Sunday, July 21, 2013

Phil Wainwright's Sermon, July 21, 2013

Colossians 1.15-28

If you were here last week you heard Dan Hall, an Episcopal priest on the
staff of First Lutheran Church downtown, preaching salvation by faith, not
works. And he mentioned that the belief that we are put right with God by
doing the right thing was what made Paul write his letter to the Christians
in Colossae, from which we heard a passage this morning. So I thought I
would follow up his theme, and see how Paul recommends that the Colossians,
and anyone else stuck in the same misunderstanding, can find an antidote to
the idea that we can please God by what we do, can get back on track and
move ahead.

So let’s look at the passage printed in the leaflet, from cap 1, vv 15-28.
First Paul reminds us just Who we are talking about when we talk about

15-17: [The Son, Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of
all creation; for in Him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or
powers--all things have been created through Him and for Him. He Himself is
before all things, and in Him all things hold together.

This is pretty radical stuff. Just think about it. None of us can see God;
but if we want to know what God is like, we have only to look at His visible
image: Jesus Christ. 'He who has seen me has seen the Father,' Jesus Himself
said (John 14:9). Jesus makes God visible. And what He makes visible is
first God’s power, and second God's love. It's God’s power that Paul
stresses first, because in that is the antidote to the myth that we can
please God with what we do in our lives. So what we see when we look at
Jesus is the one Who made everything, the one to Whom everything belongs,
the one in charge of everything, everything. Thrones and dominions and
rulers and powers are all names for legions of angels in Jewish tradition.
We sometimes think of angels as beings of a high spiritual nature, but they
are created beings, and Jesus makes them His servants. Jesus himself tells
us that He could have summoned twelve legions of them if it were His will to
do so. But not only angels: it's all things; all things have been created
through Him and for Him. In Him all things hold together: His power keeps
all things in existence. Even you and me. We would not take another breath
if it were not for Jesus sustaining us by His word of power, as the epistle
to the Hebrews puts it.

Paul stresses all this because it's so easy only to see a good man when we
look at Jesus, and it is when we see Him as only a man that we feel the need
to do the right thing, instead of admitting that we don't do the right
thing, and just trusting His word of salvation anyway.

The point made in v 18, He is the head of the body, the church, sounds at
first like just another way in which Jesus is supremely in control of
things, but in fact Paul is introducing the way in which we can have faith
in the ruler of the universe, trust the ruler of the universe, rather than
just admire (or fear) His power. Jesus invites the whole world into His
body, the church; by putting our faith in Him rather than ourselves we enter
that relationship with Him, and He becomes our 'head', in all the senses of
that word. The person in charge of our lives, yes, but also the means by
which we think and make judgements. Something with which enjoy a
relationship all the time. And remember that 'church' here does not mean
what we so often mean, which is just our local church, or on those rare
occasions when we're thinking globally, our denomination. It means all those
whose faith is in Christ, whether they are Catholic or Protestant, black or
white, old or young, educated or ignorant, rich or poor. All those who
relate to Christ as the organs relate to the brain in a human body, those
whose actions are determined, to the extent that their ability to respond
permits, by His will, not their own. Those who follow where He leads, for He
is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have
first place in everything. The first born, but not the only one; those who
follow Him will also be born again from the dead, will rise with Him and
eventually reign with Him. Where Jesus leads, we follow; if we are not
following, He is not leading, but leaving--leaving us behind, with our own
miserable best our only hope, which is no hope at all. Because when Dan said
that Jesus was all we need, that our own good works can't do what Jesus can
do, he wasn't exaggerating. If the creator of the universe is not enough, if
the one in Whom all the fullness of God lives is not enough, well, I don't
know where you're going to find something better, but I'm pretty sure it
won't be in you or me. If He is not enough, no good work of yours or mine is
going to be better. If you think that God is going to be impressed when you
say 'I did my best', I'd think again. God offers me all His fullness, but I
politely ignore Him and say I thought it would be better if I just did my
best instead? I don't think so.

Having made God's power visible, Paul then, and only then, goes on to show
how Jesus makes God's love visible. He reminds us what Jesus has done for us
and how we are to take advantage of it. Jesus has reconciled sinful people,
people whose best can never be enough, so as to present them to God holy and
blameless and irreproachable--'provided that you continue securely
established and steadfast in the faith'. Not provided that you always did
your best, not provided that you never harmed anyone, not even provided that
you went to church regularly, but provided that you continue securely
established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope
promised by the gospel that you heard. That's how we become right with God:
by being securely established in our faith in Christ, steadfast in it, and
refusing to shift from it no matter what.

This faith puts us right with God, reconciles us to God, in Paul's phrase.
For in Him [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and
through Him God was pleased to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on
earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of His cross.
Reconciled to God. Reconciliation always means change, whether it's leaving
behind anger and resentment or simply being willing to do something that isn’t
our favourite thing to do, and in vv 21 and 22, we see exactly what change
God is bringing about.  Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in
your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now He has reconciled you.
When we hear a phrase like evil behaviour, we think of some pretty awful
stuff, murder and robbery and adultery and pornography and stuff like that.
But the Bible's list of evil behaviour includes stuff that everyone of us
has personal experience of, stuff that most of us insist is not sin when we
do it: envy, backbiting, gossip, anger, bitterness, fear, selfishness. Every
one of us has been an enemy to God because of our indulgence of these things
in our hearts, but we became reconciled to Him when we said 'Lord, you’ve
told me this isn't Your will for me, but I don't seem able to change, please
help me!' And God says, look at Jesus: because of Christ's sacrifice on the
cross, God looks past our disobedience to the One who never did anything but
the Father's will.

And that One, the creator of all things, dealt with our sins through His
death on the cross. Christ died for us: it was through death that He is able
to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him--provided
that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without
shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard. This is the
gospel, the gospel of reconciliation. We have been reconciled, and we offer
reconciliation to others. We don't pretend they're not sinners, and we don't
leave the church because there are sinners in it, but we reach out in
reconciliation those still alienated.

When we don't seem to be achieving much in the way of reconciliation with
others, we find our opportunity to be Christ at work in the world: v 24,
what I suffered for you, Paul says, speaking about the fact that there was
all this evil behaviour by those to whom he was bringing the gospel, is I,
Paul, filling up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's
afflictions, for the sake of His body, which is the church. We bear with the
sins of others, bear one another's burdens is how he put it when he was
writing to the Galatians, remember, for the same reason Christ bore our
sins, so that we could be reconciled to one another as well as to God
through Christ's blood, shed on the cross. Most of us do not want to bear
the burdens of others. When we see someone we are sure is a dreadful sinner,
we want to avoid them. If they are in our church, we may even be tempted to
leave the church or kick them out of the church. But Paul says that
following Christ means suffering for the sake of those sinners, bearing
their burdens just as Christ bore ours, in the hope that they will come to
see that their only hope is following Christ rather than their own minds, or
hearts, or traditions.

But all this is dependent on continuing securely established and steadfast
in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you
heard. And Paul suggests that the way to maintain faith is to grow in faith.
If we stay at the same level of faith that we have now, it won't be long
before it won't seem enough for us, and we'll try to supplement it with some
good deed or some new belief or some ritual, and without our even noticing
it will have become something other than faith in Christ. In order to be
securely established in the faith in a way that keeps us right with God, we
have to grow in the knowledge of Christ. That's what Paul means in 1.25 when
he says I have become the Church's servant to make the word of God fully
known. 'Fully known' means 'known through and through', known to the point
that there's nothing left to learn. Known better tomorrow than we know

It’s an interesting concept: a light version and a full version of God's
word, a beginner's version and a fully known version. The light version is
what we know now, no matter how much we know; the fully known version is
what is ahead of us, what we will know as we learn more. Look at v 28, the
last one in our reading: It is He (Christ) Whom we proclaim, warning
everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present
everyone mature in Christ. Mature in Christ. Knowing as much about Christ as
could be learned in the life-span God gave us. Learning something more about
Jesus every day of our lives. That's why Paul proclaims Him... so that [he]
may present everyone mature in Him. Knowing Jesus better and better, loving
Him more and more, following Him further and further, is the way to grow in

What a high calling. To be part of Christ's body, to be united to the one
who made the heavens and the earth, who keeps all things in being by His
word of power, to the image of the invisible God--that has to be worth
aiming at no matter what difficulties arise. No matter how inarticulate we
get when someone asks us to explain it. The sufferings of this present time
are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us. Let us
continue to proclaim Him, to praise Him, listen to Him, learn from Him, and
follow Him, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we
may be presented mature in Christ, securely established and steadfast in the
faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that we have

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