Sunday, May 4, 2014
Imagine a series of events that might happen in life, any scenario that comes to mind. A trip to Food Lion because we’re out of eggs; a 50th birthday party; the sinking feeling of the flashing lights in the rearview mirror and knowing you were going 50 in a 25 zone; finding a $20 bill on the sidewalk; reading your emails and coming across one that is surprisingly and extraordinarily negative; eating with your best friend at your favorite burger place; now, here is the question. What difference does it make for you or anyone going through that situation, however important or banal, to go through it as one who is in Christ?
This is not a suggestion that we ask, what difference does it make that I am a Christian? I have not forfeited the title ‘Christian,’ but it has been severely diluted by overuse. Militants kill 100’s of Muslims and because they wear crosses, they are called ‘Christian.’ Christ did not endorse mass violence. When they came for him, he rebuked his followers for resorting to violence (Matthew 26:52-54). The term ‘Christian’ fits, but is unhelpful because it lacks descriptive power.
Today we intensify a journey we’ve already been on, a quest to discover what it means for an individual and for a congregation to be “In Christ.” As we discover this and grow in understanding of it, we live it. We live in Christ. Jesus not only influences, but is in everything. So something as simple as going to the store or as weighty as deciding upon a major move doesn’t just involve our relationship with Jesus; it is determined by it. Furthermore, Jesus does not just help us with decisions or ethics, “should’s” and “should nots;” Jesus defines who we are. We cannot understand ourselves apart from Him.
Does it sound unrealistic? Seriously, who thinks about Jesus all the time? Maybe God is a part of my life, maybe even the biggest part. Maybe church is very important to me. Maybe I feel tremendous happiness in Bible reading and in worship. Maybe I am proud to be a Christian. But it is extreme to say, I cannot understand anything, not even myself, apart from God as I know God in Jesus Christ. As right sounding as that maybe, it will never realistically be true. Well, together, I want us to explore this. Is it possible to be “in Christ” to the extent that Christ really, truly is in everything, every thought?
I am watching the Detroit Tigers. Miguel Cabrera, the best player in baseball, is up to bat. The Tigers are down 3-2 in the bottom of the 9th. So Jesus, what do think, will Miggy win the game for the Tigers with a big hit? I do not say that. I do not pray for Jesus to help the Tigers win. That’s not what I mean. No, I mean, Jesus is there, with me, and I know it. How specifically does this affect me? Any number of ways.
Cabrera strikes out and the Tigers lose. I do not fly into a cursing rage because Jesus would not approve. But really, it is not about Jesus’ approval. This is way beyond sin avoidance. I do not fly into a cursing rage because that is not something someone ‘in Christ’ would ever do. Because I am ‘in Christ’ and I am filled with the Holy Spirit, I just don’t do it and wouldn’t. I am different – a new creation.
And this “new me” or “new you” way of seeing and being is lived in all situations of life. Of course the case of me watching my favorite baseball team is an example. I am not holding myself up as a perfect example of what it is to be ‘in Christ.’ There are people in this church who model it better than me, but it is not really about “better.” The beautiful thing about us all joining hands and together exploring life “in Christ” is no matter where or who we are we can enter the quest. No previous qualifications are needed and it is not a continuum. Your friend is not “more in Christ” than you, or less.
Today, he might help you tremendously, and you may think, I can’t repay this. The answer to your frustration would be of course you can’t repay it. In Christ, there is no repayment. There is generosity, there is peace, there is love; there is no debt; there is no hatred; there is no slavery. There is joy and grace, mercy and faith. Today, your friend in Christ helps you. Tomorrow, you help another. And that whole idea is just one way of countless ways of seeing, understanding, and living in Christ.
Just as living in Christ is fleshed out in more ways than we could possibly name, there are any number of places to begin looking for help as we strive to live in Christ. We will begin in Colossians. I don’t think of this as a sermon series in Colossians but rather, this New Testament epistle in tandem with the Holy Spirit will be our initial guide into life in Christ. If you like reading ahead, read three short New Testament letters – Colossians, 1 John, and Ephesians.[i]
This is not a four-part series in Colossians followed by a four-part in 1 John followed by four in Ephesians. This is a journey. As thoroughly unpredictable as it is, the journey itself will be part of the goal. As we go, we discover what it means when we say we are disciples of Jesus. As we discover, we live out discoveries realizing that everything changes from going on a simple errand to major decisions. Nothing is ever the same once we give ourselves to Jesus and are filled with the Spirit.
“From Paul, chosen by God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus and from Timothy who is also a follower” (1:1). The letter comes not from one, but from a group because when we are Christ, we are joined to one another; Paul and Timothy. As we proceed, we will see many more than just these two in Paul’s work. Epaphras, Tychicus, Luke; a few of the names sound funny to us. These funny-sounding names and the more familiar ones were life for Paul. His heart is joined to the disciples who walk with him. In Christ, we are in a community, a family of believers. We are connected to each other. We belong to each other.
The different English renderings of Colossians1:3 show how deliciously deep is the meaning of what Paul wants to convey. I am convinced that each of these renderings is near the mark on getting this verse right.
Here is verse three in the New Living Translation: “We always pray for you, and we give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Here is the same verse in the New Revised Standard Version: “In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Finally, the verse in the Common English Version. “Each time we pray for you, we thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Greek grammar indicates an action – the prayer of thanks that happened and keeps on happening. Paul and Timothy do not spend every moment of every day praying for the Colossian Christians, people they have never met. Prayer is a constant in life, so when Paul and Timothy are doing other things- making tents, traveling, preaching – they are mindful of prayer and mindful of churches, those they know, and like the Colossian congregation, those they do not know. Prayer and thanks are constant components of life for Paul and Timothy. Neither man would be who he was without prayer and thanks.
The verb used might strike recognition, depending on your church background. In Greek it is ‘eucharistio,’ a form of the noun ‘eucharistia.’ In English the word is Eucharist. In many traditions this word refers to what we call communion or the Lord’s Supper. Thus from Paul’s opening and from the prayer, we see that to be ‘in Christ’ is to be in a community where His followers are connected to each other, always praying for one another, thanking God each time.
Faith and love: Paul delights in writing how the faith and love of the Colossians Christ followers sets them apart. By love, he means that agape love, the love that is selfless, altruistic. Someone in Colossae had done something so remarkable; Epraphas was moved to make a point of talking about it. He did this so effectively that Paul makes a special effort to affirm the church as a faithful church willing to demonstrate Christ in her midst by acts of sacrificial love.
When we are in Christ, we love. The fuzzy picture is coming into focus in just the opening verses of Colossians. In Christ, we belong to one another. We are in community. In Christ, prayer is a constant; we could not imagine a life where prayer was not a core practice. Furthermore, our prayer always involves thanksgiving. In Christ, we have faith and it is a marker others see, something that distinguishes us. Surely this comes through in our prayer life, in our conversations, in our ethical choices, in the tone of our speech, and in many other ways. Finally, in Christ, we love with a self-giving, put-others-first kind of love.
Where does this come from? Paul writes – “because what you hope for is kept safe for you in heaven. You first heard about this hope when you believed the true message, which is the good news” (v.5). Note, he does not say it is saved “up in Heaven” as if Heaven were some place out beyond our galaxy. It is not so much “up” as on an entirely different yet not necessarily distant plane.
Heaven is real and is a normal part of Paul’s conversation. In Christ, we know about Heaven. Moreover, we know the influence of Heaven. The hope that is kept safe there is the hope of future resurrection after our deaths. Just as Jesus rose so too Easter will come to us after we die, at the final judgment, when Jesus returns to unite forever earth made new and heaven made new. While we wait for that consummation, Jesus is bodily in Heaven keeping the promised hope safe.
What does that mean for us living here as we wait? If we are in Christ, according to Colossians 1:3-5, our future hope creates for us here and now a life of faith and agape love. Eternal life is not simply a promise that makes the present reality endurable. Eternal life is something we live into; the values of God’s eternal kingdom are our values in our daily lives. Colossians 1:5 is a clause in the midst of a long Greek sentence. We could easily skim it without paying closer attention. This might cause us to miss something profound.
Like us, those Colossian Christ followers wanted a blessed, pain-free eternity in the presence of God and the people they loved. That is universal human desire – the longing to be free of fear and free to live in peace, prosperity, and happiness. Everyone wants that. Most religions have some version of an afterlife promise. Epaphras has reported to Paul that the hope of resurrection, currently held in Heaven with Jesus but sure to come to all who follow him, has created a way of living for the Colossians: the way of faith and love, agape love.
In verses 9-14, Paul prays that God will guide the Colossians in their actions and in their thoughts. “We always pray that God will show you … the wisdom and understanding that his Spirit gives” (v.9). The reading closes with Paul reminding the Colossians that God has rescued them from Satan, freed them from sin, and brought them into the Kingdom. They are already part of the Kingdom of God.
This letter has been preserved by the Holy Spirit so churches like ours remember. In Christ, God has rescued us from Satan, freed us from sin, and brought us into the Kingdom. We are already part of the Kingdom even as we wait for its final consummation. Our future eternal hope is held secure in Heaven. And this brings us back around to the opening question.
What difference does it make in situations that come up in our lives, however important or banal, that we go through these situations are people who are ‘in Christ?’ Hope creates in us faith and love.
I remember a church-going family, people who knew Jesus. Because of their hope, they noticed the best friend of their 10-year-old son. The boy’s parents were divorcing. Mom was gone. Dad worked nights. Often the 10-year-old child had to fix meals for himself and his younger brother and sister. These church goers, people ‘in Christ,’ did what they always did. They went to church. And they brought the boy and his younger siblings along. Every Sunday. For years.
Now decades have passed. The boy is an adult and he doesn’t often see that family that brought him to church, sometimes fed him supper, and had him over for sleep-overs. When he does see them, there is joy and love, a family reunion for one not quite family but every bit family because he knows they made space in their lives for him. They could not do otherwise. They are in Christ. Their hope made faith and love their life. And so it is with us as Paul’s pray goes up for us.
“May [we] be made strong with all the strength that comes from [God’s] glorious power, and may [we] be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled [us] to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” (1:11-12).
[i] As an aside, I acknowledge that many scholars doubt that Paul wrote Colossians & Ephesians just as they doubt that someone named John wrote the letter we refer to as 1st John. These scholars have good reasons for their doubts, but I will nonetheless refer to Paul and John as I go through these books. I believe the ideas originated with these two even if others ended up writing them in the form we now have the letters.