Sunday, July 29, 2012

July 29 - Snippet from Sunday - Where We Live

In Col 3.18-4.1, we see what Paul suggested imitating Jesus in self-sacrificing love meant for the real-life situation of the believers at Colossae. Paul lists one-by-one some of the roles and relationships that made up life for people living in first century Colossae, and for each of them, he points the direction they need to go if they want to live wholly “in Jesus’ name.”

Some of the roles Paul names may sound familiar to us. We hear him talking about wives and husbands or children and parents, and we think, oh yeah, we’re in those kind of relationships too. Other roles, like slaves and slave-masters, immediately sound more foreign to us. I need to warn you, though, that even where we might see similarities, life two thousand years ago was very different from the way we live today. Marriage then and family then looked nothing like marriage and family today. If we want to apply Paul’s instructions to our lives today correctly, we must not forget about these differences over time.

Some Christians today look at passages like this one, where Paul lays out how believers then could have Christ-like relationships, and they jump directly to how people should live in our relationships today. They’ll point to v 18 where Paul tells the married Colossian women to submit to your husbands, and they’ll insist that it’s God’s will today just as much as then that all women do whatever their husbands demand of them. It’s good that they want to obey the Bible, but unfortunately they fail to pay attention to the particular details of the passages they’re trying to apply. If we interpret this passage this way, we miss out on how Paul tailors his instructions to the unique circumstances of people in that city at that time.

In these verses, Paul takes the general command to live “in the name of the Lord Jesus” and applies it to the individual, concrete circumstances of believers in the Colossian fellowship. He’s bringing the command to love home to the specific, historical situation in which they lived. It’s important that we remember that sin has broken everything--every relationship, every social role or structure. When Paul gave instructions these believers about how to live in their relationships, he was operating something like a doctor, prescribing therapy to people living with various illnesses. Married people need certain therapies, parents with children need others, slaves and slave-masters, still others. [. . .]

When Paul gave these instructions to the married Colossian women, he wasn’t giving them the keys to a happy marriage. This wasn’t advice to get their husbands to treat them better. No, instead Paul was giving them the basics of how to still love like Jesus even when they lived in a horrible situation. They couldn’t change anything, so they were to trust God to set things right, just like God did for Jesus. Paul expresses this outlook most strongly at the end of his instruction to the Colossian slaves. In vv 24 and 25, he tells them, You know that it is the Lord who will repay your [glorious] inheritance. You serve the Lord Christ. For the one who does wrong will be repaid for his wrongdoing, and there is no favoritism [in this judgment]. God kept track of their suffering, of their selfless and often-ignored acts of love, and God would reward them. God also kept track of those who took advantage of this wicked system, and even if they seemed mighty and invulnerable at the moment, God would show no favoritism it came time to punish the wicked, even if the wicked had been powerful people.

Paul doesn’t ignore those people who could change these evil circumstances. Believe it or not, some of those husbands, harsh fathers, and slave-masters were part of the congregation. While there was undoubtedly the exceptional kind male head of house, like Philemon, the entire world these men lived in encouraged them to think of slaves, women, and children as nothing but tools to expand their wealth and political influence.

Paul’s command for them is brief and basic. While he honors the women, children, and slaves with six verses, he spends only three talking to these high and mighty men. But if the men were to follow these simple instructions, they would begin to undo all the injustice and abuse their wealth and power depended on. [. . .]

Our lives today would be unrecognizable to these believers living in Colossae. In fact, I’ve had several conversations with some of you about how different marriage and family life is today even than it was one or two generations ago. Our culture expects different things from marriage. We treat our children dramatically differently. Slavery is almost a curse word in this country. But just as much as those believers Paul wrote to, we need to discover what it means for us to live all of our lives “in the name of the Lord Jesus” within our own broken social relationships and structures.

Paul, in Phil 2, describes that church-community as “stars shining in a darkened sky,” and Jesus describes his followers as “the light of the world” causing people who see how they live to “glorify their Father in heaven.” This is what I want for our fellowship here. But if we are to shine, Jesus’ love must come home to where we live. It’s one thing to nod along with Paul’s exhortations to be compassionate, kind, meek, humble, and patient. It’s quite another to know what that means in our twenty-first century roles and relationships.

(Check out the whole sermon after the jump. . .)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

July 22 - Snippet from Sunday - Put On Love

Let me describe a situation that may be more familiar. When I started seminary, I took out a loan to pay my tuition. Now that I’m done with school, I’m in the process of paying that loan back. Whatever happens in my life--should I become a father, should I move to another country--the lending bank will find me and demand to be paid back. But if I die, then the bank writes off my debt and clears my name. That’s one of the very few good things about educational debt.

Thankfully, I can manage to make my monthly payments on my student loan. It wasn’t that big. But the claim that sin and death had on me was much greater than that of my lending bank. There was no way I could get free from sin and death. Wherever I went, whatever I did with my life, sin and death would find me and remind me that I owed them, that, in effect, they owned me. I could see evidence of their power all around me--fear and greed in my own heart, sickness, poverty and oppression around me. I was constantly reminded that I would only ever clear my account when they took my very life from me.

Paul actually uses this very image for the power of sin and death in ch 2. But then he says that Jesus, through his cross, freed us from the claims of sin and death. Christ gave his life for ours. Now, if we identify ourselves completely with him, his death counts for ours. The powers of sin and destruction no longer have any claim on us. We’re dead as far as they’re concerned. We owe them nothing, and now we are free to live, just as Jesus lives by the power of his resurrection.

Paul says in Col 3.3, For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. That’s a beautiful picture. The life we live together is hidden away from the forces that want to dominate it. But also hidden in God, which is to say, the way we live now is surrounded by God’s power, it shines with God’s glory, it is full to overflowing with joy, it’s brimming over with love.

So now, Paul tells the believers, live it out. Stop living like sin and death still rule you! Start living like Christ is the one calling the shots! If you’ve really made a commitment to Jesus, you need to change.

(Check out the whole sermon after the jump. . .)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Snippet from Sunday - July 15 - Colossians 1.15-20, Revisited

*Friends, I'm trying something new. Instead of posting my [very long] sermons each week, I am copying here just a few paragraphs that I particularly like. If you miss the long-form version, let me know, and perhaps they'll come back. In the meantime, happy reading!*

How do you know when friends have been reconciled after a fight? It’s by how they treat one another. Or how do you know when your body is healthy after a serious sickness? It’s by how it works; it gets all its functions back, it no longer hurts to breathe or it no longer makes you feel ill to eat.

In the same way, the greatest testimony to Christ Jesus’ great work in reconciling all things is precisely how we treat one another, how we function as a body.

I said last week that Paul’s mention of the church in v 18 at the middle of this hymn doesn’t seem to immediately fit. He’s been praising Christ as maker and ruler of the planets and the angels, maker and ruler of the whole earth, and suddenly he zooms in on the church, the local congregation. Paul has said in vv 15-17 that Christ is “firstborn over all creation,” that he is the one who was “before all things,” that all things were created “by him and for his purposes.” We might expect, as we’re reading along, for v 18 to say “And he is the head of all things,” implying that he is the one who is their source of life and the one who directs them. But instead we read that he is the head of the body, which is the church.

Jesus Christ’s presence in our world today as reconciler meets us first and foremost in local gatherings of his followers. If we want to check and see that, yes, God has made peace with the world, or that, yes, the world is not sick unto death, that it will recover and be made new just as Jesus’ resurrection shows us, the place to look is a local congregation. Our loving interactions with one another and with the world are the strongest testimony to reconciliation. The song we sing has it right: “They will know we are Christians by our love.”

Paul’s God-given, Spirit-commissioned task was to proclaim fully the word of God. He names the most surprising, unforeseen part of this good news about Jesus. Paul calls this “God’s secret” or “mystery” in v 26. 

Many Jews in Paul’s day expected God to eventually make things right. Reading the Hebrew Scriptures, they believed God would anoint a Messiah in the last day to vindicate the Jewish people, gather their children from the ends of the earth where they had been exiled, and exult Jerusalem’s temple and king as world’s greatest superpower. Their nation had been humiliated by one empire after another--Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, now Romans. Their status as Yahweh’s special nation seemed to be drawn into question by the defeat of their kings and armies. Their national temple had been desecrated. So they longed for the day when God would vindicate their nation by raising up a liberator and one who would restore right worship. Even before Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, he probably believed this.

But what no one was expecting, the key piece of information that God had held back from the prophets right up until the resurrection of Jesus, was the scope of this great restoration. What devout Jews hoped would result in the renewal of their own national fortunes God surprisingly revealed to be the starting point of God’s plan to renew the whole world. The work of the Jewish Messiah shockingly begins not with military victory but with the reconciliation of the Jewish people with all of the non-Jewish, Gentile nations. No one had seen it coming. We can hear in Acts 10 that even the first Jewish Christians were surprised at this turn of events. The abundant glory of this secret which Paul has been commissioned to proclaim is Christ in you--and here Paul points his pen at the Gentile believers in the church at Colossae.

The Colossian believers wanted a deeper spirituality; they wanted to feel closer to God and to have his power in their lives. So they listened to the spiritual gurus’ advice to live by a harsh legalism, to consult their star charts, to pray impressive and mysterious-sounding prayers. But Paul tells them these actions will only take them further away from God.

No, if they want to really know the power of God in their lives, they need only to look around them when they are gathered with the church. In their small fellowship there were Jews and Gentiles praying together, singing together, sharing meals together. The nearly unimaginable reconciliation of Jew with non-Jew is the living presence of God’s power among them.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Biblical Foundations for Mission

If you've read the long sermons I periodically post here, you've picked up on my fascination with mission. It's a term that comes up over and over again, and an idea I keep coming back to.

In fact, I'm working on another sermon for this coming Sunday in which I hope to trace out the unique role of the church in God's mission.

I've read many books and even more blogs on the "missional church." They seem to direct me to Jn 20.21 and Ex 19 frequently, among a few other proof texts. But I'm longing for something more than proof-texting to encourage this small town church in mission.

Do you know of a good biblical theology of mission or missional ecclesiology?

What would you look for in such a study?

Thanks for any suggestions you send my way.

July 8 - What's More Important Than Church?

I want to begin this morning with a question: What is more important than church?

I imagine that almost automatically many of us will have one of two responses. For some, our gut reaction is a firm “Nothing! What could be more important than church?” We honor God by keeping a Christian Sabbath on Sundays. We devote our mornings to worship and the remainder of the day to rest and reflection on God’s blessings in our lives. When we receive a paycheck, the first thing we do is write our tithe. If our children play sports, we tell their coaches that they won’t be able to play in Sunday games.

Others of us, when we hear the question “What’s more important than church?”, we think, “What isn’t?” We have families to think about and bills to pay. Sometimes our jobs demand we work extra hours over the weekend, and even Scripture tells us to provide for our families. We want our kids to use their God-given talents, and sometimes that means extra practices and games on the weekend. The house or the cabin needs looking after and fixing up. We want to take advantage of the warmth and sunshine while we have it, so we’re camping or at the lake every weekend during the summer. Later there’s winter sports and ice fishing. We try to make it to Sunday morning worship at least a few times a month, but, we remind ourselves, “Jesus was really interested in how we worship him with our lives, not in our church attendance.” God, after all, made the world good and wants us to enjoy God’s handiwork.

I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I’m confident many of us can identify with one of these two responses. And there are many of us, perhaps, who nod along with points of both responses, if not with our hearts then at least with our calendars. Sometimes church feels like a sacred duty. We owe something to God and to these people, both on Sunday mornings and throughout the week. Other times, church feels extracurricular, like a club or hobby we add on to the rest of life.

In our hearts, I think many of us aren’t quite sure where church is supposed to fit in our lives. Church, it seems, can have all the importance of family Christmas dinner (the kind you’d better not miss) but also all the superfluousness of seventh grade history class in the Springtime.

I want to clear up, if I can, a bit of our confusion about church. What is it? Is it important? How is it supposed to fit in our lives? As we continue to eavesdrop on Paul’s correspondence with the believers in Colossae, I hope we will find some answers to these questions.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

July 1 - Where Our Stories Begin

I’m glad to be with you this morning. My wife C and I are looking forward to getting better acquainted with you over these next few weeks and to sharing some of our own stories and hopes. It’s exciting to hear from you how God is uniquely at work with you building for God’s kingdom in this particular community.

I want to know where we each, individually and together, feel God calling us out into God’s project to bring God’s reign “on earth as it is in heaven.” How does the “love of Christ compel” you to share the good news of Jesus’ reign? Is it volunteering with MCC? Is it inviting your neighbor’s family over for a barbeque? Seeking fair-housing regulations? Do you sing? paint? sew? We might witness to God’s great love in so many ways. I’m curious how you feel God asking you to join in.

I hope to hear many of your stories in the coming weeks, over lunch, over coffee, chatting after morning worship. And I expect you’ll want to hear some of mine as well.

I’ve been asked to share the story of how I began to follow Jesus quite a few times. Every time I tell my story, it sounds a little bit different. I always find it difficult knowing where to begin the story. Should I begin with my decision to get baptized as an adolescent? Or should I start from the night in grade school I walked the aisle when a traveling evangelist gave an altar call? I could begin at four years old, with a winter car ride back from a kids’ Bible club when I mouthed word for word the prayer my mom led me in when I asked how I could go to heaven when I died. I can even remember, faintly, Bible songs from Sunday School when I was three years old. I’m sure even those early songs were moving me toward choosing a life committed to Jesus. For that matter, I could start with my parents’ conversion stories, or how when they were young and first married they purposed that that their home would be centered on God and the Bible. All of these things contribute to my daily decision to follow Jesus as the way to God.

I could begin my story in many places. We each could begin our stories about how God is bringing God’s kingdom to this particular part of earth in a variety places. But back before all these beginnings, before any of us committed ourselves to Jesus or joined him in welcoming God’s reign, there was one beginning.

This is what Paul insists on again and again throughout his letter to the believers gathered together in Colossae. In the snippet of their conversation we’ve heard read this morning, Paul tells them that all growth in discipleship begins in one place: the salvation Jesus has won for us. Listen another time to his words in Col 1.9-14:

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking that you be filled with the full knowledge of what God desires through all wisdom and spiritual understanding, so that you may live lives worthy of the Lord in order to please him in every way, by bearing fruit in every good work and growing in your full knowledge of God, being equipped with every ability according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, joyfully giving thanks to the Father, the one who has made you qualified to share in the inheritance of the saints stored up in heavenly light, the one who rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the reign of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (my translation)
Each of our stories--no matter where or when met Jesus, no matter where or how far we have traveled with him since then--each of them begins in the obedient life and death and glorious resurrection of Jesus. And wherever, however God’s Spirit is working among us and in the world around us--that work begins with Jesus.

Our stories begin with Jesus. This is not simply an interesting fact to remember. It’s not just a doctrine to file away alongside the Trinity or the virgin birth. (And I’ll try to persuade you, if you let me talk with you long enough, that none of these “doctrines” are things to simply leave in the filing cabinet of our minds, like old tax returns!) No--and this is where Paul writes not only for the Colossians but also for us this morning--the way we follow Jesus today, the whole of our discipleship, flows from the redemption Jesus won for us. This redemption is the wellspring of our discipleship, its beginning and the source that sustains it. If we are to follow Jesus, to grow to be more like him and to bear fruit in working for good, then we need to drink deeply at this spring.
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