Monthly Archives: July 2019

Managing your “isms”

How are your “isms”? I don’t mean rheumatism (though I hope that’s not a problem!), but the human systems and theories which sometimes threaten to take over our lives. They can be political: conservatism, liberalism, socialism. Or religious: catholicism, evangelicalism, liberalism, pentecostalism. All have something good to offer, but there is danger if the “ism” becomes more important than the life you should be living with its help.

Paul wrote to the Christians in Colossae (a place now in Turkey). We are reading Colossians 2:6-15. They had 2 problems. One was a group of Jewish believers, who wanted Christians to follow every detail of Judaism. The other was a group who wanted to mix Christian faith with other religions and philosophies. They dabbled in astrology and the occult, and talked about special exercises and disciplines to achieve “spiritual maturity”.

Paul isn’t having any of it. “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving“. Christian life begins in receiving Christ as Lord. I hope you understand that it still does. There is no true version of Christian faith which does not put Jesus in charge – of me, my life, ambitions, morality, money . . .

And having started in that way, we go on “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” – there’s your “isms”, and the danger of being kidnapped by them.

Against the force of “hollow and deceptive philosphy, which depends on human tradition” (NIV), Paul insists on Christ ” For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; 12 when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” Christ, in charge. Christ supreme over all spiritual forces. Christ who had set us free, when we were helpless.

13 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”

Of course these false teachers would have been much more flattering than Paul, with great sales pitches. But they threatened the gospel – the good news, about a Father who loves us, and encourages us to ask (for the good of all in the Kingdom, not our personal advantage).

Isn’t it strange how people are much the same, despite 2000 or more years of cultural and technical change? We still so easily get taken over by what is popular with our friends. We still invent new “isms”. Much of that is fine, if Jesus is Lord, and our lives are built on that loyalty and on obedience to Him. But “isms” so easily take over. Be careful, and mind how you manage your “isms”!

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.