to walk worthily of the Lord, pleasing him in all respects

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Lent, day 2: Saying Grace (part 1)

Following his salutation, Paul begins his letter to the Colossians by saying: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you,…” (1:3). Upon first glance, as a scholar I do not find this beginning all that remarkable; Paul’s letters usually start out with a salutation (from sender(s) to recipients, Grace and Peace) followed by a ‘thanksgiving’ (or ‘thanksgiving and prayer.’)  It’s just what he does (Rom 1:8, 1 Cor 1:4, Phil 1:3, 1 Thess 1:2, 2 Thess 2:13, Philm 1:4).

 Upon first glance, as a minister and a church goer, I find this a rather intriguing beginning. The apostle writes those whom he does not know personally (2:1) from difficult circumstances (“now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions [sounds like a Lenten idea we need to get back to]”; “I am in prison”). And he starts with a word of gratitude - what does he want the Colossians to know first of all, after the Grace and Peace from God our Father (1:2)? That he actively and consistently thanks God for them in his prayers. He is thankful for their faith and love (v. 4) that rest upon their hope (v. 5). Faith, love, hope (cf. 1Thess 1:3; 1 Cor 13:13).

 Would the apostle, now in his heavenly repose, pray thus for me? Would he thank God for my faith and love and hope? I am embarrassed to think about it. But as I consider the Colossians, I imagine they might share my embarrassment. From what Paul says later, their faith was under attack (2:5, don’t be deluded; 2:8, don’t be deceived) and some among them were anything but loving (2:16, condemning; 2:18, disqualifying) and their hope appears to have been wavering (2:20, why do you live as if you still belonged to this world?).

 When the apostle begins with “we thank God when we pray for you,” maybe it is just a formality, a platitude. Or maybe he will take what he can get (he thanked God for the Corinthians and they were significantly more messed up as a church)? Or maybe he is truly thankful; thankful that, in the midst of a barrage of attacks and living in a culture averse to faith, the Colossians have not already abandoned their trust in Christ. And thankful to God because he knows where the Colossians’ security truly rests.

 He starts here, at thanksgiving for those who’ve responded to the Gospel and for what God is doing in their lives. I think of my fellow believers and I ask God to give me the heart of gratitude for them. To see them not so much as (not at all as?) people who are frail, frustrated, frustrating, sinning, sinful, prone to being deluded and deceived, to condemning and to being self-regulating and other-regulating, to living as if they still belonged to the world. But rather, Father, give me the eyes of the apostle to see my brothers and sisters in Christ for the faith they do have, for the love they are expressing, for the hope they are relying upon, and beyond all that and beyond all their limitations, to see the unlimited and illimitable God, You, who works in, about and through them to bring them to your Glory and to bring your Glory to our dark world through them. And let me say thank you and mean it.

Oh, I also think there is another reason why Paul starts Colossians with thanksgiving. I’ll write about that tomorrow.

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