Monday, March 12, 2012

Paul's Inclusive Language

We always give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard about your faith in Christ Jesus and the love that you have for all the saints. – Colossians 1:4-5  (NET)

Do we really read these words when we read these words?  Is it possible that we have grown so accustomed to the use of “spiritual” language, that we miss some of the more radical assertions to be found in what, at first glance (and beyond), appears to be part of a nice greeting from Paul to another body of believers?  That may indeed be the case when it comes to the Colossian letter. 

This greeting contains the little world “all,” as Paul writes of “all the saints.”  It can be said that “all” in Colossians, seems to play a strategic role.  This “all” takes on multiple forms, and when we read the letter with the questions concerning the inclusion and acceptance of Gentiles as part of the covenant people of God, minus their adoption of the markers of that covenant, this communiqué takes on an interesting character.  Paul is very much interested in the elimination of long established, perhaps cherished barriers (in some corners), in the name of the creation of a unified, new creation, kingdom people.

We can feel the warmth of the bright shining light of this entrenched interest when we sit alongside the gathered Colossian congregation, joined together in their customary meal gathering in honor of their Lord, as the letter from the Apostle is read aloud and we hear “We always give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard about your faith in Christ Jesus and the love that you have for all the saints” (1:3-4).  We should not skim quickly over this “all,” especially in light of the New Testament’s emphasis on the renewed people of God bound together through the confession of Jesus as Lord.  We should hear it with all of the world-altering potential contained therein. 

After a quick bit of praise from Paul, while making mention of the Gospel that he says “has come to you” (1:6a), he adds an “all” emphasis with “Just as in the entire world this Gospel is bearing fruit and growing” (1:6b).  As with the “all” of verse four, we do not take lightly this talk of the “entire world,” given the backdrop of the exclusivity that limited entrance upon the covenant.  Contrary to this, and contrary to his former way of life, Paul’s words, along with the sentiments expressed by Peter (as recorded in Acts), represent the realization of the flinging open of the doors of God’s covenant to all people---the entire world. 

It is in this mindset that we then go on to hear the words of verse twelve, where Paul writes of their “giving thanks to the Father who has qualified you to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light” (1:12).  This qualification speaks to the issue of inclusion.  Prior to Jesus, and prior to the announcement of His Gospel as the means by which one enters into the covenant (is justified), it was the works of the law (the accepted covenant markers and practices that identified and separated the people of Israel from all other people – circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, food laws) that provided qualification to be a “saint” and to share in the promised inheritance that stretched all the way back to Abraham.  To that, reinforcing the “all,” “entire world,” and “qualified” language, Paul adds “He delivered us,” with “us” being a word of unity, “from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (1:13-14). 

“Redemption” is a loaded term with a strong history, rooted in the history of Israel, and firmly connected to the exodus, which was an incredibly important component of the story by which Israel identified itself.  Redemption is, in effect, exodus.  Throughout the Scriptures, the symbol of God’s redemption of His people was their exoduses, which were many.  Exodus, be it exodus from Egypt or exodus from Babylon (or from any other oppressor, whether inside or outside of the land of promise), was crucial to the story of Israel, and was a unifying theme for a people that often, perhaps wrongly when we consider God’s grand plan for His people to engage with, in, and for the world as reflections of His glory, took an “us against the world” stance.  Redemption, or exodus, which implied a deliverance from exile (which was the result of Israel’s “sins”), was by and large (it’s not really the case for the Egyptian exodus) the evidence that Israel had been forgiven of its sins of covenant violations.  Therefore, Paul’s use of this language, as it is encompasses both Jew and Gentile, draws the Gentiles into the story of God’s redemptive actions on behalf of Israel and the world through Israel, providing them with an exodus of their own, thus folding them into the people of God.    

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