by Rev. Joe Connolly
“In Christ also you have been given the Covenant through a transformation performed not by human hands but with a spiritual circumcision, by the complete striping away of your body of flesh. This is what ‘circumcision’ in Christ means.” — Colossians 2:11.
You may have noticed that my wife, Bonnie, is not here today. She is in the great State of Maine. A lot of you have heard me talk a number of times about the island in the middle of Penobscot Bay to which we travel. That is where Bonnie is right now. She sent me a Facebook picture this morning of what she saw: the beautiful bay and the dock and the island across from that.
Why, you might ask, am I not with her? Well, if you read my article in the last newsletter you know I suffer from severe pollen allergies.
By way of describing my situation this is what I wrote: “If you’ve ever noticed my attire in the Summer (not that my sartorial choices should concern you!) as much as possible I wear long sleeve shirts and long pants (never short pants). That is not because I want to have a more formal look since I am a pastor, so formal might be in order.”
“That is because one does not get an allergic response only from breathing in pollen. When pollen lands on any exposed skin it causes an allergic reaction.”
Now, the older I’ve gotten, the worse the allergic reactions have become. And the pollen to which I have the most severe reaction is pine pollen.
That being said, being on this island for a week is like sitting in the middle of a pine forest for a week. Bonnie will tell you after I spend a seven days there my eyes are nearly swollen shut and it takes me a couple of weeks to fully recover.
The paradox is I love the island. I wish I was with Bonnie right now. Bonnie and I met on this island back when my allergies were not as bad as they are now. But I can really be there for only a day or two before I need to leave.
So, why might I love this place? Besides the fact that Bonnie and I met there, some of why I love this 80 acre patch of land surrounded by ocean— an outpost with no electric, by the way— some of why I love this island has to do with the traditions of Bonnie’s family, now also my family.
Bonnie’s Great-Great-Grandfather bought the island in 1898. It’s been in the family ever since. In 1927 they build seven cabins on it— prefabs purchased from the Sears catalogue, believe it or not. In the last 25 years all the cabins have been either rebuilt or replaced but always on that same footprint of the original cabins.
When those cabins were built, in 1927,this island became a Summer place for family and extended family. And for each and every day someone, anyone, has been on the island since 1927, a log has been kept— like a ship’s log— an account of the people present and the activities in which they engaged.
Hence, Bonnie can go to the log from 1927 and see entries which involve her father who was then 13 years old at that point. She can see the first entry which talks about her arrival on the island, in 1951.
She can see the first time she, as a youngster, wrote in the log herself. And we, both Bonnie and I, can see the entry of the day we met on the island, July 11th, 1987. Keeping a log for their time on the island is a cherished family tradition. (Slight pause.)
Traditions are, in one sense, a way of remembering, a way of keeping a memory alive. In one sense they are a way of learning— learning about what has been and perhaps how that might effect us now.
A different way to look at it says traditions are a means of making sure you never forget what’s important. And of course, when it comes to family, remembering, learning and never forgetting what’s important are all central to the process of bonding into family, the process of becoming family. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in Colossians: “In Christ also you have been given the Covenant through a transformation performed not by human hands but with a spiritual circumcision, by the complete striping away of your body of flesh. This is what ‘circumcision’ in Christ means.” (Slight pause.)
British Theologian Nicholas Thomas Wright describes Jesus as (quote:) “the Climax of the Covenant.” What is it this scholar means to indicate by using that label? (Slight pause.)
In order to unpack what the term “Climax of the Covenant” might mean I think I probably need to first state something I’ve said here time an again. In fact, I said in my comments just last week.
When reading Scripture we need to place ourselves in the context of the First Century of the Common Era, when these words were written. We need to ask ‘what did the words mean to those who first read or first heard them?’
Second, we need to state the obvious: Jesus is Jewish. And this is clear: the writer of Colossians— not likely to have been Paul, by the way— probably a piece written after Paul died and, therefore, a work written by a disciple of Paul— it is clear the writer of Colossians sees Jesus in light of the God of Israel, sees in Jesus the continuity, the traditions, of Hebrew heritage.
What should be obvious is this writer is intent on making a connection between Jesus and the God of Israel. And I, personally, would describe these words as a rethinking by early Christians about the God of Israel. I, personally, would also describe these words as these early Christians striving to wrestle with the reality of Jesus, wrestle with an understanding of who Jesus is.
And the place on which they come down says Jesus is the Christ. The early Christians— by calling Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah— offer a definition of what being the Christ that might mean.
In the defining Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, these early Christians proclaim Jesus as an extension of the Covenant made by the God of Israel with the people of Israel. By calling Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, these early Christians are making a connection to the traditions of the God of Israel. Indeed, this wrestling, this grappling with the person of Jesus, this trying to connect Jesus with the God of Israel, should be seen by us as a tradition we need to understand and with which we need to grapple ourselves.
You see, I think— if we claim to be Christians, as individuals and as a community— it is imperative that we not merely or simply accept what modern books and what modern preachers tell us about Jesus without examination or question. It is imperative that we, ourselves, wrestle with the very concept of who Jesus is, that we, ourselves, wrestle with the lineage of Jesus, that we, ourselves, wrestle with the connection of Jesus to God, that we, ourselves, wrestle with what Hebrew tradition says and with what Christian tradition says. (Slight pause.)
That brings me back to traditions. What is the purpose of traditions? Earlier I said traditions are about remembering, learning and never forgetting. Traditions are, thereby, central to the process of bonding into family, central to the process of becoming family.
So, why grapple? Why not just accept? (Slight pause.) The first verse in the reading today said (quote:) “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus,….” The Greek verb here translated as “received” refers to the reception of tradition. But this receiving of tradition is not about a static understanding or static acceptance of tradition as a collection of historical particulars and constraints. That is not the implication of that word, this language.
Rather, the language used indicates that receiving this tradition allows for being built up in Christ, allows for a continued growth and a continued development. Indeed, the means, the way to that growth and development is wrestling with and striving to understand how God and Christ are central to our own individual and collective history with God.
In short, if we are Christians, our tradition says we need to wrestle with the reality of who Jesus is, as did the early Christians. Our tradition says we need to wrestle with the idea that Jesus is an extension of the Covenant made by the God of Israel, made by God with the people of Israel. Our tradition says we need wrestle with the connection between Jesus and God.
And yes, I think examining our traditions is a means of making sure we never forget what’s important. And yes, traditions are about remembering. And yes, traditions are about learning and never forgetting what’s important and how they effect us.
And yes, I think by wrestling with our traditions we, as Christians, will accomplish what central to the process— holding and keeping traditions. And of course, then will bond into family. Then we will enter into the process of becoming family. Christians— this church— members of a family— now that is a novel idea— church— members of a family. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I need to note that the name, the word Israel has a very specific meaning. The word Israel means the one who wrestled with God. Wrestling with our understanding of God and who God is may be our oldest and even our most cherished tradition.”
BENEDICTION: This is the blessing used by natives of the islands in the South Pacific: O Jesus, please be the canoe that holds me up in the sea of life. Please be the rudder that keeps me on a straight paths. Be the outrigger that supports me in times of stress. Let Your Spirit be the sail that carries me though each day. Keep me safe, so that I can paddle on steady in the voyage called life. God of all, bless us so we may have calm seas, a warm sun and clear nights filled with stars. Amen.