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Monday, May 19, 2014

Do we Know Jesus? (Colossians 1:9-23)

Sunday, May 18, 2014

            If you open your Bible, turn to Colossians and begin reading in the very first verse, you are struck with how positive this letter is.  “Grace and peace … we have heard of your faith and your love … [we heard] from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant; … he has made known to us your love in the Spirit” (from v.1-8).  What a ‘feel good’ start! 

And yet, it is not all rosy.  It could not be, not for a first century church.  In the midst of a truly uplifting introduction, we read, “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience.  … He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:11, 13-14).
            Why is Paul praying that the Colossians be “made strong?”  What ordeal required them to have strength?  Was the life of their church and their very selves as Christ followers threatened to the point that the only way they could maintain true faith and correct belief was by the glorious power of God?  Why did Paul think such a prayer was necessary?  What evil threatened the Colossian fellowship?
            “May you be able to endure everything with patience.”  He does not ask that God remove the threat, whatever it may have been.  He does not ask God to deliver the Colossians.  He asks God to uphold them that they might endure some trial.  I hear Christians ask God to protect them from trials and to heal wounds and for shelter in the storm.  Paul asks God to help the Colossian weather the storm.  The storm is inevitable.    The only hope they have is the help that comes from the Holy Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ. 
What can be said about him?  Who is this son of God?  Who, exactly, is this Jesus to whom we have pledged our allegiance?  We have staked our lives, our souls, our eternal hope on what the Bible tells us about him.  Paul knew the Colossians could not hold up as a church without help from him.  For them and for us, he is the key to everything.  Do we truly know Jesus? 
            When he met a blind man, he spit in the dirt, made mud, and rubbed it in the blind man’s eyes.  Would you allow someone to rub mud made from saliva on your face?  It’s kind of gross.  Yes, gross, but the eyes of the man born blind were healed.  He could see.
Jesus enjoyed weddings so much he turned water to wine to keep the party going.  Before his disciples, he dropped to his knees and washed their feet.  He befriended prostitutes and disreputables, society’s dregs and rejects.  He partied with them and with those in high society.  Jesus was able to genuinely love everyone. 
All these anecdotes about Jesus form a picture of a great man – the greatest of human beings.  It is perfectly appropriate to talk of Jesus as a person.  You and I – we are persons, individuals.  So too was Jesus. 
            The very human Jesus truly is Jesus.  He was a first century Jewish man who came from the region of Galilee, received Rabbi training, whether formal or informal we don’t know.  His humanity must never be forgotten or ignored or intentionally shelved.  Neither may we do away with his divinity.  Jesus is both: 100% God and 100% human.  A robust, healthy Easter theology recognizes and insists upon the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus.  This duality is a great paradox, impossible to rationally explain yet undeniable.
            In Colossians, where the faithful have exhibited devotion in their faith, the accent is on the divine nature of the Son of God.  The Colossian believers are confused by other teachings that have come from countless angles in a culture so religiously diverse it’s dizzying.  Jewish, Roman, and numerous forms of Greek religious expressions competed for the attention and hearts of these people who have pledged themselves to Jesus. How could they maintain true faith?
Similar challenges confront Jesus’ church in every era and in every place.  Even though thousands of years and thousands of miles make us as different from our Colossians siblings in the faith as one might expect, we also are tempted by forces around us that would divert our loyalty away from our Lord.  Worse, we are weakened by sin.  Jesus has rescued us from sin in his death on the cross (v.13), but we are still vulnerable to temptation.  They were.  We are. 
            So Paul names his worries – weakness (he prays for strength), and trials and temptations (he prays for endurance).  Then , pointing to our source of help and hope, Paul quotes a poem that is dedicated to the rule and wonder of Jesus.  Most scholars believe Colossians 1:15-20 is a hymn Paul quoted, one likely older than anything Paul wrote.  What we read here was used in worship in the ancient church by the Christ followers probably even earlier than Paul’s conversion which is described in Acts 9.  Another example of Paul quoting an ancient hymn to make his point is Philippians 2:5-11.  In both cases, we find Christianity in its earliest most authentic form.  
In times of trouble, in times of confusion, when darkness threatens, we turn to Jesus.  Do we know Jesus Christ, the beloved son of God?  What would we say about him?  Look at Colossians 1:15-20 and see what the Apostle said.
            Jesus, the Son of God, is the firstborn of all creation.    Jesus, the man we meet in the New Testament, did not exist until the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary.  But Jesus as God, the divine logos described in John chapter 1, the Word, certainly did exist prior to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  He was, says Colossians, before the universe was.  From verses 16 & 17, “In him all things in heaven and on earth were created.  … He himself is before all things and in him all things hold together.”  Science can study observable phenomena, only that which occurs or exists within the history of the universe.  Jesus is before the history of the universe.  He is the pre-existent one.
            The son is distinct from the father, and here we find another paradox no theologian has adequately reduced to a definition we can grasp.  The term ‘trinity’ is not mentioned in the Bible, but it adequately names how God exists and how we know God.  Great minds have tried to make the trinity comprehendible for 2 millennia with no success.  The Father is God.  Jesus is God.  The Spirit is God.  They are distinct from one another.  There is only one God: 3 in 1.  This is where we turn, to this triune God, when we are in desperate need.  I could offer a plethora of metaphors to try to illustrate the trinity, but all come up short. 
            A while ago, a priest was the guest on Steven Colbert’s show.  The comedian is a devout Catholic.  I don’t know if he prepared the priest for what he was going to ask, but I was thoroughly impressed with the priest’s answer.  Colbert asked, “OK, what is God’s job.”  How would you answer?  I thought the question was kind of strange, but then I was struck by the thought that as a Christian, and especially as clergy, I should be able to answer that.  And I was stuck.  I did not know exactly where to begin.  What is God’s job?  Without missing a beat, the priest said, “God’s job is sustaining the universe.”  Brilliant! 
            The Father creates the universe and sustains it.  The Son draws humanity to the father, saving us from our sins and presenting us as righteous.  The Spirit is the constant presence of God in Jesus’ absence, the comforter and helper.  Each member of the trinity has a specific role and that is how we understand the trinity. 
Not so fast!  Colossians 1:17 says in the Son all things hold together.  Yes, God the Father sustains, but Jesus the Son has a role in holding everything together as well.  And, per v. 16, Jesus has a role in the creation of all that we see.  This verse, Colossians 1:16, indicates that the man from Galilee, before he was ever born in a Bethlehem stable, was the agent of creation and the goal of creation.
            Then verse 18 zooms in from the view of everything that exists in the cosmos to a focus on a particular people on earth, those who follow Jesus, the church.  We are the church.  From believers in megachurches housed in multimillion dollar facilities that sit on campuses that would make many colleges jealous, to groups of believers that gather in dirt floored third-world huts, the church is the gathering of people who follow Jesus and worship God through their knowledge of Jesus.  From the first century believers in Colossae to us who gather on Sundays at HillSong in 2014, we are the church.  Colossians 1:18 says the beloved son, the pre-existent one and creator of all, is the head of the church. 
            He who formed the Milky Way galaxy astronomers spend their lives observing is the one who watches over and leads us and all churches like us and those thoroughly unlike us.  Why?  Jesus is the firstborn of the dead.  The resurrection links his humanity and divinity; and it links us to him. 
            We would be destined to be separated from God for eternity if not for Jesus.  Our sins cut us off.  I think Hell is eternal separation from God.  All the descriptions of unquenchable fire and lakes of sulfur and weeping and gnashing of teeth – these are Biblical metaphors employed to show just how bad eternal separation from God is. However, Jesus came, died, and rose.  The New Testament says over and over, because of what he did, we have hope of resurrection.  He paves the way and makes resurrection a reality for us, his followers, so he holds first place in everything.  Any portion of life we can imagine, no matter how we see our lives or divide life into segments, Jesus, the resurrected, is first in all.  Not only is there no portion of life Jesus does not touch.  There is no portion of life Jesus does not rule.
Because of sin, the world is a fallen place, a place of pain, but Jesus is working through His church for the healing of the world.  Verse 20 says, “Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven by making peace through the blood of the cross.”  This verse does not say that the purpose of Jesus’ death on the cross was to provide salvation for us from our sins so we would go heaven when we die.  It does not say his death on the cross was for that.  Salvation is a consequence of the crucifixion of the son of God.  We are saved.  We are made righteous by him and promised to be with him eternally.  But Colossians 1:20 says through the cross all things are reconciled to God: animals, plant life, the elements (wondrous rock, gems, and metals in the earth), the cosmos, and people – all was declared Good in the creation.  All was corrupted in the fall.  In the death and resurrection and return of Jesus, all will be reconciled to God.  When we love the earth and act as the stewards God has called us to be, we are caring for what God made and what God will make new in the future through the work of Jesus, the Son.
Paul prayed that his readers would be made strong and be prepared to endure.  They worshiped as a minority faith in the midst of an empire that was pagan, polytheistic, and insistent upon all acknowledging the supremacy of the Roman emperor.  They were surrounded by people who sneered at their monotheism or mocked their claim that the Messiah had come and had been resurrected.   The first readers of Colossians were trying to follow Jesus in a world that potentially could hurt them severely for doing so.
We read Colossians as we live in the American empire.  Ours is vaguely Christian, or at least was born in the tradition of Christendom.  What threatens and causes us to rely upon Jesus for help? 
-                           Some reduce our faith to a system of morals.  We cannot.  The way of Jesus is very moral as are many religious faiths.  We are distinctive in that we insist that Jesus is Lord. 
-                           Another threat is the idol of materialism.  Life is all about me, so following Jesus is fine as long as it is good for me.  This idolatry will lead us straight out of the kingdom of God and in America, where freedom has been corrupted into the notion that we “deserve” immediate satisfaction in all things, we are bombarded by the deception of materialism. 
-                           Another threat is the way our culture has turned the concept of tolerance into the undiscerning practice of saying all things are OK and all religions are basically the same.  It’s a double lie; all behaviors are not OK and all religions are not, at the core, the same.  Each religion is unique from all others. 

We need help from our Lord so we can be strong enough and clear enough and loving enough to say Jesus is King, to kill the idol of materialism and to overcome the lies that are birthed by the siren song of tolerance. 
We could probably name numerous other threats to Christian faith in America.  If we considered other places in the world, the threats would be deadly in addition to being ideologically dangerous.  The Colossians prayer fits.  We need Jesus if we are to stand for him and with each other.  That we will be made strong and be prepared to endure so that with a gentle voice of welcoming love we can tell the world around us that all things come together in Christ alone – that prayer is one we need.  And we need to look to and point the world to Jesus, the beloved son of God, the creator and sustainer of all. 
He is Lord of the universe and head of the church and we and all his followers, no matter how different than us, comprise the church, the body of Christ. 
No matter the cost or consequences, together we are in Christ, the Lord of all.


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