St Matthias Church, 6.30pm 26th April 2009
Have you been introduced?
There is a story – I have no idea whether it is true or not – of someone asking the well-known humorist and actor Noel Coward if he knew Jesus. To which Noel Coward replied, maybe flippantly, maybe sincerely, “I don’t think we’ve ever been properly introduced”.
“I don’t think we’ve ever been properly introduced”. Can I ask – have you ever been properly introduced to Jesus? It seems to me that the reason why Paul wrote these wonderful words we’ll be looking at over the next twenty minutes or so was precisely in order to introduce the Colossian church, and indeed ourselves, properly to Jesus. It wasn’t that the Colossians were ignorant about Jesus – otherwise there would have been no church to start with. Nor was it that they had consciously rejected Jesus’ teaching – otherwise Paul would hardly have started his letter with such thanks for their faith and love and hope. It was that in some way or other they had never really got to grips with the greatness and the splendour and the majesty of this person Jesus they claimed to follow. And as a result the church in Colossae was under threat from false teaching, from those who would introduce strange religious customs and promote exotic spiritual experiences.
But then again, I don’t believe the situation in Colossae differs in many ways from the situation in the church today. After all, the story of a man called Jesus who died and rose again 2000 years ago is still relatively well-known, at least amongst the older generation. Those who belong to the church generally accept this story and try to some degree to follow Jesus’ example and put His teaching into practice. Yet despite all this, despite all the shining examples of Christian faith and love and hope we see around us, the church in this country still so often seems weak and ineffective and decaying. Why is this? I would suggest that one reason may be that the church has never properly introduced folk to Jesus, never presented Him in all His splendour and majesty. With the result that yes, even today, the church is falling prey to false teaching and the folk in its pews are turning to alternative spiritualities that seem to promise a fuller, richer experience of God.
And the only way I can see to stop this decline is not in the first instance set up lots of committees or commission lots of report, but very simply, to help people grasp the height and the depth and the width of Jesus’ love for them. Because somewhere along the line we have lost Paul’s vision of Jesus. We do not associate Jesus with fullness, with riches, and all the other wonderful words Paul uses to describe Him in this letter. We may indeed have some experiences of His presence coming powerfully into our lives – but if we’re honest, they’re the exception rather than the norm. Too often following Christ seems to be about surviving on memories and meagre rations, than the life of joy and peace and love we know that it ought to be all about.
So let’s go right back to basics and ask – who is this Jesus we profess to follow? Paul gives us two important and related answers that are designed to make us lift up our eyes and thrill our hearts. He is Lord of creation and Lord of the church. I wonder, have you ever thought about Jesus in these terms?
First of all, Jesus, Lord of creation. What do we mean by this?
Well, to begin with, let’s look at verse 15, He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. And although that sounds a very abstract, very theoretical answer, in reality it is a massively important statement. After all, there are thousands, if not millions of people in this country who are looking for God. They may not use that language, they may not even be aware that it’s God they are looking for. But they are aware there is more to life than what they can see around them, and they are looking for meaning and hope and something spiritually real. And the complete and utter tragedy is that no-one has ever shown them Jesus, the image of the invisible God. Because it is by knowing Jesus we can know who God is. It is by knowing Jesus we understand that all we see around us is not the product of blind, random process but the work of a loving, kind creator. It is by knowing Jesus we find we have significance and value in what is so often a confused and painful existence. As Jesus Himself says to Philip in John 14, verse 9, Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father, and if that’s not good news, I don’t know what is.
But there’s more. Because Paul goes on to remind us in verse 16 that by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. And so when we see headlines about some major disaster, or some personal tragedy strikes our lives, we can have confidence that somehow what is going on is not simply the work of blind, impersonal forces or a series of unfortunate events, but that somehow, in ways we cannot understand, Jesus is in control. Now I know that the issue of suffering is a huge one, and not one I can fully address here. But surely part of the hope we have as Christians is that ultimately Jesus is Lord of creation, and that His plans and purposes will one day finally and totally prevail.
For in the end, to proclaim Jesus as Lord is to agree with Paul in verse 17 that He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. You see, it’s not simply, as some people suppose, that in Christ God has created everything and then left it all to run on its own, as if He were some blind watchmaker who just got the mechanism going. It’s that in some profound, mysterious way, God in Christ is actively involved in creation, year by year, day, by day, hour by hour. He is the centre and the stay of all that we are and all that we do, and to write God out of the workings of the universe is to mould Him into our own image as a remote, old doddery figure who sits on a cloud and is actually rather ineffective when it comes to sorting out the mess of this world.
Which, I must stress, is not the God of the Christian faith. How do we know? Because of Jesus, the image of the invisible God, the one who has been the Son of God, not just since He was born in a manger at Christmas, but from before the beginning of the world, the one who has not only died and risen again – as if that wasn’t enough in itself – and is now seated with all power and might and authority at the Father’s right hand. And I believe if we are to introduce people effectively to Jesus, we ourselves need to capture, or capture afresh, this vision of Jesus as Lord of creation. We have good news because it is comprehensive good news, and there is not one part of creation or one area of our life where Jesus’ reign does not reach.
Why do we need this good news?
But why do we need the good news of Jesus in the first place? Well, Paul’s description of the Colossians in verse 21 is a sober reminder of our condition without Christ and it’s one we would all do well to ponder. Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. And what was true of the Colossians is still true of men and women, young and old, today. It’s not simply that we have turned away from God and need to be reminded of His love for us. Nor that we are in need of enlightenment from a spiritual teacher to set us on the right path. It’s that there is a moral flaw in each and every one of us, that we have rejected the authority of God over our lives, and become His enemies. Now as a laid-back gentle kind of vicar that doesn’t like to offend anyone, I find these words of Paul really difficult. I don’t like to think of anyone as God’s enemies. I would perhaps call them misguided or confused, or maybe even lost, but these words serve to remind me just what a huge and important issue sin is. Sin is a force that destroys relationships, and most importantly of all it destroys the relationship between us and God, so that instead of worshipping, honouring, loving God, we ignore, reject and alienate ourselves from Him. And in that sense, we are indeed God’s enemies, under the sentence of death, without hope, purpose or security.
And this is why the task of introducing people to Jesus becomes so vitally important, not just for the folk at the front, or the PCC, or the mission committee, but to everyone who claims to follow Him.
So how then does Paul talk about the saving work of Jesus in this passage? Well, the answer is perhaps a surprising one, especially to those of us who are used to hearing about the personal salvation, and the need to make an individual commitment to Christ. Paul, of course, doesn’t deny that these things are important – how could he after all he experienced on the road to Damascus? But because He wants to paint the big picture of Jesus, and show the universal relevance of the gospel, He instead focuses here on Jesus as Lord of the church. There is the old creation order descended from Adam, which is fallen humanity, and there is the new creation order found in Jesus, which is the community of the redeemed, the church. And the amazing truth is that it is through the church that Jesus chooses to bring salvation to the world, even today. The church, you see, is not a building of bricks and mortar. Nor is it a voluntary association of people who happen to come together on Sunday. It is the people of God under the authority of God for the purposes of God, as revealed in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Jesus Lord of the church
Which means, first of all, that the church is called to be a community of the resurrection. That’s what Paul means when he says in verse 18, And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. In other words, the church is under the Lordship of Christ because it through His dying and rising again that we have died to sin and risen to new life with Him. We owe Him everything – and while that is an obvious truth, perhaps that is one we too often forget. It’s not simply that we follow Him or consider Him a great leader. It is in some way we are called to share in His resurrection life and power. After all, it’s very well talking about Jesus as the image of the invisible God, but where do we see Jesus? The answer is by looking at His body, the church. So that as people look at us, as people look at this congregation, what they should see is people who have been raised to new life, who are filled with the Holy Spirit, who know they owe Jesus everything. Is that, I wonder, what they see?
And following on from that, the church is called to be a community of reconciliation. Verses 19-20, For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Yes, the bad news is that we are enemies from God. Yes, we are alienated from Him and without hope. But God has done something about it, even though we never deserved or earned His favour. He sent His Son to restore His relationship with us, by giving up His life so that we could have new life, by taking our sin, so that we could be counted free of sin, that as Paul goes on to say in verse 22, we can be presented to Him holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation. And that is the heart of the gospel we are called to share. Because although God is pleased to reconcile all things to Himself, the plain fact is that many people have either never heard of or accepted this message of reconciliation.
And this is where our calling as a church comes in. Because, astonishing as it may seem, God entrusts us, weak, frail, human beings with this same message. But again, not simply, that we talk about reconciliation, or promote the gospel as some good idea other people ought to accept. Rather that, we live out this message in our life together as the body of Christ, that as folk see the new life we enjoy through Jesus, they see the way this group of disparate and varied people of all different backgrounds and ages and shapes and sizes have been brought together under His authority.
Not that I am saying any of this is easy. There are times when frankly sometimes it is hard work being the church, and we wonder sometimes if the effort is worth it. We may find it hard to feel full of joy and new life, when the roof’s leaking again, or numbers on a Sunday keep going down. We would like to say we feel reconciled to our brothers and sisters in Christ, but you can’t help thinking what Mrs Smith said to you last Sunday, or the fact that Mrs Bloggs seems to have taken a dislike to you. It can in short, be very easy, to lose sight of this vision of Jesus as Lord of creation and Lord of the church – not because no longer have it, or no longer believe it, but because we become distracted, discouraged, disheartened by the actual business of being the church day by day.
Which is why, finally, the church needs to be a community of resolution. Verses 22-23, But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation – if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. In the end, you see, the Christian faith, is all about a relationship. And sometimes our relationship with Jesus has to hang on the fact He has chosen us and we have responded to His call. It’s a bit like the marriage service where the bride and groom give their assent to each other, not by saying, “If I feel like it”, or “I’ll give it a try” but by saying, “I will”. And actually it is the way we persevere in the hard times, the way we cling on to Jesus when the going gets tough, that can often be the most attractive and convincing way we can introduce people to Jesus. Why do these folk still meet together under such difficult circumstances? Why is it they still have some kind of hope? What is keeping them going through thick and thin? Well, actually it’s the gospel of resurrection, the gospel of reconciliation, the gospel of new creation that brings people under the authority of Jesus.
This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant. So let me ask – how much of this gospel have you truly grasped? Have you been properly introduced to Jesus the Lord of creation and the Lord of the church? And if so, how as a member of His body, the church, are you serving this gospel and introducing others to Him?