the new things they were learning. And Brueggemann says, “this means that their word of nurture and instruction… [was written] ‘on the run.’” It might sound to us as if they’re definitive words. And that’s one of the problems of reading the scriptures literally. But he says, “it was known among such interpreters… that the work must all be done again, tomorrow.” (6) This knowledge, Andrew Lincoln says, “has often eluded interpreters of Colossians.” (7) Yet, as the nature of households and society changes, passages written for a particular time and situation were revisited and revised. Not by throwing everything out. But by considering what the heart of the Christians message is, what it means to be subject to the Lordship of Christ, in relation to the values and practices of society in that time.

This is the work that the Methodist Church has been doing for the past few years in relation to marriage and relationships. It’s been prompted by changes in the law, first allowing civil partnerships and now marriage, of people in same sex relationships. But it’s also about our attitudes and practices in relation to divorce, cohabitation and other issues. There’s much in the Task Group’s report, but for the moment I want to read you a paragraph, that I think is central in expressing what we believe about human relationships now.

“By the grace of God transforming our hearts and the guidance of the Spirit, we continue to deepen our understanding of what this Christ-like, holy relating means. We recognise that modern concepts of ‘equality’ and ‘mutuality’ and the ways in which they are now expressed in the Methodist Church cannot be read back simply into the stories of Jesus, who was incarnated as a Jewish man in first century Palestine. We believe, though, that these and the other qualities named below are the fruits of a long process of reflection on the Scriptures (including those stories) and on Christian experience. We now see that women and men are equal persons; differently able people are equal persons; people of different skin colour and ethnic backgrounds are equal persons. As we learn how to respect all as equal persons and to behave in an authentically Christian way, [we] recommend that Conference affirms the following summary understanding of the principles or qualities of good relating. All significant relationships should be built on self-giving love, commitment, fidelity, loyalty, honesty, mutual respect, equality and the desire for the mutual flourishing of the people involved. It is through that self-giving, rather than through self-seeking, that the self flourishes and begins to experience life in all its fullness (although it needs to be recognised that the universal Church’s historic emphasis on self-sacrifice has often been misunderstood and misused [e.g. by abusive partners] in a way that is destructive of the well-being of the ones abused [often women]).” (7)

If the church was to use the language of self-giving and mutuality about all relationships, we might have a better chance of speaking to, and being heard, in today’s world. But as long as people continue to act as Martin did in my story, and say they’re doing it because they’re Christian, our witness is undermined. Much as the writer to the Colossians feared their witness would be undermined of they threatened the order society too much. Except that some of the behaviour justified by the household codes now threatens to undermine Christian witness.

Conclusion

As we draw our reflections on the letter to the Colossians to a close, I want to end, with the words that come just before the household code. “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another… clothe yourselves with love… And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…” This is the attitude with which we are to approach every new situation and experience. And it’s possible when our lives are rooted in Christ. When we seek to embody Christ’s wisdom in every aspect of our lives - our beliefs, our worship, our teaching - in everything we do and in all our relationships. For them we will be witnessing, to the wisdom that created everything there is, and everything that will be. Amen.

Sue Keegan von Allmen

21st July 2019

1. The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol X1, 2000 p 658

2. MY MacDonald Quoted in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol X1, 2000 p 654

3. The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol X1, 2000 p 654

4. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/576a82ce15d5db796d3a719c/t/5cc9a6fbf4e1fcb1e7225741/1556719360506/Bible+Month+Magazine-+Colossians.pdf

5. The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol X1, 2000 p 655

6. Adapted from The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol X1, 2000 p 659

7. https://www.methodist.org.uk/media/12357/conf-2019-10-marriage-and-relationships-task-group-2019-170719.pdf

References

1. The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol X1, 2000 p 658

2. MY MacDonald Quoted in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol X1, 2000 p 654

3. The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol X1, 2000 p 654

4. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/576a82ce15d5db796d3a719c/t/5cc9a6fbf4e1fcb1e7225741/1556719360506/Bible+Month+Magazine-+Colossians.pdf

5. The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol X1, 2000 p 655

6. Adapted from The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol X1, 2000 p 659

7. https://www.methodist.org.uk/media/12357/conf-2019-10-marriage-and-relationships-task-group-2019-170719.pdf