August 11, 2019
William G. Carter
When the church decided to come up with a list of Bible readings for Sunday worship, they left this one out.
I’ve always thought about the Bible what I believe about the hymnal, namely, if it’s in the book, it’s fair game. Not all of you agree. Just this week, someone objected to a few of the hymns we’ve sung this summer. Don’t know them, or the melodies don’t come easily, or they push into challenging territory. That’s fair. But I still hold that if it’s in the book, it’s fair game. A committee put together the hymnal, on behalf of the whole church. A council decided to compile what belongs in the Bible, subject to the consensus of the rest of the church. These aren’t individual decisions or private preferences. They belong to the whole group.
And yet, when a subcommittee from across denominational lines was appointed to determine what Bible passages that church should hear on Sunday mornings, they left out chapter four of Colossians.
It’s not because of the advice that Paul and Timothy have to offer. No, it is good advice! “Devote yourself to prayer.” “Keep alert in giving thanks.” Nobody has a concern about this. “Let your speech always be gracious. Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time.” It’s a reminder that Christian faith runs counter to the empires of the world. This is all good stuff. No reason to pass over this.
Neither should we dismiss the text because of where Paul wrote it. He’s in jail again. We don’t know where. It might have been Caesarea, Ephesus, Rome, or somewhere else. He has written plenty of other letters from jail. He had a lot of time on his hands. He had a lot on his mind.
Some of his best work was written in a prison cell: letters to the Philippians, the Ephesians, Philemon, this letter to the Colossians, perhaps even the letter to the Romans. The church has never dismissed the apostle Paul just because he had been arrested. So this chapter four was left out because it was written in a cell.
No, I think you probably know why no one reads chapter four. In fact, when I read it to you, I watched some of your eyes glaze over. It’s all the names. Eleven names: Tychicus, Onesimus, Aristarchus, Mark and Barnabas, Jesus called Justus, Epaphras, Luke, Demas, Nympha, and bless his heart, Archippus. We don’t know any of those people. It’s just a list of names. Whenever people read the Bible, they usually skip over the lists of names.
Like the book of Numbers, which offers a census report of ancient Israel: Elizur son of Shedeur, Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai, Nahshon son of Amminadab, Nethanel son of Zuar,Eliab son of Helon… It’s hard to get past the first paragraph. They are difficult to pronounce. A mean, old pastor will assign a list like that to a liturgist he doesn’t like. What’s the point of keeping a list?
Or the first scroll of Chronicles. Have you spent any time in Chronicles? There are a lot of names, lists of names. My favorite list of names is in 1 Chronicles 25. Here goes:
Zaccur, Joseph, Nethaniah, Asarelah, Gedaliah, Zeri, Jeshaiah, Shimei, Hashabiah, Mattithiah, Bukkiah, Mattaniah, Uzziel, Shebuel, Jerimoth, Hananiah, Hanani, Eliathah, Giddalti, Romamti-ezer, Josh-beka-shah, Mallothi, Hothir, and Mahazioth.
Do you know who those people were? They were members of the Musicians’ Union in old Jerusalem. Chronicles took their names right off the wall of the choir room. They were on the clipboard where the choir robes were assigned. Zaccur was a 42 long, Gedaliah was a 36 short, and Josh-beka-shah was a 52 extra wide. Just listen to that name: Josh-beka-shah.
What’s the deal with the names? Paul and Timothy end their letter to the Colossians by giving us eleven names. Most go by pretty quickly. A couple of them do pop up. Jesus…called Justus. It’s not the Jesus we know. In fact, it’s a reminder that the name Jesus was a common name, a human name. Jesus was in the city of Colossae, but they didn’t want to confuse him with the one we’ve heard about. So they called him Justus.
Or Luke, whom they call “the beloved physician.” I wonder what he’s doing in southwestern Turkey. The two thickest books in the New Testament are said to be written by somebody named Luke. It could be the same person. If so, he is the most prolific author in the whole Bible, which is saying something. This is the only place is says he was a physician.
Or another name, Mark. He shows up for the first time in the book of Acts. Barnabas was taking him around, trying to work him in. Variously he is called “John,” or “John Mark,” or simply “Mark.” Paul says Mark and Barnabas were cousins; not that it matters to you or me, except there’s a tradition that somebody named Mark wrote a Gospel of his own. Same one, different one? We don’t know. What would it matter?
But now, here is something interesting. You know that list of eleven names? Seven of those names appear together in another book of the Bible. It’s the letter that immediately follows this one, the letter to Philemon. Here are the names: Archippus, Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, and Onesimus.
In that letter, we discover that Onesimus is a runaway slave. He must have gotten caught with the silver candlesticks, for he ended up in the next prison cell with Paul. Paul was always preaching, even in prison. Onesimus listened, repented, gave his heart to the Lord. So Paul writes the letter to Philemon, who was the slave owner of Onesimus. He says, “I’m sending him back to you, but he’s now more than a slave. He’s a brother. Receive him back, and when I get out of jail, I’m stopping by to see how things are going.” What we have is a remarkable little slice of redemption from the early church.
What’s more, even though Philemon is not mentioned in the fourth chapter of Colossians, others are. We call that next letter “Philemon,” but it’s not merely to him. Paul and Timothy address the letter to “Philemon our dear friend, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house.” (1:1)
So it’s clear why Paul lists all those names. He’s writing to the church. He’s writing from the church, and says, “Aristarchus says hello, and Mark says hello, and so do Jesus Justus, Epaphras, Luke, and Demas.” The greeting is an expression of fellowship, an expression of mutual love in Christ which binds them together even when they are separated by circumstance. It’s a way of saying, “All of us are in this together. We belong to one another because of Christ.”
So don’t call it a list of names. It’s more than a list. It is a fellowship.
That’s a good reminder for us. Across the hall in our office, we maintain a list. It’s a long list. Once in a while, a volunteer may come by, sit at the desk, wait for the phone to ring. If they get bored, they might pick up the list and start to thumb through it. “Who is this person? Who is that person? I don’t know who they are. Do they come? Where do they sit? Do I know them?”
And if they corner me while I’m eating a donut, I might reply, “Are you asking because you’re nosy? Or are you asking because you care?” As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one proper way to respond to me. We are a fellowship in Christ. Every name on the list represents a child of God with a story and a history. Each is worthy of the love of God, and every single one of them is part of the fellowship. It doesn’t matter if they are serving overseas in the military, sitting in a pew or sleeping in, or living around the block. It is Christ’s list, not ours.
A few years back, our nominating team nominated somebody to serve as a deacon. It was a wise choice: smart, caring, good looking as all of our members are. Then our administrator discovered he wasn’t on the list. He was here every week, prayer and sang with the rest of us, put an envelope in the offering plate, but not on the list.
Upon investigation, we discovered a well-intentioned Pharisee had long ago removed this man from the list when he was in college and had never bothered to notify him or his family. That wasn’t right. So we fixed it in a hurry and ordained him as a deacon. Don’t call it a list. It’s more than a list.
In fact, if you give a close look at the names, whether here or the next letter to Philemon, you discover what the church is called to become. Onesimus, considered a slave by the empire, is named “the faithful and beloved brother.” The class distinctions do not matter in church. There is neither slave nor free when you are a hymnal and praise the Lord.
In the book of Acts we learn Aristarchus, Paul’s other fellow prisoner, came from Macedonia; he was a Greek who had fellowship with the Turks in Colossae. These days, most Turks could not possibly imagine getting along with the Greeks. But in church, national distinctions don’t matter to God who made us all.
In fact, Paul says, “Say hello to Nympha and the church that meets in her house.” Not only was she a woman and a leader of a congregation (please take note of that!), she must have been very wealthy to have a home large enough for a congregation to gather. And why not! In the true church of Jesus Christ, there is no discrimination between female and male, no distinction between rich and poor. Everybody belongs because Christ has called them.
One more thing: Paul concludes by saying, “I write this greeting with my own hand.” He autographs the letter – perhaps with a signature that differs from that of Timothy, who most likely did most of the writing. That, in itself, is significant. Biblically speaking, Paul gets a lot of press coverage, a lot of attention, but Timothy did a good bit of the work. Paul gets his name at the top of the page, but Timothy was carrying the load.
Because in church, the true church of Christ, nobody is any better than anybody else. Each of us has work to do. We do it together, we do it for one another, we share life to the glory of God. What would it be like if we looked out for one another? If we were there for one another, if we truly loved one another as part of a grand fellowship?
A couple days ago, I read an interview with Wendell Berry that appeared last month in The New Yorker. Finally someone sent a writer to talk with that extraordinary farmer and poet, whom I would readily call the sanest man in America.
Berry was talking about the neighborhood, in his case a small farming community along the Kentucky River. Pretty soon, he spoke of how much he appreciates his Amish neighbors, specifically an Amish farmer named David Kline. David had a neighbor who is not Amish, and Berry says,
The neighbor is old, and he’s having health problems. He drives his car over to David’s, and David goes to town with him to help him shop, take care of the mail, and do all the things that have to be done in town. Then the neighbor has to go to the hospital, and then he’s in therapy. He’s gone quite a long time and while he’s gone they keep his place going. They fill the bird feeders, they take care of the lawn and the garden and the orchard. They clean his house. They throw away his old scatter rugs and get him some scraps at the rug factory, have them bound and put them down. When he comes home, the mail is sorted.
The point is not just that this is good for the neighbor, it’s also good for David and his family. They’ve enjoyed it. They’ve enjoyed imagining his pleasure in what they’ve done. And this isn’t selfishness. Maybe it’s more elation. Jesus implies this in a way—a limitlessness of neighborliness.
You know, a lot of us live in this town where nobody knows the names of their neighbors. The neighbors are merely names on a list. But what if we were different? What if we pushed ourselves out of isolation and got to know the people around us? What if we took the time to listen to their stories, weed their gardens, and fill their bird feeders?
What if we began by looking around this room and deciding we would do that for one another? Not merely think about it from a distance, but do something in person.
You know, there’s a name for that. There’s a name for a group of people who take one another seriously, who laugh with those who laugh and weep with those who weep. There’s a name for a gathering of neighbors who are always seeking to expand the circle and bring others in. There’s a name for those who do not distinguish between slave and free, rich and poor, male and female.
There’s a name for those who refuse to live by their own privilege, for those who push themselves beyond the comfort zone to talk to strangers, for those who would do anything to lift up people in trouble, for those who would welcome all whom the world rejects, for those who cannot abide to see children separated from their parents, for those who would empty their own wallets for the person who needs something to eat.
Do you know what they call people like that? They call them “the church.”
(c) William Carter. All rights reserved.