Sunday, July 25, 2010

Staying Rooted in the Basics

[This was prepared for worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Colossians 2:6-15
One of the best hitters in the history of Major League Baseball was Tony Gwynn, Sr. of the San Diego Padres. In a twenty year career, he got 3141 hits and compiled a .338 batting average, meaning that he got hits almost 34% of the time he was at bat. (The average major leaguer hits the ball just 25% of the time.) As the baseball people would say, “Tony Gwynn could flat-out hit.”

Of course, every major league batter tries to hit the ball and all would like to be able to do it as often as Tony Gwynn did during his career. So, why don’t they? Well, not everybody may be as talented as Tony Gwynn was, of course. But I think I learned the real reason for Gwynn’s success as a hitter during a game I watched in his last season. A commentator said that every single day, on top of team batting practice, Tony Gwynn watched video of his at bats from the days before. With bat in hand, he analyzed his swings, correcting what he had done wrong, and reminding himself of the right way to swing a baseball bat. In short, Tony Gwynn’s success as a major league hitter came down to this: He always went back to the basics. He realized that if he didn’t get the basics right and build on them, his whole game would go nowhere. So, before every one of his 2440 games, Tony Gwynn schooled himself on the basics of hitting. That’s how he became one of the greatest players of all time.

In a way, the New Testament letter to the first century Christian church in the Asia Minor town of Colossae was a call to get back to the basics of Christian faith. That’s because the apostle Paul and his assistant Timothy had gotten disturbing reports that the Christians there were starting to hear from people selling a fake Christianity. We don’t know exactly what it was these people were selling. But it seems that they were telling the Colossian church that Jesus and His cross were OK, but that to be truly acceptable to God, they also needed to keep the right diet, be circumcised if they were male, observe certain festivals, and maybe, worship angels, have visions, and, as Paul and Timothy put it, get “puffed up by a human way of thinking.”

These enemies of the Gospel were commending what Martin Luther once condemned as “Christ and” theology. Salvation, they claimed, came from “Christ and abiding by certain rules, by worshiping angels, or keeping special feast days.” In Jesus Christ, God has revealed that there is but one way to reconciliation with God, one way to freedom from sin and death, and one way to personal wholeness. That one way is through Jesus Christ and our faith in Christ alone. In the New Testament book of Acts, Peter and John said of Jesus, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” And Jesus Himself, after affirming that God had sent Him into the world so that all who believe (or trust) in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life, referred to Himself in the third person and said, “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

The most basic fact of Christian faith and of life itself is that life, true life, abundant life, life with God, comes from Jesus Christ alone. If we fail to root and build our lives on that reality, our lesson from Colossians tells us today, we risk veering away from God and from eternity with Christ as surely as a major leaguer risks veering off into mediocrity by failing to attend to the basics. “As you…have received Christ Jesus the Lord,” it says, “continue to live your lives in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

Already, earlier in their letter, Paul and Timothy had taken great pains to remind the Colossian Christians of Who Jesus is and how all their hope for life, purpose, hope, and eternity reside in Him. In today’s lessons, those ideas are carried forward. Paul and Timothy say that, “in [Jesus] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” They say that Jesus “is the head of every ruler and authority.” And then they make a basic statement of Christian belief that, even though basic, is, at the same time, amazing. Please be patient here, close your eyes, and try to hear what they write with fresh ears. Listen:
In [Jesus] also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands.
Circumcision, of course, was the Jewish rite of initiation for male babies. At eight days old, they were circumcised, a piece of skin lopped from their bodies. Christians undergo a circumcision; at baptism, the old self is drowned so that the new self can live forever with Jesus Christ. Paul talks about that in the New Testament book of Romans when he says, “we have been buried with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Luther talks about this same subject when, in The Small Catechism, he tells what Baptism means for daily life: “It means that our sinful self, with all its evil deeds and desires, should be drowned through daily repentance; and that day after day a new self should arise to live with God in righteousness and purity forever.”

So, as Paul and Timothy push the Colossian Christians to go back to the basics, they remind them of two important things. First, they focus on the amazing fact that in Baptism, Christ shares His cross and resurrection with us. In Baptism, our old selves die and our new selves rise to live with Jesus forever. That fact ought to have an impact on us! We ought to be in awe of it!

At the McConnell Center in Riverside Hospital a few weeks ago, I lay on the table where my cardiologist had just finished implanting a stent in my heart. “I hope that none of you ever lose the sense of awe at what you’re allowed to do in this procedure,” I told the doctor and the five assistants then in the room with us. “It’s incredible!”

What I was urging them to do relative to heart catheterization was to always remember the basic fact that, in this procedure, they were giving people new leases on their lives. I would probably be dead without it. That’s awesome!

But how much more awesome is it that the King of the universe, the Maker of all creation, has come into our world to be one of us, has died to erase sin’s power over us and risen to give new life to fallen humanity? Not just the cross and the empty tomb, but the baptismal font where we actually share in Christ’s victory over sin and death, ought to cause us in the words of the old spiritual, “tremble, tremble, tremble.” That’s the first thing that Paul and Timothy wanted the Colossian Christians to remember.

Here’s the second thing they wanted the Colossians to remember: The gift of life with God through Christ is free. But we keep it only by, as our lesson puts it, “holding fast to the head [that is, to Jesus, the King of the universe], from whom the whole body [that’s we in Christ’s Church].”

Holding fast to Christ means consciously, each day, lopping off any trust we might put in the world and its supposed wisdom, even if that alleged wisdom comes from pastors, bishops, and theologians with miles of letters after their names, and instead trusting in Christ alone.

I thank God that my parents had me baptized as an infant; there at the font, God made His commitment to me. But I can tell you that had I died when I was nineteen years old, a time when I denied God’s existence and turned my back on Christ, I would have gone to hell. Christ never tires of extending His hand to us, offering forgiveness and life to the repentant. But we, in turn, in the strength of the Holy Spirit must grasp that hand, trust in Him to the extent we’re able, and hold fast to the One Who shares His resurrection victory with us.

Tryg Skarsten was one of my professors at seminary. He once told about taking an extended flight, on which he was seated next to a friendly couple. They asked Tryg about his work and Tryg told them that he was a Lutheran pastor who taught at a seminary. “How about that?” the man said. “I was baptized in the Lutheran Church.” Tryg and the couple talked for a long time. As they did, it became evident to Tryg that this couple had no connection with Christ or the Church. He felt compelled to make them an offer, “You seem like wonderful people. I wonder if you would like to pray with me to invite Jesus Christ to be your Lord and Savior?” The man became incensed. “I told you I was baptized Lutheran, didn’t I?” What the Holy Spirit led Tryg to see though, was that while the man and his wife were baptized, they weren’t following Christ. God had done all through cross, tomb, and font, but they weren’t holding fast to Christ. That, say Paul and Timothy in today’s second lesson, is what we all need to do.

Mark’s Gospel quotes the risen Jesus as saying, “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.” In Baptism, the amazing love and grace of God in Christ comes to us. But the question each day puts before us—at work, at home, in our daily decisions—is whether we’re holding onto Christ. Are we believing in Him? Are we trusting in Him? All eternity hangs on our answer to that question and if we want to say, “Yes,” the God Who understands our weakness, will help us hold on tight to Jesus today and eternally. Amen!

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