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Monday, May 26, 2014

Christ-Shaped Thinking (Colossians 1:24-2:6)

Sunday, May 25, 2014

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.”  That is how Colossians begins.  We read this on May 4.
Then last week, we read from Colossians 1, a bit later in the chapter.  It says that the beloved son of God is the firstborn of creation.  This is Jesus.  “All things have been created through him and for him” (end of 1:16).  “In him all things hold together” (end of v.17).  “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (v.19).
Jesus is God and Paul is the one sent by Jesus, Jesus’ apostle.  Paul speaks for Jesus.  He participates in Jesus’ work, including, according to v.24, Jesus’ suffering for the church.  Jesus died on the cross, taking sin on himself.  He did this for the world and he did this for the church.  In Paul’s suffering for the church, he hopes that the members may become mature in Christ (1:28).
Paul’s authority within 1st century Christianity is impossible to miss, and in his letters, he does not hesitate as he identifies himself with Jesus; the power he perceives himself to have stands out in his letters. 

1st Corinthians 14:37-8 – “37 Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. 38 Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized. 

Second Corinthians 13:10 – “10 So I write these things while I am away from you, so that when I come, I may not have to be severe in using the authority that the Lord has given me.

2nd Thessalonians 3:6 – “Now we command you, beloved,[c] in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are[d] living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they[e] received from us.

Philemon v.8 – “I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty.”

            Paul felt that when he spoke to a church it was as if it were coming from Christ himself.  How did Paul handle this authority?
            Do we recognize the authority and power we possess?  How do we handle it?  In relation to Christ in us, how do we undestand and express power?  I specifically mean the way we exercise authority and power as Christ followers with Christ in us as we live within human institutions and structures including the family, neighborhood, and the church.
Methodist theologian, Jose Miguez Bonino, an Argentinian, wrote about four directions of power. 
-         The power an individual or group has to affect economic decisions.
-         The power to control political decisions. 
-         The power to affect ideology. 
-         The power of physical strength including military force. 

Bonino described these topics in relation to Christian participation in politics in a 20th century Latin American context.[i] 
Do his categories help us understand a relationship we find in the writings of Paul, the relationship of power to life in Christ? 
Consider power as related to economic decisions.  One of the major teachings on generosity as a core New Testament value comes from 2nd Corinthians 8-9 where Paul uses numerous forms of persuasion to convince the Corinthian church to contribute financially to the starving Jerusalem church.  Take Bonino’s second category, power and politics.  Paul’s allegiance is to Jesus, not Caesar.  The letter to the Colossians is written from a prison cell.  The forces of political power have locked Paul up because he relegates the emperor to second place behind Christ. 
Bonino’s fourth category, force, comes up throughout Paul’s letters (see Colossians 1:11).  We will look at this type of power expression later in the summer when we study Ephesians 6.  That will be a more direct examination of the way believers are filled the power of the Holy Spirit. 
Colossians 1 and 2 relates to power as it influences how we think, our ideology.  It is values formation for a group.[ii]  I engage in this weekly, this work of trying to shape how we think.  Totalitarian governments attempt to shape group ideology in ways that are insidious, deceptive and usually very affective.  The Nazid were excellent at this.  The Kim Jung Un government is a current example. 
My prayer is that when I wield by trying to exert ideological influence, I will be transparent, not sneaky.  I want the people of the church to choose to rethink everything in life, every choice, every expense, every relationship, every value, every thought.  We rethink everything in light of the rule of Jesus – his death, his resurrection, and his kingdom. 
How did Paul, with the power and authority of an apostle, try to shape ideology?  Looking at what Paul did, how do we create a thought world that reveals Christ in us as live in every day in 21st century America? 
The tone is set in Colossians 1:24.  “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake.”  Usually, suffering brings lament.  It does not produce rejoicing.  Usually, people with power are not the ones who suffer.  They find the best table in the best restaurant.  They live a little better than everyone else, even in poorer contexts.  Even in the poorest countries in the world, the tyrants running the governments live in wealth as their people starve.  No, the powerful do not say, “I rejoice in suffering.”
Paul did.  He sat in the depressing Roman prison cell and he glowed with joy as Epaphras described the way the Colossian church was a witness for Jesus. Paul saw every situation as an opportunity to talk about Christ.  When he was arrested and carted off to Rome, he saw it as a chance to witness before the emperor.  He knew it would end in his death.  He never asked God to free him.  He asked God to embolden his testimony. 
Our context is different than Paul’s.  We face other temptations and challenges.  In some parts of the world today, countries that are dictatorial and primarily Muslim, Hindu, or Atheist, Christians are persecuted as Paul was.  But that will not be the case in the United States. 
Mostly we deal with are small inconveniences that come up in daily interactions and often have nothing to do with religion.  Someone hits my car.  Someone lies about me at work.  A friend betrays me.  A family member uses words to hurt me.  What do we do?  The power of God that made Paul an apostle is power available to us, but for what purpose?  Do we to try to use that power in hope that God will give grief to whomever it is that is bothering us?  To paraphrase the movie Bruce Almighty, do we look toward our neighbor, the one who made us so angry, and then do we look to heaven and shout “smite him, oh great smiter!” Did Paul do that?
As a Roman citizen, he could have gained release from prison, but he actually influenced circumstances so he would be taken to Rome.  He did it so he could share the gospel with the emperor.  Do we see conflict as an opportunity to love and witness to the good news? 
In his book Exclusion and Embrace Miroslav Volf says this type of posture toward others requires amnesia.  Volf writes,
At the center of God’s all-embracing memory there is a paradoxical moment to forgetting.  It is the cross of Christ.  God forgets humanity’s sins in the same way God forgives humanity’s sins: by taking sin away from humanity and placing them upon God-self.  How will human beings be able to forget the horrors of history?  Because at the center of the new world that will emerge after ‘the first things pass way’ there will stand a throne, and the throne there will sit the Lamb who has taken away the sins of the world and erased their memory.[iii]

            Paul does not mention forgetting, but what Volf is talking about is obvious in Paul’s life.  He believes his suffering leads to people becoming Christ followers and churches maturing in Christ.  He forgets the pain of the whip, the loneliness of the prison cell, and the fear of the ship at sea in a storm.  All these traumas for Paul were means by which he testified to the goodness of Jesus – Jesus as King, as Savior and Lord.
            Bonino lamented that though the human exercise of power is supposed to be a mediation of God’s power and justice, “it always tends to [see itself as absolute].”[iv]  Thus human exercises of power meant to uphold instead justice negate it.  We hear too many stories of megachurch pastors who get in trouble for taking sexual advantage of young church members or living lives of wealth and privilege, lives wholly unavailable to the members who gives the tithes that put the wealth in the pastor’s account.  Whether in the clergy, in lay leadership within the church, in politics, or in some other arena, Christians obtain too much power.  It corrupts the heart.  Those with such power-corrupted souls think they are untouchable. 
            Instead of orgetting past hurts, power possessed people forget that they desperately need God for life.  Even if they bear the name ‘Christian,’ their abuse of power and their hoarding of riches reveals them to be no different than secular people who have no affiliation with Jesus.
            You may hear this and think, “Oh, that’s not me.  I have no power to abuse.  I am weak and unknown.”  But in your own circle of relationships, you possess some level of power.  Is it something you use selfishly?  In your view do others have to lose for you to win?  Or do you use what power you have, however much it is, money, influence, position – do you use it to tell of the goodness of Jesus and to help those around you grow in their knowledge and love of him?  Paul forgot the injustices he suffered and remembered to always point to Jesus.
            His goals for the church were specific.  He wanted to present the church “mature in Christ” (end of Col. 1:28).  And he wanted the hearts of those in the church to be united to one another in love (2:2).  Bonino depicts Paul’s stance quite well when he writes, “IF God is present in the death of Christ – and on this the whole Christian faith stands or falls – he is not present as transcendent Power overruling human injustice and oppression from the outside, but as Jesus’ own power of truth and love operating ‘from within’ to surrender his life ‘for the many.’[v]  From his position of power, Paul surrendered his life.  He struggled and suffered, rejoicing all the while, because his giving of himself led to people coming to know and follow Jesus.
            We have a specific philosophy as a church in which we strive to be a community united in love.  We have assets – a building; committed lay leaders; an educated pastoral staff; members with a plethora of skills and talents.  We bring all this together, whatever power we have and we give it to the Lord that he might create here a safe community where hurting people can come for comfort, rejected people can come and be welcomed, the lonely can find a family, the confused can find meaning, and the empty can be filled.
            In this safe space, we worship Jesus; we open our hearts to him.   In Bonino;s critique of Christians abusing power, he points out two options – justice or abuse.  Power ends up with one of the other.  There is a third option: transformation.[vi]   Here, we want to create safe space where we come as we are, sinful, broken, and then we meet Jesus.  In that encounter, we are made new, transformed.  The transformation effected by him is why Paul could rejoice in suffering and eagerly struggle for the sake of the spiritual maturation of people he never met – the Colossian believers. 
            Paul states in Colossians 2:6, As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives[m] in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”  That is our goal – life in Christ.  It is not easy and sometimes it is a struggle and sometimes we do suffer.  But the end is Christ, and there is indescribable joy along the way, even in trying circumstances. 
            May we be encouraged to turn to the Lord and seek the joy that comes when we are in Him.  May our church be a place and a people that encourages one another and all who come as they seek joy in Christ.

[i][i] Bonino (1983), Toward a Christian Political Ethics, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, p.90-91.
[ii] F.A. Hayek (1994), The Road to Serfdom: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, The University of Chicago Press.  Chapter 11, “The End of Truth.”
[iii] Volf (1996), Exclusion and Embrace, Abingdon Press, Nashville, p.141.
[iv]Bonino, P.98.
[v] Bonino, p.114-15.
[vi] Volf, p.155-164.  He presents transformation as a third option (after justice and abuse) in his analysis of the Prodigal Son story.

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