Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Colossians, Community & The Church's Meal Table

When we consider Paul’s letter to the Colossians, we do not attempt to press the issue farther than the evidence warrants, but simply make note of the fact that Paul, who we must presume intends or expects his letter to be read at a communal gathering (most likely a meal), makes it a point to use meal-related terms in his communications concerning the Gospel of Jesus and the church’s manner of representing the kingdom of God on earth. 

In the second chapter, words such as “Therefore do not let anyone judge you with respect to food or drink, or in the matter of a feast, new moon, or Sabbath days” (2:16) cannot pass by without mention, or without taking them into consideration in light of ancient meal practice, both inside and outside of the church.  Also, this very brief listing of feast, new moon, and Sabbath is language that is evocative of the covenant markers of Judaism (works of the law), which we know was a constant source of tension and division in the churches of the day.  Paul’s insistence that these things are “shadows of the things to come” (2:17a), whereas the “reality is Christ!” (2:17b), reminds us, in the same breath, that the new covenant marker that will identify the people of God and which will be in evidence in their meal practice, is the confession that Jesus is Lord.  The new covenant marker serves the same purpose as the old covenant marker, which ultimately was to affirm that the Creator God---the God of Israel---is the sovereign ruler of all.  Because Jesus, as Messiah, was understood to be the physical embodiment of Israel’s God, the symmetry is quite obvious. 

In addition to the language of meals and of the Lordship of Jesus (the Gospel), Paul employs terms that are reminders of that which can be found in both Romans and the first Corinthian letter (as well as Ephesians), with their focus on the unity of the body.  Because it is a near impossibility for us to separate “unity language” from the meal table (with confidence that this letter would have been read at a meal table), we are able to discern traces of a reference to the practice of the symposium (the second of the two parts of the Hellenistic banquet, in which songs and poems were shared, ideas were discussed, attendees engaged in sexual relations with slaves and others in attendance, and honor was at stake) when Paul writes “Let no one who delights in humility and the worship of angels pass judgment on you.  That person goes on at great lengths about what he has supposedly seen, but he is puffed up with empty notions by his fleshly mind” (2:18).  Without getting in to the issues to which Paul makes reference here, the allusion to the boasting that is a common feature of the world’s meal tables, to which Paul makes semi-regular reference (thus bolstering our position that these letters from Paul are designed to be read in the context of a communal meal), is difficult to avoid.  Clearly, Paul is taking issue with the person that is trying to vault themselves to a more honored seat at the table and a more prominent place within the church community, as that person is still enamored with or attracted by the honor and shame system of the wider world. 

With this underscored, we are unsurprised to read “He has not held fast to the head from whom the whole body,” as we notice the emphasis on unity, “supported and knit together through its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God” (2:19).  If we read “the body” appropriately, bearing in mind Paul’s use of “the body” to make reference to the unified church (signaled clearly in 1 Corinthians 11 and the need to eat and drink with careful regard for the body), then much sense is made of what comes next in Paul.  He writes that “Even though they have the appearance of wisdom” (2:23a), as the “they” are those that vaunt themselves above their brothers and sisters, we more fully understand the point that Paul is making, and its relation to the church and its ability to function in its role as a shining light to the world, as we go on to hear “with their self-imposed worship and false humility achieved by an unsparing treatment of the body---a wisdom with no true value---they in reality result in fleshly indulgence” (2:23b).  The “unsparing treatment of the body” is then rightly applied to the church body, thus escaping any unwarranted and unauthorized personal or individual applications, as Paul inherently warns the person that is engaging in such behavior, while they are reducing the message of the Gospel and the mission of the church to “Do not handle! Do not taste!  Do not touch!” (2:21), that they are most certainly missing the mark. 

Moving forward with this mindset to the third chapter, Paul’s description of Christ as being “seated at the right hand of God” (3:1b) is related to the meal table, the protoklisian (the host seat), and the seat of honor that would have been to the right of the protoklisian, thus keeping our focus (along with the original hearers) at the meal table.  That meal table, which is so incredibly important in the early church that was to carry out the message of Jesus’ Lordship in word and deed, and which is to be representative of the messianic banquet and the rule of God, remains the setting, as Paul once again evokes the practices of the symposium when he writes “So put to death whatever in your nature belongs to the earth: sexual immorality, impurity, shameful passion, evil desire, and greed which is idolatry…  You also lived your lives in this way at one time, when you used to live among them.  But now, put off all such things as anger, rage, malice, slander, abusive language from your mouth.  Do not lie to one another since you have put off the old man with his practices and have been clothed with the new man that is being renewed according to the image of the one who created it” (3:5,7-10). 

Obviously, all of these things will cause division at the table, damage to the church body, and the diminishment of the church’s witness to the kingdom of God that was inaugurated with Christ’s Resurrection and the church’s hope for the resurrection to come, which was the preface to this portion of his discourse, as Paul wrote, “Therefore, if you have been raised with Christ” (3:1a).  It is with this said that Paul reminds this church of its covenant responsibilities in their representation of the rule of God through their meal practice (as so much would flow from proper meal practice), by telling them that “Here there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all” (3:11).  The mark of the church was the confession of Jesus as Lord of all---all peoples and all nations, and this would be primarily made visible to a watching world by their kingdom-oriented table fellowship.     

No comments:

Post a Comment