Spiritually Advanced?

Nearly 2000 years ago, Paul wrote a letter to a small town in modern Turkey – and it still has something to teach (it supplies Sunday readings for 4 weeks!). Colossae: Founded on trade in sheep wool – fleeces dyed purple with a cyclamen based dye. The Church, with Gentile and Jewish believers, was established by Epaphras, probably himself converted in Ephesus. But there was a problem in the Church in Colossae; they were getting their faith wrong, in a way which mattered. We won’t worry too much about how they wanted to improve on the gospel, but let’s look at what Paul said in Colossians 1:15-28.

First, 1:15-20. Its all about Jesus. Jesus is how we see what God is like – is God remote, severe, judgemental, or is God a pushover, a sugar–daddy? Well, the answer (to those and lots of other ideas) is – look at Jesus. Get to know the stories about him. He’s friendly (to all sorts of people), very human, but also powerful, and has deep understanding and sympathy.

For the Colossians, Jesus might have been the start, but they wanted to “improve” this faith in one way or another. Paul isn’t having that. Jesus continues in charge, superior to the powers of heaven. It is Jesus who died to set us free, it is Jesus who is head of the Church, the source of its unity – an important point, because of division. [And whether you are a new Christian, or have been in Christian things for years, you don’t get away from needing Jesus, and the forgiveness he gives].

Then, verses 21-23 talk about how that affects the Colossians. Their past had been one of alienation – led astray by the false values of a corrupt society (does that sound familiar?). But Jesus (yes, focus on him again) had intervened to set them free by his death. They are not being allowed to get away from the physical – because of their delight in the metaphysical and “spiritual”, Paul ties them down to the actual, bodily death of Jesus. Their future depends on their holding on to their initial commitment to the gospel they once heard and accepted.

After the central and continuing importance of Jesus, and God’s purpose for the Colossians, Paul talks about his own role. He sees himself as entrusted with a message – not some secret knowledge to be passed on to initiates, but the gospel taught to believers openly. That is your message, too. If you know what Jesus did and does, don’t keep quiet about it. The glory is not some religious experience, but the presence of Christ among believers – the new life they share, and in which they grow in holiness and service.

There are lots of people who need to know these things: Jesus has to come first – in Church, in my life, in the way I do faith. There are many round us who forget, or don’t know, that without Jesus death for us, we are lost in the false values of a corrupt society. And there are those, even in religion, who do not remember the responsibility we have of sharing the gospel message, and living and working for it – even when that means suffering.

Most Important!

Paul writes to Colossae, a place he has never visited, with a church founded by someone else. He’s heard that things are going wrong – there is a group whose teaching is seriously different and dangerous – it has all sorts of things: a bit of Jewishness, claims to “advance” beyond apostolic Christianity, mystical teaching about angels, and an “in-club” exclusivism.

So what does Paul have to say to all this, the threat to his teaching, and the true gospel? (You might want to read Colossians 1:1-5 now, the first part of the reading Colossians 1:1-14). Paul doesn’t seem as worried, or as negative, as I was! He wants to give thanks, and picks out faith (one commentator suggests – “Christian confidence”) and love, based on the hope of heaven.

He seems to put his hope for their future in these things, rather than a careful campaign against the false teachers. He will have more to say about them and their teaching, but there’s no panic. This is more important.

When we get to verses 9 and 10, his prayer is not for victory over the others, but for knowledge of God’s will, wisdom, and understanding. Is this so that they can put other people in their place? No. It is so that they can live properly, and do good deeds.

Paul really seems to think this is most important, as if it brought some protection, some benefit. And there’s one more thing. He talks about rescue, being set free, having sins forgiven. And he says God has done that! His opponents would have said that people needed “spiritual development” or some such thing. Paul says – the important things are simple and positive: God has set us free, given forgiveness in Jesus (as Epaphras said). So they (and we, overhearing this conversation by letter) should take advantage, and hold onto that!

Faith, love, the assurance that even when it is hard to do right, its value is never lost in heaven, where all will be safe – these are the imp things. So why am I reading bits of Colossians 1? Because I too easily see the negatives, and worry about how to react. What I find here is a reminder of the simple goodness and reliability of the gospel.

Accept what God has done, and offered you by faith – be sure you accept, and have confidence! Trust God (always more than “people” or “plans”), and love one another. Of course it will sometimes go wrong, but those things are so important!

Boasting?

“May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” is a strange statement. We are used to boasting, and more elaborate ways of “showing off”, and find it normal for the rich and successful, for celebrities, and sometimes would-be celebrities. But this is Paul, in the last chapter of his letter to the Galatians. (Galatians 6:1-16 or 6:7-16).

Paul is making a point, being annoyed by those who have tried to lead the Galatian Christians away from the gospel he preached to them. He insists on emphasising Jesus. And so he refuses to state his own claims to respect and fame. He points them to the centre of faith – and it’s not in themselves, or any other teacher.

But I wonder how we react? We could dismiss this line as a bit of religious jargon. If, instead, we take it seriously, there is a challenge. What am I pleased with in my life? What do I think I have done well? What are my successes and strong points? Could I answer “Jesus and his death” to any of these, let alone all of them?

I am not suggesting that we have no good points or successes! But the overwhelming importance of God’s grace, of being rescued and loved, rather than achieving . . This takes some thinking through. Looking in that direction, rather than at our own goodness, will help motivate our work for those who most need our “work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

Similarly, a thankfulness for what has been done for us will help avoid a return to selfish living, and the danger of becoming “weary in doing what is right”. Perhaps we need to think of a way of saying, in jargon free language, “the best thing about me – is not me”.

Preserving Freedom

Paul has argued through Galatians against a group who wanted to impose full Jewish Law and practice on those who became believers in Jesus from outside the Jewish community. He insists that faith, and not obeying the detailed instructions of the Old Testament Law, is what makes a person free and right with God.

It might sound very remote in the twenty first century, if it were not for the difficulty we have today as Christians understanding how Christian life is supposed to work. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Clearly it would be terrible, having escaped from the life of a slave, to be returned to it again. But what is Christian freedom, and how is it to be used, and indeed preserved?

Today’s reading (Galatians 5:1 and 13-25) jumps from that verse to explain the difference between a selfish life, dominated by the indulgence of human appetites, and a free life powered and directed by the Holy Spirit. We have become expert at justifying what we want, having our own way, and imposing on others – yet know that this seldom ends well. What we have to learn is how thankfulness for a life set free can lead us to love and serve, and to cultivate the “fruit of the Spirit”. These are gifts we cannot obtain by self-discipline, but that God will develop in us as we allow them to grow.

Freedom can be lost! When Paul sounds as if he speaks from experience, we can echo his concerns. “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. ” This leads back to the selfish life, enslaved by human desires. The alternative? “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”

Independent?

Do you like being supervised? I imagine not. It doesn’t really matter whether we are being formally assessed (at work, in a medical test, even in sport), or just have someone looking critically over our shoulder – it makes for stress, if not resentment.

It should not be too difficult to understand Paul (Galatians 3:23-29), when he speaks of the Old Testament Law as a “guardian”. Yes, the Law tells us what God is like, and how our lives should go to fit God’s intentions and our purpose. But like a schoolteacher, it can limit our freedom, and doesn’t actually make us good at learning. We are reminded that children in the first century were sometimes under the control of a slave, who made sure they behaved and did their lessons, even though the slave had no status himself. The slave was hardly a friend, no matter how properly he did his job.

So, Paul suggests, becoming Christians is like gaining the freedom of family members. No longer subject to strict control, we share with other believers the equal status our faith releases. In this letter, Paul has been concerned to reject the demands of some who claimed that non-Jewish converts to Christ had to observe all the Jewish Law and customs. He insists (as did the Council of Jerusalem, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in Acts 15) that while Gentile believers in Christ should be concerned to maintain fellowship with Jewish believers, they do not have to live under Jewish regulations.

The freedom of the Christian is still important, and easily lost to judgmental attitudes or old fashioned habits. Yes, we need to understand how our lives are to be like Jesus’, showing the effect of the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Old Testament remains important for us to understand God’s interactions and relationships with humans through the ages. But no, we don’t have to follow endless restrictions and traditions. Getting it right is difficult, but important.

The Experience of God

[There is a comment on John 16:12-15, gospel reading for Trinity Sunday year c, to be found if you click here]

Descriptions can be less than helpful! “Sheets of a naturally derived, cellulose based material, joined and pivoted at one edge, usually of a light colour marked on one or both sides with a darker pigment.” tells you nothing very useful about a book. In much the same way, attempts to describe and analyse God, who is beyond human description and definition, may not be of great value.

Yet reading Romans 5:1-5, we learn something of the Christian experience of God, and how that may be remembered and shared. Jesus, we are told, has sorted out our relationship with God. Now we may find peace and grace, if only we have faith. Having peace does not mean a problem-free life. Yet even troubles lead on to hope – hope which, because of the Holy Spirit, is well earthed and not just hopefulness.

Almost without realising it, we have spoken of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The point is not to define or “pin them down”, but to welcome what they are doing in and around us. Paul is keen to tell the Roman Christians that the events of Jesus life and death apply to and for them. He also wants their lives to be transformed by that good news. As he speaks of God, he talks about the triple activity quite naturally. [We could look at John 16:12-15, today’s gospel reading, and find the same sort of reference to the three, working closely together].

On Trinity Sunday, we think of God. Let it be of the awesome and wonderful God, who has astounded and delighted greater minds than ours, and never of some dry theory. We shall not be examined on theory, whether in the philosophical terms of the early centuries, or of our own time. But we shall be judged on whether we have taken the opportunities to know God in practice. If our prayer, action and reflection have brought us to some understanding of what God is doing and wanting, it will show. If our experience makes us want to be more like God, that too will be plain. A difficult test? But a glorious transformation of human life and relationships.

Only two possibilities?

Christians are sometimes accused of trying to make a simple – even a simplistic – choice out of life’s endless moral dilemmas. It is complained that preachers unfairly make the spectrum of goodness and evil into a false two way split. But scripture does this too. There are many different metaphors which have in common a refusal to allow the hearer to sit on the fence. Think for example of Jesus parable about the two men, one building his house on sand, and one on rock. In the Old Testament, Deuteronomy several times urges a choice of direction: blessing and curse 11:26f, compare 30:15. Psalm 1 pictures two trees, one by the waterside, not a forest or even a copse. In today’s reading of Romans 8:14-17, Paul offers some explanation.

Of course, on the Day of Pentecost, named for its 50 day interval after Passover (Easter), we tend to focus on the dramatic story of the coming of the Holy Spirit, told in Acts 2. But for us who live a long time after those events, how does the Spirit make a difference?

Paul has spoken in Romans 7:14-23 of the way good intentions are not enough to overcome sin, experienced as selfishness, desire, addiction and many other things. In Romans 8 he explains that it is the Holy Spirit that breaks the monopoly of human sin. It is not that the Christian becomes perfect, or even loses the many temptations to fall back into a self-centred, desire directed, life. But the Christian can be “led by the Spirit of God” – directed by a greater force, though always responsible, never coerced. This is a life that pleases God, and is seen as good and constructive by those around. This is the way to become the person God intended, filling the place in the community (both the Christian congregation and the wider local community) that is properly theirs.

It is a strange balance. We do not lose control of our lives, yet what is good in them is given, not achieved. The choice has to be made each day, and even more often, yet going the way of God’s Spirit we have confidence in our direction, even when it is not obvious. We still sin, and need repentance and forgiveness, but the stranglehold of a sin-dominated life is broken, and wonderful opportunities are glimpsed.

Christians do believe in a division into two. Only God is able to give a final, accurate judgement, but scripture again and again speaks of a two way choice, not a range of assessments of good and bad.

This is reinforced by the role of the Holy Spirit in making us God’s adopted children and heirs. Again, the division – those who receive the inheritance, and those who do not. Adoption is a gift, yet a gift in which we may have confidence, and for which we may always be grateful.

The story of the birth of the church that Pentecost is striking, and still of great importance. The Holy Spirit, working in Christian believers, leads them to the life God intends, and gives a new position as adopted children.

The Importance of Heaven

[There is a comment on Acts 16:16-34 under the title “Waiting” ]

After the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to various groups of people, then after 40 days, ascended back into heaven. We celebrated that last Thursday, and today read of heaven in Revelation 22:12-21. (I prefer not to omit some verses – see later). People have some funny ideas about heaven. I can’t remember anything said in scripture about family reunions, about endless rest, furry animals, golf, or styles of music.

What is said describes a beautiful and safe place; safe partly because among those excluded are those who would cause harm or bring deceit. Revelation 22:14 “Happy are those who wash their robes clean and so have the right to eat the fruit from the tree of life and to go through the gates into the city. 15 But outside the city are the perverts and those who practice magic, the immoral and the murderers, those who worship idols and those who are liars both in words and deeds.”

That helps to make sense of the story of Paul in Philippi, Acts 16:16-34. He delivers a slave girl from an evil spirit, but is persecuted for her owners loss of income – with lies, and official malpractice. He wins through, with the power of the Holy Spirit bringing faith to the jailer and his family – but the division which will be made in heaven is already developing. That division is NOT between “good” and “bad” people, – the key is not “performance”, but the acceptance of forgiveness. Verse 14 “Happy are those who wash their robes clean and so have the right to eat the fruit from the tree of life and to go through the gates into the city. ” Indeed, even as Revelation 22 tells us of heaven and those left out, it urges verse 17 Come! Come, whoever is thirsty; accept the water of life as a gift, whoever wants it.

The question is not only: “Do we want it?” (important though that is), but also do we want to share something so important, wonderful – and free? If so, we not only find ourselves praying for the gifts, fruit and power of the Holy Spirit to direct our Mission, but we also see why this is a time to think about Vocation. Vocation is not about bullying people into being ordained. It is about what God calls us to do, or put it another way, how we use the gifts he gives us. Some are leaders & organisers, some teachers, others are good with people, others can lead them to faith . . There are many different gifts, but we need them all. Do you know yours, and help others to discover theirs? Have you spotted people who should be encouraged to take particular responsibilities in the Christian family? (If not, why not?)

“Come, whoever is thirsty.” The gates of heaven are still open to us for a time. Now is the moment to repent, accept forgiveness, and work through what that means. I find it ironic that as we read vv18,19, warnings against adding or taking away from the book, it is suggested we leave out v18,19 – the warnings themselves, and v15, about the excluded. But until Jesus comes again, there is the opportunity to join those qualified to enter and eat the fruit of the tree of life. – Unless you know something more important to be thinking about today?

It’s so good!

What will heaven be like? John’s vision (today we read Revelation 21:10 and 21:22 – 22:5) has some interesting things, which ring true. We read of the centering of everything on God, Father and Son, and the way they provide light. Although strange at first, it is something significant. It is the light of God that has shown us the way, and will do so in future. It is light that makes possible free movement, and comfort, and recognition of people and places. As we fumble in a power cut, and shiver in an eclipse, we enjoy a sunny day. How much more joyful the light of God, which is more than physical.

We sometimes speak of “security lights” – those annoying lamps with sensors to turn them on, usually not quite when you want them. In heaven, the illumination is effective; there is no need to shut the city gates (usually a night-time security measure). Similarly it is a good place, where there is no “bad behaviour” or attempt to deceive. There is, not just a negative safety, but a positive thriving.

The opening verses of chapter 22 speak of the river, recalling Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 47:1-12), bringing life to dry places. Here too the tree of life gives life and healing – for the goodness and holiness of God seems to be almost infectious. On earth we are used to the way viruses and evil spread. We sometimes forget that love, joy, hope and many Christian fruit are seen, and that witness will also spread on earth.

The reign that continues for ever is not one of conquest or colonisation, but the good order, transparent justice, and continuing healing of all in the city. It is no wonder that God is worshipped, and we are encouraged to join in, even in anticipation from where we are now.

Heaven is . .

Where we get our own way, where we are proved to be right, whatever we want it to be . . . ? I don’t think so, but we need to look further into John’s vision for some basis beyond opinion and hopefulness. (Revelation 21:1-6)

It’s clear that heaven is wonderful, and like the new earth, untarnished and unspoiled. It is where God will be with his people, which takes away stress, pain, and all that is wrong. On the one hand there will be re-creation, making things right, and restoring people. (That is what recreation is meant to do for us, though the version we know is more imperfect!).

But heaven will not be without challenge, at least initially. To be in the presence of God means that truth will prevail – no arguments over who did what, or deserved better. That truth will include our living with ourselves, and with others, without excuse or secrets. Perhaps that will only be possible because we shall live with God, who knows all, and loves. But it may suggest just how different, how much beyond our imagining, let alone our experience, heaven will be.

Of course God will be our focus. He is the Beginning and the End (Alpha and Omega – first and last letters of the Greek alphabet). So, rather than be “the religious bit” of our lives, to be given its place (among others), God becomes the centre – of a renewed existence, in love, and truth, and wonder. Like cool fresh water to the thirsty, God gives what is missing, what is so much needed.

It is beyond imagining – and so we need to be a little careful about letting wishful thinking replace the glimpse scripture gives us. But it is a magnificent glimpse!