Today brings us to the second installment of our series, Christ, the Fullness of God, based on the New Testament of Colossians, from which our second lesson is coming over these four weeks.
To even begin to understand today’s second lesson--and I’m only beginning to understand it myself, I confess--we must reckon with the understanding of the Church from which Paul wrote.
You know, in today's world, when people get around to selecting a church community for themselves, they're moved by factors like: "The people are nice." Or, "The preacher's sermons are short." Or, "They've got things for the kids." Or, "They never ask for money." We can be superficial, looking for what's in it for us, looking for a church that won't make waves in our lives.
This would have been totally foreign to Paul! He had a different understanding of Church.
Paul got this understanding from Jesus Himself. It happened in the famous incident recounted in Acts 9, in which Paul, then named Saul and heading for Damascus, seeking to arrest Christians, was overwhelmed by a bright light that blinded him for three days and heard a voice that demanded of him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?”
Saul asked who this was who has driven him to knees in abject helplessness. The voice answered: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
In that moment, one of the many things that Paul learned was this: Whatever impacted the Church impacted the living and risen Christ. The crucified and risen Jesus Christ is one with His Church. His Church is one with Him. And His people are one with each other. If Saul was persecuting the Church, he was also persecuting Christ Himself.
It’s a lesson that Saul, now Paul, learned and taught well.
“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one is a part of it,” Paul would later tell believers in 1 Corinthians 12:27.
And: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” [1 Corinthians 12:26]
Paul understood that through Christ, disciples of Christ are knit together with Christ and with each other. We are one with our King, Jesus, and with all who profess Jesus as Lord.
The verses that come after last Sunday’s second lesson (1 Corinthians 1:1-14) and before today’s, are among the most beautiful in all of Scripture. They were read near the end of this past Tuesday’s installment of Louie Giglio’s Passion films, Colossians 1:15-20.
There, Paul recites an early Christian poem or hymn. He does so because, as you’ll remember from last Sunday, the Colossian Christians were mixing other religions with their Christian faith. But, Paul wants them to remember that Jesus is God and only the God we meet in Jesus is worthy of following.
Read this hymn aloud with me, if you would:
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”The hymn reminds us that through His death on the cross, Jesus, the fullness of God, God on earth, makes peace with all who turn from sin and trust in Him. And He does it not from a distance, but by taking on the limitations of our flesh, taking our place on the cross, the sinless sacrifice for our sin. God won salvation for all who repent and believe in Christ with the sacrifice of His flesh and blood. This is the most eternity-changing truth we will ever encounter.
Yet, Paul has learned that the Colossian Christians are starting to turn from following Jesus, treating Jesus like just another item on a religious menu. They seem to have forgotten Who Christ is or what Christ has done for them. Paul writes to them from prison. Please take a look at our lesson, Colossians 1:21-29.
It begins: “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.”
Years ago, a man came to me in my office. He had made a mess of his life. He drank excessively and used drugs. There were brushes with the law. There were numerous false starts on new careers that only ended with failures. There had been a wife who left him because he couldn’t be relied upon.
It finally dawn on him that maybe he needed God. After our first meeting, I met with him weekly over a period of several months. He started attending worship, then Sunday School. In the meantime, he got a job and started doing well. He met a woman and they became engaged.
Then, as quickly as he showed up at my office, he was gone, off the radar. He didn't answer my phone calls or emails. God had helped him through his rough patch. Things were now going well. God didn’t seem as essential to him any more. He forgot all that Christ had done to redeem him, to make him new, to set his feet on solid ground. He walked away from God.
As our second lesson begins, Paul pleads with the Colossian Christians to not forget all that God had done for them in Christ, not to walk away from Christ!
In His own flesh, Christ had bridged the chasm between God and them, Paul reminds them. To all who repented and believed, Christ had brought new life with God that never ends.
But the Colossian Christians developed what Paul calls elsewhere “itching ears." They were enticed by other religious systems that, unlike Jesus, didn’t tell them to take up their crosses--in other words, to confess their sins and own their need of God--and follow Him.
For anyone who holds onto the futile desire to be gods over their lives, the Gospel can be tough to take. And that includes all of us because all of us have inherited from Adam and Eve a desire to "be like God."
Paul was calling the Colossians to remember the most basic confession of Christian faith: “Jesus is Lord."
Not anyone else.
Not my family.
Not my country.
Only Jesus is Lord.
Only Jesus can make sense of my life.
Only Jesus can give me God’s presence today and life with Him beyond death.
Jesus is Lord!
When things are going well, that’s tough to remember. Paul says, “Never forget!”
Then, Paul writes the most curious part of this passage: “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
There are two things that make these words strange, I think.
First, Paul is rejoicing in suffering. Is he sick? No.
This is the same rejoicing offered up by the very first Christians when facing persecution.
After being dragged before the Sanhedrin, the governing authorities, Acts 5:41 tells us: “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.”
When I first came to faith in Christ at the age of 23, I thought to myself, "Now what?" I believed; now I wanted to know what I needed to be thinking and doing to live out that faith. I knew that the New Testament book of Acts was the history of the Church from the risen Jesus' ascension until about 60 AD. "Maybe," I thought, "I should read Acts to find out how to be a Christian." I remember reading Acts 5:41 in the study of the house we were renting at the time and starting to weep. "Oh, God," I prayed, "give me a faith like that."
Paul was happy that his suffering wasn’t for something wrong he had done, but for his faith in the crucified and risen Jesus. And he was happy too, because his suffering was a witness that pointed others to Christ.
Listen: If people get mad at you for being faithful to Christ, you’re doing something right!
The second reason this passage seems strange is because Paul says: “...I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions…”
It’s important to remember that Paul is not saying that Christ didn’t do everything necessary to win freedom from sin and death for all who repent and believe in Him. Christians don’t have to suffer more than Christ suffered in order to be saved.
In fact, the Greek word for sufferings used by Paul here, παθήμασιν, isn’t even the same word used of Jesus’ passion and death on the cross in the New Testament.
What Paul is saying is that until the day Jesus returns to the earth to raise the dead and bring His kingdom fully into being, Christ’s afflictions will continue to be experienced by His people, the Church.
We who trust in Christ will complete the Church’s story of suffering at the hands of the world for being disciples of Christ who share Him with the disbelieving world. That’s part of our oneness with Christ and with our fellow disciples.
Just as Christ has reached down into our humanity, experiencing everything we experience in order to fully connect with us, take the punishment we deserve, and buy us out of slavery to sin and death to give us eternal life with God, we also connect with Christ in His sufferings as He lifts us up to Himself in heaven.
We share Christ’s suffering in that, as we bear His name, we’re subject to the same rejection that He endured.
But we also have the hope of glory He secured for all who believe in Him when He rose from the dead. That’s what Paul was experiencing while imprisoned.
The blessing that comes when people like Paul live in enduring faith in Christ is that it inspires and upbuilds the Church. It even wins new disciples.
We all remember the execution of Egyptian Christians perpetrated by ISIS last year. Twenty-one people were killed, all of them confessing, “Lord Jesus Christ” as they died. But you’ll also remember that it was later learned that only twenty of the executed had been Coptic Christians before the moments of their deaths. A twenty-first had not been. But, impressed by the faith of the Christians with whom he would die, rather than renouncing them or Christ, he embraced Christ as his Lord. He too died confessing, “Lord Jesus Christ.” This is what happens when we endure in faith. Eternity gets changed. We become one with Christ and with His people, the Church.
Christ lives in all who trust in Him, implanting within them the hope of everlasting glory. Paul closes today’s lesson with words that could serve as the mission statement of every believer: “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, may we who belong to Christ and to each other strenuously, lovingly, and with every ounce of energy Christ gives to us, proclaim Christ, admonishing and teaching each other with God’s wisdom so that we may all become mature followers of Christ, fully prepared to live and share the hope Christ gives to us with everyone we know and meet.
Ready for today.
Ready for eternity.
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This message was shared during both worship services this morning.]