Comments from Colossians (1:28-29)

So we tell others about Christ, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all the wisdom God has given us. We want to present them to God, perfect in their relationship to Christ. That’s why I work and struggle so hard, depending on Christ’s mighty power that works within me. (Colossians 1:28-29; New Living Translation)

Some folk say, “I pray like everything depends on God and work like everything depends on me.” It makes me smile but it also reflects a biblical tension.

TensionOn the one hand, many Christians do little to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). They live so passively or apathetically that faith seems of little or no consequence. If anything is going to happen, God will have to find a supernatural way to pull it off on His own. No help from these people. Their faith is personal and private. They have families, careers, and hobbies to attend to. They might slip into a Christmas or Easter service but not much beyond that.

On the other hand, other believers just work their hearts out. They volunteer for everything in the church and attend every major event. They always raise their hands when things need to be done. They work tirelessly, it seems; Christian Energizer bunnies who “work hard in the Lord” (Romans 16:12).

But there IS a tension, and should be.

The Apostle Paul tells the Christians in Colosse, “That’s why I work and struggle so hard, depending on Christ’s mighty power that works within me.” Hang on a minute! Paul is working and struggling hard, but at the same time he depends on Christ’s mighty power that works within him? Whose strength is Paul really using or relying on?

Both.

The journey of faith is neither apathetic passivity not frenetic activity. It’s partnership. Anything less than our best effort is unworthy of our calling. But self-reliance dishonors the Presence and power of Christ..

Some days I put my shoulder to the wheel FOR Him, and while the results may impress others, the effort usually drains me or draws attention to me. However, when I put my shoulder to the wheel WITH Him, I discover that indeed “His yoke is easy and His burden is light” (Matthew 11:30).

When the journey of faith feels exhausting or futile, when we feel disillusioned or depleted it may be that we’re struggling hard in our own power. Similarly, when we assume that everything depends on Christ, with little discipline or devotion on our part, we may feel distant, disconnected, and dissatisfied.

Can we struggle hard for the Cause of Christ while also depending on (and appropriating) His mighty power? We must. But His power flows from His Presence. Only as we abide in Him will we bear much fruit.

May God grip us, guide us, and go before us today as we surrender “all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength” (Mark 12:30) to Him.

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Comments from Colossians (2:4-5)

I am telling you this so no one will deceive you with well-crafted arguments. For though I am far away from you, my heart is with you. And I rejoice that you are living as you should and that your faith in Christ is strong. (Colossians 2:4-5; New Living Translation)

In 1985, French sociologist and lay theologian Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) wrote a book titled The Humiliation of the Word. I know, it’s a little ironic to write a book about the decreasing power of words! Nonetheless, his material was prescient. He could foresee our rising cynicism about words and news.

Fake NewsIn recent times, we have been bombarded constantly with claims of “alternative facts” and “fake news.” We’ve seen misinformation, distortion, and outright lies from public figures (politicians as well as media personalities). They make statements and declarations with deep conviction, compelling statistics, and “researched” facts. Well-crafted arguments. It leaves many of us feeling deeply skeptical.

It’s not new.

The first-century believers in Colosse faced their own smooth-talkers. The false-teachers of the day sounded convincing and compelling. But not everything that makes sense is true, and not everything that is most true can be nicely explained.

Thus, the Apostle Paul warned his readers about well-crafted (but false) arguments, and affirmed the elementary importance of living a life that trusts Jesus.

Perhaps that’s why I place less weight on Christian apologetics than some folk. I’m devoted to education and believe in its transformational power. Knowledge is power; no question. Learning matters. But Christian faith, while grounded in historicity, is ultimately a choice of the heart and soul. Faith is not ultimately about building a water-tight system of thought, but deciding whom we will trust from one day to the next.

I’m not splitting hairs here. I understand that without clarity about what is true, it would be hard to trust the One who said “I am the Truth” (John 14:6). But so often our confidence rests in knowledge rather than experience, in religious dogma rather than divine relationship.

Well-crafted arguments can help or hurt us.

Paul wrote: “I rejoice that you are living as you should and that your faith in Christ is strong.” Despite the clever and compelling suggestions swirling around them, the Christians in Colosse held fast to Christ.

Ever feel confused (or discouraged) by all of the conflicting views in politics and religion? When we are tempted to grow cynical and skeptical, let’s hold fast to that which matters most: Christ Himself.

Propaganda is as old as humanity itself. People have always twisted the truth to serve their own purposes. But in this fog, He whom John called “the light of men” (John 1:4) and “the true light” (John 1:9) shines through: Christ Himself.

Need an anchor today, and every day? We’d do well to trust the sufficiency and supremacy of Christ above all else. Lift your eyes above the horizon. Look not at your troubles. Listen not to the cultural pundits. Trust the Truth: Christ Himself.

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Comments from Colossians (2:1-3)

I want you to know how much I have agonized for you and for the church at Laodicea, and for many other believers who have never met me personally. I want them to be encouraged and knit together by strong ties of love. I want them to have complete confidence that they understand God’s mysterious plan, which is Christ himself. In him lie hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Colossians 2:1-3; New Living Translation)

In the immortal words of Loretta Lynn, “We’ve come a long way, baby!”

UnitySome people think that Christian unity flows from common theology. Reformed, Arminian, dispensational, amillenial, Pentecostal, evangelical, traditional, non-denominational. Each label denotes a tribe (or “mob” if you’re Australian) to which we might belong. Each group has its gurus; spokespeople who define that tribe’s particular theology. And we enjoy some degree of unity within that common theology. But not beyond.

Others think that Christian unity flows from common mission or vision. Now we have to decide if we are missional, attractional, incarnational, simple, or some other methodological (or ideological) model. Once again, unity is reserved for common philosophical approaches to mission or vision.

Yet others think that Christian unity flows from non-confrontational, relational community. Let people be people and do what they like. Don’t challenge them, confront them, accuse them, blame them, or guilt them. Just let them find their own way through the maze of faith. And if we all step back from each other and create a safe space for each other, we’ll have unity with each other.

“We’ve come a long way, baby!”; a long way from what the Apostle Paul suggests in his letter to the Colossians.

Paul writes that he agonizes — that’s a particularly strong word — for churches he knows, churches he doesn’t know, believers he has met, and many believers who have never met him personally. That’s fairly comprehensive agony!

What does he agonize over? Two things. First, that they may “be encouraged and knit together by strong ties of love.” And second, that they may “have complete confidence that they understand God’s mysterious plan, which is Christ himself.

Simple. Elusive.

The most compelling unity is not decided by complex theology, novel methodology, or unquestioning tolerance. It really arises from “strong ties of love” and “complete confidence in Christ.” Drop the mic.

Of course, it’s no simple thing to form strong ties of love in a culture that has preferred strong doses of independence. And it seems too simplistic to develop complete confidence in Christ alone when we’ve been raised in a culture of suspicion, cynicism, and considerable self-confidence.

Tolerance and love are not the same thing. Nicety and civility may enhance society but they do nothing to produce deep community.

No wonder Paul agonized over this. When our love for each other wanes and our pure confidence in Christ gets waylaid, we end up with pleasant religion but not radical Kingdom-living.

We might need to agonize a little ourselves.

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Comments from Colossians (1:24-27)

I am glad when I suffer for you in my body, for I am participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for his body, the church. God has given me the responsibility of serving his church by proclaiming his entire message to you. This message was kept secret for centuries and generations past, but now it has been revealed to God’s people. For God wanted them to know that the riches and glory of Christ are for you Gentiles, too. And this is the secret: Christ lives in you. This gives you assurance of sharing his glory. (Colossians 1:24-27; New Living Translation)

Suffering comes in all shapes and sizes, and each of us determines what constitutes “suffering” for ourselves. One person suffers with rejection while the next person thinks little of it. One person suffers with an ankle sprain while a cancer survivor might have a very different perspective. Suffering is subjective.

SufferingI’ve seen parents suffer as they’ve grappled with the (bad) choices of their sons or daughters. I’ve watched church leaders suffer as conflict and division engulfed them. I’ve listened to the pain-filled stories of young adults who have endured parental divorce or abuse.

If we have one thing in common, it’s suffering. And rarely does it arrive as an invited guest.

So, it seems odd indeed when the Apostle Paul writes “I am glad when I suffer for you in my body, for I am participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for his body, the church.

His comments to the Colossians reflect what he writes elsewhere. He tells the Philippians that he wants to “know Christ…and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, that I might attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).

Paul had a way of re-framing his suffering.

On the one hand, whether it was beatings, imprisonment, poverty, cold, hunger, or shipwrecks, he saw much of it as a way to identify with Jesus. He was suffering not for Christ, but with Christ and like Christ.

On the other hand, Paul viewed his suffering through the lens of the resurrection and eternity. These “momentary light afflictions are producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (1 Corinthians 4:17).

This re-framing of suffering produced (for Paul) great hope amidst his hardships.

Rather than producing fear or dread, Paul’s sufferings deepened his faith and bolstered his reflections on both the resurrection and eternity. In his mind he felt absolutely convinced that “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10).

Facing a trial today? Perhaps one way forward is to re-frame the situation in light of Jesus, the resurrection, and eternity.

By the way, if you need a moment of pure inspiration, watch Mandy Harvey on America’s Got Talent … and grab the tissue box.

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Comments from Colossians (1:21-23)

You were once far away from God. You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions. Yet now he has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body. As a result, he has brought you into his own presence, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault. But you must continue to believe this truth and stand firmly in it. Don’t drift away from the assurance you received when you heard the Good News. The Good News has been preached all over the world, and I, Paul, have been appointed as God’s servant to proclaim it. (Colossians 1:21-23; New Living Translation)

You are holy and blameless as you stand before God without a single fault.

ForgivenApparently, Paul does not know me very well. I could create a list as long as my arm of blame, shame, and fault. There’s no shortage of material. I’ve said and done things to hurt other people; sometimes with intention and a mean spirit. Gossip, criticism, anger, impatience. We all have our lists, and they’re all too fresh.

At one level (in our heads) we can accept that God has reconciled us to Himself, but at the deeper level (in our hearts) it seems impossible. How could He possibly overlook our poor track-record? How could He ever ignore our hurt-filled history?

It may even make us suspicious of His holiness or justice. If it’s this easy to “get right with God” (be justified), then perhaps He’s more desperate or less discerning than we imagined.

But there’s nothing easy about it.

In a violent world that delivers news every day of fresh deaths (Portland men defending young girls on a train, military deaths in Afghanistan fighting terrorism, a young woman shielding a child from a suicide bomb blast in Manchester) we become steadily desensitized to sacrifice. But ask the parents and families whose sons and daughters died, if this was “easy.”

Arlington National Cemetery is filled with row after row of uniform gravestones; small white markers equidistant, row after endless row. Nothing ornate. A sea of nondescript markers. They blend into an endless wave of virtual anonymity, except to the families.

Nothing easy about this. Nothing cheap. If freedom is not free, then neither is divine forgiveness.

“God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever trusts Him would not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

He places our past behind us. He scrubs our record clean. He dismisses all charges against us.

We all know the shame of yesterday. But Christ offers us renewal today and hope for tomorrow as we turn from sin and turn to Him. Because of Jesus, and Jesus alone, “we are holy and blameless as we stand before God without a single fault.” It’s a new day!

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Comments from Colossians (1:19-20)

For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross. (Colossians 1:19-20; New Living Translation)

Reconciliation. We reconcile bank accounts and we reconcile ourselves to the consequences of certain decisions. But the most difficult reconciliation of all involves two people or two groups laying aside their conflict and choosing to live in peace.

ReconciliationIn 1969, the state of California established a purely no-fault divorce law. This allowed a husband or wife to file for divorce on the simple basis of “irreconcilable differences.” No further explanation was required.

Reconciliation is difficult.

In 1996, with the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, the South African government set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It allowed both victims and perpetrators to tell their stories, because reconciliation initially requires truth-telling. The Commission served a valuable purpose in highlighting the evil of apartheid, even if full reconciliation remained elusive.

Reconciliation is difficult, whether it’s nation with nation, race with race, church members with church members, husbands with wives, or parents with children. What does it require?

Professor Miroslav Volf has written and spoken powerfully on this topic. He concludes that there are five basic steps to meaningful reconciliation.

1. Remember rightly. The memory of victims is very long, but not always right. Perpetrators’ memories are usually very short. We must remember rightly.

2. Forgive. Forgiveness is a gift, and means that we no longer count against the other the wrongdoing done to us.

3. Apologize. One of the signature marks of sin is that it never wants to be itself. It wants to explain, excuse, justify, or compare itself. An apology, on the other hand, requires specific naming.

4. Repair. For forgiveness to reconstitute relationships, repair is essential. This means making meaningful restitution.

5. Embrace. This powerful metaphor comprises four steps: First, open arms – it begins with vulnerability. Second, waiting – at least a moment. The other must come of their own freewill. This offers both freedom and respect. Third, arms close mutually. Authentic embrace cannot be forced or imposed. Fourth, opening of the arms again. The other person needs their own space despite the embrace – “letting go.”

This brings us back to the apostle Paul’s words to the Colossians. “Through Christ, God has reconciled everyone and everything to Himself.”

What an extraordinary act on His part. While He was the offended (not the offender), without blame, and without responsibility, yet while we were still sinners and enemies and hostile towards Him, “through Christ, He has reached out to us to reconcile us to Himself.”

Dealing with conflict right now? Can we take such high ground ourselves with each other? Christ’s example motivates us. Volf’s model (grounded in Scripture) guides us. May today be filled with reconciliation and hope.

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Comments from Colossians (1:17-18)

Christ existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together. He is also the head of the church, which is his body. He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead. So he is first in everything. (Colossians 1:17-18; New Living Translation)

Christ is first in everything. To listen to a lot of our songs, our prayers, and our preaching it might seem otherwise.

Jesus FirstThe moral therapeutic deism of our day, which I’ve mentioned before, makes us first in everything. God has a plan for our lives. He exists to serve us and make us happy. If there’s a good reason for moral choice, it’s to enhance our own lives (not reflect the holiness of God). We don’t point to Him as much as He points to us. The old saying that “Jesus would have died on the cross for me, if I was the last person left standing on the planet” exemplifies this mentality.

Apparently, this self-centeredness dates back a long way; at least as far back as the first century and the Christians at Colosse.

The Apostle Paul uses these opening words of his epistle to drive home not just the sufficiency and supremacy of Christ, but also His primacy. He existed before all things. He is the beginning of everything. He is first. He deserves both priority and privilege.

Christ stands as first in the Church, and first among all who have been or will be resurrected.

But churches, just like individual people, have a way of getting distracted. Sometimes we count and compete. Sometimes we get so lost in the felt-needs of people walking through the doors, that we overlook the express call of God for us to worship Him. Banks of speakers, innovative lighting, and high-energy platform performers can reflect a subtle (or not too subtle) shift of attention from God and His Word, to the staff and their skills. It usually happens in small degrees over time.

But Christ is jealous. Jealous for His name; jealous for His fame; jealous for our worship; jealous to be first. While glory awaits us, He deserves His now.

He is head of His Church; not simply the object of our preaching, but the one with true authority. As the source of the Church, He takes responsibility for the well-being of the Church. He also has authority over the Church. How have we honored Him (above all else) in our congregations? What place does He have in our private lives?

First. Christ was first, is first, and will be first. Everything follows in His wake. Our own choices ought serve His purposes.

Today will present its share of challenges for each of us; financial strains, health concerns, marital conflict, workplace stresses, parenting challenges, and more. But in all of this, Christ ought remain first in our hearts. Will He?

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