As we grow up, we have to learn to process and discern multiple different sources of advice and wisdom for life. When we’re quite young, it’s 100% parents or guardians. As we grow up, we broaden our sources to include friends, teachers, coaches, and more. Many times, we learn conflicting things about the best way to live.
This is similar to what the Colossian church was facing, which Paul gets into detail about in the latter half of chapter 2.
A lot of the advice they’re being given appears wise. (Doesn’t it always, in the moment?) But Paul has a perspective that isn’t subject to the same kinds of pressure. And from that perspective, Paul reminds the Colossians of this paradox: the kingdom of God has already come, but is not yet fulfilled. Now, he doesn’t say it in that exact way. But Paul’s audience has had a thorough and fruit-bearing experience of Christ already. But they are not yet fully mature. It appears that Christ guaranteed God’s kingdom, but it is being worked out in our world over time.
What does this mean for us? First, the “already” means we can live in freedom from otherwise empty religious obligations that only foreshadow that which Christ fulfills. We can live in freedom from the judgmental eyes of those who are puffed up with what they claim are special spiritual insights. Second, the “not yet” means we are called to remain connected to Christ, the “head” by which the whole body grows. This connection has a twofold purpose: to grow and mature us, and to be examples of God’s kingdom to the world.
- Looking back on your life, did you ever do anything that you now realize was unnecessary? Why did you do it? (If you heard my sermon, think “enormous gym bag.”)
- Is there anything you do now that is based more on fear-filled duty than on joy-filled living? What are you afraid of?
- If you lived out God’s “already” kingdom, how would it affect your daily life?
- If God’s kingdom is also “not yet” fulfilled, what role might you play in its unfolding in our world?
My family and I were in Washington D.C. the week before Independence Day, doing as many of the “tourist” things we could: the White House, the US Capitol building, the National Archives, and so many museums, monuments, and memorials. Most of what we saw had something in common — the IDEA OF FREEDOM. Having achieved freedom from the British monarchy, can you imagine how our country’s founders would have felt if the new U.S. citizens continued to pay royal taxes anyway?
The Colossian church had experienced an unprecedented freedom in Christ: “God made you alive with Christ” (2:13). But some new ideas (now often called “the Colossian heresy”) have permeated the congregation that are threatening their newfound freedom with “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (v.8).
What makes these ideas hollow and deceptive? Essentially, they are promising a greater spiritual fulfillment than what Christ alone offers. But they find their origins in “human tradition” and “principles of the world.” Human tradition and worldly principles needn’t all be categorized as wrong or bad, but the fact is that they are not absolute. That which is not absolute cannot offer something absolute.
The fullness of life which God freely offers in Christ is an absolute promise, which the Colossians had already experienced, and which God, the Creator and Source of life, is powerful to fulfill. So there is no need to augment it with legalistic religious practices, intellectual gymnastics, or ecstatic experiences. As the song proclaims: “Christ is enough for me; everything I need is in You.”
It’s not always easy to remember this, which is why Paul urges us to “continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him” (2:6-7).
- What ideas are “out there” that suggest Christ isn’t enough for a full life?
- Do you ever struggle against the temptation to “add” things to your spiritual life, as though Christ were not sufficient?
- “Rooted in him”: Try reading the Bible or praying with the posture of listening for God, intentionally asking God to speak to you.
- “Built up in him”: Jesus triumphed over the world humbly, on the cross. Try being a humble servant to someone extra this week, or giving some extra time and energy to your community.
Colossians 1:24-29; 2:1-7 (MSG)
Paul is using loaded, political language (whether we like it or not) that is much more than mere advice for Christians. It ultimately got him killed.
There is so much here for followers of Jesus that helps us understand what it means to be citizens of God’s subversive Kingdom. At UPPC, we don’t “preach politics” by worldly standards. We preach the Word of God as it is revealed in scripture…which sometimes has unavoidable public implications.*
Some people feel that Christian faith is a private thing that has no place in the public sphere. And others feel that there’s no place for dialogue about public life in the private faith of the church. But that leaves us with nowhere to process it! So it’s important to remember that Jesus led people in public life, as well as private spirituality, and Jesus’ followers are called to engage in both.
Polis is a Greek word that refers to the “city” — an organized people under an organized government. The “politic” therefore had to do with the ruling of the people. So you can see how disruptive it would have been to the power-holders of Paul’s day to proclaim that Christ was ultimately ruling the empire.
What does it look like to be ruled by Christ in our cities?
- To love our neighbors as ourselves. And yes, there is no qualification on the concept of “neighbor.” Our challenge is to get over our presuppositions and love those whom God puts into our lives. Always. As a Christian, we are not permitted to view and treat people differently than what God sees and values. We are not permitted to demonize or lionize people for political gain, as though they are the ultimate “problem” or “solution.” If your politics are shaping your faith, you’ve got it backward. Our faith is to shape our politics.
- To demonstrate Christ’s values in the public sphere. Peterson’s translation of Paul’s words reads: “I want you woven into a tapestry of love” (2:2). We do have predecessors in our nation’s history: the abolitionists, child labor laws, and civil rights, among others. But this does not mean to christianize a nation by defeating opponents. The Church represents Christ’s love in the public sphere because Christ is victorious, not because we want to be victorious. Christ motivates us because in our baptisms his life is our life, and he is our Master. We are shaped and driven to act by his grace and mercy, and because he is the one to whom we must give an account.
- How aware are you of local public life and how it’s affecting people within our 5-mile radius? Are you more or less aware of that than you are of national or global public life?
- What would it look like to demonstrate Christ’s values in the public square from a posture of victory, rather than from a posture of striving for victory?
- How uncomfortable does this topic make you? What do you do when you feel uncomfortable about something in scripture or from the pulpit?
*I just arrived home from a week in Washington D.C. and thought it was worth noting that “public life” represented by federal government is, though often the most visible in the news and social media, not the most influential in our daily lives. The public life at the city, county, and state levels tends to have far more day-to-day influence over us. Are we as aware of local public life as we are of national public life?
In the 21st century, we talk a lot about the countless varieties of cultures, languages, customs, and beliefs of the worldwide human community. And we celebrate that variety, rightly so. But variety isn’t a new idea (as we saw only a few weeks ago in the Empowered series*). Paul’s first-century context was full of variety, and just like today people had to navigate through various and often conflicting sources of truth. And just like today, the practice of “syncretism” was commonplace — creating a mixture of beliefs and practices to suit one’s personal needs: Jesus is good for the forgiveness of your sins, but not for informing policy. For that, you’ve got to enthrone the right leader. Right?
In this anthem to Christ, Paul subverts the worldly powers of the day by emphasizing the primacy of Christ. Jesus, he says, is:
- The “firstborn” over creation
- “Before” all things
- The “head” of the body (the Church)
- The “beginning” and “firstborn” of the resurrection to eternal life.
But why? “So that he might have the supremacy” (v. 13).
Of course, good human leadership matters. We’re called to steward God’s world responsibly. But besides Jesus, no idea is supreme. No policy is supreme. No leader is supreme. Because when we dethrone Jesus, we enthrone something else. But nothing and no one else is worthy. Nothing and no one else laid down their life for yours. Nothing and no one else reconciled the world to God and leads all people in reconciliation with each other. Nothing and no one else has ultimately set us free. In John’s vision in Revelation, the living creatures in heaven proclaim that Jesus is worthy “because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9).
In our world, where you can customize everything from your Subway sandwich to your sources of global information, a claim that anything is “supreme” over all creation is audacious and counter-cultural. Paul knew it. And we know it. But the truth of the gospel is compelling: Jesus is enough. Life starts there. And all the details that are important for living with health and responsibility are subservient to the one who:
- Shows us God’s nature
- Holds all creation together
- Gives the blueprint for peace and reconciliation.
- When the future looks dire, whom do you instinctively trust first for help?
- When the future looks grim, is there any good reason not to turn to Christ in prayer before we do or say anything else?
- When the future looks bright, to whom do we give the credit?
- When the future looks hopeful, where do we tend to invest our ongoing hope?
- Resistance to the idea of someone being “supreme” is based in mistrust that such a person might abuse their power. But Jesus is no ordinary person. What has Jesus done to assure us that in his power, we are set free?
*Variety and Unity, Part 1, and Variety and Unity, Part 2.
Paul lays the groundwork for the subversive message of God’s Kingdom
When Julius Caesar died, it was said that he arose to the heavens as a star and was thus deified. His adopted son, Octavian, who would later be more famously known as Caesar Augustus, identified himself as the “divine son.” Therefore, Augustus’s rule was meant to be seen as divinely ordained and empowered; he was the “son of god.” And in the chaotic aftermath of Julius’s assassination, the message was clear — all one had to do was give complete loyalty to Augustus, and in return he promised peace — the PAX ROMANA.
Is it any wonder, then, that Jesus’ birth would be accompanied by the appearance of a star?
Is it any wonder that the angels proclaimed: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14 NIV)
Is it any wonder that Jesus would be known as the Son of God?
The apostle Paul writes his letter to the Colossians in a most ironically appropriate place: a Roman prison. And from there, Paul not-so-subtly lets them know that in Christ, a new, different, and subversive kingdom exists. No promise of “pax” from a human king will do, as all human kings and queens, systems and militaries, philosophies and ideals fall short of the glory of God. This is why Paul will urge in chapter 2: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.”
This is not competition between forces. This is God’s desire to see the people of the world experience shalom, holistic all-around peace, that can only happen in dependence on Christ. This is Paul’s motivation for so strongly emphasizing Christ’s supremacy — the desire that the whole earth would know God’s everlasting peace.
- Have you ever put your trust for “peace” in your life in something that disappointed?
- Where do you place your trust now?
- How does Paul’s undercutting of human authority make you feel (nervous, relieved, angry, confused, etc.)?
- Are there any changes you can make your life, so that you can “continue in your faith, established and firm, and not move from the hope held out in the gospel” (Col. 1:23)?
Jesus in solitude, community, and ministry.
This passage in the gospel of Luke shows the pattern by which Jesus ultimately practiced what we think of as “ministry.” Jesus practicing these disciplines in a particular order that would empower his life and ministry: Solitude, Community, then Ministry.
Jesus founded his life and ministry in solitude with the heavenly Father. Why? Because it is in that place, one-on-one with our Creator, that we intentionally make room for him to express his divine love for us.
Then can we be equipped to live in community in a healthy, life-giving way. All too often we get these in reverse, expecting our human community to make us feel beloved. But we can’t expect people to love us unconditionally or perfectly, any more than we can expect ourselves to love others that way. When our community is basically “loneliness grabbing onto loneliness” we are set up for dysfunction and disappointment. But if we build our community upon the strength of our solitude with God — “beloved grabbing onto beloved”* — then we have the chance to experience community that freely and burdenlessly shares God’s love.
This is the power by which God’s ministry — the third step — flows through people. Ministry at this point becomes the living and sharing of God’s love to the world out of the unquenchable experience of our own belovedness, first in solitude, then in community.
- When is the last time you intentionally made ample space to listen for God’s Holy Spirit in your life?
- What are you expecting from your community (church, family, friends)?
- Have you ever experienced frustration, disappointment, or powerlessness in your work?
- How difficult would it be to begin your day in solitude with God?
- If you already have a habit of beginning your day in solitude with God, has it affected your interactions in community, or your work?
Paul gets real about hostility, destruction, death, and new humanity.
Last week we saw in the first chapter of Ephesians 2, Paul laying the groundwork for understanding how all the variety of the human race can be unified in Jesus Christ. We have in common our sinful disposition, God’s love for us, and our invitation to be part of God’s purpose.
In the second half of this chapter, Paul reiterates the division between first century Jews and Gentiles, almost as if to emphasize the power of reconciliation in Christ. The reality is that the differences between peoples have historically created hostility between them. Like, duh. Read any history book.
Maybe that’s why Jesus didn’t just teach us to try and get along. He didn’t suggest shaking hands and making up. On the cross, Jesus’ death tore down the curtain in the temple, the division between us and God. Consequently, the division between persons is also torn down and reconciliation made possible. Jesus “destroyed” the barrier and put hostility “to death.”
- How many examples can you think of in history, where differences between peoples created hostility?
- If Jesus destroyed that which divides us, why do even Christians still experience hostility based on our differences?
- What kinds of steps must we take to live into our identity as a “new humanity” in Christ?
- Should the Church be leading the culture in celebrating the variety of human culture while still living in unity and peace? Why or why not?
The foundation of a community whose variety is united in Christ.
Whether or not you believe the American culture is “more divided than ever” (and there are lots of people on both sides), it’s hard to ignore the divisive rhetoric that surrounds us these days. It seems like “getting along” shouldn’t be that tough, but it is.
The problem is trying to transform human division by human means. There’s little point in trying to “get along” when the tools we’re using are broken. I’m often shocked by the hubris that presumes that after thousands of years of human conflict, “this time we’ll get it right.” Why? Because we have smartphones? Solar power? Proton therapy? The reality is that despite advances in various technologies that give the impression of progress, we’re as spiritually broken as we ever were.
People are constantly insisting that human beings are “equal” but they rarely explain why, or how. In the first half of Ephesians 2, Paul lays out three ways that people, in all their variety, are united:
- We’re united in sin. This natural condition into which we’re born is something we all share, across all demographics of humanity.
- We’re united in God’s love. Of course if sin is common to all than God’s love in Christ is available to all.
- We’re united in God’s purpose. When we’re honest about our sinfulness and receive God’s love for us in Christ, he crafts us into a new humanity that can demonstrate his love to the world.
- Imagine someone very different from you. Include visible differences, like ethnicity and language, but also invisible differences like beliefs and values. Are you able to visualize that person and yourself as equals when it comes to being born in a sinful condition?
- Imagine the same person again, or perhaps a new person who is very different from you. Really challenge yourself to imagine someone whose values conflict with your own. Consider: God loves this person as much as God loves you.
- How might it change our perception of people, in all their variety, if we kept these universal commonalities in mind — that we’re all sinners, and we’re all loved by God?
The Holy Spirit is given to the Church (Acts 2:1-13)
Feel free to watch the sermon video embedded here, but this will be a brief entry with simply a few questions for your reflection. A blessed Pentecost to you, and a happy “birthday” to the Church!
- How have you experienced God’s Holy Spirit, that is, God’s real presence, in your life?
- How would you say you began your journey with God?
- “We don’t get to say ‘Well, we did it!’ It’s always God’s Spirit knocking at our door.” (Pastor Harlan) Can you describe anything from your life that you know were God-in-action more than yourself?
- The Holy Spirit can be unsettling, because God challenges us to find our “blind spots.” In what ways do you sometimes feel challenged by God’s presence?
- “God doesn’t call the qualified, but qualifies the called.” Is God calling you do something, or become someone, that you don’t feel qualified for? How does this truth apply to you?
Paul’s instruction about taking the Lord’s Supper
“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you…”
With these words, Paul is explaining to the early Christians in Corinth something of primary importance for life and faith: the Lord’s supper.
The Hebrew context here is crucial. Jesus didn’t choose his elements at random. He ordained this sacramental meal for the Church from that time until today in the context of Covenant.
Through the history of God’s people recorded across the entire biblical narrative, a pattern emerges. God makes promises. And people fail to remember (see Hosea 11:1-2 for how God perceives our forgetfulness).
It is no wonder then that when Jesus introduced the bread and the cup as the new covenant in his body and blood, he commanded that we “Remember.”
Of course, remembering that for which Jesus died — the forgiveness of sin and reconciliation to God — also (ironically) means we can forget. We can forget the sins that so easily ensnare, and celebrate the liberation Christ won for us! After all, God in his omniscience is described as effectively “forgetting” that which has led us astray and embracing us, whom he loves so dearly (see the story of the lost son for a powerful image of this).
We come together as the Christ-community and express his love in many ways: worship, song, prayer, learning, serving, laughing, crying. When we gather as the Christ-community, we enact that for which the Lord’s Supper stands. We are doing this in remembrance of Him.
- Have you ever experienced the Lord’s Supper (a.k.a. Communion or the Eucharist)? What was your experience like?
- Have you ever forgotten something that you knew you should have remembered?
- When someone in our close community forgets something important (like a birthday) what is that experience like? Why?
- Some people think ceremony or tradition is superficial or unnecessary in a community. But Jesus clearly knew that ceremony was essential. What do you think?
- What intentional steps can you take this week to “Remember” Jesus’ good news each day?