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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Step into Life (Colossians 3:12-17)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The risen Jesus was with several of his disciples on the shore.  In a private conversation, he told Peter that he would one day face a martyr’s death.  Peter was extremely happy Jesus was alive, but the prospect of martyrdom did not excite him.  He immediately looked at the beloved disciple and asked if he too would die for the name of Jesus. 
What about him, Lord
Jesus responded, “What is that to you?”  In other words, don’t try to live out my story for him.  Worry about my story for you.  You, follow me (John 21:21-22).  My friends, no one here gets to live the beloved disciple’s story.  Or Peter’s.  Or mine.  You only get to live your story.  It will be different than anyone else’s because Jesus loves you uniquely.
Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.  Everyone who enters life does so by way of the cross where Jesus takes the punishment for our sins on himself.  We come to life by way of the cross and by way of the resurrection.  Easter is his victory over death.  No story without the crucifixion is a Christian story.  No story without the resurrection is a Christian story.  Many overemphasize the cross.  Easter is just at footnote, a nonessential.  Other movements have skip all the unpleasantness of that Friday.  They gloss over the violence in the death of Jesus.  They want a resurrection without a death to precede it. 
Leaning too much in either direction is a theological mistake.  It is also a psychological mistake. Our story, a story of following Jesus and worshiping him, is through and through a story of the cross; and it is absolutely a story of eternal life achieved for us by Jesus in the resurrection.  It is both.  We need the cross because of our pain; God can empathize with us.  He went through pain too.  We need the resurrection because once our pain has been acknowledged, we need victory over it.  And we have that because our Lord Jesus defeated the ultimate enemy – death.
We are saved by grace through faith – our faith in Jesus and his faithfulness in obeying God.  We are saved by what he did and by his invitation to us.  We aren’t saved because we were smart enough to say “Yes” to Jesus.  We are saved because he loved us enough to die.  He invites us. 
The table reminds us of how all this works.  All who know they need grace are invited to eat the body of Jesus and drink the blood of Jesus and receive forgiveness and life in his name.  By taking the bread and cup, you and I say yes Jesus, you are the Lord; we are yours.
What is this life, life in Christ?
It is life in which God picks you and me.  “As God’s chosen ones,” says Colossians 3:12.  I remember the playground.  Kids choosing sides for the kickball game, and everyone is picked.  I am standing, waiting.  Begrudgingly, one of the captains says, OK, we’ll take Tennant.  Unwanted!
I remember the school dance.  Guys have dates.  The girls I asked were all unavailable, yet somehow they ended up at the dance.  Why did they tell me they couldn’t go?  They went.  I did not!  Unwanted.
One of my prized possessions is a UNC golf shirt.  When I wear it, people are surprised. Everyone knows I cheer for Michigan, not UNC.  Every time I wear that shirt, people wonder if I have converted.  No, I say, I am still a Wolverine fan. 
The shirt has the number 97 on the breast pocket.  After people get over seeing me in Carolina blue, they notice the number and ask, “Who wore #97?”  I honestly don’t know if any famous UNC athlete ever wore that number.  But in 2006, when HillSong Church was trying to find a new pastor, there were, I think, 119 resumes received.  Mine was #97 of that 119.  I suspect that of the 118 who did not get the call to come here, many were as qualified as me and would have done as good a job as me.  God guided the process so that I was called to be the pastor here.  And I am grateful.  Every time I wear that UNC #97 shirt, I am reminded that I was chosen. 
I don’t know if you have such reminders, but I assure that you have been chosen just as I have.  To have life in Christ is to be wanted – wanted by God, no less!  The evidence is this letter we’ve been reading – Colossians. 
Paul intended this letter to go beyond the church in the city of Colosse.  In fact, there was a church the neighboring city – Laodicea.  Paul told the Colossians to share the letter with Laodiceans; and the Laodiceans were to share the letter he sent them with the Colossians (Col. 4:16).  (Don’t look up the Laodicean letter.  It is not in your NT.  Sadly it is lost to history.) 
As Paul wrote for specific communities but he knew others would see his letters too.  When he wrote that believers are “God’s chosen ones,” he meant all Christ followers, not just the Colossians.  “God’s chosen ones” – that’s you and me.
I am not aging well: I have bad knees; I’ll never be a marathoner.  I get shorted tempered with my kids.  I won’t bore you with a catalogue of my character defects.  I will tell you there are days when all I see is what’s wrong with me.  A lot of people see their own faults and never see the good in themselves.  Colossians 3:12 reminds me, when I want to hate myself, that God chose me.  God looks at me and filled with love says, I want Rob with me. God looks at you and says, I want her with me
How does that well-known verse go?  “For God so loved the world, he gave his only son.”  You and I are chosen of God.
To drive this home, Paul reminds us, his readers, that in Christ we are holy and beloved.  Australian pastor William Loader writes
When we begin to take seriously that we are 'chosen, holy, and loved' by God, then we begin to value ourselves and not need to embark on the array of strategies which keep people busy trying to make themselves special. This kind of change does not happen overnight, but is part of our development in maturity as people. There is a very positive process at work which will gradually produce good fruit, the more free we become from our anxieties and worries about ourselves, the more energy and space we have for others. It is not, however, fully automatic. It needs working on, because the grooves run deep. We need to be challenged: you are loved; now, believe it, apply it, let it sink in.[i]

          I appreciated Loader’s insistence that we value ourselves because of Christ in us.  He has made us worthy of God – worthy to serve and worthy to be loved.  We don’t earn it.  He gives it.  In Jesus, God gives his love to the point of overflowing.  It depends not on our goodness but on his grace, not that we are so unbelievably loveable but that He loves us extravagantly.[ii]
          We won’t understand the instruction in Colossians 3 and we will not have any hope of living out what this chapter says unless we are in Christ and we accept that in him we are chosen, holy, and beloved.  As chosen, beloved ones, we “clothe [ourselves] with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” These words describe what is actually true about us when we live our lives in Christ.
This does not come about as we strive to be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, and patient.  This is not a matter of spiritual effort. Effort is not all bad.  We can work hard and work creatively to make these characteristics defining marks in our lives.  We should.  But as sinners, we always fall short of the mark. 
Before giving any teaching that translates to attitudes which govern our day-to-day behaviors, Paul says in Colossians 3:1 our minds should be with Jesus who is at the right hand of the father.  His heavenly perspective should be ours.  Paul reminds us we are chosen by Jesus.  He wants us to know who we are and who we are being made to be in Christ.  We need to discover and rediscover and reread the story of us and Jesus.  I need to spend a lot of time in knowing my own personal journey with him.  It is not for me live Peter’s journey.  Jesus is writing Rob’s story and I need to invest in it and you in yours.  Only then does it make sense to point to that the values named in verses 12-17.  This inventory of virtue is a manifestation of Christ at work in us, speaking through us. 
Thus, a key to compassion, kindness, humility and the rest is to know Jesus.  How do we know him?  We read stories about him in the Bible.  We know others who know him and listen to their testimonies.  Consider someone you believe is true Christ follower.  Ask her or him penetrating, specific questions about the walk with Jesus.  When they answer, listen carefully and deeply.  When they won’t or can’t answer keep asking until they can and will.  Additionally do things that Jesus said to do – service work, forgiveness in relationships, missions, worship.
In all these ways, reading, listening, going, and doing, we become acquainted with Jesus.  This is only a start.  We are not disciples until we follow him and He dwells in us.  We must pray honestly.  Block all distraction, dig as deeply into your own psyche as you can, and pray with complete honesty holding nothing back.  Prayer in this way – raw, real, unrefined – cuts the soul open and leaves us bare before God.  And the relationship is real.  It requires that we name every pain we’ve felt, every disappointment and loss, and we speak our honest thoughts.  In that place of pain and exposure, we discover the depth of Jesus love for us.  We invite him into our most vulnerable places that he might love us there where we need it most and that he might go to work healing our wounds and shaping our souls. 
It is a lifelong process, but somewhere along the way, we realize, hey, I know Jesus.  Whatever else people say and whatever future mistakes I make, I know Jesus, and I know I am forgiven, chosen, beloved.
With that knowledge, we realize we are on the way toward me becoming compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, and patient.  We need to stay on that path.  One of the driving motivations in Colossians is the believers were being lured onto other paths than the one Jesus set for them.  We are too.  How do we stay on the Jesus path?  How do we keep our eyes fixed upon him?
Of the numerous thoughts we could think of, this morning I recommend giving intense focus to a particular virtue in hopes it will open us to all the virtues.  I alluded to this last week.  Colossians 3:12 says “Clothe yourselves with …” and I zoom the camera in on one word – gentleness.  It is actually not one of the words listed but in gentleness I am thinking of aspects of a few that are listed: meekness, humility, and kindness.  ‘Civility’ could possibly be a synonym, but only loosely.  I think gentleness goes deeper.
It comes from strength.  If I have a fish on the hook and I want to throw it back, I cannot just squeeze and jerk the hook out through the cheek.  I have to hold on strongly enough that the fish doesn’t leap from my hand but gently enough that I do not harm the fish.  Likewise in relationships, I need to be strong enough that I do not lose my sense of identity.  I need to be strong enough in my faith that without compromise, I tell the truth about God, declare that Jesus is Lord, and refuse to participate in sin.  Yet, I need to be gentle enough that another person will know I care about him.  I may not agree with all he says and does, but I love him nonetheless. 
Gentleness is only seen in relationships.  The mean person ignores this attribute that Paul clearly declares is necessary for all followers of Jesus.  Short tempered, foul mouthed, crabby, aggressive; Colossians says Christ followers clothe themselves with meekness and kindness – gentleness.  I see online chats in which supposed Christians aggressively assault sinners in a violent, mean-spirited tone.  They claim Christ but make no attempt to live out the gentle kindness that Paul insisted be part of the life of a Christ follower.  Gentleness is a mark of our relationships; it is most obvious in our words – both tone and content. 
Moreover, gentleness sets the course for the other virtues named here – compassion, humility, patience, love, and peace.  If I am gentle, you know you can approach me, and if you can approach, then there is potential for us together to work on compassion and show love.  What would your summer be if you decided, ‘this summer, I will become the gentle person Jesus is calling me to be?’
Get started this week by identifying one relationship that is particularly tension-filled.  It may be with a friend or a coworker, a fellow church member or an unbeliever, family member or neighbor.  But it has to be a relationship where gentleness has been lacking.  Ask God to make you a gentler person in that relationship.  Ask God to show you how.  Ask for special help when it gets particularly argumentative.  Ask God to intervene in your spirit in that very moment you are tempted to shoot a verbal dagger so that instead of being mean, you are clear but also kind, even in anger.  Identify one relationship which will be a point of emphasis in your prayers and in your daily effort to clothe yourself with gentleness as you follow Jesus as his disciple. 
In all of this, we discover our own stories – the story of me walking with Jesus and of you walking with him.  We set our lives by his standards.  We clothe ourselves with gentleness and thus we step into life in Christ. 
This morning, a first step on this pathway is the Lord’s Supper table – an ultimate act of gentle invitation.  That of course is a paradox because the bread we take represents the violent breaking of Jesus’ body.  The wine calls to mind his spilled blood.  His welcome to all of us to the warmth and intimacy of dinner with him comes at the expense of his life. 
Come and come with assurance.  Take the bread and cup and with it receive all the love Jesus has for you.  Let his love fill you, starting now.  Discover the next chapter in the story of Jesus and you, starting now.  You and I – we are chosen, beloved of God.  We have a place at this table simply by knowing how much we need him.  He owns our hearts.  He speaks through our lives.  So come.  Clothe yourselves with Christ.  Come to him.

[ii] Wright (1986).  Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Colossians and Philemon, IVP Academic Press, Nottingham, p.145-6.

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