Tuesday, July 10, 2012

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.

However, before we turn our attention completely to Paul’s letter, I want to look again at our Confession. What does The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective remind us about church?

In Article 9 on “The Church of Jesus Christ” we can hear
We believe that the church is the assembly of those who have accepted God’s offer of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. It is the new community of disciples sent into the world to proclaim the reign of God and to provide a foretaste of the church’s glorious hope. It is the new society established by the Holy Spirit.
We say that we believe at least three things about the church: First we believe it is an assembly of those who’ve accepted God’s offer. Church, in other words, is where our Yes to God inevitably leads us. Last week I began to tell my story about how I decided to follow Jesus. Early on in this journey, I felt like I was doing something completely private, totally personal. This was my choice about my destiny in heaven or hell after I died. But as I’ve walked a bit further with Jesus, I’ve found that those first prayers have led me into a caravan of fellow travelers headed the same directions. Their Yeses to God and my Yes to God and your Yes to God have led us together.

Second, we believe that the church is a new community of disciples who have been sent into the world. I return over and over again to the first few pages of Mark’s Gospel. In Mark chapter one, Jesus is baptized, tested in the desert, and sent out to proclaim the good news about God’s kingdom. The next thing the narrator tells us is that Jesus encounters two brothers, Peter and Andrew, while he’s walking along the lakeshore. In v 17, Jesus interrupts their employment and invites them: “Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people.” Immediately they abandon their livelihood to go along with him. This, our Confession tells us, is what church is about. In this early and important scene in Mark’s story, we hear of the first instance of Christian community, the first instance of Christian discipleship, and the first indication of Christian mission. Church is that kind of community: we are a family who follows Jesus and seeks to bring other people into God’s salvation work.

Finally, we believe that the church is not simply a book club or a group of citizens united around a common concern; no, we believe the church is a new society established and sustained by God’s Spirit. When Cindy and I moved into our new apartment a few weeks ago, I spent a lot of time organizing my bookshelves. As I unpacked the boxes, I sorted out books by their subjects--I have a shelf of commentaries, a shelf of Christian ethics, a shelf of science fiction. The books on any given shelf don’t do much together. They just sit, lined up, cover-to-cover next to each other because they all happen to be about the same thing. We might be tempted to think of the church in the same way: that mostly we just sit beside one another in the pews because we all happen to have decided to follow Jesus. But our Confession, and Scripture too, insists that church is more about the new ways we treat on another and the world around us than it is about sitting in a pew--or even standing behind a pulpit--one morning a week.

The Spirit teaches us and empowers us to relate to one another in love. This is the goal of all Paul’s instructions to the Colossian believers--though we won’t talk about that fully for another few weeks. More than our common interest in Jesus, more than our common worship of God, it is our rejection of sin-and-death-shaped hierarchies and embrace of Christ-like mutual care, hospitality, and holiness that mark us out as the church. It’s like family. Simply sharing a last name or some genetic material doesn’t count for a lot in making a group of people a family. We’re family when we share meals together, when we celebrate and grieve together, when exercise discipline and extend forgiveness.

Our Confession helps begin to answer our first question about what the church is. But even if we could write a book on a definition of the church, we still have two other questions-- and probably the two more important questions: Why is the church important? and, How does the church fit in our lives?

I’ve heard it said that it’s one thing to know what something is, and it’s another altogether to know how to use it. I feel like we could say something similar about church: It’s one thing to know what the church is; it’s another thing altogether to know how it fits into our lives, or how our lives fit into it.

It’s on these last two questions that Paul’s letter to the Colossian believers offers us some insight. Open your Bibles again to Col 1.15-23. We’ll look first to what Paul says through the poetry of vv 15 through 20, then later we’ll return to his exhortation in vv 21 through 23. Listen with me, starting in v 15, to this hymn Paul sends to the confused church in Colossae:

The Son is the image of the unseen God, the firstborn over everything that was created, with the result that everything that was created--in the heavens and on earth, things seen and unseen--was created by him--whether they be enthroned powers or bearers of dominion or authorities or officials--each one has been created by him and for his purposes. He was the one before all things, and all things hold together in him; and he is the head of the body, which is the church; he is the one who is the true origin, firstborn from among the dead, so that among all things he might be the one who holds highest rank, because the whole Fullness saw fit to dwell in him, and by him, to reconcile all things to him, by making peace by the blood shed shed on his cross--to reconcile them by him, whether they be things on earth or things in the heavens. (my translation)

This may not seem to be quite the passage to turn to when we have questions about the church. Last week I said that all our stories begin in the salvation Jesus has won for us; this passage today may seem to be sounding that same refrain: Jesus is the beginning, Jesus is the end goal, everything is about Jesus.

However, I’m convinced that this is precisely where we need to start when we talk about the importance and the place of the church. If all of our stories begin with Jesus, then the story of church most certainly begins with Jesus as well. Paul shows us this: if you looks for the word “church” in this passage, you find it only once, at the middle in v 18. In the rest of the passage that surrounds this lone reference, Paul writes only of Jesus, stressing over and over his great role and his great position in making the world and then re-making it right with God. I think this is the point: The church’s place is in the heart of God’s project of making the world right, and our gatherings and life together derive all of their importance from their participation in this project that Jesus announced.

There’s a sermon illustration that pastors love to use--I think I’ve heard it at least two or three times in one setting or another. It runs that there was a big merchant ship (or sometimes a Navy battlecruiser, it depends who’s telling the story) out on the ocean at night. One of the crew sees a bright light headed directly for them, so he tells the captain. The captain hails the other vessel over the radio. The captain asks the other vessel to change its course so they won’t collide. The other vessel, much to his surprise, says, no, we won’t change our course. The captain get angry, shouting that he’s been a captain for however many years, that his ship is so important, that the other vessel had better change its course. The reply comes back: “I’m not a captain. This is my first week on the job. But I will not change course. This is a lighthouse.”

I’ve heard pastors draw all sorts of lessons out of this story, about authority and humility and heeding God’s word. But today, I want you to picture the young person manning the lighthouse. I imagine him awkward and gangly, probably fresh out of high school, willing to work any job that will help pay the rent. Picture him earlier that day, waking up mid-morning, digging through piles of laundry to find something clean to wear, eating his Ramen noodles for lunch, probably playing video gams or surfing the Internet. He doesn’t look all that important in and of himself, does he? Pretty ordinary, pretty immature. I might not even trust him for accurate directions if I stopped him on the street. Even in his lighthouse keeper uniform, he doesn’t look that impressive.

It’s only when he’s involved in his work--the work of keeping ships off the rocks--that he becomes important. Only then would an experienced captain listen to him. This, I think, is a decent picture how the church is important. It’s only when we’re involved in the larger project God has set for us--welcoming God’s kingdom, testifying to how God’s saved us in Jesus--only then is church important. We’re like a nail in one of the roof trusses: If you take a hammer and pull us out we’re no different from all the other nails left in the bin at the hardware store. You can buy a pound for a couple dollars. But when we’re doing our job, we help hold up the roof.

This is why I keep returning to God’s mission, the salvation of the world accomplished in Jesus. It’s only in this context that everything--church included--begins to take its proper place. Jesus, it turns out, sets the world in proper order and puts it in right perspective.

Paul communicates this to us in vv 15-20. Listen to how he begins in vv 15-16: The Son is the image of the unseen God, the firstborn over everything that was created, with the result that everything that was created . . . was created by him. This statement might puzzle us. Jesus of Nazareth was born in the heyday of the Roman Empire, by any account thousands of years after God created the heavens and the earth. But here Paul says that everything that was created--in the heavens and on earth, things seen and unseen--was created by him.

Christians have often turned to this first chapter of Colossians as a source for their theology of who Jesus is and of how he relates to the God of the Israelites. This text certainly sounds theological. It’s one of the places in Scripture where we root our doctrines of the Trinity and of the Incarnation.

Paul tells us in this hymn--because this passage in vv 15-20 bears the marks of Greek poetry--that in Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, Yahweh the God of Israel and God of the universe, was present with us. This presence was no mere spiritual inspiration, as with the prophets and seers; it was not merely spiritual empowerment, like when Yahweh’s spirit would fill the warrior judges and kings of old to deliver his people. No, in Jesus, God was living and acting among us; God was present with us as a human person.

However Paul says more than just that Jesus was God incarnate. Paul claims that the presence of God we know through the life of the Messiah was already present and active in the creation of the world.

Jewish philosophers and Bible scholars in Paul’s day speculated about this kind of mysterious presence of God alongside Yahweh God during the creation of the world. They read Proverbs 8, where Wisdom personified calls out for people to listen to her. In 8.22 she says, “Yahweh brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning when the world came to be.” She goes on to say, “When there were no oceans, I was given birth, when there were no springs abounding with water . . . I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep . . . Then I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence.” 

While these words may have started out as adages, showing the wisdom and skill with which Yahweh ordered all the world, those who meditated and reflected on this text soon began to see something more in them. Their ruminations show up in writings like the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach, books popular with Christians in Paul’s day, but books that didn’t quite make the cut for our Protestant bibles. The Jewish scholars wondered if Wisdom herself might be a mediator, an extension of God, a divine go-between through which Yahweh created the heavens and the earth.

Stoic philosophers from Greece had a similar idea. They believed that the world was held in order by Logos, a spiritual or even divine logic present in Nature. This philosophy might sound a bit less foreign to us. We’re familiar with science. We’re familiar with the logic that runs our computers. We’re familiar with the bureaucratic order that governs many of our social institutions. We know that these things can at times seem to take on a life of their own. If we’re reflective, we can even see a kind of logic or order in nature: the cycle of seasons, the rhythms of birth and reproduction and death, even the mysterious order of the nucleotides that comprise our genetic code.

Paul takes these traditions and transforms then when he says the Messianic Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, is that wisdom, that logic which puts every thing that has been created in its proper place. That’s his point in these verses. 

He then specifies that Christ gives order even to things unseen, whether they be enthroned powers or bearers of dominion or authorities or officials. Christ is creator even of things superhuman, the one who fashioned them and the one who says what purposes they ultimately serve. The believers in Colossae were being drawn away by false teachers who set up other authorities and powers as ultimately authoritative. These are the “thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers” that Paul names. These seductive false teachers pointed to the planets and the celestial beings they represented to the first century mind, and they insisted that these were the forces that shaped life in Colossae.

We’re often tempted to do the same today. Maybe we don’t turn to the newspaper horoscopes, but we do allow other absolutes to shape our lives. Most often, I see people looking to the logic of the unemployment rate. As soon as kids begin to walk, we’re conditioning them to work hard in school and university so they can succeed and find a good career rather than face the terror of unemployment. Other times we look to our savings accounts, our real estate, our net worth. We bend to a logic of getting ahead and order our lives around the single goal of accumulating enough to retire well. We see everything as either a tool or a hindrance to that end. For some, it’s family that tells us who we are and what the world means for us. All we want is to live up to our parents’ expectations; all we want is to give our children a good life. It can even be religion. We look to our holy book or our esteemed spiritual leader to spell out clearly what is good and bad, right and wrong, and never listen for the Spirit or ask what it means to follow Jesus here and now.

Paul says that all these seeming absolutes will fail us if we blindly obey them. We will be like a blindfolded soldier, marching when when our commanding officer says march, shooting whenever he says shoot, never seeing that we’re headed toward a cliff, never seeing who our bullets hit in the big picture.

Christ Jesus, according to Paul, is the bigger picture. Paul continues in v 17, He was the one before all things, and all things hold together in him. God in Christ, the one whom Christians name as the Second Person of the Trinity, gave order to the world at creation. Out of the murky and tumultuous void, God in Christ crafted an ordered world, a good world. And that same presence of God even now preserves that order.

I have friends with three children all under the age of six. They work hard to bring their home into order, cleaning, putting away toys, cooking good food. But the moment they turn their backs, the kids leave dirty footprints, scatter toys across the floor, and somehow manage to get food ground into the carpet, the furniture, and in their hair. That’s life as we know it, order spinning out into chaos, a good creation cast into rebellion by our sin.

But Christ, according to Paul, pushes in the opposite direction. He manages the flow of chaos, keeping our molecules together and the seasons in order. He--definitely not the celestial powers or market forces--keeps even a world at war spinning on as it should.

At this point, you may be scratching your head, asking, “Josh, what does this have to do with how the church fits in?” I haven’t forgotten our questions this morning. It turns out that Christ Jesus’ role as the wise logic of creation has everything to do with where church fits in. Church will only make sense to us if we see it within the bigger picture of what God is doing in Jesus.

Verse 18 is the center of this hymn. Paul has been exulting over Jesus as the revelation of God’s wisdom in creation; now in this verse he begins to explain how Jesus also restores proper order to the world where sin and death war against him. And he begins this second stanza with these words: He is the head of the body, which is the church.

This line sticks out. If we were singing this hymn, this line about Jesus’ relationship to the church would be the dissonant notes, they would sound a bit out of place. It’s as if we’ve been looking at pictures of galaxies and stars and the Earth from space, and suddenly there’s a photo of the congregation of Warman Mennonite Church stuck into the album. It’s a nice picture, but it feels a bit out of place.

Paul shows us why he suddenly shifts our attention to the local congregation in his next words in v 18: he is the one who is the true origin, firstborn from among the dead, so that among all things he might be the one who holds highest rank.
We know quite well that the competing logics that we let rule our lives are not good for us. We’re anxious about money. We’re dissatisfied in our jobs. We feel ashamed at family gatherings or we’re afraid that we’ve let down our kids. We have headaches, ulcers, heart attacks because of the stress. We’re anxious and depressed. We feel steadily driven toward death.

Paul speaks to us here, just like he spoke to the Colossian believers whose astrological spirituality was ruining their lives. Paul tells us that the true origin, the one who originally in the beginning set the world in order and called it good, that one, Christ Jesus, has defeated the power of death. He died and yet he lives again. And in the same way that he has put death back in its weak and beggarly place, he’s putting everything else back in order as well.

In v 20 Paul calls this Christ’s work of “reconciling all things to himself.” In Jesus, God chose to enter a world that had thrown off its Christ-given order. In Jesus, God chose to bear in his body the violence of this world in rebellion--its poverty, its prejudice, its military rulers and political executions, its sin and ultimately its death. But by shedding his own blood on the cross, Jesus made a way for peace. He commenced the work of bringing the world back into the good order that he had intended from the very beginning.

Hopefully at this point the dissonance sounded by Paul’s mention of local congregations begins to resolve, to become an important part of a new melodic line. If we are going to experience this reconciliation, it’s most likely to be in one context: the church. Hopefully, in a world run by other values and systems, our life together as a church is one place where we can live life according to the logic of Christ Jesus.

The church is the assembly Jesus called together, the community that seeks to follow him, a society patterned after his life. We’re connected to him, like a body to its head. His is the mind directing our actions, he is the source giving us his Spirit of life. If God’s project of reconciliation, the great endeavor to make the world right again, is to succeed, it needs hands and feet--our hands and feet--to carry it forward. This is where the church fits and where our lives must fit into it. This is why church is important.

I want to close with just a few words about what this means in our lives and what Paul hoped this would mean for the believers in Colossae. In vv 21 through the first part of 23, Paul urges the believers not to walk away from Christ Jesus’ great work of reconciliation. Other powers, other stories temptingly seem to make better sense of the world. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to love unconditionally. It doesn’t seem to make sense to pray and act for peace in a world of endless violence. But Paul pleads, “Stand firm!”

He begins in v 21,
Once you were estranged from God and enemies in your minds because of your evil works, but now he has made reconciliation by his physical body through death to present you before God holy and without fault and blameless, if indeed you persist in the faith, established and firm, without shifting from the hope of the good news which you heard.
It’s so easy to wander off, to start seeing our lives, even our church, through the rules laid down by the very death-dealing systems and powers Jesus died to free us from. But stubbornly, persistently, we need to remember that the world was made and made new but Christ Jesus-- Christ Jesus who depended on God rather than a bank account, Christ Jesus who befriended the leper and tax collector rather than court social favor, Christ Jesus who submitted to the cross rather than return evil for evil. These behaviors, this lifestyle that seems entirely unreasonable is now the reason, the logic of the cosmos. In him all things are being reconciled, and we, together as a church, must persist in taking part in this work of reconciliation.

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