The Epistle. Colossians 3. 12.
Brethren: Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering: forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any. Even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body: and be ye thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatsoever ye do, in word or deed, do all in the Name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him: the same Jesus Christ our Lord.
When we read the various Epistles attributed to St. Paul, one of the things that typically jumps out at us it just how direct the Apostle is when conveying his message. He usually speaks in words and tones that make the point of his letters quite obvious and somewhat easy to discern. This is another way of saying that there is nothing subtle about St. Paul.
But when we make this assumption, we miss the fact that the Apostle did indeed engage in nuance and subtly; and today’s selection from his letter to the Colossians is one example. Here we find St. Paul doing his usual job of preaching the Gospel of Christ; but at the same time, he also communicates a message that is far deeper and even more meaningful to us.
The first thing that is remarkable here is that St. Paul is even writing to the Colossians at all. At one time Colosse had been a very prominent center of trade. But by the time that this Epistle was written, the city had been reduced in importance when compared to the neighboring cities of Hierapolis and Laodicea. Colosse was a now small town, and one that would have been somewhat unimportant to the Roman Empire.
And while there were a sizable number of Jews in the region, the predominant ethnic population would have been from Phrygia (ancient Turkey), and Greece. Likewise, the Church in Colosse would have been comprised of a similar ratio of these ethnic groups. In other words, the people that St. Paul wrote to were mostly Gentiles.
So it is very significant that the Apostle begins with this statement, “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering forbearing one another, and forgiving one another “. “AS THE ELECT OF GOD, HOLY AND BELOVED“. This was a description that the Jews had historically claimed for themselves.
The Jews were the Chosen People; they were the Elect of God. They were a holy people, a nation dedicated to God; and as the Chosen People of God, they were therefore the beloved people of God. But now St. Paul was bestowing this title, this description on all the members of the Church in Colosse; both Jew AND Gentile.
By doing so, the Apostle is telling us that God’s Grace has gone out to all the world, and not just to the people of Israel. He proclaims that the Salvation of God has been offered to all who would repent and believe on Christ, regardless of their ethnic background or prior religious experience. St. Paul is telling us that God’s Love extends to the ends of the earth; and that He does not favor any particular part of His Creation over another.
Next, St. Paul provides a list of Christian graces that should mark us as the “holy and beloved Elect of God”; “a heart of compassion, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering forbearing one another, and forgiving one another “. It is important to note that the graces listed here pertain to our personal relationships with one another. These are among the greatest of Christian virtues because they describe the way in which we are called to act within the Community of Believers, as well as with the outside world.
“a heart of compassion“. “Compassion; a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering. Ancient societies had little sympathy for the suffering of those who were less fortunate. It was Christianity that brought compassion, the “strong desire to alleviate suffering“ into the world. So whenever you drop a donation into the box at coffee hour to support the Missionary Society or Laura’s home, please know that you are displaying the Christian grace of Compassion.
Next there is “kindness“. I quote from Barclay’s study of Colossians (pg. 157); “The Ancient writers defined kindness as the virtue of the man whose neighbor’s good is as dear to him as his own. Josephus uses it as a description of Isaac, the man who dug wells and gave them to others. It is used of wine which has grown mellow with age and lost its harshness”. Kindness is therefore an indicator of what is in our heart, as it relates to our relationship with others.
Taken together, it is compassion that inspires us to alleviate suffering; it is kindness that leads us to do so unselfishly, and only because it will benefit others. It is compassion and kindness that Our Lord showed to the penitent woman who washed and anointed his feet (Luke 7: 37-50).
“humbleness of mind“. Oh yes, it’s that whole “humility” thing again. But this is a different sort of humility from that shown by the leper and centurion in last week’s Gospel from St. Matthew (“And behold, there came a leper and worshipped him“, “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof“, Matthew 8:1-13). This is a humility that begins and emanates from the heart and mind.
It is a humility that inspires us to show a compassion and kindness that is free of arrogance and pride. It is the humility that we show when we not only genuflect in the Presence of the Blessed Sacrament, but when we really mean it. It is the humility that shows that we acknowledge God as our Creator; and admit that we are all his Sons. It is the humility that results when we realize that even those who are less fortunate are equal to us in the eyes of God.
“meekness“. Now we tend to think of this word as denoting someone who is overly submissive or compliant. But St. Paul is describing something very different here; he is calling upon his knowledge of Greek philosophy; specifically Aristotle who defined “meekness” as “the mean between too much and too little anger”. In other words, “meekness” describes a man who is in control of himself, because he is controlled by God. When he does become angry, it is always at the right time (righteous indignation); and he never becomes angry at the wrong time or for the wrong reason.
It is the grace of “meekness” that allows us to show compassion and kindness without anger. It is “meekness” that helps us control our inclination to arrogance and pride and inspire in our hearts and minds an attitude of true humility. It is “meekness” that grants us the ability to achieve the next Christian grace.
“long-suffering“. We might well define this term to denote “patience”. But in this context “long-suffering “means, “patience that is never lost”; or perhaps even more appropriately, “patience that is never-ending”. This “long-suffering“, this “patience”, leads us to persevere against the heresies and persecutions that the world continues to inflict upon the Church. This “long-suffering“ provides the ability to endure in the face of an ungodly world.
“long-suffering“ is the Christian grace by which we may combat the foolishness of the world without cynicism or despair. “long-suffering“ is the grace by which we may survive the bitterness, the insults, and the violence inflicted upon us by the world. “long-suffering“ is how we emulate the Divine Patience of God; who has never given up on us.
“forbearing one another, and forgiving one another“. In other words, we must be patient and controlled not only with the ungodly world, but with each other as well; no matter how much we are provoked or how annoyed we become. The Church, the Community of Believers, is a family; and I’m sure that we have all experienced times when we feel annoyed or angered by the other members of our family.
St. Paul commands us not only to be patient with each other (and, I must add, to control the inclination to express our annoyance), but also to forgive one another. As maddening as may find someone to be, still we must exhibit forgiveness. We are a Christian people; a people who have committed offenses that surely must be infuriating to God. And yet He has forgiven us; and a forgiven person must always be likewise forgiving. Remember; the ungodly world does watch the Church, especially for any signs of hypocrisy. If we presume to proclaim the Gospel of forgiveness to the world, then that same forgiveness must begin with us.
I hope that by now you would be able to see how this last statement, “forbearing one another, and forgiving one another“, joins St. Paul’s list of Christian Graces together. I hope that by now you would be able to see how the Apostle has been typically direct in his message. And I hope that by now, you have also appreciated the greater meaning that St. Paul has conveyed.
As the Elect of God, as the Chosen of God, we are commanded to show compassion, a “strong desire to alleviate the suffering“ of all God’s Creation. We are commanded to show kindness, to show that the needs of others are greater or equally important to our own. We are commanded to show humility by acknowledging in our hearts and minds that we are not in any way superior in the eyes of God. We are commanded to show “meekness” by controlling our inclination to react with anger to any offense, be it real or perceived. We are commanded to be forever patient; to be “long-suffering“; in the example of Christ who gave himself to suffer and die on our behalf.
And we must be patient and forgiving with one another; as brothers and sisters in Christ, and as members of the Community of believers; his Church. This is the ultimate point of St. Paul’s message today; that above all and in everything that we say, think or do, we are commanded to forgive; “Even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye“