This week the news stories continue to highlight the abusive violence in our communities and has put fear in many hearts. Incidents of abusive violence like those most recently in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas create opportunities for us to live… in our own small way… to live a little differently than we have ever lived before. In the midst of violence in the world around us, we are called to live righteously and model the faith we profess in the power of the Spirit of Jesus. Abusive violence in all of its forms whether toward a child, a spouse, a family, a neighbor, or a stranger stands outside of the Christian faith. Abusive violence has its roots in the sinful nature, and always leads us down the wrong pathway. Addressing the greater issue of violence in our world begins with a simple decision: to follow Jesus who laid down his life that we might be transformed into his likeness in every area of our lives. Let us gather our hearts and minds together to worship God as the One who leads us out of the dominion of darkness and into his wonderful light where all people are transformed to be more like Jesus.
In our Scripture text the Apostle Paul begins his letter to the church at Colossae with prayers & petitions for the church community to be the vibrant people that they are called to become. Paul invites the people into a deepening faith experience. Let us invite God to touch our minds with his cleansing grace, and change our hearts and lives to grow up into all maturity. That God would take the difficult situations in our lives and make something beautiful to be shared with others. Let us pray… O God, your Spirit enables us to bear fruit in our lives. We dedicate the fruits of our labors for the work of your church, as we seek to continually reach out to make disciples for the transformation of the world in Jesus’ name. Amen.
The Scripture says it this way, “For he [Jesus] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1.13-14 CEV). I love how Jesus just grabs us by the scruff of the neck when he talks about his ministry to the people, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. I didn’t come to call righteous people but sinners to change their hearts and lives” (Luke 5.31-32 CEV). In the Kingdom of God where we – you and I – now hold our certificate of citizenship, there is room for every sinner.
In the Kingdom of God everyone is called into an abiding relationship that requires pruning from time to time. Jesus says it this way, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit” (John 15.1-2 CEV). Jesus once told an inspiring story about a fruitless fig tree, “A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none. He said to his gardener, ‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?’ The gardener responded, ‘Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer. Maybe it will produce fruit next year, if not, then you can cut it down’” (Luke 13.6-9 CEV). In the Kingdom of God everyone has the opportunity to be tended to and given time to bear fruit.
Jesus used the language of the common people to communicate the Gospel. He told stories about God through the illustrations of everyday language. It is through what Eugene Peterson in his book entitled Tell it Slant calls a comical expression of manure that Jesus teaches about the slow process of redemption. At first I was both attracted to and repulsed by Peterson’s attention to the manure in the story of the fruitless fig tree. I just couldn’t figure out why he was so interested in the manure under the tree.
Growing up on a farm, cleaning out the manure in the stock barn was a yearly job. Manure was a stinky, dirty mess and working in manure made you an outcast in your community — that is if you hadn’t taken time to clean up before visiting others. Manure is refuse, garbage. It is hauled off. Yet, this dead waste product is teaming with organisms and enzymes that can grow the plants of the earth. It’s the stuff that brings resurrection to lifeless soil and seed. Manure is a slow solution to the growth process and handling manure is a rather stinky and dirty business. It’s not dynamic or glamorous. It’s not admirable or attention getting – at least not positive attention getting. Manure is a slow solution to the growth process. Manure is action-less. It is a somewhat passive response to a situation. It is a quiet, still voice that says …Wait! …Hold on a minute! …Not so fast! Manure is not a quick fix. It has no immediate results. It takes a long time to measure its effects. Manure illustrates how God is not in a hurry. We are often instructed in the Word to wait on God. It has been said that the greatest temptation in our day is impatience – a refusal to wait, undergo, and suffer. Often times we are unwilling to pay the price of traveling on the journey with God and neighbor in creative and profound relationships. One way we can increase our faithful commitment is to read the Word of God.
Today we begin our lectionary series on Colossians for the month of July. Some of you may be unfamiliar with what a lectionary is, or even why the UMC would use a lectionary to guide us in our sermon & worship preparation. The most important purpose is so that we don’t preach our favorite texts, and therefore we gain a balanced diet of reading God’s word over a three-year cycle. It further helps us glean from obscure passages that might not ever come to mind as a valuable Scripture text. Over the next few weeks we will be in Colossians. I want to urge you to read along with us, a chapter a week, and we will make it through the whole letter by the end of the month. Take your time, and mull over the text to really let it take hold of your heart.
The letter to the Colossian community comes to us from Paul and Timothy who are in prison in Rome about mid-first century, and while in prison Paul has gotten wind that a false teaching has been stirred up among the believers at Colossae. Apparently, this heresy is what we might call a philosophy; it was a new teaching that added to the Gospel message. It goes beyond Jesus as the One True Gospel. We might call it the “Jesus and…” message. To believe in Christ is sufficient for all spiritual needs, and he needs no supplements, substitutes or spares. In other words Jesus doesn’t need an “and” added onto his name.
Paul and his young sidekick Timothy join together to compose this letter to the church at Colossae. Paul begins his letter with a blessing from both a Greek tradition of grace and a Hebrew greeting of peace from the One True God. Paul certainly feels like these are his people, and he genuinely prays for them. Paul says he is praying for them unceasingly which may mean as few as three times a day in the Hebrew tradition or extended periods of prayer throughout the day as he and Timothy are, indeed, incarcerated.
Paul highlights the distinctive quality of Christianity that is the self-sacrificial love of Christ lived out in the tangible experiences of others. Paul explicitly mentions the existence of heavenly hope that God is with them in the midst of their circumstances both in life and in death. There is no need to wonder about life after death. The qualities of sacrificial giving of one’s life unto death and eternal hope mean more to the church at this juncture in history because of the persecution they experienced. Paul repeats the word “hope” three times in this first chapter (Col. 1.5, 23, 27), which implies the distinctive quality of Christian hope. The unique qualities of the One True Gospel are the trademark of Christianity that set the church apart from this new false teaching in the church and other religions. By the time Paul writes this letter around 65 A.D. the gospel has spread widely across the known world.
In the letter from Paul to the church at Colossae we catch a glimpse of Epaphras. He was converted under Paul at Ephesus, and most likely founded the Colossian church (Col. 1.7) as well as other churches in the area including Laodicea and Hierapolis (Col. 4.13). It seems from the text that Epaphras was the leading teacher in the community of Colossae as well. Paul shows much affection for Epaphras by calling him a faithful minister, beloved fellow-servant, and a bond servant of Christ Jesus (Col. 1.7, 4.12). To be sure Epaphras was their shepherd and taught the One True Gospel to the people.
The church was taught rightly with the faithfulness of its founder. They received the inward working of the Holy Spirit, and that work had expanded outward and was bearing fruit from the moment they had received the Gospel of Good News of Jesus Christ. They had come to know not by developing a knowledge but by believing in the unmerited and undeserved favor of God. The reception of this great love was not by what one would call “individual sympathy” nor “personal acquaintance” but by the influence of the Holy Spirit.
Paul offers up a prayer asking God alone – personally requesting for those in the house church to be filled by God and from God with the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul points to the dynamic characteristics of the Spirit-filled Christian. As Paul prays he points the need to behold God’s knowledge in Scripture and not vain philosophy. Paul desires for the people to possess the wisdom of God with intellectual distinction, the mind of Christ. We are to behold the knowledge of God’s will and apply it to our lives in our daily situations. We are to grasp an understanding, or insights, as we put together information and draw conclusions. We see relationships as only the Holy Spirit can reveal.
Paul uses the Hebrew concept of “walking about” from the root word “halak” which was traditionally used to point people to evaluate how they conducted their daily life, which was intended to be aimed at producing results. Paul actually uses “walk” four times in this letter (Col. 1.10, 2.6, 3.7, 4.5). What pleases God, according to Paul, is for us to be so in-tune with the work of the Holy Spirit within us and around us that we become a pleasing offering unto the Lord. The word “pleasing” implies that we would do anything asked of us – unreservedly to please God. Fruit-bearing becomes a continuous exercise and giving fruit away as a way of life. What nurtures us – our fertilizer – is the personal relationship with the God Almighty.
Paul prays for the qualities necessary for this fledgling community to possess the qualities necessary to produce a holy lifestyle including patience and long-suffering. We just heard Paul talk about fruit-bearing with the Galatians. Here again Paul is emphasizing that a Christian community will be known by the fruit that it bears as to whether or not it has gotten caught up in the cultural, social, or economic philosophies and current religious trends of the day.
Recall with me the fruit of the spirit. The first set of three fruits are love, joy, and peace, which are poured out into our spirits so we can learn to love ourselves. Sins steal our peace, rob us of joy, and diminish our love for ourselves. The next three fruits include patience, kindness, and goodness, which enable us to love others better. The last three fruits enabled us to not live selfishly, but love God more than ourselves in faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We know our purpose and aim is to …love the Lord your God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. Then we are to love our neighbor as our self.
For the church to experience the fruit-bearing they need the dynamite power of Almighty God but not for the sole-purpose of acquiring economic gain, incurring political stature, or social influence in the community. God gave them to the dynamite power of the Holy Spirit so that each one would be able to overcome fleshly temptations, physical suffering, deceitful education, and the like. Paul and Timothy write with the image of God’s people wandering between where they used to be in Egypt and where they are heading into the Promised Land. In this in-between time the church has come upon some difficulties and they need a fresh word to guide them. Paul wants his church to understand that they used to live in the dominion of darkness (Egypt), the sphere of influence ruled by demonic powers. But now they are called to live into the fullness of the Holy Spirit.
Paul concludes this great thanksgiving and prayer as a word of encouragement, exhortation, teaching, and intercessory prayer for his people. His desire is for his people to live into the reality of their inheritance in the Kingdom of God. He inspires the listener to remember that they are no longer under the control of the Kingdom of Darkness, but they have been transplanted into the Kingdom of the beloved Son. They Greek language here implies that we have been bought with a price like a slave and deported from a country that we no longer have a residence in, and given a new residence. We were once bound in sins dark night, but we no longer reside in that place. We are collectively rescued and delivered for freedom to live unhindered by sin and death. We have a new citizenship with the expectation that we are to live a life wholly devoted to Jesus Christ. Will you join me?
Arnold, Clinton. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Colossians. Zondervan: Grand Rapids. 2002. 73-105.
Boring, M. Eugene & Craddock, Fred B. The People’s New Testament Commentary: Colossians. John Knox Press: Louisville. 2004. 624-634
Rienecker, Fritz & Rogers, Cleon. Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament. Colossians. Zondervan: Grand Rapids. 1980. 564-585.