Sunday, July 24, 2016

Back to the Basics

Colossians 1:6-19
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 hit the ball without making an out almost 34% of the time he was at bat. (By comparison, the average major leaguer hits the ball 25% of the time.) As 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? Gwynn may have been naturally gifted as a hitter, of course.

But I think I learned the real reason for Gwynn’s success as a hitter during game a few years back, when a commentator was recalling Gwynn's career. The commentator said that every single day, on top of team batting practice, Tony Gwynn watched video of his at bats from the day 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.

Tony Gwynn was one of the best ever because 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.

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. It was written because the apostle Paul had gotten disturbing reports that the Christians there were starting to pursue a fake Christianity. We don’t know everything about this counterfeit religion. But it seems to have said that, besides faith in Jesus, believers needed to keep the right diet, pay attention to what their horoscope said, be circumcised if they were male, observe certain festivals, and maybe, worship angels, and have visions. It was a mashup of mysticism, superstition, and Jesus thrown in for good measure.

Of course, Paul was horrified.

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.

Acts 4:12 puts it simply: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

The most basic fact of Christian faith is that life, true life, abundant life, life with God, comes from Jesus Christ alone. You may remember that there was a whole Reformation based precisely on that truth.

If we fail to root and build our lives on that reality, our lesson from Colossians tells us today, not only can we not grow as disciples, we risk veering away from God and from eternity with Christ altogether, as surely as a major leaguer risks veering off into mediocrity by failing to attend to the basics.

“So then,” Paul says at the beginning of our second lesson, Colossians 2:6-15, “just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”

Earlier in their letter, Paul 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 lesson, those ideas are carried forward. Paul says in verse 10, that “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” Christ is truly God, truly human, carrying God's redemption for a fallen humanity that turns to Him in repentance and faith.

And Paul says that Jesus “is the head over every power and authority.”

Then Paul makes a basic statement of Christian belief that, even though basic, is, at the same time, amazing. Verses 11 and 12 :
In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
Circumcision, of course, was the Jewish rite of initiation for male babies. In Jewish tradition, at eight days old, boys were circumcised, a piece of skin lopped from their bodies. This is important: Christians undergo a kind of circumcision; at baptism, the old self is drowned so that the new self can live forever with Jesus Christ.*

Paul talks about this very issue 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.”

Martin Luther talks about this same subject when in The Small Catechism, he talks about the significance of Holy Baptism for daily life:
[Baptism] 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 pushes the Colossian Christians to go back to the basics, he reminds them of two important things.

First, he focuses on the amazing fact that in Baptism, Christ shares His cross and resurrection with us. In Holy 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!

What gets lost in the shuffle of a fearful, apprehensive age is that we live in an age of miracles and wonders. Our daughter Sarah was recently talking with some friends about the heart attack I had six years ago. I had a 100% blockage of the left anterior descending artery.

I'll never forget the day I underwent a catheterization after the heart attack. It was cool because they kept me awake the whole time. I remember talking about baseball and music with the doctor, nurses, and attendants during the procedure.

At one point, the doctor said, "I've found the blockage. I don't know if I can get through." "Please, God, grant that he's able to get through," I prayed aloud. "I got through, buddy," the cardiologist told me. "Thank God and thank you," I said to the doctor. "No," he responded, "just thank God." He knew that it's God Who provides to dedicated minds and hearts the treatments that make a difference in so many people's lives these days.

Years before, this particular attack--called “the widowmaker”--would have meant certain death for me. Technology and medications lifted that death sentence from me. 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?

Folks, that's the epitome, the very definition, of awesome!

There's nothing awesomer!**

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, to “tremble, tremble, tremble.”

Don’t get sidetracked, Paul is saying. Remain focused on this basic truth: Christ has shared the victory of His cross with us at Baptism.

And He will keep sharing that victory with us as we return to Him daily. That’s the first thing that Paul wanted the Colossian Christians to remember.

Here’s the second thing Paul wanted the Colossians to remember: The gift of life with God through Christ is free. But we keep it only by maintaining, as Paul puts it in Colossians 2:19, their “connection with the head [that is, with Christ], from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.”

Just as a baseball player can’t grow unless he or she goes back to the basics; just as a tree won't grow unless it has the basics of water, sun, and nutrients met, we cannot grow as people or as disciples unless we remain rooted in Jesus, the only One Who can give us life!

Maintaining our connection to Christ means consciously, each day, lopping off any trust we might put in the world and its supposed wisdom and instead trust 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. In Baptism, God claimed me as His own.

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, be willing to trust in Him, and remain connected to the One Who shares His resurrection victory with us.

In Mark 16:16, Jesus says: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” In Baptism, the amazing love and grace of God in Christ comes to us in an earthy way, in the most common of earthly elements, water.

This echoes the earthy entrance of God into the world as a baby, as a human being who bore our greatest burdens and death itself in order to set free from sin, death, and darkness all who trust in Him.

But the question each day puts before us—at work, at home, in our daily decisions—is whether we’re remaining connected to Christ.

Are we believing in Him?

Are we trusting in Him?

Or are we trusting in ourselves?

Or the latest psychological theory or political celebrity?

It’s not only our salvation, but our growth as human beings and as disciples that rests on our choice from moment to moment each day: Do I trust in Christ or do I trust in the world? It’s as basic as that.

Choose Christ!

*Because baptism is an analog of circumcision, this is one more argument for the validity of infant baptism, by the way.

**To coin a new word.

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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