A Model of Christian Experience.
Colossians 1:1-14 audio (4MB)
Love is a great thing isn’t it? After all it is St Valentine’s Day. And even if it is the object of American cultural imperialism, even if it is taken over by advertising and media hype, love is what makes the world go ’round. What’s more, it’s at the core, the centre of Christian character.
Today I want us to think about how we might reflect the character of Christ in the way we live and I guess that means especially the way we love.
Simon was a leader of the Synagogue so when Jesus came to town he invited him to come and eat with him. After all Jesus had been making quite a name for himself as a religious teacher. It wouldn’t hurt to see what he’s on about. Maybe he also had a bit of the philosophy of “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer”. So Jesus went to Simon’s house to eat. But they weren’t far through the meal when there was something of a disturbance. A woman came in, a sinner we’re told. No doubt she’d been seen wandering the seedier parts of the city looking for men to pick up. But now she comes and stands behind Jesus in tears, weeping so much that her tears fall on his feet and so she begins to wash his feet with the tears and wipe them dry with her long flowing hair. She’s brought with her an expensive alabaster jar of ointment and having washed his feet she pours the ointment over them. You can imagine the perfume of the ointment filing the room. Well, Simon is appalled. What sort of holy man is Jesus if he lets a woman like this, massage his feet with oil? It just goes to prove what they’ve always feared about Jesus.
But Jesus could see what he was thinking so he tells Simon a parable about two men who were forgiven debts of a small amount and a large amount. Then he asks him who would love their creditor more. The answer is obvious isn’t it? The one who was forgiven the greater debt. “Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little." (Luke 7:44-47)
The people of Colossae understood that truth. They’d received the forgiveness of their sins and the hope of eternal life, as Paul’s friend Epaphras had come to them to share the gospel with them. And as Paul begins his letter telling them how he prays for them he says “In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 4for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, 5because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” He understands that the love they have for all the saints arises from the hope laid up for them in heaven. The great grace of God shown in their lives has been the motivating factor in their love for all the saints since they first believed.
But now they’ve come to something of a crossroads. They’ve started well, but forces have come into the church that threaten their future direction. These people are offering a better way forward, with fine arguments, compelling logic, helpful rules, rigorous demands. Theirs is the promise of immediate experience, a new power and self control, and a more mature faith experience. This is a fuller gospel than they learned from Paul and Epaphras. Not that they’re dismissing Paul’s gospel. Rather they’re saying you need to build on it to get a better faith experience, a more fulfilled Christian life.
You see Colossae was not unlike modern day Australia. It was a multicultural city. Lots of different religions were practised. No-one seemed to mind which it was. In fact the best solution seemed to be to take the best of everything; to create a religious mishmash, a spiritual cocktail. [e.g Apparently there was even one Colossian woman who had the distinction of being ruler of the Jewish synagogue and at the same the high priestess of the Imperial cult. It was her responsibility to protect the Jews and their worship of Yahweh as the one true God, yet at the same time officiated in the public worship of the Emperor.]
We see a similar thing today with people happily taking bits of Buddhism, perhaps a little Hinduism, some Christian meditation perhaps, some Native American natural medicine, some Zoroastrian astrology, etc., and creating a “Spirituality” that fulfills some inner desire for connection with God. And even in the Church we find people who are wanting to take bits and pieces from various traditions, even other religions and fashioning something of their own making to improve their spiritual life.
In Colossae it was being suggested that they could add to the number of mediators between God and themselves, change their religious practices to be more attuned to God, go back to their Jewish roots and recapture the true keys to godliness. But Paul’s lesson in Colossians is the great rule that in Christianity, addition is subtraction. The Colossians knew that Jesus had rescued them. They knew that he was the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation. Yet here were these new teachers, saying “that’s all very well, but here’s a complementary insight - here are some angels- view them as mediators as well [today it’d be saints] - be more inclusive, more all-embracing. We don’t want to be exclusive and narrow. God is unapproachable so we need mediators. We know that Jesus is the only way to be right with God, but here’s a new method for controlling your sinful urges so you can live a better life.” And so forth. But addition is subtraction - the more mediators you have the less honour you give to Jesus Christ. The more systems you put in place to produce godliness, the less you’ll rely on Jesus' death on the cross.
But notice, that Paul’s response is not mere orthodoxy. He isn’t saying you must be right even if you’re spiritually dead. This isn’t sterile correctness. Nor is he saying don't worry about how you live, just have faith in God. No, in the face of heresy, of erroneous doctrines, Paul’s response is not mere orthodoxy. What he offers is this: a model of Christian experience in the passage we’re looking at today; next week: a great picture of Christ the fullness of God; at the end of ch 1: a vivid picture of gospel ministry; in ch2: a great outline of what it means to live in Christ; in ch 3 he encourages them to give thanks whatever they do, then he provides a pattern for daily life; and in ch 4 he gives a model of Christian ministry. In other words, Paul is offering a positive way forward. They think they have 2 options: to hunker down where they are, or to go forward into this new mix of spiritualities. But Paul says, no, there’s a 3rd way: to grow on the basis of the truth. To live out what is true. To grow in their experience of God based on the Apostolic gospel. He doesn’t say to stand still, but rather offers a way forward that he calls fullness in Christ, passionate truth.
So how can we grow in our Christian experience? Well let’s go back to the love they were showing to all the saints. Do you see where that love has come from? He says it’s because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. They loved their Christian brothers and sisters not because they were lovable but because they’d heard the truth of the gospel and it had completely changed their perspective. They didn’t need a new philosophy. What they needed was to build on the truth that had been revealed to them.
So Paul prays that they’d be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding. He prays that they might lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as they bear fruit in every good work and as they grow in the knowledge of God. As he points out later in his letter this won’t happen if they’re distracted by alternatives to the gospel. Angels won’t help us grow in our knowledge of God. Fasting and keeping the Sabbath won’t help us bear fruit in good works. All these things will do will be to distract us from the hope that will motivate us to keep going.
When we’ve been a Christian for a long time there’s a danger that we begin to forget what we’ve been saved from. We forget how much God has changed us. We get so used to talking about Jesus dying on the cross for us that we forget just what that meant for him. And those of us who live a fairly privileged life in this prosperous country perhaps undervalue the hope of eternal life that God offers us in the gospel. So we need to pray this prayer for ourselves. May we be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding. May we be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power. Do you see that? What is it that’ll make us strong? Is it keeping the Jewish food laws, or fasting as we pray? No, it’s God’s glorious power that will make the difference.
The sort of people who were in Colossae wanting to introduce this law keeping are still around. Sometimes they do it by insisting on particular rituals of worship. Others want to insist on particular types of behaviour or avoiding particular types of behaviour as though these will make us more acceptable to God, perhaps even makes us fit for heaven.
Well, let me ask you what is the truth of the gospel? Isn’t it this: that Jesus died in our place to make us righteous in God’s sight? That faith in him alone is what makes us fit for heaven? Look at the last two verses of our passage: “13He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
When I want to pay a bill I go to my Internet banking site and I arrange to transfer the funds from my account into another. And once I’ve pressed the submit button the money gets transferred. From that moment on it’s no longer my money. It’s now in the account of whoever sent me the bill.
That’s the idea here. We’ve been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of God’s beloved Son. We now belong entirely to Jesus. Nothing we can do can add to that. Nothing we can avoid doing can add to that. We belong to Jesus already. And in him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
So how does that impact on your life and my life? Just think: when did you last meditate on the great love of God that has brought you redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Does the truth of the gospel motivate you to love others the way God has loved you? When we celebrate communion here is it just a ceremony or do you take the opportunity to be reminded of the amazing love of God that would send his only Son to die for you?
And when you think about the great love of God does it lead you to lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God? Are you reading God’s word so you can get to know God better? Are you joining with others in a small group so you can help one another grow in your knowledge of God? Are you praying that God would give you his power to strengthen you?
The Colossian church was a much younger church than ours is, even this small part of it here in Burwood. Yet they’d already learnt this lesson. Perhaps it was the proximity of their conversion that made the difference. But for us that’s no excuse. Our God is a great God. As we’ll see next week the one who gave up his life for us was the Son of God, the creator of the universe. If we meditate on the amazing truth of the gospel we can’t help but be motivated to love and serve him, to live a life that pleases him.
One of the things that St Valentine’s day reminds us of is the importance of doing things for the one we love that pleases them - and not just on St Valentine’s day, right? Well, that’s even more true of our relationship with Jesus Christ. If we truly love him then we’ll be doing all we can to please him. May we be a church that loves passionately as we hold fast to the truth of the gospel.