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. Along with Paul’s letter to the Colossians, I want us also to listen to the words of our Confession. In part, I want to do this because Paul’s letter and the Confession echo one another and reinforce on another. But another reason I want to listen to the Confession is the role it has played in my own life.
I wasn’t born Mennonite. The nearest Mennonite church is at least five hours away from my hometown of Belgrade, Montana. I grew up in a Evangelical Bible church. It was there I committed myself to being a disciple of Jesus. There I learned compassion for the lonely. There I caught a passion to share Jesus’ promise of life with my neighbors around me. That was the church that sent me on first excursions in global mission to Mexico and Slovenija. Dry Creek Bible Church gave me much.
But it was only after Cindy and I moved to Chicago for graduate school that we found our way to Anabaptism. We had just returned from the seven months living with missionaries in Skopje, Macedonia. We were looking for a church within walking distance of our apartment. We just happened to see the sign in a Mennonite church plant’s plate glass window. We talked and decided to see what was happening at this Living Water Community Church the next Sunday morning. We did, and then we came back the Sunday after that, and the next Sunday too. Soon we were at their midweek potlucks and their small groups. We were quickly becoming part of this Mennonite community.
The small group we took part in our first year at Living Water centered on discussion of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. Each week we would read through an article ahead of time and then bring our questions, comments, even criticisms to talk over with the group. We met in an apartment just down the street from the meetinghouse.
At that point, I had questions, sometimes even objections. But I was met with grace, patience, even openness to correction. By the time I came to join this church, these people, a few years later, I found this Confession truly was my confession. I had come to love the way in which it echoes the Bible’s insistence that, to quote the early Anabaptist Hans Denck, “No one can truly know Christ unless they follow him in life.” I felt that I had at last found a community who knew discipleship necessarily accompanies faith, that believing in Jesus means learning to walk as he walked.
So let’s listen to how our Confession describes the wellspring, the source, of our spiritual growth. In Article 2 we begin,
We believe in Jesus Christ, the Word of God become flesh. He is the Savior of the world, who has delivered us from the dominion of sin and reconciled us to God by humbling himself and becoming obedient unto death on a cross. He was declared to be Son of God with power by his resurrection from the dead. (CFMP, Art. 2)Then the Confession quotes that verse Menno Simons always returned to, the one Pastor Bernie reminded us of few weeks ago, 1 Cor 3.11: “No other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
Article 8, on Salvation, picks up this same theme:
We believe that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God offers salvation from sin and a new way of life to all people. . . . We place our faith in God that, by the same power that raised Christ from the dead, we may be saved from sin to follow Christ in this life and to know the fullness of salvation in the age to come. (CFMP, Art. 8)The one foundation, the beginning, the source is Jesus, the Savior “who has delivered us from the dominion of sin,” who has “reconciled us to God,” who became “obedient unto death on a cross.” This one, the same one “declared to be the Son of God with power by his resurrection from the dead”--he is the beginning. He is our beginning. “By the same power that raised Christ from the dead,” we are welcomed into this new way of life. Our story begins with his life and death and resurrection, and we end our stories transformed into his image.
This is Paul’s theme in his letter to the Colossian believers.
We often think of Paul as the great missionary of the early Christian movement. Reading the Book of Acts is like reading his missionary travelogue. From Antioch to Cyprus to Thessaloniki and Corinth to Ephesus and finally to Rome: Paul heralds the good news wherever he goes.
But Paul was by no means alone. Early Christianity was a great mission movement. If we listen carefully to the New Testament, we find a legion of witnesses, many named but most nameless, who, in the words of Acts 8.4, “spread the word wherever they went.” In their conversation filled with praise, in their work for good, and in their lifestyle shaped by love, Jesus’ followers welcomed their neighbors into what God had accomplished in Jesus.
Epaphras was one of these witnesses. He probably received the good news from Paul during the three years Paul spent teaching in Ephesus. Epaphras, in turn, carried the good news one hundred miles up-river from the port of Ephesus, to a small town called Colossae.
In the four or five years that intervene before Paul wrote his letter to the Colossian believers, Paul had set sail from Ephesus for Jerusalem, where he was taken prisoner and, eventually, shipped to Rome for to wait for a trial before the emperor. It’s at this point that Epaphras makes the 1,500 kilometer journey from Colossae to see Paul in Rome. We’re not completely certain why he set sail to see Paul. Maybe he brought financial aid for Paul while he was under house arrest. However, the letter Paul wrote afterward definitely shows that he brought news of a young church in trouble.
Colossae had once been a cosmopolitan city with a booming merchant trade. People native to that province of Asia Minor lived alongside the descendants of Persian, Greek, and Roman soldiers. There had been a large Jewish population relocated there by a Greek warlord some two hundred years earlier. But this was all in the past. By the time Paul dictates his letter, Colossae had shrunk to a small town. I think of Springfield, Ohio, a city just a few miles north of where I went to college. It had once been an important industrial city, with auto plants and a large printing press. But by the time I visited it, all the industry had pulled out. The plants had closed down. Now nearly a quarter of children live in poverty. I remember the homes lining the streets with their sagging roofs and broken windows. A post-industrial ghost of what it once was. That’s what I think of when I think of Colossae.
When the gospel first came to town, people responded enthusiastically. They committed themselves to following Jesus as the one in whom God was making the world right. Their families changed, their work relationships changed: they gave up their prejudices and grudges and exchanged them for love and mutual concern. Paul tells us this in vv 3 through 6 in chapter 1 of the letter.
But then many among their fellowship began to be captivated and led away by pagan and Jewish deeper spirituality and self-help gurus. They turned aside from a simple Christ-shaped spirituality of love in favor of something that sounded more “spiritual,” something that felt more “rigorous.” We’ll look more closely at this tragic turn in the coming weeks. For now, what’s important is that the believers were giving up Jesus as their sole source and wellspring.
So look back at Col 1.9-14 in your Bibles.
After introducing himself and giving thanks for the way the Colossian believers first received the good news, Paul begins to tell them his prayer for them. I believe in the priority of prayer. Prayer is our first response to God. Before we’ve ever even seen a Bible, before our tongues are familiar with any hymns, even if we’ve never know the warmth of Christian community, we can pray. Prayer is turning to God--in joy, in gratitude for goodness and beauty in our lives. Prayer is crying from our need, from our despair, when we’ve come to the end of hope, crying for someone to intervene and save us. Prayer is asking for blessings on those we love that we know we don’t have the power to ensure for them.
When I was a youth pastor in Chicago, I intentionally made a habit of sharing my prayers for the teens with them. I would write cards to them, often on their birthdays, expressing all that I longed for God to accomplish in their lives. Things I hoped for, things I trusted that God wanted, but things that I had no power on my own to make happen.
This is what Paul is doing in Col 1.9-12. For this reason, since the day we heard about you, he says, we have not stopped praying for you. Because of Epaphras’ report about how they responded to the good news, Paul has been tirelessly bringing this church once again to God’s attention.
To step back from this letter for a moment, I can’t tell you strongly enough how important it is that we continue on this ministry of prayer. We must wear out our knees for one another and for the good of the world around us.
Paul’s prayer is rich, a robust prayer that asks God to bless these believers with wisdom and true understanding and lives given to good work and skill and thanksgiving and joy. This is the kind of blessing each of us would want prayed over us, the kind of blessing we would want to give to others.
He begins at the end of v 9, writing, we ask that you be filled with the full knowledge of what God desires. This is a prayer for what we might call “spiritual growth,” what I’d rather call “growth in discipleship.” I think if Paul had his way we’d call it “growing up into the fullness of Christ”, or “growing into the image of Christ.” I hope this is something we each want. When Jesus saves us, he is not collecting specimens to preserve as he finds them in glass jars of formaldehyde. No, he finds and nourishes us to for a purpose.
I went through a phase when I was nine or ten years old where I would save every gift I was ever given. This might make sense with book or model car, but I also saved candy. I wouldn’t eat it. No, I would place it wrapper and all in the top drawer of my dresser. I loved to eat candy--I still do! But I felt that I had to honor the gift by preserving it. There’s a word for this: hoarding. Eventually my family helped me see reason: one of my younger siblings went into my dresser drawer while I wasn’t around and ate most of the candy. When I complained, my parents laughed and pointed out that the purpose of the candy was to enjoy eating it, not to leave it in its shiny wrappers.
This is the way it is when we begin to follow Jesus. God gives us as gifts to the world, full of the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, the key ingredient in our own transformation into what God desires for us. God doesn’t want us to stay wrapped up in the weak and immature habits we have now. God doesn’t want us to stay self-concerned, fearful, broken. No, we’re intended for better. We’re intended for the joy of becoming like Jesus, even if the process is sometimes painful.
I hope and trust that this sort of transformation is what we want. But sometimes we find it hard to know how to get from where we are to what God wants us to be. Paul’s prayers tells us that we come know how God wants us to change and grow through all wisdom and spiritual understanding. God has painted us a beautiful picture of everything God wants. This picture is named Jesus. But from where we stand, it’s hard to know what this picture means in our lives. We need the Spirit’s wisdom and understanding to know how we can come to look like Jesus in all the complicated and messy situations we face from day to day.
I’m confident most of us can point to moments of moral bewilderment. Sometimes we don’t know what the right things is to do. In our family lives, in our finances, in politics, we often don’t know which option is best or which action will do the least harm. We’re pressed into situations where no matter what we do we feel like we’re compromising some of our convictions. We have moments when we realize that pursuing one good goal means neglecting another. It’s in these moments that we need wisdom and understanding from the Spirit.
This is what Paul prays for. Spiritual growth is not about some ethereal part of ourselves, it’s not just about our souls. It’s not about learning to think or feel or sound more “spiritual.” Spiritual growth, at least as Paul expresses it in his prayer for the Colossians, is about learning how to live in a new way, to live like Jesus.
We hear this in vv 10 and 11. Paul prays for the Colossian believers to grow in their knowledge of what God wants in order that they will be able to live lives worthy of the Lord. When they live this way they begin to bear fruit in every good work and grow in the knowledge of God. They are equipped with every ability according to his glorious might so that they might have endurance and patience. They joyfully give thanks to the Father. Living, working good, acting with endurance and patience, giving thanks--these are actions and behaviors and habits. In the words of a commentary I read, “There is no separation between learning and living. The wisdom about which Paul prayed was not simply head knowledge of deep spiritual truths. True spiritual wisdom must affect the daily life” (Warren Wiersbe, Be Complete, 36). Spiritual growth means maturing into new habits, new actions and behaviors.
I might push even further: As Paul shows us beginning in chapter 3 of this letter, spiritual growth is growth in love. Love is the end goal, the virtue that brings all others to perfection. We’ve heard his words from 1 Cor 13 many times: If I speak in human or angelic tongues, if I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, if I have a faith that can move mountains, if I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to the flames, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Jesus shows us God’s love, love perfected. When he was slandered, abused, betrayed, even while he was being executed, he responded in love. He sought the good of each person he met, healing the sick, freeing the demon-possessed, feeding the hungry, befriending the outcast, giving honor to those others looked down on, refusing to hold the wrongs others did to him against them.
This love is what God wants for us.
But Paul’s prayer goes beyond mere well-wishing. Instead in vv 12 through 14 Paul names the true foundation, the basis on which he and we too can trust that God answers this sort of prayer.
Verse 12 picks up, 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. As I studied this passage, I had difficulty with that word “inheritance.” The Greek and Hebrew ideas behind it have seemingly little to do with someone’s death, the reading of the will, the distribution of some valuables. Instead the idea is more what is passed down from generation to generation, more like a heritage.
In the Old Testament, after the Israelites entered the land Yahweh promised to them, God directed them to portion out the land on the basis of families, so that every family would have enough. We hear this story beginning in Joshua 13. This land was their inheritance, their birthright heritage to be passed from generation to generation. Unfortunately, the Israelites didn’t long observe Yahweh’s property laws. This division of the land, however, is part of the idea Paul is referring to with the word “inheritance.”
Already we’ve been re-born, already we’re adopted into the family. Already we have been given a right to the family heritage. And what is this heritage? It is to grow into the image of Jesus. It’s a heritage that’s waiting for us, a destiny that we haven’t realized. It’s waiting for the final victory, when Jesus returns to once and for all establish God’s reign in the age to come.
On September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to bring an end to slavery in the southern United States. But the United States was at war with itself. On June 19, 1865, two and half years later, as the last gunshots and cannons were falling silent, slaves in Texas finally learned of their freedom. In some African-American communities in the States this day, Juneteenth as its called, is still celebrated to remember the good news of liberation from race-based slavery.
In some ways, we live waiting for a similar coming-to-pass of something already signed into effect. Our lives aren’t yet conformed to Jesus. We continue to meet situations where love does not seem to be an option. Our bodies and our hearts remind us that sin, fear, selfishness, and even death still reign over us in many ways. But God has shown us--in Jesus’ resurrection--that freedom really is coming. That, yes, we have been delivered. That, yes, we will one day live in love.
Juneteenth celebrates the end of a war, a horrible war that took the lives of six hundred thousand soldiers. It celebrates the liberation that came with the end of that war. We celebrate the end of another war, even as we look forward to the end of all war. This war claimed only one life, the precious life of Jesus, but in winning this war he liberated all people. Paul tells us in vv 13-14 that the Father 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.
This is the foundation, the source, the grounds on which we have a share in this heritage. As the Confession reminds us, Jesus has delivered us “from the dominion of sin and reconciled us to God by humbling himself and becoming obedient unto death on a cross” and also by being “declared to be Son of God with power by his resurrection from the dead.” On the cross all of the powers that exercise their dominion over us--sin, pride, loneliness, fear, prejudice, imperial systems, war machines, even death itself--they flung themselves against Jesus. And Jesus took it, he hung there and took it, refusing to fight back. And in this ultimate act of love, he revoked the legal right sin and death had to rule over us. He wiped away the debt they held over our heads.
The Jewish people in Jesus’ day told a story, a similar story of God’s salvation. In many ways, it points toward God’s ultimate act of deliverance in Jesus. They told it, just as many Jews and Christians continue to do today, every Passover. This is the story of Yahweh rescuing his people from the power that ruled over them--the Egyptian empire. Through judgments poured out on Egypt, through the sacrificial death of sheep and goats, through Yahweh’s mighty breath parting the waters, the Israelites were brought out of the reach of Egypt’s dominion. Then at Sinai, Yahweh transformed them into his own kingdom, a kingdom of priests, and sent them into the Promised Land.
Jesus’s life and teaching and death and resurrection is our exodus story. All of stories begin here. Paul tells the Colossians that God has rescued us from the dominion of darkness. Through Jesus death, sin and death no longer can claim us. They have no right to rule over us, to shape our lives in their image.
Now they may still do so, from time to time. Personally, I know that selfishness, pride, fear, greed, hate, lust--they all assert themselves in me from time to time. But my heart is not their native land. They have no right to be there. I have been rescued by Jesus’ life and death. Socially, we experience evil, we witness injustice. Whether it be violent home situations, prejudices that demean, hyper-sexualize, and marginalize women, or systems that encourage poor work done on the cheap over good work done at a fair price. These things are evil. But they are not at home here. No, Jesus has redeemed this world. Globally, we hear of wars and rumors of wars. We have friends or have heard stories of people forced to flee their towns as refugees. We’ve seen video or read books about people trapped by cycles of poverty in urban slums.
These situations are evidence of evil intruding where it has no right. There is a new creation! In Jesus, God has set the world right. As Paul says later, in chapter 2, vv 13-15, God forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. Sin may have given us into the hands of evil and death, but Jesus’ cross has released us from that debt, canceled it, forgiven it.
Now we have been brought into the reign of God’s beloved Son. Redeemed--“bought back” or “set free from” in the Greek--we no longer serve death but have been freed to live under God’s reign. Like the Israelites at Sinai, we are no longer slaves of this or that death-dealing power. God has brought us out and called us into God’s kingdom, the reign of the Son whom he loves, as some versions put it.
The Gospels tell us that Jesus spent his life announcing that God’s kingdom was arriving. We can hear these stories in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But what fills most of those books are stories of Jesus enacting what God’s reign looks like--healing the sick, feeding the hungry, freeing the demon-oppressed, welcoming the outcast back into society. Jesus showing us what God desires, Jesus showing us life free from the power of sin an death.
Paul, in a slightly different way, prays that the Colossian believers will join Jesus fully in this life. He prays that they will grow up into the new kingdom into which Jesus has delivered them. They need wisdom and understanding to discern what this kingdom will look like in their small town. They need patience and endurance as they seek to work for good. When they world around them and even their own hearts are still so shaped by sin and death, they need even more patience and endurance to thank God for a deliverance that experience so often seems to call into question. But God has already qualified them; God has already given them a right to share in the inheritance of the saints of the past. God has already defeated sin and death and set them free.
Earlier I asked you about where you see God’s kingdom coming in your community. Because we have been delivered, because we and the world along with us are being made new, we know that God’s reign is already starting to break through here and now. As we grow in discipleship, as we become more and more like Jesus, we want to join in welcoming God’s reign. With patience and endurance and thankfulness and, above all, love, we want to carry forward the work Jesus started. We want to follow in his way, to walk as he walked. Jesus is our Exodus. He set us free. Jesus is also our way to the Promised Land.