A woman with whom I was once briefly acquainted told me that she worshiped at her church every Sunday. She loved what she called “the inspiring sermons” given by her pastor each week and, though she never got involved with the church, thought that the people there were friendly enough. “I’m a Christian,” she told me.
But one of the first things she ever asked me was when my birthday was and when I told her she said, “Oh. So, you’re a Scorpio. Interesting.” I didn’t know the woman very well, so I didn’t pursue the subject. But what I found interesting--horrifying, really--is how she could consider herself a Christian and, at the same time, put any stock in astrology.
I was certain that her mixing of belief systems was what lay behind what, over time I could see, was her vapid, meaningless Christian faith.
We live in an age in many people, like that woman, strive to mix belief systems so that they can have the version of God they want to have. Or, the version of religion that leaves them with no God.
This phenomenon is nothing new. It’s what scholars call syncretism. It all seems so open-minded, doesn’t it, taking one from column A, one from column B, add a dash of this and that?
The problem for Christians, of course, is that the One we confess as God in the flesh, Jesus, has insisted that He is the only way to life or truth or God. Jesus even insists that it’s only through Him that we have the power to live lives of love and purpose.
The issues raised by that woman are precisely the issues engaged in the short New Testament letter, Colossians, that we’re going to be considering today and over the next three weeks.
Colossae was a town in Asia Minor, roughly today’s Turkey, located about 100 miles southeast of the more well-known Ephesus. Unlike the Galatian Christians, who thought that they needed to add adherence to Old Testament law to their faith in Christ, and to whom the apostle Paul wrote maybe twenty years before he wrote this letter, the Colossians Christians, were mixers and matchers of all manner of idol worship and religious practices.
Because of this syncretism, the faith of the Colossians Christians was quickly devolving into a Christianity without Jesus. We’ve seen this sort of thing, haven’t we? Churches in which members confess Jesus as Lord in their creeds while dismissing Jesus as only a good man, the Bible as only a book, or the Gospel as just one way to God?
Many of today's Christians, like the Colossian Christians to whom Paul wrote, are often syncretistic. Paul wrote the Colossian Christians for two reasons:
- (1) To point to Jesus, the fullness of God, the only God, the only way to God.
- (2) To call the Colossians to live the kinds of lives of love and passionate engagement with the world that only Jesus can set loose in us.
The world needs love, for sure. The sad events of this past week in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Texas confirm that.
And Jesus Christ is the only certain source of love. That’s what Paul wants us to know.
Take a look at our lesson, Colossians 1:1-14, please.
After greeting the Christians at Colossae on behalf of Timothy, his young assistant, Paul says beginning in verse 3: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people— the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel that has come to you.”
Notice that here, Paul uses three key words: faith, hope, and love. This is not the only time that Paul has spoken of faith, hope, and love, you know. In 1 Corinthians 13, what's often called "the love chapter," Paul concludes, saying: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
But what did Paul mean by those words faith, hope, and love? And what is Paul telling us in today’s lesson about those three things that might be different from what he wrote to the 1 Corinthians?
Faith, of course, is trust in God. Christian faith isn’t a philosophical proposition, it’s a relational term. As Christians, our faith is in a personal being, the God we know in Jesus.
When we have faith in--believe in--Jesus, we trust in Him in all the ways Scripture refer to God. Jesus is our rock, our redeemer, our Lord, our Savior, and our King, among other things.
We trust that whatever Jesus leads us through, no matter how hard, as long as He is leading, it’s OK. Through Jesus, we follow God into eternity.
We trust that He forgives our sins, helps us face things we could never face in our own strength, and helps us see the light of God’s love even when the world has gone dark.
Love isn’t necessarily having great feelings about somebody. As I’ve said before, it’s impossible for me to imagine that as He suffered on the cross, Jesus had sentimental feelings about the people who taunted Him, spat at Him, mocked Him, and crucified Him. But He loved them. Love is what motivated Jesus to die on the cross for us.
He exhibited it even as He was drawing His dying breaths. Ge prayed for those who murdered Him. (Let that one sink in for a moment!) “Father, forgive them,” Jesus prayed from the cross, “for they do not do what they are doing.”
Love is the commitment to do and be the best for God and others, even when we don’t feel like it.
Hope is the most important thing that Paul talks about in these opening verses of Colossians.
Paul isn’t talking about hope the way we do when we say things like, "I hope it doesn't rain tonight." Or, “I hope that we’ll have a good turnout for the Family Film and Fun Nights.”
That kind of hope is fine, of course. But hope as Paul speaks of it here has to do with following Jesus and knowing that no matter how things go in this fallen world, we have a hope that cannot be destroyed.
I visited a gravely ill man in the hospital. "It's OK for you to pray for my healing, pastor," he told me. "If God does heal me, it means that I'll be around a while longer. If God doesn't heal me, it means I'll be with Him in eternity. It's a win-win."
All who turn from sin and trust in Jesus Christ as their God and King live each day in the hope that one day, we will live in direct fellowship with God in eternity. No matter what happens to believers in Jesus, nothing can defeat them.
Paul had never visited Colossae. The church there was started by another member of his ministry team, Epaphras. But he tells the Colossian Christians that he thanked God for the faith and love evidenced in their lives, a sure sign that they were drawing hope from its only source, Jesus.
Please slip down to verse 9. Paul writes: “For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.”
Paul tells the Colossian Christians what he prays for them.
He doesn’t pray for their health.
He doesn't pray that God would bring them wealth.
He doesn't ask God to give them success.
He doesn't pray that God will give them ease.
He doesn't even pray for the well being of their families.
Paul almost never prays for things like these. And he never asks that others pray for him for such things.
Instead, Paul says that he prays that Christians in Colossae...
- will be filled with the knowledge of God’s will,
- will be given give the wisdom and understanding that the Holy Spirit can give us for everyday living,
- will lead lives worthy of association with the name of Jesus,
- will experience the seeds of Christ’s grace, forgiveness, and love bearing fruit in lives of love and good deeds done for others,
- will know God intimately,
- will be strengthened by the One Who calls all followers of Jesus away from thinking and living like the darkness of this world. The darkness of this world to which the Bible often refers is the very darkness that we have seen in recent days in video clips from Louisiana, Minnesota, and Dallas.
By their tight connection to Jesus, Paul was praying, the lives of the Colossian Christians would reflect the very light of the world, Jesus Christ Himself.
Do you see what Paul is praying?
He’s praying that the Colossian Christians will grow as disciples: followers of Jesus, people whose every thought, action, impulse, and word reflect Jesus, God enfleshed.
This week, I’d like to ask you to take verses 9-12 of our lesson as your own personal prayer.
Pray them for your family.
For Living Water.
For the North American Lutheran Church.
As you turn Paul’s prayer petitions into your own prayer petitions, eventually expressed in your own words, pray that God will help you and help the Church to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Listen: America needs Christ and the Church as it never has before. The world needs Christ and the Church as never before.
And, God has given each of us who bear the name of Christ a critical role in helping others to know and follow Jesus Christ.
There's a little story told about a scene in heaven that unfolds right after the risen Jesus gave the eleven remaining apostles the Great Commission. In the story, an angel is standing with God the Father witnessing this commissioning. "Jesus is giving the responsibility of spreading the Gospel and His love, making disciples, to those eleven guys?" the angel asks. "Is that the plan, Lord?" "Yes," God responds, "that's the plan." The angel can't believe it! The eleven didn't have an impressive track record. "What," the angel asks God the Father, "is plan B?" Says God: "There is no plan B."
When it comes to living, praying, and spreading the transforming love of Jesus Christ, it's our move, Church! That's God's plan. In the face of the world's darkness, it's up to us to spread the light!
Listen, please: Disciples in whom the love, grace, power, and sovereignty of the God revealed in Jesus Christ is present and growing are the only means by which America, the world, and people everywhere are going to live in the faith, hope, and love that only Jesus Christ can give.
Please make Paul’s prayer in today’s lesson your prayer each day this week.
I guess the logical response to my request is, “Why? Why should I bother?”
Why shouldn’t people just cast about for the mix and match combination of religious beliefs that makes them, you, and me feel comfortable and in control, like the woman I mentioned at the beginning of this message?
Paul answers that question in the last two verses of our lesson: “For [God] 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.”
To honor the God Who has rescued us from sin, death, and hell; to honor the God Who has changed our eternities through Christ, I ask that you pray that God will help us and help all for whom we pray to be faithful disciples, to grow as faithful disciples, who live our faith with authenticity and who love others as Christ has loved us.
How can we give less than our all to the Lord Who has given everything to us? Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio.]