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.

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